Red Square in the Rain
Moscow / Sunday 12 October 2014
Off to Moscow for the FCTC COP6 meeting. What a week/month/year it’s been. More manic than ever at work and averaging 4 hours of sleep on weekdays in the last couple of months. So by the time I was dropped off at T3 by Shobs and Ming, who was down from SF, I was falling on my face…as were the rest of the team by the looks of it.
It was with much relief that we all fell into our lovely SIA seats. I hadn’t had dinner so un-guiltily had all 3 courses of dinner at 3 in the morning, then fell asleep while watching Modern Family…which was a first. Slept for a good 6 hours and woke up to breakfast and a movie – the Groundhog Day-themed Edge of Tomorrow – before we landed at Moscow’s Domodedovo on schedule.
First impressions – grey with bursts of autumn colour and onion-domed churches…but mostly grey. On the road was a mix of old, grimy Ladas and Skodas, and some very flashy SUVs with completely tinted windows. The area we drove through as we left the airport was peppered with blocks of flats – lived in but in an obvious state of disrepair…exactly like that apartment block Jason Bourne visited in The Bourne Supremacy.
It was a bit of a drive from the airport to our hotel at the World Trade Centre – almost an hour and a half, despite traffic being light. Lunch was at the hotel – at the Fusion Cafe where there was Indian and Chinese, and not so much Russian. There was Uzbek though – I had a quite delicious brown rice and lamb. Lamb featured quite prominently on the menu – I wasn’t complaining.
As this would be our only free day, we decided to go to Red Square. We (eventually, after walking half an hour in a light drizzle) found the subway station. Sign language and pointing was the order of the day…if we got that far – more often when we stopped to ask for directions, we got a “No English” – and no help. Once though, as we pored over the subway map, trying to decipher station names (our Cyrillic was improving in leaps and bounds…we already knew Pectopah meant Restaurant…though we had no idea how it was pronounced), a lady stopped to ask if we needed help – which left us all feeling warm and fuzzy in grey, wet Moscow.
Muscovites aren’t inherently smiley people…from the immigration officers (of the 6 of us, 2 got half smiles from them), and the general man on the street – random smiling (on our part) was met with icy stares…we very quickly stopped smiling randomly. Non-random smiles, however, for example at service staff, did almost uniformly, get warm smiles in response.
We got to the Bolshoi Theatre and Red Square without too much trouble, and I hoped that Nikon’s weather sealing lived up to its reputation, as I took photos in the steady drizzle.
An interesting quirk of Moscow’s streets, at least the ones we had to cross – most crossing of roads is via underpasses, with very few on-road crossings. The alternative is jaywalking, which is a bit harrowing , given the traffic and multi-laned roads.
Seeing St.Basil’s ‘in the flesh’ was a wow moment, despite the greyness and wetness of the day. It was smaller than I’d imagined though. Lenin’s mausoleum was closed for the day so we had to be satisfied with viewing it from the outside, and not getting up close and personal with Vlad. He only allows visitors between 10AM and 1PM most days…he’s a lot less hospitable than Uncle Ho.The mausoleum itself looked more modern than something built in 1924 – I think, if I understood the tourist info correctly, it was rebuilt in the ’70s.
The 16th century St.Basil’s Cathedral aka Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat was quite fascinating with its maze of rooms, narrow, and very steep stairways, tiny chapels – one, with the most amazing acoustics, had an acapella group producing angelic music. There are 9 chapels in all, including one with St Basil’s casket, and all with faded floral and geometric patterned walls.
We spent a good hour or more inside St.Basil’s before stepping out into rainy Red Square again. Decided to have dinner somewhere there before retracing our steps back to our hotel. We came across a restaurant that looked suitably Russian – the Romanov Bar – lots of red, black and shocking pink. The menu provided the calories and weight of each dish, besides the price…so one could evaluate ‘value for money’?? Whatever it was, it steered at least one of us to have the stuffed cabbage (473kcal) instead of the pork knuckle (5300kcal). There was a chicken tabakha (2744kcal) which we thought would be ‘Russian’…the waiter didn’t speak much English – we asked how the chicken was cooked, he said haltingly, “In the fire.” Eventually ascertained it was fried – he was most insulted when someone asked “Like KFC?” “No no NOT KFC.” Anyway we ordered one to share (and hoped we were understood and that he didn’t bring 4 servings!). It turned out to be an ayam penyet type of dish…is ayam penyet 2744kcal??
On the walk back to the subway, we chanced upon a photography exhibition on the pedestrianised street. There were some lovely shots from around the world. I had to laugh as we stopped to peer at all the descriptions, as if we could read the Cyrillic.
The journey back seemed shorter, I guess as we now knew the way. We were all exhausted after the hours of walking and all that was left to do was to shower and sleep.
Preambles, Protocols & Parties
Moscow / 16 October 2014
It’s been an exciting 4 days. The first day saw Margaret Chan at the opening. In her usual inimitable style she dished out a few more of her gems, this time involving foxes and chickens. Other than her appearance and the Russian Minister’s conveying of Putin’s apologies for not being there (now that would’ve been something!), the proceedings of the first day were quite excruciating…I wasn’t the only one struggling to keep awake.
The reception on Monday evening at what was supposed to be the old railway station was quite fancy, despite the hordes of delegates who elbowed themselves to the bar and the front of the food queues. The entertainment, food and alcohol were all very good…some of those dancers must’ve had quite amazing quads and hamstrings!
Moscow traffic is horrendous. A trip that should have taken no more than 5 minutes (from our hotel to the reception) took about half a hour. Given the amount of shoving that went on (to get on the bus) – from all ‘parties’ – I can safely surmise that kiasu-ness is not a solely Singaporean trait.
It’s been an 8.45AM start everyday with the regional meeting, followed by the committee meetings at 10AM. The chair of the meetings I was at was a no-nonsense Thai lady who gave us a master class in chairing WHO meetings – she was firm, funny and flexible, sometimes all at the same time; she was also patient and polite (sometimes politely sarcastic) with people who weren’t paying attention – like the time she asked a delegate for his comments and he had to ask her to repeat what was said as he was “discussing Article 19 with his team” (Art.19 was the next item on the agenda) – to which she said “I’m very happy to hear you’re preparing for the discussion on Art.19, always good to be well prepared.”
Things moved along quite smoothly, with several decisions being accepted over the past 4 days, and with no need for evening/night sessions.
I managed to take some shots of smokers – all participants at the convention – out in the cold, puffing away…the irony!
Sessions ended around 6PM for most of us. Lunch was provided but we were on our own for dinner. Tuesday night we ate at the WTC, stocked up on unhealthy snacks from the supermarket (also at WTC) and had an early night.
Wednesday and Thursday, we ventured out, risking life and limb to cross a 4 lane road to get to a row of restaurants near our hotel. Didn’t venture further afield as it was raining, cold and everyone was a bit brain dead.
Dumplings and pancakes feature prominently on Russian menus…with all manner if filling…cheese, meat, cabbage…brain – this last one was yummy – only 2 of us tried it.
Mineral water is ridiculously priced – a large bottle of sparkling water cost SGD30, and still, SGD20!!! We would’ve been better off with vodka!
Almost at the end of our stay, hope to see some of the sights on Saturday afternoon.
A Sunny Minus 7 Centigrade
Moscow / 19 October 2014
Just as we were congratulating ourselves that there weren’t that many late night sessions, Friday night happened. Long story short, and some head-spinning bilats and multilats (fuelled by sour cream and onion chips) later, we were done.
Four of us decided that if we didn’t get to the Radisson Hotel (formerly the Hotel Ukraina) that night, we would not see the Moscow miniature that some of the others had been raving about. We tried to get a cab but the cabbie quoted some exorbitant figure so we decided to walk to the main road to see if we could get a cab. By this time it was snowing (lightly) and it was about -4C. As we walked out an SUV pulled up next to us and the driver said he’ll take us to the Radisson for 500 Roubles (about SGD15, and about what we were told it would cost) – we decided to live dangerously, and got into the car (Moscow’s Uber service). We were dropped off at the Radisson safely and weren’t sold into slavery – we figured the driver decided we weren’t worth the effort.
The Radisson is one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters – seven buildings built in the Stalinist Gothic style. The miniature Moscow is housed there, and is quite amazing. It’s a 400-square foot model of Moscow, at a 1:75 ratio, and with perfect detail. It has a realistic lighting system, and lighting that changes from daytime to night, when lights shine out of the windows and street lamps light up. We spent quite a bit of time here, listening to the commentary and taking pics from all angles.
Dinner was at the Tatler Club – which was everything I’d imagined a Russian club to be…dark, long-legged blonde model types…and a band that was pretty good – they did Russian Rock ‘n Roll. There was a photographer going around taking pics of the people at the ‘tables to be seen at’ (this was the Tatler Club after all. Note: photographer didn’t stop at our table…this, like our cab ride here, set us off laughing again). One dumpling dinner and much people watching later, we thought we’d go to the bar on the 31st floor for the view and a drink. So off to the Mercedes Bar we went – the bar is decorated in a 1930s Manhattan style. Speaking of design, there was one flaw…there was no opening for the bartenders to get out from behind the bar counter – they all had to squeeze between the end of the bar counter and the floor-to-ceiling window – fortunately both the bartenders were slim – a job requirement? We had a lovely view of the city with flurries of snow coming down; I had a ‘warming cocktail’ – a concoction of rum, honey, lime, ginger…and butter! Just what one needs on a sub-zero temperature day.
Getting back to our hotel was another story…as we waited for our cab (which we had to call for, and ended up paying Rb1000 – because it was past midnight?), we watched completely tinted SUVs pull up, and spill their contents – blondes with long legs, short skirts and impossible stilettos, Mafia types with black polo neck sweaters and brown leather jackets – one of the latter had to be propped up by his friend. It was, to say the least, a very interesting evening, and for me, reality matched my ‘mental model’ of Moscow.
The next day, Saturday, was the final day of the COP, and lunch was extra special, with caviar, wine and vodka thrown in. After lunch we joined the conference-organised tour of the Kremlin. It was grey – and Cold – minus 4C. Cathedral Square at the Kremlin was particularly fascinating – with the cathedrals where Czars were christened, crowned and buried. We saw the largest bell (which never rang) and the largest cannon (which never fired).
We skipped out of the tour after the Kremlin as the next stop was St.Basil’s and we’d already been. Went to GUM instead, Moscow’s ‘state department store’ – actually a very upmarket shopping mall, with a well-stocked supermarket – there was quite a range of chocolates.
Used the loo there…not clean.Next stop Arbat street – we couldn’t get a cab that would agree to our price, and Moscow is one place where if you ask ‘How much?’ and the cabbie says ‘Meter’, you say ‘No’ – the meters are all rigged apparently! So we took the subway and saw a couple of very beautiful subway stations. Arbat Street is a pedestrianised shopping street – souvenir shops, restaurants, etc. We stopped for dinner at a Turkish type restaurant – good food and a very nice Azerbaijani wine in an even nicer bottle.3 of us went back to Red Square for some night shots…Red Square at night is really magical. My fingers were almost frostbitten…though I only noticed this after I was done taking photos. It was a good end to a good week.
Today we leave for home – it’s sunny (our first sunny day the entire trip) and -7C. I’m bracing myself for the 30C heat.