November 2, 2017
The last day in any place is always bittersweet. I want to be home, but I don’t want to waste the opportunity of time in another place. My responsibilities in that place have ended, but my email threatens to enchain me as soon as I return home. Of course, the thought of my loved one at home makes me weak in the knees! I tried to be realistic with my plan for the last day, but reality had a few surprises in store for me.
Ditching the luggage
Saying farewell to the Korston Club Hotel was no challenge. I would not have to hold my breath to avoid the smell of smoke as I exited my non-smoking room. I would not have to endure more self-promotional posters on every surface. Most of all, I would not have to listen to more of their advertising jingles in the elevator. After a heavy breakfast at their buffet, I strapped together my 26 inch roller back, my backpack, and my laptop handbag and rolled across the street to the park. The weather had finally changed from drizzle to clear skies, but that also meant the temperature had dropped. I rolled down the paved road to the metro stop and bought metro tickets.
To start the day, I navigated to Paveletskaya, the train station in SE Moscow from which I would catch the Airport Express train to DME airport. I had realized only the night before that I was leaving through DME rather than SVO. I’m awfully glad that someone at the conference asked me to confirm the airport! Paveletskaya required me to switch between the red train and the circular brown route, and this time I was doing it with all my luggage in tow. I hit some runs of stairs that were less than pleasant, given all the gifts that now occupied my bag. In any case, I was at the train station pretty quickly (despite having gotten on the brown line in the wrong direction at first).
Obviously I didn’t want to tow all that freight throughout the day, so I found the luggage storage office. I panicked at first because I passed one that had obviously been out of operation for years. Once I reached the right place, though, I learned that I needed to show my passport and pay 270 RUB in cash to leave each bag. I swallowed my pride and shoved my laptop back into my backpack, surrendering only the roller bag. Now I was free for more ambitious navigation! I hopped the green line into the city center.
My plan: the Kremlin
My goal was pretty straightforward. Since my flights to South Africa began near midnight, I had the entire day to play. I would enter the Kremlin to see the classic buildings inside! I popped out at the (Bolshoi) Theatre exit. I paid my respects at the statue of Marx in its square. As I walked past the State Historical Museum, I heard a loud voice advertising its neighbor, the 1812 War museum (when Alexander I faced down Napoleon’s troops). I continued with steadfast determination.
Next, I saw the line for Lenin’s tomb. It seemed I might get through in an hour or so. I passed onward to Red Square and gazed again at St. Basil’s Cathedral. Hadn’t I seen an entry to the Kremlin on this side? I could not see where I could enter.
In any case, I thought I should probably plan for lunch before going in so I would be fully fueled for exploration. I walked past the GUM mall again, this time to the block on its side away from Red Square. I saw a few churches, but it seemed I had moved substantially away from the tourists. I found a pleasant restaurant for lunch, and I lingered over a meal of eggplant casserole, flower tea, and bread. I have been re-reading the “His Dark Materials” trilogy from Philip Pullman, so I read for a little while. The restaurant played an album of covers by a band with a mellifluous tone. It was surprising to hear a soothing version of “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. I wondered if I should tell the waiter of the time I was driving in a parking lot when Jack White jaywalked in front of me.
Now fed, I was ready to enter the Kremlin! I entered a set of gardens on the northwest face of the fortifications. I paused respectfully at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I looked at the soldiers standing guard and reflected that my father might have played some similar role during his time as an Honor Guardsman in the U.S. Army. I continued on my way, seeing raised places in the marble sidewall to represent particular cities in Russia that were home to particular struggles, such as Stalingrad. Of course, the names were written in Cyrillic lettering, challenging my ability to sound them out. After two weeks in Russia, I found it a lot easier to sound out many words, though some of the complex sounds stubbornly resisted my efforts to memorize them.
I reached the bridge for entry to the long axis of the Kremlin at last, but something was wrong. The staff entrance was live, but tourists could not enter. Instead, I saw a signpost indicating that the Kremlin was… CLOSED? I was uncertain whether the change reflected an ordinary Thursday or was due to preparations for the century anniversary of the October Revolution (which is in early November, by the modern calendar).
Interlude: Dave attempts an alternative plan.
The sunlight was lovely, and even though the breeze was cool, I decided to continue to the massive statue of Vladimir I that I had seen from the far side of the road a few days ago. It did not disappoint at close range. It has very dramatic detail, and some trick with his eyes makes them seem to peer right at the observer. I was able to examine the panels of relief behind him, and I saw that his baptism as a Christian was certainly the aspect of his rule that the monument celebrated. I encountered an Indian tourist, and he and I took photos for each other. He mentioned that the museum of 1812 was pretty interesting. I looked to the south and saw the massive church with five golden spires at the side of the Moskva River, another tourist site I had considered for the afternoon. I turned my back and walked the length of the Kremlin back to the 1812 museum.
It was closed.
In the absence of a plan, Dave improvises.
I wandered a bit in the area beyond the museum. I knew it was an area that offered interesting shopping, so I pushed into those neighborhoods. I asked a shopkeeper about bookstores in the area, and she pointed me up the road on the opposite side. I’d found her suggestion approximately a block and a half later. The shopkeeper greeted me by replying that she had no books in English. I pointed to one on the table and suggested that I’d enjoy taking a look. She shrugged. My interest in the shop grew as I realized she had large-scale posters from the Soviet era hanging around the upper shelves. I found books of smaller versions, but no poster tubes. Her shop seemed to have a fair number of history books, but of course they were in Russian. In the end, I found three books that I wanted, at “non-tourist” prices:
- A book of fairy tales by Pushkin, one of Russia’s favorite authors
- A book detailing the life of an American who served as a nurse in Siberia during the Russian Civil War
- A book showing postcards from a variety of Russian cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
As my brother might once have exclaimed, “SCORE!” I was ready to check out when the sales clerk uttered that word that brings so much terror to the visitor: “Rubles.” No, my credit card had no value. Happily, the nearest bank was within sight.
I realized on my jaunt to the bank that the neighboring shop was also a bookstore. I found the copy of Lonely Planet’s Russia for 1800 RUB (just over $30). That might have seemed a better deal before this trip. I considered getting their “Eyewitness Top 10” for Moscow (I liked the St. Petersburg one), but I was again out of cash. In any case, this shop had piles of English-language books, but they were almost all paperback. I moved on up the street.
Sharing Lubyanka with filmmakers
Just like that, my feet had returned me to Lubyanka Square. The memorial service was a memory. The center point of the service, a stone set in the square to remember victims of political executions during the Soviet Era, was surrounded by red flowers (chrysanthemums?) and bottled candles. I was reading its sign when a young Russian asked me if I could move to the side. He and his cinematographer were filming an older gentleman, relating his narrative about (one presumes) a friend or relative who died during the Soviet Era. I didn’t have anything in particular to do, so I sat at an out-of-sight park bench to watch their work.
It seems that the director was adopting a cue-and-response interview. Occasionally they would stop the older gentlemen, re-set to another camera angle, and then restart. The gentleman seemed to be willing to humor them, even shooting some “B-Roll” of his wandering in an arc around the stone monument. From time to time, the older gentleman or the producers would shoot an eye in my direction. Given the location (in front of the KGB building) and the presumed material, I realized they may be concerned that I was watching them for reasons other than my whimsical nature. While the cinematographer modified his equipment, I asked the director to capture a photo of me with the stone.
Starting my journey south
With that, I had no other plan but to return to the rail station, acquire an Airport Express ticket (500 RUB) and rescue my luggage. All of that went smoothly. The Airport Express run was really smooth, taking around 45 minutes from start to finish. The train dumped us essentially across the street from the airport terminal entrance, so the worst part was dealing with everybody’s desire to rush off the train at once!
Once at the airport, I had more than an hour before boarding passes would become available, so I ran for some dinner upstairs, then returned to the line for Emirates Air. I hadn’t checked in online from my hotel this morning, and I got a nasty surprise when I arrived at the desk. They could not immediately give me a seat assignment, and the flight was oversold! I waited two minutes in a bit of a sweat where the agent could see me. Happily, my suspense ended very rapidly and she handed me two boarding passes. I had what looked like a middle seat on the way to Dubai (the shorter flight), but I discovered that it was the emergency exit row, with nobody to my left! I was on the aisle for the long leg to Cape Town. After passing through immigration, baggage, and customs, I returned to the arms of Natasha. That feeling spells “HOME” for me!