Friday, June 28, 2013

June 18, 2013

Light was streaming in at five in the morning and I got up to make coffee. The dacha is occupied by two cats, a chinchilla and a group of fish in an aquarium tank not counting the fierce-looking Siberian husky dog penned outside. The space was fairly large, but it was purchased originally as a summer cottage, but the family was forced to live in it year round now. It featured a modern kitchen, with a cute dishwasher, and a spacious bathroom.

Irina had offered to drop us off at the metro station on her way to work. I had one of the pieces of pastry I’d purchased in Bishkek and another cup of 3-in-1 coffee while Willoughby got ready. I brought my tablet with me as I had a guidebook to Moscow in it with a reasonably good map of the metro stations. Irina lent us her map of the city as well and had provide us with a local SIM card for my phone so we could call her in case of an emergency.

After asking numerous passersby, and even the Metro police for directions, and finding no one who spoke English, we positioned ourselves by the giant map in front of the ticket booth and mapped out our itinerary. We made it to the Red Square after transferring a couple of time. The metro charges 28 rubles or almost a dollar per ride.

The square was mobbed with people, mostly by ill-dressed tourists from Japan who awkwardly posed in their mismatched outfits and floppy hats. I suggested a break before starting as I really needed a real cup of coffee after almost four days of the instant stuff. We found a sidewalk café directly in front of the Lenin Mausoleum and got a table where we could see all the action.

Our cappuccino and latte ended up costing us about $8.00 a piece, but the setting was so gorgeous, the weather fantastic and the people-watching opportunity unbeatable. Once replenished, we walked to the Saint Basil Cathedral, a place I’d dreamed about visiting for years and years.

There was a line to buy the entrance ticket, but the 400 ruble fee, about $12.50, seemed steep to me. The inside of the church is as gorgeous as the outside and the collection of icons simply superb. I hadn’t read about the first Christians in Russia being labeled “fools for Christ” as they insisted on going around naked and on flagellating themselves to expiate their sins.

I got my brother-in-law the little spoon he likes to collect from different cities and then left the place so we could find a restaurant. We checked the Lenin Mausoleum on the way out, but it was already closed as it only opens between 10:00 and 1:00 pm.

I was eavesdropping on a group of Argentinean tourists when their guide said that the famed Gum department store, right across the square, had a food court on the top floor and offered budget meals for its employees. I had read many times about this store in the books written by Russian writers.

I had a fabulous meal at one of the many restaurants: Italian flat bread sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, lasagna, and roasted green beans with cherry tomatoes. I felt vindicated after all the lousy meals on the train. Willoughby refused to eat anything.

It was back to the metro to find another famous church practically across the city while hoping to have enough time to reach the Pushkin Museum nearby. I took advantage of our numerous change of metro lines to take photos of some of the fantastic artwork that adorns the walls and ceilings of  the metro system.

When we stepped outside, clouds were gathering at this point and we were concerned about another downpour. This church had no admission fee, but an extremely long queue as apparently it’s a local church where people do worship, and not a museum.

No photos were allowed inside and I was stunned by the detailed woodwork, colorful mosaics and expansive chandeliers. Willoughby’s feet had started to hurt quite a bit by then, so we didn’t stay long. Back outside, we found a sign indicating the church had been ransacked and set on fire at some point and had only been restored to its previous condition within the last decade.

Willoughby suggested skipping the Pushkin Museum since we still needed to go back to the main train station and get our tickets for the ride to Saint Petersburg the following night. Once there, we couldn’t even find anyone who could direct us to the proper place to buy the tickets.

After much walking back and forth, I felt terrible for Willoughby, one police officer directed us to the right place. It was rush hour traffic and people were pushing each other to reach their trains and had little time for a foreigner asking for information. We never came across an information booth anywhere in the city, much less at the train station.

We were finally asked by an attendant if we had credit cards because that way, we could purchase our tickets ourselves from one the machines nearby. I tried it first and was furious beyond belief when upon completing the transaction, I was told the credit card company had rejected the charges. I had forgotten to notify them I’d be traveling through Russia.

Another kind woman came to our rescue and helped us select the right train, time and compartment using Willoughby’s credit card. We paid 5,300 rubles each or $166.00. All lower berths had been sold by then, but she reassured Willoughby that other passengers would be willing to trade places with her due to her age. It was 8:30 pm by the time we walked out with our tickets and not before the woman had walked with us to show us where we could leave our backpacks the following morning until our train departure.

We had invited Irina and her family for dinner and she’d initially agreed only to tell us later that she had a date with her boyfriend. She needed us back at the train station by seven if we wanted a ride or we’d need to take a taxi. We settled for the taxi. We stopped by the food court and Willoughby bought a breaded piece of chicken breast while I chose fried fish to take to the house and reheat.

We found a taxi whose driver had a bit of trouble locating the specific house. The fish was dry and flavorless and I could only eat a few bites of it. The pain in my back and abdomen had begun to bother me severely, but I didn’t want to worry Willoughby, so I just went to bed after taking a shower.

I tossed and turned in bed unable to find a comfortable position and feeling the pain getting stronger and stronger. Then panic set in when I realized I hadn’t even bothered to bring my health card with me in case of an emergency. I cried out in pain for the first time contemplating the idea that perhaps I was going through another episode of the shingles.

I told Willoughby what was going on and she wanted to know what she should do, but I really couldn’t think of anything and eventually the pain subsided enough to allow me to fall asleep.

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