Sep 9 2010

Soviet Subway Series

The metro stations and platforms in St. Petersburg and Moscow are amazing.  More often than not, you descend underground and find yourself in what seems to be a 19th century ballroom.  Coated in marble and full of chandeliers, you expect everyone to start waltzing.  Combine that scene with heavy-handed Soviet propaganda and you’ve got the wonderfully weird mix that is Russia’s subway system.

The subway is so beautiful that our first attempt to enter it was blocked by this throng of enthusiasts.

Some considerably quieter moments:



Sep 7 2010

Lake Baikal

True to his word, Sergei arrived at our cabin at 5am to wake us up for our 6:15 arrival in Irkutsk, our first official stop in Siberia. I was hoping for a little affection from Sergei — or at least a smile — upon our departure. We’d been through so much together. Station stops. Shower rental. A halting conversation about whether our ticket included meals.

But Sergei is not an emotional man. He bid us farewell with a gruff nod and continued on his way to Vladistovok as we stumbled into the cold Irkutsk morning, hoping to figure out a way to find the hostel where we could leave our luggage.

I think that arrivals are one of the most stressful parts of travel: you’re dropped off with heavy bags in some place you don’t know, often suffering from a lack of sleep, and are thrust into the merciless hands of the local taxi driver population. It’s like lambs to slaughter. But just as in Moscow, no one mobbed us at the Irkutsk gate — it seems that Russian taxi drivers are often just as content to stand around train stations chewing on sunflower seeds as they are actually driving their cabs. If you don’t want to pay their tourist rate, they don’t want to bother.

But this time, I was the one with a target: a young taxi driver in bright red pants had responded to my offered fare with a friendly wave, and I had a feeling that if he didn’t find another paying customer soon, he’d be ours. Sure enough, the train’s passengers melted away and, faced with no customers and no sunflower seeds, he agreed to take us.

We then learned something funny about cars in Irkutsk (and Ulan Ude and Ulaan Baatur, it turns out): there are no rules for where the steering wheel goes. Some cars have them on the left, American-style; some of them are on the right, like England. This one was of the right-hand variety, which Peter did not notice until, getting into the cab, he accidentally sat down in the driver’s seat.

Oh, the driver thought this was funny. Between his red pants and his friendly giggles (and my own fatigue) I decided he was my favorite cab driver of the entire trip so far — especially because he deposited us precisely behind the unmarked apartment building that contained the hostel. Thank you, red-pants taxi driver!

Our goal that day was not Irkutsk, however. We were on our way to Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest freshwater lake. It’s an amazing place, with several species of animals that lived only there (a special type of seal, for example, and a fish distantly related to salmon) — not to mention a population of hard-working sponges that, combined with the lake’s size and relative lack of pollution, made the water safe to drink.

Baikal!

We had planned to spend several days on Olkhon Island, located in the middle of the lake’s south end. Getting there required a seven-hour minibus ride there and back — and I will say that if you decide to visit Lake Baikal, you might want to think twice about the island. There are other lovely access points that do not require spending fourteen hours in an overcrowded van. Our minibus was home to a cast of characters including a young couple from Holland (who were lovely), a blonde Russian woman in sunglasses who reminded me of Joni Mitchell till she started screaming into her cell phone, and (among many other people) a young couple with two small children, who proved that the rules for child safety in automobiles are quite different in Russia than America. Who needs a seatbelt! The young boy’s father did an admirable job of supporting him with one hand and nursing a beer with the other — which ensured that they were both in good spirits for the duration of the ride.

The first section of the road to Olkhon was paved and flat, giving our minibus driver a chance to participate in what I’ve observed is one of minibus drivers’ favorite activities: passing other cars. Oh, how they love it. It occurred to me, as we leap-frogged our way up a line of about fifteen cars, that I have never in my life seen a minibus driver who is not in a rush. Except when they stop, that is. Our driver was quite fond of leisurely cigarette and dumpling breaks, and enjoyed pulling into a rest stop just when he had reached the front of the line of traffic.

The quality of the road gradually disintegrated (and the number of road-crossing cows increased) as we got closer to the ferry crossing for Olkhon. By the time we reached the island, all semblance of a normal road was gone, and instead we were following unpaved ruts that criss-crossed the hills around us — anything that vaguely resembled tire tracks qualified as a road, and since Olkhon drivers enjoy off-roading, there were plenty of tracks to choose from.

We bounced our way 40-or-so kilometers up the island before finally reaching the town of Khuzir, which is really more of a collection of ramshackle wooden houses scattered along oddly wide dirt boulevards. Our destination was Nikita’s, a “homestead” recommended enthusiastically by Lonely Planet. At Nikita’s, said the good old Lonely Planet, we would stuff ourselves on delicious homecooked meals in a lively guesthouse run by a former table tennis champion.

Part of that was true: the place was lively. In fact, it was overrun with international backpackers, all hanging out on the dining hall front stoop, or wandering between the on-site banyas, or eating an umpteenth meal of sticky rice, imitation crab salad and the omnipresent omul. (Perhaps omul can be delicious, but it was not so at Nikita’s.) Despite there being well over a hundred guests, there was no running water in the rooms, and the shower required you to heat up a bucket of water with an electric coil (“Caution!” read a sign, indicating that you should unplug the coil before you electrocuted yourself) and then pump it out of the handset by stepping back and forth between two plastic buttons on the floor. (It turns out that it is very difficult to bathe while marching.)

It was an interesting reaction on my part, since everyone was friendly enough, and hey — it’s not the kitchen staff’s fault that they only appeared to have four ingredients to work with. But just as a cat’s hair stands up if it gets within ten feet of a dog, as soon as I walked into Nikita’s, my hackles were raised.

But in retrospect, it didn’t really matter. Lake Baikal was visible right outside Nikita’s back door, and the sight of it — a shimmering expanse of blue, almost inconceivable in size — more than made up for the smell of the shared bathroom.

Almost more unbelievable than the lake itself is the fact that during the winter, it freezes enough that locals drive their cars across it. That means that, despite the fact that we arrived in August, it was freezing. And that meant that, naturally, Peter wanted to swim in it. So one afternoon we scampered down a steep hill to its shore, dodging shards of glass and piles of trash (environmentalism has not quite made it to your average Russian tourist), and he waded in for a dip as I stood on the shore, just up to my ankles.

I hesitate to say that the water was “ice cold,” since that’s physically impossible — but if I were to order a giant glass of ice water, perhaps a Slurpy, that would be approximately the temperature of the water. As soon as I stepped into it I could feel my blood rushing away from my toes; it was so cold that it actually hurt.

Peter plunged in anyway, emerging with an enthusiastic shout. (Supposedly swimming in Lake Baikal will add 25 years to your life.) I had no intention of following him, so instead I just stood at its edge, trying to see if my feet would acclimatize. When they no longer hurt, I took another step in. And another.

This is a big difference between me and Peter: he is a diver, able to jump into any body of water that hasn’t frozen solid. I prefer the slow, painful entry, working my way in inch by inch until at last I have no choice but to dunk my head. It’s a really stupid method — and it’s what happened at Baikal: after inching forward for upwards of ten minutes, I finally decided to go for it, and dropped under water for what has to have been one of the shortest dunks known to man.

My verdict? It was cold. Take-your-breath-away, give-you-a-heart-attack cold. But I could use those 25 years.

Tired of Nikita's food, we bought lunch in town -- and were presented with a hot omul in a bag, no plate, no fork. Turns out the skin peels off easily, and the spine pulls out. But your fingers will smell like omul for at least eight hours. Trust us.

One of our "delicious" lunches. Can you see the fish eyeball?


Sep 6 2010

The Train, Day 3

I’m not sure when I woke up this morning – I think it was 10 local time, which at that point would have been 6 in Moscow – but time has definitely not slowed down. In fact, we just gained another hour, and Sergei has informed us that he will come by our cabin to wake us up a full hour before the train pulls into Irkutsk. That’s 12:16 am Moscow time. I haven’t walked more than a block in the past three days and I’ve eaten more ramen than I have in my entire life, but still – I can’t believe our train ride is almost over.

Today’s main event was taking a shower – who knew you could get so gross just from sitting? Sergei had told me to find him when I wanted to bathe, so I did so, tucking 150 rubles into my pocket to pay for the privilege. But no one asked for my money. Instead, Sergei exchanged quick words with the attendant from the car next to ours and led me to an unmarked door, which he unlocked with a compartment key (all the keys are the same – a triangular head that I hear is an exact replica of those used for British gas meter cupboards).

Inside was a rather spacious room, empty except for a small bench, a rag on the floor, and a shower tucked into the corner. A black garbage bag hung from the rod in place of a shower curtain, but except for the fact that the drain emptied directly onto the tracks (you could see them rushing by), it was just like the shower you might find at home.

Actually, there was one more difference: the faucet. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on. There was a normal-looking faucet, but when I turned it on, nothing happened. A different spigot-like handle was affixed to a pipe at eye level, so I turned it as well, realizing after about four tries that it actually just raised the showerhead up and down. I stood there, naked and perplexed. Was the water off because we had just pulled into a station? That seemed unlikely; Sergei is very good about warning us about such things. I really didn’t want to put my clothes back on and disturb Sergei – who was sitting in his darkened compartment watching bootleg DVDs against a background of religious icons – so I decided to give it one more go. In so doing, I accidentally pushed a button beneath the main faucet – a button that looked like it should control the drain – and leapt back in surprise when water started to spurt from the handset.  Also, hot and cold were reversed – and, adding to the difficulty, the water only ran for five seconds at a time before the button reset, little dribbling pulses that made me think I’d never successfully get the soap out of my hair. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that you could get around this problem simply by holding down the button; instead, I washed and rinsed my hair in five-second increments, feeling around for the button with my eyes closed every time the water stopped.

The only other thing of note that happened today was a station stop in Ilanskaya (km 4375). There were no handmade scarves on offer, but the selection of products was the most eclectic we’ve seen. In addition to the usual snack foods, bottles of beer, smoked fish and ice cream cones, there was everything from peanuts and playing cards to sauerkraut and DVDs. Women sat in front of trays of homemade potato and meat dumplings, cooked chicken thighs, and large discs of bread – but there were also things I’ve never seen before, like tubes of caramel wrapped in waffle cones, and large baskets of pinecones. (After much thought, Peter and I realized that that’s where pine nuts come from. I should have bought one!) Peter asked a woman if he could take a photo of her display and, though she said yes, she seemed quite confused. What could be picture-worthy about a spread of two kielbasa, a smoked fish in a plastic bag, several pens, two razors, a garbage bag of black sunflower seeds, cigarettes, and a packet of instant coffee labeled “Golden Eagle” and decorated with the American flag?

One of the funniest things about train life is that everyone dresses in tracksuits or pajamas and doesn’t bother to change for the station stops – which results in a platform full of people who look like they were evacuated from a hotel in the middle of the night. (I’m wearing black capri pants, white ankle socks, and brown plastic sandals.) That’s how I discovered my favorite person on the train: a beefy, middle-aged Russian man who was standing on the platform this morning in a calf-length light purple bathrobe, smoking a cigarette. I’d have thought that perhaps this was just his evening attire, to be replaced by a track suit in the morning. But no. After finishing his cigarette and shaking the hands of some soldiers on the platform, he retreated to his compartment – which is several doors down from ours — where he and a very rotund friend passed the rest of the afternoon sprawled on their couches, drinking beers and eating smoked fish.That’s just how he rolls.


Sep 5 2010

The Trans Siberian Railroad — The Journey Begins

It’s official: we are on the Trans-Siberian railroad! After nearly a year of anticipation, our journey by rail is finally beginning – we’re going from Moscow to Irkutsk, Irkutsk to Ulan Ude, and eventually Ulan Bator all the way to Beijing.

On the night of our departure, Sunday the 15th,  we found our way to the Moscow train station and waited in a hot departure hall until we finally saw a track number appear for the #2 train from Moscow to Vladivostok. (Vladivostok, should your Siberian geography be rusty, touches the Pacific just above North Korea — we’re taking it to Irkutsk and then switching to the Beijing line.) The platform was crowded with people carrying large bags and vendors hawking food, but Peter and I ignored them, pushing our way through the throng with one goal in mind: to see our compartment. Having had many months to anticipate the journey, we both had elevated – if delusional — visions of what comforts it might include. A private sink, for example, or maybe a hallway shower. At very least we were expecting some fancy red curtains, a private samovar, and maybe some carved wooden accents  – something that would befit the train’s reputation for old world elegance.

Unfortunately, none of that was present. Instead,  our cabin was a blue and white, modern-looking space with two narrow beds separated by a small table. There was no sink; the samovar – which is really more of an industrial-sized water heater that dispenses liquid so hot you need to be careful not to burn yourself – was down the hall. But what the car was lacking in charm it made up for with air conditioning – a luxury not included on the older trains. That alone was worth the lack of wooden accents.

With our bags stowed, it was down to business. Peter, concerned that his afternoon spent soaking in a Russian banya had left certain parts of his anatomy a bit chafed, decided to change his pants. He pulled the door shut, hit a button that we thought must be the light, and started taking off his clothes.

Perhaps we hit the call button by mistake; perhaps the car’s attendant just happened to be walking the hall at that particular moment to check tickets. Regardless, just as Peter slid off his boxers, we heard a light knock on the door and the door began to slide open. There was no place to hide. Panicking, Peter leapt on top of his bed and stood frozen in the corner like a frightened animal. Far from providing cover, this actually just put his hips at eye level.

The door continued to slide open to reveal a gruff-faced Russian man in a white shirt and slacks: our carriage attendant, the person whom we were supposed to butter up if we wanted the toilets to stay clean. He took one look at the scene that greeted him — me standing defensively in the doorway, Peter naked on top of the bed — and quickly closed the door.  This gave Peter a chance to grab his pants and shirt and gather enough of his composure that when we opened the door again to see the man still standing there, we all could act like the incident had never occurred.

His name turned out to be Sergei, and despite The Lonely Planet guidebook’s assertion that most carriage attendants are women (it describes them as “she who must be obeyed,” and says they’re likely to sport “the most distinctive hairdos you’ll come across this side of a drag queen convention”), Sergei was definitely male, had normal hair, and, to his credit, did not acknowledge our initial introduction. Explaining – via limited English – that he spoke limited English, he gave us a basic tour of the train.

“Toilet,” he said, pointing down the hallway to his right.

“Restaurant, one, two, three,” he said, pointing to the left and indicating its distance in train cars.

“Hot farter.” He pointed toward the hallway samovar.

Sergei explained that if we left our car to go to the restaurant car or to poke around a station, we should tell him and he would lock our door. He then retreated to his small compartment at the end of the car to watch DVDs.

And so here we are, about to go to sleep for our third night on the train. I’m not bored; rather, I almost feel like time is moving faster than normal. That’s partially because time is moving faster than normal – in the past 48 hours or so, we’ve gained five time zones on Moscow. Confusingly, though, all the train stations still reflect Moscow time – both on tickets and station clocks. This means that not only is it hard to tell when to eat lunch, but instead of arriving in Irkutsk at 6:15 in the morning – already a painful hour – it is actually going to feel like 1:15 am.

Not birch groves.

For now, though, I’m just watching Siberia roll past my window. It reminds me of a conversation we had with a guy who had spent a year teaching in Siberia and had gone on this train ride himself. He said that after a certain point, the settlements begin to die out, and all you see is the occasional tiny blue house, which looks so like the tiny blue house before it that you begin to wonder if you are just watching a looped movie of the Siberian countryside. Sounds good to me — right now I’m just watching an endless loop of birch groves.

Here are some other observations so far:

-We have seen a number of men with weed-whackers standing in the middle of endless fields of grass. Weed-whacking in Siberia. Really?

-The restaurant car is two cars down from ours, which one would think would mean there would be heavy foot traffic past our room. However, there is none. Peter and I have walked through the car three and two times, respectively. Neither one of us has ever seen anyone using the restaurant car to eat. On his first trip through, Peter watched a man loading boxes into the refrigerator that dripped with blood.With that said, however, the car contains lovely art-nouveau woodwork, with booths adorned with stained glass decorations backed by mirrors.

-Guidebooks for the railroad wax poetic about the abundance of food that will be available at station stops. Entire villages will turn out, offering you boiled potatoes and eggs, homemade pancakes, and fresh vegetables, they say. Combined with the generosity of your Russian traveling companions, you may regret having packed so much food yourself.

This is sort of true. We have passed through two stations – Balyezino (1194 km from Moscow) and Barabinsk (3040 km) – where vendors did indeed flock to the train. Some stood behind pushcarts full of beer and snack foods; others walked up and down the platform with baskets of dried fish and small plastic bags of cucumbers and tomatoes, freshly made pancakes stuffed with sweetened cottage cheese, dense apple pastries, hardboiled eggs, and the occasional bag of herbed, cooked potatoes. Those were the good stops – I even found a woman who sold me a beautiful hand-knit scarf for $6.

But what of Vyatka? Or Omsk or Novosibirsk or, for that matter, Perm 2? (No, I’m not sure where the first one is.) There, the platforms were empty but for several small newsstands selling delicacies like cigarettes, stale chocolate bars, and shrimp-flavored snack crackers – leaving us reduced to our third meal of ramen in two days. As for our Russian traveling companions, we had forgotten that we are actually in a two-person bunk, and while there are indeed some Russians in the berths around us, they don’t seem to have much food to share. Rather, they’ve eyed our noodles with looks that suggest they wish they’d remember to pick some up for themselves.

But right now we’re in good shape – the stop in Novosibirsk was long enough for me to run into the station itself, where I found a woman at a deli case offering a random assortment of foods including dried noodles, chocolate yogurt, and fresh bananas. Since everything was behind the counter my attempts at shopping required a little game: her standing on a chair reaching up toward the display of instant coffee, me waving my hands to one side and the other to indicate if she were hot or cold. The biggest prize of all was the coffee creamer – our Finnish cappuccino powder is nauseating, so instead I’d been drinking rooibus tea that tastes like a scented candle. I’m very excited about having some real tea tomorrow with milk – so much so that when Peter pretended to steal two of my creamers, I pretended to kick him in the shin.

-A problem: when it stops, the train gives no warning before it pulls out of the station. No whistle, no announcement, nothing. According to our guidebook, numerous passengers have been left behind – the author even recounts a story when a carriage attendant was almost abandoned in a remote Siberian village in the middle of winter. This is making me very paranoid; I can’t stay out of the train for more than five minutes without casting cautious glances back at Sergei to see if he has gone inside.

-There is a sign on top of the toilet that says “!The request, in a toilet bowl to throw! NOTHING!” accompanied by crossed out cartoons of disobedient patrons. I’m not quite sure what will happen if I throw paper into the bowl – it doesn’t actually empty onto the tracks – but it scares me, especially because one of our guidebooks says that the toilets occasionally spray their contents into the air.

-Speaking of toilets, on our previous ride from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I was about to flush when I noticed that what appeared to be the flush button was right next to what looked like a red emergency light, with a warning printed above it in Cyrillic. It was the logical place for a flush button but, then again, it was also the logical place for one of those emergency call buttons you see in handicapped bathrooms. Was this going to flush the toilet? Or stop the train? I was concerned enough that I used a paper towel to close the seat so that I could look for any alternative flushing buttons – there were none – before eventually pushing the button. The toilet flushed. No conductor arrived.

-The shower. There isn’t one, at least not in this car. This morning, Peter decided to wash his hair in the bathroom’s miniscule sink – a move that was not lost on Sergei (he knows everything), who knocked on my door just after Peter left and told me there was a real shower available in the next car. “But you must pay,” he said, rubbing his fingers together with a look of disgust, not at me, but at the idea that the next car might charge for such a privilege (Sergei would not charge you to bathe; the man came through our car this afternoon with a miniature vacuum cleaner). “150 rubles,” he added. Five bucks for a shower. It’s beginning to sound  like a pretty good deal.


Sep 4 2010

Moscow Madness (and a little St. Petersburg, too)

Editor’s note: We’ve spent a few weeks with poor internet access so I’m way behind on my posting. Apologies for the forthcoming barrage!

First: Arrival in Moscow. I’d heard beforehand that train stations were the epicenters of all things sketchy in Russia, so when our train pulled into the Moscow train station, I was a bit apprehensive about finding our way to the hotel. If Moscow were anything like Beijing, we’d be mobbed by aggressive cabbies trying to, both literally and figuratively, take us for a ride. But instead, the opposite happened. No one approached us at all – and it was left to us to find a cab driver with whom we could negotiate a price. Our hotel had told us to pay between 350 and 500 rubles, so when the first cabbie announced that he wanted 1500, we laughed. Not even attempting to bargain, he snorted back at us and resumed playing cards with his friends. So much for the official taxi stand. We tried a few other labeled cabs, to no avail, and then I remembered a piece of somewhat disturbing advice that I’d read in our guidebook: for the right price, any car in Moscow can be a cab.

This didn’t make me feel particularly calm, the whole “find an unmarked car and ask a guy to take you somewhere in a city you’ve know nothing about”  approach, but I’d seen it used by a young woman in St. Petersburg, so we decided to try. Sure enough, after a few more failures, Peter stumbled upon a tanned, muscular guy in a white tanktop and dark sunglasses who seemed up for the challenge. Never mind that he spoke no English and didn’t quite know where the hotel was. He agreed to 500. We hopped in.  I spent the next twenty minutes trying to memorize the birthmarks on his back, just in case I needed to later identify him in a police line-up. Luckily, this was not necessary – the guy wasn’t ill-meaning; he just didn’t have a particularly good sense of Moscow geography. Several phone calls and questions to pedestrians later, and we were there.

Second: some words about Russians and vodka. They really do treat it like water. My favorite vodka sighting was in a big tourist gift shop across the street from Peter the Great’s log cabin in St. Petersburg. The shop is a long hall stuffed with endless marshrutky (nesting dolls), enameled boxes, keychains and fake fur caps – and at the end of the room, next to a samovar, there was a plate full of free vodka samples, plain or cranberry-flavored. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that a. this would never happen in America and b. free vodka samples are an excellent way to increase sales.

Our second vodka run-in – this time more deliberate – was at the vodka museum in Moscow, and it proved that I learned nothing in St. Petersburg. You see, the vodka museum happened to be located directly next to the Izmaylovsky craft market (which, incidentally, you get to from a subway station featuring floral bas reliefs decorated with AK-47s) and, being efficient travelers, we decided to combine them into one trip. I enjoyed my initial wander around the craft market, which sold everything from the ubiquitous marshrutky to antique propaganda posters, icons that you’d never be able to get through customs, and all sorts of communist trinkets. But I enjoyed it even more after our visit to the vodka museum where, after receiving a 20-minute guided tour of the one room exhibition, our guide led us to the museum restaurant and gave us three shots of vodka – a rough, cedar variety from Omsk, a vodka from a bottle designed to look like a nesting doll, and Kalashnikov vodka, which our guide said was sold in a numbered, gun-shaped case. After some snacks of cheez spread wrapped in bologna and several pickled garlic cloves, she gave us a small glass of a sweet, smoky plum-flavored liquor, which she said was popular with the ladies.

Not only was this, without a doubt, the most vodka I have ever consumed in a museum, but it was likely the most vodka I’ve ever consumed in one sitting, period. The result? The craft market got a whole lot more fun. I looked through endless stacks of propaganda posters, hoping to find one I’d seen in a friend’s house that shows a babushka-wearing ear of corn above the caption “To dislike corn is to be an enemy of the people” –despite the fact that I have no way of carrying home even an extra doll, let alone a fragile vintage poster. I made friends with some guys selling salmon shish kebabs, who told us how much they wanted to come to America. (“We hope to see you there!” I encouraged them, as we bought a bottle of water.) I bought a set of hand-painted Christmas ornaments from an excellent saleswoman named Tamara, who greeted us by saying, “I like money! And if you give me money, I like you!” And at a stall on the market’s upper level, I bought my favorite souvenir of them all: a hand-carved space shuttle launching from a piece of bent coat hanger. I love it.

Space dog!

I’m being serious. The Russians are obsessed with all things space-related, as evidenced by cosmonaut museums in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. They’re also obsessed with space dogs — especially Laika, the first dog to ever have been sent into orbit. (Peter bought a Laika t-shirt, only to discover that it had different length arms.)  I like dogs, too. So imagine my delight when the maker of said wooden space ship popped open the carving to reveal a hollow interior containing not one, but two tiny wooden dogs.  It was pretty much the tackiest thing I’d ever seen. But it is also kind of amazing.

One of these sleeves is not like the other.

A last Moscow observation: if you have a chance, by all means, visit the All Russian Exhibition Center, known as Vystavka Dostinzheny Narodnogo Khozyaysta SSR (VDNKh) – the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition.

Created in the 1930s but expanded in the 50s and 60s, the VDNKh was intended to show the world the economic achievements of socialism. Its grounds are 2 km long and 1 km wide, with dozens of buildings and pavillions constructed to celebrate socialist accomplishments in everything from education to health, technology and science. I’m fascinated by socialist realism to begin with (you must depict reality! But an idealized form of reality that does not yet exist!) and am fond of clashes between communism and capitalism, especially those that involve camel rides. So I was pretty much in heaven.

VDNKh’s funding was cut off in the 90s, and what was built as a soaring tribute to socialism is now a combination of amusement park and shopping mall. I mean both literally. You enter the complex through a giant arch topped by a socialist-realist sculpture of a triumphant peasant who’s since been joined, a bit lower, by a banner advertising cheap fur coats. Beyond the arch is a cartoon-themed tourist train, which makes loops of the immense grounds – though if Tommy the Tank Engine is not your style, you can also rent bicycles or, better yet, in-line skates. The tourist train and rollerbladers zig and zag along a promenade leading to one of the main buildings, with a beautifully decorated white facade set behind an enormous statue of, you guessed it, Lenin. (We actually saw a man get down on one knee before it – he remained there so long and with such intensity that we worried he might be about to blow himself up, especially when he started reaching around in his bag, but he emerged with a black umbrella to use as a parasol).

Lenin with Ferris wheel.

There are merry-go-rounds, there are games of skill and chance. There are hot dogs and ice cream cones, a miniature race track, a display of sand sculptures in the face of Soviet leaders – and yes, there are camel rides. And that is just outside. Inside the magnificent halls is the very world they were intended to rebuke: they’ve all been turned into shopping malls. As the occasional pigeon flies overhead, you can shop for everything from spiked collars to Siberian birch boxes to cameras to manicure supplies. One particularly impressive hall, a large arched space that ends in a now-shrouded portrait of Russia’s first cosmonaut, has been turned into a gardening center.

As we wandered past ice cream vendor after ice cream vendor, we wondered what Lenin would think. I assumed he would roll over in his glass coffin. But Peter pointed out that if he were to simply drop by with no historical update, he might actually be thrilled: the place was packed with happy people enjoying the smog-free afternoon. Someone would just have to make sure he didn’t go inside.

I bought things from this person.

I did not buy things from this person.