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6 August, 2005

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Part of the massive hotel complex I'm staying at in Moscow. It was built for the 1980 Olympics.


Some of the multitudes of Soviet Olympic artwork.


These murals built into the structure can be found all over the place.


A standard metro station with wide platforms, marble pillars, and lots of people. Actually, this station was a little different in that it had a third track which is in the middle of this picture. I never saw it used and every other station I was at had two tracks with the platform in the middle.


It's not unusual to have real works of art on display in the metro. The actual metro is in the background.


Maps for the system are everywhere. However many of the stations don't seem to have signs, at least not ones that are visible from the train. Note the circle on this map which you might think is some sort of highlighting of center city but which is actually a metro line that goes in a complete circle, although probably not that perfectly.


And of course these are everywhere.


One has to wonder how nobody else in the world could come up with a soft drink that drives people mad like this one. Is it really all marketing?


And yet more Western advertising.


One of the more Eastern style displays.


Nearly all metro stations have huge escalators with a person at the bottom who sits in a little compartment waiting and watching for something.


This is what you may see on the wall over the train track. It's a list of upcoming stops, the connections at those stops, and where those connections will take you.


Yet more metro art.


And here are some metro bootlegs, seen at one of the many shops in one of the station complexes. For many Russians, this is the only affordable way to get music.

6 August, 2005

Day 21. This wasn't the way I wanted to go to Moscow but it seemed to be the only way I could have gotten there in the time frame I needed. So I got on an overnight train that would arrive in just under 12 hours. I figured at the very least it would be good training for the Trans Siberian.

I found the train car I was supposed to be in pretty easily but locating the actual compartment took a bit of doing. They really hide that info in the depths of the ticket. And sometimes the only way to get things done is to just throw yourself upon the mercy of the people. So I just kept walking up to fellow passengers and pointing to my ticket until someone took it upon themselves to show me where to go. My compartment number was easy enough to find on the ticket - if you knew which part of the ticket to look for it in. In the end I wound up sharing a compartment with a father and his young son who only seemed interested in going to sleep as soon as the train started moving. High excitement.

In this part of the world there are rules for everything. And on a train there are all kinds of unique ways of doing things. About the only thing I had a clue about was sitting down. And even that was difficult since there were only bunk beds and no chairs. But I had no idea where I was supposed to put my bags. Fortunately there was one empty bed which gave me an easy solution. But where had my two cabin mates put theirs? (In the morning I found out when they deftly opened up the bed to reveal storage space inside. This is apparently knowledge you're born with in Russia as there weren't even any pictorial diagrams indicating this was possible.) And then there was some kind of food issue. On my last train, all I could get access to was an occasional cup of tea and my fellow passenger from Minsk kept offering me things. I was determined to not only have more but to actually start reciprocating on these offers. I made sure to stop in a Minsk supermarket before departing and I had a variety of items on hand. So naturally on this train there was an abundance of food. The provodnitsa slapped some sort of package of juice, muffins, and crackers in front of me. But I didn't feel comfortable taking any of it since I wasn't sure if it was just for me or for everyone. Then when morning came, someone knocked on the door and delivered two hot meals for the others. I had to wonder if they were communicating through telepathy.

In the end though I was able to get a decent amount of sleep and a good sense of what I was going to be in for over the next couple of weeks. Apart from the fact that it felt as if we were about to leave the tracks throughout most of Belarus, the ride was fairly smooth and the bed surprisingly comfortable, owing no doubt to the thickness of the pillow and padding.

I fully expected to be rousted first thing in the morning by angry Russian border guards but that never happened. In fact, there was no border check of any type. I remembered this also during my trip into Belarus from Russia two years ago. Different currency but no border check. How strange.

Upon arrival in Moscow, I looked around for a place to get money changed. I still had Belarusian rubles which were apparently completely worthless here. (It's very difficult to even exchange this currency which is an awfully odd way to treat a country you have no border check with.) I went all over the station looking for a change shop to no avail. Finally I spotted an ATM where a man was cussing at the screen. When he finally stormed away, I gave it my card and was surprised to actually get money back. I was finally in business.

The Izmailovo hotel complex where the Trans Siberian trip officially begins was located a fair distance away from this station. It was reachable by metro but I didn't think now was the best time to try and manipulate that system since I had a bunch of bags and I was still pretty tired. So I opted for a cab which was definitely a wise move to make.

Entering Moscow by cab is really a lot like a ride at an amusement park. It's a good deal more fun if you tell yourself that you definitely will survive the experience. My driver was a madman, hitting 120 km/h at times on city streets, skillfully avoiding other cars and pedestrians, and somehow never missing a traffic light. I'm pretty sure we actually were driving on two wheels on a couple of occasions. Usually I avoid cabs at all expense. I just don't feel comfortable having some stranger drive me someplace. There are all sorts of awkward interactions and a feeling of "let's just get this over with" emanating from all corners. I sense this mostly because of how I see my cab riding friends act. They become instant aristocrats barking out orders and commands. Or they take issue with something the poor guy is doing, like having a window open, having a window closed, speeding, going too slowly, using the horn, taking a particular route, talking on a cell phone, smelling, listening to the radio, etc. It's too much fucking drama just to get from one place to another which is why mass transit is orders of magnitude preferable. But not this time. Taking a cab in Moscow was the only way to go.

Now here was a city! It clearly went on forever and was teeming with people from all corners of the world. In many places I spotted 24 hour shops of various sorts. And it was completely and totally filthy. Diesel fumes were belching out of everything it seemed. Some of the old school buses (yes, that phrase is accurate both ways you read it) reminded me of Mexico. And there seemed to be construction going on everywhere you looked. This was clearly a place a lot of people wanted to be.

After about a half hour of breathtaking excitement, we arrived at the hotel. It was another one of those Soviet built massive hotels with multiple sections that all looked the same. This one was built for the 1980 Olympics. I was in the "Gamma" section. Surprisingly, I had no trouble getting checked in that morning even though I wasn't supposed to be there until afternoon. They even offered me breakfast which compounded the irony of all of the food I had suddenly gotten access to. Instead, I figured taking a nap would be the best course of action and that turned into sleeping through most of the day.

I checked the news when I woke up. The trapped Russian submarine was the top story everywhere. It's unbelievable how this sort of thing just seems to keep happening here. Hopefully history won't repeat itself and these guys will get out OK. I met up with Hanneke and Sasja after they checked in and we headed into town via the metro.

The Moscow metro is fantastic. No system anywhere reminded me more of New York. The trains are big and loud and they move fast! New York City is still unique in its 24 hour operation and four track system. But the trains here are very impressive. I believe the cars are longer and taller than in New York. Trains are seven cars in length. And the stations are all spacious and solid. In many cases marble is everywhere. We had to make several connections and throughout the evening I don't think we waited longer than two minutes for a train.

We met up with my friend Ilya who was active in the Free Kevin movement in Moscow and who currently teaches computer hacking and has set up a hacker library for anyone interested in further research. After dinner at a Georgian restaurant where apparently Kofi Annan and Boris Yeltsin once had been, we journeyed out to the suburbs and met some friends of Ilya's where we had some watermelon and talked about all sorts of issues like the Ukraine, global economy, and life in Siberia. I was more than a little surprised that within 30 seconds of entering the apartment, a passionate discussion of the Ukrainian situation was in full swing.

We made arrangements to meet up tomorrow for a taping of "Off The Wall" and to get some footage for the movie. Sunday will really be my only full day here so I'm hoping to make the most of it.