Thursday, April 25, 2013

Russia, Day 6

The walk up into the Moscow Kremlin.
The entrance to the Kremlin used by Putin.
This was, in many ways, the best day of the trip.  We had done most of what I wanted to see and do, and only had three goals for the day: The Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral and the banye.
We got our tickets for the Kremlin and made our way in, up the long, slopping ramp.  I was not prepared for just how small the Kremlin really is.  It is still the seat of Russian government, and so much of it is not open to tourists.  As soon as you walk in you see, on your right, The State Kremlin Palace, a Soviet building that looks out of place surrounded by much older buildings.  To the left is the armoury, surrounded by dozens of cannons left by Napoleon’s fleeing army in 1812.  
The State Soviet Palace
The State Soviet Palace
The Byzantine, double-headed Eagle on the State Soviet Palace.
We also saw the Czar bell and the Czar Cannon.  The bell was never rung and is now broken.  It was in a fire before it could be installed and the shock of the fire’s heat and the water used to put it out caused a large section to crack off.  I read that it was used for a time as a church, the cracked-off section serving as a convenient door. 
Me and the Czar Bell
Tom and I in front of the Czar Bell.
Near the bell is the Czar Cannon.  This was also never used, and from what I read many people think it could not be fired, as it is too big to work properly, and probably even safely.
The Czar Cannon
The Czar Cannon.  The cannon carriage and the cannon balls in the front are not from the same period as the cannon.
The Czar Cannon again.  The Assumption Cathedral in the background.
The real highlight of the Kremlin for me was Cathedral Square, on which sits the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, three cathedrals and two churches (the Cathedral of the Dormition, the Cathedral of the Archangel, the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Church of the Virgin’s Robe, the church of the Twelve Apostles.  I was geeking out all over the place. 

(Left to right) The Archangel Cathedral, The Annunciation Cathedral, the Assumption Cathedral and the Church of the Twelve Apostles (The Church of the Laying of Our Lady's Robe is behind the Assumption Cathedral)..
(Left to right) The Assumption Cathedral, Ivan the Great Bell Tower, The Archangel Cathedral, seen from the porch of the Annunciation Cathedral.
(Left to right) The Archangel Cathedral, Annunciation Cathedral, The Assumption Cathedral.
The Assumption Cathedral.
The Archangel Cathedral and Assumption Cathedral (right).
The Annunciation Cathedral.
I found a book on the churches and cathedrals of the Kremlin.  This is my ecstatic face.
After the Kremlin we had lunch at a Japanese place just off Red Square.  I could see St Basil’s the whole time.  It was quite a view.  Japanese food is really popular in Russia for some reason.  There does not appear to be a large population of Japanese people in Russia.  Tom also pointed out that the high levels of xenophobia in the country make it even stranger. 
(Left to right) St Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's Tomb, History Museum.
We finished lunch and crossed Red Square to St Basil’s.  The ground floor of the cathedral is a museum, showing the tomb of St Basil (called Vasili in Russian).  The ground floor was kind a let down.  It was set up to show the history of the cathedral and to explain a bit about the building.  The wall paintings were all redone in bright, vivid colours that, while showing you how it would have looked when freshly painted, took away the sense of history. 
St Basil's Cathedral.
St Basil's Cathedral.
St Basil's Cathedral.
The building is circular, and once you do the circuit of the ground floor you start to climb a narrow staircase leading to the central church, The Church of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos.  It was a surprise to come out in such a beautiful church.  Once again, the church itself was quite small, but the towering Iconostasis drew your eye up to the high tower.  There was a three-man choir there, singing what I assume to be Old Slavonic church music and trying to sell their album (I kind of wish I had bought it).  The rest of the second floor is a labyrinth of vaulted corridors leading from one church to the next.  There is no way to really describe the set up, as the multiple corridors, churches and alleyways made it quite confusing to navigate.  Just like in the other churches, the walls are covered with painted scenes and floral designs.
St Basil's.  The Church of the Most Holy Theotokos.
St Basil's Cathedral.
St Basil's Cathedral.
It is kind of a wonder that the Soviets did not destroy this church, especially as it sits right in the way of the military parade ground on Red Square.
St Basil's Cathedral.
St Basil's Cathedral.  Wall painting.
St Basil's Cathedral.  Wall Painting.           
St Basil's Cathedral.  Inconostasis.
St Basil's Cathedral.  Inconostasis.
Tom and I had been planning to go to the banye since I first bought my plane ticket.  I asked him which was the best banye in Moscow, and he told me Sanduny, which has been around since 1808.  There are three levels of banye at Sandunye with varying degrees of service.  We did the cheapest one, which is still a lot more than you would pay at a normal, neighbourhood banye.  Each level has its own entrance, which are further divided into men’s and women’s entrances.  We walked into a marble covered entry hall and bought our tickets (well Tom bought them, it was a surprise present).  As we walked up the stairs to the entrance I could feel the air getting hotter.  We walked into a large, completely tiled room with long, leather-covered benches jutting out from the wall on one side and a bar in the corner.  We took our seats on the benches and a man brought us towels and slippers.    

I was not very comfortable at first, as I have never been naked in front of so many people, but it was strange how quickly I got used to it.  Once we stripped down we walked through the rest of the waiting room area and into a room full of showers, bath tubs, buckets of water suspended from the walls with pull chains, massage rooms and a plunge pool. I do not know what this room is called officially, but it felt like a really elaborate and very nice locker room.  We each took a quick shower to rinse off and then walked into the banye, the hot room.

It was similar to a sauna, but I have never been in such a big sauna.  As soon as you walk in you walk up a set of stairs in order to climb higher into the heat and humidity.  The benches lined the walls on platforms that raised just a few inches the further you got into the room, allowing you to adjust how hot you wanted to be.  The smell reminded me of the saunas we took up at the cabin when I was a kid, that mix of cedar and humidity.  The one smell that was new to me was the smell of the veniki, the bundles of dried birch branches, soaked in water and then used to beat yourself.  The smell was sweet and enjoyable.  I think Tom and I were the only people not beating ourselves with the veniki.  Tom said it helps to clean you and even makes you smell a bit like the birch.  We decided not to buy the veniki since neither of us knew the technique to use them, and Tom said it would be best to have one of the people who works at the banye use them on you, which we couldn't afford. 

Tom and I were the only people not wearing the ridiculous banye hats.  These are large, cream coloured, felt hats that you are supposed to wear in order to protect your head from the heat of the banye.  I saw these in Estonia, and apparently they also use them in Finland.  I do not understand how they are supposed to work.  I would understand if you are bald.  Tom said that he has had people force him to wear them, as they believe if you do not you will cook your brain.  They are very comical to see.  Imagine a large felt bell with a brim down to your eyebrows.  Now, put a strangely large, oval handle on top of that and maybe an embroidered design or words. 

After about five minutes in the banye we went back into the shower room.  Tom told me to stand under one of the buckets mounted on the wall and pull the chain.  That bastard.  Freezing cold water fell on top of me, pulling all of the air from my lungs instantly.  Then, in order to prolong the sensation, Tom instructed me to climb into one of the small wooden tubs, big enough to hold one person, and plunge myself completely into more cold water.  It was at that moment that I knew this was all an elaborate ruse to kill me and steal the 200 rubles in my wallet (about $6). 

Me in front of the banye.  
I got out of the water forced my muscles, who had decided to give up all hope, to walk me to get my towel, and then followed Tom back out into the waiting area.  We sat on our benches, across from each other, as the waiter brought us beer and the egg khachapuri.  It was such a strange sensation.  Even before I had any beer I felt kind of drunk.  My entire body was tingling and the longer I sat down the more and more relaxed I felt.  I felt similar to the way I feel after spending an afternoon in the creek up at the cabin.       

We went back in three or four more time.  Each time the room got hotter, but I was able to stay longer with each visit.  It is so hot in the room that sweat literally drips off of you.  In our final visit a man came in the room and opened the door to the furnace and began throwing ladles of water on to the hot stone of the fire.  As he did this, of course, it got hotter and hotter.  Tom said that sometimes they will throw beer in instead of water and the resultant smell is fantastic.  Tom’s friend Fiona told him that one time they threw horseradish on the fire, which resulted in her instantly feeling a burning sensation all over her body. 

It was nice to feel so clean after spending so much time in such a dirty city.  I do not understand why Moscow is so dirty, but it is not because the city does not clean.  Even though Tom cleans his apartment every week, there is still a constant layer of dirt on the floor.  The mat near the entryway is covered in a small pile of dirt the entire time I was there, despite washing it.  Like I said, it is not because people do not care or clean, but the city is just somehow impregnated with dirt.  At one point a street sweeper drove past Tom and I on the street and we had to walk about fifteen feet from the curb in order to avoid the giant dust cloud it created.  After the banye, I felt cleaner than I had felt in years. 
The banye was amazing.  I think it was my favourite experience of the whole trip, and a great way to end it.  I have never felt so relaxed in all my life.  He had more beer, and had we had more time I would have got us some vodka as well (it would have just seemed appropriate).  I will definitely be going back to a banye if I ever go back to Russia.

For my last night in Moscow we went to a shopping centre called Moscow City, not far from Tom’s apartment.  I walked around for a bit trying to find a place with anything vegetarian and eventually settle on a Vietnamese restaurant.  Tom had never had Vietnamese before and I had not had any since last time I was home, almost a year ago.  Tom had warned me about the Russian desire to add excessive amounts of dill to every food item.  So far I had not seen this in person, though I am now a member of a facebook group called Dillwatch, where dill-related atrocities are catalogued, and I have seen much there.  But then I turned the page and saw a disgusting bastardization of the delicious Vietnamese fresh roll: shrimp, cucumber, and dill wrapped in rice paper skin.  It resembled nothing like real Vietnamese food. 
Russianized Vietnamese food.
After dinner we went upstairs in the mall to see an exhibition of giant matryoshka before going back to Tom’s for my last night.         
Matryoshka exhibit.
Matryoshka exhibit.

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