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The Real Russia
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One feels it could take a lifetime to unravel the mysteries of Mother Russia. The land of this vast nation of 140 million people seems to stretch on forever, and you can ride the Trans Siberian railway for over a week to complete the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok. When you add the countries of the former Soviet Union, there are over 300 million native Russian speakers in the world today. Russian is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and along with English, is the official language at the International Space Station. While often portrayed as the bogeyman by western nations, Russia will continue to be a major player on the world stage well in to the future.

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The journal continues from Russia, as I have the privilege of spending a second week based in Moscow. It’s quite rare that I choose to spend an extended period in a big city, as I find them somewhat intimidating. Nevertheless, Moscow is the engine of Russia and cannot be simply glossed over in a matter of days. There is so much on offer in the largest city in Europe, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to knuckle down and explore the city over an extended period of time. I met a friendly and articulate guide from Moscow Free Tours for yet another tour, this one being an evening adventure called Alternative Moscow. My guide took me to parts of the city that are not often seen by tourists, including a notorious section of the city that was home to pimps, thieves, murderers, and the like in the nineteenth century. There is no public transport in Khitrovka and many of the buildings are still abandoned due to it’s bleak history. We also visited monasteries and jumped on an historic tram across the river to finish in an upmarket part of the city, that was positively humming with people enjoying a balmy evening out.

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The next morning I joined the queues to visit the Lenin Mausoleum. It’s an odd quirk of the former communist countries to mummify past leaders, and I was in two minds about visiting. I viewed Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam more than a decade ago, but with the benefit of hindsight I’m glad I took the time to line up to pay my respects to the leader of the Bolsheviks. It’s been a hundred years since the October revolution of 1917, and Lenin is indisputably a great figure of history. Young Russians I spoke to don’t seem too thrilled by this garish display that harks back to a former era, however I’m just one of 100 million people who have viewed the embalmed body of the revolutionary leader. To see the body of Lenin confirms he was a small man, and had suffered three strokes prior to his death in 1924, his right fist is clenched in death. Part of the experience is being close to the Kremlin walls where former leaders are buried and have their statues mounted. It’s actually a beautiful walk along the tree lined path, culminating in a viewing of Lenin within the mausoleum, after your eyes have adjusted to the light. In the afternoon I headed to the State Historical Museum, however it doesn’t feature much information in English, and the translated audio set costs the same amount as the entrance fee. It was still a great experience walking through the rooms and learning about the history of Moscow.

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The next day I woke and typed in Gorky Park to my maps ap. It’s a five kilometre walk from the city centre, but more enjoyable on a beautiful day than riding the metro. The route to the park hugs the river, so it proved to be a scenic and enjoyable stroll. The park is beautiful, with a variety of attractions on offer for locals and tourists alike. You can enjoy some low key water sports on the artificial lake, and there’s a sandy beach at the mouth of the lake for sunbathing. There are restaurants, food stalls, ice-cream shops, and everything you need to keep the energy levels up while strolling at your leisure. A feature of the park is the magnificent entrance monument, providing an imposing introduction to the most famous park in Moscow. I headed back to the hostel in the afternoon, and was able to confirm a two day tour of the Golden Ring from the next day with a friendly Russian.

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Anton Terentev is a Russian guide with perfect English who will look after all your needs at www.hellorussian.world. My tour is to The Golden Ring, a group of ancient cities a few hundred kilometres northeast of Moscow famous for tourist attractions. The cities feature cathedrals, kremlins, monasteries and churches from the 12th-18th century, and are an absolute delight to visit. We headed out around 7:30am and within a few hours had travelled out of greater Moscow and on to country roads. It’s always a joy to see the countryside of a country, and being in Moscow for so long had me feeling a bit frazzled like I sometimes feel at home, as Sydney is also a big bustling city. Life seems to slow down instantly as the population density dwindles away, and we enjoyed relaxing conversations as I got to know this intelligent, charming, and articulate young man. The topics of conversation varied, but obviously the focus of our chats involved the history of Russia. Anton is able to talk easily and knowledgeably on a wide range of subjects, and I learnt so much from sharing his company for two days.

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We explored the attractions of several cities within the Golden Ring on the first day, and got to see fascinating tourist attractions. We hunkered down for the first night in the clean and stylish Vozduh hostel in the charming city of Vladimir,. Soon after check in we dropped our bags off before heading out to the beautiful Dormition cathedral to admire the architecture, the city views from several lookout points, culminating in a promenade through the tourist centre to check out the Golden Gate. Vladimir is a gorgeous city with kind and welcoming locals, although they are not so versed in speaking English. Next morning we woke at a relaxed hour, chowed down on a nice breakfast at a local cafe, then headed out of the city to visit the village of Bogolyubov. It features a gorgeous little church by the water in the middle of a field that is a popular tourist attraction. There is a kilometre long path pilgrims and tourists need to walk through the field, and as the church gets closer the view becomes more dramatic. It’s unique to gaze upon an architectural delight in the middle of nowhere.

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We jumped in the car and headed on to Suzdal, famous for it’s kremlin and the beautiful churches and monasteries in the town. Visitors can also climb the ancient walls of the kremlin, to enjoy panoramic views of the city and it’s architectural wonders. Suzdal caters well for tourists, and hordes of Russians make the journey to this gorgeous little town to enjoy the attractions. We enjoyed a terrific Borsch for lunch, and Anton constantly provided unusual Russian drinks for me to sample. You know you are in Russia when enjoying a traditional Borsch, or perhaps some pancakes and dumplings, topped off by the local refreshing drinks. We stayed in the city walking and exploring for several hours, and then started the four hour drive back to Moscow in the evening to conclude an unforgettable tour of the Golden Ring.

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My visit to Moscow coincided with the annual Army Games International, so next morning I took the metro to the outskirts of Russia to meet Anton, and we were joined for the day by his lovely wife and little daughter. We drove out through army areas to the massive field where tank crews from various nations compete in identical T72s to race around the course in the quickest time. Think of the competition as a relay race, where the crews have to do a sprint to changeover as the new crew dashes across the field and jumps in to their monster tank. A T72 can tear along at 60 kilometres per hour, and the crews had to shoot the canon while moving to hit a target 1.7 kilometres away. During other laps they had to fire both machine guns at the targets. Watching a T72 go down in to a concrete ditch and emerge on the other side to thunder down the field right in front our your eyes is an experience I’ll never forget. After lunch we headed to the nearby Tank Museum, the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world. There are six huge halls with an incredible variety of tanks from different eras and different nations, all looking suitably menacing! Visitors can also choose to fire a Kalashnikov for a small fee. I recall a chopper flew overhead while we were exploring the tanks on display, while listening to assault rifles blasting away nearby. It was not a typical day for a peace loving Aussie traveller, but part of the unique experience of visiting Russia! As a matter of fact, basically all of you should be here now!

“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” Otto von Bismarck

As I continue my travels, until next time it’s signing off for now

Tom

Tom Rooney

Tom Rooney

Tom has visited over 100 countries during the course of over 20 years of travel, and is a pioneering travel blogger of 10 years standing. Tom writes with passion, flair, and a sense of humour, and is also an award winning photographer. Tom holds the unique honour of being the first travel blogger to post entries from 100 countries.

Tom's music blog can be found here:
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Tom Rooney

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