Hong Kong to UK by train: Day 13
After 90 hours of trans-Siberian incarceration, it was the last that lasted longest. All packed up with nowhere to go, bed made, sheets gone, shoes on and waiting, as we trundled through the outskirts of Moscow towards our journey’s end. We weren’t institutionalised quite yet, but after four days living by timetables and routines, doing whatever we could to pass the time, rejoining the real world would still be an eye-blinking experience. In less than forty minutes we’d be released into a new and disorienting capital. I had no idea what to expect.
I hadn’t showered in five days. I hadn’t even bothered to change my clothes. I hadn’t even taken them off. I’d only be changing into slightly less dirty ones if I did. A few morning splashes of cold water where it mattered had been all I’d treated myself to. I was beginning to smell peculiar. Maybe I was rotting. But I had bigger problems.
There was no getting a Belarus visa until after I needed to leave Moscow. I’d determined that travelling from Moscow to Kiev and then from Kiev to Berlin would be the easiest way to get to Berlin in time to catch my train to Paris whilst avoiding Belarus. Buying the ticket for the Moscow to Kiev train wouldn’t be a problem. I could simply walk across to the station and hopefully buy a ticket leaving for Kiev the following evening. But I didn’t then want to arrive in Kiev with no ticket onward to find that all tickets from Kiev to Berlin had sold out. But there was no other way. None of the offices of the several online ticket agencies I contacted were open over the weekend, and even if they had been, the two days within which I would need the tickets was far too short notice to receive them. I just had to cross everything I had and hope my luck held good for one last trick. I paid 2300 rubles for a third class, Moscow to Kiev sleeper bed, after making the short walk across the river to Kievsky Station. Then it was time to explore Moscow.
It was only a couple of kilometers to Red Square. I was doing my best to look local. It wasn’t difficult. For the past two weeks most people had assumed I was either Russian or German. Never English. It would be the first thing they asked me. On the trans-Siberian Railway in particular, people would just start talking to me, only to be met by my blank face and a few apologetic grunts. I was beginning to specialise in apologetic grunts.
I walked to the Kremlin and along the river trying to get to Red Square. But there was some event or other going on, I was told, and for the whole of the weekend entry to Red Square was a ticket only affair. Metal detectors and barricades had been set up around the perimeter to check those that entered. There were police and security personnel everywhere. I couldn’t get close. I later discovered it was the annual Moscow City Day celebrations – Moscow’s 864th birthday – and all over town people were holding celebrations. I was able to walk the perimeter but could get no further. I made my way back down the river after being turned away.
I walked along the boulevards and down the back streets, under bridges, through the night. The streets were quiet, clean and clear of people. There was space and sky and a chill in the air. After so long in Hong Kong I’d missed these simple city pleasures. I was breathing in history on every corner. The domes of the churches which I seemed to encounter upon every turn were darkened against the night. Ornate buildings stood side by side with statues of the nation’s heroes, celebrating and commemorating, reminding of the city’s long and momentous past. This was a city of sieges and coups, defeats and victories, that the very fabric of the place could never let you forget. I could forget the crime and corruption, the threat of terrorism, the still lingering paranoia and growing inequality. I could suspend my inner realist momentarily. I was just happy to be in Europe again. I wanted to ingest the culture and get fat from it. This was the type of city I belonged. Cold and dark. Beautiful yet murderous. I’d be walking until the early hours. The next day I’d do the same before I had to catch my train, taking it in, before moving on again.