Tuesday, 27 August 2013


In my previous post I described our automotive adventures on a trip from Moscow to Suzdal. This time, I briefly look at the destination of our epic journey. 

Suzdal is a charming, rural town of about 10,000 people located 220 kilometres east of Moscow.
It was founded a little before Moscow. Its kremlin (fortress) was built by the same chap who founded Moscow, Prince Yuriy Dolgorukiy. Unlike its counterpart in Moscow, all that remains of Suzdal’s kremlin is a long, grassy mound.

What Suzdal does have in abundance that Moscow lacks is rural tranquillity. Enough to absorb even the busloads of tourists which descend on the place over the summer weekends. 

Suzdal was bypassed by the railway. Usually a disaster for a community, this has turned out to be a blessing for this lovely town of churches. The lack of a railway meant it was also bypassed by industry. 

 If you ever plan a trip there (and you need an overnight to make it worthwhile), we stayed at the Kremlyovsky Hotel. Very nice place and the receptionist even spoke some English.

And while I’m giving credit where it due, I’ll give another company a kick in the backside. I had organised our hire car through Sixt via Expedia. When I arrived at the Sixt desk with my Expedia reservation, Sixt refused to acknowledge the price quoted, of which I had a printed copy, and charged me almost FOUR TIMES that rate. This is the first time I have ever had this happen to a booking made through Expedia. I will never hire a car through Sixt again. SO BE WARNED – an advance quotation from SIXT is meaningless – they’ll just charge what they want when you arrive to pick up the car.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Driving to Suzdal

Last weekend we visited Suzdal, a charming historic town about 220 kilometres east of Moscow. I’ll write about it next time. In this post I am going to tell you something about the journey from Moscow to Suzdal. 

We hired a car – my first experience of driving on Russian roads. I’ll preface this by saying that I am a very experienced driver. I have driven for weeks at a time in places like Italy, Greece, Morocco, Portugal, Namibia, the USA and Egypt. I’ve crossed some of the world’s great cities – Rome, Paris, Cairo without so much as getting a scratch on a car. During the past 10 years in outback Australia during the course of my work with national parks I estimate I covered about 250,000 kilometres driving in various terrains and conditions. I was also required to handle four wheel drive vehicles loaded with a fire unit full of water at bush fires in very rough terrain, for which I received proper training. 

So I think I know something about how to drive a motor vehicle.

I can tell you that most of the Russians I saw on the road do not. They were without doubt the most aggressively dangerous and negligent drivers I have ever seen – and that’s saying something, given the places in which I have driven. 

Most of the journey is along the M7. I don’t know what the M stands for but it sure can’t be motorway. It is a dual carriageway, though so beset with traffic lights in places that the vehicles crawl along.  

Bridge repairs and other occasional roadworks seem to be conducted in such a manner as to cause maximum inconvenience to motorists. On two occasions we were stuck in 3 or 4 kilometre long traffic jams as well as numerous smaller ones which could have been avoided by some reconfiguring of the road work site. 

Cars overtaking on the shoulder being overtaken by cars overtaking on the shoulder's shoulder.

As soon as they encounter a traffic jam, many Russians drive along the ragged road shoulder, some even drive on the dirt to overtake people driving along the shoulder, trying to turn 2 lanes into 4. On two occasions I saw cars that had collided with trucks where they had tried to get back in to the flow of traffic from the shoulder. 

The inevitable result of trying to overtake on the shoulder - a collision occurred between the red car and the truck as the car tried to get back on to the road. This causes more chaos as these vehicles cannot be moved until the police arrive, which will take ages in this traffic.
I had a near miss myself when trying to change lanes in slow traffic - a guy behind, who had just made exactly the same lane change himself, was aggressively refusing to let me in – I was shocked to see this lunatic threatening to ram our vehicle if I didn’t return to my lane. 

What about the traffic police you ask? The only thing I observed them doing  was checking drivers’ papers now and then on the side of the road. Otherwise they seemed blind to the mayhem. In fact, this random paper checking caused another 2  kilometre long traffic jam as they had managed to partially block a lane. Once again drivers started racing along the shoulder. Not only were the traffic police ignoring this hazardous behaviour, it was the traffic jam they had created that was causing it! 

For the final 25 kilometres from Vladimir to Suzdal the dual carriageway is replaced by a 2 lane road. Ridiculously dangerous overtaking on this stretch was so common as to be normal. 

In all, we saw about 12 accidents (more than I see in a year in Australia). The 220 kilometre ‘motorway’ trip took 6.5 hours, the return journey, 5. 

It was a nightmare. 

On a lighter note, a town along the way seemed specialise in the sale of large fluffy toys. There were about a dozen of these roadside stalls over about a kilometre. Now I know where to go if I need a giant fluffy rabbit.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Moscow's population

An article in the English language newspaper, The Moscow Times, dated 13 August, notes that Moscow’s federal budget claims 65% of Russia’s resources, leaving the other 83 regions to split the remaining 35% between them. A result of this is that many regional cities are indebted and impoverished. It’s little wonder, therefore, that relative wealth of Moscow is a magnet.

A census conducted in 2010 put Moscow’s population at around 11.5 million, making it easily the biggest city in Europe. However, uncharted and illegal immigration, mainly people drawn to the prosperity of Moscow in the hope of finding a better life, could put the real figure at anywhere between 13 and 17 million. 

Several posts ago I wrote an item about outdoor markets. Since then there have been a number of articles in the Moscow Times about a riot in one market resulting in an across the board clamp down on such places. The newspaper items noted that the markets are commonly frequented by illegal immigrants. The Federal Migration Service is responsible for managing this issue and currently oversees 21 institutions for detaining illegal immigrants. It has plans to greatly increase its detention capacity (I will note here that such detention is not dissimilar to how Australia handles illegal immigrants). Most of these illegal immigrants come from former USSR republics in Central Asia – places such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. 

One of the things I have noticed about Moscow is the homogeneity of the population. The vast majority of people are white and of Eastern European appearance. While I don’t stand out in a way that I would in, say, Japan, people here can generally pick that I am not Russian without me opening my mouth, despite my dressing as unobtrusively as possible. 

This May Day crowd provides an illustration of the character of the population of Moscow

The only other group one sees in any number are people of Central Asian appearance. I am by no means suggesting that these people are all illegal immigrants, no doubt most of them have a perfect right to be in Russia. I have observed though, that they do seem to carry a disproportionate load of unskilled and heavy-lifting jobs. 

Other groups, such as people with darker skin colours or from the Indian sub-continent, are uncommon enough to be notable. 

Painting the exterior of a building. Paint is contained in the buckets. While the pavement was roped off, there would still have been some unhappy passersby had any of the paint buckets come loose. These guys were all Central Asian - such people seem to do much of the outdoor maintenance work.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Inside St Basil's Cathedral

It is fairly common for people to mistake this place for the Kremlin. Perhaps because news reports, when discussing what 'The Kremlin' has been up to lately, typically show this photogenic building.

This is St Basil's Cathedral. It stands in Red Square, which is an impressively large and attractive open space next to the Kremlin. The Kremlin (which is a word meaning 'fortress') is a complex of buildings and cathedrals enclosed by long, high red walls. One of these walls defines the western edge of Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible had the main part of St Basil's (also known as the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, or Pokrovsky Cathedral, or the Cathedral of St. Vasily the Blessed) built between 1555-61.

I heard a guide telling a tourist that Ivan had the two architects of St Basil's blinded so that they could never design a more beautiful building. If you hear that story, its not true. One of the architects, Yakovlev, is known to have designed more buildings after St Basil's was completed. Apparently Ivan wasn't quite that terrible.

Stalin on the other hand, wanted to knock St Basil's down. Apparently he felt it was a bit of a nuisance, being in the path of his Red Square tank parades. Thankfully, he was talked out of it. Resurrection Gate, at the opposite end of Red Square, was not so fortunate and was only rebuilt in 1996.

I used to be curious what was inside St Basil's when I'd see it on those Cold War newsreels. For a mere 250 roubles (about $7) I found out. Its a bit of a maze. Anyway, that's enough text, I'm not all that fond of writing - you can have a look now for free.