Sunday 11 July 1993 - Aeroflot to Russia
Interior of the jet was a surprise. With open overhead luggage racks, it felt more like a bus than a plane. And there was no in-flight entertainment, apart from stewardesses struggling to lift food trolleys and a steaming samovar over a loose flap of carpet in the aisle.
Three hours (and several accident-free teas) later, we descended from sunny skies through a thick blanket of clouds. The vista of forests and green countryside below was a shock. Where was the Soviet-era industrial wasteland? And the grey tower blocks?
Greeted at arrivals by our Jules Verne-Intourist minder, Tamara. For once, I was grateful to have someone else organise baggage collection and hotel transfer. On the bus to the hotel, Tamara entertained us with witty commentary about Moscow and surrounds -- while plugging Intourist sightseeing trips. Her advice to use hard currency (US dollars) for tours and purchases was a surprise. Where could we spend roubles?
The reality of being in Moscow took a while to sink in. Like Tamara, the roads, cars and buildings seemed modern and western European. I'd expected something exotic and eastern (and run down), like Istanbul. Had another pleasant surprise when we checked into Hotel Intourist in central Moscow: our room was spacious, clean and well equipped. It was nothing like the horror stories we'd read about in guidebooks.
And then we looked out our hotel room window and saw the Kremlin across from us. Now we knew we were in Moscow!
Red Square at Night
It was 11 PM, but Red Square was too tempting. With little traffic in the streets and only a few pedestrians about, it was hard to believe we were in the capital of the world's largest country. (Thought crossed my mind I should have asked Tamara if there was a curfew!)
Walking the cobblestone streets leading to Red Square and onto the square itself was surreal. I'd seen it so many times on TV news, packed with soldiers, tanks and missiles parading past the Kremlin. Yet here I was, in the middle of Red Square, and apart from a handful of tourists, a few souvenir touts, and soldiers on guard duty, it was deserted.
At the far end of the square stands St. Basil's Cathedral, like a deliciously decorated cake. We circled it in awe, marvelling at the textures and colours, fine sculpturing, and onion-domed towers. It could be a cake or a church from the pages of a fairy tale. Or both!
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Returned to our hotel past the massive red-brick walls of the Kremlin. The scale of Red Square and its buildings and walls was overwhelming. It compounded the unrealness of being in Moscow. Was it a fairy tale? Was I dreaming?