“Travelling was better back in the old days before the internet.” You hear that a lot. “Travel has forgotten the charm of getting lost.” I don’t think people who say this actually travelled back then. I’m thrilled, it has changed the last 20 years!
One thing that has changed is travel pictures. So of course, this article will have badly scanned photographs 90’s-style. Because before the digital revolution you didn’t know if you had taken a good picture – and it wasn’t really that important either…
It’s tourism history and time travel in one.
WHY MOSCOW 1999?
Moscow is the capital of the largest country in the world – Russia – and for that reason alone, it is worth visiting. But today it’s Michelin restaurants and 5-star hotels and google maps help you find that cool boutique with the colourful scarfs, we had to deal with breakfast tickets and hotel key ladies!
If you think Russia is closed and difficult travel destination today, you have no idea, and travelling before the internet means problems you couldn’t imagine.
Now, travel back to 1999, and everyone’s worried about the Y2K (look it up) and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin is still months away from retirement.
I’m 19 and at the beginning of a 3 month long journey across China starting with the Trans-Mongolian train from Moscow. Why? Because my friend and I decided it when drunk (of course). Luckily, I’m writing a travel diary in case of travel blogging will be a thing in 20 years time.
GETTING LOST IN SOVIET
The metro stations are the most beautiful underground stations in the world – if you ask me! But of course taking the metro is difficult in 1999 as well. After a long conversation – in French! – we get tickets. Wrong tickets! But hey, that’s all part of the now lost charm of travelling without being able to thoroughly prepare from home, look up things you don’t understand or quickly googletranslate important destinations.
But if I have to get lost in a metro system, I will choose the Russian one. It’s mainly from 1935, and the reason why I’m so smitten is because they are small palaces with art. Stalin propaganda sure, but beautiful with marble and mosaics telling of the great writers and artist of Russia like on Mayakovskaya. Even the Bolshoi was at the opening. This year, the new ring of the metro in Copenhagen opens, but I’m pretty sure, it will not be world class design…
KEY LADIES IN MOSCOW
Hotels are not really a big thing in 1999. A few concrete government owned places is your only option. We are staying at a typical squared grey lifeless way outside town near Izmailova Park. (There’s a huge flea market close by for that crochet napkin or Soviet memorabilia. I bought a hip flask with the hammer & sickle…)
On each floor of our hotel is a key lady! We ask ours: “What time is breakfast?” She looks blankly at us and shakes her head. “Where is breakfast?”, we ask at the reception. Nobody can help us, because nobody speaks English and we can’t translate anything into Russian.
So we head for Infotourist to find someone English speaking. Even though it’s absurd, were are now asking a tourist information where and when our breakfast is. “You need breakfast tickets!” “How do we get those”, we ask. “I can give you.” There is much happiness. But alas, we are not listed in her papers. “I need your vouchers”, she says.
So we go back to the hotel to find our hotel vouchers (nothing online remember). But to get into the elevator, you need your key paper (not a keycard, but a paper). We collect the paper at the recpetion, take the elevator and the key paper is now exchanged with the key lady on our floor – 15th – who hands us our key, so we can enter the room. Afterwards, the entire paper exchange is repeated in reversed order.
Why did we bother with that breakfast?
BAD PICTURES OF THE RED SQUARE
Kremlin is the main sight, and if you look up the hashtag on Insta, you’ll find way better pictures than I could ever take. But this is a place where you want your camera to work. Mine of course broke and with no camera phones or anything: no pictures for me. I hand in the camera in the gigantic departments store GUM, and meanwhile we use my friends camera. Then why don’t I have any great pictures? Because we dropped the camera on the ground! See the fuzzy edges? Wouldn’t happen today…
Kremlin & the Red Square are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with good reason. Kremlin is where the government and Putin resides. It was built between 14th and 17th century and was residence for the Prince and also plays an important religious role. On the red square you also find the elaborately ornamented St. Basil’s Basilica with the recognizable orthodox onion domes.
At the other end of the large square is the final resting place of Lenin as you can see on the picture below. It’s the mastaba shaped building. It’s weird, and it will not make your or anyone else’s life better. But I did it anyway. You stand in line before entering a very dark room with embalmed Lenin in the middle. It smells a little stale in there. Then we slowly and silently defile pass the well guarded wax figure and out again. It’s a relief to get out in the fresh air.
THE "REAL" RUSSIAN STORY
We have tickets for the Trans-Mongolian bought through German railway via Danish railway (before internet you remember). Included is a guided tour in Moscow. Back then, even being on our first trip, overwhelmed and a bit lost, we are sceptical of this. But we join to meet the other train riders.
A typical Russian lady leads us around looking at weird things. Especially when she points out the only fast food restaurant in town. Hmmm… After a while, we try to leave the shop she really wants us to buy stuff in. She clearly gets upset and will not accept we see or do something else than what she wants. It feels like she is not there to guide us, but to watch us and to make sure we get the “right” story of Russia. That started my aversion of guided group tours.
But she does takes us by a lake, which she claim is where my favourite composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was inspired to write “Swan Lake“. I can’t find any evidence to support that – but I’ll take it.
LET'S GET OUT OF GORKY PARK
I sincerely hope this has changed, since there’s was nothing good old days about this place: Gorky Park – the Tivoli of Moscow.
The first attraction we encounter is a black panther. Not a political activist, but a real black panther. I have always dreamed of seeing a panther, but not in this way. It looks sedated on a blanket and it’s chained chained. Get your picture taken! And if you’re not into panthers, there are also dressed monkeys and the endangered ocelot!
Gorky Park is a horrible experience. After we leave the panther and its clearly animal-loving owner, we go into the park. What we mainly encounter is drunk sailors starring at us. We are definitely the only foreigners. We take a ride in the huge and nerve-wracking unstable ferris wheel, but the view was pretty. Then we quickly leave. But having no online map, we get lost and end up in a very scary neighbourhood. I almost cry with relief, when we find the metro again.
The 90-year old amusement park has an interesting story and is named after the Russian and Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, who was first a supporter of Lenin, but later a critic. You might have heard about the place from the Scorpions “Wind of Change”.
RUSSIAN CULTURE CLASH
But before leaving Moscow, we ended the visit with a very uncomfortable situation, which I’m not sure even the internet could have averted.
We have some time to spare, so we decide to visit one of the many cemeteries to learn more about the Russian life. But a cemetery is a place of unwritten rules. As I’m quietly watching a tombstone with a picture of the deceased on, a small group of elderly ladies start to shout at us in Russian. We do everything we can to figure out what we are doing wrong and try to apologize. But we can’t look up the word sorry, and we are pushed out of the cemetery. I still today feel sad for insulting them.
According to my travel diary, I left Moscow with the words:
“Tired of this noisy, car infested, grey and polluted city and looking forward to the desert wasteland og Sibiria and the swaying rhythm of the train.”
I’m planning to go back to Moscow soon. First of all, because my sister wants to visit the restaurant White Rabbit, but also because I want to see what has changed. And take some better pictures.
This was actually my second visit to Russia having been with my grandmother(!) in St. Petersburg 4 years before. Find out how that went in visiting the city of tsars & revolutions as a teenager with a senior group!
Do you agree it’s better now?