Monthly Archives: August 2013

Sketching Moscow – Part III

Making travel itineraries for the last five years have led me to a displeasing yet profound axiom. It states that the number of sites and activities that you want to visit or experience in a place will inevitably exceed the number of days that you stipulate for them. Be it 3 days or 3 months, you can never fit in everything you want to see and do. After hours of handwork, persistence and deliberation, you may pat your back on birthing a befitting itinerary, customized to your very needs, but there in it’s shadow will always lurk a nasty ‘waiting list’, of sites that were your second and third choices – those that couldn’t make it to the list but are dangerously sneaky. While you pet and fawn over your prized itinerary, they’ll plot and scheme to wriggle their way in. Most of the times you surrender. Is it worth it? Sometimes it is.

Like in the case of the historic Novodevichy Convent , that wasn’t in our itinerary simply because we didn’t have enough time to fit it in plus it was a bit far off from the cluster of sites we were hanging about. But we squeezed it in, on an early morning even before the ticket counter opened, when the men were still cleaning with huge water hoses, mopping and dusting the place, the gardener was still trimming the bushes and nuns were hurriedly moving in and out of the many churches in the expansive compound, prepping for morning prayer, when people were still walking their dogs along the river outside its red and white fortified walls, and when the air was cool and there was dew on the grass and every tree, when you could still hear the song of the birds piercing the meditative silence, that only such an hour of the day can claim.

Hands down this is the perfect time to visit because, you have the place to yourself. In an hour or two, the tour buses and tour groups will appear with their guides speaking all at a time and over each other. The transient magic will be lost. While you are allowed to roam inside the fortified compound amid greenery and beautiful golden domed churches free of cost, a ticket worth 250 roubles will gain you entry inside some of these churches, like the breathtaking Smolensky Cathedral (dating back to 1524) and the Assumption Church.

Behind the Cathedral, within ten minutes walking distance is the Novodevichy Cemetery, theTomb of Gogol resting place for Russia’s many stalwarts from different walks of life – poets, playwrights, political leaders, academicians and many more. Admission is free and the absolute lack of English signs turn the grave hunting for Russia’s who’s who into a guessing game bordering on frustration, if you are running on a schedule. After combing through rows upon rows of fascinating stone sculptures decorating the graves – a life size dog resting at his master’s feet, a sensuous ballerina holding a precarious pose, a swan taking flight  – we hunt down the glass covered grave of Tchaikovsky. It’s unpretentious, unseemly modest in comparison to its neighbours. Seeking help from the resident gardener on the grounds, we further hunt down the resting place of Chekov, Bulgakov and Gogol – all impressive in their austere simplicity. Tour guides make hurried stops and even before their patrons can absorb the solemnity of their surroundings, they leave. I take my time and sketch in peace.

What is fascinating and peaceful to one may seem depressing to others. “Excuse me, how do IAnton Chekov's Tomb exit from here?” ask two women. The frown lines on their face give away their distaste for the necropolis. “We don’t like graveyards. Which way is the convent?” We show them the way out, but linger around. The sun has climbed, but the cool serenity of the manicured garden, keeps us comfortable. A forlorn woman dressed in a flowing gown is poised on a gravestone, her head slightly tilted, eyes downcast and with a delicate hand she’s touching her heart.

The sun shines a side of her face, but casts a melancholy shadow on the other. The flowers at her feet have dried and there’s gut-wrenching sadness in her eyes. If she weren’t in stone, I would beseech her with questions. The Cyrillic alphabets at her feet mean nothing to us. I wonder who she was, what was her sorrow and how she passed. Did she leave somebody behind? But, sometimes, knowing less, is feeling a great deal more. Such is the beauty and majesty of the stone sculptures here, that they bring the deceased as close to life as possible to strangers who can’t even read their names. The language of hammers, chisels, rasps and rifflers on these stones transcend the need for anything more comprehensible and for now this seems enough.

Pavillion at Patriarshy PrudyLunching at the exquisite “Pavillion” on wooden chaise set up on a summer patio, overlooking a tree-fringed lake at Patriarshy Prudy (Patriarch’s Ponds) was a fantastic idea. The food is good and a bit expensive, but you’ll lose your heart to the still unchanged 19th century locale – where Michael Bugalov’s The Master and Margarita is also set. The author himself lived nearby and so did many prominent Russian poets, singers, painters, scientists and authors. No wonder the area has been stamped as the cultural heritage of Russia and is protected by the government. While noshing on bread and chicken Kiev, you’d almost feel like floating on water. And if you hint the ducks and the two majestic white swans that you might have something for them to nibble at, they’ll happily glide right to you seat, clacking all the way. Walk around the pond lazily or spend hours sitting on one of the benches beside the ornate lamps, under the cool shade of trees. Feel the breeze on your face, unwind and think nothing.

Tolstoy Museum EstateI arrive at the Tolstoy Estate Museum with barely an hour to spare before it’s closed for the day. A handsome yellow ochre house of mediocre size with green windows and a small patio ensconced by ivy, sits amid a small garden with large shady trees. A bottle green picket fence goes round the estate. My mobile phone and hand bag is stowed away before I start touring Tolstoy family’s winter home since 1882.

How does it feel to step inside someone’s private domain? Well, I paid 200 roubles for the privilege and am wearing protective cover over my shoes, but the feeling is that of uneasiness and repressed excitement as if I am about to trespass into private property. But that is a good thing in this context because the 6000 original exhibits of the family has been curated so well that together they lend the house a character that was once its own and get it to tell its story. Short descriptions in English tell you about the display, what the room was used for and stories of their domestic life. The visual imagery is strong and your imagination runs wild. This is how museums should be – not just educational and academic but engaging and inspirational too.

The dishes laid on the dining table where the author had meals with his family, the recreation room where his children played games, the wooden bed where the author and his wife Sofie slept, her desk where she transcribed the author’s manuscripts, the children’s toys splayed on the floor of the nursery, the portraits painted by his eldest daughter adorning the wall, their gowns hanging in their closet with matching shoes, a huge piano standing upon a bear skin in the drawing room and Tolstoy’s study table with his writing paraphernalia and his chair that he trimmed to be closer to the desk (being short-sighted), his clothes, boots, dumbbells, bicycle and such inanimate yet intimate details will get you many folds closer to the author as a man. Later, I sit on one of the benches in the garden and sketch the house. One by one all the visitors leave and I am left with a fidgeting guard with a padlock in his hand, lingering near the gate and staring in my direction. I collect my things and put him out of his misery.

For dinner, we pick Georgian and “Khachapuri” at Bolshoy Gnezdnikovsky per 10,  is perhapsGeorgian Dinner at Khachapuri the most cheerful place to deliver that in a warm, unassuming, homely atmosphere. The strong aroma of fresh coriander wafts out from the spicy yet heartwarming Chicken Chakhokhbili (although later I learn that it has parsley, tarragon, basil and dill as well) – unexpectedly reminiscent of my mother’s Indian curry – and the rack of lamb seems quite contemporary but what surprises us is the addictive Khachapuri – freshly baked cheesy bread or “pizza of the 21st century” as per the cafe’s website! We order lemon tea, munch on the sheep-shaped cookies and head back to the hotel around midnight under a semi-dark summer sky.




Sketching Moscow – Part II

A random church on Moscow streets that begged to be sketched

A random church on Moscow streets that begged to be sketched

I have often come across travellers wanting to pursue non-touristy trails in the most touristy places of the world, their penchant for seeing and experiencing things that are outside of the ‘Top 10 things to visit in a country’ , their heart’s nagging desire to make a personal connection, their search for an icon, an image, a flavour, a sentiment and ultimately a truth that hasn’t been projected on them by the media. I know these people, because I am one of them.

And if you are one of them, then you too struggle to balance your itinerary with the touristy and the non touristy, between seeing what you ‘must’ and granting yourself the leeway to seek your truth or form an opinion. I know you struggle to find a little head space for serendipity, for wonder and for introspection because thanks to technology, you have little room for these – you already know what a Colosseum, Brandenburg Gate or Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ looks like. And heck, with google street view you get a quasi-holistic experience of walking by La Seine with the sun on your back. The National Gallery of London lets you take virtual tour of its 18 rooms, where you are free to get as close to the paintings as you want from the comfort of your home.
A busy crossing near Belorussky Vokzal, sketched from a local cafe

A busy crossing near Belorussky Vokzal, sketched from a local cafe

So I don’t blame myself for wanting to make my own discoveries, wanting to find my own thrills but how far could I go with this? Would I ever give in to the temptation of skipping the so-called ‘must sees’ and humour my impetuous, intrepid side? On this very trip to Russia I met two different people who couldn’t care less about Kremlin or St. Basil or Red Square. When I failed to excite her with my lofty guidebooks facts, this person said, “I don’t have a clue, what you’re talking about. I’m not sure if I’ll visit Kremlin at all. I try to keep away from all things touristy.”
Cathedral of Annuciation inside Kremlin walls

Archangel Cathedral inside Kremlin walls

Yes, there are travel snobs who find not following the herd fashionable or romantic, and there are some who say it to emulate them but there are also those who mean it and for them travelling this way isn’t any less fulfilling. It’s only a different perspective. For the exact same period when we traipsed through the city, chained to a guidebook and an itinerary, she walked free on the roads that took her fancy, wandered inside Russian supermarkets and bought local food, visited far off flea markets to get handcrafted souvenirs and sampled Russian cuisine at a restaurant by the lake with swans floating on them.
I will always envy these people who don’t have qualms about dismissing a city’s highlights with a wave of their hand, because I would chop my head a hundred times on an imaginary guillotine, if I visited Moscow and skipped the Kremlin. Because there’s a reason why the ‘must sees’ are called such. Because to be a traveler, it’s crucial that I be a tourist first.
Leaning against a lightpost and sketching Kremlin and Red Square. The noise from the road repair just behind is turning me deaf.

Leaning against a light post and sketching Kremlin and Red Square which has right now been taken over by the huge shiny square box hosting Dior’s fall winter collection. Fashionistas, models and celebrities are walking in on red carpet as I sketch. The place is teeming with media, photographers and security dressed in black.

So here we are standing on the Red square, sweating like pigs, trying to locate the ticket office and entrance to Kremlin which by the way is a 5 mins walk to the right after exiting the Okhotny Ryad metro station and can be reached even if you’re blindfolded. But we are disoriented with a guidebook and a map in hand because this is what perspective changing vastness of the place, crawling with hundreds of people moving in different directions can do to you.
250 roubles and a brisk security check, gets us inside the fortified headquarters of the world’s largest nation with 800 years of history in there, at our disposal. If you’re planning to spend only half a day to see all that, then make it count.  Entering through the Trinity gate, we head straight to the Cathedral square, where all the fun is.  The walk may be lacklustre with armed guards in uniforms keeping you from deviating from track, though very politely.  We pass the Arsenal on the left and the State Kremlin Palace on the right, stopping only briefly at the monstrous Tsar Cannon and Bell for pictures.
Cathedral of Assumption is easily one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen in my lifetime. MY church benchmark is set really high now!

Cathedral of Assumption is easily one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen in my lifetime.

Of churches, a seasoned traveller once said to me, “After a while everything starts to look the same”. Well, Cathedral of Assumption, the chief cathedral during Russia’s Tsardom and a burial-place for Moscow’s patriarchs and metropolitans, is a class apart. The first impression of walking inside the thickest jungle of ancient frescos, murals, unparalleled iconographies and gilded fixtures covering every inch of the walls, ceiling and pillars, lit in the warm glow of opulent chandeliers, will most assuredly remain with you for a very long time. I settle down on a visitor’s bench, feel the coolness of the stone floor with my bare feet and try to calm a mind that’s giddy with this explosion of colours.

Other marvels to look out for are at a stone’s throw from each other, like the imposing Ivan the Great Bell Tower, the Annunciation Cathedral and the Archangel’s Cathedral which I sketch halfway when the skies open and fat droplets of water start smudging my ink line work. We take shelter inside the nearby Patriarch’s Palace and admire the precious tableware, furniture, jewellery and clothing used by the Tsars. The rain stops, so we exit to the Red Square.

You might have seen, heard, read or imagined it for years, but nothing prepares you for this

This is my third attempt at sketching St. Basil's Cathedral. I am sitting in the only shaded spot next to the church and sharing the space with a hopeless drunk because everybody else in enjoying the sun.

This is my third attempt at sketching St. Basil’s Cathedral. I am sitting in the only shaded spot next to the church and sharing the space with a hopeless drunk.

commanding expanse of grey cobblestone space that has seen many congregations and military parades in its Soviet days. Though rain-soaked, Red Square looks riveting with the candy coloured domes of the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral at its southern tip contrasting the grey sky. While I dedicate multiple sketches to St. Basil, sitting outside on the cobblestones, the interior isn’t something you’ll want to write home about, specially after Kremlin, except some remarkable patterns and designs that make the frescos.

Queuing up for Lenin

Queuing up for Lenin

If you decide to swing by Lenin’s embalmed body inside Lenin Mausoleum, on Red Square, prepare to come early and stand in a long queue because father of this nation doesn’t charge a cent for your visit and therefore takers are plenty. Surrender camera phones, cameras, bags at the gate,  clear security, and be ushered inside a semi dark building guarded by soldiers, where you solemnly and silently walk in a queue around a waxy body lying on granite, inside a glass case.

Trying to capture GUM's 120th anniversary jubilation.

Trying to capture GUM’s 120th anniversary jubilation.

If that was slightly macabre for your taste, step into GUM right opposite the mausoleum on the left of Red Square – and feast your eyes on a architecturally stunning, glass roofed, capacious shopping arcade that’s celebrating its 120th birthday this year. Stop by Stolovaya No.57, a Soviet style cafe on the 3rd floor for inexpensive traditional grub.

As we were tipped off on the best place to buy Russian handicrafts and not be ripped off at the same time, that’s where we head from GUM. Izmailovsky market, is essentially a flea market and though the neighbourhood looks gritty and worn out, the outdoor market is delightful and would’ve been a highlight of my Moscow trip, had we been there on time. But it’s almost seven and the shops are winding up.
'Comrade, let's have a deal, clear the table before you leave'

‘Comrade, let’s have a deal, clear the table before you leave’ says a sign on each table

Matryoshka Dolls

Matryoshka Dolls

Without the crowds flocking in and out, without the frolic, the smell of shashliks, the histrionics of the vendors, the back and forth haggling of their customers, the squeaking and squealing of children, the market seems feeble, inept, perhaps drowsy. Among empty shelves and hollow cleaned out shops , we pass by a few that are still heaving with blue-eyed Matryushkaya dolls in traditional to comic avatars, glistening lacquerware and innumerable Soviet kitsch – badges, lighters and the like. After what seems like an eternity, we emerge with our loot at one-third the price of those selling on the charming pedestrian street – Ulitsa Arbat, where we spend the rest of our evening, strolling lazily while scouting for a dinner joint.

Given the popularity of restaurants serving cuisine from the  former Soviet Republics – like Georgian, Armenian, Kazakh or Uzbek , the task at hand isn’t difficult, rather a matter of choice. Vostochny Kvartal  at Ulitsa Arbat 45/24 has a pretty outdoor seating with carved wooden furniture matched with bright mood lifting upholstery and folk music.
Uzbek Dinner

Uzbek Dinner

The English menu, perhaps the only copy at this Uzbek restaurant, takes a while to arrive as it makes the rounds at the other tables. ‘Bichak’ – essentially fresh spinach and cheese salad stuffed inside a toasted flatbread – serves as the perfect appetizer, followed by ‘Plov’ which seems like a distant cousin of Biryani minus the grated carrots. We cleanse our palate with fragrant Jasmine tea served in provincial aquamarine ceramic wares with alluring pattens, which I cannot help but sketch. Temur, the waiter approves with a shy smile and a nod.