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Memorial to Peter the Great c. Lanelli 2003

Which foreign capital city boasts 40% green space?

Which foreign capital city has over 600 churches and cathedrals?

Which foreign capital city decorates it subways with artwork—sculptures, murals and the like?

Which foreign capital city displays the world’s richest diamond museum?

If you didn’t answer “Moscow” to all the above, you’re in for surprises—ten of them!


Like most children of the Cold War, I grew up thinking that Russia, called the USSR back then, was cold, empty, and lifeless. Moscow, its capital, appeared on my black and white TV as gray, cinderblock-like and dull. Russians, we were told, were cold and humorless, mistrusted Americans and ate only potatoes and cabbage.

No surprise here, I thought when dull gray rainy skies met me at Sheremetyevo, Moscow’s international airport. I lost count of the time zones I’d crossed just to spend a little over two weeks sightseeing in Moscow and whitewater rafting in Siberia with Team Gorky, a Russian outfitter used by Steve Currey Expeditions in Provo, Utah. {See “Follow Me! July 18}

Sasha Tokarev, Team Gorky’s expedition leader, checked us five American rafters into the four-block long Hotel Russia, right across the street from Red Square and the Kremlin. “The afternoon is yours,” he announced. “I’ll meet you in the lobby at 6 PM for dinner.” Then he disappeared into the drizzle. Paul and James excused themselves and headed for naps. John, Dale and I, however, couldn’t wait to explore. We changed money, grabbed guidebooks and headed across the street.

First surprise: to cross major intersections in Moscow, you cross underground. Makes sense: no traffic. Just know on which street corner you want to emerge from.

Surfacing next to the tall red-bricked Kremlin wall, we got our second surprise: the candy-colored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Bright greens, pinks, reds and blues swirled up to gold tops that glittered even in the drizzle. “Looks like a birthday cake from Oz,” commented John.

We began walking in the direction of the entrance, following the guidebook’s map. The Kremlin, named for “krem’l”, Russian for “seed,” has been the seat of government for centuries.

Third surprise: it’s HUGE. After an hour of walking we located the tourist entrance, paid our fees and for the rest of the afternoon, followed Lydia, our private guide.

Fourth surprise: the Kremlin is a collection of governmental, historic and religious buildings. Lydia pointed out cathedrals, churches, monuments, ornate Italianate palaces dating from Catherine the Great, government buildings from the Soviet era, museums and more. So much more. “We’ll have to come back to see it all,” we told ourselves as we headed back to Hotel Russia, Sasha and dinner.

Fifth surprise: Russian food is yummy! “This is typical Russian restaurant,” announced Sasha, opening the door to a noisy eatery. Bottles of vodka, plates of pickled appetizers and sausages, bowls of steamy soups, rich meats and platters of fresh and cooked vegetables appeared, each more tasty than the last. So much for “just potatoes and cabbage”!

The next morning we visited the Diamond Fund, a museum inside the Kremlin. It’s reputed to be the richest in the world. I believe it. Diamonds of every size, shape, color and cut, loose and mounted, filled room after room in two stories. Rubies, emeralds, topazes, tourmalines, amethysts--every precious and semi-precious stone known to man tantalized and twinkled from heavy glass cases. I left, breathless at the sixth surprise.

That afternoon the sun ruled. Moscow sparkled. We drove the city’s wide avenues, gaping at massive cathedrals and tiny churches, all topped by golden domes. Vast green parks filled with families enjoying the summer weekend appeared every few blocks, softening the cityscape. Zina, our guide verified that Moscow boasts over 40% green space and over 600 churches and cathedrals, Surprises Seven and Eight.

Zina dropped us at the entrance to a pedestrian shopping mall. Strolling past stall after stall, we discovered Surprise Nine: genuine Red Army souvenirs for sale. Everything from guns and ammunition to uniforms, medals, old radios, compasses. If the Red Army used it, vendors were selling it. Cheaply - or so they said. . . .

Drizzle returned, so instead of walking back to the hotel, we went underground, really underground. Surprise Ten: the Moscow subway is an art museum! Modern and traditional murals lined its walls and ceilings. Marble sculptures and benches filled niches. No graffiti or rubbish marred corridors or waiting rooms. Big surprise. . . .

I’ve saved a Bonus Surprise for last: the friendliness of the Russian people. Upon hearing that we were Americans, a 50-ish man rushed over to us, cradled my hands in his and, gently kissing them, poured words I didn’t understand. Olga, my Russian companion, attempted to translate. “He says he loves America and wants to go there but is too old. He’s never seen an American until now. He says,” she gulped. “He says . . . now he can die happy. . . .”

c. "Follow Me!" Alamogordo (NM) Daily News 2004

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