MOSCOW, Russia — There was a collective sense of awe as we walked through the gates into Red Square.
We entered Red Square, Russia’s most recognizable symbol, through the Voskrensky gate. Eyes popped at seeing the expansive, rectangular cobblestone area. We merged and mingled with thousands of others who, like us, were wowed, delighted and intimidated by Red Square’s sprawling size and its architectural wonders, sights like the walls of the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and, of course, the crazy quilt of colors that decorate St. Basil’s Cathedral. It’s no wonder that Red Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws thousands each year.
It was the next to last day of a nearly 6,000-mile train journey across Russia, one that had started three weeks earlier in Vladivostok, Russia’s eastern-most city on the western shores of the Sea of Japan. Liane Venzke and I were tagging along with Alden Glidden, who for 25 years was my 5:30 a.m. seven-days-a-week running partner, and seven members of his family for the trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Along the way
It’s a journey that passes through seven time zones. It can take six days without stops, but we spent several days and nights immersing ourselves in sights along the way. Most people ride the rails west to east, from Moscow to Vladivostok, “the lord of the east,” but we chose the opposite direction.
From Vladivostok we passed through Russia’s often wildly rural east. From Yekaterinburg, one of our stopovers, we visited the Temple of Blood, where Russian emperor Nicholas II and his family were killed, and stopped at a place where we took turns placing one foot in Asia and another in Europe. Instead of going directly to Moscow, we detoured north at Vologda to St. Petersburg for two busy days before boarding an overnight train 400 miles south to Moscow, partly to save some of the most dramatic sights for our final days, partly because of easier air connections.
Moscow, as we learned, is best seen outdoors. Red Square is set in the heart of the city, separating the Kitay Gorod commercial district from the walls of the Kremlin walls. Its name, Red Square, doesn’t reflect politics. “Krásnaya Plóshchaď” translates from Russian as “red,” but the word also means “beautiful.” Red Square originally was the site of a central market square established in an area cleared for the defense of Kremlin, which means “fortress.”
We meandered around the square before entering the Kremlin, passing by the Tsar cannon and bell. Ironically, the cannon is so large that it’s never been fired while the bell, likewise, has never been used. Inside the Kremlin walls are the also stunning, multi-towered Ivan the Great Bell Tower, Borovitsky Tower, a trio of cathedrals (including the Archangel, with the coffins of Tsars like Ivan the Terrible and their families) and the Armoury, a museum stuffed with items like Peter the Great’s boots, lavish gowns and crowns, samples of incredibly elaborate Fabergé eggs and armor worn by soldiers in wars over the centuries. The Kremliin is also the official home of Russian President Vladimir Putin but, as guides told us, he seldom puts in overnight stays.
We slipped inside for night at the circus. A night at the Nikulin Circus was definitely not Marx Brothers style. It was a visually eye-popping show, one that featured terrifying daring high-flying trapeze acts, beautiful women making unseen costume changes in mini-seconds, juggling airborne acrobats, a wonderfully daffy clown, brilliant choreography and sets, stunningly colorful costumes and, of course, performing animals, from a non-stop flying chimpanzee to leopards, tigers, zebras, lions and bears.
The next day we viewed beautiful art displays in unlikely places, underground Metro stations. Some are lavishly decorated with elaborate marble walls and pillars, life-size bronzes and, more impressively, enamel panels, frescos and ceiling mosaics. The artwork celebrate a variety of themes, including agriculture, education, sports, industry and everyday life while others celebrate the Great Patriotic War and battles in the 1800 and 1900s.
On the river
Our Moscow visit ended, appropriately, outdoors on a river cruise that offered views of downtown’s touch-the-clouds skyscrapers, the pulsating sounds of a loud rock concert at Gorky Park, views of thousands of people celebrating a sunny day walking, biking or just sunbathing along the Moscow River. We saw different vantages of the Kremlin and Red Square churches and walls, passed buildings with a strange amalgamation of towers and passed alongside a meandering trail that features a river overlook.
But my favorite river attraction was a towering 332-foot-tall, 1,000-ton Peter the Great statute that, legend says, originally portrayed Christopher Columbus but was repurposed for a Russian theme after it found no buyers in the United States. It also has notoriety, being named as the 10th ugliest building in the world by Virtual Tourist and listed among the world’s ugliest statues by Foreign Policy magazine.
Sometimes ugly is beautiful.