09 September 2007


This will be our last post for a while, likely...

In seven hours, we'll be boarding the Trans-Siberian, on our way to our first stop at Lake Baikal, in Siberia. Between us and this first stop lie 5189 km and 84 hours of uninterrupted train tracks. From there, we'll make a right-hand turn and cross the Russian-Mongolian border to Ulaan-Baatar, where we'll alight for a couple of days. That's followed by three days in the Gobi Desert around Sainshand, near the Mongolian-Chinese border, and then a relatively quick jaunt from Sainshand into Beijing, hopefully arriving by mid-afternoon on the 23rd of September. Fourteen days from today.

So, despite a lack of pictures of Moscow to share with you (mainly because it's been raining cats and dogs since we got here, making us ill-disposed toward doing anything besides finding random street vendors and buying rotisseried chicken for $2), a bit about this city:

(If travel writing is about generalizations, this post will be its quintessence.)

I know Peggy has mentioned its warmth in her last post. It's true, and it's surprising, given the hard-edged, Mafia-run reputation this city has (or, maybe that's just me). But really, it reminds us of New York. Except in Cyrillic.

Whereas St. Petersburg was beautiful, and filled with beautiful people, and in-your-face fashion (though someone's got to tell them that high-waisted jeans and the hose-and-open-toed-shoes look both need to go), Moscow's fashion is much more understated, but no less real. In St. Petersburg, our smiles were brightened by the single person who was actually kind to us in three days there (a babushka who collected our tickets on a random city bus, found us—and our large backpacks—a seat, and signalled us before our upcoming stop), people here in Moscow are brusque but amazingly helpful.

Ask a New Yorker directions, and they'll pride themselves in knowing their way around the confusing mass that is Manhattan. The same seems to be true here. People have gone out of their way to help us. So, yes...not as many leggy, platinum blondes, but give me NYC over LA any day.

And then there's the subways. They're just like home—old, dirty, crowded, un-airconditioned, and full of people trying very hard to look at nothing (what's not to like?). It's actually allayed a bit of our homesickness. The system itself...well, the MTA could learn a thing or two. It's definitely big and overwhelming, and supposedly carries seven million people. A day. But it's well-signed and, more importantly, reliable. We have yet to wait more than three minutes for a train. Even early on a Sunday morning. There's a clock that resets itself when the last train leaves and times the wait between trains. This is not to mention the escalators, which are dizzyingly fast and long. The Roosevelt Island station has nothing on the depth underground that this subway system inhabits.

We started today with a Russian Orthodox church service, at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (we can't take credit for that picture), which has likely the best interiors we've seen yet. Too bad photographs weren't allowed during the service. The differences between Mass there and church at home are huge. Viz:

1. There are no chairs. Everyone stands. And crosses themselves and bows, quite literally, once every thirty seconds.

2. The usual liturgical interchange between the celebrant and the congregation doesn't exist. It's replaced by an interchange between the celebrant and a (beautiful) choir. In fact, besides the incessant crossing, the congregation only spoke up at the creed and one other time which we couldn't quite figure out.

3. Everything is sung. I mean, everything. Now, I know that exists in a lot of high-church services, but it was pretty impressive.

4. There is a very palpable sense of transcendence that we in Western traditions seem to have lost. The fact that the most holy portions of the service occurred within the iconostasis, with its doors closed, highlighted this. Yes, it strikes my egalitarian, reform-theology Weltanschauung as a bit exclusionary, and pushes the divine away from humanity, but, I tell you, the first time the doors of the iconostasis closed, my psychic gut was punched. In a good way.

This is neither the time nor the place to descend into transcendence vs. imminence theological ramblings (nor will the 9 minutes left on my internet cafe subscription allow it), but it struck me that despite the strict, almost incomprehensible liturgy of this service (which I've been inculcated to revolt against), it moved more than a few people around us to tears, and a bigger number to their knees. On hard marble floors. There's something to be said for that.

And with that, we leave the New York of Russia... We'll see you on the other side of Asia.

1 comment:

proonner paraphrases said...

whoa.. thanks for that. i only experienced one service that sung psalms the entire time. (except for the sermon), and that was in china of all places. can't wait to hear about your trek to beijing! hey, did you see the ralph lauren store in moscow (passage)?