Tinker, tailor, soldier, blogger

After passing through the inevitable childhood stages of popstar, princess, cat (who wouldn’t want to lounge around being petted all day?), for many years now my two dream professions have been travel writer or spy.*

*Disclaimer: if MI6 is reading this, I will happily delete this blog post, change my identity, and await your call.

My one challenge has been attempting to reconcile these two career paths to create my all-time ideal job.

Stepping off the Trans-Siberian railway (where I had already felt like a literary stereotype) onto the Yaroslavskii station in Moscow, I decided it was about time to switch up genre – from classical novel to espionage thriller. And so began my adventures as a secret agent-travel blogger, going undercover to find the best of underground Moscow.

P1030879

But rather than criminal circles and drug rings, what this wandering Hunt was on the hunt for were the secrets of the best brunches, bars and brews of Moscow.

P1030887
Yaroslavskaya metro station 

The mission began at the mysterious location of Lucky Noodles Chinese takeaway. Tucked down a seedy backstreet, the tacky red and gold paper lanterns, two grimy plastic seats, overwhelming scent of grease and soy sauce, and general polyester aesthetic would have bamboozled a lesser agent. But not this one.

IMG_5428

Pushing my way through to a back curtain by the counter, I gave a barely perceptible nod to the man seated by it, who immediately returned the favour, straightening up and beckoning towards the curtain. Beyond I descended the stairs into an underground cellar containing one of the plushest cocktail bars I have ever seen. Chandeliers dangling from cavernous ceiling illuminated the dark mahogany tables and dwarfing red velvet chairs. I had discovered Mendeleev, Moscow’s best speakeasy.

Mission complete. Time for a celebratory drink.

Sorry Mister Bond – you can keep your shaken not stirred, it’s passion fruit martini all the way for me.

IMG_5424

IMG_5419

IMG_5417

On the way home, however, the plot thickened. Midway through a midnight reconnaissance mission exploring the interior of Moscow’s stunning Eliseev (a food shop housed inside a Neo-Baroque palace) I was accosted.

The obstacle in my way was a small, bald-headed yet otherwise rather hairy Russian man, offering to buy me what he claimed was Russia’s finest ice cream from Altai in Siberia. It turned out he was also a local politician and, deciding to use the opportunity to further my reconnaissance, I accepted, questioning him on his work. I found out little – except that, as midnight snacks go, Siberian ice cream is not very satisfying.

P1030985

P1030988
Eliseev food store

Next I decided to spread the scope of my investigations to an international level and began an operation to uncover a hidden gem of Moscow’s underground brunch scene: Cookareku.

P1040053

This kooky café dishes up breakfasts from around the world 24 hours a day, with an hourly changing recommended menu depending on the national cuisines of the countries of the world where it is 8am at that hour. Sipping coffee under a giant clock and teapot chandelier, I decided that this place, with its quirky concept and even quirkier interior, was too good of a secret to keep to oneself. Forget Watergate – Coffegate is on its way.

3V7A1040

3V7A1247

Stage Two of Operation Bust-Open-Moscow’s-Best-Brunches-and-Brews took me to the hallowed halls of Café Pushkin.

This famous Moscow restaurant is housed inside an old pharmacy and Russian nobleman’s library. The amazing decors and gourmet food have made it a favourite amongst foreign tourists with wallets thicker than their sense and the Russian nouveau riche. On Sundays it’s a great place to watch the oligarchs and their young wives enjoy smoked salmon, caviar and champagne brunches.

P1040017

cafe pushkin

 

However secreted just next door is the Café Pushkin Conditionerskaya Bakery. Still absolutely stunning, this pocket sized palazzo and patisserie combines sumptuous gilded Baroque interiors with super-attentive servers who will happily refill your 60 rouble (about £1) pot of loose leaf tea as many times as you like and bizarre but fun embroidered Café Pushkin stools so your bags don’t have to rest on the floor.

P1030991

P1040001

Even better – on a brief scout-on to what I thought was the way to the toilet I also stumbled my way into a brightly lit courtyard, straight out of a Roman villa – statues, fountain, greenery et al. Follow up research seems to suggest that my secret passage lead me into an adjacent hotel.

P1040005

P1040012

The case closed it was time to head back to my hostel and then the airport as my mission in Moscow came to an end. A few mysteries were solved, a few of the city’s secrets blown open, but the best thing about Moscow is, no matter how many times you visit, there’s always something to discover. The fact that Moscow’s baffling organisation, terribly labelled Google map entries, and the reluctance of Russians to give directions, make these places a challenge to find just adds to the adventure. After all, what’s a trip without a little stumble or two on the way?

 

Advertisements

On the beaten tracks

Although my ordinary approach to travelling tends to centre around meandering along interesting back-alleys, poking my head into post-box sized concealed cafés etc., I decided that it was time to slip back into the mainstream and follow in the footsteps (well – train tracks) of countless travellers before me by taking a ride on the world-famous Trans-Siberian railway.

P1030714
The view from my train window

Part of the romance this idea held for me is closely tied to the fact that during my trip to Perm I was in the middle of reading Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago. Many of the book’s events were inspired by Pasternak’s own life and the main city of the novel, the fictional Yuriatin, is in fact based on Perm.

house with figures
The “House with figures” where Lara lives in Dr. Zhivago 

 

Pasternak spent a number of years living in the city and during my own time in Perm I spent a while retracing the steps of Dr Zhivago. One of the novel’s major events is Zhivago’s journey across the country on the Trans-Siberian during the throes of revolution. And so I decided to step onto this well-beaten track myself for twenty-four hours worth of gazing at the Russian countryside and feeling like a literary heroine.

P1030752
My train read and train snack 

Despite a distinct lack of lashing snowstorms or Bolshevik guerrilla detachments, the journey really does feel like stepping back into another era.

Out of the window, dachas, gardens, orchards flutter by like the pages of a rapidly leafed through book – yellowed and releasing clouds of dust, letting some long-forgotten world escape out and return to life.

P1030733

Wispy, ghost-like groves of silver birch, bristling thickets of pines, the occasional flash of gold as the onion domes of a cathedral or kremlin of some ancient town peak a glance over the tree line, are eventually swallowed up by the vault of spilled indigo ink spattered with flecks of luminescence that is the night sky over the railway wires.

P1030820

Trundling across the boundaries of different time zones, life on the train seems to move by its own temporal rules. Meals come when the conductor feels like coming, lights are dimmed when the book of each individual traveller loosens its grip on their imagination and plonks them unceremoniously back into the real world of their stiff bunk.

And suddenly, the station announcements jolt my stomach as if we’ve suddenly lurched to a halt – even though the train is only beginning to slow down. Familiar names of places from my year living in Russia before dredge up a strange mix of memories, as if from a lifetime ago. Last time I heard these names, the places meant hugely intrepid adventures for me, great chapters and stories in my life. Now they are just five-minute pauses in the whirring of the train wheels, a flash of onion dome here, a streak of cathedral spire there.

P1030858

Luckily I didn’t have too much time for philosophical reflections thanks to the company of my remarkably garrulous train compartment companion, Vladimir. I’d heard rumours about the intimacy of the relationship that you develop with a stranger when you have to spend twenty-four hours in what is essentially an airing cupboard with bunks together. Apparently tradition dictates that you share food, vodka, (and of course life stories, long lost loves, your most bitter regrets etc.), and so my host “mother” in Perm had packed for me in my train picnic-bag extra chocolates and, because it’s Russia, an inevitable supply of pickled cucumbers from the dacha for such social necessities.

Hour six into the journey (and hour six into listening to Vladimir’s thoughts on his favourite types of Russian mushrooms, reciting his own translations into Russian of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and a fun fact about every town we passed), I could already confirm the rumours to be true. Twenty-four hours was starting to feel like a very long time.

P1030803

I love the things that words specific to a certain language reveal about that nation’s culture and clearly there’s a reason why Russian has a special word, “sputnik”, for the fellow companions that you meet when travelling. By hour ten of “the mushroom report” I was starting to consider whether a few orbits round the earth with a large metal Soviet satellite might not have felt quicker and less painful than this train journey with my very own sputnik.

Luckily, burrowing myself into my copy of Dr. Zhivago, put an effective end to the current round of Seamus Heaney recital going on and, losing myself in the depths of the Russian pine forests (both in the pages and gazing out of the window), after what felt like no time at all we were being greeting by the sight of interlacing cobwebs of cables, huffing and puffing factory chimneys, and skyscrapers rearing their grey, spiky heads that is Moscow.

Russian to and fro

Founded on a site originally inhabited by Finnish tribes, a city kept secret from the rest of its own nation during the war, that was wiped from maps of the time, and now home to many religions, nationalities, and industries, you might wonder – how Russian really is Perm?

Perm3
A statue of the symbol Perm, the city bear 

Well, after two weeks living as a native “Permian”, I have learnt: don’t let Wikipedia summaries fool you.

The classic russki cityscape view of sprawling wide avenues, rows of once stunning but now peeling and dusty buildings which still give off a whiff of their formerly glamorous days, the protruding Lenin statues poking their heads over well-clipped hedges in leafy squares, the sounds of rattling trolleybuses and the typically Soviet place names announced by the, ever-disgruntled and stoney-faced, bus conductor (Lenin Street, Komsomol Prospect, Red Square), the smell of flaky pastries and wild berry jam wafting from kiosks… yep, Perm definitely has a truly Russian feel to it.

Perm2

And thanks to the celebrated Perm Ballet and Opera theatre, we were also treated to another truly Russian experience. The opera of Eugene Onegin, composed by the nation’s greatest maestro, Tchaikovsky, and based on the poem by the nation’s most beloved writer, Pushkin. The music and costumes plunged us into a world of glittering balls, hurtling troikas, whirling mazurkas and wise old peasants – and it was only the sleek texture of the red velvet chair in the box where I was sitting (being an official delegation has its perks) that reminded me I was in a theatre in 21st century Perm and not in rural 19th century Russia.

P1030272

P1030280
P1030296

In fact, during our trip we were transported even further back in time with a visit to the Perm museum of ancient history. The region is famous for giving its name to the Permian period in geology. These 46.7 million years derive their name from the area thanks to the discoveries uncovered by one Scottish geologist in the Perm region and we were lucky enough to see some of these ancient discoveries including a rare example of the skeleton of a Trogonterian elephant. Also known as a steppe mammoth, the elephant is an ancestor of our well-known friend the woolly mammoth and lived more than 200 thousand years ago.

 
The whole region, with its wild, sprawling and diverse nature, has a somewhat ancient and eternal feel. From magnificent, towering cedar forests, to delicate, lace-like silver birch woods, the Perm region seems to encapsulate every facet of Russian wildlife, and is snaked through by great Kama River, Europe’s 4th largest river by length. The whole of the Perm province, also called “Prikamye” (literally: “alongside the Kama”), is around two-third the size of the United Kingdom.

kray

And who can mention Russian nature and brush over the obvious subject, the elephant (or steppe mammoth) in the room, of the Russian winter? In this respect, Perm certainly fulfils the cultural stereotype – transforming into a winter wonderland any time between September and November and remaining so till about April (and yes that is about eight months of snow, and no honestly I’m not joking). The pride of the Perm winter season: its Ledovoy gorodok, or “Ice village”, when the city hosts the world ice-sculpting championships and metamorphoses into a glistening mini metropolis on whatever that year’s theme happens to be. The photos from the year when the theme was Perm’s twinned cities were particularly spectacular.

ice

But apart from being quintessentially Russian in so many ways, the city also manages to be incredibly multicultural. From its geography, connected by the Kama to five different seas, to its heterogeneous population of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Uzbek people etc., and even its open and welcoming ethos when it comes to relations with its twinned cities internationally.
The balancing act Perm manages to pull off between preserving a sense of traditional Russia, while also being incredibly innovative and international, is really impressive. Although what I found most impressive about the city is the fact it is one of the few major cities I’ve been to where there is absolutely NO Starbucks – not a one.

I guess there’s a reason why there’s a huge sign on the Kama riverfront in Perm declaring “Happiness is not to be found beyond the mountains”. For the locals – everything you need is right here, in the heart of Perm.

perm5

Although, before signing off, just a few words in defence of globalisation which has the wonderful redeeming quality of allowing me to travel halfway across the world and be wearing exactly the same favourite H&M jumper that I have at home (and forgot to bring) because the girl in my host family happened to have and decide to lend me exactly the same one by chance.

 

War and Piece (of cake)

War, with its earth-shattering and all-encompassing aftershocks, is naturally a universal concern.

Yet in Russia, a nation with a red-splattered history (in more ways than one), where the Second World War is called “The Great Patriotic War” and Russian victory is celebrated by a national holiday and enormous street celebrations annually, war seems an even more ubiquitous topic of conversation.

KremlinOnVictoryDay
The Soviet red stars atop the Moscow Kremlin walls

Despite being erased from books, maps and a great deal of national memory, the city of Perm was a covert presence on every battlefield, an imprint under every story in the history books.

During the Second World War, Perm’s factories became the thudding heart of Soviet arms manufacturing – churning out (as they still do) artillery, rockets, missiles, jet fighter engines, canons and more…

In fact, every second canon used by the Russian army was produced in Perm.

P1030437
The Perm military museum

As such, the city’s existence was hushed up. Perm did not appear on maps, letters had to be covertly addressed to other cities, and it was completely closed off to outsiders. Even the city’s name at this time, Molotov, evokes the echo of shells and bombs – recalling, as it does, Stalin’s notoriously ferocious minister of foreign affairs.

And so, no trip to Perm could be complete without a visit to the incredibly impressive military museum and its collection of Perm-produced canons, artillery and vehicles from over the decades.

The museum is even situated on a street named “The year 1905”, in remembrance of another bloody and violent landmark in Russia’s history.

canon

One more road paved with the shadowy slabs of Russia’s past: Sibirskaya Street. One of the Perm’s main thoroughfares, Sibirskaya marks the beginning of the road east, to Siberia – a road tramped by the bare feet of thousands of convicts over the centuries. Exiled prisoners (including the author Dostoevsky) were transported to Perm then had to cover the remaining thousands of miles, across the Ural Mountains and through the wild Siberian steppe, to penal colonies on foot.

And yet, all these sombre stories and tragic tales were reported to us quite matter-of-factly by tour guides, shop assistants, bishops, our teenage students translators…

And reported alongside fun facts about the “salty ears” of Perm natives (more to come on this soon), alongside anecdotes about attempted projects to construct buildings spelling Stalin’s name from above (which were abandoned after a building in the shape of the letter “S”), and, in true Russian style, reported in long chats accompanied by many, many cups of tea and hearty helpings of cake.

In some ways, at least from the outside, it seems that war, turmoil and instability became such a fundamental part of Russian life that, rather than toppling the nation, they became cornerstones of its history, its national consciousness.

It takes two to tango, but it takes balls to ballet

Perm’s ballet school is one of the best in Russia – and that means one of the best in the world.

ballet

The school was founded when, during the siege of Leningrad (modern day St Petersburg) in World War II, the city’s ballet school was evacuated to Perm. Though the original school returned to Leningrad after the war, the prestigious legacy, a great many influential names, and the new school remained. Today young ballerinas travel from Asia, Europe, South America and beyond, to study in Perm.

P1030280

P1030274
The Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre

On our tour of the illustrious school we were lucky enough to sit in on some of the classes. Admiring first-hand and close-up the precision and grace already mastered by a class of eight-year old girls and the fluidity and force of a group of (unbelievably) just sixteen-year old boys, it’s not hard to see why Perm’s ballet dancers are renowned internationally.

P1030550
P1030554

When they graduate there is already a waiting list of theatres across the world eager to snap each dancer up for their ballet companies – a staggering 100% of graduates find work in the dance world.

 
But these incredible results and the sweet, smiling faces peeping curiously at us, tip-toeing gracefully down the corridors in leotards and fluffy slippers, do belie one truth: the gruelling nature of the road to get there.

 
Long hours, exacting teaching and a strict diet regime: becoming a Perm ballerina certainly isn’t (and almost definitely doesn’t include) a piece of cake.

P1030559
P1030567

Our ballet-themed day continued with a visit to the museum and former home of one of Perm’s most esteemed former citizens: Sergei Diaghilev. Art critic, ballet impresario, scandalously (for the turn-of-the-century) open homosexual, son of a bankrupt Russian vodka distiller – the life of Diaghilev that we discovered seems every bit as fascinating, wild, dramatic, captivating, and typically Russian, as the ballets he became famous for.

ballet russe

Diaghilev is famed for the creation of the Ballets Russes, the most successful ballet company of the 20th century.

Through his creative genius and forceful personality he managed to combine the greatest talents from the worlds of music, theatre, dance and art in his ballets – with music by Stravinsky and Debussy, set designs by Picasso and Matisse, costume designs by Coco Chanel, and dancers such as Anna Pavlova and Nijinsky gracing his stages.

The Ballet Russes mixed Russian folk elements into the French-dominated formal classicism of ballet thus far and Coco Chanel, a close friend of Diaghilev, once famously said: “Diaghilev invented Russia for foreigners.”

ballets-russes

 

Yet, as at the Perm school, the glittering world of ballet seems unable to completely outshine its darker underbelly.

The force of Diaghilev’s personality was famed for often spilling over into tyranny in rehearsals. Some dancers later wrote of being too afraid even to look at him, and apparently the Permian impresario used to carry a cane during rehearsals, banging it in anger when dancers made mistakes. Rumour has it that once, when displeased by the drawings offered to him by Pablo Picasso, Diaghilev threw them on the floor, stamping on the artist’s work.

 
In a similar fit of rage, when his star dancer and homosexual partner, Vaslav Nijinsky, got married in secret, Diaghilev dismissed him immediately. Nijinsky, generally considered to be the greatest ballet dancer who ever lived, began to sink into the bouts of schizophrenia that had him incarcerated for much of the rest of his life, while Diaghilev flitted from relationship to relationship with many of his principal dancers.

 
Even so, the legacy of the Ballets Russes spans all five continents and every decade of the 20th century and the predilection of Russian folk elements in his work clearly owes its roots to Diaghilev’s childhood in the depths of the Russian heartland – in Perm.

P1030296
Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre by night

We came, we sauna-ed, we conquered

Veni, vidi… banyi?
Not your traditional formula – and I think even Julius Caesar would have been a little apprehensive before his first foray into a Russian banya.

 
For those unacquainted with this particular Russian tradition, a banya is somewhat similar to a sauna.
Well, true to some extent.

 
For any true Russian, banya is far, far more than this.
There is a vast disparity between the definition of “a banya” and the Russian concept of “banya“. Decidedly more than a wooden steam-filled box, banya is a part of ancient tradition – a place to meet, a place for deep, heartfelt outpourings, a place to drink vodka and have political debates with friends. It’s an institution.
However, banya is certainly something to be reckoned with. Legend links the roots of this tradition with the tale of Princess Olga. When a Slavic tribe murdered her husband, Olga avenged his death by inviting the leader of the tribe (who was now attempting to secure her hand in marriage) to discuss marriage arrangements, telling him “Wash yourself and come to me”. She then heated the bath-house, had her men lock the doors on the whole tribe and ordered them to set it on fire, burning everyone inside alive.

 
Somehow (and the explanation still remains a mystery to me) this gruesome tale became a beloved national pastime. And nowadays there is the added bonus of being whipped and lashed repeatedly by birch twigs.

banya
Banya hat, birch twigs, and cold water bucket

The temperature in the banya is often about 100 degrees Celsius and, after doing their best imitation of some green beans in a sauce pan and steaming themselves a while, Russians then find the nearest supply of cold water (traditionally a snowdrift is most preferable but a bucket of ice or freezing water will also do) and jump/soak/rinse themselves in it.
Repeat as required to wash away the strain of a laborious day digging potatoes at the dacha.*

P1030605
Zhenya’s dacha

P1030606*Another cultural institution: a dacha is a house outside of the city (often a small wooden cabin but with the rise of the Russian nouveau riche, huge modern ones are appearing too) where the inevitable massive supplies of kapusta, ogurtsy, and yagody (cabbage, cucumbers and berries) are harvested, ready for pickling and jam-making to supply the family with vitamins and ward off scurvy in the long winter months. Sorry – long digression over (I’m really taking the “wandering” part of this blog title to heart). Basically: a family’s banya is generally located at the dacha – and if you understood all the words in that sentence at least I can credit this blog post with some level of success.

 
Oh by the way, this all occurs completely, 100% naked.

So, when our lovely colleague, Zhenya, from the Perm City Administration invited Louise and I to her dacha for a night of banya, we decided it was our duty as cultural explorers and official Oxford delegation to accept the offer.

P1030611

P1030612
more of Zhenya’s beautiful dacha

After an evening of munching cucumbers fresh from her vegetable patch, lying in a cloud of steam being thrashed by birch twigs, and giggling to ourselves in our ridiculous felt banya hats (to protect hair from the heat) shaped like Soviet military caps, I can confirm that all that’s needed for world peace in future international relations is a whole lot more banya.

P1030615

P1030616
Biggest kapusta I’ve ever seen

P1030617

P1030642 - Copy
the beauty of the banya hat

However, for any unsuspecting foreigners and banya-beginners, I’ve decided to create a mini guide to bath house etiquette.

 

When participating in banya:
DO…

– Prepare your best politics chat (a long, heated – eh, see what I did there – debate on all the political regimes of history is likely to take place at some point).
– Come hungry and thirsty: banya involves swigging much beer (or vodka) and chomping through much smoked fish, shashliks (flame-grilled meats), and watermelon.
– Warm up your vocal chords. It’s a tradition to sing old Russian songs together while blasting yourself with 100 degree water vapour.
– Prepare to make new friends. Once you’ve banya-ed with someone, you’re bonded for life.

 
DON’T…

– Bring clothes.

P1030637

P1030639

P1030627

P1030628