Top Secret Underground Bunker

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Saturday afternoon:watches synchronized – almost – departing Alpha Echo headquarters in stealth mode @ 12:00 or (thereabouts); Our mission: locate unknown Russian underground facility – AKA Bunker42.

 

 

We headed to a named, if not known, Metro station to meet a named if not known tour guide. The order, if we decided to accept it was to take a metro and head to Taganskaya Metro and ‘mill around’. Mr Expat was in mid ‘mill’ when another of our party arrived on foot followed by 2 more who had checked the bus routes and then the last of our visit posse.  Once all the troops were rallied outside Taganskaya Metro, tour guide located and accounted for, we weaved our way down alleys and in between buildings in this quiet residential area. Making our way to a building hidden in plain sight, Mr Expat can’t help feeling like he is in a 007 Bond movie as the theme music plays in his head.

Reaching an eggshell-yellow coloured building, to the untrained expat eye seems like yet another Moscow-like building. But in fact, tucked away in a local residential area and mere minutes away from the Metro, is a secret establishment that most of the average Muscovites on the street don’t know about. Covering this top secret bunker is a large  building that residents back in former days were told was a library. With no windows and a few pot plants strategically positioned, who would have thought this would be Stalin’s location of choice to hide away from danger during World War II. Inside this fairly innocuous building was a huge concrete and granite dome-like structure designed to withstand the impact of the largest of bombs.

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After receiving our secret agent passes, we entered the area, fronted by a door weighing about two tons followed by a zig-zag anti blast tunnel. The bunker is divided into three blocks positioned side-by-side, hidden sixty five  meters or seventeen floors below the surface. Mr Expat opted for the stairs thinking 65m was not that far, but then he always was old school feet and inches. We regrouped in the first passage before making our way to the first block – mostly because of the wheezing and breath catching from the descent. Here in the steel reinforced tube-like tunnel, a desk was located were people in soviet times would have to sign in for a second time before proceeding through to the restricted blocks of the bunker.

Once we reached the first block, the entered an area where different types of missiles were on display. Located beneath a large black and green map of the world on a large projection screen, were two stations where military staff would receive orders to turn their security keys and initiate a bomb launch if fired upon.

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In a fun simulation, two candidates played out how this would have been done in previous days. First they would turn key number one and wait for further instructions, followed by the insertion and turning of key number two. After receiving final instructions and a secret launch code, they would punch in the number sequence on the panel and press the green launch button. Over head on the large screen, a video simulation displayed the course and different stages of how the bomb would be deployed and the impact it would have. Even though it was simulated, it felt very close to real although the consensus was that it should have been a red button!

After blowing up the world, we went up a small staircase and tried not to get lost in the maze of tunnels and passages. We ended up in a area where a large door slammed shut behind us and red lights flashed as the sirens went off before a very authoritarian voice made announcements in Russian. Too scared to move a muscle and not being able to see a single thing in between the intermittent pitch dark and red flashes around us, we experienced what it would have felt like had Stalin needed to evacuate the bunker for whatever reason.

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After all of the ‘agents’ had regrouped, we entered the second block of the bunker where the radio and control room was located.Here they had a three-dimensional module of the bunker showcasing how deep it is beneath the surface and the layout of the three blocks of the bunker. It also shows the rail tracks of one of the metro lines that passes in front of  one of the doors. (This particular door has been closed since some visitors to the bunker like to play ‘freak out passengers on the metro’ by making their camera flashes go off as the train goes by). In the room they had various different gas masks and weapons that you could pick up and try on for size. We were told that back in the day the bunker had a self-destruct mechanism – when in the control room, staff had sixty seconds to execute task before the self-destruct mechanism is automatically activated. No pressure then!

The tour had a great deal to offer, Mr Expat, as ever, intrigued by the logistics – how to move this much earth and debris without arousing suspicion; how to get 2000+ workers into the bunker spotted and most importantly whether there will be a lift to take him the surface!

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To conclude our visit  to this amazing location, we were guided past a modern banquet and wedding venue – site of an Armageddon party on 12/12/12 and into a video room where the history from the end of WW2, the development of atomic bombs, the race for space and the beginnings of the cold war and Bay of Pigs incident through to what we have now. It provided visitors with a brief, albeit slightly biased, slant on recent day history. A definite must-see for any lover of world history, nuclear and military development.

And yes, an elevator did await Mr Expat which made his day and the journey home much more pleasant for me!

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Patriarch Ponds

It’s 9.54 am and this expat is rushing for an appointment at 10:00; Mrs Expat called shotgun and is, as ever, in charge of the GPS. (this expat, who, at 13, was the only one in the house who could set the timer on a video recorder, is now a bit of a technophobe – is is that ‘technofool’?) Svetlana, the woman in our GPS, tells us to turn right in 120 meters, forgetting the slight lag in satellite time, we duly obey only to hear – ‘you have left [the] route’. I pause to hear the next instruction, fortunately it was one of the very few left turns allowed in Moscow. A quick left turn and suddenly a gap in the tall Stalin era buildings and a small park around a pond. But more astonishingly, a gap wide enough for a car to park; this gap about 50 meters from my appointment, this gap in the shade of a silver birch – the trifecta Muscovite motorists long for, but rarely get.  We had made it to Patriarch Pond by accident and not a tram smash in sight! (readers of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita will be sniggering to themselves at this literary reference – or not!)

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Appointment over, we went for a walk in the park. Sadly the restaurant on the lake was closed, even the swans and ducks were having a lazy morning, almost not caring that an eager toddler was throwing bread at them. But then the park is a lazy place; children playing on swings; couples promenading; mothers perambulating with their new born, bohemian types sipping coffee and reading and a few tourists with their oversized cameras that may (or may not) be over compensating for something. However, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all in the park were the octogenarians power walking forcefully doing laps around the park, armed with ski poles, iPods blasting away, leaving a trail of dust, small children and barking dogs in their wake.

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Although Patriarch’s Pond is the setting for much of The Master and Margarita, the park is mostly dedicated to Ivan Krylov, a writer of fables, much in the style of Aesop; and grower of incredible sideburns. Along with a statue of Ivan there are some sculptures depicting scenes of his writings. Including a rather nice one of an elephant’s bottom reminding this expat of an old British folk song – the hole in the elephant’s bottom, which, depending on the version, is amusing or simply risque! [various versions can be found at http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=64019] As people pass by the sculptures various parts are rubbed for good luck and so retain their brass look whilst, like Ivan himself, the rest is aging and weathering well.

As we walked back to the entrance, which, I guess, would now become the exit, we paused to brush off the dust raised by the lapping, aged power walkers, whilst owners pulled back on the leashes of their dogs encouraging them to cease barking. Brushing off the dust, four things were considered by this expat:

  • that these octogenarians caused more havoc and debris than the tram crash at the beginning of Bulgakov’s novel;
  • that we should leave before they circled round to us again;
  • whether Mrs Expat would appreciate Krylov style sideburns and;
  • that this expat didn’t get to use the phrase ‘elephant’s bottom’ nearly often enough

So, getting into the car Mrs Expat and Svetlana were treated to a tuneless verse or two of that folk song.

Kuskovo Estate

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Driving on the Ring, a road that circumnavigates Moscow, watching on all sides for traffic that could damage your health – and there are a lot of them and then taking the clover leaf off an overpass to the road below we checked our GPS and it said 3.3km; the traffic so jammed the estimated length of journey (based on current speed) was about 56 minutes – this expat began to wonder whether we were really heading to the idyllic surroundings of Kuskovo. But then, as quickly as the traffic built up, it was gone and, as we turned off the busy main road into a quite lane, you suddenly find yourself driving through the relative silence of  a beautifully maintained deciduous woodland, hard to imagine we were on the edge of the hustle and bustle of Moscow. Once we parked our car in the small car park, we crossed the road, lined up with white wedding stretch Hummer-limos and proceeded to the ticket booth. After trying to decipher yet another large Russian sign board, we concluded that there is more than one museum which you can enter within the estate and if you wanted to take photos or require filming, there would be a charge (this expat got caught out and told off at the Hermitage). Charades ensued whilst we tried explaining to the cashier lady that we wanted 2 tickets for everything within the estate and would like to purchase a pass that would enable us to take photos. What we ended up getting in return was the opposite, with a wry smile, a re-assuring nod about the photos, we were supplied a single piece of paper that gave us entry into the estate and its park, but, as we later found out (when a reasonable walk away from the ticket office), it offered no entrance to other museums and seemed only to rile those ladies who jealously guarded the entrances to various sites who, we guessed, thought we were trying to blag our way in.

The estate features beautiful large gardens, the Kuskovo Palace as the main building once you enter the main gate, the Grotto, which is adjacent to the Dutch House; and the Orangerie at the far end of the estate, declared as the State Museum of Ceramics in 1919.

It was when we tried to enter the Palace we found out the ticket we bought at the main entrance was only valid for the park/garden areas. Luckily the official spoke some English and invited us in to buy a ticket. After purchasing a ticket and becoming licensed to take photos we got down to some serious sight seeing with our self tour around this large wood and plaster structure once owned by the Sheremetev family. Each room had a sign on the door describing what we would find inside and a little about the history and artists who contributed to the rooms’ ambiance and beauty.

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Standing in the room, the Ballroom, we turned towards the view of the gardens outside and took in the last few views of the Palace ballroom before making our way to the ‘Grot’ (Grotto). The building was situated behind a small pond and all that was inside represented an underwater, sea-like theme. The initial idea was a cooler, tranquil spot for the family to entertain in the hotter summer months. Walking through the smaller interior,enjoying the coolness after the hot sunny walk through the avenues of trees, the walls sparkle as light is reflected off the tiny pieces of glass in the concrete. Everywhere you look, walls, ceilings and artworks are a combination and symphony of thousands of small shells and pieces of mother-of-pearl. The detail and delicateness in each of these is incredible.

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Leaving the Grotto behind us and making our way slowly through the confusing maze of a garden, we came across the Dutch House which looked very neat and quaint. Eager to go inside, we were shoo’d away by a short, annoyed looking, babushka (Russian for grandmother, but is often used for an officious woman of a certain age)  after she asked us for our tickets, which of course we didn’t have thanks to the lady at the main gate. We tried asking if we could buy tickets from her (as we had done in the Palace and Grotto), but soon realized it’s probably best to make our way to the Orangerie before the whips out a broom and starts chasing us with it.

When me made it down to the Orangerie on the opposite side of the estate, it was under renovation and we turned to the American Conservatory (next door) where all the porcelain was temporarily being housed. Sadly no photography was allowed here. The collection included some of the most precious of Western porcelain in Eastern Europe, all collected by the Sheremetev family over generations. Also included are collections assembled by Empress Maria Fedorovna before the Russian Revolution. Some of the most creatively hand crafted items with the most intricate details are embellished with gold. Some pieces create the illusion of containing engraved gold. It was interesting to see how designs and fashions changed and evolved between the 18th an 20th centuries.

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Gorky Leninskye Estate: Lenin’s Dacha

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With the early morning sun during the summer come the reluctant early rises, we are two of them. Today’s reason? An early morning haircut appointment. To make the most of the day, plans were afoot to dare to travel outside the Moscow city limits, trusting only our temperamental GPS, our Russian map book and a misplaced trust in our own sense of direction.

It took a little over an hour by car to get to the neighbouring settlement, including one wrong turn, a pit stop and being pulled over for not having our headlights switched on during the daytime. After reaching the settlement of Gorky Leninskie and finding no clear signage to the estate, we pulled over at a nearby grocery store to do what no real man would do – ask directions. Armed with our Russian map book and the word “G’diea” (meaning ‘where’), we approached a shelf stacker, showed him the map, pointed at where we wanted to be and unleashed our Russian word. He looked puzzled, said he spoke English a little bit but seemed unable to point; gesticulate or help in any way. This seems odd in hindsight as Lenin’s museum was in plain sight, had we turned around – it was, in fact, like asking where the Kremlin was whilst standing in Red Square.

Once parked, we walked to Lenin’s museum; a large mausoleum-like structure in the middle of a field of green and yellow – now known as the Political Museum of History. The interior was dark and a throwback to soviet days. It is now used as a conference center although houses a daunting statue of Lenin and other photos and artifacts; but sadly nowhere to buy entrance tickets (we later found the ticket office at the ‘New House’ next to the Dacha at he opposite end of the estate).

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We followed the signs to the Dacha and walked along paths though meadows and along the edge of a woodland enjoying the breeze to the main gate. A short walk through what appeared to be an orchard bought us to the main houses: the Dacha and the New House. As we entered the New House, we found a souvenir shop and the elusive ticket office. As in the majority of internationally known attractions within Russia, no one spoke any other language other than Russian. Equally no foreign language signage (except the one proclaiming “Souvenir”). A clumsy dialogue followed – we believe the gist seemed to be that in order to enter you needed to be part of a group and that groups were only allowed at certain times during the day.

Disappointed but not beaten, we went to enjoy the sun, the gardens and the view down to the lake. Although there was a walk down to the lake, we paused at one of Lenin’s favorite spots to contemplate and to enjoy just being away from the city, in the countryside. Listening to the birds, watching out for woodland creatures and swotting mosquitoes. All whilst tying to remember what exactly a tick looked like if they bore encephalitis, where they would be and if my inoculation was up to date.

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We made our way down to the far end of the estate to a freestanding house, envisioning how horses use to trot along the very road we were walking on, transporting one of the most historic names in history. Pausing for a few moments we enjoyed the beauty of the green whilst appreciating the generous shade of the very large trees in the very hot weather. Slowly making our way back to the main entrance, we passed the very large museum at it’s rear, and were amused watching a bus trying to maneuver out of the car park whilst avoiding the only car that was parked on the whole of the estate; parked with, apparently, the sole aim of preventing the coach from leaving. Quietly amused by the to-ing and fro-ing, we stopped en-route back to our trusty Russian automobile at a vendor selling semi firm, over sweet, ice creams on the way out, we desperately reached for a hundred Roubles to help quench our thirst on the journey back on what were surely the most expensive ice creams in Russia!

Radisson Royal Flotilla River Cruise

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With the recent arrival of our guests, we finally had an excuse and opportunity to hop on board the Radisson Royal’s Flotilla. These beautiful, sleek, super-yachts travel along the Moscow River all year round and offer the most stunning views of Moscow. In the summer they have open decks and in the winter are billed as ‘ice breakers’ and literally keep the Moscow River from freezing completely.

The tickets are very reasonably priced and food items served on board from the menu are delicious and their prices comparable with most restaurants around. Although  first-class tickets for the upper deck are available, we were seated on the lower deck right up against the large panoramic windows. We were very fortunate to board the yacht whilst it was still light, although raining slightly, and enjoyed the view of the lights twinkling in the dark on our way back to the dock.

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Our boat began its journey at the Ukrainian Hotel (now the Radisson hotel – but old habits die hard, so Ukrainian Hotel it remains!)  and lasted about 90 minutes. Our winter coats were taken by friendly staff as soon as we stepped on board as we filed on board in an orderly and relatively patient queue. A waitress dressed a sailor appeared almost immediately at our table to take drink orders, it would have seemed rude not to have tried a vodka. – and when in Moscow! Another yacht came in to dock just  as ours was pulling out giving us something to watch. The we set off in the direction of the Kremlin. The place mats were A3 maps showing the route and some of the landmarks along the way. Had this expat been organised, and a lot more technologically minded we would have linked up our iPhone or iPad to the ships wifi system on board and would have had live feeds and info of your surrounds whilst sipping away on a sundowner, having a bite to eat or simply just in awe of some of the sites.

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Some really impressive landmarks we passed on the way (and yet to be investigated – expat style) included Novodevichy Convent, Luzhniki Olympic Complex with its big ski jump to nowhere, Lomonosov University, the space shuttle replica ‘parked’ at Gorky Park and this expat’s favourite, the Red October Chocolate Factory. Just after we passed the Kremlin for the first time, the massive yacht we were on slowed down, jet-like pumps were switched on and in the middle of the river, this amazing boat turned around one hundred and eighty degrees and began its slow cruise home.

No-one on board, even the ‘sailor’ men and women who plough up and down the river daily, could have failed to be in awe of the amazing view all around them as we were once again presented with the stunning view of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Mr Expat quickly dashed upstairs into the open air to grab a few more pictures before the camera’s battery life ran out.  Enjoying the magnificent view of the moon and with the lights reflecting in the water, we sailed off into the darkness of the night with the stars in our eyes.

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Bolshoi Theatre: Backstage Tour

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This day was set up to be one of the most memorable and most awe striking experiences and it did not disappoint. We had family from outside  Russia stay with us, a mere three months after we moved here and almost before our belongings had arrived with the haulage company, and we really wanted to do something special that they would not only remember but that is unique to Moscow. We were very fortunate to have a privately arranged backstage guided tour of the Bolshoi Theater.

Bolshoi, in Russian means big or great, and upon arrival, you are met with a majestic sight of a  bronze sculpture of Apollo in his chariot supported by a row of colossal pillars, welcoming you to one of the greatest theaters ever built – the world renowned Bolshoi Theater. Located right opposite the large and busy road of Teatral’nyy, and destined to be overlooked by Apollo and his team of horses is a large statue on Revolyutii square over which parts of the Kremlin peak.  Once we walked through the great pillars and into the foyer of the theater, this expat could not help getting this overwhelming sensation of being surrounded by greatness.

An interior of marble, white and gold leads you down a maze of passages to beautiful, elegant small lifts that transport theater goers between the cloakroom and all the floors of the main theater – of which there are six. Coats duly checked into into the cloakroom we efficiently received a numbered token before we set off to the first floor of the Main Stage and entered the enormous, pitch perfect, acoustically sound, auditorium. As we sat in the seats of the amphitheater, we sat in silence for a moment just to take in all the beauty, splendor and history. The stage, which is at a perfect three degree angle, is located beyond the orchestra pit. Once you are viewing this from up close, you can’t help feeling very small and insignificant. Turning around to get an dancer’s view of the theater, it is dominated by the Royal Box in the center of the Belle-Etage and the rows of ornate golden balconies. On the far right, directly above the stage is another box, said to be the one used by Stalin and located directly opposite is the box where distinguished dancers and opera singers sat.

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We progressed to the top floor of the theater and entered the forth balcony. Walking over to the edge of the balcony, you can almost touch the magnificent crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling features beautifully painted figures, one on each panel, representing the twelve muses of Apollo.

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After a barrage of camera activity, we proceeded with our tour and headed up into the rafters that is the ninth floor, where all the members of staff work tirelessly to put together the perfect productions expected by discerning ballet and opera goers. We were treated to a private  rehearsal of Spartacus that was taking place on the rehearsal stage – the stage is an exact replica of the Main Stage and dancers rehearse each production here until the opening night when they take their costumes, their ballet shoes and what is left of their nerves downstairs to perform on the Main Stage for the first time. Making our way back, we passed through the wardrobe rooms where all the costumes are made. Here they work tirelessly, crafting each item by hand with the view of enhancing each performance. And the view from their window is just priceless – this expat would never get any work done!

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As our tour was nearing it’s end, we were led down to one of the lower floors and showed to two ballrooms. We made our way up one of a most beautiful marble staircases, surrounded by yet more crystal, gold and mirrors. The Imperial Ballroom was decorated in a warm shade of red, typically associated with soviet times. Everything looked absolutely immaculate and pristine as we took in one lingering last glimpse of all the beauty that surrounded us before making our way back to the foyer.

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