Saturday, September 08, 2018

Layers Of The Onion Dome

So many myths to explode.  Like drunk Russians.  We've only seen one tipsy one so far.  Or that you're taking your life in your hands trying to cross a street.  As soon as a pedestrian even looks like they're entering a crosswalk, every car immediately and politely stops.

Or drivers being crazy and Russian roads being of a Fourth World quality.  Okay, there is a certain amount of controlled chaos, but in about an hour you're used to it.  Wackier than Canada, but a hell of a lot saner than Mexico.  And at least on the major and semi-major roads, the surface is smooth sailing.  A lot of new pavement, and usually four lanes when four lanes are called for.  Lots and lots of trucks, but, hey, like most of Europe most folks travel by train or plane when they want to go somewhere.

Not us, though.  Back in ABQ I had prepared for this by laboriously printing out page after page of Yandex maps for each and every leg and mini-leg of our journey.  So we tentatively eased ourselves out of the airport rental car slot and on to the MKAD, Moscow's ten lane beltway.  Just after rush hour, it was intense newcomer's stop and go until we got to our exit, M-7 East towards Nizhni Novgorod.  Still semi-intense four lane, after another twenty miles or so we were free of Moscow's outermost bands and on our way.  A quick stop at a small supermarket for car food, back on the highway, and a couple of hours later we entered the outskirts to Vladimir, our first stop on our tour of the Golden Ring, a string of places whose innards held remnants of Medieval Russia.

Vladimir is a place of around 250,000, and here was the first test to see if we could in and out of a Russian city.  To our relief the signage, though usually only in Cyrillic, would prove to be consistently excellent.  After about ten minutes we found ourselves in the center of town, and--oh my gosh--up on a small hill to the right was a humongous old Russian cathedral, what with onion domes out the wazoo.  Since we were about the only tourists in Russia, including Russians, traveling by car, we pulled up right in front of it, parked, and walked around the entire church/park area.  Then, suitably touristed, we got back in the car, continued through town, and successfully found the turnoff north towards the small town of Suzdal about fifteen miles away.

Suzdal is known as the gem of the Golden Ring, bypassed by modernity and oozing with charm and bunches of old monasteries.  We found it to be not all all jaw dropping amazing, but still quite pleasant nonetheless.  We also found it difficult to find/contact our small B&B for the night, being hardly cognizant of Russian cell phone technology and our cell phone being dead, Maureen having shot too many pictures.

But somehow we got it all to work, had a nice cozy room for the night, and visited various churches and monasteries.  And the next day around noon we were back on the road, which would remain only moderately trafficked for the next several days.  The weather, as for the rest of the trip so far, was blue sky to partly cloudy, with highs of 75 to 80.  We successfully maneuvered our way through the city of Ivanovo, and then about an hour or so later found the turnoff to Plyos, a small town made famous by certain Russian artists and millionaires in the 19th Century.  Still artistically shabby, it reminded me as to how unshabby the rest of non-Moscow had been so far.

Which is significant, because it is necessary for you to know in just how horrible a condition the country was in back in '92.  And how in '06 even though Moscow had been somewhat spiffed up, the rest of the boondocks had still been very badly falling down.  Now?  Well, it's not Switzerland.  But the country is still not remotely 3rd or even 2nd world looking.  Sometimes it seems like there's one gas station for every three cars on the road.  Again, roads are good and smooth, and so long as you always keep your eyes on all the mirrors, and are ready to engage in the ballet, it's pretty safe and predictable.

Plyos is also on the Volga.  And for all my world travels, this was the first time that I had ever seen the river.  Which, even at this narrow point, was Upper Mississippi wide.  Besides the small town setting, though, this being the off season, there wasn't that much to see or do.  So then it was back to the main highway and onwards to Kostroma.

Kostroma is supposed to have a huge, amazing town square.  But we never got to see it.  Because on this late afternoon the road to the bridge into the center was dead stopped backed up. So we turned around and checked out a typical shopping mall in a typical provincial city.  Relentlessly middle class.  Stories about the Russian economy totally sucking are totally untrue.  Then it was out to a kind of motel on the outskirts.  Along with several Chinese bus tour groups, which would prove to be prevalent along the entire Golden Ring.

The next morning the bridge was still completely backed up, so we turned back around towards Yaroslavl, the largest city (500,000) on the Golden Ring, and, to us at least a quite pleasant surprise.  Besides the requisite old monastery, its Volga riverfront center was mostly taken up by a giant church surrounded by a giant riverfront Soviet monumental park.  Again, extremely easy to find a parking place and to walk around.

Now at this point you may well wonder, Isn't one 400-900 year old onion dome church just like all the others?  And the answer is; Most emphatically not.  All the domes are intricately different from all the others, and the other mosaics, etc., on the outsides of each building are constantly different.  And this was especially true of the really ancient church a few km from the center of town in Turchkovo.  Now surrounded by Soviet era belching factories, and somewhat difficult to find, particularly the tiny road to it, nonetheless it was incredibly worth the effort once we did find ourselves in front of it.  Most amazing was the interior: Floor to ceiling only slightly faded frescoes from around the 14th Century.  Truly old and jaw dropping.

And the church-o-rama didn't end there.  Because, back on the highway, a few hours later we were in the center of Rostov, now a town of around 10,000, but once the center of Russia.  And its church complex area might well have been the most beautiful so far.

Today was the day that I had been slightly dreading, since there was so much ground to cover.  So I was prepared to blow off Sergeiv Prosad, the last major stop on the Golden Ring.  But once I described it to Maureen she wanted to go for it.  Which we did.  And which, once we found our way into the middle of the city of 150,000 we were glad that we had.  For this is the modern day center of Russian Orthodox life, and its church complex was easily the largest and most jaw dropping of the lot.  What's more, at the main church there was a service going on, and the Russian choir music and the quiet but ornate spectacle would even make an atheist have their doubts.

Now, however, we were running late.  And Sergeiv Prosad is almost back to Moscow, our having looped back south from Yaroslavl.  So we continued west through somewhat heavy traffic to the city of Klim, which is on the main Moscow-St. Petersburg road.  And now we were on the dreaded M-10.

Well, it really wasn't nearly so bad at all.  Lots of trucks, for sure.  But lighted almost all the way.  And an average speed of almost 60.  Plus, once again, gas stations nearly every half mile.  In not much time we were on the Tver bypass, and then old M-10 up to the town of Torzhok, our stop for the night.

By now it was way past dark, and for the first time we got ourselves lost.  Actually, what happened was that we doubted a turn I made, and then we got ourselves lost.  After some confusion, however, and after talking to some guys who didn't speak any English, we did get to the center of the town and our hotel for the night.  Once again, a competent though not exciting room with ultra thin Russian twin beds, and we were in bed a little past 11.

Besides the requisite monastery, though, Torzhok didn't have a hell of a lot going for it.  So back to the highway.  M-10 was pleasant and easy enough, but after about 30 miles we came upon the just completed long section of M-11 the new ultramodern toll road that will soon connect Moscow and St. Pete.  Here the speed limit was 130 km per hour, and for a lot of the cars this was just a suggested speed limit.  Hardly any traffic at all.  So time to kick back and enjoy the scenery.

Actually, the scenery so far had been rather surprising in that there were hardly any fields, but lots and lots and lots of forest.  Kind of like northern Canada, with plentiful skinny birch and assorted skinny evergreens, although the trees were generally much taller than in Canada.  Also the forest was really, really thick.  It was difficult imagining walking leisurely through such a thicket.

So on we went, the kilometers clicking away by the hundreds.  At some point the new road ended and we were back on the M-10.  Which, again, was usually not that bad.  And when we were about 25 km short of St. Petersburg I had Maureen make a left into the town of Pushkin, so that we could have a gander at one of the area's big attraction, Catherine the Great's Summer Palace.

For once the signage wasn't clear, and it took us a bit to find the right area.  Then it turned out that easy parking was next to impossible, and the palace itself was surrounded by a gigantic thickly treed park.  Well, I never liked Catherine the Great anyway.  So I decided to punt, and to head on over towards Peterhof, the other huge suburban tourist attraction.

But we made a couple of wrong turns, the afternoon was quickly ending, and I had to call an audible: Head into the city.  So I studied one of our map pages as best I could, and decided to bypass the freeway bypasses and to go straight up a major street right into the center of town.  Which we proceeded to do.

Now if you had asked me a few days previously about such an attempt, I would have thought it madness.  But there we were, smoothly going up block after block.  Then when the road dead ended I successfully navigated us to the left, then a sharp left, then a sharp right.  Now we were smack dab in the middle of town.  We then proceeded to figure out how to get over a major bridge, go along another river for a km or so, successfully make a legal left turn, and voila: Against all odds we had somehow found ourselves in front of our hotel.

I'm still amazed that we were able to do it.