Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part II: What I’ve always loved about Moscow

(Second part)

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, and it is great. The city is now so pleasant to be in, and walking around its streets you feel safer, freer, happier.

So much that I’ve had to remind myself: what is it that I actually enjoyed about Moscow 5-10 years ago?

This is the first picture I’ve ever taken of Moscow, when arriving by air for the first time 8 years ago. I was stunned by the monochrome, geometric patterns of the Moscow suburbs in winter.

Moscow was wild and crazy; really wild, and really crazy.

It’s a giant city with so many people. It can get so crowded. I’ve always been impressed by the hordes of beautiful girls from the entire Federation who invade Moscow looking for a job and a decent boyfriend.

Moscow is a city that never sleeps, with coffeeshops and sushi bars open 24 hours everywhere (and they all do serve alcohol in Russia).

At the time, everything looked like this in Moscow: roadworks, inconvenient passage for pedestrians, messy streets. Today, all of this has disappeared and given room for a livable urban space.At the time, you couldn’t see more than 2 meters away in Moscow, because there was always something in the way: a kiosk, a wasteland or building site that had been there forever, or any other, abandoned-looking mess.

And whilst I like much better the new airy Moscow, I did enjoy the sense of mystery and discovery that old Moscow provided. Nothing was every acquired there, you had to go and look for it.

Everywhere in Moscow there is still old metal stuff that none knows if it’s still in use, like this one by the river at Kotelnicheskaya.

Wandering around Moscow was somewhat a challenge, and challenges excite me. Navigation was difficult, everything was in Cyrillic, you would struggle finding things, you would get lost and constantly have to figure things out.

I enjoyed the process of figuring out, and I enjoyed creating my workarounds, and I enjoyed feeling initiated. Sometimes I was showing international travellers around, and I enjoyed sharing my experience and initiating others to Moscow’s wildness.

I also enjoyed that I didn’t always figure out. For example I’ve never known where and how to buy a tram ticket. Every time I’ve used a tram in old Moscow, I’ve crawled under the gate and travelled without paying. (In new, transformed Moscow, there’s a unified system for public transportation which you can use with a digital card called Troika. I finally can pay for my tram rides!)

In old Moscow, everything was a fight or a struggle, and I admit I kind of like that; at least when I travel…

There’s always something surprising to see or experience in Moscow’s streets.

And what I liked most in old Moscow, which luckily so far has been untouched by the transformation, is the sensorial exoticism.

Exoticism of the language. More and more people speak English in Moscow, but Russian will remain the dominant language for a long time.

Exoticism of the dresses in winter. I have spent hours sitting in the metro just to observe the parade of Russians in their winter costumes, with the furs, and the assorted hats; it is priceless.

The smoothness of the untouched snow in winter…

Exoticism of the materials. Sensorially, Moscow is extreme, full of contrasts, and rich of sensations that one doesn’t often have the opportunity to experience so intensely. All Russia is like this, but Moscow is a concentration of these sensations.

The intricate business of skies full of cables for the tramways and trolleybuses, and somewhere in the background an old Soviet star…

The fur of a coat;

the rusty metal of a door and the polished one of a gas pipe;

the sturdy stone of the Stalin-era skyscrapers and the delicate glass of the new capitalistic ones;

the shiny golden dome of a church;

the pastel colour of an old house;

the grey of the Brejnevkas and the little irritating music that plays when you open their front doors;

the whisper of a feminine voice that says hello in a hiss;

the sensorial pleasures of Russian banya;

the sweet sensation of Soviet ice cream melting on the tongue;

the shivers when visiting the Gulag museum;

the extreme temperatures of course;

and how I’ve never understood how Russian girls keep beautiful straight hair in winter whilst mine is all electrical and untidy.

Everywhere visual contrasts
Everywhere temporal contrasts
Everywhere colourful contrasts

The imaginativeness of the snow-removing machines in winter. The parade of the water-spraying trucks in summer.

In winter, everywhere men and machines constantly working on removing snow
In summer, trucks spray water to cool down the city and remove the dust

Finally, wandering around Moscow is like a treasure hunt, with Soviet symbols hidden and scattered throughout the city. Hammers and sickles, Lenin heads, Soviet statues, can be found everywhere and add a surrealistic touch to the overall urban landscape.

Finding hammers and sickles is like a constant scavenger hunt in the streets of Moscow

Oh, I loved these things 8 years ago; they’ve made Moscow so intriguing to me and an endless discovery. And luckily, most of them stay true even in transformed Moscow, making it such a wonderful place to visit today.

The Moscova river flows timelessly through the ages. Around it, Moscow changes and transforms itself. The Kremlin is the old, the Moscow City skyscrapers are the new.

Do me a favour: if you’ve visited Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, do reconsider and give it a new chance.





Moscow’s exciting transformation! Part I: What is changing, and why it’s great

Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, partly under the impulse of the current mayor Sobyanin. If you’ve been in Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, maybe it’s time to reconsider and visit the new Moscow.

It is becoming so great that it fills me with joy just to think about it.

Gorki Park has everything a family needs to spend a great day, and indeed in summer it feels like all Moscow is here.

Sure, in a sense, a lot of what is new about Moscow is quite normal: there is space for pedestrians to walk, the bus stops have information about bus lines, important navigation signs are written in English.

Yes, in a sense, Moscow is just catching up and becoming a normal city that’s nice to be in. Under the mayor’s motto to make the city “for the people”, Moscow is becoming more livable.

During the transformation, many buildings being renovated were bearing a painted cover, making the city still relatively pleasant despite the heavy works everywhere.

From a hostile, crazy urban environment developed too fast in a new capitalistic world where the rights belong to the rich, Moscow is slowly transforming into a pleasant, welcoming urban space with more opportunity for respect and equality.

The horrible and dirty kiosks that had invaded the public spaces when capitalism boomed, arguably made it very easy to find somewhere to repair your shoes or eat a quick snack, but left no space to walk for people; they have all been removed.

The disgusting asphalt of the streets, full of potholes and covered with stains, have been replaced by new, clean one, and sometimes even stone or other prettier materials.

The whole area around Tretyakovskaya has been fully renovated with many pleasant, green places for pedestrians.

The authorities are encouraging Moscow people to drive less and walk more. People now have to pay for parking (yes only that’s very recent), and the city has reduced the width of big avenues to create more space for the pedestrians.

Tverskaya, at the very heart of Moscow, also underwent recent transformation: less space for cars, more for pedestrians and cyclists.

The bus stops now have information about bus lines and times, which makes it easier for anyone to use public transportation.

A clean bus stop with (digital) information like this may look absolutely normal, but it was unimaginable 5 years ago. This transformation has made Moscow so much more easy and pleasant to navigate.

The parks have been renovated, including a sparkly new one that just opened close to Red Square, and include imaginative new features such as the super cool obstacle ride of the Crimea Embankment (Krymskaya Naberezhnaya) that’s so much fun on a hot summer evening. And you can now rent city bikes like in every other big city in the world.

Squares have been renovated too, with more space to hang out and enjoy life, like on the big swings on Triumfalnaya Square.

Triumfalnaya Square has been completely transformed and is now a very green and pleasant square

And all of that great transformation culminates with a smoking ban finally in place everywhere, ultimate sign of modernity.

There are street photo exhibitions very regularly, reminding Muscovites of the beauty of Russia, making Moscow not just a huge megalopolis but a true capital to an attractive country, and adding to the pleasure one has to walk around its embellished streets.

One of the many street photo exhibitions, here in front of Kazansky Vokzal (railway station), that show the beauty of Russia.

Moscow is crowded, and remains crowded, but at least the people now have somewhere to go and enjoy life, even for free.

This all went actually quite fast, with the mayor instilling a tempo to ensure the city would be ready for its 870th anniversary celebrations in September 2017.

Moscow’s 870th birthday celebrations in September 2017 were the deadline mayor Sobyanin had set for Moscow’s transformation

There’s some criticism of course, and in particular about when and where this transformation will stop. The authorities’ have decided to next tackle housing, and destroy up to 70% of the so-called Brejnevka building – pre-fabricated apartment blocks from Brejnev’s time. Not all agree, and quite a few wonder if the mayor is doing this just to give contracts to his friends, a very common practice in Russia; and many fear that this will only increase rents, already very high in Moscow.

The metro is still the metro, but you can now pay your tickets by credit card (when it works), and there are even designated areas for musicians!

But at least, Moscow has caught up with other megalopoles and is becoming pleasant. So pleasant, that when I look back to how things were 5 years ago, I am starting to wonder: what exactly did I like about it?

I had breakfast on this sunny terrace in September 2017 and it took me a while to recognise this as what I’d known as urban wasteland since 2010. By the wasteland was a cut-throat alley that led to the entrance of my favourite Moscow club, Krisis Zhanra. The club has gone alas, replaced by this restaurant, but so happy to see the square now renovated and very pleasant to hang out on.

(Second part tomorrow)

I’ve found the worst hotel ever, it is in New York

Research about office layouts shows that workers in cubicles with high partitions are the most miserable. Good news: there are now hotels applying the same principle.

I realized this during a recent trip in New York, where I stayed at a place called Chelsea Cabins. It was outrageous.

The technique is simple: use a large space and divide it into cubicles which you call “cabins” and advertise as “private rooms” with shared facilities.

As you see, they’ve added sorts of containers within the large space and these are the “cubicles”.

The catch: the cabins don’t have a ceiling; they’re technically merely cubicles. And everything else is in the same space: cubicles, reception, showers, kitchen, all of that is cramped together in one big room with no sound isolation.

And this is how, when I expected and paid for a tiny private room, I realized all I was getting was a cubicle in a 25-person dormitory. Cramped like a chicken in a battery cage.

This is the “ceiling” of the “cubicle”: as you can see, it’s not closed, so there is absolutely no sound isolation.

Oh they’re lovely cubicles, they’re tiny of course but the bed is clean and comfortable, there’s also a tiny table, a socket so you can charge your phone, and a mirror. But they’re just cubicles and you can hear everything what’s going on in the same space.

So I spent the night listening through my earplugs to people’s body noises and zippers from their bags. I woke up at 7 am because that’s when one guest’s alarm went off, and then listened to people’s conversations whilst they were having a bagel.

And yet here I was, having paid a hundred dollars for a private room but technically sleeping in a 25-man dorm. Feeling speechless, and hopeless too, for I have a feeling that this is not really legal and yet I have no idea where to complain.

If that is the price to pay for visiting New York, thanks New York, I’ll pass.

For these Chelsea cabins are not cabins good grief, they’re cubicles!

The importance of not being earnest, and why I love English humour

I had a bit of a cultural shock last night, as I attended a French event in London, and we started the evening with a minute’s silence for the Manchester victims. In France, people love solemn manifestations and hold minutes’ silence at every opportunity.

This is however very rare in England, which is probably why I lost the habit. In England, as Kate Fox explains in her fascinating book Watching the English, “seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed; earnestness is strictly forbidden”.

Therefore, after the country performing a minute’s silence yesterday, today, in a true illustration of the importance of not being earnest rule, normal English service has resumed; and the Guardian has helped spread the wonderful English irony with a compilation of the funniest tweets:

#BritishThreatLevels hashtag delivers stoical humour in the face of terror

In her book, Kate Fox was also telling about the immediate reactions to the 7/7 terrorist bombings in London in 2005, which occurred just a day after London had been chosen for the Olympic Games for 2012.

One of the survivors, who had been trapped in one of the bombed trains, reported that after the explosion, as the train filled with thick smoke, ‘Silence descended on the carriage apart from people choking and coughing. Then someone near me quipped, “Well, at least we got the Olympics!”‘

Other jokes also heard at that occasion, as a response to the over-solemn forum set up by a few well-meaning Americans entitled ‘Today I am a Londoner and Today I Hurt’:

Today I am a Londoner and Today I Got a Day Off

If you’re all Londoners today, that’s eight quid each for the congestion charge

The English are always in a state of readiness for humour, and today is no exception. Go England!

Traveller On A Mission is now on Instagram

Following the advice of a few friends, I have now opened an Instagram account for Traveller on a Mission. You can expect to find there a number of my favourite pictures, old and new.

Expect some overlap with this blog in terms of photography, but also some originals on Instagram.

I plan to post a series of pictures around my favourite photography themes:

  • Lenin statues
  • Soviet brutalist architecture / Soviet ghosts
  • Church and mosques domes & minarets
  • Various around propaganda, ideologies and religions…
  • And maybe some food & drinks and other joys of travelling around the world!

There is a widget in my sidebar with the few first pictures I have uploaded on Instagram… (scroll down, it’s lower) –>>

And you can follow me:

Bear with me whilst I’m learning to speak in #hashtaglanguage and enjoy my photos!

How I climbed on top of an Iranian minaret to dance the boogie woogie

If you have been in Iran like me, you know that the country, seen from the inside, has not much to do with the axis of evil Western propaganda tells us about.

The friendly and hospitable people of Iran have to comply with the rules, but it doesn’t take long to spot a nice touch of rebellion in a portion of them.

The duo – uncle and niece – who took us to the ancient village of Kharanagh were masters of joyful irreverence. How they were having fun and were flirting with the norms gave me a delightful flavour of this part of Iran.

The village of Karanagh (85 km of Yazd) is now abandoned but there were women picking the fresh pistacchios at the time we visited. You can see the minaret standing in the village.

They told me I should climb to the top of the village’s minaret mosque, which was very old and very narrow.

“Stand with one feet on each side”, they told me. I found this a funny order, but I complied.

“And now, dance the boogie woogie”. What? “Yes, shake from one leg to another”. Really?

The minaret is 15 meter tall; the stairs inside to get to the top are not broader than 50-60 cm; in th efinal two meters, there is no stairs, so it’s proper climbing . I was standing there, shaking it!

I must have looked very puzzled, because they laughed a lot, but I did what they told me, and the minaret started shaking, making the whole mosque tremble and gently roar.

It’s only after a few seconds that I realized what they made me do: I was dancing the boogie woogie on top of a minaret! I also like to flirt with the norms and the rules, but this went much beyond what I had hoped for myself in Iran.

Not only did this seem rather dangerous – how many more times until the poor mosque will actually collapse? – but it made my travel companion, standing at the bottom of the minaret with no clue of my endeavours, freak out and believe he was trapped in an antique mosque during an earthquake.

View from the top of the minaret!

But I was so exhilarated! I am not one who expresses political opinions or signs up for ideological debates; but I did manifest my outlook on life: I danced the boogie woogie on a top of an Iranian minaret!

This post is a response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: Climbing

Tough mudder, the Smurfs and beard trimming: how Saudi Arabia’s culture is westernising for the sake of money

“In this country, there is nothing else to do than restaurants and shopping” said a young Saudi mum to me last week, during an in-home visit in Jeddah doing research for a client.

In such ultra conservative society, indeed there is not much fun to do in Saudi Arabia; but this is about to change, at least if you consider the Western entertainment industry as your version of “fun”.

There are big “2030 Vision” posters everywhere in Jeddah, and this is the chapter about entertainment in a local magazine. “GEA” = General Entertainment Authority.

In an attempt to overhaul its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia has published an ambitious 2030 Vision that heralds changes in all spheres of life. For the General Entertainment Authority, the objective is simple: make Saudi citizens spend at home what they currently spend when travelling abroad.

Amongst others, Saudi is expecting this year the visit of shows like the Lion King, Monster Truck, Sesame Street, etc.

The first remark you may have, is why all this entertainment just for children? Don’t Saudi grown-ups also have the right for adult entertainment? (no, I don’t mean porn, but at least something more elevated than the Smurfs?)

But you are probably also thinking, isn’t this all contrasting very much with the austerity we imagine the ultra religious Saudi society to live in, which has closed borders to tourism and won’t let women drive a car but will let men marry several of them?

Well, the contrast is to me as sharp as it is difficult to eat fettucini (the latest trendy dish in Jeddah) with a niqab.

Saudi is a “either or” society; it’s either the modesty of a pilgrimage in Mecca or the populist entertainment coming from the West; but there is nothing in between. I wish there was at least the attempt of developing a monetisable Arabic, Middle-Eastern culture; but I guess it is faster to just adopt the well-known recipes of the Western crap.

A Western crap you despise profoundly, but which makes a lot of money, and money you like very much! So who cares if it all changes the face of Saudi Arabia?

Honestly, if your idea of bearded Saudi men is still that of Bin Laden, do me a favour and read this article from the Jeddah magazine. The hipster culture is welcome is Saudi too, as long as it makes people spend money to wash (yes, wash) their facial hair.