Novedevichy with a side of Beach Volleyball


I decide that the Novodevichy convent and cemetery will be my primary destination for the day and bounce into the street to find my way there.  I stop at a small pavement shop to get something for breakfast and discover they can’t change a thousand rouble note, so I can’t buy anything.  I don’t know what to do exactly, so I wander back into the street, still hungry and looking for a bigger shop.  I end up being refused at two more pavement shops and start to wonder if it’s because I’m a foreigner or if they really don’t keep change.  I now wish I hadn’t already spent the last of my small change; fifty and hundred rouble notes.  I soon walk past a supermarket and this time manage to acquire a packet of chips and a curious flavoured liquid yoghurt drink.  There is always a broad range of milk based food and drink in any shop in Russia.  This varies through milk, butter and cheese from different animals to yoghurts with consistency from almost cheese-like to pretty much milk.  This drink is a chocolate flavoured milk-like yoghurt and goes well with the sour cream and chive chips.  It doesn’t, however, encourage me to have more later; the yoghurt is just too bitter for my taste.  I’m used to drinking Iced Coffee from a carton almost every day while I’m in Australia; a habit gained during my misspent youth.  It has too much coffee and too much sugar, but in perfect balance.  It sets your heart beating and your eyes spinning; I know anything that feels that crazy good has to be bad for me and I love it.

The Cathedral of the Virgin of Smolensk in the Novodevichy convent truly is gloriously beautiful; the iconostasis is the best I see in Russia.  Five tiers high and richly ornamented, it dominates the room entirely.  I have to tear myself away from the incredibly detailed visual smorgasbord to appreciate all the other amazing frescoes on the central pillars, walls and ceilings.  One dour looking nun watches over the visitors idling through the building that has already stood for almost five hundred years.  I walk around the convent grounds and decide to sit on a bench under tree for a while, absorbing and luxuriating in the calmness of the gardens.  The strange and twisted history of this place (as a prison, refuge and storehouse) doesn’t seem to sit heavy upon it today. I sit and soak in the warmth and idyllic calm of the convent atmosphere.

Some time later I stroll next door to the cemetery.  I decide I don’t really want to pay for a tour this time and just wander in to drift around the place.  There are plenty of large, spreading trees providing shade to the cool cemetery grounds.  I tag along with an English speaking tour group for a few stops before tiring of it and decide that since I can read the gravestones, I can figure out who’s in them and the more decorative ones are probably more famous people.  I turn from Gogol’s grave to discover Anton Chekhov’s almost opposite and figure I’m half right, Chekhov’s grave is decidedly unornamented; but is unusual in that it’s a simple Gothic arch shape with his name printed on it.  The cemetery is the resting place of many figures from the worlds of Russian politics, arts and the military.  Stalin’s right hand man, Vyacheslav Molotov, lies here.  It is after him that the Finnish people named the Molotov cocktail.  This was the humble petrol bomb they used to great effect against Russian tanks during the Winter war of 1939/40.  Since then the Molotov cocktail has been used by many countries and has become a universal symbol of both a people’s resistance to armed forces and a university student’s idea of a fun night in Paris. 

However, it’s Boris Yeltsin’s grave I’m interested in visiting.  I did have an idea of taking some vodka with me to either leave there or pour at its base, but wasn’t sure how it’s be viewed.  The grave is a sculpture of a Russian flag waving in the wind, his name on the piece is faint at first, but certainly visible.  I did always like his style in the early years when he faced down the military coup in 1991 by standing on a tank and making speeches before staging a one man breaking of the siege.  That he then oversaw the final demise of the Soviet Union was just as amazing, becoming the first president of the Russian Federation.  Somebody had to be there to make the changes happen, but his decision on an economic pathway certainly seemed to destroy Russian finances for many years.  I also loved the video of him trying to conduct a band at some official occasion whilst being monstrously drunk.  The real conductor was standing behind him and conducted only while Yeltsin had his back turned and his arms waving in a crazed frenzy trying to conduct.  Every time Yeltsin turned to check on him, the poor conductor froze and acted like he was doing nothing.  Such a lovely moment, it must be something Australian to love seeing political leaders heavily refreshed in public and enjoying themselves.

Boris’ final resting place

After some more time enjoying the variety and styles of the graves here I decide I’m hungry and have to go and check out the crazy Georgian restaurant, Genatsvale, on Old Arbat St.  Entering it seems like a strange ritual as you leave Moscow and enter some small, ancient town in the middle of Georgia.  The uneven cobble stones outside lead you through an enormous broken clay pot to heavy wooden doors. I open them and step inside to find a waitress who shows me to a table.  Even inside, the restaurant has different levels; like the uneven streets of the old town.  On the left is a waterwheel turning lazily in a small stream with tables above, below and around it.  Fish swim in the carefully lit stream and there are different sections around the huge room; raised verandahs and an open cobbled square in front of the bar.  She gives me a menu, with English translations thankfully, and I set about ordering up a storm.  Lavash bread, Bozbashi soup and a kind of open kebab with grilled meat and vegetables served on a wooden board.  My first taste of Georgian food starts a lasting love affair, it is easily the best food I have from any of the old Soviet republics.  Spicy, but simple, filled with flavour and always made me want more.  The Bozbashi soup is mutton meatballs in a spicy, red, cloudy broth of paprika, onion, tomato and dill.  It becomes a staple of mine across Russia.  Everyone prepares it slightly differently, but the core was the same and delicious with lavash bread.  This is baked in discs about twenty centimetres in diameter and rises in the centre to about two centimetres.  It is always sliced up, is quite soft and absorbs juice from your plate or soup perfectly.  The main course had deliciously grilled lamb and the salad, tomato and cucumber that came with it balanced it perfectly.  It also came with freshly made Adzhika sauce.  This ‘sharp’ chilli sauce is another instant favourite and I find a bottle of it later to have ready at hand for the rest of the trip.

After a fantastic lunch like that, I can do nothing but waddle the fifty metres down the road and slide into my favourite internet café again.  I’m particularly happy to find another Couchsurfing meetup began about fifteen minutes ago.  Ayuna, a Moscow local who was at the last meetup, has arranged a meeting right next to the beach volleyball competition that’s going on at the moment.  I bless her genius and wonder how such an incredibly Australian style of sport had caught on here.  I decide to leave and join the group to see what it’s like. 

The Beach Volleyball Outdoor Stadium

There is indeed a temporary stadium setup at the foot of the hill of Victory Park that I stumble into almost immediately after walking out of the Metro station.  It also seems there really is a beach volleyball competition going on inside it.  As I drift around the edges of it finding the meeting spot, I love the sheer randomness of finding such an event in Moscow while I happen to be passing through.  More importantly, I would never have known it was on without the Couchsurfing connection.  Ayuna finds me quickly and says they had decided not to pay any money and sit on top of the hill instead.  I figure I might choose to go in later and follow her to meet the group.  This time we have four nationalities represented and we sit on newspaper on the grassy hill watching the sun get lower in the sky.  We talk about what has brought us together in Moscow this fine day.  I suddenly think to ask about the problem with changing the thousand rouble note that morning.  Ayuna bursts out laughing and explains,
“Oh that’s everywhere; the small shops often can’t do it at all, which is bad because the Bankomats like to give out the big notes.  Some of them only give out thousand rouble notes that you can’t use anywhere.”
“I try to get smaller amounts out, but the machines don’t always let you”, adds another local girl.
“Sometimes you can get it in hundred rouble notes, but I’m not sure which one that was.”
As she finishes, she drifts off into silent thought for a while, before seeming to decide she really doesn’t know.
“So, what’s the best way to change a big note?” I ask in blank curiosity.
“Ummm…supermarkets normally can, Metro ticket windows…the bigger the shop, the more likely they can do it”, Ayuna explains.
“But you can’t change money, you have to buy something, nobody will just change money for you”, advises her friend. 
I nod slowly, trying to remember to always carry smaller change in the future.  Ayuna takes the moment to launch a barrage of questions,
“So what are you doing in Russia? Where are you going and how long are you here?”
  I tell them of my planned Trans-Siberian adventure and then my eclipse chasing history.
“That’s what has really brought me here.  To Russia.”
I stare into the distance for a moment, enjoying the city view.
“You’ve come all the way to Russia to look at the sun?”, Ayuna asks with a bewildered expression.
“Well, really it’s not to look at the sun, so much as much as the moon sitting perfectly in front of it.  The black sun.  Have you seen one?”
The group looks puzzled in thought for a minute, before one of the German girls remembers,
“I saw one about 2000 I think, we had to use special glasses and a pinhole camera so we didn’t look at the sun directly.”
“But did the sun turn black? Could you look straight at it without the glasses and see the corona around the edge for a few minutes?”
“I…don’t know…I think so….”
“I think if you had seen it you would know….maybe it was only partial where you were, the Totality follows a narrow path only one hundred kilometres wide.”
This explanation has become almost a mantra to me,
“It is not eclipses that I chase; it is Total Solar Eclipses.  It’s not the same, when I say the word ‘Eclipse’, I mean Totality.  The partials and hybrids are something else, something lesser”, I pause, trying to find the right words.
“It’s like trying to describe a six foot high ice-cream, multi-flavoured, decorated wedding cake to someone who has only ever seen a mars bar.”
The idea makes them laugh and then consider.
“The black sun lives for a few short minutes and your brain is pushed out of its comfort zone.  The sun never looks like this, for your entire life it has always done the same thing every day.  Sunrises and sunsets change, the length of the day changes and even the colour of the sun can change.  But it doesn’t turn black in the middle of the day”.  I’m lost in my passion again. 
“Totality taunts you with the failure of your expectation of consistency.  Nothing is permanent, everything changes.  Even the sun is an exception to its own rules”. 
I stop talking and let the view absorb me for a while as the girls chat.

Ayuna suddenly says its time to go and the group follows wordlessly down the hill.

The peak in Victory Park

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