A somewhat interesting destination

 

 

 

The best travel is at least slightly challenging, because that is when it becomes interesting, perhaps remarkable, and therefore most memorable.

 

On all those scores, journeying for many weeks as fully independent travellers (without a group or package tour) in the communist USSR (before the opening up) has to top the list. The challenges were considerable, but the rewards were very great : the underlying European culture of the people provided the same warm, easy familiarity and interactions as do the people in countries elsewhere in Europe, but the overlay of communist structure provided an alien, frequently bizarre, and even kafkaesque, layer of experience -- a strongly "Alice in Wonderland" quality -- unmatched before or since. Two long journeys in the USSR provided a great insight into how things worked, or didn’t work!

 

The second of these trips was just before the end of communism in the USSR, and marching in Moscow with 200,000 pro-democracy Russians, in the first ever large protest demonstration since 1917, was an intensely dramatic experience. Then a third, more recent trip highlighted the amazing contrasts since communism’s end.

 

But even without factoring in the piquant pre-'89 overlay of the Cold War tension, the spies, and the nuclear stand-off, central Moscow remains the most stunning place. The daunting Kremlin, golden domes and all, alongside the vast Red Square, outranks central London or Paris. But next to it is the most remarkable building of all. It is easy to be over-familiar with the superficial, cliched image of St Basil’s Cathedral. But seen close up, night or day, what on earth is this technicoloured, kaleidoscopic stroke of genius, conjured-up as early as the 1500’s, doing here? Drunk in, at close range, juxtaposed to the Kremlin and Red Square, and the whole scene infused with its truly momentous history, the overall effect is stunningly exotic and intense.