by Hank Leukart
September 29, 2012
Cycling like a Russian
A tireless Muscovite takes me on a marathon Moscow bicycle tour.
Beautiful Novodevichy Convent sits near a bend in the Moscow River in Russia.
This is the fourth essay in a series about living like a local in Russia. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.M
OSCOW, Russia — In the last ten years, Moscow’s restaurant scene has exploded, becoming impressively cosmopolitan: Coffee Mania, a popular upscale café franchise, serves moccachinos and eggs benedict with Scottish salmon, Pancho Villa serves surprisingly decent guacamole and enchiladas, and I Love Cake, a California-style brunch cafe that bears more than a little resemblance to the fantastic Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe in Santa Monica, California, even serves Huckleberry’s signature dish, an open egg sandwich slathered in pesto.
I’m sitting in I Love Cake, hoping to get a taste of home by devouring a plateful of French Toast stuffed with cream cheese and a large glass of mint lemonade, when a stylish, athletic Russian woman with wavy brown hair, soft green eyes, and a subtle smile, sits next to me. After she answers some questions I have about the Moscow Metro, she tells me that she’s an insurance adjuster but dislikes the job, and we chat for an hour. I’m impressed by the quality of her English, and I imagine that she’s equally impressed that I’m so accurately conforming to the American stereotype, as I stuff two pieces of bread smothered in egg and cream cheese into my mouth. Between bites, I tell her that I’ve been trying to live like a local while in Moscow, and I haven’t seen many of the typical tourist sites. She smiles, and when she leaves to return to work, we add each other as friends on Facebook and VK using our iPhones.
“I’m a super hero,” Olya writes to me later in the week. “I found a bike for you, so tomorrow we’ll have a little adventure.” She tells me that she likes to forget about her job by going cycling, so, at 7 PM the next evening, I’m following Olya into her apartment, a spacious pad with luxury furnishings and two sparkling Trex mountain bikes sitting near the entrance.
“Wow,” I say, impressed by the modern kitchen’s marble slab countertops.
“My dad was a diplomat and now works on anti-missile technology for the government,” she says. As we walk outside with the bikes, a strange scene of post-Soviet Russia flashes through my head, in which Vladimir Putin presents open-layout kitchens with Viking ovens and Grohe faucets to all of the country’s newly-Capitalist government employees.
“If you get too tired, thirsty, or hungry, let me know,” Olya says, as she mounts her bike. She’s remembering me, the lazy American, stuffing my face with French Toast, I think.
“Hungry? How many weeks will this ride last?” I joke. Olya looks at me, her green eyes twinkling. Then, she starts pedaling toward Andreyevsky Bridge, where we carry our bikes up two flights of stairs to the bridge’s surface. There, we ride, weaving among pedestrians, under the bridge’s bright yellow slats, glass roof, and unusual industrial lights. Once over the bridge, we lug our bikes down more flights of stairs and then begin pedaling along the Moscow River. It’s already clear that Olya’s guerilla-style urban cycling trip is going to be a significantly harder workout than a Los Angeles spin class.
“There’s a great bar and lounge on the top floor of that building,” Olya says, pointing to a tall building with two white columns capped with copper designs. “Oh, it’s also the Russian Academy of the Sciences.”
“I see where your priorities lie,” I say, smiling. As we pedal past monolithic Luzhniki Stadium (the biggest sports stadium in Russia, built by Lenin in 1955 for the Olympic games) and Moscow University — the best university in the city, Olya and I talk about our childhoods and discover that we both loved the Muppets and Sesame Street. She tells me that her favorite character was Oscar the Grouch, and I tell her that mine was Big Bird. The daughter of a Russian diplomat and missile engineer grew up loving the Muppets, I think. While I’m marveling at the startling homogeneity of the world, Olya starts singing the theme song of Bananas in Pyjamas, an Australian children’s show which she also watched growing up but I have never seen.
We stop at a bend in the Moscow River to takes pictures under a lush elm tree with a picturesque backdrop, reflected in the river, of the bright white and red, castle-like UNESCO World Heritage site Novodevichy Convent, Moscow’s best-known cloister and its second most popular architectural attraction (next to the Kremlin). I’m thrilled to be seeing Moscow’s most compelling sights in an organic way, with a native Muscovite. Nearby, I see an endearing collection of duck statues, depicting the American children’s book Make Way for Ducklings set in the Boston Public Garden. I read on a plaque that the Barbara Bush gave the art installation to Raisa Gorbachev in 1991 as part of a bilateral arms reduction treaty, and I find myself continually surprised by Moscow’s seemingly boundless supply of historical signifiers.
“Are you tired yet?” Olya asks. She seems so sure that I’m going to die without a constant supply of French Toast and mint lemonade during the ride that I can only assume that her other Russian friends never manage to match her endurance during her marathon cycling outings.
“Don’t worry; I’ll be fine,” I say, trying to convince her. “Remember, I hike and cycle all the time. You’ll probably get tired before I do.” I regret saying this immediately, knowing that this strong, independent Russian woman will interpret this as challenge.
Olya explodes with speed, shooting over the steel and glass Bogdan Khmelnitskiy Pedestrian Bridge, past the Square of Europe — 48 European flags, celebrating Russian’s integration into European civilization, and a fountain with an abstract, interlaced stainless steel pipe sculpture resembling the head of Zeus and the girl Europa — and across the Moscow River and Borodinsky Bridge, with a view of the Russian White House, the home of the Russian government.
Next, we fly down historic Arbat Street, one of Moscow’s oldest thoroughfares and the first pedestrian-only street in the Soviet Union. Historically, the street served as Moscow’s primary trade route, the place from where Ivan the Terrible’s bodyguards issued orders of mass executions, the route of the French’s march to the Kremlin during Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812, and the home of many high-ranking government officials during the Soviet era. As we pedal, I admire the 18th and 19th century mansions lining the street, in which many members of Russia’s intelligentsia lived, including author Alexander Pushkin, poet Bulat Okudzhava, and novelist Andrey Bely. We cycle past the squat, red and white Arbatskaya station (Moscow’s first Metro station, opened in 1935), gaudy souvenir shops, chain restaurants, painters, and performance artists.
We’ve been cycling for about two hours when I stop to investigate a crowd of people watching bystanders pay money in return for a ride on a “Wild Bike,” a specially-designed bicycle with handlebars that turn the bike’s front wheel in the opposite direction of the rider’s intention.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Olya asks when she sees me stop. “You look tired. Are you tired?”
“I promise — I’m not tired,” I say. But, I do want to try the Wild Bike, so I pay a fee to the owner and try to impress the Russian crowd. I’m embarrassed when I fall over on my first attempt — riding a reversed bicycle is unbelievably counterintuitive and difficult — but I do so much better than the other contenders on my second and third attempts that Olya and the crowd applauds, and the bike’s owner refunds my money.
Afterward, when I spot a Pinkberry (frozen yogurt) franchise on Arbat, I’m so amazed to see one that, even though I’m afraid Olya will think that I’m starting to wimp out, I suggest that we stop for a snack. Like so many things in Moscow, the yogurt is ridiculously overpriced (about US $10), but it’s a perfect frozen treat to end our ride as dusk falls.
“Are you ready to keep going?” Olya asks, after we finish eating. Wanting to make up for my frozen yogurt demands and hide my surprise that she wants to keep riding now that it’s past 9 PM and the sun has begun to set, I simply exclaim, “Yes!” and we carry on.
In the balmy Moscow dusk, we cycle past the stunning Cathedral of Christ the Savior — the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world, finished in 2000 — which Olya tells me used to be the site of the world’s largest open air swimming pool, where her parents used to go swimming. We cycle over the Moscow River again on Patriarshy Bridge, a steel, pedestrian arch bridge that is arguably the city’s most beautiful, then over famous Luzhkov Bridge, upon which lovers attach padlocks to iron trees to represent their eternal love. It occurs to me that Olya should quit her insurance job and start a bicycle tour company, leading people on romantic, nighttime tours of all of Moscow’s historic bridges.
“There are many problems with Russian culture,” Olya says when we stop at The Sins Monument, a collection of sculptures representing various sins surrounding two statues of innocent children. After she points out the statues representing alcohol abuse, drug abuse, ignorance, indifference, sadism, poverty, prostitution, and thievery, she tells me a story about a day in Moscow when a thief grabbed her cell phone from her hand as she was using it, and many watching bystanders did nothing to help her. “This would not happen in America, would it?” she asks. I realize, sadly, that I don’t know the answer, but I assure her that Russia does not have a monopoly on citizen apathy.
In the last remaining twilight, we sail through Alexander Gardens, along the red, brick Kremlin wall, and then through stunning Red Square. Strings of white lights glitter on the Russian-medieval, glass-roofed GUM department store, and the vibrant onion domes and spires of iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral tower beyond.
By the time we’ve cycled past the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building (one of seven Stalinist skycrapers built in the 1940s and 1950s) and over Novopassky Bridge, I’m very hungry and fairly tired.
“Maybe we should eat dinner,” I suggest. Olya smiles, knowing that Russia just beat the USA in our endurance cycling competition. But, instead of gloating, she leads me to trendy restaurant-club-bar Club Discovery.
It’s past 11:30 PM when we finish dinner, but, to my surprise, Olya doesn’t mention anything about returning home. We continue cycling to the famous, 100-foot, Peter the Great statue near the former Red October chocolate factory.
“There’s a bunch of good bars and clubs in Red October,” she says. Then, remembering her role as Moscow history guide, she adds quickly that the Peter the Great statue is unanimously despised by all Muscovites, presumably because Peter the Great moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712 (it later reverted). I admit to her that I love this statue, partly because it’s so ridiculously monstrous and partly because I adore Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli’s style. She’s appalled.
My legs feel like jelly as we cycle at midnight through the eerie Muzeon Park of Arts (also known as Fallen Monument Park), an open-air sculpture museum containing a horde of sculptures, including many Communist statues that were removed from their pedestals upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the darkness, we weave between moonlit statues of Stalin, Lenin, Dzerzhinsky, dancing muses, and Greek gods.
It’s almost 1 AM when we finally make it to the recently, brilliantly renovated Gorky Park (Moscow’s version of New York’s Central Park), which has become a bona fide cultural and summer phenomenon. We pass sand volleyball courts, a paddleboat pond, chair swings, chaise lounges, and an outdoor movie theater. When we stumble upon a lawn covered with enormous beanbag sofas, I convince Olya to take another break, and we collapse together on a bean bag, gazing up at the black, starry sky.
“Sometimes, I think that if I don’t stop riding, tomorrow morning will never come,” Olya says wistfully. I glance at her green eyes, transfixed by the Moscow sky. My exhaustion melts away.
“Let’s keep going then,” I say. She smiles. At 2 AM, we get back on our bikes and continue pedaling into the Moscow night.
Read the fifth essay in this series about living like a local in Russia, in which I learn that Father Christmas actually lives in Finland.
Barbara Bush gave the Make Way for Ducklings art installation to Raisa Gorbachev in 1991 as part of a bilateral arms reduction treaty.
A woman prepares to throw a Frisbee while people watch from chair swings in Moscow’s recently renovated Gorky Park.
How to Cycle Moscow
- OVERVIEW: Bicycling through Moscow is a fantastic way to see the beauty and vibrancy of the city in a single day or night. However, keep in mind that many roads are not bicycle friendly, and riders will find themselves crossing multiple lanes of traffic, jumping on and off sidewalks, and carrying bikes on staircases.
- ROUTE: We pedaled to Moscow’s sites in approximately the following order:
- Andreyevsky Bridge
- Russian Academy of Sciences
- Luzhniki Stadium
- Novodevichy Convent
- Bogdan Khmelnitskiy Pedestrian Bridge
- Square of Europe
- Borodnsky Bridge
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs
- Arbat Street and Turandot Fountain
- Gogolevsky Boulevard and Sholohov Monument
- Cathedral of Christ the Savior and Patriarshy Bridge
- Luzhkov Bridge
- Bolotnaya Square and The Sins Monument
- Bolshoy Kamenny Bridge
- Alexander Gardens
- Red Square (GUM, the Kremlin, and St. Basil’s Cathedral)
- Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Building
- Novospassky Bridge
- Club Discovery Restaurant
- Red October and the Peter the Great Statue
- Muzeon Park of Arts (Fallen Monument Park)
- House on the Embankment
- Gorky Park