Morning in Moscow dawns hot. By 10am it's 38c and the hair is heavy with acrid smoke. At my hostel, travellers lie in a torpor on their beds or gather in the lounge room. Rumours run riot: the Italian press is predicting that a nuclear arsenal is under threat from the fires; the Poles have evacuated their embassy. I check the BBC, which sets my mind at ease with a restrained piece about the health implications for local citizens. And, as I'm only here for a few days, I decide to brave the weather and check out the city.
The smoke is heavier than the night before. Visibility is low, buildings rear up out of the mist and the streets disappear, dark grey ribbons into the light grey air. Moscow feels utterly deserted. I walk along in the eerie silence until I get to Red Square, where a few other tourists are making the best of a bad lot.
The heat and the smoke quickly wear me down. For the sake of something to do I join the queue for Lenin's mausoleum. It gives me a sense of purpose and lets me stop, drink a huge bottle of water and try to catch my breath. Around me the line of tourists are silent and subdued. Many are wearing small white facemasks. I drink water and try to ignore my itching eyes and scratchy throat.
When I get to the front of the queue I find the Lenin is deep underground in a beautifully cool, dimly lit room. Guards quieten anyone who speaks, so we enter the mausoleum in hushed silence. Lenin is surprisingly small, a short and petite man, his hands, arms and torso visible (he's wearing a suit and waistcoat). The closer I get the more waxy and unreal he looks; the face a pale yellow with smooth skin.
Emerging again into the smoke filled air, feeling my eyes begin to stream, I realise that exploring Moscow is a no go today, so I take myself off to the Tretyakov Gallery. It's home to the best of Russian art from the 17th century onwards and as I walk by lush portraits of Russian nobles, generals, matrons and society beauties I feel a War & Peace moment coming on: these are the people Tolstoy was writing about.
I enjoy their company for three or four hours then I have the inspired idea to escape the smoke by checking out the Moscow Metro. This is not as train-spotterish as it sounds. Moscow's metro stations are a hymm to socialism and marble floors, stained glass windows, art deco lighting and gold mosaics abound. The girl in the picture on the left isn't in church; she's waiting for a train at Moscow's Prospekt Mira metro. The mosaic below is from a roof panel at Krasnye Voroya. It makes London's Underground look distincly pedestrian by comparison.