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Boys day adventure in cosmonautics

As a pre-teen living in Washington D.C., I had loved the frequent trips to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum with my dad. We went almost every time friends visited. Over the course of three years in the late eighties, I possibly visited it 12 to 15 times. Not once did I not get excited at the prospect of a new visit.

A few days ago, on the facebook feed of a friend who happened to be traveling in Moscow, I spotted the huge statue of a rocket lifting off towards the stratosphere. I learnt it adorns the back of the 'Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics' and, instantly, I knew I would be taking the boys.

Leanne is feeling fluey and in need of a rest so Guy, Max and I head on a 'man-day' adventure. When we emerge from the ground at VDNKh station, the very tall, very shiny rocket jumps at us, gleaming in the sunlight. The symbolism is quite crude. It's hard to avoid thinking that one of man's greatest scientific endeavors of the late 20th century, the conquest of space, may have really just been a cold war phallic showdown.

Below the rocket, some of the heroes that won the early legs of the space race are immortalized. Yuri Gagarin, of course, the first man to make it out of the earth's atmosphere. Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman. Several of the key scientists that developed or orchestrated the programs. Even Laika the dog, the first animal sent to space is honored.

Russia calls cosmonauts what the USA calls astronauts and France spationauts. The museum obviously focuses on the USSR's and then Russia's space achievements but it is also a record of most of humankind's efforts to explore beyond earth. To my surprise, it devotes lots of space (excuse the pun) to those of other nations. We even find Mark Shuttleworth's space overalls displayed proudly in a glass cabinet.

The museum is a hit and the boys are pumped for the next leg of the man-day. On the back of a recommendation from a friendly muscovite dad in the metro this morning, we got sold on a visit to the Moskvarium. Conveniently, it takes us right through the VDNKh, which I had wanted to check out anyway.

The acronym stands for Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva or 'Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy'. It is a giant exhibition space that was intended as a showcase of the might of the soviet economy. Flanking a grand central alley with waterworks, are pavilions to represent each of the soviet republics. The main fountain, greeting you as you enter the grounds is called 'Friendship of the Nations'. Its golden statues are dressed in the traditional outfits of the many nations that composed the U.S.S.R.

Grandiose in its naïve allegory yet looking a little bit like cardboard decor, the kitsch Soviet-era setting of the VDNKh feels like a giant movie set. In it, muscovite families, bands of teenagers, a few Chinese tourists, young amorous couples and seniors on dates are enjoying the lovely afternoon sun. There is lots of construction going on. It is being spruced up for next year's World Cup. This place will probably be swarming in summer 2018.

The Moskvarium offers a show at 15h00. It is a rather classical but nonetheless impressive display of tricks from dolphins, orcas, seals, walruses and even a beluga whale. Rock music pumps throughout, the light display is energetic and the show is high-paced. The animals and acrobats whiz by in a sleek indoor basin with see-through sides. Guy and Max squeal with delight throughout.

After the show, we tour the aquarium itself for about 45 minutes. Capetonians love to think that the Two Oceans Aquarium is world class but its Moscow counterpart has nothing to feel ashamed of.

It is time to join mummy. We have agreed to meet in a Georgian restaurant on an island in the Moskva River. It used to be an industrial warehousing quarter but it has now been reclaimed to become a trendy dining spot. As we cross the bridge, past the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the sun is setting slowly over the water, with the Kremlin walls just beyond. The people strolling lazily by look happy in the warm, soft rays of the dying day.

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