Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Russian Around

It was time to behold Mighty Russia!
After touring every country ever run, or run-over by the Soviet Union we were ready to take on Russia. With only two weeks to spend in the two most most visited cities, I am not sure we got the real exposure we were looking for, but we got enough to take a way a few impressions.

The Golden Tickets - Russian Visas.
In order to visit Russia Americans need to get a visa. I told this story previously, so just to recap, you need to apply for the visa while in your country of origin. As it turns out, we were far, far away from the USA. A friend in Seattle told us about a travel agency in Seattle that could work miracles in case like ours, so we parked in Belgium for two weeks while we sent our precious passports via FedEx to Red Star Travel on Queen Anne Hill. With enough money in your checkbook and a little paperwork - you, too, can have a fancy Russian visa in just ten days. Thanks Red Star!

There were a couple of things that were confusing upon entering Moscow. One was the need to fill out an immigration card at the airport before going through passport control. If I hadn't seen a page about it in the very back of the in-flight magazine, we wouldn't have known. We were already a little jumpy about this process since we hadn't pre-registered where we would be staying and for how long (another requirement we'd read about). We found a table with the forms and scribbled what we could and approached the booth. One person at a time - no happy couples approaching the window together, thank you very much.
This was definitely not the stamp we received in our passports
After presenting my passport, and waiting what seemed like ten minutes while I was scrutinized and processed with a minimum of personal interaction (certainly no "Welcome to Russia, enjoy your stay!") there was a frenzy of rubber stamping and a green light indicated I could pass through to "the other side". During this process, another form was printed out, stamped and split in two parts - one half left in our passport, the other half filed who knows where. I am telling you this now, because it has repercussions later. Michael also got the green light and we headed to our Airbnb.

Our first rubles. There would be many more rubles needed along the way!
Michael's first Russian friends - made buying SIM cards at the airport of course.
In case you didn't know, this says SCRABBLE. Welcome the the Cyrillic alphabet!
After 45 countries and 125 cities we Senior Nomads felt we could navigate any metro system, anywhere. Having said that, we weren't prepared for the almost exclusive use of the Cyrillic alphabet and almost non-existent English translations in Moscow. This had to be the most challenging system we encountered during our travels. The good news is the metro stations are as beautiful as any travel guide will tell you - there are even guided tours of the most opulent stations, so if you had to be lost it wasn't all bad. The station names are not easy to see as you approach each stop because they are posted on the wall behind the train, not on the wall you can see from the windows facing the platform. Michael and I became obsessed with counting stops on our fingers as we traveled from point А то Б.

The Moscow metro system map - they say the brown circle line was based on a coffee stain made by Stalin on the original plans and no one was willing challenge him on it.
The actual maps had the stations spelled out in Latin letters. The best way to cope was to break down the name of a destination and form a familiar word you could spot quickly among 16 or more letters.  Like "Snop" inside of Krasnopresnekskaya or "Harvest" in Sukharvskaya. Our stop became "Napkin".  One day we took Napkin to Biblio and changed trains to Brat, returning via Moldy back to Napkin. The other fascinating part of this system is some of the lines are so deep in the ground it takes a full six minutes on an escalator to get to the platform - and there could be a several minute walk after that! Plan accordingly.

The ornate entrance to our nearby station - affectionately known as Napkin.
Not your average Metro passageway! There were so many like this.
beginning a six minute escalator ride!
 Our host and his young daughter met us at our apartment and showed us around. Once again, the exterior of the building was a little disappointing, but the apartment itself was very nice. We've become used to this ... so if you travel using Airbnb don't be discouraged by the front door of your building, it's what's on the inside that counts. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5747355

Home sweet home. We've learned it's whats on the inside that counts.
The kitchen and the living spaces were very modern and comfortable.
While our delightful host Stas was showing Michael how the wifi worked, his proud 8 year old daughter showed me how to turn on and dim the lights in every room. As we were finishing up, Stas mentioned that during the summer in Moscow there can be challenges with hot water. He just needed a minute (and a lot of packing tape) to rig up an alternative heater for the shower. He stuck a portable electric heater onto the bathtub with the tape and ran the cord over the bathroom floor to an outlet. This was supposedly going to bypass the hot water issue by heating the shower water separately. It looked like a sure path to electrocution to me. We did suffer a lack of hot water during the week, along with no water at all at one point, but there wasn't much to be done about it unless you know Mr. Putin. Here's the apartment: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/5747355 

I am sure the President has unlimited hot water in his house - wherever that might be.
Speaking of Putin. Michael truly dislikes the man so he was discouraged to see so much positive "Putinabilia" everywhere. Dozens of tee-shirt designs, phone covers, action figures, playing cards and even nesting Matryoshka dolls that revealed ever smaller Putins. Most often he was portrayed like as a macho playboy or James Bond character. In the end Michael decided the best route to world peace is to encourage people to Pray for Putin. Could be a T-shirt... 

Obama and I had similar feelings about our experience in Moscow.
 After much anticipation, I found Moscow to be big, bold and ... well, sort of boring. Of course we had a full weeks worth of must-see sights and they were all very impressive, but there was a haunting, antiseptic feel to the city. For one thing, considering it's size and population it is "Disneyland clean". Hardly a scrap of paper, a cigarette butt or graffiti could be found anywhere near the city center. As we traveled further out of the tourist zone things became a bit more disheveled, but not by much.

We had an excellent guide for our free walking tour on the second day that helped us put the city in perspective and explain Russian culture - especially why people here rarely smile. Apparently a smile is as special as a kiss and should not be given lightly. I'd say it's because they live in Russia.

The Iconic St. Basil's Cathedral. It was as beautiful as expected.
One of Stalin's Seven Sisters skyscrapers. This one, the Department of Foreign Affairs was in our neighborhood.
A visit to St. Basil's cathedral with it's multi-colored domes and intricate passages along with live music performances was a highlight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9CT2y6XfyM

We also toured the Kremlin - did you know that the location of Putin's residence is top secret? And we stood in an very, very long line with tight security to visit Lenin's Tomb. The many guards on duty kept us moving at a quick pace and had a special talent for whispering "Shhhhhhhh!" The man has been embalmed and left to look like he's napping for almost 90 years, so I doubt he's going to wake up because of a little whispering! It was a bit creepy. Speaking of creepy... later in the day we were working on the blog and a few other things and I Googled "Grumpy Putin" for an image. I went from 'full bars' to the dreaded rainbow spin and finally got a message that basically said the Internet was unavailable and to try again later. Michael got a similar message when searching for the break-away republic of Transnistria. Coincidence?

You can count on finding an Airbnb and Starbucks in just about every city.
Michael walked over the the bridge to where Boris Nemstov, a vocal Putin opponent was tragically shot this past February. There was an impressive memorial of flowers, photos and letters that were guarded 24 hours a day by volunteers to keep them from being swept away by the police. Meanwhile I dropped into the famous GUM department store - the only place in Moscow during the cold war where the privileged few with US Dollars could purchase high-end goods. Some things haven't changed in that only the privileged of any nationality, regardless of the currency can shop there now. The famous GUM ice-cream cones and foil wrapped ice-cream bars, however are still delicious and a steal at a buck each.

Michael at the Memorial site for Boris Nemstov.
I became rather attached to a particular brand of Russian ice-cream bar. Anytime became the right time for ice-cream!
On our last night in Moscow we had dinner with our host Stas and his wife Svetlana. They were interesting. Russian food is not. Svetlana was one of Moscow's first Airbnb hosts and as such has become a liaison for new hosts and is the Moscow contact for Airbnb. She started with one apartment and now has five. She has an interesting eye for decor. A couple of years ago she hosted Airbnb's CEO, Brian Chesky in one of her flats! Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2445855?s=Nt6eTrAR

Dinner with our hosts Stas and Svetlana.
After our week in Moscow we headed to St. Petersburg by train. It was a pleasant four hour journey on the high-speed Sapsen train. What a lovely, romantic city! For me, it was everything that Moscow was not. It was more approachable, and while still being equally important in Russian history it didn't seem to take itself so seriously. Our experience there felt more like a attending a glamorous dinner party as opposed to a stern lecture. Even the metro system seemed to breath easier.

The artwork and the opulence of the Hermitage did not disappoint!
Our apartment had a serious lack of charm in such a romantic city. Our host's friend met us and he was great, and we even met his mother. And on our last day, the owner of the flat, Vladimir drove us all the way to the airport! But even with all that love, we felt like we were ready to head home. It also happened to start pouring rain shortly after we arrived and that always adds a level of dreariness to any situation. We needed our rally caps so To Bed! Tomorrow is a brand new day. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/4851244

At the front entrance to our apartment complex. "Let me out!"
A look into the courtyard from our landing window.
Inside the flat. At one point after the war three families lived in this space.
We knew that we were supposed to register with the Russian authorities with details on our whereabouts during our stay, but our Moscow host told us we didn't have to do that until we started our second full week so we could wait until we reached St. Petersburg to file. Since we were not staying in a hotel, the workaround was to find a nearby hostel and pay them a fee to register us as their guests. Our host went with us to the front desk of a hostel on our street. It was then that we discovered it was very important to have our halves of the form that had been stamped on entry and slipped into our passports. Since we weren't really sure what they were, Michael kept mine as a memento for our daily journal and tossed his. Uh-oh. Our hostel owner told us he would not be able to register Michael without it and explained this could cause some serious trouble at departure from the country that might result in a hefty fine at best, or if things went really awry, perhaps some time in a Gulag! I got my registration paperwork approved and became a legal, temporary citizen of Russia, but poor Michael spent the week in St. Petersburg paperless in a land that reveres paperwork.

The church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was a highlight.
Meanwhile we set about exploring one of our new favorite cities. I whipped through an excellent biography of Catherine the Great and her creation of the Hermitage collection. It made walking the halls of that magnificent palace come to life. The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was one of the most incredible buildings I've even been inside. I am a huge fan of mosaics and there wasn't an inch other than the equally beautiful inlaid marble floors that wasn't covered in shimmering images made from tiny peices of tile. During our stay here Michael and I headed separate directions one day. That in itself was a treat - even though our days together may be numbered. He attended a Premier Russian League football match with FC Zenit which he will write about shortly. I found my way to a Saturday afternoon performance of the Russian State Circus! It was a great experience with outstanding acrobats, tumbling clowns magnificent horses and dancing tabby cats. The next night we experienced Swan Lake as performed by the Russian  State Ballet Company - a beautiful production with twice the swans of any other performance we've seen!

Michael having a good day out at a Zenit match in St. Petersburg.
Tigers, bears and elephants have been replaced with pigs, cats, monkeys and spectacular horses.
An evening at the ballet was a beautiful way to celebrate Michael's 70th birthday.
St. Petersburg was recently named the top destination in Europe by the World Travel Awards and this article does a great job of showing off the highlights of the city. http://news360.com/article/311450503#

Michael said he was happy to be leaving Russia  - a feeling similar to the one he'd had back in 1974. There was just one small hitch between him and an airplane seat - the dreaded lack of registration paperwork. I could go on my merry way since I had my passport, my registration, my boarding pass, and of course the coveted stamped half of my entrance form. I approached the Passport Control window and found the uniformed matron to be up-to-speed on the no-smiling policy. She collected my papers, stamped my passport with authority and buzzed me through the gate. All I could do was watch from the other side as Michael squared his shoulders and approached the window. It could have been worse - she did ask for the paperwork and Michael confessed to his sins. There was a moment of silence followed by a short reprimand and finally the thump, thump and THUMP of her rubber stamp. Free at last.

Yes or no? YES! Michael could leave the country!
We learned more than we ever expected about 20th century history during our travels through Eastern Europe, and saw the powerful influence of the former Soviet Union first hand on the places we visited. This quick glimpse of The Motherland was a perfect ending. Our next stop takes us to a large family gathering back in France with a surprise twist! See you there.

Thank you for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. I have been to Moscow, and I also remember it was a dreary place with rather awful food. The subway was a highlight. I sure wish I could have visited St. Petersburg. What a beautiful place! :-)

  2. What an excellent post!! I to visited Russia- in 1978. It was one of my favorite experiences because it was so diffrent from my OC, CA life at home:-). I have been wanting to return to see it again. Most bloggers do not express their experiences in Russia very well, so I am REALLY happy with yours. It is perfect, and the photos- I have some of the same from '78. Thank you!

  3. Once again, just cracking up at your writing! Glad you both made it out. St. Petersburg looks gorgeous!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience out there in Russia with us. You can also visit Italy and enjoy the places out there especially the food. You can also watch the beauty of Italy through the Italy Travel Video and plan your next trip.