Russia was a destination which I had on my mind for a very long time. I’ve always had this, somehow irrational, attraction to it; to its language, culture, architecture and people. This attraction only grew after my trip to Ukraine. Ukraine was enchanting experience, something I think I’ll never forget.
For what it has to offer, Russia is getting a relatively small and selected amount of publicity in travel-related media which, I’ll dare to assert, yet again confirms that bias reporting is not strictly limited to political topics, but it’s applied with a wider brush. But, let’s put political happening aside and move to the action topic of this essay.
This might be a rather really long read as I’ll go through events day by day. Feel free to jump to the summary if you’re not interested in full story.
The Arrival (Day 1, 24th March)
My flight was at six in the morning from Budapest. It’s about 400km drive from where I live to the Airport. In practice, that meant no sleep for me. When I’ve arrived to Budapest, sun was already rising. I’ve parked the car, and took a short and refreshing walk to the airport. The flight, which took about three hours was peaceful and calm. I was reading most of the time, though at the end I was half sleeping. Landing was a bit shaky but nothing dramatic. As I stepped out of the airplane I’ve been immediately and completely woken up by a cold Russian wind. Though the day was sunny, it was dreadfully cold.
I walked to the small airport as fast as I could, but yet somehow found myself at the end of a long and slow moving line. After a typical passport control I was finally officially in Russia.
The first task was finding Аэроэкспресс, a special train which goes directly to the Moscow center. That wasn’t too hard. Train was almost full, I sat next to a young man, grabbed one of the magazines and start studying Russian letters and words. We started moving and about half of the hour latter I was on Киевский вокзал, where I needed to locate a subway.
This was entirely underground complex so there was no need to exit, or so I thought. I’ve approached one of the ticket windows and put my (pretty much non-existing) knowledge of Russian language to the test: “Привет! Подземка? Раз?” An elderly woman on the other side of glass window first gave me a surprised look, then started to laugh. I was way off. “Метро?” she asked, “Да.” I’ve replied, paid for the ticket and said goodbye.
The first real challenge was now ahead of me — which way to go? Needless to say, Moscow subway is enormous. Cyrillic letters and words were dancing in my head, soon I’ve realized, I’m in a wrong place. I’ve exit the underground complex. One ticket wasted. No worries.
Outside I was faced with a busy city. I’ve tried to remember which way should I go. I’ve studied a map the day before, and hence had a vague idea. I supposed to cross a road, then turn right. The reality was slightly more complex, but I give my idea a try, and it turned out, it was correct.
I saw a metro sign, I’ve enter the station, and started looking for Павелецкая again. Indeed, there it was. This time I’ve decided to try an automatic machine, which actually had an English language available. I’ve bought a ticket, again, and entered.
I’ve made a conscious effort not to look altogether like a tourist. Luckily I was not the only person with a backpack. I’ve walked straight and with confidence, like I’d be born in the city. Just as I’ve started wondering whether I blend in well, I’ve got my answer. An elderly woman with a map approached and start asking for directions. Oh, even if I’d be able to understand her, I’d be entirely unable to giver her directions. I shook my head, and enter the train.
Couple of stations latter, I got off. This was the final stage of a lengthy and demanding day. I was very confident, after all most of my journey was behind me. To walk a couple of minutes to the hotel, what could be easier? I’ve started to circulate around, consulting a small map, on which everything was miniature, and which did not reflect complexity of reality appropriately.
For quite a while I was walking enthusiastically, although I was rather tired. An hour passed quickly, I’ve seen big portion of surrounding, and created a good mental map of it; but I did not found the hotel, and I’ve started becoming puzzled. Knowing I’m at the right place, I continue to circulate around, stubborn, and entirely decided I will find it on my own. No luck. After a while, a long while, I had to admit my defeat. I was tired and cold, and not in a mood anymore, hence I decided to simply find a taxi. There was none around, so I started walking in the direction, which I perceived to be the city center. I was walking for a while, looking for nothing but yellow colored cars, when all of the sudden, I cached something in the far distance, an extraterrestrial looking building, a wonderful, mysterious scene: Saint Basil’s Cathedral. I forgot my tiredness and coldness at that moment, I just stood and stare for a while. It was so extraordinary to see it in reality, playfully colorful, breaking the monotonicity of the city.
When my senses kicked back in, I started to look for a taxi again, and indeed found one very soon.
“Hi, do you speak English?”
“Нет.”, of course not.
“A little bit, for sure…”, I was optimistic about him just being modest.
“Нет.”, he seemed like being in a bad mood, and not interested to earn extra money.
“Хорошо.”, I gave up attempts to talk to him. But, I had no intention to walk any further.
I dragged a piece of paper from my pocket, and pointed to the address printed there. He nodded, not very enthusiastically, and start making a call. After a short conversation he nodded again. I asked, this time in Russian, how much will it cost: “Сколько?”, he started to look for a paper to write it, but then decided to just say it: “Пятьсот”. Five hundred. “Хорошо,” I replied. I’d accept anything at that point.
He start the car, the journey was very short. Entirely not worth the money. What was even worst though, was the fact that he stopped next to the building, which I saw before, actually, I walked pass it at least two times. Impossible, I though and wanted to ask him, whether he’s sure we’re at the right place. But how to construct such a question in Russian? I had no idea. For a tiny while I stared at the building outside in disbelieve. He broke the silence and explained that we indeed are at the correct address. Perhaps entrance is somewhere back I concluded, paid and said goodbye.
I started circulating around the building, no luck though. At that point, I was seriously doubting the existence of the hotel. Perhaps all this is just a big scam, or perhaps they moved, I thought. What could I do? I was looking at least for a message hanging on any door, perhaps a new address? Any detail that hotel at least existed at some point in history. Three big metal door looked like the place is entirely abandoned, but wait! On the middle door, I discovered a tiny label with a hotel name on it.
Oh, humanity! Happiness!
I enter and walked up old granite stairs, which reminded me of a hostel in Ukraine couple of years ago. As I arrived to the first floor, there was another label with the hotel name, this one bigger, next to the second heavy metal door. I entered.
“Hi!”, I’ve greeted a woman sitting at the counter.
As I gave her my passport, she wrote something, then gave me a piece of paper with number on it. I became curious, does she speak any English? I’ve paid and proceed with a question:
“Sorry, can I ask…”
“Я не понимаю тебя!”, of course not.
“Хорошо!” I replied in Russian, kind of a frustrated, but she was delightfully surprised, and start smiling.
She grabbed two keys. Pointed to the first one, and then pointed to the entrance door, then pointed to the second key, and unlocked the room.
“Спасибо”, I replied in Russian.
The room was quite pretty and comfortable, the only problem was, it was rather cold. One of the windows was slightly opened and impossible to close. There was a small electric radiator available, I’ve set it to the full heat and collapsed on the sofa. Finally, well deserved rest. I’ve switched my mind and body off, I just needed to accumulate some warmth and rest. I’ve read a bit, but soon fall asleep.
Late at evening Inna, joined me. Needless to say, she couldn’t find the entrance to the hotel either, although she was delivered right to the building. Both she and the driver were looking for it, before she called me, being sure she’s at the wrong place. “No, trust me, you’re at the right place. I’ll come down.”
The First Taste of Russia (Day 2, 25th March)
It was a wonderful, sunny day, with almost no wind.
First item on the list: food, preferably as near as possible to the hotel.
My last normal meal was more than a day ago, I was hungry and thirsty. We found a place rather quickly, but unfortunately they had pretty much non-existent vegetarian menu. At least I was able to to quench my thirst, with a big glass of Тархун, a drink of greenish color which brought back a long forgotten taste from my childhood. It was a wonderfully nostalgic and refreshing experience. Next, we moved to another place, where they had something to offer for vegetarians. After a breakfast, we decided to see Russian State Library (Российская государственная библиотека).
We intended to enter, but the procedure required us to acquire a temporary membership card. We decided we might deal with it some other day if there’ll be time. It was such a wonderful whether, it would be shame to waste such day indoor.
We moved on, to the Kremlin, we walked though the Alexander Garden (Александровский сад), which unfortunately in March was not showing its full potential. We saw a monument Patriarch Hermogenes of Moscow (Памятник патриарху Гермогену) and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Могила Неизвестного Солдата) where kids, one by one, were laying flowers as a gratitude to the soldiers who fought, and lost their lives, in World War II. It was a very touching experience.
As we left the park, State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей) and Four Seasons Hotel Moscow came into the view; two gigantic buildings, absolutely breathtaking in their massiveness.
We continued our walk, just to the other side of the State Historical Museum, to the magnificent and iconic, center square of Moscow, Red Square (Красная площадь). Wide and enormous space, surrounded with colorful buildings, massive, unworldly, lid by a warm spring sun. People around us were enthusiastic; an old lady with a granddaughter pointing to one of the buildings, families taking photos, friends laughing and loves kissing. Oh, the joy, the pure sense of life was flowing through my veins. I’ve got a desire to come back and experience this lovely place in all seasons.
We were exploring the square a little big, moving towards the Saint Basil’s Cathedral. The cathedral serves as a museum, we entered, and start freely wonder around ancient corridors. The mood was excellent, the place was not too crowded, and from one of the rooms a mysterious chanting could be heard. We were moving towards enchanting singing, which was preformed live. Singers were located in a special room surrounded by people, we were listening until they’ve finished, then we exit and moved on.
After walking outside for a while, we decided to take a tour (hop on/off) bus. We went off on Bolotnaya Square (Болотная площадь), where we saw a Ilya Repin monument and an amazing bronze sculpture called Children Are the Victims of Adult Vices (Дети — жертвы пороков взрослых), which depicts adult vices, surrounding a boy and a girl. Figures are representing following vices: Drug Addiction, Prostitution, Theft, Alcoholism, Ignorance, Irresponsible Science, (centerpiece figure) Indifference, Violence, Sadism, (Pillory) for those without Memory, Child Labor, Poverty, War. The sculpture was pleasant little discovery, a little bit chilling, but indeed tragically true in its embodiment of human atrocity, especially emphasized, when put in contrast with child’s innocence.
When we finished walking, we continued our bus tour which brought us to the Европейский, where we had a dinner. The meal was quite expensive but very tasty. After the dinner, we bought couple of things in the shop, I grabbed Тархун (which I drank at breakfast) and Байкал, two very interesting drinks from Soviet times.
The day was at the end, it was time to head back to the hotel, where they manage to close the window, so the room was warm and quiet. Before sleep, I’ve watched a little bit of Russian television, the most interesting for me was МУЗ ТВ, where I discovered an excellent song Ирина Дубцова - Люби меня долго, which became an official song of the journey (together with Kwabs - Walk).
Lunarium (Day 3, 26th March)
The day greeted us with a horrific weather: snow, wind and coldness. It was apparent we will be unable to do any outdoor activities, hence we decided to visit a planetarium, which was very crowded. We positioned ourselves at the end of a long line and wait. When it was finally our turn, we found out that the main, Large Star Hall, is sold out for the whole week. It was a little bit disappointing, but we bought tickets for The Interactive museum Lunarium and a 4D theater, where a short story based on Le Petit Prince was playing.
There were mostly kids in planetarium, and I felt like one when watching Le Petit Prince; I’ve never been in 4D cinema before, and mostly found 3D cinema unnecessary and boring. This show was fun though, with all the physical effects, like moving chairs, actual heat/cold, snow and smells. Kids were thrilled and so was I.
Lunarium didn’t impress me much, though it was certainly nice to see so many kids being interested in science and all the experiments available. They’ve often dragged parents or grandparents behind, when enthusiastically experimenting with various contraptions. I think me and Inna were the only grownups without kids there.
Outside was still dreadfully cold and snowing, we found a place to eat, then took a taxi to newly build shopping center Авиапарк at the moment the largest shopping center in Europe, where I bought couple of traditional Russian products, mostly chocolate, Аленка and Мишка Косолапый.
We took a bus and a subway back to the hotel. A lot of small shops can be found in the metro complex, selling various products, including souvenirs. I’ve used this chance and bought a Matryoshka doll (Матрёшка) for myself and a friend.
Kremlin (Day 4, 27th March)
Since the day was clear, though quite windy and cold, we decided to see Kremlin region.
It’s very hard to explain the magnificence of cathedrals located there; blinding white, standing tall, shining golden cupolas, they looked almost like painted to the bright blue sky. The whole scenery was celestial.
We entered Cathedral of the Annunciation (Благовещенский собор) and The Archangel’s Cathedral (Архангельский собор) and saw an exhibitions. The Archangel’s Cathedral, rather dark on the inside, holds graves of Russian tsars and prices; the feeling was pleasantly morbid. Other buildings seemed closed, at some places renovations were in progress, others were just off limit for visitors.
We moved on though the Secret Gardens (Тайницкий сад), which again, March is not a good time to visit, and return through the Senate Square (Сенатская площадь), to the exit.
Next destination was Victory Park (Парк Победы), to which we came with a combination of a Metro and a rather long walk, only to later realize, metro could brought us right to it. The good side of walking was, that we passed right by Triumphal Arch of Moscow (Триумфальные ворота) and had kind of a close view of Moskva-City.
When arrived to the park, we were greeted with The monument to the heroes of the First World War (Памятник героям Первой мировой войны).
We enjoyed a walk though a park, approaching Victory Monument (Монумент Победы), the highest monument in Russia. The depiction of St George slaying the dragon (which is Coat of arms of Moscow), its height is 141,8 meters, which is 10 cm for every day of the War.
Standing right bellow giant obelisk, which is stretching to the sky, was an unique experience, hard to put into worlds. I’m not used of buildings of such scale, and experiencing them in reality was truly astonishing.
The look back from Poklonnaya Hill (Поклонная гора), revealed large empty Victory Park, one thing is for sure, feeling claustrophobic in Moscow is impossible, there’s a lot of wide open spaces, regularly contrasted by buildings of a magnificent size.
We had a quick lunch near to the Park Pobedy Metro, then we moved on to the Arbat Street (Арбат).
Adorable place, with a lot of fluffy beings, giving free hugs; we came across bear from popular cartoon Masha and the Bear (Маша и Медведь), and Cheburashka (Чебурашка). We entered some souvenir shops, which were offering Russian wooden cutlery, pots, cups and dolls, wonderfully painted, very attractive but rather expensive.
After walking for a while, we came across a Torture Museum by chance, and entered. At ticket counter, we were meet by a very disinterested girl, barely taking a notice of us. When asked, she blabbed a discriminatory policy: entrance fee more expensive for men. Disturbing. But after all, this was a TORTURE museum, so torturing started right at the entrance. The museum left me with mixed feelings, it was hard to determent if it’s just a spooky house, or if things there holds any historical value (in either material or informational side). On our way out, casher take no notice of us, she was busy typing something on her phone. It was a while since I saw someone taking so little care about the world around, while in job.
Outside was getting dark, we walked a bit more, then directed ourselves back towards the hotel.
We had a quick dinner, and visited a small shop nearby, where I came across a Slovene product: Bio laneno seme; quite cute, so small we are, but all around the world.
Belka & Strelka (Day 5, 28th March)
We visited a Flea market (Блошиный рынок), at Тишинская пл., where quite a lot of interesting items was available. The prices were rather high though.
Next on the list was Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics (Мемориальный музей космонавтики), and on the way there, VDNKh (ВДНХ), which has significance for anyone who read Metro 2033.
As we left the VDNKh, a magnificent Monument to the Conquerors of Space (Монумент «Покорителям космоса») came to view. The monument is 110 meters tall, has 77° incline, and is made of titanium.
The Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics contains approximately 85,000 different items linked to Soviet space exploration, including preserved Belka and Strelka (Белка и Стрелка), two adorable dogs, the first Earth-born creatures to go into orbit and return alive. After landing, Belka and Strelka became national heroes, being presented in kindergartens, schools and orphanages; Soviet schools even initiated lessons on how to be kind to stray dogs. They both lived to an old age, and died of a natural causes.
Museum had really a lot to offer, starting with beginning of space exploration, moving through time towards current decade.
There was a lot of people, including kids, which seemed very interested in the history. I love to observe people. I took a special interest in a father and son, they were embodiment of simplicity, and good that comes from it; I found them intriguing, they’ve just absorbed my attention. They were so quiet, polite and modest. It was something awkward, yet beautiful in their interaction. The contrast of them was a little girl, who’s name I learned to be Masha. She was a happy child, running all around, pointing to every item asking questions about it. Her parents were barely been able to keep up with her. It’s not only me who took interest in people, they took interest in me — one man casually approached me, and asked if I’m Russian. When I said no, he walked back to his wife and said: “I told you so!”, hilarious.
After museum, we did some walking, exploring and finally concluded day with a dinner.
Goodbye Moscow (Day 6, 29th March)
Many of my travelings were marked with an odd coincidences: I visited Venice when Pope was there, Morocco (Fes) when King was vising, and I was leaving Russia when a new rule, to disregard DST, was put into practice for the very first time: Sunday the 29th of March.
The consequence of this was nothing dramatic, just a slight annoyance: a Taxi, which we order an evening before, showed up one hour too early. He was absolutely sure that we made a mistake, until he called head office.
This cost us a bit of sleep, but we did see a bit more of Moscow, as taxi driver promised he’ll driver slowly and a bit thorough the city. Streets were mostly empty at such time, and I had a chance to see some magnificent building again, and some of them, which I haven’t seen before.
I ate a sandwich at the airport, and drank a hot fruit tea, then it was time to say до свидания to Russia.
Wizzair yet again showed their amateurish, neglecting nature. They’ve put only priority class and women with small children on a first bus, which was hence pretty much empty. The rest of us, had to go to the second bus, which was so packed, that those who were late, literally had no space to enter, until the rest of us, who were already squeezed in, squeezed even more. At this place, I’d like to officially ask Wizzair, please, if needed charge couple of EUR more, just organize a normal transport, this was inhumane! And dangerous!
Flight was again a bit shaky, but again nothing dramatic.
Budapest was noticeably warmer. A long and boring drive home was waiting for me. Highway, straight, endless, tiering. Hungarian music on the radio. Me, going through all the impressions.
I thought Moscow will be very crowded, I heard that traffic can be absolutely dreadful. I didn’t got impression it’s so bad. Compared to other big cities (or even cities here in Slovenia) it didn’t seem much different. In rush hours, it was crowded of course, a lot of cars, and a lot of people everywhere, subway was packed, and we had nearly a place to stand.
When not in rush hours, traffic was running smooth, we came though the city very fast (with a taxi or a bus) and we could mostly sit on a subway. Streets, at least where we were walking, were always very wide, so it was no need to to constantly avoid someone. Compared to Dublin’s Grafton or O’Connell Street, which are anthills, in Moscow is actually joy to just stroll around various streets.
The streets and roads were much cleaner than I expected, but cars were quite dirty, lowering the appearance of the city itself.
To find a way around the city was quite easy, that’s because of the huge architecture and monuments, which serves as a good guideline. Additionally to that, a metro can serve as a very nice orientation point too — if you’re ever lost, there will usually be a metro station nearby.
The food was pricey and rather small portions were served, choice for vegetarians was not as good as in Slovenia. The food was almost always good though, and there was a nice choice of interesting hot drinks to try. In general I didn’t found Moscow to be particularly expensive, compared to other cities of this size and status.
I found people to be rather friendly and dressed really nicely. Sure we came across some unpleasant, cranky individuals, but that wasn’t a majority. Politeness was especially visible when we asked for directions, — we were never ignored, and everyone really took the time to kindly explain exactly where to go. If I bumped into someone on a subway, even if into a teenage boy, they’ve always politely apologized (as I did too, naturally). The subway in general was well organized, people encouraged to give place to elderly, and almost everyone was strictly following this. I don’t think I’ve seen any old person who couldn’t sit.
Is Moscow dangerous? Yes and no. Locations which I’ve visited were fine. People were mostly relaxed, young and old were freely using their smart-phones and tablets everywhere. There was plenty of police at majority of points, and whenever we entered bigger institutions, there were metal detectors and security. Two young girls and later one man, freely gave me their smart phone to snap a picture of them. We were at various places of city, sometimes at night too. I’ve seen streets which looked dangerous, and we did came across some drunks (on Friday night), but no one was harassing us.
Of course, that’s just my experience, common sense should be used, no matter in which city you are. Always avoid shady streets and people if possible. But even if you do, every now and then, you’ll came across an unstable, aggressive person who’ll harass you. I’ve saw more than enough of mad, drunk and violent people, anywhere I went, some even in Slovenia (where crime rate is really low). There’s only one strategy to deal with these situations: avoid by all means! Moscow is huge and we were mostly in the city center, I’m absolutely sure there’s a lot of dangerous places, but again, that’s true for all cities of this size.
I came to Moscow with positive expectations, I shall not pretend that those expectations did not skew my view a little bit. On the other hand, there’s an objective reality, that Moscow has really a lot to offer. Despite March not being the best time to visit it, I’m still happy I did. There’s really a lot to see, and I only got to taste it, I truly want to return, and take a bigger bite. If you’re curious about Russia, try it. I was fed a lot of, on my opinion, inaccurate observations. When I came, almost everything was vice versa and everything was fine. Just be sure to learn some Russian phrases and letters, life will be much easier.