The Great Russian Adventure to the Country’s Two Biggest Cities
I really do not plan ahead when I travels but actually planned far enough ahead to get a visa to travel to the home of Aliya Mustafina, Svetlana Khorkina, and dear old Nellie Kim.
I wanted to visit Russia for a while but had heard that the complicated visa process made it extremely difficult for Americans to visit. Upon receiving my Irish passport, I decided to see if the process was easier for Irish citizens. Turns out the process is exactly the same and not even that difficult. The only major benefit of an Irish passport versus a US passport is that the visa cost half as much on an Irish passport ($90 vs $160). The process involved procuring an invitation which I did online through a hostel website for about $27, filling out an application, providing proof of insurance for the duration of the stay in Russia, taking some goofy passport photos, and handing in a postal money order for the visa fee. I followed these steps and was granted a 30 day tourist visa to the Russian Federation.
I thought about taking the Trans-Mongolian Railway all the way through Russia and meeting up with friends in South East Asia but I decided that taking a train by myself for that long would be really boring. I then decided to just visit the Golden Ring, which is an area around Moscow but then ended up lounging around Kiev for about three weeks and then attended the Szombathely World Cup, which left me with only about a week left in Russia to see Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I occasionally wished O had spent more time there but in all honestly if I had had more time, I would have done a whole lot less, exactly like in Kiev.
Because she only had a week in the country and had already spent over $100 to visit, GymMapStics ran around like a chicken with her head cut off while in Russia. She flew from Bratislava to Moscow and successfully navigated the metro to her hostel. She was very surprised to see the Communist hammer and sickle all over the place in the metro. Many former Communist countries that I have visited scrub their cites of these symbols because the Soviet era was not pleasant and a time of occupation for these nations. The hammer and sickle is pretty common all over Moscow. I arrived at my hostel and then went to a deli down the street for some food and conducted the entire conversation through pointing, nodding, and smiling. I returned to my hostel and went to sleep pretty early as plane travel tends to wipe me out.
The next day I did a “walking tour” from the hostel to the Red Square led by a Brazilian volunteer in the hostel. I thought it was an actual tour but it was better than wandering through the city by myself on my first day there. The Brazilian “tour guide,” an Italian hostel volunteer and I went to the Red Square and saw Lenin’s Tomb, which is free to enter and has pretty heavy security. Vladmir Lenin died in 1924 and the public viewing of his body continues to this day. According to the Lonely Planet, he is cleaned every few days and pumped with embalming fluid every few months. He looked like a wax figure from Madam Tussaud’s.
The tour then wound through the Red Square to entrance of the Kremlin but first passed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where I witnessed the changing of the guards, which involved a lot of 1990’s-style gymnastics goose stepping.
I chose to eschew the Kremlin in favor of a visit to Saint Basel’s Cathedral, which was rather underwhelming and I wished I had visited the Kremlin instead. I then wandered around a mall where she ran into her best friends Svetlana and Alexei.
After catching up with those legends, I ate at a vegetarian restaurant and was shocked at how much they charged for a tiny portion of moussaka. I found Moscow much more expensive overall than I thought it would be. I also found it much colder than I thought it would be and decided to head back to the hostel to put on a million more layers because I was totally underdressed for the 1C/32F degree weather. I also decided to look up second hand shops to try to find a coat heaver than the rain liner I had been wearing. i visited a few shops and then took the metro to another shop and if you ever go to Moscow, spend a day only riding the subway. Many stations are filled with statues and are almost museum quality.
Additionally, the metro has very little English or Latin characters which made traveling through the city a fun adventure. I have picked up Cyrillic after spending a decent amount of time in countries that do not use the Latin alphabet so she did not have any problem navigating the extensive metro.
The next day I visited a souvenir market that I had heard described as a Russian Disneyland in that it was a fake castle designed to lure tourists into spending money. The fake Kremlin did not have any rides but it had a lot of shops and souvenirs for sale. Still dealing with my complete lack of preparation for the weather, I bought some “wool” gloves that immediately began to shed and I realized that they were cheap synthetic knit gloves covered in a thin layer of wool. I did not mind because they only cost about $8 and kept my freezing cold hands slightly warmer.
On her third and final day in Moscow, I visited the Cosmonaut Museum. I had been to Kennedy Space Center in Florida a few times and thought it would be interesting to see a museum from the other side of the space race. The museum featured many artifacts, including the stuffed bodies of two of the dogs that had been sent into space, numerous space suits, and a lot of models as well as original pieces of aircraft. The museum did not have a lot of English signs or descriptions so I used my imagination for a few of the displays.
I then visited the amusement park and trade show pavilion surrounding the Cosmonaut Museum. The park had been originally constructed in the 1930’s and has a major monument to Lenin and the building still references the Communist Party. The entrance gate to the park also had a huge statue from the Soviet era. I have been to many cities and countries that have similar histories, architecture, and cultures but the park and her time in Moscow in general felt like an entirely different world and I greatly enjoyed her time there.
I had been traveling almost a year when she reached Moscow and somehow had avoided taking overnight trains. I had taken two overnight buses in Turkey and an overnight shuttle van thing from Belgrade to Milan to attend Euros but overnight trains had never been the cheapest or easiest option, which is strange because so many travelers take many overnight trains. I had limited time in Russia and also felt like an overnight train was part of the Russian experience and booked a ticket from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. I arrived at the train station around 21:30 for her 22:30 train and spent a good amount of time searching for the platform. Upon finding it, I waited for the train to arrive and then got in line for the wrong car twice before discovering the correct queue.
I entered the train and found my bunk, which was currently two seats and a table occupied by two large Russian men. I motioned to my ticket and the two men moved to the table and beds next to my bunk where another man and a woman sat. The four people sat in complete silence and stared at me as I pulled off a hundred outer layers of clothing and began to set up my bunk. The staring family assisted me by pointing to a coat hook and the sheets that were on the upper bunk. I set up my bunk and settled down for an okay night of sleep.
I have become a very heavy sleeper after spending almost a year sharing a room with seven other people every night so it was no surprise that the train attendant had to bellow, “Санкт-Петерб́ург!!!!!” to wake me up immediately prior to the train’s arrival in Saint Petersburg. I sat up and the family next to me again stared and watched me pack up my bunk. The train pulled into the station and I waited with fifty other people for the metro to open and then boarded the metro and found my hostel around 6:45. The receptionist at the hostel showed me around the immaculate facilities and my bed was available so I crawled into a non-moving bed and slept for another four hours.
I had slept through the beginning of the walking tour so I planned my own walking route to see the main sites, including the Kazan Cathedral, the Church on the Spilled Blood, named for an assassination attempt, not for having actually been built upon a vat of vampire food, Palace Square, the Winter Palace, St Isacc’s Cathedral, and St Nicholas’ Naval Cathedral. Lot of churches.
I returned to the hostel, cooked dinner, and settled down on the comfy couch for a Home Alone double feature. I watched the movie while chatting with other travelers but also with the receptionist and an actual Russian person, who gave recommendations and also explained a lot about Russian culture and history.
The next day I visited the State Hermitage Museum, which was established by Catherine the Great and is in the former palace that served as home to the Russian monarchy. I bought my ticket online which allowed me to skip the incredibly long line outside and head straight into the overwhelmingly large museum. I spent about four and a half hours in the museum and did not even see everything. I had to use a pen to track my progress on a map otherwise I would have had no idea where I was or what I had seen or anything.
On my last full day in Russia, I checked off the last item on my to do list and saw Swan Lake. I had looked into buying tickets for the Bolshoi in Moscow but they were sold out months in advance and I did not want to take my chances on standby tickets. I then looked into tickets in Saint Petersburg but the only remaining tickets were far out of my price range but the receptionist at the hostel told me that a smaller theater would be putting on a performance of Tchaikovsky’s ballet and tickets were still available. I rushed to the theater and bought a ticket for well within my price range. The performance itself was absolutely amazing and definitely a highlight of both the week in Russia and the trip overall.