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Thursday, November 11, 2010

From Russia with Love

Day 86 - Day 100!

So, I finally made it to Moscow!  After all the hassles that I had with the visa, again, I was admitted into the country with very little questioning.  We were about an hour delayed and so I needed to quickly find my luggage and make my way out towards my friend Eleanor’s house.  Eleanor and I also used to work together; she is also good friends with Yvonne, Maggie and Andy!  Eleanor has been living and working in Moscow for the last year and a half so I was extremely lucky to know someone in Moscow who knew the area and could speak the language.  Russia is rumored to be one of the most expensive cities in the world and I wasn’t entirely excited to see if this rumor was true!  

I was also very lucky to have two friends come out to see me!  It was definitely a special treat to have a visit from friends!   There haven’t been many moments that I was completely alone on my trip; I was always surrounded by good people, but it is definitely much more fun to be able to discover a city and experience things with dear friends.  So my two visitors were: Judy and Simone.  I met both of them on my study abroad to Japan almost 13 years ago!  Judy is a very close friend of mine and we have traveled to many countries together.  She is and has continued to be a great supporter of my current soul searching mission.  Simone, who is Dutch, also came along on the journey.  I haven’t seen this girl in years!  10 years to be exact!  The last time I saw her, was in her hometown of Amsterdam.

Stepping out of the baggage claim and then to purchase my airport express ticket (which Eleanor had advised me about beforehand) was challenging!  Was this going to be what it was like traveling around in Russia?  Hardly anything was written in English and trying to communicate with others, was even more challenging!  Somehow I managed my way and found myself heading towards the city center.  The airport express would terminate at a Metro stop and from there I would need to transfer two lines to get to Eleanor’s place.  Getting into the city was painless but from there is when Russia slapped me in the face!  Everything was written in Russian!  At least, I could somewhat decode the signs…but very minimally.  Russia’s written language is based on the Cyrillic alphabets which are similar to the Greek alphabets and because my university was big on Greek fraternities and sororities, I could figure out a lot of the letters.   But still, the signs were illogically made, at least in my mind, so it was very difficult.  I couldn’t figure out how any of it was organized but somehow I was able to find people to ask and find my way.

Eleanor was incredibly kind to allow both of my friends, who she had never met before, to stay over as well!  Since I didn’t have a phone, it made our meet up a bit more of a struggle.  At least the girls had their phones and were able to use it in Russia.  Originally, they were both supposed to arrive an hour and after me which would put us in around the same time since my flight was delayed but as luck would have it, the airlines lost Simone’s bags and so they spent a lot of time at the airport trying to sort it out.  It would have been a tad bit easier for logistical purposes anyway, to have met at the airport but Moscow is actually home to 4 international airports and we were flying in from opposite sides of the city!  So we both made our way to Eleanor’s house, independently.  Somehow even though my flight was delayed, I arrived almost 2 hours earlier than the girls!  I was quite pleased with myself and imagined myself being the first team to arrive in the Amazing Race!  (For those of you who don’t know, I am obsessed with the show and am just waiting for my partner to join the race with me! This is an open invitation but sorry, I am only seeking male partners). 
Eleanor found me (even without a phone) and it was nice because I got to settle and catch up with her while we waited for the others.  The last time I saw Eleanor was also at Yvonne’s wedding in Calgary so it had been almost a year and a half!  I got to try some traditional Russian treats including caviar mayonnaise? It was actually surprisingly delicious!  We finally met up with the girls almost around 10PM!  Upon getting in, we were soon off to an Uzbekistan restaurant.  We each ordered a soup ($10), shared one small dish of lamb fried rice and delicious bread; Eleanor and Simone both enjoyed a glass of red wine while Judy and I got bottled water.  The damage?  Would you believe that we paid $20 EACH?!  Yes, we did!  Oh my God, is this what Russian prices were like?  I really hope not!  Otherwise, I won’t come out alive!

My $10 soup!

We got back that night and stayed up later than we would have wanted.  Despite having only little sleep, we zealously woke up the next day so that we could take in what Moscow had to offer.  Judy’s mom had been out to Russia a few years back and had tipped Judy on the must-sees of the city so her advice was what we were going off of.  But first, we needed to sort out train tickets.  We were planning to leave Moscow on Sunday to head over to St. Petersburg.  We needed to get train tickets but were totally on our own since El was off at work.   Among the three of us though, we were pretty well experienced, the two other girls doing a lot of travel for work and small trips here and there for the weekend and well, you know my story….so we were ready for the challenge.  

Understand that most people, at least that we found, did not speak English…there were a handful but it was hard to figure out who did and who didn’t…so it was always hit or miss when we asked people on the streets.  We were given conflicting information and were told by the last rail employee, in her non-existent English, that we needed to go to another train station to purchase our tickets; but by a stroke of luck, a few steps away, I saw a hall and decided to turn in to see if we could perhaps by our ticket here…we asked around and although no one spoke English, they seemed to nod when we asked ‘Moscow to St. Petersburg?’ so we decided to queue up and prayed that we were at the right place.  We found that most of the train people were surprisingly a little friendlier than we would have expected which made our purchasing a bit easier.  I wrote out our destinations and handed it over to the attendant, she gave us a price which was about $30 for a sleeper and we agreed and purchased it straight away.
Kind teller who spoke no English but helped us with our tickets to St. Petersburg
After that was done, we decided to spend the rest of the day on a boat cruise in the city.  This was about $13 for a one way trip down the Moskva River…it was a teeny bit cold but it was definitely a nice way to see the city.  We passed a lot of very ‘Russian’ buildings, those onion topped churches that you always see in movies but we didn’t know enough about Russian history and or geography to really know what we were looking at…we did noticed that many couples that we saw sitting on benches at Gorky Park, merged together very affectionately.  Coming from the Western world, we were actually quite surprised at how outwardly they displayed their affection towards one another; many women straddling their boyfriends…if I could have taken a photo for you, you know I would but it was just too obvious…

We got off the boat in good time because just minutes after disembarking, the rain started to pour down on us.  Judy had accidentally left her bathroom in the mall earlier that day (when we ran back 5 minutes later, it was already gone) so we had to navigate ourselves in the rain.  We eventually made it back to the station and then eventually found our way back to the flat.
The next day, we headed to the Kremlin.  I didn’t know much about Russia, but I knew I needed to get to the Kremlin!  The Kremlin, although commonly used to refer to the old Soviet regime, is in actuality an old fort that is home to four palaces, 4 cathedrals, the Kremlin walls and towers with the Moskva River to the South, Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral to the East and the Alexander Gardens to the West.  Of all the buildings and exhibits within the Kremlin, we had read that the ‘Armory Room’ was a must see…so we rushed to buy our tickets.   Who knew that it would cost us RUB700 ($23) just to go and see the Armory Room?  Of course I had to do the audio tour which was included in the price (it very well should have been)! 

Cathedral Square, Kremlin
The Armory Room was impressive but definitely not worth $23 even with the ‘free’ audio tour.   Maybe $10 and I would have been okay with it.  The other advice that Judy’s mom had was that we should see the Diamond Room RUB 500 ($16).  Okay, that was definitely not worth it!  Rather than a proper colored glossy guide and explanations of the diamonds housed here - what you would expect with a price tag like that - we had a Xerox copy, explaining the 10 or so showcases.  Judy really liked it; maybe it was because I wasn’t really into all the bling bling or maybe because I already visited the diamond mines in Kimberley?  Either way, for $16 I was sadly disappointed.  That day, we also purchased a ticket to get into the Kremlin RUB350 ($11) to see the Cathedral Square which allowed entrance into the 4 main cathedrals in the square. This was also not worth it! It’s a little like seen one cathedral, seen ‘em all.  I’m still not quite sure if we needed to pay to get into the Kremlin or if it was free.  All in all, we paid $50 in entry fees!  I suppose it’s something you need to do when in Russia and I guess I won’t need to do it again if I ever return but, wow, I really wasn’t ready to pay all that money!

 Later, we tried to go to the Red Square but it seemed to be closed off…we didn’t really have a map so we weren’t entirely sure if it was the Red Square or not but either way, it seemed that we couldn’t get in…So instead, we rested ourselves at a coffee shop in the GUM mall; the building was quite impressive with its magnificent storefront.  We spent time, catching up on the internet as we had not been able to have any wireless connection since our arrival. That night we stayed in to cook and later met up with some of her other friends at their house party.  I thought it was exciting to meet up with other fellow Americans but somehow, working for the Foreign Service, they seemed to think they were too good for us.  So we just enjoyed each other’s companies, had random conversations with others who were willing to talk to us,  then decided to call it a night.

The following day, we went out determined to find the Red Square!  This time, although they were setting up for some kind of city celebration, we were able to get into the Red Square although we had to go through security.  Here, we paid a visit to the Lenin Mausoleum which was free!  Hallelujah!  Surprisingly, there was also no line as we were warned there always is…

When you enter the Mausoleum, you’re first startled by the guard that is staring straight at you…dressed in black or some other dark color; a stark contrast to the pale whiteness of their skin which makes their faces appear to be glowing, sometimes even floating.  They just stand there, guarding the sacred tomb, distracted by nothing.  As you continue to walk in, down steps, there are more mannequin looking guards.  All is still, the guards there to make sure you move along quickly and quietly.  You really only get to walk along the perimeter of the body and then are expected to exit.  There was clearly no line and so we wanted to take our time but the mannequins moved and told us to move on.  But luckily for us, since there was no line that day and because it was free, we decided to go through security again so that we can pay tribute to this once great leader.  It was kind of funny because the second time around, the first guard that we saw actually cracked a smile!  I took pride in the fact that I was able to see him smile and pleased to see that he found it entertaining that we wanted to see their revered leader once again.  After all that is said and done, I am still quite amazed that Lenin’s body is still in the condition that it is (so I assume) since 1924!  Wow…imagine having your great grand kids able to view your body long after you’re gone!   I never had the opportunity to meet my paternal grandmother but think it would have been awesome to have been able to ‘see’ her.  Apparently, as I read more on this topic, it actually takes a lot of work to maintain Lenin in the condition that he is today…

After seeing Lenin, we paid a trip to another famous landmark in Moscow, St. Basil’s Cathedral. I can’t really tell you much of its significance or history but I'd say it is probably the one thing that most people envision when they think of Russia.  The colorful onion domed church situated right off of the Red Square is a prominent landmark of Moscow.  So or course we spent about an hour, okay maybe not that long but let's just say a significant portion of our time here trying to take the best ‘Russian photo’ that we could…

Later, we managed to meet up with Eleanor and walked around the city.  That day, there seemed to be some kind of parade or protest or something…we really didn’t know but we made sure we were part of the action especially since the four different branches of security seemed to not care that we were there.  Then we walked around and go to walk around in one of the art museums for free…I wish I could remember the name but it was a museum that held the collection of one artist.  I was completely mesmerized by some of his works on the upper levels because the paintings seem to have come alive and at one point, I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a photograph or a painting.  Later, El took us to another cathedral, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It is a Russian Orthodox Church and apparently the largest Orthodox Church in the world!  What was cool here was that we got to go in and observe an actual operational church.  People moved around kissing the paintings of saints and lighting candles.  I suppose if I were Russian Orthodox, much of their rituals would have made sense to me but since I’m not, it didn’t.  I found the kissing of the feet of the paintings quite interesting though…

Relaxing in the middle of a rally?
That night Eleanor brought us to a restaurant to sample some traditional Russian foods.  Almost every day since our arrival we had borscht and this dinner was no exception! Though I will say, that it was only okay here.  The food was okay, nothing to write home about, but we thoroughly enjoyed the 80’s dance floor and joined in on the music a few times!  After dinner we went out to meet some of her friends at an overly crowded bar/club.  We stayed out a bit and soon called it a nice home…it was a good thing because at a dive, alcohol was about $8 a pop.

On our final day together in Moscow, I decided to sleep in as the two girls tried to make the most of their last day in the city.  As a send-off, Eleanor was so kind to prepare a very nice ‘English’ meal for us which I enjoyed very much!  Beef stew and dumplings along with a nice bread pudding dessert.  We didn’t have much time after dinner because we needed to make our way to the train station to catch our night train to St. Petersburg.

When we arrived at the train station, we were warned by El, that we needed to pay good attention to the departures board because there are literally more than a dozen trains, all heading to St. Petersburg but only distinguished by a few minutes from each other. So we quickly scanned the board and tried to find our train. It took us a while because for some reason, the train that we thought we were on didn’t say that it was heading to St. Petersburg.  In the end, Judy managed to ask this nice young girl for help and she was so nice that since she couldn’t figure it out, walked us over to the counter to sort things out and even after that, walked us into our car to make sure we knew exactly which beds we had.  Sleeping on the train was one a riot!  Simone who is 6’ tall had the hardest time squeezing into her bed which was the upper bunk. Sorry to laugh but it was actually really funny! Judy, at 5’7” even complained about feeling cramped. Somehow I got lucky and had the bottom bed so with very little effort, managed to get into my bed.
The nice girl who helped us find our train


I could have been nice and offer my bed to Simone but I think she liked the climb

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