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Trip Report: Moscow

A handful of years ago (before the good relations our country with Russia began to dissolve) a fortunate wave of discounted fares to Russian destinations from Washington D.C. caught my attention. Straightaway, I booked three weekend trips to this country of which I knew very little other than it was previously a member of the USSR, an entity once considered our greatest national enemy.

The first trip was a sightseeing getaway in Moscow, scheduled to begin on my birthday in March and my friend Penny agreed to join me on the adventure. It will be lovely to see Moscow in the spring, I thought, and that will give me enough time to line up the visas required. Luckily, as I lived in the D.C. area at the time I was able to complete the rather tedious process of applying for and picking up my Russian visa at their embassy. It's definitely the most extensive visa application process I have done to date. They wanted to know every country I'd visited in the past 10 years (that's 42 for me) including dates and cities and other details that I'm not always so good at remembering. They wanted a full job history and residential history dating back a number of years as well. I had to include a letter from my hotel confirming I had reservations and I had to provide justification for my trip in the cover letter for my visa application. Lots of hoops to jump through!

As I worked to obtain my visa, I planned out every detail of the weekend jaunt. We decided to focus on seeing the most well known cultural sites during our small window of time in the city: the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil's Cathedral.

What I remember most about that first trip to Russia was how cold it was. So much for spring. It was very VERY cold. And also very foggy. During any commercial flight, a large portion of the time is spent above the clouds and when you gaze out the window that's all you see beneath you - endless white clouds. And then you break through them as you descend for landing, a full view of the land coming into view. As our red-eye flight started to descend into the Moscow area, the motion woke me from my slumber and I opened the window shade and looked outside. Nothing but fluffy white clouds. As we continued to descend the clouds persisted. I waited for that moment we'd clear them and I could take in the Russian landscape. I readied my camera. It never happened. The plane touched down and my body tensed uncontrollably because I wasn't expecting it - the outside world was still an endless white and I hadn't realized we'd approached ground level. There was so much humidity that visibility was impossible from inside the plane. I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Moscow under heavy winter fog (photo credit Dmitry Chistoprudov)

After we got our bags and left the airport, we walked the short distance to the subway station and entered through the heavy heavy doors. You've never walked through doors so heavy. Important travel tip learned the hard way as an American in Moscow: the doors will not be held open for you. The person in front of you will drop their hands away from the doors as soon as they clear them and if you're not prepared you're going to get hit in the face. Hit in the face by the heaviest doors you've ever walked through.

Once inside the subway that cold Saturday morning, I looked around for the subway platform signs, prepared to check them against my guidebook which indicated which subway train I needed to get on. Panic set it as soon as I found the signs and realized they were in Cyrillic instead of English. This shouldn't have been an ignorant American moment; it should have occurred to me before I made the trip that the signs would not be in English but my guidebook listed the subway train stops and the map in English and the presence of them in the guidebook in my language confused me and altered my expectations of how the signs would actually look. We tried to ask a few different passengers which train we needed (based on our hotel destination) and it took us quite awhile to find even one person who spoke English and was willing to help us. That was also a surprise for me. In all of the countries I had visited prior, many if not most of the residents spoke English as well as their native tongue. Not so much in Moscow. Eventually we got on the right train and headed to the neighborhood of our hotel and checked in.

With only two days available before our return flight home, we set out to explore the city as soon as possible. As we walked along the quiet streets I began to teach myself the Cyrillic alphabet, thanks to the presence of American retail chains that have set up shop in Moscow. If you know the American spellings you can compare the Cyrillic and begin to translate. Take, for example, Starbucks:

Anyone familiar with the iconic coffee chain would recognize the logo.  Now to work out the letter translation, it appears English S is Cyrillic C, T and A are the same, R is P in Cyrillic, B is close enough to looking like a B that we will let it slide, but what's this ..the U is an A again (if A is A and U is A how can you tell which is which???), the English C or K is a K in Cyrillic and there is our S again wearing a Cyrillic C costume. Have we got it so far? And that spells ...uh....
S T A R B U/A C/K S.
Then we have another English C (or K?) represented with a Cyrillic K, the O is the same, and the double Fs have been replaced with a new unknown to English letter, and the E is the same. And that spells Coffee. Hmmm. I'm sure I got some of that wrong, but after seeing enough signs you can start to work out a bit of the translations.

We spent the entirety of that first day exploring the Kremlin, which was the seat of the Russian Tsar. Those were the days before murderous quasi-dictators or communist revolutionaries ran the country; when Russia was the land of princes and princesses, royal balls, and Faberge eggs. The buildings and grounds are spectacular and the most beautiful area of the city (most of the rest of the city's landscape is composed of uninviting, overly-masculine, grey, concrete structures erected during the communist era). The beauty of Russia before the revolution was on full display throughout the Kremlin's museums.  We toured the armory, which holds many of Catherine the Great's possessions.  Her royal carriages stand out in my memory. They look as if they were pulled directly out of a fairytale. I felt like a princess just walking among them and her other things.
Catherine's Coronation Carriage (Image courtesy the Kremlin)
After our leisurely exploration of the Armory (where pictures were limited unless you forked over a pretty penny ruble), we moved onto the series of Kremlin cathedrals.

Dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, all of the cathedrals and churches on the grounds of the Kremlin are adorned with gold and stunning artwork. The bodies of several Tsars are entombed within them and they were the setting of many royal weddings and funerals. These beautiful houses of worship dedicated to saints and angels stand in stark contrast with the image of Russia as a godless people that the American government tried to sell Americans in the 1980s.

After an exciting but tiring afternoon downtown, Penny and I sought out some Eastern European cuisine for dinner. Our hotel staff directed us to a cozy, upscale restaurant a few neighborhoods away and called us a cab. The food was fantastic. I had a steamy bowl of carrot ginger soup with carrot cake croutons and Penny chose a warm seafood salad. We left the restaurant sleepy and full.

GUM Building
The next day we ventured out to Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral. Nearby the square sits the historic GUM building. Catherine the second had an Italian architect build it for her in the early 19th century. It housed thousands of stores and served as a major market. When the communists took over, they nationalized the market and turned all the shops into state stores, which did very poorly. Eventually they converted the structure to an office building and it remained so for many years until democracy came to Russia and capitalism saw fit to turn the GUM building back into a shopping center. It's now a luxury shopping mall.

State Museum
The State Museum also sits on the square and houses a vast collection of items spanning the whole of Russia history.

St Basil's Cathedral

St. Basil's Cathedral is, from the outside, the prettiest church I have ever seen. It's colorful and whimsical and breathtaking in person. 

So damn adorable I want to cry...LOOK at those teensy tiny dolls!!!

We spent the last hours of daylight on our final day window shopping. It was during this time that I fell in love with Russian dolls. Faberge eggs are lovely and all but Russian dolls are where it's at. Well beyond my budget at the time of the trip, I keep promising myself that one day I'll purchase an authentic set just for my own delight. 

Besides the dolls, I also fell for a host of culinary delights I was first introduced to on this trip - currant jam on black bread with tea, Chicken Kiev, mashed potatoes with mushroom cream gravy, black currant juice, and cherry strudel. Yum! 

It wouldn't be fitting to close this trip report without thanking the front desk overnight staff at the Mecure Arbat hotel. In the wee hours of the morning while Penny and I were packing our suitcases for the return trip, I tried on the pair of stylish knockoff Faberge egg earrings I'd purchased in a souvenir stall and realized I couldn't get them off once I'd closed the clasps on the back of them. They'd wedged themselves shut seemingly permanently. After 40 minutes of trying, with tears streaming down my face, I approached the front desk and asked the staff for help. They called the maintenance man who showed up 20 minutes later and used a pair of industrial pliers to force the clasps open while I was bent over the front desk with my hair back and ears pulled forward. I still have the earrings, although I'm terrified to ever put them on again. 


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