Moscow and St Petersburg
March in Russia. Actually, Russia in March
We flew into Moscow at 11am, Friday, March 17, sixteen hours after taking off from Seatac. We came to visit my brother, Dave, who has been living in Moscow for the better part of two years. After a long wait to get through the understaffed Passport Control (they apparently failed to anticipate the daily arrival of a Boeing 767 from the U.S.), Dave and his fiance, Yulya, met us outside baggage claim. It was so great to see them, although the hurried fashion in which they whisked us outside to get a taxi served as a nice introduction into sociology in Moscow: don’t smile like Americans and don’t linger in public places, which could draw attention from police who may be on the lookout for tourists.
It was midnight back in Seattle when we landed, so our challenge for the day was to try and stay awake for 10 more hours to get onto Moscow time. So after Yulya helped us with our Cyrillic pronunciation, we decided to go with Dave to his school where he had to run an errand. This was our first experience with the Moscow Metro, their immense subway system, and after all the preparatory advice from Dave we ventured forward, prepared to push as needed, put on a Moscow scowl, and not make unnecessary eye contact. It was also the first time out on the frozen, slippery sidewalks. Dave describes negotiating the ice as walking like a penguin, and if you’ve seen “March of the Penguins” you know this isn’t a very efficient way to walk.
That night we played Yulya’s old Russian board game, Monte Carlo, which is kind of like Monopoly, drank Vodka (not like Russians though — i.e. we only had a couple shots each), and ate some Russian delicacies such as salty (pickled) cucumbers and salty (pickled) mushrooms, the latter having an interesting coating of ectoplasm. Yes, that ectoplasm, the sort that Slimer tended to leave on things. But if you got past the texture, they were pretty tasty. We managed to stay up fairly late before falling uncontrollably asleep.
The accomodations at Dave & Yulya’s flat were cozy, as real estate agents like to say. Dave & Yulya sleep on a couch in the living room that folds down into a bed, like a Futon, and the bottoms of the two living room chairs pull out and extend into a sleeping surface about 6 1/2 feet long, which would be our beds. These came with the apartment, to give you an idea that this might not be an unusual living arrangement for a family of four. But perhaps because Kirsten and I have a lot of experience spending many consecutive nights in a tent in less than cozy situations, we were very comfortable there.
There were a couple unique examples of the communist infrastucture that we learned about at their flat. The government pipes in all the gas and hot water to the city, so there is an unlimited supply at your disposal, and residents don’t pay for any of it. So leaving the hot water running while you’re taking care of something else? No problem. Turning on the gas stove to help heat the apartment? Totally fine. The first morning I walked into the kitchen and saw two burners running, I didn’t know what to do. My instincts told me it must be a mistake, and I asked Dave if he wanted me to turn them off. He gave me an inquisitive look as though it were obvious and said, “No.”
On Saturday, we went to Red Square because you have to. We didn’t try as hard to stay inconspicuous here, as there were many tourists, most of whom looked Russian, but we felt like we stuck out less with a camera anyway, especially with several members of the Russian military walking around with cameras. St Basil’s Cathedral is pretty impressive, as are the walls of the Kremlin. Lenin’s tomb was closed, so we missed out on the experience of viewing his 80-years-dead body, which we don’t have any regrets about. Afterwards, we walked to a cool little restaurant. Set up below ground underneath an old soviet building, it was dimly lit, but clean and the service was good and they had lots of hearty Russian food. The soup I had was so salty I think it gave me a dehydration headache. Kirsten’s BLT (the “B” part of which was questionably cooked) didn’t settle well and she ended up feeling really sick after we had toured the old and new Arbat Districts and were browsing the Dom Knigi (book store). We weren’t super impressed by Arbat, but I think March was really the wrong time of year to hang out there. It was just a little too cold and got dark too early.
Kirsten’s sickness lasted through Sunday and into Monday, so we didn’t do much those days. Monday, we had planned to meet up with the Russian agents of the people we got our visas through, in order to register. Moscow has this charming requirement that all visitors register their presence within three business days of arriving. This is usually done by your hotel, which is very easy, but registering when you are staying at someone’s private residence is a lot more of a hassle. So much so that when my brother, Aaron, was visiting with my parents last year, the police recommended he just pay the fine to them and hope he doesn’t get stopped. A cute example of the way the police like to supplement their meager salaries through the pockets of tourists.
On another occasion, shortly after Dave first moved there, a policeman threatened to put him in jail if he didn’t pay him an exorbitant bribe. Not knowing that it was an empty threat, Dave paid him, and thus learned the hard way that if you’re smart and you can handle a little confrontation, you don’t have to put up with the police shenanigans. We fortunately benefited from his experience, and while it made us a little freaked out by the confrontation, we were also a little reassured that if we did get stopped it didn’t have to be a terrible thing. After a couple days we figured out we should keep a “police wallet” separate from our hidden money belts. In this special wallet we kept a couple hundred rubles ready for any occasions in which we might need access to money quickly. We figured this out after I screwed up and revealed my money belt to a security guard at the Sculpture Park by Gorky Park and the New Tretyakov Gallery.
Kirsten and I tried to go to the Gallery on our own Monday afternoon. She was feeling slightly better and we figured it would be a good test of our ability to get around on our own and see how well she literally stomached the activity. Turns out we went to the new gallery on accident — we didn’t realize there were two. We were very confused as we were reading in the guidebook that there should be certain masterpieces on the 2nd floor, and all we saw were local artists sitting at vending booths selling their arts and crafts. We didn’t figure out until we got back to Dave & Yulya’s that there were in fact two and we had gone to the wrong one.
Anyway, while we were trying to find the gallery, we decided to walk through the Sculpture Park. We were about 200 feet in when we walked past three security guards. Kirsten kept walking and had gone about 50 feet before she realized I had stopped. She looked back at me and motioned to me to “come on!” But she didn’t realize that one of the guards had stepped in front of me and wanted to collect an entrance fee. Not sure if this was a legit fee, but he showed me the admission ticket I was to purchase, and the fee was 20 rubles each, but the guard told me we would have to pay 50 rubles. I was tired, hungry and hadn’t got used to converting rubles on the spot yet and was thinking that was about $20. It’s really only about $2. Anyway, I pulled up my jacket and unzipped my money belt to get out a couple 10 ruble bills. I did this stupidly in plain view of the guard, and he noticed that I had a 1,000 ruble bill in there as well, so when I showed him the 10 ruble bill, he shook his head, grinned, then with his finger mimicked writing two extra zeros next to the “10.” It didn’t matter how I did the exchange rate conversion, I laughed and shook my head vigorously, saying “nyet!” Kirsten started to get mad, and I tried to calm her down a little. I realized they weren’t very serious about it, and finally we ended up only paying him the 50 rubles. In other words, it was a lucky and inexpensive lesson.
We were planning on heading to Saint Petersburg Monday night, which would mean technically our 3rd business day in Moscow wouldn’t be until we returned from St Peterburg on Thursday, so we decided to wait to register until we returned. This was a bit of a risk, we knew, but were starting to understand this is all a little bit of a game, and Dave is comfortable playing it. Kirsten was feeling quite a bit better Monday night, even eating food for the first time in about 36 hours, so after Yulya helped us purchase train tickets and make hotel reservations, we packed a change of clothes and our sleeping bags (which Yulya called our “magic bags” because they are down summerweight bags and compress to the size of a large grapefruit) into our messenger bags, and hopped on the 11pm night train. I dozed restlessly throughout the ride. Neither of us had slept on a train before and our cabin was unbelievably hot, but Kirsten was smart and took a benadryl, so she slept a lot better than me.
When the train’s attendant woke us up at 8am, an hour before our ETA, our cabin-mates asked us to partake in their breakfast with them. Turns out they were from a small town near the Caspian Sea, the woman spoke good English, and they were headed to St Pete’s to defend her dissertation for her professor of philosophy degree. He was a computer programmer who understood English, but didn’t know it well enough to speak it. They were such nice people and we felt so lucky to have them as our mates. It was such a pleasant way to ease into our first venture out on our own!
We were gouged by the tourist price for our taxi ride to the hotel ($40 for a 20 minute ride), but we reluctantly paid it as we were just happy to be able to get to our hotel without any problems and didn’t really have a choice, having no bargaining power. Well, we did get there with no problems, once our driver added some gas to his tank from the jug he kept in his trunk. We checked into our hotel around 10am, showered, and took a nap while we waited for the hotel to register our passports. Then we started walking. No more cab rides for us; we hoofed it in the 20 degree weather, half an hour to St Isaac’s Cathedral. This wasn’t our primary target, but by the time we got there, we were pretty cold, it looked like it could be interesting, and it was only about $10 to go inside, which didn’t seem like much considering how cold we were.
We lingered in the beautiful, ornate cathedral for a while, taking lots of pictures, and then decided to head out and try and find the Idiot Cafe for dinner. We wandered around, doing our best to read the street signs and follow our map, but after an hour or so, we couldn’t find the restaurant. We were getting colder and hungrier and starting to get desperate, when suddenly Kirsten saw it. The only sign for the restaurant was a single set of 5-inch tall, bronze-colored letters that say “Idiot” hanging from the side of a dark awning on a dark building. It was as though they didn’t want people to see it, or they wanted people to feel like idiots while they were looking for it. We had actually walked right underneath it once already. Our hearts leaped and we hurried inside and grabbed a table. Our server came and brought us complimentary shots of vodka to help us warm up, and then we enjoyed a nice long, warm meal, then headed back to the hotel where I promptly crashed at about 7:30.
We woke at 9 in the morning on Wednesday; I slept straight through the night for about 14 hours. We decided to milk our noon checkout time and the complimentary breakfast, then checked our bags at the hotel and headed out on foot again. We roamed around the vicinity of the Winter Palace for a while, checking out some of the statues, the Admiralty building, walked across the Neva River past the Rostral Columns and the stock exchange, then came back and were getting cold so we went in to the Hermitage Museum. Here was the most overt example of the special tourist prices. On the ticket window they clearly show a 100 ruble admission fee for Russians and a 350 ruble fee for foreigners.
We walked through the museum for about three hours. We mostly admired the interior design, but it was also really cool to see all the old masterpieces. Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, Michaelangelo, da Vinci — I had never seen any super famous artwork like that before.
It was also here that we witnessed our first American tourist group. It was remarkable and a little embarrasing the way these overweight people in college sweatshirts and tennis shoes so obviously stood out as Americans. I know we stood out as well, but more due to our distinctive Western European and Scandinavian-rooted facial structure than anything else. Although I suppose the fact that I was wearing brown leather shoes instead of black and that Kirsten was wearing glasses and flat-soled, black leather boots instead of stiletto-heeled boots with the jeans tucked in was a subtle give-away as well. How those Russian women walk on icey sidewalks in stiletto heels I’ll never know.
We walked back to the Idiot Cafe for dinner. We decided to go back because we were so happy with the food there. They had English menus and a nice vegetarian selection — the heavy, cheese-covered meat dishes at other places hadn’t sat that well with us. Afterwards we returned to the hotel and asked the front desk to call a cab for us. We showed them our train tickets and said we needed to go to Moscow Station (Moskovsky), which is wear the guidebook lead us to believe trains to Moscow depart from. We hoped by having the hotel call, we would be able to avoid the special tourist rate on the taxi, and sure enough, after getting off the phone they said it would be 350 rubles, or about $15 — a substantial savings over the $40 we paid the first time. But when the driver showed up and saw who his passengers were, he changed the rate to 500 rubles. Annoying, but no problem — still half of what we paid originally.
After a short ride, he dropped us off at Moskovsky. Something didn’t look right and the ride seemed too short. We started to worry. We walked inside and the station looked completely different. We started to worry more. We looked at the board and our train number wasn’t on it. We really started to worry. We found an attendant, who didn’t speak English, but we said “pezhalstah” (”please”) and showed her our ticket. She got a concerned look on her face and shook her head and said “nyet!” And pointed to a 3-letter abbreviation on the ticket and said the name of another train station. I think it was Ladozhsky Station (Ladozhskaya). In doing the research I just conducted in the last half hour while STILL trying to figure out what happened, I now realize this makes sense as we were just riding one leg of the Moscow-to-Murmansk train. In any case, we were now in full-on, Amazing Race, panic mode. We were about 45 minutes from our scheduled departure and we had been warned that they often leave early.
We ran outside and grabbed the first taxi driver we could find, showed him our ticket, pointing to the 3-letter abbreviation. We were grateful because he sensed our urgency, nodded and said “Ladozhskaya,” and rushed to his car and drove aggressively to the train station, getting us there at 10:20pm, 30 minutes before our ETD. This was the first taxi we had taken that used a meter, and we were very curious what it would cost, especially considering he had the nerve to hide the meter! We basically threw our hands in the air at this point, knowing we were going to get gouged. Badly. Sure enough, he charged us 800 rubles for that 10 minute ride, or about $30. So all told, our 3 taxi rides in St Pete’s cost us about $100. We try to tell ourselves it’s nice to know we’re improving their way of life.
We hustled into the train station and saw our train number on the board, but next to it was the time “10:22.” It was exactly 10:22 and we started freaking out again, thinking they had bumped our departure time up. This was exacerbated by the fact that as we were riding the escalator down to our platform we saw our train moving! If we knew Russian, however, we would have seen that the time posted on the board was the arrival time for our train into the station. We realized this when we saw the train stop moving and people start getting off. When we reached our car, we gave each other a huge, relieved hug and a few minutes later we were resting comfortably in our cabin. And only a few minutes later the train left.
The ride back to Moscow was cooler, but rougher. I don’t know much about riding in trains, but I’m wondering if the first car behind the engine gets jerked around a lot more than the cars further down, because every time the train changed speeds at all, it felt like we were derailling. And then there were the frequent stops, one in particular which felt like it lasted about an hour causing us to wonder if we had broken down and were going to be stranded in the middle of the frozen wastelands of Russia. Even though I wasn’t dripping in sweat this ride, I had an equally bad night of sleep, which was disappointing because my desire for sleep was strong and the motion of the train was soothing when it kept an even speed. When we got into Moscow on Thursday at 7am, Dave & Yulya were waiting for us at the platform, and after greeting us Dave commented that he was glad to see us because he wasn’t entirely confident we’d have made it onto our train. Heh.
Thursday was our day to register in Moscow. We called the travel/visa agency and inquired about getting their assistance, and after what was expected to be an easy discussion turned into an argument, with them insisting that we should just go register at a police station, and us adamantly refusing this advice on the grounds that the police would just ask us to bribe them and not register us, and ultimately having them tell us it would take three days to get registered in any case, which would be near the end of our trip, we revised our strategy. We wouldn’t register at all. We would just hope not to get stopped by anyone, and if we did get stopped hopefully we’d be able to hand the cop a couple hundred rubles and be on our way. So we spent the rest of the day chilling at home, then in the evening we went to Dave & Yulya’s favorite restaurant for dinner, Sunduk. Sunduk was another dimly lit, friendly little restaurant about 100 feet away from their apartment. They had some tasty choices on the menu, although Yulya had to tell us what everything was because it was only in Russian. It was a delicious meal — Kirsten had an apple pork dish and I had cheese-covered pork — and left us feeling like every restaurant in Russia must be warm and charming, because so far they had been.
Friday, Dave was at work, and Kirsten and I were reluctant to go out on our own. It was our first day beyond our registration grace period, so we hung out at home with Yulya, but we wanted to go see the Novodevichy Convent. We asked Yulya to skip her dentist visit (they don’t actually make appointments — you just drop in), and go with us. Dave was getting off work early, so we met him at a downtown Metro transfer station and went to the Convent. The Convent was beautiful, originally built in the 1500’s, there is a six-tiered belltower, several ornate churches, and a museum inside the old fortress walls. I won’t attempt at any of the history of the Convent, but it has a story nearly as rich as some of the bigger attractions in Moscow and St Petersburg. This would have been a really nice place to hang out all day, but it was very cold out, and we only stayed for an hour then decided to go check out a Georgian restaurant that is highly recommended in the Fodors guide, Mama Zoya.
Mama Zoya is in a beautiful, large, old wooden boat, moored on the Moskva River, across from Gorky Park. It looked like it was going to be a super fun place to eat, and it was supposed to be cheap. We imagined it having the same sort of charm and warmth as the other restaurants we’d dined at. But when we went inside, we were greeted, and I use that term loosely, by some very macho, unfriendly men, who stood around looking at us suspiciously. Perhaps we didn’t look like the big-spending tourists that no doubt frequent the place because of it’s position on the back cover of Fodors. We were seated at a table by a jolly-looking Georgian woman, but the room struck us as stiff and trying a bit too hard to be fancy. There aren’t even any windows looking outside the boat! Imagine that, you’ve got this fantastic venue for a restaurant on an old wooden boat, in the heart of Moscow, on the most important river running through the city, and you can’t look outside. It was very disappointing. Then we ordered, and when we hadn’t ordered enough food to satisfy the Georgian woman, she essentially scolded us, and not at all in a joking manner. The food was not quite what we call “cheap,” running about $20 per plate, but we figured that wasn’t outrageous for a big plate of hearty, spicey Georgian food. But we soon found out why the woman gave us such a hard sell: the servings were tiny. Dave had what amounted to a single chicken wing; Yulya had essentially a side salad; and Kirsten had a baked red pepper. I had the only meal that would even come close to satisfying the average human — an admittedly very tasty lamb kabob wrapped in Lebanese bread. And when we tried to order more table bread, the woman got really annoyed and said, “I already asked you if you wanted bread.” On our way home we picked up a pirated copy of “Fun With Dick and Jane” and a frozen pizza, which we enjoyed immensely while cursing Mama Zoya.
Saturday, Dave had to work again, and I don’t think we ever left the apartment, but when he came home we had a party, drinking beer and Vodka, eating pizza and blinchiki, and playing cards. We slept late Sunday, then had a nice slow breakfast and drank lots of coffee — the American coffee that Ryan and Mom sent with us. This was Russia’s switch to daylight savings time — a week before it switches in the U.S., meaning we would get to lose an hour of sleep twice — once in Russia and once in the U.S.! Yulya devised a way to play a group game of Sims Nightlife and we spent most of the day playing that and lounging around reading.
The last thing we wanted to do before we left was to see Red Square at night, so early in the evening we took the Metro downtown. We made a stop inside the GUM — the shopping mall that forms one side of Red Square — for a bathroom stop and to try and get a to-go coffee at McDonalds. There are many coffee shops in Russia, but the concept of taking your coffee with you has not caught on, and Starbucks hasn’t been able to festoon the city yet (but stay tuned). Red Square was pretty empty and quiet, and extraordinarily pleasant. We didn’t see any police around at all, so we got to relax and enjoy the peaceful beauty. Then we walked over to a restaurant just outside the square, Vanilla Sky. Dave & Yulya had been there before — they have taken all their out-of-town guests there — so they knew it would be good. Sure enough, a slightly more modern, brighter restaurant; very friendly and with good, affordable food. A nice, cathartic, forget about Mama Soya experience. Then we went to perhaps the fanciest grocery store in the world. I don’t remember the name, but I’ve never seen a grocery store adorned like a cathedral, and here we procured the last of our souvenirs: lots of chocolate! And we picked up some Czech Budweiser, which Dave had been wanting to try for a long time, but hadn’t because it’s $2 per bottle. Here was a perfect opportunity to drink beer on the subway, a common and legal practice in Moscow, but we missed it.
Yulya arranged a taxi to come pick us up at 10:30 Monday morning. I woke up with Dave and had one last morning of chatting with him over coffee before he went to work, then Kirsten and I packed our bags and we said goodbye to Yulya (after she confirmed with the driver that he would only charge us the price they quoted her over the phone).
We got to the airport stressed about a couple of things. The first was that we were attempting to take one of Dave’s paintings home with us, but there’s this sticky little export tax on Russian artwork. Would they try to claim Dave’s painting was Russian? We put about ten grocery bags over it, then wrapped it about a dozen times with packing tape to try and discourage anyone from investigating it. The customs officials predictably asked what it was as we tried to pass through. We stopped and nervously said it was “a painting; a gift from my brother.” The officials looked at each other confused and said, “‘Painting?’ ‘Gift?’” not knowing what those words meant. They looked at us for help and we just repeated what we said, and they summarily waved us through, apparently not wanting to spend any more time trying to figure it out.
The second thing we were worried about was if Passport Control would question us about not being registered in Moscow, but for whatever reason, perhaps because we had registered in St Petersburg, they didn’t. After going through one last checkpoint, the security at the gate, and having them search our bags and confiscate the cool souvenir lighter I bought, we boarded the plan and were officially on our way home.
After 10 hours in the air, we arrived at JFK, where we had the contrasting experience of going through American customs. Where the Russian customs officials were understaffed and uninterested in giving directions or speeding the lines up, the New York officials were abundant and aggressively pushing people along through the lines. A nice change for us to have someone shouting directions in English, but I imagine it was a bit scary for someone coming in who didn’t speak English. We flew out of JFK at 6pm Monday, and landed in Seattle at 9pm. Ryan and Jess were there to pick us up — for the second time. I had emailed him Sunday to ask about a ride, and forgot to specify that we were on the Monday flight. He assumed I meant Sunday and sure enough, there was a flight with the same number coming in at the same time on Sunday. After waiting around for an hour and getting undoubtedly quite worried, he assumed we weren’t on the flight and went home. But they graciously returned to the airport on Monday to pick us up for real.They dropped us off at home where we discovered the two houses across the alley from us had been leveled and new townhouse foundations had already started to be poured. We had returned to our townhouseland. Our trip to Russia was adventurous and fun and interesting and beautiful and a little scary all at once, but we are so glad we went and it was really cool to visit Dave & Yulya out there before they move to the States.