Once we got to the airport, we breezed right through Russian immigration. After 4 months of trying to get a visa, you would think they would spend more time looking at it, but the whole process took less than a minute. We met our friend Dmitri at the airport at about 11 AM on Friday 4/1 (1 AM in Colorado), and he drove us to our hotel, which was right in the center of the city! The traffic in Moscow is absolutely unbelievable. Instead of little two lane streets, Moscow has 10 lane highways running through their city center. Needless to say, the pedestrian situation is much different from Boulder. Cars DEFINITELY have the right-of-way, so much so that pedestrians have to use the underground metro stations to get from one side of the street to the other--crosswalks are scarce. But this system makes for less frequent traffic lights, thus less traffic jams. On our drive to the hotel, we got a quick glimpse of Red Square, but more on that later. The weather was 100% different than I imagined; sunny, blue skies, pretty warm. Not the arctic tundra at all!
We stayed at the Hilton Leningradsky, which was right next to the Leningradsky train station and located in one of the old Stalin towers.
Many of the attractions/stations/buildings/streets have to do with Lenin or Stalin; good old communism. Anyway, the hotel was totally amazing and our room was perfect. After unpacking a little bit, we jumped right into Dmitri's plan for our stay. We headed to dinner at a traditional Russian restaurant where we met Dmitri's mother, father, and wife Natalia. The restaurant was really cool. All of the staff were dressed in traditional outfits and there was a small farm scene in the middle of it, fully equipped with a goat, chickens, and a lady doing farm things.
The food was wonderful; we had fish salad "buried under a fur coat" (fish with beets/other vegetables and sour cream on top of it), Borscht (beet soup with sour cream in it), a type of ravioli with potatoes and onions in it, and an assortment of pickled vegetables that are meant to be eaten with vodka. No vodka for us though-- vodka and jet lag don't mix. Dmitri ordered us enough food for about three meals, but we ate the leftovers later.
Apparently, people in Russia often spend upwards of 5 hours eating dinner. I still probably couldn't have finished my food if I had 5 hours to attempt it, but every bite was delicious.
After dinner we went to the ballet. We were pretty exhausted by this point, but the ballet was beautiful. It was actually three ballets in one; a traditional piece, a modern piece, and a piece where different couples took turns showcasing lifts and things of that sort. It was really perfect because we got a taste of everything! And the theater was absolutely beautiful with giant crystal chandeliers every couple of feet. I had my first bathroom experience at the theater-- for whatever reason, I can not seem to figure out any of the sinks/toilets in Russia. Natalia had to show me how to turn on the water! I bet this incompetency will be a common theme on this trip. At least I eventually figured out the toilet on my own. I won't even tell you how long it took me to figure out the shower in our hotel.
On Saturday (4/2), we woke up early to check out the continental breakfast-- and because 6 AM Moscow time is 8 PM Mountain time, meaning it was time to hit the town!
Unfortunately, I woke up with what might have been a little touch of strep throat... but thankfully it is pretty much gone now. Not sure how to access Penicillin in Russia... Anyway, the continental breakfast was like nothing I've ever seen before. They called it an "international breakfast," which consisted of a huge plate of Italian meats/antipasti, French cheeses/pastries/crepes, German breads/sausages, and dozens of other delicacies. We spent nearly an hour trying all the different foods! I wish I could wake up everyday with a spread like that waiting for me. Daelynne-- you should work on that :-D
Dmitri met us in the hotel and we took the subway together to the city center. The Moscow subway is just like the New York subway, but everyone moves twice as fast and obviously all the signs are in Russian. Plus, there are no signs for the specific stops, therefore you have to recognize the name of the station in Russian. The Russian language is written in Cyrillic lettering, so the words obviously are not easy to pronounce/understand-- so confusing! Thank goodness for Dmitri, because it would have taken half the day for Dad and I to even figure the damn thing out. The train stations were absolutely beautiful though-- I would have taken pictures to post here but you are not allowed to take pictures due to the recent terrorist attacks on the subway... guess you can't argue with that.
We got off of the subway right at Red Square. Holy cow, Red Square might be the coolest thing I have ever seen in my life.
We returned four different times to take pictures in varying lights... crazy I know but you will understand why as you look at the pictures. The square is made up of a few different really cool buildings; St. Basil's Cathedral (gingerbread house), the Kremlin (big red walled fortress), an unnamed red church thing (self explanatory), and a giant mall called GUM (long whitish building).
The entrance to the square is marked by giant red towers-- how appropriate.
Soldiers and officials are wandering around everywhere, dressed in the traditional Russian coat/cloak thing and the ever-popular fur caps with the ear flaps. Except these hats are the real deal-- made of real fur and adorned with an official crest of some sort. Way better looking than our police uniforms.
It's easy to imagine the square full of Russian soldiers during Soviet times, but the crowd in the square couldn't be more different now. About half of the people were tourists and the other half were Russian people. It is extremely easy to differentiate between Russians and tourists; the tourists are carrying giant cameras and staring around with wide eyes in frumpy clothes and comfy shoes, and the Russians are 6 feet tall dressed in full length fur coats, 5 inch heels the width of a pencil, and miniskirts.
We basically looked homeless in comparison. Oh well, I don't even OWN shoes that intense and would not be carrying them around in my backpack even if I did.
We met with Dmitri's father to tour the inside of the Kremlin.
The Kremlin is where all the government officials do business, so it is pretty much our equivalent to the White House (except their president doesn't live there anymore). The official buildings were separated by a number of ancient churches, three of which we had the opportunity to tour the inside of.
The Russian orthodox church is apparently similar to the Eastern orthodox church, which is vaguely like the Greek orthodox church. This means that the walls of the cathedrals are plastered with wooden carvings painted with the images of various different religious icons, with Jesus Christ himself peering down at you from the ceiling-- about as opposite as you can get from catholic churches but no less interesting. As an added bonus, all of the old Russian tzar's are buried in these cathedrals, including Ivan the terrible! Very cool.
After getting our fill of the churches, we went inside one of the more exclusive museums in the Kremlin. Dmitri's wife (Natalia) seemed to be very well connected, because we had tickets to all sorts of fabulous things. The current exhibit in the museum was made up of diamonds/gold found in Russia, jewelry worn by Russian nobles/tzar's, and other jewels/jewelry given to Russia as gifts from various other countries/political regimes. This exhibit was unbelievable-- some of these diamonds were literally the size of my fist, and the jewelry was unmatched by anything I've ever even heard of. There were helmets made up entirely of dime-sized diamonds. They even had a diamond that was over 300 carats! This collection put the crown jewels to shame. The exhibit doesn't even have insurance because almost every single piece is priceless. We had to check all of our belongings and go through a full airport-caliber security scan to even get in the front door, but it was absolutely worth the trouble.
After the museum it began to rain, so we escaped into a little Italian restaurant for lunch. I know, I know, it is ridiculous to eat Italian food when you are in Russia (especially if you are Italian...) but it was so delicious! I had a pizza that was easily twice as good as any thin crust pizza in Colorado. I guess we will have to see how it compares to the pizza in Italy when we arrive in May. After lunch, we went back to the hotel to gather our presents that we brought for Dmitri and his family, and we headed off to visit his mother's house a little bit outside of Moscow.
Dmitri's mother (Tanya) lives in a type of apartment complex that is called a "sleeping district." Over 70% of Moscow's residents live in apartments such as these, and they were really nice! WAY nicer than most of the apartments you would find in one of our big cities like New York.
Tanya shared some of the history of her family and the history of Russia with us, and she fed us an excellent meal.
We ate: fish and egg salad, beet/carrot/potato salad, blinis (Russian crepes)with red caviar and raw salmon, and pastries filled with cranberry jam and apples. Yum!
After dinner we exchanged gifts-- we got some awesome Russian souvenirs from them!
I'm excited to hang them all over my new apartment. We'll keep the gifts a surprise until I bring them home. Tanya, who teaches English to children, invited her 10 year old neighbor over to meet us and let him practice his English.
His name was Ibragim, and he wants very much to visit the United States. I told him he could come visit me in St. Louis, but that it probably wouldn't be the ideal experience-- haha. We took a cab back to the hotel, which only cost us about 15 dollars and took us all the way across town! I bet that an equivalent cab right would cost around $60 in the US. So far, it is the only thing other than vodka that is cheaper in Russia than the US.
Sunday morning (4/3) was another early start. We had to pack our bags-- much better without the presents from US-- and we had to spend another hour eating three portions of breakfast. Natalia and Dmitri met us at the hotel and took us to Arbat street (Russian equivalent to Pearl Street Mall, but much better).
Arbat was very interesting; there is an old Arbat street from the pre-soviet times in Russia, which is lined with lovely old colorful apartment buildings that rent for over $20,000 US per month! Can you even believe that?!?! Maybe not worth $240,000/year, but gorgeous none the less. The "new" Arbat street was built during communist control, and was meant to "replace the old style of living" with new ideas-- communist ideas of course. Russia's history was an integral part of every aspect of the city, and we were so lucky to have our own private tour guides to fill us in with all of the information! On Arbat, we saw the Russian version of Starbucks and Hard Rock Cafe. Jeremy-- I posted pictures of them for you.
Next we went to Tretyakov's gallery, where Dmitri and Natalia's knowledge of Russian art was again so valuable. I now know more Russian history than US! The gallery was full of paintings of Russian tzar's, battles, nobles, icons, city life, fairy tails, and the like. Dmitri and Natalia studied most of the pieces in school, so they had something to tell us about each important painting-- it was way better than one of those audio tours with the uncomfortable headset. We spent a few hours wandering there then said our goodbyes to Dmitri and Natalia. How wonderful it was to have visited them! Hopefully they will come visit in Colorado soon. Then we returned (again) to Red Square for some evening/night shots.
Once again, Red Square is probably the coolest thing ever.
I controlled myself and only took about 60 pictures, rather than the 238588 I wanted to take. I'm sure 60 will be more than enough.
The people-watching in Red Square was even better at night.
During the day, the square is full of people of all ages, but the Russian youth come out to cruise around at night. The best way I can describe them is to compare to Lady Gaga. I'm not even kidding-- every girl looked like she was wearing haute couture.
After dark, we went into GUM, the big shopping mall in the square. This was easily the most beautiful/expensive mall I've ever been in.
I had another exciting bathroom experience here. The men and women's washroom was the same, and there were little halls on each side that branched off to the toilets! And once again, the sinks were too complicated for me. Sad. After GUM, Dad and I took the subway back to the hotel for the first time without Dmitri's help. Thankfully, we made it just fine, but it was a very exciting experience. The experience was not made easier by the fact that Russia had just won a game of some sort, so the trains were jammed full of drunk teenagers wearing red and blue while singing victory songs at the top of their lungs. Very entertaining, but it was hard to try and focus hard enough to read Cyrillic while this was going on around us. Also, I saw an advertisement for Roger Waters' "The Wall" concert coming to Russia in April (!), so I snuck a super illegal picture of it for Aaron. :-D
Then we went to our first restaurant alone and tried to order, totally failed, and randomly picked from the menu. We ended up with more pizza, which was even better than the first time! Another point for Russia!
We retrieved our bags from the hotel and met Dmitri's father, who accompanied us to the train station to board our night train to St. Petersburg. So that is where I am now-- in a tiny little train compartment cruising through the Russian countryside. The compartment has two bunk beds, the lower bunks double as seats, and there is a little table in the middle. We have two Russian train mates in the top bunks and we have the lower beds, but it's 2:15 in the morning as I am writing this, so everyone else is obviously asleep. I'll try and remember to take pictures of the compartment in the morning, then I suppose I will post the blog whenever we figure out the internet situation in St. Petersburg. We arrive at 8 AM and will be staying in St. Petersburg for 4 days, then off to Finland. I'll be sure to keep you all posted, and cross your fingers for more English speakers in St. Petersburg. Dad and I don't seem to communicate very well in Russian.
Hope everyone is well at home! Miss you all, and sorry for the typos! My tiny netbook computer only has WordPad, which apparently doesn't have spell check :-)
Hello from Russia! Sorry I didn't post saying we arrived successfully, but so far our trip has been very busy. Our journey to Europe began on Thursday (3/31)with a 10 hour flight from Washington DC to Moscow on a Boeing 767, which is basically the younger brother of a properly sized international plane. Every other transcontinental flight I've been on has gone about the same way; everyone boards, silently watches half of a movie, and goes to sleep. Not the flight to Russia... Everyone except for Dad and myself was Russian, and they were all standing around and chatting with each other or laying across multiple seats. One lady even had a tiny little dog sitting in her lap for the entire flight! Hilarious. I slept for about 5 hours of it, which is quite the accomplishment considering the seats were about a foot wide.