Monday, May 28, 2012

Russia  - Part 1: Moscow

It's been over 18 months since I took a trip to Russia with Andrey and Cliff, but better late than never to post about it.  There were so many stories and photos I think it just seemed to daunting to give the proper treatment on the blog.  But the longer I wait the less I remember, so best to get it down in writing.

I had been talking to Andrey for years about visiting Russia with him, but without really making any plans.  Cliff and I had a good time taking the Trabi to Krakow the year before, and with him having a baby on the way and a move to the US coming up, there was sufficient urgency for the three of us to plan a trip.  Getting visas was relatively easy since Andrey new some travel agent connections and had relatives that could formally invite us if need be.

We flew into Moscow, where Andrey lived several years, including during his graduate studies, and where Andrey's mother-in-law lives.  Andrey told us before she lived in one of the nicer neighborhoods, so it was a bit surprising that the entire neighborhood was comprised of buildings reminiscent of communist-style "Plattenbau" housing, and looked similar to many other parts of Moscow.  With easy transit access and relatively central location, I suppose it was actually pretty premium. 

It turns out that Andrey's mother-in-law has been living in this apartment for a long time - well before the collapse of the Soviet Union.  And in communist times, it actually housed her family and well as others together.    Some of the decor/furniture/appliances from the time were still there.

Since she didn't speak any English, and we didn't speak any Russian, it was a bit awkward to communicate upon first meeting - mostly smiles and hand signs before asking Andrey to translate - but her energy and high-spiritedness did away with it soon. The ice really broke when she invited us into the kitchen the first night for a round of vodka shots.
"Putinka" vodka - named after Putin

One of the great things about staying here was that Andrey communicated that we'd like to try to real traditional Russian recipes, and so we were fortunate enough to have a couple traditional meals. 

The first day after we arrived we decided that one of the first things we had to do, of course, was head down to Red Square.  The day started off smokey.  You may remember that in 2010 smoke form large wildfires around Moscow covered the city in a dense, dangerous, smog.  We arrived just as they were dying down and the public health threat was minimal, but the presence of smoke was still evident when the wind blew from the right direction.  Some people were still wearing masks, and one night with the window left open the stench woke me up.  But this was only really evident on our first and second day, and after that the weather on our trip was for the most part quite beautiful and comfortable. 

"Red Square"

Doing our best to look like American tourists - it bit me in the ass later

fly and St. Basil's

One of the most surprising and impressive things about our trip were the subways, both in Moscow and St. Petersburg.   The stations in Moscow are incredibly grandiose, with beautiful marble in places, lots of adornments, majestic entryways. 

I learned that the Moscow subway carries the second most people per year in the world, after Tokyo.  About as much and London and Paris.....combined.  Also, the trains were incredibly frequent.  We never had to wait more than a couple minutes.  We spent a fair amount of time on the subway system getting around to various locations.  This was a common sight for me:

One of the new things Cliff and I tried while out on the town in the heat was the local vendors outside the Metro stations selling cold Kvass (KBAC), which is a cold, fermented drink made from bread.  It's like 1% alcohol. It basically tastes like drinking bread, or yeast.

Andrey and Cliff partake of the Kvass

After taking in some of the essential sites, we decided to head to St. Petersburg, so we could make it back in time to chill in Moscow a few more days before heading home.    On a map of Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg appear pretty close to one another, which is of deceiving, because Russia is friggin huge.    It's actually like 700km between them, which is like Paris to Prague.  We decided to take an overnight train, party for the convenience of making the most of our time, partly for the experience. 

Cliff chillin in our cabin
Our pretty train ticket, and the classy tea cup that we were served complimentary tea in.

The three of us got our own cabin on the train.  I have to say, it was probably the most comfortable train ride I've had.   I actually slept pretty well, and when I woke up, we were just outside of St. Petersburg.  Arriving in the St. Petersburg train station was one of the most dramatic impressions I had of the trip.  Loud, patriotic orchestral music filled the large main hall of the station, and a gigantic train map-mural in a style that must be at least 50 years old was an imposing sight covering one wall.  The whole scene really left an impression of power.

Next post:  Russia - Part 2: St. Petersburg.

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