Russia

March 2013
I’ve been avoiding writing this entry about Russia because I’m not sure how to write it without offending anyone – which is not at all my intention. I know a few people who have traveled to Russia and absolutely loved it (both of my brothers included) – however I did not have that kind of experience here. While it definitely has its beautiful and charming landmarks, the overwhelming scent of cigarette smoke and cheap cologne worn by the masses was enough to nearly knock you to your knees the moment you stepped outside. I’m thankful to have been to a handful of cities in Russia and to have first hand experience of what some of these iconic places look like – however I will not be booking a return trip anytime soon.

My time spent in Russia was divided among three main cities: St. Petersburg, Moscow and Novgorod. All interesting, unique and full of places I’ve read about in textbooks. I’ll write a little about my experience in each city below.

This trip was purchased from Groupon Getaways for under $2000US per person and included round trip flights from NYC, all accommodations, bus & train rides, an English speaking tour guide and a few meals. Our flight from New York took us directly to St. Petersburg which of the three cities I visited – was my favorite. We visited in late March/early April so it was still very actively their Winter season and the city was covered in snow. St. Petersburg is home to The Church of Spilled Blood which is this stunning monument built over the spot where Emperor Alexander II was killed. All around the church are beautiful grounds, full of snow while we were visiting, making the landmark even more beautiful. This church is similar in appearance to St. Basil’s Cathedral, which we also visited, however is located in Moscow. Looking at the two structures independently however, it is easy to mix the two of them up. We also visited St. Nicholas Cathedral which is painted in bright teal blue and white and accented with gold domes – making this landmark stand out against it’s surroundings. Inside we were asked to cover our heads (hair) to show our respect and walked around quietly as mass was being held at the time. We visited a few more landmarks throughout St. Petersburg over the next few days,: taking the metro (GORGEOUS train stations by the way), visiting museums, drinking coffee and trying to avoid the obnoxious smells of cigarette smoke. Smoking was still allowed inside restaurants and public buildings at the time (I’m not actually sure if this has changed yet) but it made it hard to stay inside for very long.

From St. Petersburg we took an overnight train to the city of Novgorod. This is a tiny little town basically in the middle of nowhere, Russia. From what I understand, this was once a booming metropolis and one of the largest cities in Europe. Upon my visit in 2013, it resembled a forgotten about lumber town. There were a number of wooden structures and churches, dating back hundreds of years (14th century) which had been set up to show the way of life back then by their inhabitants. We spent the night in this cozy little cabin in the woods and visited a traditional bath house the following day to enjoy a sauna. The sauna is a marble structure where you basically go to take a group bath for lack of a better way to describe it. Everyone (except the locals) wear bathing suits and you sit in a mineral hot tub. You soak for an hour or so and then move to the steam room which is like our sauna’s here in the States. This was such an awkward experience for me as it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, but interesting nonetheless and at least I can say I’ve “been there & done that”.

From Novgorod we took a bus to Moscow where we spent the rest of our time in Russia. Moscow is big, smelly, dirty city where I didn’t feel safe walking the streets alone. Again, not trying to offend anyone who is from Moscow reading this, however this was not a place I have any desire to get back to anytime soon. Besides Moscow’s social culture being less than desirable, I was impressed with a few of the places I visited while there. Red Square; home to The Kremlin which is basically a fortress in the middle of the city and has gun toting soldiers guarding it. They do a changing of the guards ceremony every hour for those guards protecting their tomb of the unknown soldier. While it doesn’t deliver quite the fanfare as the ones I witnessed a few years prior in England, it was still interesting to watch and be a part of. Red Square is also home to the gorgeous St. Basil’s cathedral, which is stunning on the outside and an experience all it’s own on the inside. Filled with intricate mosaics, interweaving hallways and passageways, it would be easy to get lost in here if it weren’t for the hundreds of other tourists guiding you through the cordoned off red ropes. While in Russia we were also able to go see an old soviet cold war nuclear bunker which was an incredible (and disturbing) experience. We took an elevator about 30 floors down in the ground and the doors opened to these long dark hallways illuminated in red lights. You weave in and out of the these hallways for quite some time before coming into what is now a museum of sorts. A few small rooms with displays of gas masks, maps of other nuclear bunkers throughout the world, pro-Russia/anti-America propaganda, suits, phones, desks, photos and all of these incredible historical artifacts you’d have no idea were nestled beneath the ground like this while walking past on the street. The outside of this building looks like any other on the street, the perfect disguise. We walked around the bunker for quite some time, looking at documents, photos and watching a cold war propaganda video. This was possibly the most interesting place I’ve visited from a historical aspect, imaging it in it’s hay day and fully operational.

On our last day in Moscow we trudged through the knee deep snow to do a little bit of last minute souvenir shopping and to get a good nights sleep before an early morning to the airport. I was tempted to buy a few cartons of cigarettes for the discount price of around $2US and bring them home to sell them at a profit, but the thought of my clothes soaking in that tobacco smell while rolling around in the luggage compartment of the airplane for the 14 hour flight home was enough to dissuade me. We were picked up from our hotel by a “taxi” which was a short fat man with a thick Russian accent and an even thicker fog of said cigarette smoke billowing out of his rickety little car. He did his best to load our luggage into his trunk and front seat of his personal vehicle, but the trunk was broken and wouldn’t latch so he used a bunjee cord secure it and we crossed our fingers as we made our way to the airport. We thankfully arrived with our luggage all intact and checked in for our flight home from this memorable trip.