Well It’s About Time
The most common response I’d been handed after telling my friends I was going to Russia: “You haven’t been to Russia yet???”
Well there was no particular reason, really. There are 193 countries on the planet and I’m not necessarily seeing them in any specific order – besides trying to get the hard ones out the way first (Iraq, Libya, South Sudan, Somalia, etc.)
For such an exciting destination, Russia was actually planned pretty last minute. I’d held an open-jaw ticket into Bulgaria and out of Edinburgh for nearly ten months, waiting until the date came closer to fill in the middle of the journey. One of the biggest things taken away by the pandemic (besides lives, jobs, etc.) is the ability to plan travel far in advance. I’d been forced to trash so many giant and intricate itineraries – very detailed journeys that I’d planned out before the pandemic. Cancelling all those flights and hotels proved tedious, time consuming and frustrating. Planning–well in advance–is actually one of my favorite parts of traveling. It allows you to be excited every day before your trip, in anticipation of what’s to come. But booking a multi-country itinerary more than 45 days out these days is both unrealistic and just a bad idea: You don’t know who’ll be open or closed, and one minor change can derail an entire itinerary, affecting all of your other stops like falling dominos. I’d learned the hard way.
So here I was, with these two pieces of bread to this travel sandwich (Sofia and Edinburgh being the bread) and no meat for the middle yet. I’m so glad I’d waited to book any regional travel inside the trip, because to my surprise, all of a sudden Russia swung their doors open for tourists. I had just enough time to send my passport and documents into a Russian visa service for processing. (Russia’s application process is notoriously difficult, they say you should use a service, so I did.) A few weeks later, my passport came back, with the addition of that beautiful new visa glued to page 28. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to Russia!
I was the first person off the plane (I had the entire business class cabin to myself on Bulgarian Air) and the third person through immigration. I thought it was interesting that the female officer (who was a stunner) took a magnifying glass to my passport. This has only happened one other time, in (semi)-Soviet sister Belarus. They are looking for spies! I was able to jump on the 6:45PM train to the city with only seconds to spare. I got super lucky on the timing of it all.
After arriving at Belorussky Station, it was over to Line 2 to catch the metro over to my hotel. Once I was up and out and on the street, my stress level rose. It was freezing. There were masses of people – it felt like the streets of New York City. Giant (albeit beautiful) old buildings towered all around me, lit up, lining super wide streets. It was a familiar scene, as I flash-backed to last year’s trip to Minsk. I walked back and forth looking for my hotel, going in circles and freezing the whole time. For some reason my phone’s GPS wasn’t working. Were the Russians blocking my phone? Why wasn’t my map working? I was tired, cold, and a little freaked out. My heavy back pack was unforgiving to my spine. I felt like I was traveling for the first time. I felt like an amateur all of a sudden. I felt lost. I just wanted to find my hotel.
Speaking of hotels, you can find a great hotel in Moscow, at a great price, HERE.
Once I finally found my hotel, checked in, got to my room, and caught my breathe, I felt okay. I was just ready for dinner and bed. I exited the Marriott, took a left and settled on the first place I found–a Russian fast-food joint–where I ordered a hamburger and devoured it. An unceremonious meal for sure. I just needed a reset. My phone’s GPS had calibrated and was working again. What did we do without GPS?!
I loved the huge (and included) breakfast spread at the hotel. Lots of Nutella involved, but I’d work off the calories today for sure. Back to the subway station, I purchased a three-day unlimited card and the adventure began. It was over to The Kremlin for a 10AM tour of The Armoury Chamber. As I ascended from the subway, I couldn’t help but feel amazing. Full belly, a good rest, and I was just floored that I had sun today: Heavy rain had been in the forecast, but instead, the sun was shining. I popped into Moscow right in between rainstorms and I couldn’t have been more grateful. All feelings of stress from the night before were gone and I was ready to enjoy the city. Ramblin’ Randy was back.
I enjoyed the self-guided tour of The Armoury. Lots of old treasures: crowns, dresses, jewels and thrones. The old royal carriages were my favorite. And so much gold. But perhaps more than seeing the “things” behind the glass cases, I enjoyed most bumping into the General of the Sri Lankan Army during my tour. I was ushered away by an Armoury staffer as four men in fancy military uniforms came my way, as if the area needed to be secured. The men were escorted by soldiers in berets. I couldn’t help but stare, trying to figure out just where these men were from. Their uniforms were some of the most dignified I’d ever seen – pressed and fitted immaculately and with all the stripes and bars. What country were they from? I tried to spot a flag or nation name, but didn’t see one. Brown skin…hmmmmmm. Libya? Pakistan? Lebanon? I finally broke down and asked an employee and he told me Sri Lanka. When I passed the men on the way out, I said hello, gave them a salute and an enthusiastic, “Sri Lanka!” I couldn’t help it, I’m such a nerd. I should’ve asked for a selfie!
After my tour of the Armoury, I strolled around inside the confines of The Kremlin for a few more minutes, marveling at the giant cathedrals on premises. I followed the crowd into one big, beautiful church, only to be yelled, “Nyet!” in Russian – apparently my ticket didn’t include entrance to the other places. So I saw myself out and it was over to Red Square for me.
Standing in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral was my favorite. I’d seen this magical castle since I was a child, always as the backdrop of any and every international news reporting from Moscow. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Connie Chung. I was raised seeing this particular scene on the screen. It’s the one structure everyone pictures of when they think of Russia, and there it was, right in front of me. I smiled big, like a kid who had just been let loose in Disneyland for the first time. I must have taken a million selfies in front of St. Basil’s. Absolutely stunning. The other buildings surrounding the square were spectacular as well, but nothing beat St. Basil’s.
These Boots Were Made for Walking
I hadn’t planned well and had no particular list of things to see or places to go after The Kremlin and Red Square, so I just headed in the direction of those beautiful golden church domes off in the distance. The path there was through Zaryadye Park, butting right up against the Moscow River. I enjoyed the elevated concrete paths lined with trees, a walkway that jutted out over the water and the classic jazz tunes played over loud speakers only added to my euphoric mood. Was I really here? In the distance I saw a towering behemoth of a menacing yet sexy old skyscraper than looked straight out of Gotham City. I walked over a mile to investigate. Another “Nyet!” when I tried to enter, but I had to make the attempt. I’m Ramblin’ Randy after all.
Lords of the Underground
After walking a few miles around town, I decided to take it underground, and tour those absolutely gorgeous Moscow metro stations. I spent the rest of the day, going from station to station to just oogle each stop. I’d get out of the train and explore the stations, taking tons of photos. I couldn’t believe my eyes – each station was an immaculate piece of art; a palace in and of itself. From giant golden statues, to enormous mosaics, art deco chandeliers, and vivid murals, the stations all had differing styles and often complete distinct themes. I wondered if Moscovites took these works of art for granted and just considered them part of everyday life. I sure didn’t. I couldn’t believe how beautiful these metro stops were. I’d surface only once for a coffee above ground, and then it was back down for more. I did this until dark. I wore myself out.
I wanted to see more subway stations today. Is that weird? After another big breakfast at the hotel, it was underground again to ride the rails and see some new stations. This time, I had a list: A friend sent me this link to 15 of the best Moscow metro stations and I was all about it! List in hand, I was ready to check each one off.
Red Square, We Meet Again
It wasn’t planned, but after coming up for air after photographing a few metro stations, I was standing right in front of Red Square again. So of course I wandered over to take another peek – it’s free to look! Just as gorgeous as yesterday. I snapped more photos of the buildings around me including St. Basil’s. I was just about to leave when the obvious occurred to me: Dude, go inside! I’ve seen that iconic structure how many hundreds of times on TV and have always wondered what was inside. So I bought a ticket and ventured in.
After leaving Red Square I had a hankerin’ for some cherry juice (weird craving I know), so I continued my walk through town on a mission to find some. I ended up walking through a very elegant looking mall before I was back on the street and into a little market for juice. Thirst quenched, it was back down to check off more metro stations.
Last Stop: Europa Plus
I had a 4PM meeting at the biggest radio station in Russia. I work in radio back in the United States and one of my favorite things to do while I’m overseas is visit radio stations. I’m a weirdo, I know, but radio (along with travel) is my passion – so when the two are combined, it’s like ecstasy!
The radio station was in a part of town I’d not have seen had I not had a meeting here, so I was happy to be walking through a different part of Moscow as I left the underground and made my way over to the studios. The building where my buddy Thierry worked also housed Sony Pictures, Red Bull and a handful of other major corporations. This was the big leagues. I enjoyed my hour meeting at Europa Plus, Russia’s number one radio station, with an audience of millions – they cover the entire country. The studios were the nicest I’d ever seen!
I was running out of steam. I had an early morning flight the next day, so I said my goodbyes and headed back to home base for a burger and then sleep. I’d be off to #168 in just a few hours.
Let me put it this way: Moscow was so absolutely overwhelming (all in good ways), that it made me almost completely forget anything I’d done or seen in the previous stop. I’d spent two full days in Bulgaria before arriving in Moscow, yet now I could hardly remember one thing about the stop in Sofia. Really! It was like it was completely erased from my brain. Moscow was just that epic – and a little crazy. Just the sheer amount of people and the speed of the city…wow! It takes over your entire being.
The metro system is the best I’ve ever experienced in the world. Not just esthetically, but because of the number of lines and destinations. You can go anywhere, fast! And I loved that a three-day card of unlimited rides was so cheap. You will never need a taxi in Moscow! Make sure to check out Aileen‘s “15 Most Beautiful Moscow Metro Stations” article HERE – it’s fantastic and was my guide for this run. Coincidentally, just days after my visit to Moscow, the New York Times released a great piece on Moscow’s metro system HERE.
Two days is hardly enough time to experience Russia, but it was a great first taste of the city. I’m looking forward to coming back and spending more time in Moscow, and hitting other cities. From St. Petersburg to the country – I’m sure you know that Russia is the biggest country on the planet. I look forward to some train travel. I’d especially like to come back during warmer weather. And that expensive and difficult visa is good for three years – so I plan on getting at least one more use out of it!
I was absolutely blessed with phenomenal weather given the season. I made it just in between rainstorms, and although it was chilly, having my entire time on the ground there dry and sunny was nothing short of a gift. My only regret it not having a proper Russian meal, but that gives me just one more excuse to come back. Russia, I will return!This entry was posted in Europe