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Monday, September 24, 2012

Russia - Moscow 7.6

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  • Kremlin & Armory
  • Okhotny Ryad Shopping Center Food Court
    • Cafe Pushkin
    • Yeliseevskiy Gastronom ( Yeliseev's Food Hall)

    It was the day for the Kremlin today. The MUST SEE place in Moscow.  H loves history.   Knowing that there were so many important political events taking place at the Kremlin that had profound impact not only to the Russian history, but to the world, he was excited to finally see this place in person.   To beat the crowd, we were already waiting in line for the tickets by  9:15 AM, 15 minutes before the ticket booths opened.  Once we got the tickets, we headed straight to the Borovitskaya Tower entrance to wait in line again for the Armory Chamber.  There were a few people being turned away at the check point because they carried backpacks.  The coat check station was near the ticket booths.  I felt bad for these people.  Hopefully they had a chance to make the 10 o'clock admission session for the Armory.   As an independent traveler to any country, you either do the homework and be prepared or accept some unexpected hassles.   Traveling here in Russia, it is important to keep that in mind. 

    The Armory Chamber was absolutely worth the extra costs to visit.  I was most fascinated by the carriages and coronation dress collections. They were amazing!  After the Armory, we came to the Cathedral Square.  A total of 3 churches and 3 cathedrals surrounded the small square.  By the time I made the round, I was all Cathedral & churched out!

    After the Kremlin, it was time for lunch, and I was in no mood to spend hours running around looking for restaurants in vain again.  Fortunately, we stumbled upon Okhotny Ryad Shopping Center right by the Kremlin.  Another huge shopping mall with a food court on the bottom floor.  The food court was a mix of American and Russian Fast Food.  It was really interesting to see what Russians Fast Food was.  We got some Pelmeni and Fries, H had a beer, and I finally had my first Kvas (A dark sweet, low alcoholic content drink made from Barley and Rye).   Having only been to "proper" restaurants spending at least 2 hours on each meal the past 6 days,  the quick and easy Russian Fast Food was a welcomed change, and the food was pretty decent by the tourist standards.

    Since we were already in the mall, naturally, we went shopping after lunch.   Okhotny Ryad Shopping Mall had more contemporary brands and the prices were a lot cheaper than the luxury boutique shops at the GUM.   

    A couple of shopping bags later, I was happy, satisfied, and once again remembered how tired my feet were.   We returned to our hotel a few minutes walk away to drop off our bags and gave each other foot messages. 

    We left the hotel around 3:30 PM again.  I was craving for some tea & desserts and decided to go to Cafe Pushkin.  On the way there, we finally found a postal office to get some stamps for our post cards.  It seemed that post office was the only place you could buy stamps, or you may pay a premium at the hotel for them to mail the postcards for you.  

    Cafe Pushkin looked like it was frozen in time from 19th century.  You would've never guessed that it only opened in 1994.  Again, the service was impeccable, and my honey cake was TO DIE FOR.  So good!

    Traveling to a new country, I always love visiting the local food markets to see what people are eating.  I was especially looking forward to check out Yeliseevskiy Gastronom after seeing the exquisite interior of this 19th century food hall from my guidebook.  Better yet, it was open 24/7!  It was such a luxurious food hall with huge chandeliers and ornate walls.   I could not imagine a more refined and elegant environment to do grocery shopping.

    Although we just had tea & dessert not long ago, shopping in Yeliseevskiy Gastronom made us crave for something to eat again.  We had no plan or desire to look for restaurants again,  so  we went back to the shopping center food court and got some Chinese dishes, blini with mushroom & cheese, soup, and Kvas from the Russian pancake fast food chain, Tepemok

    It was an early night for us, as our legs could not take more abuse to walk any longer.  We spent the evening at the hotel's  Jacuzzi and swimming pool

    Tuesday, September 18, 2012

    Russia - Moscow 7.5

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    • Leningradskiy Train Station
    • Hotel National
    • Moscow Free tour
    • St. Basil's Cathedral
    • Gum Department Store
    • Japanese restaurant

    30 minutes before the train glided into Moscow Leningradskiy Train station, our train attendant knocked on our door to ask if we wanted some coffee or tea in Russian.  Although we did not get too much sleep that night, we were too wired to feel tired.  The train arrived on time at 7:55 AM.  Once we got out of the train, we easily spotted our driver arranged through our hotel.  

    15 minutes and 1,500 rubles later, we were at the Hotel National checking in.  The classic Hotel National in Moscow is the total opposite of swanky W hotel that we stayed in St. Petersburg.  Built in 1903, it has a rich history.  Lenin stayed here in room 107 in March 1918.  The location of Hotel National is excellent.  It sits opposites of Red Square, and has a metro station next to it.  

    Our room was not ready yet when we arrived, so we decided to get some breakfast at a random cafe nearby. The city was slowly waking up, and traffic was getting busy.  It was clear we were not in St. Petersburg anymore.  The city felt more commercial, crowded, and busier.   The weather was about a few degrees warmer as well. 

    We had booked the Moscow Free Tour online for this morning at 10:45 AM.   In St. Petersburg, we had not gotten any chance to take the Metro.  I was glad to finally get a chance to take it to our tour meeting point, Slavyanskaya Square.   Our tour guide, Airat, was a colleague student majoring in Political Science who spoke great English.  He did a great job not only feeding us historical and factual information, but also engaged in some interesting conversations about Russian culture and politics today.  

    The 2.5 hours took us through most major sights in Moscow and ended in Christ the Savior Cathedral.  We were glad to do the tour the first thing when we arrived in Moscow.  It was a quick way to get us oriented and to plan what sights we wanted to come back and visit. 

    By the time the tour was over, our room was ready for us.  Before we walked back to our hotel, we stopped by the gorgeous GUM, which stands for State Department Store.  Created a century ago, The building was magnificent with ornate facade and glassed ceilings which occupied almost the full eastern side of Red Square.  It housed many top designer shops and probably was one of the most gorgeous department stores I have ever seen. 

    We went inside the Gastronome No. 1, a gourmet shop inside the GUM.  I guess all the sour creams & dills in almost every Russian dishes had gotten to us, and H was really craving for a cold cut sandwich. We did some food shopping, headed back to our hotel to finally take a shower, make sandwiches for lunch, and take a much needed nap. 

    We left the hotel after a couple hours of rest, and walked back to the Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral.  Bigger than the Church of spoiled blood in St. Petersbugr, St. Basil's Cathedral stood on the north end of the Red Square.    From afar, it almost seemed unreal that these onion shaped domes and vibrant colored architecture should only exist in a fairytail.   

    The Cathedral opened late in the summer time.  By now, we were sort of used to the a-lar-carte admission fees through out all the Russian tourist sites.  However, it was the first that I saw an additional cost for Photography (160 rubles) and videotography (180 rubles).  As elaborated and impressive the exterior of the cathedral was, it could not be said about the interior.  

    After the Cathedral, we were ready for dinner.  Both H and I really enjoyed the Georgian food at Kavkaz Bar in St. Petersburg, so for dinner, we decided to take Metro to Genatsvale restaurant for Georgian food again.  Once again, we were running circles trying to locate the restaurant.  It was another frustrating hour long search.  Finally, a super nice Ukraine woman walked with us for a good 15 minutes to bring us to the restaurant.  But guess what? The restaurant was closed for private event!! Of course, as I am writing and visiting the restaurant website for the first time, I just discover that Genatsvale restaurant has a few locations in Moscow. UGH!

    Once again, we found ourselves in the situation that we were too tired, hungry, and annoyed to sum up the strength to look for another restaurant.  And frankly, I was done looking for addresses in Russia.  I just wanted some familiar comforting food at this point.  We ended stopping by a Japanese restaurant on the way back to the hotel to have some sushi & noodles for dinner.  It was not Georgian food, but nonetheless comforting. Walking out of the restaurant, I was in a better mood. 


    Friday, September 14, 2012

    Russia - St. Petersburg 7.4

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    • Russian Museum
    • Tinkoff Restaurant
    • Red Arrow Midnight Train from St. Petersburg to Moscow

    It came to my favorite part of the trip, when we had crossed off most of the items on our itinerary, familiar with our surroundings, and felt relaxed.  It was our last day in St. Petersburg, and the only place on our agenda was the Russian Museum. 

    We slept in until 11 AM, checked out of the W at 1 PM, and left our luggage in the hotel.  The hotel concierge helped us to book the taxi for tonight and even coordinated with our hotel in Moscow for next morning's pick-up.  They were so helpful!

    We walked back to Nevskiy Prospekt, and went to a random cafe for some bagels & wraps before heading to the Russian Museum.  We started with Benois Wing first since it housed the 20 Century Russian arts.  Although I did not know much about Russian art prior to this trip, I truly enjoyed the exhibitions in the Russian Museum. 

    After we left the Russian Museum, we took one last chance to take more pictures of the Church of the spoiled blood, wondered around different canals, and simply enjoyed the city.  

    We wanted to try a Siberian restaurant listed in Frommer's guidebook, "Black Cat, White Cat" for dinner.  It turned out to be a frustrating search.  First, it was hard to find the addresses in St. Petersburg to begin with.  After asking many people on the street, we "probably" had found the correct address, but there was no restaurant in sight.  Even now, I can't tell you whether we did not find the address, or the restaurant was closed.  By the time we gave up, we were tired, annoyed, and hungry.  We randomly picked another highly recommended restaurant from Frommer's guidebook, Tinkoff.  It was probably the WORST dinning experience we had in Russia.  The restaurant looked like a combination of a bar/nightclub with dim lights and cold bland decor.  I wanted to walk out as soon I stepped inside the restaurant, but I was too tired to look for another restaurant.  The simple German sausages we ordered took more than one hour to come.  We could not wait to finish the dinner and leave. 

    After we finished the dinner, we still had sometime left before our midnight train to Moscow.  We went back to Gosti restaurant to get some dessert and tea.  This had never happened to us in our previous trip that we actually went back to the same restaurant three times!  We told our regular waiter that we were leaving to Moscow.   Our waiter quickly said, "Give it four hours, you would not like it." in a no none-sense manner that we had already gotten used to by now.  We laughed.  Like it or not, we were ready to find out. 

    When we were planning for our Russian trip, we deliberately skipped the flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow so we can experience the midnight train with sleeping compartments.  However, booking the tickets from the Russian Railway Website turned out to be incredibly challenging for someone who could not read Russian.  Fearing that we would book the wrong tickets and wake up somewhere in Siberia, we ended up biting the bullet and booked the higher price tickets through a travel agency in Germany.   

    By 11 PM, we returned to the W hotel to collect our luggage.  Shortly after, we took the prearranged taxi to the Moskowasky Train station.  The Red Arrow Train from St. Petersburg departed at 23:55 PM and arrived in Moscow the next morning at 7:55 AM.  It was only 11:30 when we arrived at the train station.  All the signs in the train station were written in Russian, and H was getting anxious trying to find the platform.  Thankfully, it was pretty simple and we found our train quickly.

    Our compartment was clean and did not feel claustrophobic.  There was a TV and electronic outlets in the compartment.  Bottles of water, clean towels, bed sheets, blankets, and pillows were provided.  We were a bit concerned about the safety on the train, but the luggage was stored under our beds, and we were able to lock our compartment.  We were excited.  It felt nostalgic and romantic to be traveling the old fashioned way.  


    NEXT: Russia - Moscow 7.5