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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Russia - Afterthoughts & Tips

"What do you you think of Russia?" People asked us when we returned from our trip.  

H and I found ourselves having a hard time answer the question.  "It was different than what we imagined".  That was the best way we could describe our feelings about  this trip.

Before this trip, Leo Tolstoy's literature and Tchaikovsky's music came to mind when I thought of Russia.  I imagined it being a freezing, dark, depressed and repressed land with people who were stern and harsh.  H still had vivid memories of watching news of the Soviet Union with his grandfather growing up. Secret police giving us hard time and the inevitable bribery to get us out of trouble was what he expected of this trip......

Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, we could not find any trace of evidence that associated to the impressions we had of Russia.  St. Petersburg was as beautiful as many Eastern European cities, and Moscow did not miss a beat compare to any other global metropolitan city

The trip demystified Russia for us.  To be 100% honest, we were almost disappointed that we did not find the Russia we had pictured; the Russia that was a bit dark and dangerous to satisfy our cravings for adventure. 

Shortly after we came back from Russia, H started look into traveling to North Korea out of curiosity. 

I cracked up.   For someone who hesitated traveling to Russia at first, this was a little extreme, don't you think?

After thoughts:  

  • There definitely is a lot of room for improvement when it comes tourism in Russia.  Although the system can be challenging for tourists, most people we encountered were very nice and helpful.  
  • There were times when we travel to other cities, and we felt that the hotel staffs or store clerks were flaky in a way that they were trying to make a few more bucks and be less truthful about the information they gave you.  The people that we encountered in Russia were endearingly direct and honest.  We never felt once that we were misguided to spend more money.
  • I think what really surprised us about this trip was the soft side of Russians.  The arts were amazingly colorful and cheerful;  so many restaurants were tastefully done and elegant.  The most charming thing we had quickly discovered was that Russian people LOVE flowers! At the customs exit at St. Petersburg Airport, I have never seen so many men holding bouquets of flowers, waiting to pick up their loved ones.  Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg, it was a common sighting to see women holding flowers that their dates brought for them.  There were flower shops in every metro station.  Who would've thought that Russian men were so romantic!


  • Travel Resources: I bought two guidebooks for this trip: Frommer's and Eyewitness Travel, but found the these guidebooks either did not cover a lot of details or were not up to date.  The best resource for the trip planning  to Russia for me was the Tripadvisor forum.  It is especially useful if you are an independent traveler. 
  • Midnight Train: Although we had a good experience taking the "Red Arrow" train for our overnight trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I discovered the "Grand Express" after I came back home and found that it was probably a better train to take.  The travel time is longer which  allows you more sleep, and the facility on the train seems new and modern compare to the Red Arrow.  The most important thing is that the Grand Express has an English website and is so much easier to navigate and purchase tickets. 
  • Opening Hours: Traveling to Russia in the winter may be a different story, but a great benefit about traveling to Russia in the summer is that a lot of tourists sites and shops open very late.  You really feel that you can do so much in one day.  Do not rely on the guide book's information about the opening hours since we have discovered that many tourist sites change their opening hours from season to season.  It is best to go to their websites for the most updated information. 
  • A-La-Cart Admissions: Get used to may layers of admissions at one site when you travel to Russia. Most audio guides cost extra, many special exhibitions cost extra, and in rare occasions, it will cost you money to take photos or videos.  If your budget is tight, you may want to do some homework and be more strategic about what to pay and what to skip.   

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Russia - Moscow 7.7 - 7.8

View Moscow 7.7 - 7.8 in a larger map 

  • Tretyakov Gallery
  • White Sun of the Desert
  • Metro Stations
  • Ulitsa Arbat
  • Sturgeon Caviar
  • Aeroexpress

Although Moscow is a bigger city than St. Petersburg, in terms of tourist activities, Moscow seems more manageable. (It is a different story if you like shopping and night life.)  Our walking tour guide from the first day had recommended Tretyakov Gallery Since we really enjoyed the arts we saw in St. Petersburg, we decided to check out the gallery on our last day in Moscow.  

In the beginning of this trip, we had always paid extra for the audio tours to all the sights that offered them.  As we waited to pay for the gallery admission, we looked at each other and had the same response, "Nah..." Both of us just could not sum up the concentration to listen to another audio guide anymore.   Trekyakov Gallery also had some really good collections, but we did notice that there were quite a few duplicated paintings from the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.  The museum staff struggled in English trying to explain to us the reason.  From what we could gather, it seemed like the painters painted a few copies of the same paintings, so all the duplicates were authentic.  It was also worth noting that seeing the Royalty family portraits with the dresses we saw in display at the Armory Museum was pretty cool.  

After the museum,  it was time for lunch.  Although I had a restaurant in mind that I wanted to check out, I was dreading to repeat the nightmares of looking for addresses and getting lost.  Judging from the map, the restaurant was within walking distance.  We decided to take a chance and find the restaurant.  We walked through some residential area.  The streets were quiet and clean.  In front of one building, we saw three guys cleaning the building windows with only a few strings  to secure their waists.  Crazy!  I guess I have been living in the U.S. for too long now that I have become a total wimp! 

Luckily we were able to find the restaurant without too much drama.   White Sun of the Desert served central Asian cuisine.  The menu was extensive that would make your head spin,  and there were a lot of meat and intestine dishes.  We ordered a couple of appetizers to share.  Perhaps we did not order the right dishes.  The food was good, but not memorable. 

Although I did not write much about the Moscow Metro so far, we had been using the Metro everyday since we arrived.   For 28 rubles per ride and trains arriving at the stations every 1-2 minutes, the Moscow Metro was an amazingly efficient and economical way to travel around town.   Operating since 1935 for the first time, the Soviet Union  played a pivotal role in building one of the largest metro system in the world by enlisted red army soldiers, members of communist youth league, and many of the best artists.  The Metro stations reflected Russian's socialist glorious past and was an excellent way to explore underground Moscow.  We often hopped off the train to take pictures of these beautiful stations and hopped back on the next train to the next station.  

After taking a detour and visiting a few more metro stations, we eventually came to the pedestrian street, Ulitsa Arbat.  There were a lot of souvenirs shops and restaurants along the street, but it felt quite touristy.

Since it would be our last night in Moscow and we really had not eaten  a decent dinner in Moscow yet, we made an effort to make a dinner reservation at Kitezh, a highly recommended restaurant by Frommer's guide book, and prayed that we would find the restaurant easily.  However, not so lucky.  We once again found ourselves running around in circles and people on the streets were sending us in different directions even though the whole time, we were standing in front of the court yard that led to the restaurant.  30 minutes later, we found the restaurant and was led to our table in an empty, small, narrow, and ark cellar.  The restaurant seemed to host a private event that day and there was a large group in the next room with a live band playing extremely loud music.  I put down the menu, asked H, "Do you want to leave? I don't want to eat here."  H felt the same way, and with in 2 minutes, we walked out of the restaurant.  

Sigh..... I was feeling defeated and really disappointed that I had not have a chance to try the Sturgeon Caviar in Russia.   We did not know where to go for dinner nor did we want to put ourselves through this ridiculous ordeal to look for another address again!

Finally, we went back to the gourmet food shop at Gum, bought Kvas, a small tin of Sturgeon caviar, bread, and some other goodies, and had a picnic dinner at our hotel room.   

It was our last night in Moscow, and the next day, H and I would go on our separate flights.  I would be leaving from the international airport back to New York in the morning.  2 hours later, H would be leaving from the domestic airport to Austria visiting his family.  It was not what I pictured how we would spend our last meal in Russia, but sitting in bed next to H, and eating caviar in our bathrobes,  it was both intimate and romantic in a strange way. 

The next morning, H took the Metro with me to the station that connected with the airport shuttle, Aeroexpress. The transportation was seamless, easy, fast, and cheap.  I waved goodbye to H as the train quietly sliding away.  

Knowing that H was nervous coming to Russia in the beginning of our trip,  it was ironic that he ended spending time here alone.  I wondered what he would be doing the last two hours in Moscow by himself.