Saturday, August 15, 2009

11 Moscow, Russia

After a week and a half of guessing our way through Arabic, we were pretty excited to get to Russia. Moscow, we figured, is a major city and people are bound to speak at least some English and public signs have got to have writing in a Latin-based alphabet. Boy were we wrong. The Moscovites we met--at train stations, hotels, restaurants--typically spoke no English and were not amused when we tried. And the only language displayed anywhere was Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet is a bit less daunting than Arabic, but it's rather tricky and nothing reads how it sounds. Just riding the Metro was a memory game counting down to the desired stop.

Which is how we got to our first destination in Moscow: the Kremlin. We were lucky to arrive just 15 minutes before they released tickets for the Armory, which they do at a few specifically scheduled times each day, so we waited in the long line and snapped two of those up in addition to our general entry into the complex. The Armory is Moscow's oldest museum, filled with all sorts of historical Russian relics. The first floor displayed a really neat collection of original Cinderella-like carriages and Katrina's favorite: fantastic dresses and fashion items hundreds of years old. The second floor boasted the largest collection of silver in Europe. Lots and lots of silver...dishes, sculptures, and more. Which is great if you are into that kind of thing, but there are only so many silver platters we can appreciate before it becomes a bit of a yawn. There is also a lauded diamond exhibit but with an additional entrance fee, and we were maxed out.

We had less doubt about the worth of our Kremlin entrance fee. We had a great time wandering around the well-manicured grounds, scoping out the parking lot of black luxury sedans outside the Senate, and visiting the multiple churches in the Kremlin's main courtyard. Our favorite was the Cathedral of the Assumption, where many Russian tsars were coronated. We're still not sure why they needed four churches within feet of eachother, but it made visiting very convenient for us.

Right next door in Red Square is where we saw one of the coolest things on our trip so far: Lenin's body. The Mausoleum, which charges no entrance fee, is open only three hours at a time five days a week, so we carefully planned when to join the long queue for our visit. Security takes active responsibility in crowd control and only a certain number of people are let in at a time. Once we got through security we followed the gestures of a series of silent guards down a dimly lit staircase--all of which only added to the effect. Twisting, turning through the Mausoleum we arrived in a dark, red-tinted room (or maybe that's just how we want to remember it) with nothing in it but a glass coffin and Lenin's perfectly preserved body with his neatly trimmed beard and impeccable suit. His complexion was a little waxy, but what can you expect from someone who's been dead for decades? Unfortunately the security guards who were so concerned with crowd control ushered us through quickly. We would have liked to spend some more time there.

There are plenty of churches to see in Moscow, and we visited many of them, but one of our favorites was Novodevichy Convent located a bit outside city center, making for a quiet, idyllic haven. The big draw is the cemetery which hosts Anton Chekhov, Nikita Khrushchev, and Boris Yeltsin. Identifying their gravesites was a bit of an adventure and gave us an opportunity to exercise our new knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet. There is also a park across the pond from the Convent that makes a great spot to spend an afternoon. Overall, we were surprised to find how seriously Russians take their green spaces. Aside from the one by Novodevichy, we came across many beautiful and well-maintained parks, some with fabulous, flowing fountains and others with stately, serious statues. They were a great escape and interesting juxtaposition to some of the drabber corners of the capital city.

Many of the city streets didn't seem to have much character in Moscow. There were a shocking lack of cafes, shops, and restaurants in general, even around major tourist areas. Instead, we found the life of the city underground. The Metro stations are hubs of activity and tunnels double as shopping malls filled with news stands, food kiosks--even clothing stores. We could normally tell we were near a station far before we saw the red M by the appearance of a Ctapdozis hot dog stand (or as Patrick calls it: "crapdogs", based on the logo's appearance in the Cyrillic alphabet). It appears that Moscovites are very focused, efficient people who go to work in the morning, leave exactly at 6pm--it's amazing how instantly the streets fill when the clock strikes quittin' time--and pick up anything they need on the way home at the underground stands. No happy hours or dinners with friends on the agenda. It was so hard to find a restaurant that a few of our meals were provided by the grocery store near our hotel.

However, due to a suggestion from Patrick's co-worker Mikilai, we had a great meal at the fun, affordable, and adorably kitschy Taras Bulba. We started with Ukrainian lard, which we figured would be some sort of bacon dish and were kind of right: it was basically just the fatty part of bacon served with garlic and mustard. Our next courses were a bit tamer, and we enjoyed our blini and ravioli-like varenyky immensely. We also sampled their beverages including homemade cherry drink and kvas, a rye-based soft drink that Katrina lovingly dubbed "beer soda". Of course we had to sample some real Russian vodka as well. It was served icy cold and accompanied by a lard-wrapped green bean and pickle.

We had two homes during our stay in Moscow: the Maxima Zarya and Altay Hotel. We'd booked the Maxima Zarya months ahead of time as a part of our visa application process and while quite nice, was a bit out of our budget to stay more than one night. The rooms were nothing special, but clean sheets and a full bathroom were a big step up from our last accommodations. The included buffet breakfast was pretty great and we loaded up on yogurt and eggs to supplement the mostly carb diet we've been keeping. The Altay Hotel, where we relocated, has a beautiful main building as well as a basic brick one next door that appears to be a converted dorm. Rooms in the second building are half the price and this is where we stayed for $60/night. There were differences between the two hotels at which we stayed but one big similarity: cold water. Apparently there were some "repairs" going on in the neighborhood (or all of Moscow, who knows) that caused the hot water to be shut off for two full weeks.

As Americans, we definitely had a different reception in Moscow than other places on our trip so far. Middle Easterners were uber-enthusiastic about our country and particularly our President. In Europe we seemed to be the typical traveling stock. But in Russia, it was not that Moscovites didn't speak English but rather how insulted they acted when we did. When we went to the train station to book our tickets to St. Petersburg we had to go through a half dozen tellers before we found one who would even try to communicate with us (which ended up being an amusing yet successful combination of charades and pictionary). We even had a cigarette toting ten-year-old pass us in a park and yell "America, Fooooooooo!" He was giving us the thumbs down so we are pretty sure "foo" does not translate to "cool". We certainly didn't expect the red carpet to be rolled out for two Americans who don't speak a lick of Russian, but we were surprised to get such a post-Cold War cold shoulder.

View more photos from Moscow here.


  1. I honestly love this website. Your posts help to remind me why I love traveling on vacation soo much. You seem to really love your site. Aside from my medical practice, I love keeping up with the latest travel tips online. Keep up the great work and please visit by my health blog sometime. I would appreciate it. The url is

  2. Thanks for another great post - sorry about the anti-American smoking odd!

  3. I wonder if most of the stores are underground because of the long winters. Also, maybe they don't like Americans because of our hot water.

  4. Thanks for your notes! St. Petersburg showed us a different side of Russia and our post for that will be up shortly. Stay tuned!

  5. Jeez, you sure had an intensive experience :)

    Yep, unfortunately, most of the Moscow folks don't speak any Russian at all - but that's been improving slowly.

    Oh, one more thing - the guy's name was probably "Nikolai", not "Mikilai".

    Great post!

  6. Have recently had my first trip back to Moscow since 1965 (I worked there at our Embassy as a very young girl). What a contrast. It could have been two separate places. Obviously the Kremlin is still the same and Red Square, but virtually everything else was completely different. 1965 was the height of Communism. The people and buildings were all grey, Gum was a wreck and had nothing to sell, there was no traffic on the streets (now that is hard to believe, isn't it), etc.

    Back in 1965 we weren't allowed to speak to any Russians (by our own Embassy and by the Russian Government themselves). Hence my Russian, like yours, was virtually non-existent. However, I did have a grasp of the Cryillic alaphbet and with that my husband and I managed remarkably well. Admittedly, despite the changes, I did feel "at home" in many ways - especially the underground metro - and we had no difficulty getting around by ourselves. When in trouble we would stop someone and point on the map to where we wanted to go and indicated "which direction?" They invariably would quite happily show us the right way to go.

    Like you, several of our meals were from supermarkets and taken back to our room - but we were surprised with the good quality of food we purchased. And as for vodka, what a bargain that was - and the memories that brought back.

    Love your site.

    Helen, Australia

  7. Thanks so much for your comments, Helen! Glad you find the blog useful. We'll be in Melbourne, Sydney and Alice Springs Australia in a few weeks...we'd love to hear any suggestions you have for us!

  8. Interesting, why Russians must speak English? Slaves must speak language of world gendarme?

    Public signs in Moscow must be written in English? Any of public signs in USA are translated into foreign language?

  9. Astounded that you opted to try different ticket kiosks until one would put up with your insistence on English! Why not learn just a few words of Russian? As in most places, people are impressed with even the slightest effort to learn their language, and that might have encouraged them to meet you halfway. A tip for buying train tickets without speaking too much, as long as you know the train times and price: write the origin and destination in Cyrillic/local language, with an arrow in the desired direction, and the publicised times of departure and arrival, in 24-hr format, on a slip of paper, and hand it over with the cash :)

    Also you don't have to count metro stations - most of the metro maps inside and outside the trains include latin transcription alongside cyrillic, and a recording announces each station as you arrive. Again, a little Russian goes a long way: 'Kakaya stansiya?' = 'Which station?', 'Kuda?' = 'Which way?'. Basic, not massively polite, but communicative :)

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