Russia Trip Report

Amcan Travel staffers visit Russia, March 2002.

We flew Aeroflot to Russia, on a Boeing 777 direct from Seattle to Moscow. We were excited because this is the first time we have been on this kind of jet plane. Unhappily, the sardine style seat configuration made for an exceptionally uncomfortable trip. Aeroflot's 777 cannot have been in service much more than 8 years, but the interior was poorly maintained. The seat upholstery was torn and worn all the way through with a big chunk of wood sticking directly into one traveler's back. It guarantees a stiff body after the eleven-hour flight.

Our flight was scheduled to arrive in Moscow by 5:00 p.m. local time, and we had expected to catch the Bolshoi Theater Ballet the same evening as we arrived. In the event, the flight was a couple of hours late. We just checked into the Hotel Russia at 9:30, so we had to forget about the Ballet for that night. Our host and group leader, Luba, took us for a short walk and tour of the Metro. Walking in the middle of the night on the deserted, wide and haunting Red Square seemed to be surreal. All was quiet, Lenin's Tomb dominating the square. The Metro, in contrast, was still bustling with crowds at full swing. The price is 5 Rubles per ride (about 17 cents USD) with unlimited changes as long as you don't leave the stations. There are steep high-speed escalators going 300 meters down, at first nerve wracking but exciting. It was a little like a Disney joy ride, except we were not surrounded by happy children. Instead, we were on line with hundreds of serious tight-lipped Muscovites all in black overcoats. The various stations have different decors from one another. The first one we saw featured heroic sculptures of factory workers, farmers and soldiers lining the hall, humbling us with the commitment and determination shining out of their faces and gestures. The next station was lighter and more artistic, almost museum-like. The Moscow Metro has a total of 15 lines laid out in spokes sort of like the London Tube system. Some of the more than 100 stations are 60 years old. They are a lot better maintained than the Aeroflot jet we arrived in, and perhaps in better shape than some of New York's subway stations.

Back in our room at Hotel Russia we were seven floors up, right across the street from Red Square (photo, Red Square at night). The lit-up Kremlin Towers and the onion domes of St. Basil's Cathedral (photo, St. Basil's) stood guard in our window through the night.

Sunday morning we were up and out of bed well before 5:00 a.m., our bodies not yet adjusted to the time zone. Four of us stepped out of the hotel to walk a circuit around the Kremlin. The Kremlin wall (photo, Kremlin wall). is 19 meter high, 6.5 meter thick. We wonder what size cannon can penetrate it. There are all together 20 towers around the wall (photo, Kremlin Towers), all in different shapes and heights. We oohed and aaahed at every one of them and posed quite some pictures along the way. Moscow on an early March morning is cold and crisp and unexpectedly clean. The buildings are in bright colors and there are a lot of trees. We decided that in summer it would be utterly pretty and comfortable. We passed the Unknown Soldier's Memorial, with its eternal flame and some fresh red carnations left by someone that morning. We passed a giggling, red-checked street cleaning crew heading to work. Barbara had to have her picture taken in front of the statue of her childhood hero of World War II, Marshall Zhukov (photo, statue).

Back to the hotel in time to enjoy our first Russian breakfast: Blini (Russian Pancakes), cold cuts, cheese, and chewy bread. We learned that two of our group members almost got arrested taking pictures around the President's residence at the Kremlin with a fancy camera and tripod. We were reminded to have passports with us at all times because everyone is subject to be stopped and have ID checked. We were at liberty to amuse ourselves on Sunday, since the official group itinerary calls it a Free Day. Four of us went to see Lenin's Tomb (photo, mausoleum guard). but it was closed for maintenance. We went into St. Basil's Cathedral, where three of the nine onion domes were wrapped up for restoration. We learned this is pretty common right now in Russia. It seems half of the historical sites are under renovation to catch up with delayed maintenance accrued during the Soviet years.

Sunday afternoon's destination was the Tretyakov Gallery, via Metro. Without Luba, we got lost quickly. All the signs in the Metro are in Russian, whose letters like Greek are Cyrillic and unfamiliar in English. Barbara is pretty helpless with the signs, while Richard manages a little better pronouncing the Russian words, thanks to a bit of long-ago training in Greek. With patience we eventually match our map to the signs to find out where we were going. The Tretyakov Gallery seems popular with locals on a Sunday afternoon. We waited in the line with 150 or 200 Russians before getting in. The Tretyakov Gallery has the world's largest collection of Russian icons and art, dating from the 8th century right up to the 20th. The place is huge and confusing, even with a gallery map. We were mostly in the maze surrounded by masterpieces. All the works shown from before the 12th century are exclusively religious-themed icons and other paintings. They are impressive, though we enjoyed the later secular works a little more. There are some nice canvases by Ilya Repin, Barbara's favorite Russian Realist painter. The majority of our group went to the Opera at the Bolshoi Theatre Sunday evening. There weren't quite enough tickets available for the whole group, so we opted to catch up on our rest and see if we can get to the Bolshoi another evening on our own.

Monday's itinerary called for a Moscow city tour, starting with a guided tour of the Kremlin. Our guide Natasha was an energetic, assertive middle-aged lady with vast knowledge and considerable pride about her city. She took us to the Armory Museum where the royal family belongings are displayed: jewelry, clothing, carriages, furniture, and diplomatic gifts from all corners of the world. She led us around the Kremlin grounds, pointing out the Tsar Bell Tower (photo, tower) and the royal churches and chapels. We were amused that Royal family built so many churches as part of their household, each with its own peculiar use. The Cathedral of the Assumption (photo, Assumption) for coronations, Cathedral of the Annunciation (photo, Annunciation) for family's daily worship, Church of the Deposition of the Robe (photo, Deposition of the Robe) celebrating the Russian victories against its enemies, and The Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles for private chapel.

After the Kremlin tour we went over to Old Arbat Street. We went past the literary museum at Pushkin's House, but found it closed Monday. We stopped to admire his statue with his beautiful wife, smiling outside their honeymoon room. Apparently Pushkin's love affair was big public news in his time, reminding us that celebrity tracking was not invented in Hollywood. For lunch we stopped into a tiny Georgian restaurant just off Arbat called Kinto's Café. We enjoyed tasty, authentic stuffed eggplant, veal, some soup, mushrooms and potatoes. For four of us the total bill was 1200 rubles (about $40 USD) including tips. We think that's a great price for lunch, though we're aware it's almost a third of a typical Russian worker's monthly salary.

After lunch, we toured around the Moscow suburbs, stopping to take in views of the pretty Novodevichiy Convent (photo, convent), Moscow University and the Moscow River. Then we headed to the airport for an early evening flight to St. Petersburg.

Entering St. Petersburg in the evening, our first impression was that the street lighting is dimmer than in Moscow. The city itself, however, much further north and colder than Moscow during winter, is somewhat prettier than Moscow (photo, skyline). The city benefits from its location on the Neva River with its five giant branches. The city covers 44 separate islands criss-crossed by some 50 canals. There are 560 bridges within the city limit. It is like Venice, only 10 times bigger. Everywhere there are graceful 18th and 19th century buildings, most in good repair and some being restored. Tuesday morning we got oriented by taking a bus tour of the city, visiting sights on each of the larger islands and checking out what seemed like a couple dozen churches. These included the impressive St Isaac Cathedral (photo, St. Isaac), The Kazan Cathedral (photo, Kazan) and the most beautiful Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood (photo, Spilled Blood). The Church of the Savior was built right up against the canal to commemorate the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. In order to center the church building on the spot where Alexander was killed, they had to build out over the canal, narrowed it by half.

Tuesday evening we were lucky to catch a gala performance at Marinsky Theatre. We were seated in an uncomfortable "tourist" box, with chairs all piled up in narrow rows. We did not get a copy of the Russian language (only) program so it was a mystery every time the curtains drew open what we would be seeing and hearing next. We saw excerpts from operas, symphonic works and ballets, including The Nutcracker, Cinderella, The Firebird and Boris Godunov. The theater itself is astonishingly beautiful and graceful (photo, Marinsky interior). Everyone dresses up to attend, and between acts it's possible to sip champagne and snack on caviar.

Wednesday morning we headed over to the Winter Palace and Hermitage complex (photo, Hermitage yard with sculpture). Our guide Katya was determined to march us through this vast museum with purpose and dispatch. We saw great throne rooms and ballrooms and magnificent entryways(Photo2993). We lined up to pay our respects to the two daVinci canvases in the collection and viewed other paintings of note by Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky. We were interested to see the "special collection" of Scythian gold artifacts and other treasures from the Caucasus and Crimea dating back to the 3rd to 9th centuries, and some much older. To get access you book a mini-tour in advance, ticket cost 25 rubles for local residents, and 400 rubles for foreigners. At the appointed time, we found our way through the maze to Room 27 where we met an intense middle-aged blonde lady who walked us through the displays with a half-dozen other English speakers. She gave elaborate impassioned descriptions of the different jewelry and decorative pieces, explaining how the Scythian, Greek, Oriental, and Russian motifs are mixed and echoed over and over in different pieces from different places and different times. The displays in the special collection are so intricate and exquisite, and the rooms hushed and not crowded like the main museum - located behind two sets of locked and guarded entries - we really got the message that we are privileged visitors to a hidden piece of history and culture. We walked and walked around the museum until closing time, our legs numb, backs stiff, practically cross-eyed with looking at masterpieces. The Hermitage Museum owns 2.8 million objects. Just to glance at each would taked nine years or so. We started to think maybe we'll come back one day and spend some portion of our retired years here.

Outside the museum we walked across the square and through a graceful arch leading to a quiet alley off bustling Nevsky Prospect. We took the Metro to the neighborhood around Preobrazhensky Church. Inside, the chapel filled with the voices of the choir singing responses to the service recited by the priest up front. It's remarkable because the choir consists of just four people. They really sounded more like eight or even sixteen, and the pretty harmonies filled us with a feeling of peace. Russian Orthodox churches have no pews or chairs: the believers do their worship standing up. Among the dozen or so worshipers, we stood quietly listening to the lovely music.

We stopped for dinner at the Rioni restaurant on Shpalerdnaya Street. We picked the place because it serves Georgian cuisine, and we were not disappointed. If anything, our meal was even more delicious than the lunch we had on Old Arbat Street. Further up Shpalerdnaya, we caught the last tune and a half at the JFC Jazz club. Afterwards, the walk across the bridge was cold and romantic, full moon rising above the city and great floes of ice breaking up and moving slowly under the bridge.

Thursday was the last day of the group itinerary. We drove out to the town of Pushkin, formerly the "Tsar Village" where the ruling family resided for a few generations. The palace tour is less about fine art and ancient artifacts, more about the history and life-styles of the ruling family. Visitors put on little plastic booties to protect the elaborate parquet floors (photo, booties in the ballroom). We trooped through dining rooms and reception halls, saw the furnished, but never-slept-in bedroom used to show guests, and the real family living quarters and bedrooms downstairs. A little ways down the road at Pavlosk we enjoyed pretty much more of the same in the palace that Paul III lived in during his short reign.

Thursday evening the group went to a Russian Folk performance at a theater that has been installed in the old Marinsky palace. The program was a revue-style presentation with silly songs and pantomime mixed with a balalaika band concert and athletic acrobatic dancing - all in colorful peasant costume. At the break, we were treated to vodka, champagne, and caviar snacks while having the opportunity to buy souvenir art or caviar. We bought a small watercolor view of the Church on the Spilled Blood. We think it will make a nice companion to the little beach house picture we got from the street artist Jaffa last year in Barbados.

Early Friday morning the majority of the group took off for their journey home, but we stayed behind to enjoy an extra day in St. Petersburg and another couple of nights in Moscow. Friday we set our own itinerary. First stop, Yusopov Palace where Rasputin the mystic monk was killed. We took a stroll past St Isaac's Cathedral and down Nevsky Prospect. Strolling on Nevsky Prospect we enjoyed a delicious chocolate ice cream treat like we saw the local people eating. We wandered into a local music store where we found an unusual little rosewood transverse flute that plays a melodic minor scale in C#. We had time to take a longer look at the Spilled Blood church than was possible during the group's city tour. The afternoon we devoted to the Russian Museum. We walked the rooms in chronological order - icons and religious works giving way after a few rooms to royalty portraits, followed by classically-themed "academy" pictures and landscapes, and on into proto-Impressionism. It was closing time before we got to the 20th century rooms, so no Soviet Realism, no Kandinsky for us this day.

Our last night in St. Petersburg, we managed to find 812 Jazz Club, where some young and capable jazz musicians were playing some Chick Corea and mid-70's Keith Jarrett material. Since it was supposed to be a jam session, Richard showed them his flute and with limited English communication, they agreed to let Richard sit in and play with them. At the end of the tune, the owner of the club came to the bandstand, got out his trumpet, and started up a Dizzy Gillespie tune and then everybody jumped in with that. It was so much fun. (photo, jamming at 812 Jazz Club)

Saturday morning after breakfast, we took a mid-morning flight back to Moscow. Our last two days in Russia, we stayed at a hotel operated by our friend Mr. Li (photo, Hotel Salyut) as part of a comprehensive Chinese Culture Exchange program. The hotel features two authentic Chinese restaurants. We ate at the Old Beijing on the top floor, and we're sure this must be the best Chinese restaurant in Moscow. Mr. Li helped us to obtain tickets for two good seats, right underneath the king's box, for a performance of the Ballet "Gisele" at the Bolshoi Theatre Saturday night. We were glad we got to see a performance at the Bolshoi before we left.

For Sunday, our last day to tour Moscow, Mr. Li had some very specific ideas about what we were required to see. He sent us out in the company of one of his tour guides, a lovely Russian girl named Yulia. Yulia speaks Russian, of course, and Chinese and very reasonable English as well. We took the Metro out toward Moscow Gate, which somewhat resembles Berlin's Brandenburg Gate (photo, Moscow Gate), and walked over to Victory Square with its impressive 400-foot tower (photo, Victory Square), We toured through the dioramas and historical exhibits in the World War II Museum and Memorial behind the square.

After some brisk walking and another ride on the Metro, our next stop was the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This is the newest and largest Orthodox church in Moscow (photo, Cathedral). Stalin had the original church torn down in the 1930s to make space for a public swimming pool. In 1995, City of Moscow decided to rebuild the church on its original plan, entirely funded by donations. It took two years and $125 million USD to finish it just in time for the 850th anniversary of the city in 1997.

Across the street from the Cathedral is the elegant Pushkin Museum, which houses another big collection of European art. There are dozens of canvases by Gauguin and Cezanne, and several nice ones by Degas, Renoir, Picasso, Miro and Marc Chagall. We were overwhelmed by the wealth of artistic treasure here to enjoy, and again we found we stayed in the museum until closing time.

To wrap our Russian stay, Mr. and Mrs. Li treated us to Chinese Hot Pot at Old Beijing. The Li's have lived in Russia for 10 years, so they are fluent in Russian and have acquired a vast knowledge of the local surroundings, not only in Moscow but also in St, Petersburg and elsewhere. We feel very comfortable sending our clients to their place after being hosted there. The atmosphere is casual which is quite different from the Russian guided tours. We were thoroughly impressed by Russia. While Moscow is over 850 year old, it is still grand, sophisticated, activity-packed and fun. We love St. Petersburg even more for its beauty, culture and history.