I am home, well back from Russia that is, and boy I am glad to be back. The past 10 days have been some of the most hectic and stressful times in my life, visiting Russia with a large group is now not my idea of a fall break. Early last Saturday (October 25th) morning we left on a bus bound for Riga, Latvia where we were to catch a train to Moscow. It was blowing snow outside and was about minus 4, not too cold for me but many were complaining as we loaded our stuff into the bus. Already I could see this was going to be stressful, most guys had packed just our backpacks, but many of the girls were bringing twice the stuff for a week in Russia than I brought to Lithuania. One girl even had one of those huge, black, rolling monstrosities you know 4 foot high and 2 foot wide. I joked right away about the fact that everyone was going to know we were Americans now. The bus to Riga was pretty uneventful, we were all excited to get off and get on the overnight train to Moscow. We had plenty of space since one of the Hawaiian girls on our trip had come down with some sort of virus (she’s okay now) before we left and two other girls, one her Hawaiian friend and the other a girl from California had opted to stay with her. It was sad that they couldn’t come but it later proved to be a blessing.
After a short delay at the Lith/Lativian border due to weather conditions we were on the train to Moscow. The cabs were similar to the Zimbabwe trains we took to Bulawayo, however one small difference, no ventilation was available as no windows would open, nor was there any sort of AC. I was in a room with Jurij and Edward our two Russian speaking male interns and my friend Dave from Chicago whom I’ve got to know since I’ve been in Lith. We enjoyed a few beers together to help us sleep but during the night it was so hot I hardly slept, it didn’t help that I was excited, and that our night was interrupted by the Russian border crossing. Luckily we had the interns in our cab, otherwise I would have been clueless, Russians check everything if they find out you are American in any sense of the word. They storm in with flashlights, lift up seats and pillows, rifle through bags on a whim and just make you feel rather unpleasant about your whole arrival into their country. I expected a little bit of harassment, but not the extent which we received.
The next morning at around 8 we arrived in Moscow tired from the night on the train. I felt okay, I had had little sleep for the past two nights but my excitement kept me happy, Russia was a mysterious place ready for some exploration for my inquisitive mind. As we walked down the train slab, giant suitcases rolling along in the snow and loud, boisterous Americans commenting on everything I wished I was not with a large group, especially this one. Thanks to a few people in noisy ski jackets toting coffin sized luggage, we stuck out like sore thumbs, of course we were Americans. However I was dressed very European, I had bought a new black wool coat and scarf for the trip, at best I could pass for a Slavic Lithuanian, but I definitely looked British. And many of my friends, Brandon, Kevin and Mike especially, were very sensitive of themselves and as such came off as Europeans. But when we were in the big group there was one label for us, Dirty Capitalist Americans. I knew the week would be one of horror for me. I do well in Lithuania now; I’m often mistaken as someone from here even by natives and other tourists we encounter. On the streets and in stores I am invisible if I keep my mouth shut and mumble what little Lithuanian I know. I like that a lot, but I could see that the week in Russia spent with this crew would be close to a nightmare.
Once in the train station we used a series of underground tunnels to connect to the metro subway system. Moscow’s underground is one of if not the most extensive in the world. We took an escalator down to the bottom tracks that was half a mile long. Immediately I was in awe of this creation, the metro system is so far underground that there are two to three levels in which the trains can run. The lower tracks are miles below surface. The trains are ridiculously cramped, we all had are luggage which annoyed everyone around us but luckily we only had one stop to bear before we could rise back to land. Once on the streets the cold hit us again, it was around -1 but many were complaining and we had to wait as additional jackets, hats and scarves were pulled from various levels inside stuffed suitcases, we had to trudge only a few city blocks to our hostel but the cold was already too much for many to bear. As you know I have a jack in the box type patience and this situation was winding me up at a furious rate. “It’s Russia for God’s sake” I said (or something to that extent), “I told you to dress warm”. Once we got to our hostel we crowded into the small common room while we waited to get our rooms. The same articles that were pulled out at the metro we stuffed back into to luggage as people complained of the heat in the little room. I was glad when we got our rooms and were allowed to rest for two hours before our first excursion. During our break our passports were taken because all visitors to Russia are required to register in each city they are in.
At around twelve the group split up, Praise the Lord!, I chose the group with the least Californian girls in it which was also the group with my friends in it and the male interns. Our first goal was to change our money; we were given an addition 100USD stipend for the trip as Moscow is one of most expensive cities in the world. After some hassle doing that, money is hard to change for a good rate without passports the next step was getting some food. We took a metro to the Red Square and went to the shopping mall at the heart of the city. After looking around at the prices at the food court we chose to go in a small Russian cafe for our first substantial meal of the day. It was horrible, actually Russian food is horrible in general, greasy mystery meat, potatoes and pancakes slathered with sour cream is the main dish and I soon discovered that my culinary experience in Lithuania would not be found in the Motherland. But I was hungry and ate knowing that I would pay for my gastronomic sins later in gassy-tro-nomic output. After our lunch/ dinner we wondered around the streets for a bit, I was upset to find out that due to Chechen terrorists the Red Square was blocked off to the public along with the parts of the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb. That evening we were to go to the ballet. It was the story of Cassnova, a Russian favorite. The ballet wasn’t that entertaining but the auditorium was marvelous to be in, Granny Rita would be beside herself if she could see the way this place was laid out. Giant gold balconies, huge chandeliers, beautiful ceilings and crushed velvet upholstery and drapes. I was upset that my camera was not allowed in the building, which is also a Russian standard which annoys me. I enjoyed the music and the chance to use my Japanese with the flocks of Japanese business men.
After the ballet we split up for a walk back to the hostel and picked up some beer and vodka for our celebration of the first night in Russia. I would have rather got some food, but Moscow has a surprising lack of restaurants and I ate a bag of chips for dinner. We had a wild night; I managed to have a healthy dose of vodka unlike some of my friends and enjoyed being a little buzzed up in our room on the twelfth floor overlooking the bad end of the city. I still couldn’t believe I was in Russia! The next day we got up at ten, some a little more headsore than others and prepared for the rest of our time in Moscow.