01.12.2012 - 08.12.2012 -7 °C
I’m not sure what I was expecting in Russia. Snow, people plagued by old soviet injuries lining the streets begging for money, perpetual all expansive greyness or alley ways lined with spies.
It’s not really that at all. It is actually surprisingly western. Keeping in mind we were only in Moscow and St. Petersburg, I would even go as far to say it is more affluent than New York. It is certainly better dressed – NY’ers are known for their style, but there is no naked cowboy in the middle of Red Square. The women are immaculate here, incredibly dressed in heels as tall as the Sky Tower, fur jackets and leather gloves. Even though it is snowing outside, they have perfect makeup, long perfectly styled hair cascading out of their fur lined hoods and still managing to totter down the street elegantly in icy slush, that cause Iain and I to slide our feet along the ground to keep as much contact with the pavement as possible.
Getting to Russia is really the hardest part. The process of getting an invitation from someone inside the country to even get a visa, having to go to the consulate personally (or pay exorbitant fees to get someone else to do it), and then having to wait for processing times, seems a little scary and painfully tedious. Then there is the constant fear of having to have your passport and documentation on you at all times whilst in the country, because you could be asked for it at any stage makes it all the more daunting. However once you arrive at passport control, you realise you are stepping into a world few people from New Zealand ever have experienced.
It has some beautiful places to see, rich culture and amazing history, but Russia is really not set up for tourists. It’s trying, and I’m sure its come a long way from where it was. However the majority of the signage is only Russian with Cyrillic lettering. There is English around at the museums and important sights, however its pretty standard to have one A4 sheet of paper with information in the doorway to explain the whole room – with everything else unintelligible for English speakers. Sometimes its not even at the doorway, and its like an easter egg hunt to find it. English however is at least found, if you spoke any other language you’d be buggered.
We travelled to Russia during the start of winter and I thought the snow lined streets, grey skies and constant snowfall would mix in with the grey buildings, grey weary faces and dark colours associated to winter clothes and I may forget that colours exist outside of the ‘Iron Curtain’. I was under the impression that I may begin to think I had gone become colour blind. Well I was completely wrong, when they do use colours they are bright, powerful and all encompassing. When the snow sits around them it just makes the colours even more vivid and piercing. The Cathedrals with their onion shaped domes, the churches with their gold steeples and fixtures, and the buildings with their bright colours that seem never ending lining full city blocks.
You have to go to Russia during winter and snow, it wouldn’t be right to visit during summer. It is not what Russia is about, they are set up for cold weather, they suit it. Their food, clothing and demeanour are all distinctly winterised. Even their language suits spitting out short sentences, whilst wrapped in scarves and hats.
Moscow is quite expensive, which was surprising to me. I guess after visiting Morroco, Egypt and Turkey we were eventually going to hit that wall, but I didn’t think it would be in Russia. It wasn’t unusual to find a standard small coffee was $10NZD. Not for us mind you, we walked a great distance through the snow and back alleys to find cheap food, treats and vodka shots with pickles.
One thing that we warmed to whilst in Russia is the fact the city is actually an advent calendar. Originally it was a pain in the bum. When we arrived at our hostel at 1am in Moscow, it was sleety/snowy and we had just walked 7 blocks from the train station following some pretty specific directions until we arrived at a door, on a street. This door had no sign on it, only a pin code. Surely this is not our bed and breakfast, surely they would have a sign. So we wandered up and down the street for about 40 minutes looking for this bloody place. In the end we walked into a bar on the corner and played charades with the person to be able to call the number we had for the accommodation. Then we realised the game of Russia is just open the door – you never know what you might find. Big steel doors with no markings might be a post office, an ornate church or a drug den. Who knows. It’s worth opening it though. Otherwise you miss things.
Whilst in Russia we did all the touristy things because it had to be done, the places on offer are amazing, and when you never know if your going back to a country its not worth scrimping on these things. We did all the buildings around the Red Square, a day in the Kremlin, a day in the Hermitage, a day in the Peter and Paul fortress. You could spend months here just taking it all in. No amount of words can describe them, so I’m not going to bother. I know there are about 3 people that read my blog, and if I write 5 pages on each spot then I might lose those people too.
If you look at the photos from St Petersburg and think wow it’s dark there – that’s because it is. When we were there the sun rose at about 1130 and it was dark again by four. Half three if it was snowing. It is a place of short winter days, but incredibly long summer days. They have a festival called ‘White Nights’ in summer where it is light all night long.
Russia was an experience, from the hostels to the snow, to the constant feeling of conspiracy. One day I’ll tell you more about it. But it will probably be over a beer. Or a Vodka with a pickle.