Friday, November 8, 2013

Lasting First Impressions: Moscow

The process for an American to travel to Russia is an extensive one. We had to part with our passports for about a month, wait on visas and letters of invitation, and brush up on our Cyrillic (ha ha). For us, this was a trip of a lifetime. I didn't know what to expect and I suppose I had some preconceptions about Russia, gleaned from stereotypical films and books. I imagined vast and snowy Siberian landscapes, vodka-fueled citizens buttoning up their coats against frigid temperatures, and lots of sturdy men who may or may not be members of the mafia.

We visited Moscow, an undeniably modern city where fashionable me and women commute to work on the efficient metro, cafes and restaurants are filled with customers, and children amble happily alongside their doting babushkas. I felt more than a little ridiculous for my initial concerns about what I would see on the streets of Moscow. Clearly, it's a city like many others, filled with normal people doing normal things.

With that said, I wouldn't exactly describe the ambience as decidedly cheerful. It was early October when we visited and the temperatures were almost below freezing. Many vehicles were already equipped with heavy-duty snow tires and I recall seeing the sun for only a few short hours throughout our 4-day stay.

During our hour-and-a-half ride from the airport to the hotel at rush hour, many of the apartment buildings on the outskirts of Moscow were a little depressing. Often, huge modern skyscrapers loomed over the bleak, colorless lodgings. Hopeful boxes were attached to some of the windows, eagerly awaiting the arrival of sliveres of sunshine to make flowers bloom. But I'm just judging from the outside, of course. I hope the interiors of the homes are bright and happy.

We finally reached the hotel, thanks to our daring taxi driver who stoically zigzagged through stop-and-go traffic with no discernible lanes. Once we reached the heart of the city we had a few narrow misses with large construction trucks and elderly women bravely crossing streets, stooped over their canes and dressed for the possibility of an unexpected blizzard. I really thought we were going to take one of them out; luckily the driver swerved at the last minute. I got the feeling that all of this was just a normal day's work for him.

We stayed at the Mercure Hotel close to the Arbat, one of the Moscow's oldest-surviving streets. After checking in and freshening up, we headed off to dinner. There's a restaurant for any taste you might crave. The amount of sushi places really stood out to me and there were a few chains familiar and welcoming to any American (Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, Hard Rock Cafe, and even a Johnny Rockets). We settled on Akademiya, an unremarkable Moscow chain restaurant. Some of the staff spoke English and I was surprised to see English translations on the menu.

One thing I always heard about Moscow did prove to be true. Everything is expensive. From hotels and food, to admission fees and souvenirs; prepare to bring a fattened wallet and watch it quickly dwindle.

Night had fallen by the time we finished our dinner but we had a very important destination in mind before we went back to the hotel. No trip to Moscow is complete without seeing the Kremlin and Red Square. We devoted our final day in Moscow to exploring the sights in-depth but we didn't want to miss out on an opportunity to experience them at night.

I couldn't stop taking photos. The brick-red of the Kremlin Wall seemed to glow under the lights. It felt like we were the only ones there, aside from stern guards who materialized from the shadows every now and then. Workers were toiling away at preparations for the Sochi Olympics. A grand stage and bleachers had been set against the backdrop of the Kremlin.

We walked around in silent awe for a few minutes and then found ourselves beholding St. Basil's Cathedral. I've seen photos of it my whole life but it was indescribably breathtaking to be standing in Moscow and seeing it with my very own eyes. The architecture is so unique and I loved the brilliant colors of the domes. It was truly magical at night.

Our first evening in Moscow was at its end. Though we'd only been in the city a few short hours, it was a lot to digest and I couldn't wait to experience more of Moscow's surprises.

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