I spent the second week in September with my mom on a highly and long-anticipated trip to Moscow. As I mentioned in my previous post about our travel to Budapest, Americans must obtain visas for travel to the Russian Federation that exceeds 24 hour transit. This didn’t dissuade us; several of my A-100 diplomatic colleagues are serving at U.S. Embassy Moscow, and one of my dear friends and former Russian classmates there offered to sponsor us for three-year “guest of diplomat” visas. So with my coordination, my mom quickly obtained hers from the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. However, my issuance from the Russian Embassy in Tashkent took a bit longer.
I’ll explain the situation only by recounting a funny observation: Upon my first visit to the embassy, I observed a sign posted on the glass near the security booth: “Вопросы не задавать.” Translation: Don’t ask questions. I kept my questions to myself, and eventually it all worked out.
I titled this post “What we know about Moscow” because one morning as we waited in a Moscow cafe for our breakfast, I glimpsed a book by that title sitting there waiting to be discovered.
Both my mom and I had previously passed through Russian airports before (in her case Moscow, and in mine St. Petersburg), but neither of us had spent time in Russia. During our time in Moscow, we took so many hundreds of photos and went so many places, that our heads were spinning. I will try not to break my (Uzbek) internet while recounting, in no particular order, my 20 favorite things, and what I now also “know” about Moscow.
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(1) Staying at the Four Seasons Moscow was simply stunning and fabulous. There’s no other way to say it. And for the price, we expected nothing less. We had a large suite with a balcony, positioned on the second-highest floor over the Manezhnaya Square (Манежная Площадь) plaza adjacent to Red Square, and with a fabulous view of the State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей). I requested such a room when making our reservation…in Russian, of course. The reservations staff were delighted to oblige, as I quickly received a personalized response…also in Russian. (Huge props to Four Seasons Moscow staff for chasing down difficult-to-purchase theater tickets for us and holding them for our arrival, plus mailing our postcards home at no charge.) Everything was new, modern and clean, and there was a TV in the bathroom mirror. We had a huge walk-in closet – with gas masks. We even received complimentary nightly fruit and sweets. I mean, come on. The first night we were in Moscow, there was also a random fireworks celebration and our view was perfect. Unbeknownst to us when planning our trip, the 869th birthday of Moscow also coincided with our stay, so we were treated to a lot more fireworks throughout the week than expected! My perspective: If you go to Moscow (or anywhere else) from a FS hardship post, especially from places where order and customer service are lacking, go big.
(2) St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного), otherwise known as the church that looks like a bunch of ice cream cones. I took literally dozens of photos of it from every conceivable angle, and I am not embarrassed that I posted all of them on Facebook. The only sad thing is that the entrance was closed, and there was a large temporary stadium set up on Red Square during our entire visit that kept us from taking the iconic, from-a-distance picture of ourselves on Red Square with the cathedral in the background. (I know, because I walked over there repeatedly to check.) This holiday-related structure also kept us from entering Lenin’s tomb nearby. The first time I saw St. Basil’s, though, I was so happy. Although I tried to restrain myself, I squeaked. In 2009, I’d bought a photograph of it from the Claude Taylor Gallery at Dupont Circle in Washington, DC and this art has been hanging in our home ever since. I also do remember seeing scenes of St. Basil’s at New Year’s on television as a child and being totally mesmerized and dumbstruck by its appearance. In any case, I waited my whole life to see it, and given that it was a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, we walked by and took pictures of it every day.
(3) Moscow’s abundant other cathedrals…Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (Храм Христа Спасителя), the Kazan Cathedral (Казанский Собор), and all of the cathedrals in the Kremlin’s Cathedral Square (Соборная площадь) – Cathedral of the Archangel (Архангельский собор), Dormition Cathedral (Успенский собор), Ivan the Great Bell Tower (Колокольня Ивана великого), and probably a few others that my mind couldn’t even process.
(4) The Moscow metro is efficient, retro-antique, just confusing enough to be fun, and had a stop right outside our hotel at Okhotny Ryad (Охотный Ряд). We took metro to the Russian exhibition center (otherwise known as VDNKh [ВДНХ], or in Soviet parlance, the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy), the Botanical Gardens (which had the least flowers or even plants of any garden I’ve ever seen), restaurants, cathedrals, museums, and cultural events. We bought so many round-trip tickets from the little machines that my mom got pretty comfortable with it. Similar to DC’s metro system, you follow a colored system in which the route to travel is indicated by the end stations. With only one minor mishap in which I tried to go in an out, I figured the system out quickly. My mom was bewildered by the Cyrillic-only signs. At a certain point, I asked her how we would get back to the hotel from wherever we were, and in low-level alarm she responded, “Don’t you mess with me!” To me it was funny, but I acknowledged that in an unfamiliar alphabet environment, I probably would have felt similarly.
(5) The Bolshoi Theater (Большой Театр). We didn’t get to see a show here, because we arrived right at the end of the summer theater holidays, but we did attempt to go on a tour. Unfortunately, the Bolshoi staff gave away all their tickets before their own appointed ticket distribution time and had a lot of unhappy foreigners on their hands. I argued in Russian, but to no avail – the problem wasn’t language, it was mentality. Despite my stalking their website for months, arriving hours early to check things out (my logistics officer side is always in “advance” mode), and arguing with them in Russian in a manner that normally would have been effective, we didn’t get to go on a tour of the inside. Other foreigners in a similar position approached me to clarify what had happened, except one good-natured Aussie who passed by asking his travel companions, “What can we be late for on the other side of town?” I must say that from the outside, the Bolshoi was beautiful! And as my mom pointed out, our visas are good until late 2019…
(6) Maxim Gorky Park (Центральный парк культуры и отдыха имени Горького) was a place I was determined to visit, even though it wasn’t particularly convenient schedule or location-wise. We were fortunate to be there on a warm, sunny day, but not so fortunate in finding a nice breakfast! My mom was interested in locating and photographing an old carousel she had seen in a book, and that we did.
(7) Novodevichy Cemetery (Новодевичье Кладбище) as I later learned, is near to both a beautiful convent (founded in 1524) and a lake which we didn’t see, but the cemetery itself was fascinating. Growing up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California, as a teen I enjoyed looking at the local cemeteries filled with early settlers and imagining how their lives had been. Boris Yeltsin, Molotov and Khrushchev are all buried here, along with World War II heroes, astronauts, and other notable Russians. I was the most touched by the graves of (what appeared to be) ordinary people; there was one woman who had died young, and the inscription from her husband and son read “Спасибо, что ты была,” which I would translate as “Thank you, that you were you / that you existed”. Russian graves also traditionally feature pictures or likenesses of the deceased, similar to what I’ve seen all over the former Yugoslavia, allowing you to feel more of a connection to the person and their life.
(8) Alexandrovsky Garden (Александровский сад) and the Tomb of the Unknown Solider (Могила Неизвестного Солдата) was literally a two minute walk from our hotel. We saw the changing of the guard, and walked the length of the garden which parallels the outer wall of the Kremlin all the way to the end (about thirty minutes’ walk).
(9) Food! Other than our fancy reunion with my diplomatic colleagues at farmers’ cooperative ЛавкаЛавка, we weren’t at all fancy with our eating out. We frequented cafes and casual joints, and a couple of nights we were so exhausted from our 28,000-step days that we just ordered room service at the Four Seasons via iPad. However, I was sure to get my fill of seafood, fresh and healthy gourmet, and sweets not found in Uzbekistan.
(10) Space Museum (Музей Космонавтики) was probably, behind St. Basil’s, my most highly-anticipated place to visit in Moscow. People who know me well will not be surprised by the fact that I almost cried with excitement upon arriving there. During the nearly nine years I lived in the Washington, DC area, I was a frequent visitor to the National Air and Space Museum; in fact, my husband took me there on an early spring day in 2009 before he proposed to me over dinner later that evening in Georgetown. It is painful for me to not post every single picture from there with extensive captions, but seeing the Sputnik replicas and the exhibitions about everything – from Soviet-U.S. space exploration cooperation, to Soviet space dogs – was something I will not soon forget.
(11) People I know! In an unplanned twist, my husband’s only brother, an author currently residing in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, was attending the Moscow International Book Festival to promote his latest book at the same time my mom and I were visiting. We had a chance to hang out a few times. In addition, I had a chance to reunite with a few other members of the 178th A-100 class and my Russian classmates, including one in town all the way from Yekaterinburg.
(12) Inside the Kremlin walls and its Diamond Fund and Armoury…you aren’t supposed to take any photos inside the latter places (although there was something we loved so much in one instance I had to). Our eyes were practically scalded by centuries of Russian crown jewels, carriages, gowns, carvings, icons, and precious metals as we strolled for hours through these venues. Very glad my colleague B.W. told me those sites were worth a look…although the offsite ticket buying process was convoluted. I took multiple trips back and forth to piece together a day’s itinerary that would have been easier if I would have just assumed from the beginning that I could walk up, Uzbek-style, at the last minute and ask, “Можно?” When I did, the answer was, “Да, конечно.” (Yes, of course.)
(13) GUM Shopping Center (Главный универсальный магазин) has the prestigious address of 3 Red Square, and prices to match.
(14) Russian National Dance Show “Kostroma” at the National Russian Song Theatre (Театр “Русская Песня”) where the show was so compelling, I actually bought the DVD afterwards! I was expecting a semi-tourist trap, but the costumes, dancing and singing ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. I actually clapped so hard my palms ached.
(15) There was a heavy police presence all over Red Square and around our hotel, particularly given the 869th birthday of Moscow city. Most of them I obviously couldn’t photograph, but they were everywhere. I found it necessary to ask them lots of questions that probably came out like “How I can get to there?” and “Excuse me please, may I pose to you one question?” I managed to crack a few cold Russian faces into smiles with my earnestness. I have to say that unlike some other places I’ve spent time in lately (ahem), the cops in Russia were helpful. One tried to help me find a metro stop with an app on my phone. Another one responded, “Yes, of course,” when I pointed at a closed street with a big smile and asked, “Можно?” (“May we?”) In the late 1990s or early 2000s, my brother and I saw a week of COPS episodes that took place in Russia. So, behold…cops, in Russia.
(16) Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatory (Московской Государственной Консерватории) 150 Year Anniversary Performance – I’m so glad we went for a beautiful evening of music and culture, even if the introductory remarks were longer than the performance itself (LOL):
(17) Visiting the State Historical Museum (Государственный исторический музей) revealed so many Russian national treasures our minds were properly boggled.
(18) Hanging out with my mom for the first time in almost two years, and enjoying the delightful ambiguity of an unfamiliar place that had been epic in our minds for a lifetime:
(19) Beautiful Moscow at night:
(20) Familiar things…if you can get over the language and cultural barriers. Here’s a Starbucks:
If you have a chance to go to Moscow, please take it!
Flying home to Tashkent via Uzbekistan Airways as my mom was off to Zurich… until next time, Russia!