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.
(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…
(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.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.
(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):
(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!