Note From Jon


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Back in the U.S.S.A.

I have returned from an amazing week in Russia and am working my way through my photos and stories. Kristin and I combined to take about 1500 pictures, which I’ve whittled down below 300 (you're welcome) and have broken into (hopefully) manageable sections, so I am finally ready to begin the recap (the delay in getting this started actually had nothing to do with jet lag, which we managed to avoid both ways, and more to do with spending the past three days with lawn mowers—breaking two, failing to fix them, buying a new one, and finally mowing the jungle of plants that was swallowing the house).

Before I recap day one, I have some thanks to give.

Much like my Africa trip wouldn’t have been possible without Chris, I wouldn’t have gotten to Russia this year without Kristin who brought me along on her business trip (and I surely would never have traveled there in such impressive accommodations). I can’t possibly thank her enough for this opportunity and for putting up with me as a travel partner! Thanks also to Dana, Erin and my uncle for great advice on what to see in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As you’ll see from the recap your input guided the itinerary.

For future travelers I should also give a shout out to For U.S. citizens, Russia requires an invitation letter… in order to get a visa… which then has to be registered at a hotel upon arrival. It’s not a terribly tourist friendly system (though probably easier than what a Russian wanting to visit the U.S. goes through). Hotels and travel agencies in Russia will issue an invitation letter… but as I found out, they would only issue an invitation for the exact dates that you booked accommodations with them. This can be a problem when your final night is on an overnight train and the travel agency will only offer visa support through the day before your flight home (it’s apparently a very bad thing to overstay your visa, even by a single day). on the other hand is an online site where you can pay $30 and they will get a Russian agency to issue you a visa invitation for whatever days you request (up to the tourist visa limit of 30 days). Initially that seemed about as legitimate as a Russian-mail-order-bride site or the emails that I observed the young African man “Edith” send to all of the 60-year old men on a German dating site. But in the end it was $30 well spent. I got an invitation letter that covered my entire trip and it was legitimate enough that I was issued a visa which didn’t lead to any problems entering or leaving Russia (it may actually be a sanctioned way of ensuring that we fund the Russian travel industry). There’s also lots of other good travel advice on the site including a language section that I used to learn the Cyrillic alphabet, which proved extremely handy (like for deciphering their invitation letter which doesn’t come with any English instructions!).

Day One (which in this case was from about 10am Friday to 3pm Saturday east coast time)

After an uneventful Delta connection through JFK (skipping the iPod vending machine there) we arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport along with all of our luggage! I even had my name on a sign for a car at the airport (a first I believe). We got to the (five star!) President Hotel shortly after noon and were able to check in immediately. After getting over my shock about the view from the room (in one direction we could see right into the Kremlin) and getting clean we set off to Izmaylovo market. Normally I wouldn’t advise going souvenir shopping immediately upon arrival, but this market was supposedly the best deal in Moscow and it’s only in full swing on the weekend. Since we’d be touring the Kremlin and Red Square all day Sunday, this was our only chance to visit.

On the way in we passed a bear show. I realized when looking back through the photos that the painting in the background was actually one of my favorite paintings that I saw a week later at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg (Ivan Shishkin’s “Morning in a Pine Forest”). One of the other things we saw throughout the trip was a T-shirt aimed at tourists that says “I’ve been to Moscow… there are no bears”. It lies.

The market lived up to the hype because not only was it our best shopping experience in Russia, it was probably my best foreign shopping experience ever. There’s an endless supply of the usual souvenirs (as well as unusual ones like Boston Red Sox nesting dolls which I had to resist), the prices are the cheapest we found on the trip, and the vendors are helpful but not pushy (well as you see in the picture we did have hats pushed on our heads—but they took the photo and didn’t get particularly upset when we moved along without buying anything). The bargaining is mostly a game here where all the vendors seem to have a starting price and a “minimum price” (about 10-20% less) which they sometimes offer in the same breathe. It’s probably possible to bargain some down further (although on several occasions they truly didn’t seem interested and were happy to let us walk away) and in general the prices are reasonable enough that it’s not really necessary. If our flight had been later the next Saturday I definitely would have come back here then once I had a better idea of what I wanted to buy and how much money I had left.

Also inside the market (but not included in the 40 cent entrance price to the market) was the Vodka History Museum. We jumped on a group tour (in English, which turned out to be quite rare in Russia) and Kristin sampled some vodka included in the admission price before we purchased yet more souvenirs. It was a bit hard to follow but I know the funniest part of the tour for me was when the guide explained how three people would pool their money for a bottle of vodka and needed a way to split it evenly. They determined that vodka bottles make 21 “blurps” as they are poured (she made the sound effects). Each person got seven blurps. Blurp, blurp, blurp…

Still managing to stay awake we tracked down the Georgian restaurant (or PECTOPAH as it’s spelled in Cyrillic—PECTOPAH is pronounced Restoran, isn’t Cyrillic fun!?!) called Dioskuriya that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. Thankfully it was still there, still cheapish (I think $40 for the two of us), and the best food I had the whole trip (particularly my favorite dish Horcha). I also noticed the handy requirement that menus in Russia print the serving size (in grams or mL) along with the price. It’s a little hard to find because the “street” it is on looks more like a driveway going through a gate in a building along Novy Arbat (walking from the Kremlin if you get to T.G.I. Friday’s—yes T.G.I. Friday’s—you’ve gone too far). It’s well worth seeking out though and was the perfect cap to our first day in Russia!

Day 2 -->

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