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Trip Report After a Wild Thyme in Armenia: Retreat to Moscow

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The first bit of this trip report can be found over in the Armenia section which, on Fodors, is located in the Asia forum: http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/armenia-a-wild-thyme.cfm
My stopover in Russia was only four days, but I thought I'd share that here.

First of all, there are two random things that come to mind:
1. I need to get a smart phone before I go to Moscow again
2. I ran into some incredibly nice and helpful people there
(These two are things are, in fact, related.)

To start at the very beginning, though, let's talk about the visa process. There is a load of outdated information on the Internet, and this will quite possibly be among it as soon as it's written. But anyway, this is my experience:

You need a letter of invitation from the place where you're going to stay. This is easy enough if you, like me, are going for a specific time to a definite place, but can get tricky if you like to wing it. The LOI and confirmation came together, and, oddly, a new one was issued to me shortly before I went to get the visa. I was staying in an apartment, but the LOI was from a hotel; seems to be standard operating procedure, but it made me a bit concerned. You have to apply for the visa within a particular window of time (either--and heaven knows which--within 45 days or 30 days of your trip...or something else, 'cause that could have changed, too) and, as it happens, I'd be twelve days into my trip by time I got to Moscow, so not much time was left. I went directly to ILS, the visa service that the Russian consulate, at least in NYC, wants you to use, with my Walgreen's visa photo of Russian specified size (I only needed one) and the online-filled-out visa form plus the LOI. That's all I needed (no cover letter), and they mailed me my visa just at the time that they said. That happened to be two days before I left, but, what, me worry? After all the process (and expense--I ended paying $235 for the visa, the service, and the mailing) passport control and so forth was super simple; I never needed my LOI again or, indeed, anything but the passport with the visa in it. I do recommend going earlier than I did, and you can just mail everything to your nearest ILS. http://www.ils-usa.com/main.php

I flew into Sheremetyevo Airport, and the Aeroexpress Train, which was about a ten minute walk through the airport, was pleasant and easy. I got a bit misplaced on the Metro from Belorusskiya Station after that, but the metro is actually pretty easy. One of those lovely people, a young lady with her mom, got me straightened out by walking me up and down to the right train.

My residence for the trip was the Kamergersky Apartment, a fine little place with a view onto the pedestrian street Kamergersky Pereulok, a ten minute stroll from Red Square on the busy Tverskaya Street. I paid about $150 a night, which seems a good price for the location, size, and amenities. I made the arrangements through Peace Travel, a/k/a Go-Russia, http://www.go-russia.com/ but the apartment manual said it was Moscow 4 Less or something like that. The tricky bit was actually getting into the apartment: the directions neglected to mention that the unmarked entrance was through an archway and up the stairway on another street, not Kamergersky. I assumed that an address of "2 Kamergersky Pereulok" actually meant that. Sigh. I spent quite some time wandering the area trying to find it, and it was only due to the kind offices of the desk guy at Kamergerskiy Hotel (If you prefer hotels, go there! It's a terrific location and the people are amazing!) that I finally found the place and the nice lady attendant who had been waiting for me for quite some time as I wandered the pereulok with my luggage. She didn't speak English, so I didn't do much explaining. The phone number I had with me for the apartment contact had been disconnected, so that was somewhat troubling. I could just see me camping on a street corner for that first night. But all's well that ends well, and the apartment was just fine, albeit some instructions for the washer and stove would have been nice.

It was exciting to be back in Moscow, and even getting into my apartment at 11:30 at night didn't dim the prospects of exploring the city for the first time since 1989.

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    On to the first full day!

    I started out the day by going via Metro to Slavyanskaya Square, in the region known as Kitay-Gorod. Not too far, actually, from the apartment, but anyway I followed the directions from Moscow Free Tours and found the statue of Cyril and Methodius. (You know, the guys that were the reason I spent my time on the Metro murmuring "Backwards R--twirly thing--b--Oh, yeah, that was my stop." Learn Cyrillic if you're going. Or count your stops.) Actually, of course they are fantastically important, so it was a good start to the day to be at their feet, so to speak.

    Moscow Free Tour www.moscowfreetour.com is just what it says on the tin: a free tour of (part of) Moscow, and a nice way to orient yourself plus get commentary. Elena, our tiny, sprightly (and, indeed, sprite-like) guide, was very good and herded us most efficiently; it was a fairly large group, but it was easy to hear and the tour flew by. Stops included the Church of All Saints (once a secret prison), English Court, Romanov house, site of what was Hotel Rossiya, Red Square (including a refreshment/potty break at GUM, the department store that now has Hermes instead of nylon jogging suits), and Alexander Gardens, which includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of WWII. There were a few Putin jokes thrown in for good measure, but that wasn't needed to let me know that the 80's were gone: the reappearance of Kazan Cathedral and the various costumed superheroes, movie characters, and dead dictators posing for photos were a huge tip-off.

    Also huge were the crowds--but it was a gorgeous day (as, indeed, it continued to be for my whole time there) and it was easy enough to get around.

    After the tour I did some grocery shopping at a standard type place on Tverskaya, picking up my food for most of the next three days. (Hey, guess what? You can make pasta in the microwave...which is very helpful when you can't figure out the stove for anything, even with lighting the matches and waving them near the gas.) In one way I would have liked to spend more time on food/restaurants, but usually when I travel alone I tend not to spend a lot of time eating. I don't mind eating at a restaurant or cafe alone, but to me it's more of a social thing and so it's something I tend to skip when solo. Your mileage may vary, of course, and there were a lot of nice looking places on Kamergersky.

    The afternoon I spent wandering my neighborhood: the Gulag Museum was one of my stops, but, alas, it was closed until August 10th. I also tried to find an Internet cafe, but they're pretty much extinct in Moscow (the aforementioned smart phones.) I found the site of one that was in a quite new LP guidebook, but now it's a nail place. That's life, eh?

    After my late lunch (the tour had ended around 2) I went back to the Kremlin to go to the Armoury, that fabulous display of over-the-topness that includes large quantities of gold and silver, Faberge eggs, astounding coaches, and fascinating costumes of bygone royalty (along with, of course, armor.) You get a timed ticket for this at a kiosk in Alexander Gardens (and a few other places.) You have to get your tickets 45 minutes before the time you want to go, and then go wait for your time to enter the huge exhibit. The audio guide was quite helpful, I have to say, but the museum itself was a bit of a sensory overload due to the numbers of (often noisy) people and the really stuffy air. It's definitely a memorable and unique collection, though: really dazzling! My favorite bit was probably those carriages, plus a sled, that looked straight out of the best fairy tales.

    After the Armoury excursion I waited for the changing of the guard at the somber Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremony is dignified and brief, and quite a contrast to the throngs of people on the grass in Alexander Gardens, soaking up the sunshine and brilliant blue skies.

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    Wednesday found me early in line for...Dead Lenin. I'm not quite sure why preserved dead communist leaders have the appeal that they do, but the line was quite long. On both of my previous visits to Russia I was unable to go into the mausoleum, so I was careful about my times and arrived about an hour before opening time. My pocketbook was passed, but you're not allowed to have cameras, phones, or similar with you and a lot of people had to get out of line to take care of things like that. After the blinding sunshine outside, the mausoleum is really dark with just a glowing light shining onto Lenin's pate, so you need to be careful of the steps. The cemetery behind this and in the Kremlin walls was quite interesting, albeit I think they're now using fake red carnations in place of the real ones that I'd noticed before. Sic transit gloria.

    Following this cheerful excursion was another thing I'd longed to do before (although it probably wouldn't have been much back then): go INSIDE St. Basil's cathedral. It's as delightful and decorative inside as it is outside, and there's quite a variety in each of the "churches" (one per tower.) It's really rather giddily floral in the downstairs section, and then going up there's altar screens and icons and chandeliers and painting all over. (I actually went twice, as I didn't have my camera the first time, and they DO allow pictures there.) St. Basil was what's known as a "holy fool", which appears to mean clothing optional, among other things: lots of paintings of St. Basil, no paintings of St. Basil's clothes. The cathedral is technically The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat, but St. Basil (Vasily) was buried on the site a few years before Ivan the Terrible had it built. It's an urban legend that he had the architects' eyes put out; they were designing other things years after. One way or the other, it's one of my favorite buildings in the world and a true delight to the senses. There was a group singing there on my second visit, which added even more to the experience. (I bought their CD; at 700 rubles, it cost as much as a trip to the Armoury, but, well, it's my only souvenir.)

    I will charge right ahead here and admit that I ate at McDonald's at the Okhotny Riad shopping mall right across from the Kremlin. How could I not, considering my love of irony? It was, of course, massively crowded, both in the lines and in the number of people working to get the food out. And, of course, they have deep-fried fruit pies, just like everywhere else in the world--except here. (Okay, at least all the places I've been. Harumph.)

    I did manage to find a computer to use the Internet (although perhaps I shouldn't let the secret out) from the lovely people in the business center of the gorgeous Ritz-Carlton. They were having something G-20 related there, but the sweet young lady in the business center (who might possibly have been just a tad bored; no one else came near there) let me use one of the computers. I'm not usually quite so compulsive about Internet use, but I did need to check flights and such, and I'd been out of contact for quite some time. So, yeah, smart phone. I'd even gone into the main telegraph station, but, whilst you could still do public phones there, no public Internet. Interesting. And, go, Ritz-Carlton! :)

    At six in the evening I walked to Lubyanka Square (the site of the KGB headquarters) to join the Communism tour (not free: 900 rubles) with Moscow Free Tours. Elena was the guide again, and we started with the square itself, the Bolshoi (where the USSR was actually "born"), Hotel Metropol, some of the artwork, the Gulag Museum, Karl Marx, and the thoroughly decadent Elivseevsky grocery store, whose decor is the epitome of opulence...and where you can get really, really expensive caviar, if you're in the market for fish eggs. Again, I found the tour to be good and Elena and her assistant to be both friendly and professional, with a good fund of knowledge. This was a much smaller group, and we "lost" the business dude and his Russian lady about 3/4 of the way through. Phone calls were obviously much more important. (Insert eye-roll emoticon here.)

    Later that night (Thursday, 18th July) I went out to go to Red Square, about 11:30. (It doesn't get dark in July until about then.) I found my way blocked by a group of protestors and a line of police officers across from the Ritz-Carlton: evidently the earlier protest about the sentencing of anti-corruption blogger/opposition leader Alexei Navalny had continued. It was kinda interesting, but I chose the better part of valor and just went back to my apartment. It had, after all, been a dramatic day already, and I didn't need to end up in prison somewhere for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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    Thanks!

    Friday was my last full day, and in the morning I decided to take a ferry ride on the Moskva River. I sat at the back in the open, and it was quite nice going past the University area, Gorky Park, Novodivechy, Christ the Savior church, and finally the Kremlin. I'd taken the metro to Kievskaya station and found my way to Capitol Ferry Lines through a little park, after a bit of wandering. The ticket was inexplicably 600R instead of the 450R on the sign, but the ride was great. The new huge gaudy statue of Peter the Great (who, of course, hated Moscow) made me smile. The ride was about 1 1/2 hours, there and back again (to use a Hobbitism.)

    In the afternoon it was on to the former Park of Economic Achievements and the Sputnik monument/Cosmonaut museum. That was the "old neighborhood"--I'd stayed at Hotel Cosmos in 1984--plus, of course, the Cosmonaut museum was yet another place I hadn't been inside. More details next post, but I will say that the Cosmonaut museum got almost as many pix as the inside of St. Basil's; it's really quite beautiful, which is not something I would have anticipated saying.

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    Amy..lovely report. I stayed there, too. The Cosmos was the most popular place for touring westerners...it was so freezing ccld early in the a.m. that I decided no to go out for a run..instead I ran the corridors of the behemoth-sized Cosmos. In running by the "floor woman" I heard her mention the word "duroc" under her breath. From my childhood Russian I remembered the word meant something like "idiot" loosely translated. She was right.

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    :) Stu, I didn't get back inside to see if there were still floor ladies! It actually looks pretty good from the outside. I remember those long, long dark corridors, though, and the not-too-attractive rooms.

    The round VDNKh station is undergoing renovation, so it was a short walk to the Cosmos and then across to the Sputnik monument. It was really gleaming in the bright sunshine, and the various statues and stars and sculptures made a good counterpoint. The museum itself (200R for me, 200R for my camera) is not huge, and a lot of the stuff is reproduction, but I found it both interesting and quite beautiful. I was glad to see the Yuri Gagarin poster that had been in the old Space Exhibit at VDNKh; I remember our guide saying that he had been chosen because of his smile, and he certainly did have a winning one. The exhibits wind around a circular ramp after the main room. I could have spent even more time here had I done more reading, but I just absorbed what I could and enjoyed the art on the ceilings and walls that brought the whole design together.

    Leaving the Cosmonaut Museum, I joined the crowds crossing over to what is now called the All Russia Exhibition Center. There's quite a carnival feeling to the place now, and some of the huge halls have a variety of vendors. Along the sides are all kinds of food, rides, and activities. You can rent a bike (not a bad idea, considering all the walking) or just lounge around the Friendship of the Peoples fountain. I did some exploring, including going into the Armenian pavilion, but suddenly...my sixteen days of sunshine record was about to be smashed to smithereens. It POURED! Thunder, lightning, the whole works--and water running down the pavements. Everybody did what everybody does in those situations, and went running for shelter. I got soaked! It didn't last long, though, so I squelched on back to the apartment and had a hot shower in place of the cold one. (Actually, the shower appeared to be the only place in the apartment that you could get hot water, and that was, well, really hot.)

    Back I ventured to Red Square after dark, again, and this time I was rewarded with the full glory of the lit square and St. Basil's, along with a light show for GUM and its flower carpet. It was definitely pretty crowded for midnight! I practically wore my camera out with taking pictures; thank goodness for digital. Of course, they all pretty much look alike.

    Next morning I went from Teatralnaya Metro station (thanks, dude on the stairs, for the luggage help!) to Byelorusskya for the Aeroexpress to Sheremetyevo. I actually just made an early one, so I spent a fair amount of time in the airport. I think I saw Edward Snowden hanging around somewhere. The flight back was uneventful; I do have to say that I'm accustomed to a bit more luxury on trans-oceanic flights than Aeroflot provides, but I got from Point A to Point B, so...no worries!

    I would love to have had a longer time in Russia (and I was missing St. Petersburg like crazy) but I'm glad I got to go back at last.

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    Amy..your pix are the best I've come across on Russia. That colorful flower plot across the entrance to GUM must be new..my most recent visit in 2008, I didn't catch that at all. Lucky to get inside St. Basil's..amazing photos.

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    Thank you! I'm pretty sure the GUM flowers were temporary, for its 120th birthday celebration. I was so happy to get into St. Basil's; it was really great staying so close to Red Square that I could walk there whenever I wanted. And Moscow was being very photogenic when I was there: terrifically blue skies and the occasional huge pile of dark clouds for contrast.

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    Wonderful, detailed trip report! Thanks for sharing.

    I've always wondered, too, why communist dictators are revered after death (Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, now Chavez [and maybe Castro?] are all still on display), but the fascist ones are buried as bad memories.

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