This is a guest blog from our friend Michelle - an expat living in Seoul - about her first trip to Russia:
For my first visit to Moscow, I decided to stay at a famously social hostel called Godzilla to absorb information and tips from fellow travellers (They also helped with the invitation letter for my visa). On my first day, I signed up for a free walking tour to get my bearings. On the tour we walked by some iconic sites such as Saint Basils Cathedral, the Kremlin, Red Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum, as well as other lesser known spots such as a church that turned into a KGB office and the Romanov museum - the house of the last Tsar of Russia.
After the tour I went to a “restaurant” close to the Romanov museum where local monks eat lunch. The food was simple but tasty and of course some sort of stew was included. Without knowing Russian, it would be impossible to decipher the menu. Luckily I met someone on my tour who was studying the language. Later we went to old Arbat street, a pedestrian street not too far from the museum that has many restaurants, bars and tourist shops where you can buy Ushanka hats and nesting dolls. I found after I arrived that Russian winter begins right at the end of August and it was a lot colder than I expected.
Moscow has some of the most beautiful architecture I’ve ever seen. It’s like numerous European cities joined into one. The colors and detail of each building are magnificent. I walked to Red Square which is where most iconic sites can be found. First I went inside Saint Basils Cathedral. This is the place most people think looks like colorful ice-cream cones. If you think the outside is impressive wait until you walk in. There are floor to ceiling, ornate religious murals in each of its 9 chapels, and if you’re lucky, you can hear a choir playing live in one of them. After I left, I walked to Lenin’s mausoleum which is also in Red Square, right in front of the Kremlin. It was very strange to think I would be seeing the body of a dead man inside but I figured when else would I have the opportunity for this? Right outside the mausoleum is where Stalin is buried. His body used to be right next to Lenin’s but they moved it because they finally realized he was a tyrant and an all-around bad guy. The sight of his body wasn’t as strange as I thought it would be, probably because he looked like a wax figure. After that experience I walked to GUM, the most audacious yet spectacular department store I’ve ever seen. Even though it's one the most expensive places to shop in Moscow, you might be surprised to find out they have reasonably priced restaurants with authentic Russian food. You have to try the borscht!
After taking a break from the cold and resting my feet, I walked to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. You can’t miss this site! For one, it’s a massive white building with huge golden domes. And two, it is the start of a passageway across the river. Originally built in 1860 and then rebuilt in 1990 it is an impressive structure with beautiful paintings and arched passages. A fun fact, after it was demolished, it was tuned into the largest open air swimming pool in the world. Apparently many people still miss it. One thing to look out for is the painting of the Romanov family as they were turned into saints in 1981. Something to note is that women must cover their hair and knees when walking into any cathedral in Russia and men are not allowed to cover their heads. Right next to the cathedral is a great restaurant that is very cozy and has amazing views of the cathedral. I would stop in and have a slightly overpriced cocktail or coffee.
Across the street from the cathedral is the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. In the permanent exhibit, you can find works from Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne and so many more. This is a must see for art enthusiasts. The next day I ventured into the metro which is a feat in itself. The metros in Moscow are world renowned, with beautiful sculptures and stained glass covering the ceilings and walls. I felt awestruck and confused as crowds of people came at my from all directions while I tried to navigate through this labyrinth by deciphering the cryptic letters and shapes written on tiny signs in only Russian. Once I figured my way around (or rather asked a few people where to go) I made it to Bolshoi theater. It is a beautiful building with a decorative fountain in the front. It is also across from the gates of the Red Square (resurrection gate) and the state historical museum. Like most other buildings in Moscow, the historical museum is extremely impressive. At one end of Red Square, across from St. Basil’s cathedral, you can learn about the controversial and sordid history of Russia. I later passed by the WWII memorial and through the Taynitsky garden to buy tickets to the Kremlin. It is useful to know the days and times that these spots are open as many are closed 1-2 days a week.
After passing the numerous tour groups trying to get in, we traced the bridge to enter the Kremlin, the house office of President Putin. Apparently, streets used to be closed down when he would arrive to his office and this presented a traffic issue so now he comes in by helicopter. That’s a way to solve the problem! I realized when I was in the Kremlin, it would have been useful to have done a tour as I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at and instead wandered around for a while. There are five palaces and four cathedrals in the Kremlin as well as an armory you can buy an additional ticket for. It started raining,, as it often does during the fall/winter months, but I was told about a KGB/USSR restaurant not far from the Kremlin called Intelligence service (Разведка). You know you’ve arrived when you see two golden or bronzed machine guns as door handles. Walk down the steps to a dark, ominous restaurant with various guns on the wall, pictures from a different time and army helmets laying around. As you walk into the bathroom, don’t miss the numerous cameras on the ceiling. If you’re pee shy you might want to avoid. I thought this was the perfect restaurant to try my hand at Russian vodka. It was pretty quiet as it was only 4pm though soon a few people sat next to us and thought it was their duty to buy us shots and show us how to properly drink and cheers in Russia. Although the written language barrier made navigating rather difficult, the people were kind and very helpful. After the rain stopped I went to the Jewish Museum which is quite far from the rest of the sites. It's also easy to miss as it is housed in a converted warehouse. It was interesting to learn about the history and lives of the Jewish people in Russia.
Later that night I joined my hostel's bar crawl which landed us in a cave bar and a club. I can’t remember many details about that night besides a lot of scantily clad Russian women dancing next to (in my eyes) unequally impressive men. I also spent a day in Almaty, Khazakstan. Compared to the grandeur of Moscow's architecture, the sites in Almaty seemed underwhelming. Unlike Moscow, there isn't a city centre and things are really spread out. While walking about, I noticed that most of the buildings look like they haven't been renovated since the 70's. My favorite site was Panfilov park, which featured numerous memorials for WWII as well as a beautiful church. I only wish I had a few more days in Khazakstan to venture out into the mountains for beautiful hikes.
With so much more of Russia to explore, I can't wait to go back!
Follow Michelle's travels on Instagram @michelleovits.
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