Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter in Moscow, Russia

Although I admittedly do not have summer Moscow to compare it to, Moscow in the winter definitely has a distinct character worth exploring, if only for the four days I was present. Being so far North, the short days and long nights define the days and activities - at the end of December, sunrise occurred at 9am followed by a sunset at 4pm. However, the lack of cars and activity on the Metro shows the life truly starts around 11-12pm; and the ample cars at 2am means a shifted schedule more akin to a college town than a major center. The two times I was there, it was either bitterly cold - with highs of 0F - or passably warm, which was 20F. Needless to say, warm clothing is a necessity, but forget North Face; here, the choices are the local fur and down or freezing (and out of fashion).

First, logistics. Getting a visa to Russia is a huge pain, but doable once one gets all the rules (see earlier post about this process). We flew into Domodedovo, which is on the southern side of the city; there is an express train (250 руб) that takes 45 minutes to Paveletsky Station. It's probably worth it for the new visitor, but (at least in reverse) taking the metro to Domodedovskya and a bus to DME is cheaper (100 руб bus, 22 руб) and almost as convenient. The shuttles run on New Year’s. Similarly, there is a train to Sheremetyevo (300 руб) but buses can be picked up from Rechnoy Vokzal and Planernaya back and forth. Once inside the city, the Metro is excellent and extensive, and a pleasure to explore the stations. The one caveat is the station names; transfer stations, unlike elsewhere, all have different names and usually only one exit.

Second, registration. Registration (in Moscow at least) is “required” if you stay more than three days. However, this is three business days. Our hotel was willing to do this for us for $20 USD, and advised it even though we didn’t need it (if you stay less than three business days, they legally cannot detain you). Although stories exist of people being bribed by the police regardless, it probably is not necessary unless you are in Moscow an extended period of time.

Third, language. Russian is a very useful language to know if traveling to Moscow, as unlike other European countries Muscovites have not had to learn English to prosper. However, not knowing Russian (as we did not) is fine; but you must learn the Cyrillic alphabet! This is especially true on the Metro, which has very limited Roman alphabetization. Contrary to popular belief, I found Muscovites extremely helpful; those with limited English approached us clearly lost tourists on the street, and those who only knew Russian tried to simplify their language and help us around. Once Cyrillic becomes secondhand, navigating Moscow becomes infinitely less intimidating.

Fourth, food and shelter. We stayed at the Godzillas Hostel (off Tsvetnoy Bul’var) within the Metro Ring, which was extremely well-kept, organized, and definitely highly recommended (dorms from $28 USD, doubles from $35 USD). Food was all around expensive within the Ring; a typical “Russian” fast food meal came out to $5-7 USD, and stolovaya (canteen) cuisine up to $10 USD. McDonald’s was the only resemblance of cheap.

While we were in Moscow, we visited mainly Red Square and sights around the Red Square, such as the Lenin Maosoleum (free), St. Basil’s Cathedral (20 руб), and the Kremlin (350 руб). All of these I found worth my money, although I did not go to the armory. Red Square is a spectacular must-see, although it definitely does show Russia as a semi-police state (especially on New Year’s). Red Square can be seen in a day. Additionally, we went to the Great Patriotic War Museum (40 руб) off of Poklonnaya Gora / Park Pobedy station, which was quite fascinating despite the lack of English. The rest of the time was spent exploring the stunningly beautiful metro, shopping at Izmalylovo Market (definitely worth a visit) and exploring the streets of the city. Izmalylovo Market in particular is significantly cheaper than the market outside of Red Square on Okhotny Ryad metro; we were able to get a Siberian fox fur hat for 1500 руб. Note to save money on tickets, bring a student ID!

In summary, I think Moscow can be seen in 3 days. I regret not having time to see St. Petersburg, but the capital has definitely made me want to revisit Russia in the future (with basic knowledge of the Russian language). It is a fascinating mix of Soviet and Western influence, and has done much to dispel the Western notion of Russian life as backwards; given the design of the city (and the metro) alone one can see that Russia was truly a Cold War powerhouse. The Russian people are also extremely friendly, arguably giving arguably more help than those in New York or Boston. Visa and cost hurdles aside, Moscow is definitely worth a visit.

Kremlin at nightfall

Moscow Metro

Great Patriotic War museum

St. Basil's Cathedral

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