The five days I spent within the Russian Federation were surreal. We crossed the Estonian Russian border in the south of Estonia and there is such a start difference even at the border. To enter Russia, your bags get x-rayed, you stand in a long queue with border guards who have almost never seen American and Canadian passports so they pass them among the workers so they can see them, and your bus gets searched. Once your through the red tape, you start driving on the Russian side. The country side itself looked rather like elsewhere in the Baltics, even all the way to Moscow, but the villages you drive through, the roads your on, are all just something else.
The first day in Russia we visited Pskov and a monastery just outside of Pskov. The monastery was absolutely beautiful, with everything being done in the typical Russian Orthodox style of being completely over the top with elaborately designed churches, beautiful icons and brightly painted everything else. After the monastery we went to the city of Pskov to visit the Kremlin there (Kremlin means fortress). The Pskov Kremlin was ok, it did not appear to me to be anything spectacular, at least on the outside. Inside, there was a beautiful church with all the usual Orthodox trappings, gold, icons and other religious symbols literally everywhere you turn. The rest of Pskov however, seemed to fit exactly what I had assumed a Soviet town would look like (and what I expected Tartu to be when I arrived). Grey sky with all sorts of apartment buildings that looked in need of repair and sort of a depressing atmosphere. It was in Pskov that we boarded the train to go to Moscow.
The next leg of our journey was a 12.5h overnight train from Pskov to Moscow. This was my first time on a train and some of my friend’s first time on a night train so we had no idea what was going on. There were four people per little bench area with 2 people across the narrow aisle in seats. The train lights get turned off at 11pm sharp so at this time, the entire train minus me goes to sleep. I spend the rest of the night laying on my bench listening to music and hoping that the train would get to Moscow soon so I could get off and move around.
We finally arrive in Moscow and work our way through the throngs of people at the station which had levels of security I have not seen anywhere outside of Israel. The group heads to our bus for a bus tour around the city and its at this point you realize you are no longer in Europe anymore. What struck me most about Moscow was how unique it was. The architecture is a cross between European and Central Asian, the traffic is worthy of any major North American city if not worse and the Muscovites are not like any other Europeans I’ve ever met. After making our way around the city seeing from the outside at least, things like the Kremlin from across the Moscow River, Moscow State University and the Smirnov house, we board the Metro to take the underground to go to the Kremlin for our tour. The first thing you do in Moscow when boarding the Metro is take an escalator 100 metres or more down and once you step off, your bombarded with Cyrillic as to what lines go where and at first, it is such an overwhelming experience. These stations are also beautifully decorated with stained glass in some, murals, busts and engravings in others and they are quiet clean. You have to deal with this sensory overload all the while keeping a watchful eye on your surroundings as pickpockets are a very real threat. My roommate actually had a jacket pocket opened on the Metro but luckily nothing was in that particular pocket. We did the Kremlin tour and then had the rest of the night off. I initially went with some friends to Red Square where the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral sits but unfortunately, Lenin’s Tomb was under renovations so we could not visit that. Being in Red Square has been a long time dream of mine and being able to finally set foot in there and see St. Basil’s with my own eyes was just unforgettable. While such an iconic building in general for Russia, seeing it in person is so different.
Later that night I met a friend from Tartu who was spending the semester in Moscow and after this, because she lived on the other side of town, I had to take the Metro back on my own. This was a bit apprehensive for me as I have almost no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet and my Russian consists of a few words that did not help me in the slightest. Despite the dangers the Moscow Metro possesses, namely pickpockets, I manage to make it back to my lodgings in once piece with all my belongings.
The next day, we go to some art gallery, which was o so enjoyable (text based sarcasm is hard to convey) but after the art gallery, our last stop in Moscow was Arbat Street. Here we were able to wander around, shop, watch street performers and get food and drink for the night train to St Petersburg. Being a long time lover of Mcdonalds and being entirely powerless to not eat at the first restaurant in all of Russia, I went into the Mcdonalds and with 2 other people, ordered 14 cheeseburgers from the dollar menu for the train ride which we were going to accompany with a box of Dunkin Donuts pastries but due to running out of time, we only got as far as getting some drinks for the train after the burgers so we missed out on the donuts. We made our way on the Metro to the train station and then began the long journey by train to St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg is such a different city from Moscow. Having about half the population (12 million vs roughly 6 million) the city was much more relaxed. For me, being in St Petersburg was like being in any other European city, but it was still a great time. Here we visited the Hermitage and Czar’s Village which are too of the most ostentatiously decorated palaces I have ever seen. When we had our free time in St Petersburg, we spent most of the time wandering around Nevsky Prospect. Here we saw another church like St. Basil’s called Saviour of the Blood which was no less impressive, just not quite as iconic.
All in all, Russia was such a different place than any I’ve been to, the Middle East included. The people, the atmosphere, the architecture, all of it is uniquely Russian. This uniqueness made this an unforgettable trip and has given me good reason to go back. I saw almost nothing Moscow and St Petersburg have to offer and there is so much North, South and East of Moscow to see. For example, I saw the second biggest mosque in Europe which is located in St. Petersburg. Now I need to go see the first (its in Grozny, Russia).