The Thermal Trip #2: The Russia Experience – Russia

The Russia Experience
21st – 31st December, 2002

I have just completed the Beetroot Bus Christmas Tour which included three days in Moscow, Christmas Day in Novgorog, then four days in St Petersburg. What an excellent introduction to this wonderful country this has been.

On arrival at Sheremetyevo 2 International Airport I was very impressed that within 35 minutes of landing I had cleared passport control, collected my luggage, passed through the red channel of customs and was on my way to Moscow.

Moscow is an amazing city with Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Bolshoi Theatre to name only a few of the main attractions. But there is more to Moscow than this.

Just walking down the street is an experience in itself, as they are like ice rinks, although the locals seem to cope in their high heels, I was slipping and sliding all over the place. Then there are the cars that without warning will drive along the pavements, so you need eyes in the back of your head.

The Metro system here is relatively easy to follow since the lines are coloured but a map with the Russian Cyrillic writing and English translation is definitely required. The Metro Stations themselves are a work of art with chandeliers, painting, carvings, high ceilings and all of them individual. You have to stand your ground here and the use of elbows are compulsory.

I knew it was going to be cold, visiting Russia in winter it’s to be expected. I just didn’t realise how cold it gets. Luckily on my first day it was only -6�C, then -10�C on the second and -20�C by the third, where it remained for the rest of the trip. This does make sight-seeing more of a run from one hot spot to another, which is a shame as there is so much to see on the way. It’s just too cold to stop for any length of time without losing all feeling in your face, hands and feet.

I was completely amazed when visiting Arbat St (the market street) on my third day. How can the market stall holders actually stand outside all day? To top it all they are the happiest Russians I have met, but of course they want you to part with your money. There are certainly lots of things to temp you, from Russian Dolls to fur hats.

On the second night I managed a trip to the Bolshoi Ballet, which is a must see. Just be careful with which seat you end up with, as I was seated on the sixth tier at the side. Luckily there was no one sitting behind so I could stand up and watch the performance, otherwise I would only have seen a quarter of the stage. But even with this the performance totally blew my mind, a definite must-do.

The three days in Moscow flew past and it was time to catch the overnight train to Novgorod, we managed to get onboard with two minutes to spare and spent the next half hour leaping from carriage to carriage trying to find our bed for the night. Once located, the wine and vodka came out to toast in Christmas Day and keep most of our carriage awake all night.

Christmas Day in Novgorod started with a tour of the city. The oldest city in Russia, where traders used to settle. There used to be a church at the end of every street, 600 at one time for 600,000 people. It was considered an honour to build a church and all of them better than the last. The Kremlin here stands out for miles with its gold roof glinting in the sun and the old market square is huge with seven churches within it.

The afternoon was spent at a Russian folklore performance where participation was compulsory and a lot of fun. They also did some fortune telling where everybody put something belonging to them into a basket, this was covered over and a special song was sung before items were removed at random and the future predicted. For me, I will apparently be getting married next year, so watch this space….

In the evening we went to a restaurant for a Christmas Banquet which started off with our water glasses being filled, then our Champagne glasses and then our Vodka glasses. These were never left empty for long throughout the evening – only in Russia. We had lots of traditional dancing and even Father Christmas turned up, but he did look a little blue…

Next day it was an early start for a bus ride to St Petersburg, where we spent the next three days. A visit to the Hermitage is a must, the Winter Palace itself is spectacular but it is also filled with art from all over the world, an afternoon here didn’t really do it justice.

Two of the best churches I have ever seen are in St Petersburg, firstly St Isaac’s Cathedral and second Church of the Spilt Blood. Both of them blew me away with the amount of art work and carvings on both the inside and outside. I also walked up the Dome in St Isaac’s where you get a panoramic view of the city. This also lets you see just how much industry surrounds the city, but it’s a fact of our modern world I guess.

I said goodbye to my group yesterday and travelled overnight on the train to Moscow. The cabins are four berth and unisex so you never know who you will end up sharing it with. But the trains are always warm and the rocking motion definitely sends you to sleep.

I’m due to catch the Trans-Mongolian train this evening bound for Beijing, so I wish everyone a Happy New Year, until China…