To and From Russia, with Love!

St Basil Cathedral.

St Basil Cathedral.

Last month, youngest son, wife and I flew to Russia.

Youngest son is a history buff as well as an avid fan of historical Russia and the Soviet Union, and was once even featured in the local press for his impressive vintage collection of Soviet-era military memorabilia. His interest rubbed off on us so wife and I decided to accompany him for a trip.

Getting the tourist visa turned out more leche than we thought. We did everything on our own and did not use a travel agent; our itinerary was based on youngest son’s recommendations and we did not go on conducted tours. A helpful friend assisted with the research; for those doing this on their own without using travel agencies, note that serious, accurate prior research is vital because certain places are closed on some days and on the days they open, opening hours are restricted. Some opening days and hours also depend on the season – some places are closed during winter.

To get a visa, one must first procure a letter of invitation from one’s hotel in Russia and because we planned to stay in both Moscow and St Petersburg, we required two letters. Both hotels charged for those letters. Yup, you are paying to stay there and you have to pay them to invite you. Just great, isn’t it? The logic of the illogical at play here, obviously. Making sure that rooms are available on the days flights are available was a bit of a touch-and-go, but we managed to do it.

Then we were gouged again, this time by the visa office here in Singapore, which charged an arm and a leg for each visa, and, famously throw out any forms filled incorrectly. When signing her name, wife’s pen ran out of ink, so she used another pen to sign over the previous, half-completed signature and because of that, her application was thrown out, together with ours. All in all, I made three trips just to get the darn visa done! At the visa office, I encountered people ranting and spewing vitriol because they had to make numerous trips before they could even get their application accepted! A slight mistake and its “Nyet!” and you start all over again!

Phew! Finally we were on our way via Singapore Airlines – what else?! – a direct 10-hour 40-minute flight to Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport. We didn’t want to pay S$7,190.20 each for business class ticket and there were no premium economy seats on that flight, so we had to travel economy but paid 150 bucks each for seats with more legroom.

Not traveling on business class is a major departure for me and it was tough, personally. Seats with more legroom were on the front row where they put parents with babies and on the way there, we had to contend with four loud crying babies within earshot! Also, I was almost evicted from my seat-with-more-legroom, because the cabin crew told me that anyone sitting in that seat (next to the emergency exit) must be “able-bodied” and she thought I am a cripple because she noticed that I was carrying a walking stick, something I decide to carry for this trip – just in case – because of my bad back.

Anyway, that was the painstaking prep and the journey; it was a little discouraging, but when we got there it was sheer delight from the very moment we landed. We spent about two weeks having a great and glorious time in Russia. We were at the Red Square, visited the Kremlin, saw the KGB building, marveled at the exhibits in the Kremlin Armory, visited countless churches and spent lots of quality time in some truly outstanding museums and even a couple of monasteries.

First impressions: Autumn has turned everything golden yellow, yet for a place that has every potential to be very drab, colors were vibrant and captivating colors – natural as well as man-made – were everywhere as exemplified here by the entrance to the popular Izmailovsky market:


Compare that to Disneyland in the US:

Since our return to Singapore, I was immediately thrown into a punishing travel and public speaking regime again and had three training workshops to conduct, plus contents for several more to create; right now, I am in the midst of all that mayhem, but I have been inundated with requests from friends asking about our trip, so in order not to keep them waiting, off the top of my head, here’s a quick summary of our wonderful trip. I apologize if my thoughts are not very well-organized, so be prepared for a bit of random stream-of-consciousness bursts:

Russia is not a visitor-friendly country, language-wise, that is. So unless you know Cyrillic, forget it. Armed yourself with phrasebooks and dictionaries! Most signs (and I mean like 99.9%) are NOT in English. Even museum descriptions are mainly in Russian though headsets with commentaries in various other languages are often available for rent. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit, you should and with a bit of an adventurous attitude, and an ability to picture-memorize the Cyrillic script, you will still have lots of fun.

They’ve got some really really awesome and breathtaking museums that my son and wife and I absolutely enjoyed and spent a lot of time in. Youngest son speaks and reads Russian and without him our two weeks there would have been really tough. (Elder son couldn’t go cos he couldn’t skip classes.) Youngest son is also familiar with Russian do’s and don’ts – that came in very helpful as he guided me by constantly whispering advice, for example “don’t cross your legs.” Great to travel with people who are in the know. Pointing your foot at Russians is a definite no-no; somewhat similar to Thai customs, but at least there isn’t that overly-abused Thai lèse majesté law in Russia.

It was much colder than forecast. I wore a cotton undershirt, a long-sleeve cotton polo and a leather jacket and it just wasn’t enough. For someone from Singapore, the cold reached and chilled right into my aging bones as well as body parts I didn’t know I have. The rain and the windy conditions didn’t help too. The day I paid respect to Lenin at his mausoleum and the day I visited the memorial site to mark the siege of Leningrad, it was raining incessantly, adding to the somberness of the visits.

It cost less than anticipated. We ate at some of the finest establishments recommended by online sites and snooty visitor guides and were pleasantly surprised at how affordable the prices were. One night, we had caviar, a bottle of red wine, and for each of us: soup, salad, a huge, delicious steak, dessert and coffee at a top-notch restaurant and the total was much less than what we would have paid in Singapore. (Perhaps we are used to the high prices in Singapore?) In the supermarket, a can of Coke costs the equivalent of 85 cents Singapore. Not too bad. Didn’t check how much a TV or a stereo would cost though. The rich live it up – saw lots of stretch limousines. They shop at GUM (“Moscow’s ION Orchard”) and pay the equivalent of several thousand US dollars for a tiny jar of the best caviar. If you don’t need Almas caviar, which can cost up to US$25,000/- per kilo, and which is not available in Russia anyway, settle for Beluga, way cheaper but still half the price of the Almas. Then, of course, there’s salmon roe in abundance, which is cheap and everyone can afford that.

The Sapsan bullet train from Moscow to St Petersburg was a smooth 650km ride with professional airline-level service complete with meals with wine and even an “in-flight” shopping catalog. There was also free Wi-Fi. Thankfully, announcements included English ones. Three return tickets in business class cost us US$666/- and the journey took four hours. A journey on a regular train would require twice that amount of time.

Entrance to museums – most are free, some are chargeable and foreigners pay more than locals.

People are not unfriendly, that’s one of the reasons you must visit even if you anticipate language problems. Lots of commuters gave up their seats for me in the Metro – maybe I’m bald, maybe I carried a walking stick, maybe I am old, maybe all of the above – but in general, people have dour expressions but we also encountered smiles, friendliness and helpfulness from strangers. For example, when buying Metro tickets strangers came up and offered to interpret/translate and these were not scammers or pickpockets. Lots written online (check it out) about Russians not smiling, it’s their psyche I guess. Saw a photo online of American astronauts with Russian cosmonauts in some joint missions; the Americans were grinning from molar to molar but the Russian dudes looked as if their children just got disemboweled by Rasputin. My son said “It’s great that the Russians don’t feel they have to walk around with fake smiles.”

Just for fun we checked out KFC – strangely, they only have drumsticks and a drumstick costs less than a dollar Singapore each, cheaper than here, and tastes a lot better! Maybe Russian chicks are fresher? Not one to pass up bargains, wife naturally went nuts.

Metro rides – each ride costs a pittance, no matter what the distance is, the fare is the same – only 32 Rubles! Now, do a conversion and you’ll realize that’s really cheap! People buy one stored-value card, called the Troika, and a group of five, six can travel together using just one card, that is if their destination is the same. Just tap multiple times. The lavish system was built back in 1935 while Stalin was in power. Today it is 339.1 km long and consists of 12 lines servicing 203 stations and transports about 10 million passengers daily. Several Metro stations are worth visiting just to admire and appreciate their grandeur – ornate pillars, marble floors, chandeliers and huge statues everywhere.

The Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro Station, one of the several we visited.

The Ploshchad Revolyutsii Metro Station, one of the several we visited.

Trains run more speedily than those we have here, there is free Wi-Fi, carriages are longer, frequency faster (minimal interval between trains is 90 seconds) maybe because they don’t have a retired general running it, like in Singapore. In case you are interested, the head of the Moscow Metro is Dmitry Pegov, who graduated as an electrical engineer, but did an MBA, and earned a law degree as well. He started his career as an assistant engineer of electric locomotive depot, then worked as a train driver and even became a driving instructor of locomotive crews, and was eventually promoted to head of the railcar depot Saint Petersburg-Moscow October railway and several other senior positions before being appointed to his present job in 2014.

Most Russian women are pretty – tall, slim, blonde, sensual. Or maybe I only noticed those. Slavic features I guess. Oh, to be young again!

Most menial work – those done by chambermaids, manual laborers, taxi drivers seem to be carried out by people of Asian descent – those from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Mongolia, etc.

We traveled to Veliky Novgorod and Staraya Ladoga from St Petersburg:

A building at Vitoslavlitsy, Veliky Novgorod, the birthplace of Russia.

I bet we are the only Singaporeans ever to visit those historically important and ancient cities (do a search online to find out why these two places are worth visiting). Those two trips out of St Petersburg were worth the long drives and the costs involved. We hired a driver – too talkative and opinionated for my liking (we called him “The Bullshit King”) – who used a Mercedes Viano to take us there and back.

Staraya Ladoga, ancient capital of Russia, population about 2000.

Ah, Russia!

My son said “One day I will return.” As for me, would I visit Russia again? Yes, for sure! Most definitely! In a heartbeat! And spend more time – lots to see actually. Russia is so big! The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, for example: it is said that if you spend 8 hours a day there just looking at each exhibit for one minute, you would need 15 years! The Central Museum of Armed Forces, oh, that’s really some museum! There we saw the actual flag raised over the Reichstag during the Battle of Berlin in 1945; we also saw at close range, the humongous Nazi eagle toppled from the German parliament and what must have been thousands of Nazi iron crosses recovered from dead German soldiers. Here is just one glass case of iron crosses:

The small eatery inside that museum serves delicious and very reasonably-priced “thematic” lunches, a peek at the English menu; one of the few menus we encountered that was in English:

You may be a general, but like the rest of the troops, you drink soup from a mess tin; youngest son said it’s one of the best soups he’s ever had:

Overall, we all fell in love with Russian soups! Here’s a pot of Borscht, a soup which I ordered at every opportunity I had. Now I understand why a Russian friend told me after he has eaten at a supposedly Russian restaurant here in Far East Shopping Center, Singapore, that “whoever taught them to cook this crap and to call it Russian food should have his tongue cut out.”

And at Vystavka Dostizheniy Narodnogo Khozyaystva or VDNKh, there was a gigantic building for each of the previous 15 Soviet republics, in addition to other exhibits. The entire site covers 2.4 million square meters. We spent an entire day there and it just wasn’t enough.

The famous Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa statue near VDNKh.

The famous Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa statue near VDNKh.

A full-size bottle of vodka costs something like S$6 in the supermarket – no wonder lots of Russian men apparently succumbed to alcoholism. For youngest son and I, it was heaven! We imbibed, happily and freely.

Russian ice cream is among the best I’ve ever tasted. Putin took some for the Chinese president when they both went to China for a meeting. Got to be good!

The above are my initial impressions. For a detailed “report” you’ll have to wait for my memoirs, I’m afraid.

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