How to Spend a Week in Moscow

Week in Moscow
This is the gate into Red Square. Stalin tore it down so he could get tanks on the square. When USSR fell, the Russians rebuilt it in 1995 to exact detail.

When on the phone with Delta booking our RTW (round the world) tickets, our only real snag came when booking Moscow. We had to stay for 8 days because we couldn’t find seats to leave the city. Thus, we arrived for our week in Moscow wondering what adventure laid ahead. Here’s how to spend one week in Moscow.

 

First Taste of Russian Red Tape

Week in Moscow
I can’t remember all these church names, but I was shocked at how many beautiful churches remain. During USSR, the practice of religion was outlawed and many churches were destroyed. This is also the church where we attended Easter services.

Adventure struck the second we left immigration. After an hour in immigration, we walked two steps and Kelly realized she had left her purse on the plane. We couldn’t go back through immigration, and thus we began our first round of the famous Russian bureaucracy. Honest to god, it was  straight out of the movies.

We went to the Aeroflot help desk.

They told us to “go to the domestic arrivals exit door (the one that says in red DO NOT ENTER and in the basement of the airport) and knock twice. An armed guard would answer, and we were to show our expired boarding pass.”

After many complete circles in the airport, several kind citizens, and even a handwritten note in Russian, and over two hours of chasing our tails, we admitted defeat and said mental goodbyes to Kelly’s purse. In it were one set of headphones and $50 to use “in an emergency.” Kelly was now down one purse, one wallet, $110 cash, and an American Express card total. (See earlier post on her supposed pick-pocket the first day of this trip.) Despite our defeat, we still sent an email to Aeroflot hoping the purse would turn up before we departed Moscow in a week. It didn’t.

Modern 1970s Soviet Style Apartment

Leaving the airport, we took the airport bus to the metro station and navigated two changes of train to get to our apartment. I had practically memorized the subway map before entering the underground, as I was extremely fearful we wouldn’t be able to read anything or get verbal help. This was basically true. None the less, we arrived to our next AirBnb apt two hours late, but our host was very grateful and kind. After introductions and a quick tour of our new apartment, which was large and clean but straight out of 1970’s concrete-modern, we went to bed very exhausted. Our host invited us to Saturday dinner, and we enthusiastically accepted.

Free Walking Tour in Moscow

Week in Moscow
Vera and Sasha, our free tour guides

As an avid walker and someone who leads tours in Denver, I was hoping to find something similar in Moscow. The next morning, we met our free tour guide. These student tour guides just want to share their city and practice their language skills. We had an experienced tour, Vera, and a new one, Sasha.

They met us at our apt, guided us through the Metro, and started the tour at Red Square. But instead of spending time in Red Square, where there is enough info in guide books and such, we went off the beaten path.

Our guide, Vera, at 21 years old, could not recall the tearing down of the Berlin wall and all the Reagan theatrics, but she could specifically state dates and events almost as though reciting from a memorized list.  Around Red Square we went, and Vera highlighted many relics and facts from “Soviet Times” and before.

Week in Moscow
Monument where the Russians beat the Bulgarians.

Vera and Sasha had picked us up at the apartment, and we were both hungry and thirsty. We hadn’t had anything to eat since we had left the airport, as we hadn’t yet found grocery stores or figured out how to buy things to eat. We asked Vera and Sasha if they would join us for something to eat, but they flat out refused. They did take us to the GUM mall, which used to be a farmer’s market, where we had a slice of pizza for breakfast and some terrible coffee. They did let us eventually buy them a cup of coffee.

Week in Moscow
Two brothers developed the Cyrillic alphabet from Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. The first paragraph is Russian, the second is the Greek translation.

After a cup of coffee, Vera showed us several monuments highlighting local and regional history. What struck me was a fascinating little monument to the Russian alphabet. Influenced by Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, the monument expressed gratitude in both Greek and Russian to the two brothers who created the Russian alphabet.

Our two-hour tour, which Vera had totally customized for us and included information on how to navigate the Metro, ended back at Red Square. Vera’s enthusiasm for her beloved city, her perfect English (and French, Spanish and several other languages) really left a wonderful mark on my entire family. Upon leaving, she made many more suggestions of things and places to do during our week, many of which we took her up on. We bid Vera and Shasha adieu, and made our way into our first glimpse of Red Square.

How to Buy Russian Groceries

Week in Moscow
Despite the bureaucracy of the grocery, the highlight was cheap caviar!

The weather was a bit rainy, so we decided to return to Red Square in a couple of days. Instead, we made our way home, found a small grocery in the basement of an apartment building, and bought our first set of groceries.

The grocery buying experience was classic Moscow–although the grocery couldn’t have been more that 500 square feet, it was packed to the rafters. Every “section” had its own cashier and helper. Thus, we had to “check out” after each section’s purchase. Once for diary. Once for bread. Once for sweets. Once for fish. And so on. I’m sure we didn’t do it right (but maybe we did?), but we certainly provided entertainment for the locals.

A Stop in Gorky Park

Week in Moscow
Gorky Park had many fun and free things to enjoy

Our second day, we ventured out on our own to Gorky Park, Arabat shopping, and our next grocery store. The next week involved seeing all the sites, finding food to eat, and just enjoying the adventure of Moscow. The three of us settled into a routine of rising around 830, having breakfast, venturing out to the day’s monument, museum, or meet up, having lunch out, walking some more, taking the Metro home, cooking a mediocre meal and falling into bed around 11, exhausted.

Understanding Moscow

Week in Moscow
Is it a space shuttle or not? An example of how things seemed to be one thing, but then were another. I don’t think this was real in Gorky Park.

Managing our expectations was the one thing that wore me out. I can’t quite explain Moscow. First, it was very hard to put aside my child fears of the USSR.

At any moment I expected the police to pop out of an ally and round us up for the gulag. It was a strange juxtaposition to the kindness of strangers we’ve had to rely upon. Plus, there were men in police-type uniforms everywhere, and I couldn’t distinguish a security guard from a police guard from a soldier. All were imposing and preyed on my USSR fears. Wherever we would go or whatever we would do, it was never what we thought we were going to go or do.

Week in Moscow
I can’t explain this either. Outside Gorky Park.

Exactly What Are the Rules in Moscow?

Week in Moscow
The beautiful Boshoi Theatre, which we sadly didn’t get to see.

Trying to do what we were “supposed to do” in Moscow was hard. When we followed the rules exactly, we didn’t get the results we wanted. For example, we would try to pay with MasterCard in a store that displays the MC emblem, but our cards wouldn’t work. We would go next door, and they would. Or we walked through the big Macy-type store where they had a ton of inventory of hundreds of global brands, but only two sizes in each style.

Week in Moscow
The Moscow architecture ranges across centuries. I loved this Art Deco Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zoom in, and you’ll see the hammer and sickle.

Thus, we tried and did take advantage of all the really cool things to do in Moscow, but found it very frustrating and challenging. We kept feeling like doing everything right went unrewarded. Finally, I  want to say that those Russians who popped into our world at just the right time, were nothing but kind and helpful. Yet their help never really got us what we wanted. Moscow was a “no exceptions” type of place. Stories of long distance travel, hardships, etc, fall on deaf ears. It was as if they could break their own rules, but we weren’t allowed to break them?? Never the less, we got up each day and ventured out.

The Moscow Bath House with a Middle Schooler

Midweek, I decided to take Kelly to a traditional Russian bath house. All the guide books said it was the best, and reviews said “don’t miss.”  We got there, and a Russian woman told us it was the best as walked inside to enter. After much confusion with price and Kelly’s age (no one believed us that she was 11 due to her height), we entered. It was nice, but not glamorous or world-class by any means.

The Turkish and South Korean baths I’ve enjoyed far exceeded this experience.

At the end of the bath, we found a brochure highlighting the bath’s elegance, and we discovered the elegance was reserved for the men’s side, not the women. But, despite the inelegant women’s side, finding out that Russian women enjoy Brazilians and strategically placed tattoos was half the fun.

The People Were the Best

Week in Moscow
A monument in the Moscow subway. Touch the dog’s nose for good luck!

Eight days in Moscow was a super long time. The stark structure and rigidity of the culture became oppressive. On the last day, I could barley withhold my frustration after looking at a menu. It had a picture of a hamburger with fries–I only wanted the fries, no hamburger. “Nyet” was the only thing they would serve. I gave up, ordered the plate and threw out the hamburger so I could simply enjoy the fries.

There were certainly some highlights. The owner of our AirBnB apartment invited us to her home for dinner.

Dinner with No Furniture

Week in Moscow
St Basil’s Cathedral

The Airbnb owner picked us up in her Mini Cooper, and twenty-five minutes later we arrived at her home. She said we would bbq. Her house looked to be about 2000 square feet and around 15 years old. We pulled into the carport, and three of her friends were waiting to meet us.

We met her friends, Olga, Dimitri, and Catrina, but instead of taking us inside, we went to the backyard. There was one plastic table and two plastic chairs. They told us to sit. Another chair appeared, and Olga sat down to chat. Her English was wonderful (as was the others), and we had a great chat. She was shocked we didn’t know any Russian pop stars, movies, or literature beyond Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. Yet she could recite star after American star.

The Moscovites Explain Ukraine

Week in Moscow
The singing monks inside St Basil’s

At dinner, we finally admitted knowing the Russian cartoon characters Natasha, Boris, and Bullwinkle, and then we got to talking about Ukraine. I asked her to explain the situation. In conclusion, she said that there is civil unrest in Ukraine because the leadership wants to join the EU. The Russian citizens who live there, but are officially Ukrainian, don’t want to join the EU. Russia, who wants to protect its Russian citizenship from the civil unrest, has entered Ukraine to protect its citizens. There is no plan for Russia to go beyond Ukraine.

She asked if it were true that the US thinks Russia is going to take over the White House and that Texas was trying to secede from the US. This was what the news in Russia was reporting.

Week in Moscow
A publishing house!

Meanwhile, my host and the other two friends proceeded to make the BBQ. They gathered twigs and used an ax to split the finished 2×4 pieces to make the fire in an outdoor fireplace.

Two more chairs appeared, and the friends joined in the conversation. My host served borscht and a beautiful salad. We were told to eat, but the others didn’t join in. Shortly after, three more chairs and more friends showed up, and the lamb chops were finished. We all ate under the stars to lovely comparison conversation.

Week in Moscow
Finally, a sign we could read!

I asked to use the restroom. I went inside and discovered there was no furniture.

None.

My host came and explained that she had just packed up the house because they were moving to a rental so they could raze and rebuild on the current location. She showed me a picture on her smart phone of a beautiful $1.5 million home she would be building. There was a nanny there on hand to take care of her three kids.

Week in Moscow
Icons inside St Basil’s

I thought how brave she was to have a house full of folks over with no furniture.  But odd. Her husband, the architect, was working on the Saturday night before Easter?

After the tour of the furniture-less house, she said abruptly it was time for us to go.

Would we like to stay the night in her home or could she pay for a taxi for us? I thought, humm, stay in a house with no furniture, a missing husband, pork chops bbq’d over 2x4s, and a magical nanny, or grab a cab? While waiting for the taxi, two other friends showed up in the most expensive Mercedes we’ve ever seen. Our hosts introduced the ladies who got out of the back of the cars as 4 times world gymnastics winners. We shook their hands, and before we could engage in any conversation, the private taxi driver scooped us up and took us back to our apartment.

We Survived Moscow

Week in Moscow
Red Square

Thus, that was our night. Totally bizarre, quite abrupt, but fun with new friends. This night also illustrated the exact wild, odd, and obscure adventure we had in Moscow. The next day, we cleaned the AirBnb, and reversed our trip to the airport. Without Kelly’s purse but with heads full of the bizarre yet strangely curious, we headed to Beijing.