Goodbye Moscow!

This morning we got up and I got my things together. Evgeny and I had breakfast while Masha and Grisha were still sleeping. The end of my trip this time was quite sad, because being around lifelong friends, seeing new places, eating new food, all makes the time fly past so quickly. The sad thing about going to such a far place, is knowing that it will be a bit of time again before we get to meet again.

I left them a letter thanking them for their hospitality and a gift card to their favorite restaurant: TGIFriday’s. Evgeny and I drove to Sheremetyevo, and had a small snack at the bar. I had forgone buying the vodka I wanted to bring home because I didn’t have room in my suitcase, so I figured I’d just go to DutyFree to purchase it there. So after our snack, Evgeny and I bid farewell. Memories of my first trip came flushing back where his father, mother, sister, he and I were standing in line watching me leave. That was definitely a turning point in my life 10 years ago.

As I waited in line for ticketing, I finally had my bag searched. I would usually think this is bad luck, but amazingly, they were checking every single person’s baggage. And not only did they open it, but they completely ransacked it. Oddly enough, they didn’t question the 18 cans of Nivea spray deodorant that I can’t buy in the US. That to me would have screamed, SUSPICIOUS, but nonetheless, they were more interested in the amount of chocolate and candies I was bringing home. At the checkin, I was shocked to see a sign that said, ‘ATTENTION: Travelers to the US cannot bring any DUTY FREE liquids on board’. My mouth dropped. I wanted to bring some friends some original vodka from Russia and alas, now I should have just stuffed it in my luggage. I was so disappointed, especially considering that if it was Duty Free, you can usually bring liquid to the US from other countries. Traveling, I’m afraid, has definitely lost the charm it once had. I can only wonder 5 years down the road, how troublesome boarding a flight will be.

After this disappointing news, I had to figure out what to do with almost the $150 worth of Ruble I still had saved for buying vodka. What’s the next best thing? Chocolate J I bought some chocolate and wandered the airport til it was time to board.

Good ol’ Delta. The crappiest plane made me question if even Aeroflot had been more comfortable. There was only tiny tv’s above every 10 rows or so that showed a movie. Since it was day time, of course I spent the entire flight awake.

After landing in New York, I went through immigration/customs, and then wheeled by baggage to the transfer area. I had the funniest feeling as I watched my baggage sit there, tired from its flight just wanting to be picked up onto that conveyor belt to be stowed away in the appropriate plane bound for San Francisco. I waited and stared at the guy whose job was to do this, but alas, he was too busy chatting with another employee. I was too hungry to wait any longer so I headed for the gates.

I stood in line for about 30 minutes for Burger King, to the point of my flight having final boarding calling before I even got to order. I ended up not getting to eat anything, so I was concerned about now the 7 more hours that I had to travel to get back to San Francisco.

I’m thinking that delirium sets in even faster at high altitudes, because this flight seemed to go by faster. It was night time, seats were definitely more comfortable, and there was actually satellite TV on board. Bravo Delta for coming up to speed in at least one of your planes. Once we landed however, I was one of the first at the baggage claim area. Waiting, waiting and waiting, finally it began to turn, dropping off seemingly everyone else’s baggage first. Until there were no more. Of course! My poor baggage sat through that man’s conversation, as well as probably a lunch and a break, completely ignored and abandoned. Therefore, I had to stand in line again to wait to submit a claim. At least it was on my way home so I had clothes, toiletries etc waiting for me there.

All in all, I safely arrived back, from one of the most memorable trips to Moscow.

Tretakovskaya Gallery

img_0896.jpgThis morning, I woke up early to head to the gallery which had been suggested. I’m glad I did. It was interesting to see a lot of artwork from Russian artists about Russian History. When I entered, unfortunately there were groups of kids everywhere, so it was noisy, rowdy, and boisterous. After making my way through tickets, I had to go and turn in my coat and things, and I was handed two blue bags. I kept thinking, I don’t have an umbrella, so what would these be for? As I looked around, everyone was strapping them on their shoes to enter the main part of the gallery. I thought it was odd because any wet dirt and mud that you’re bringing in on your shoes, will be on this floor, in which you’re stepping on again with the bags. I guess the bags magically dissipate the mud and dirt for entrance into the gallery. So with my magic bags around my shoes, I entered the gallery to take a look at the paintings. They were quite amazing, and seeing clothing/fights/women/men opened a view into Russia’s past. It made me want to learn more about the Russian historical past and wonder why in my schooling we didn’t seem to even take one chapter to learn about Russia.

After the gallery, I headed back home for lunch. Evgeny, Grisha and I headed out to a Palace near Novogireevo. We just walked the grounds so I could take some pictures, but what I found so amazing was the lake that was right nearby completely frozen over. Kids were playing hockey and everyone was just walking on it. There were holes in the top for fishing as well! I’d never been to a place so cold that the lake actually had frozen over solid enough for walking on!

img_0906.jpgEvgeny and I then went to Gorki Park to do some ice skating. We had all thought about going to Red Square where they had a rink set up, but it was so crowded that we thought Gorki Park would be bigger and better. Well, it was definitely interesting! It wasn’t just one rink, but all the trails throughout the park connected areas that you could skate. It was like a huge skating park where you could just skate around to different areas. It was cool to see so many kids just hanging out with their friends and skating as big groups, the troublemakers that would rush past and cut ice in front of you, and the beginners that were moving ‘like cows’.

I felt pretty comfortable on the skates from my roller skating history :) We had a great time once we finally got out to the ice and started going around, but boy, you can tell that you don’t use those muscles often! After an hour, we were both more than ready to turn in the skates for a rest. All in all we had a good time and enjoyed this unique winter activity.

Izmailovo Markets

img_0884.jpgToday was my souvenir shopping day and Evgeny dropped me off at the entrance of a huge marketplace. It was full of alleys of stalls with people selling goods from pots and pans, to jeans, to shoes, to baggage. At first I wondered, oops, did I come to the wrong place and I wasn’t going to find any ‘souvenirs’, but just cheap goods. Anyhow, I started strolling along the street to see what there was to be offered, and I did find a cool day bag for cheap. I also found a few tshirts that weren’t as cheap as they should have been, but alas, they had some cool logowork with CCCP and Aeroflot written on them.. I then came to a gate that required and entrance fee, so I figured this is where all the souvenir goods were. As I entered, one of the first stalls I saw had all the Russia Laquerware boxes with hand painted fairytales on them. I thought they were great, and the detailed work of the artist’s brush was outstanding, but I didn’t want to sell out on the first booth, so I took the gamble to wander through to see more of the stalls. As I went along, stalls were selling the typical stacking dolls, Soviet Propaganda (cool posters, war paraphernalia, shirts, fur hats, pins, etc.) It was a true souvenir heaven. After going through the main strip, and barely feeling my hands anymore, I headed out to find some hot chocolate. It wasn’t easy as I thought it would be, and I found myself having to go to a hotel to find something. However, none of the hotel cafes were selling anything like that either, so I just got a bottle of water and ate a small snack while I wrote out a couple of postcards.

After thawing out, I decided to go back for the hunt and make some purchases after I had seen the items I wanted to get. I found a great book on the Moscow Subway system, which is one of my favorite things of Moscow. There’s something so interesting about the system, it feels like you’re walking back into time with the intricate tile artwork, the statues, the Soviet looking items throughout the stations. All the stations are different, so each one is interesting to look at. I then ended up going back to the first stall where I had seen the Laquerware previously, and bought quite a few things from here, as it’s a good that I hadn’t really bought on my previous trips to Russia. I was quite content with my purchases, but was getting frustrated about how cold I was, and having to carry all my things now! My fingers were numb, and carrying a bag on them just hurt. I then took the metro to Kurskaya to meet up with Evgeny. After my full day, I was pretty tired and we had a quiet night at home with a great meal as usual, and then bed.

Ukranian Restaurant, Night Tour, Bowling.

img_0703.jpgToday we headed for a Ukrainian Restaurant to check out some traditional food. I was quite hungry, and as usual, I let my eyes outweigh my stomach with how much I thought I could actually eat. The pelmeni that I had the other day was so good, that I wanted to try it again at this restaurant, so I ordered that as the appetizer. While looking through what was almost as heavy as a phone book, the menu offered pages and pages of typical Ukrainian food. I opted to have a serving of a potato type thing that had meat inside. Needlesstosay, everything was delicious, but definitely too much for my stomach to take in. So we ended up taking part of my dinner home :)

Evgeny then took me for a little ride as the girls went shopping and I stopped by the big ship statue along the Moscow river. Here Peter the Great stands bronzed at 94 meters tall. This was the first day I had seen the Moscow River frozen. I couldn’t believe it, just days before it was flowing like usual, and today it was completely frozen across the top. The designs made in the ice were interesting and I verified yet again that it was indeed cold :)

img_0777.jpgThat night, Evgeny, Katya and I headed around Moscow to let me do some night photography of the city. We stopped at several main sites around Red Square and the Kremlin and I had to weigh getting great shots with freezing to death! After about 15 minutes being out in the cold, you literally had to get back into some warmth. My hands weren’t as nimble on my camera after being out so long, and even the handwarmers would only keep part of my hands warm. That was the best idea to bring though! After our Night Tour of Moscow, we went to the bowling alley to get some bowling action in.

img_0830.jpgWe had a lane on the far end, and despite starting out pretty ok, then moving towards good, either fatigue, or tiredness of the same movement pushed me to start losing quite badly :( We all had a fun time laughing and chatting, and it was definitely a fun event to enjoy each other’s company. Evgeny and Katya remind me that these things they never do when in their normal routines, and I admit too, it’s something so simple that seems to escape our daily lives–why is it I don’t explore San Francisco more when I live in the heart of it?

Sergiev Posad

Sergiev PosadToday we drove up to Sergiev Posad. The drive wasn’t very long, and it was nice to see some different terrain. There was more snow here than in the city, but mainly I think it’s because of it being white and not so dirty from roads. We arrived and parked the car after taking a round to check out the site. It was really impressive, and it reminded me of a fortress with it’s walls. But behind the walls you knew it was anything but a fortress. The blue and gold domes, classic in Russian Orthadox style, towered above the white walls as we approached from the distance. It’s really so cool to see such amazingly beautiful, yet SUCH old architecture. It’s amazing what structures man was able to create so many centuries ago. After several pictures, we wandered around the grounds and visited the churches. After a couple of hours, my hands and feet were getting cold despite my handwarmers. I can’t believe how chilled you can get after some time out there, but I figured I needed a quick break for some food and warmth. We managed to find a great little restaurant called “Ёлки-Палки” Yolki Palki. Inside was decorated in an interesting theme with trees and such. We ordered some skewered meat, fries, and Pelmeni in an amazing broth. The Pelmeni is apparently something that Evgeny tells me I didn’t like the first time I was here in 1997, but now, it was so good to me. I can’t comprehend how I didn’t like it before, but I guess we all have things in the past that we don’t remember not liking. After leaving the restaurant, we went back to the churches to let me take some last pictures of the area at night. I was hoping that it would be lit at night, but unfortunately, it wasn’t. So I didn’t take many night photos–but the ones I did I think will come out good.

We then headed back to Moscow to meet up with Masha and Katya for our night out clubbing. We got ready and drove to the center of the city to a club to check it out. It was interesting to hear the music, as there was one dancefloor that featured Russian Pop music that everyone was lip synching to. Of course I had no ideas of any of the songs, yet the group Via Gra came one (choice name apparently), and they sang a song that I had heard here before. The club was fun, and unfortunately, very full of smoke. So after a few hours of dancing we headed out to go home.

Sledding and Shopping

img_0637-1.jpgToday, we all headed for Sparrow Hill again where Moscow State University is located. There’s a big hill that you can do sledding on, so we decided to take Grisha out for some fun in the snow. On the way there, we dropped Masha off at MEGA, a huge mall that we would later join her for shopping. When we arrived at Sparrow Hill, Evgeny, Grisha, and I went down the hill to find a good place to sled. It reminded me of when I was a kid in Tennessee, and there was actually snow that fell to the ground, the discs that we would use to slide down. Grisha had a little hand held one, that was simply a rubber circle, with a handle on the end for you to hold on the way down. Evgeny put Grisha on his lap, and away they went–much faster than we thought, and he went straight for a wooden post! After seeing that, I wasn’t keen on doing sledding in my jeans, plus, I needed to keep my camera equipment close to me to keep it from freezing! After watching them sled for a while, I went back up to the top of the hill to look at the stalls selling souvenir type goods. Fur hats were everywhere, as well as war paraphernalia. It seems like everyone sells the same thing, and I did find a tshirt that I want, so I’ll wait til my final day where I go to the Izmailovo Markets to find my souvenirs. At this point, I couldn’t believe how cold it was getting. I suppose when you’re out in it for a while, your core just starts dropping more and more in temperature! But as I’ve said before, my body felt fine, it’s just the face and digits that seem to be vulnerable to the cold. In the beginning of the trip, when the temperature was a warm, 32F/0C, I didn’t even think I’d need all the handwarmers that I brought, but sure enough, I’ve been using them everyday now. They are definitely handy–all I do is tear open the bag, and these little packets stay warm for 7 hours! Sometimes they even get too hot to keep in my gloves!

After the stalls, I went to get some hot cocoa. When I ordered it, (good thing I know the Russian spelling for chocolate), it came out boiling–I mean this thing was bubbling. My mouth is quite sensitive–even cinnamon gum will send my tastebuds burning for 2 weeks. I thought for sure I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this cup of hot chocolate for a good half hour, but within 2 minutes, and I tried my first sip, it was already getting warm. By the time I was able to finish it, it had already cooled off to the point of being lukewarm. This was a .1L cup as well, so it was practically a tiny bit of hot chocolate to begin with anyway. It sure was good though.

I then went to the near by church to check it out. It was perched up on the side of the hill and seemed peaceful. I did have a little ulterior motive which was to go in and thaw out for a bit. But upon entrance, I remembered exactly how my impressions of Russia were back in 1997 because of how many churches we visited. Inside was all golden icons, paintings, gold this gold that, it was what one could call gaudy, yet it had the prestige of being such a holy environment. I simply love the feeling of it, and sure, a warmth both physically and mentally, when sitting in this peaceful domed palace filled with crackling candles, and amazingly detailed religious paintings.

Evgeny, Grisha and I then met up and we headed back to Mega to meet with Masha, and for me to do some shopping. We had a quick dinner, and then we all went our separate ways for shopping. I found some cool things that I got, so I felt it was a success. After a couple of hours, we all met back up and headed home. Tomorrow is a visit to Sergeiv Posad, a little town outside Moscow that is famous for it’s Monastery.

New Year’s Day & Sub Zero Temperatures!

img_0533-1.jpgToday we went for a drive around the city, since NO ONE was out and about on the roads, it was easy to drive around and see some sights without the annoying traffic. We first tried to find a place to eat, and unfortunately, almost everything was closed, so we ended up at McDonald’s. We then headed for Moscow State University since this was a place that I wouldn’t be able to visit easily from the Metro. Today actually was -10C. The past few days were -3C and that was easy. But today, was the first time I actually felt the pain of cold. While at the State University for pictures, I would take off my gloves just to manipulate my camera long enough to take some pictures, and by the time I needed to make more chanes, my hands were hurting and so cold that I couldn’t even move them. It’s the first time I’ve ever had such a sensation. I actually felt like the hands were starting to freeze, and it would slowly move further along my body. It was so strange because my whole body was fine, it was just my exposed hands. We continued walking around and went to the edge of hillside where we could look out over Moscow. To the right there was a ski jump that was built that I had seen several times before in the distance while driving around the city. So I finally asked about it’s use, and apparently Evgeny said that it’s not in use because there was a miscalculation and professional jumpers could end up flying too far past the range of where they thought they could go. So it’s no longer in use!

img_0555-1.jpgAfter the University visit, I wanted to take some more photos of the beautiful subway system. It’s actually one of the most charming things I find of Moscow, so I enjoy spending time looking at all the stations. They’re all different and feature different architecture, art, and Soviet reminants. Plus, since it was so cold outside, it was nice to be underground and warm for a while! There is a main ring that circles the city, so Evgeny dropped me off and I decided to ride the ring for a while and stop at several stops. I only made it about half way before I figured I should turn around and head home to be back in time for our dinner with some of Evgeny and Masha’s friends.

img_0598-1.jpgThe dinner was again excellent, and their friends had a little 3 year old girl Anna, that came to play with Grisha. We played games, sang songs, and enjoyed another long dinner until late evening. These great dinners Masha is making confirms the idea of holiday weight!

New Year’s in Moscow

img_0455-1.jpgToday, Evgeny and I went to the main Santa House for all the children to come and present letters to Santa, get free presents (boxes of candy) and play around with some themepark type games. Grisha got some cotton candy and was shoving his little face into the cotton which was hilarious. We then went to Santa’s house, and believe it or not, he walked out the door, because he only shows up once a day, and his shift was done. So we all stood there as he walked out of his own house, while we stood inside his house looking at his bed and work station. It reminds me of the time back in 1997 during my first visit while we were all riding a tram, and the driver just stopped the tram, and left to go outside for a smoke, while we all sat there waiting to continue riding.

After the park, we headed back home to prepare for the evening’s long dinner. Masha spent all day cooking and prepared a magnificent meal for us to enjoy for our New Year’s event. Masha’s sister joined us as well for the event. New Year’s in Russia is much more like Christmas for us, where you spend it with family. Apparently many of Katya’s friends all went back to their homes to spend it with their families.

From the apartment we could see fireworks throughout the city. We spent the entire night drinking, laughing, eating, more eating, then went outside for some fireworks. We then all went to bed in a full house–this 3 room apartment housed all 6 of us!

Things Take Time

img_0355-1.jpgToday, Evgeny and I headed out for what we thought would be a simple errand to run–to meet his boss and pick up a package. We arrived at the office, and called for the boss, but there was an important meeting that he was attending–at a completely different location. So we went to breakfast so by the time we were finished, we could meet his boss. I had a great crepe with fresh fruits, and Evgeny had a mushroom soup–with Hot Chocolate.

We then headed to the other location that his boss was at, and we drove by one of the Stalinist type buildings again. This one is a huge apartment building that the old Soviet Politicians used to live in, but now has just been burdened by maintenance costs of simply living there. It’s still a beautiful building showing an amazing power of architecture, but surprisingly up close, is much smaller than it seems from a distance.

img_0369-1.jpgAfter we met Evgeny’s boss, we headed back to pick up Grisha and Masha, and it was already noon! Once we got everyone rounded up and dressed for outside, we headed out to take our red Lada, and turn it into Evgeny’s company–and exchange for a rental. This was quite an ordeal as it was a company car, but apparently the Deputy of Transportation at Evgeny’s company ordered that the car would be brought back to the company by the end of the day. Since this was a company car that had been promised in the beginning of getting the job, giving away the car caused Evgeny to request a solution–which worked out well–we were allowed to go rent a car for the rest of the holidays. So, we went to give the car back, which apparently will just sit on the street outside the company until Jan 9, and in return, we will be rolling in a nice Mazda 3, red, which is Masha and Grisha’s favorite color.

As this is Russia, and documentation has documentation which has stamps of stamps, we rented a car in just under an hour. Once we got the car, I drove the Mazda on the streets of Moscow with Grisha and Masha in tow, as we followed Evgeny in his tin can :) We dropped the car off finally, and ended up parking since by now, it was time for dinner. We stopped at Atrium right outside the station Kurskaya. Atrium houses Masha’s favorite restaurant, TGI Fridays. So we went there for a big dinner and waited for Katya to join. Katya joined for dessert, and after our dinner, the girls went shopping, and the boys went for a drive. I continued driving on Moscow’s Garden Ring–the city has 3 main rings of roads that connect like a spider web. After our drive, we ended up at Federation Towers again to show Grisha the construction site. We then headed back to pick up the girls so we could get our groceries for the New Year’s Eve dinner. For some reason, I was completely exhausted and despite not feeling like we had accomplished a lot for the day, I felt like I had been in a marathon, and could barely keep my eyes open for the drive home. I’m attributing the fatigue to my endless decoding of the Russian letters to sound out the words written on signs, advertisements, buildings etc.

Camels in Moscow?

Camel in MoscowThis morning, I got up and headed off to see Evgeny’s commute to his office. It’s interesting to see his life and learn about what his routine is. You can only write so much through emails that seeing it in person really solves the mystery. After seeing his office and meeting some of his office mates, we headed to have some breakfast at the Starbucks ‘like’ cafe called ‘ШОКОЛАДНИЦА’ /Shokoladnitsa. If you say it, you might hear the word similar to Chocolate, which means yes, lots of chocolate options here. However, since it was breakfast, I felt I should eat something wholesome, so I opted for the toast and cheese/tomato breakfast. After breakfast, I left Evgeny and headed for Red Square by the metro, to look around. Today was one of the days you can go to visit good ol’ Lenin. He is still preserved despite all the talk about him being finally buried. There was quite a long queue and you have to actually place your bags and packs at a security point, and I had my nice camera with me, so I decided not to drop my bags off. I’ll go back for the viewing another day when I don’t have my nice camera with me.

After stopping at a cafe for an $8 glass of apple juice (Thank you President Bush for making my US$ practically worthless in Russia), I headed off to the Bolshoi Theater to check out any shows that were playing. Wandering around is always the best way of stumbling upon surprises really, so I just continued wandering around the area. Katya then gave me a call and we planned to meet up and head off to a museum. She was near me anyhow, and we were able to meet almost instantly, so we went off to a book store. Suddenly Evgeny called and asked us to meet him to run an errand with his Lada to be serviced ie: get a horn, get a seat belt, and stop the incessant mysterious liquid from leaking into the passenger seat.

Once we arrived back at Evgeny’s office, we drove to the other side of the city toward Moscow State University. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings of Moscow and stands tall and prestigious. The building was built in Stalin fashion, so it looks really gothic and Batman like. The best part was that it was starting to snow, so I was happy to see some snowflakes and feel the ‘real’ cold.

Katya & Me at Moscow CityWe then headed towards the Moscow Circus to take a look at the building and see if we saw anything interesting, and sure enough, after taking a walk around, interesting is what we found. In the midst of snowflakes in Moscow, a camel was giving a ride to a child! They say Moscow is a city of contrasts, and I have to say, this is one of the most interesting contrasts I’ve encountered!

We then took a drive over to the site of the newest building complexes that are being built in an area that will include buildings going up until about 2016. Federation Tower, Moscow City, and other buildings will house residents, offices, stores, and even have a Hyatt Hotel.