As I'm want to do when I travel, I try to keep a daily journal of who I saw, what I ate, where I went, etc. It's always a pain to do at the time, and always worth it afterwards. Last night, as I read through the journal entries I made when I traveled to Russia in Spring 2012 (March 23rd to 29th), I was amazed by how the trip came to life for me, two years later, sitting in Los Angeles. Little details of interactions with Russians felt real again. Tastes of borscht and the bitter cold of an early Moscow morning again filled my mind.
At the time, I was in my second to last semester in college. Coming off a mid-semester internship, I had four weeks until I had to be back at classes, which allowed me time to travel. Russia had interested me for years (and still does), so I booked flights, bought a(n expensive) travel Visa (Russia likes to punish Americans for visiting), and left the plush confines of America for a whirlwind trip through the Motherland. Splitting time between hostels, hotels, and an Orthodox Jewish family's apartment, my time in Russia gave me a decent sense of an urban life in Russia's two most important cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The distinctions between the two are remarkable. Roughly a six hour high-speed train ride apart, if I remember correctly, Moscow was cold, dark, depressing, Communist. I felt the Russia of the past in Moscow, exorbitant price tags aside. Sickles and hammers were peppered throughout the city. Even Lubyanka, the infamous former headquarters of the KGB (now the FSB), had the Communists' symbol perched on the top of the building. The subways, while gorgeous (some even had Wi-Fi!), were somewhat ruined for me once I learned of the immense cost (human and financial) that the Russians endured because of Stalin's orders to build it.
St. Petersburg, meanwhile, was a slice of absolute beauty. It's a massive art gallery that doubles as a city. Perched adjacent to the Neva River and the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg felt like the anti-Moscow. It felt so pre-Russia, at least, pre-theRussiawethinkoftoday. It was...European. The buildings were massive, but not in the Moscow, or Warsaw sense. Their size just makes their beauty more obvious. The outside of the Hermitage looks like a wedding cake that was granted Zoltar's wish to be turned into a building. The inside was, for me, just another boring art museum. As I boarded the overnight train from St. Petersburg back to Moscow, I remember wishing that I could stay for a few more days.
Today, with Sochi filling the airwaves, my Russia trip came back to me with nostalgia. As is common in most foreign adventures, things that felt like disasters then are just amazing stories now. Below, I've pulled some of my more...interesting...moments in Russia. Edits are only for spelling and grammar. These are entirely original:
March 25, 2012, 11:55 p.m.; Writing from Hotel National, Moscow
Headed back to Red Square in order to see Lenin's embalmed body in the mausoleum. It's only open from 10 a.m. - 1 p.m. on days that it's open, so my window is narrow. I got there in plenty of time. Everyone has to check their phones and cameras for about $1. Then we walked along the outside of the Kremlin wall and went into the mausoleum. We descended a good 50 feet or so. The entire process involves walking along the floor around the mausoleum and just staring at Lenin's lifeless body while you walk.
March 27, 2012, 5 p.m.; Writing from a coffee shop in St. Petersburg
The train ride to St. Petersburg was good. After I arrived I walked about 20 minutes to where I thought the hostel was. After calling and wandering around, I walked into a travel agency and said "Gdye hostel?" A girl showed me where it is. It was on the third floor of an apartment building. They told me that my room was at one of their other locations so they had an Asian woman who spoke no English take me there.
We hopped on a sketchy city bus and got there in no time. I paid her for two nights in cash. When she left, I sat on my bed and...SNAP! It sounded like it broke. After inspecting and trying to fix the half that fell, I realized that it wasn't broken but improperly assembled. So I made the other half my sleeping side.
[later in the day]....It was sunny and dry, so I didn't mind the cold. I ate a Russian lunch (not good) at a relatively cheap place on a sort of deserted street and finally found the hat and gloves that I was looking for. They were, of course, for sale in an underground walkway.
March 28, 2012, 9:10 a.m.; Writing from train cabin, en route to Moscow
We are now almost in Moscow and the train ride was certainly interesting. I was in a cabin with three other Russians all in their 30s or 40s. We started off the trip by each having about four shots of Cognac and some snacks. They seemed like generally nice guys. As I was about to go to bed, the youngest Russian offered to get me a beer so I obliged. He then looked through all of my iPhone photos, every single one, and seemed entranced by America, particularly Los Angeles. When the same Russian was looking through my photos, he saw the photo of law posing next to a sign that read, "hitler, stalin, marx, obama." the Russian kid was upset that Stalin (and perhaps Marx too and I hope Obama) was included with Hitler. It seems clear to me that Russians don't view Stalin the way the West does. I eventually got to bed around 4 a.m. and slept until around 9 a.m. I just had some good tea and am waiting to arrive.
March 28, 2012, 11:10 p.m.; Writing from Moscow hostel
Today was certainly interesting. The morning was horrendous. I couldn't wait to get off that train. I couldn't work the train sink so my hands were dirty, and I had a headache. When i got off the train it took me a good hour to get to the (first) hostel. It was tucked behind some nasty apartment buildings. When I got up there I realized it was no good. It was more of an extra room in an old grandmas apartment. It reeked of cigarettes and looked pretty filthy. There was a cat following me around. And I wasn't gonna sleep there. So I booked a spot at Capital Hostel and lied to the grandma, telling her that my friend got in town and I'm going to his place. I don't think she believed me but she was kind enough to not charge me for canceling. I made it over to Capital, and was relieved to shower and relax a bit.
[later in the day]....Then I went down and ordered a pizza to go and set off for Lubyanka. It was eerily great seeing that building. Quite disturbingly there are sickles and hammers ALL over the building that used to be KGB headquarters. Then I took the metro back to the hostel, chatted with my Chinese diamond merchant roommate, who was headed to Kaliningrad, and hit the sack.