The Russia of today

Moscow, Russia

In what may very well have been the most expensive ride I’ve ever taken, the cab driver charged me a whopping 9-euros for the three-minute trip to the train station this morning. Considering my destination today was Moscow, the most expensive city in the world, it was almost fitting.

From the station, it was a quick trip to the airport where Derek and Burt had just arrived from the States. We had a coffee and pastry before boarding our 3-hour Brussels Airlines flight to the capital of the Russian Federation. Passing over the former Iron Curtain, a crazy thought entered my mind again: what in the world were we doing heading to Russia in the dead of winter?

We began discussing a trip here a couple months back and decided that this would be the Ultimate Soviet Experience. To brave the elements, fur hats would be worn and vodka would be consumed. If nothing else, this would be an adventure.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

Our first sign might have been the numerous hoops that tourists are required to jump through before stepping foot in the country. All visitors must have a visa. But this isn’t as easy as simply sending your passport and a $100 check to an embassy. Obtaining one requires an official “invite” — generally, these come from hotels, which require a non-refundable deposit. Entry and exit dates correspond with these invites. And to keep tabs on where you are, all tourist visas are “registered” by the corresponding hotels with the government upon arrival in Russia.

Picking up our visas in New York last month, the Embassy was perplexing. After waiting in a slowly moving line, I’d approached the window. “I’m here to pick up. Could you help?” I asked. “Nyet,” the woman replied, pointing to a sign in Cyrillic. A taste of what was to come.

In a heavy snowfall, we landed in Moscow and proceeded to sit on the runway for a half hour. “There seems to be a traffic jam here,” the pilot announced. As our patience weaned, we taxied to the gate, rushed off the plane and then surprisingly breezed through immigration.

Maybe this won’t be so tough after all, we thought.

That was, of course, before Derek’s bag failed to arrive. At the lost luggage counter, an airline representative was less than reassuring. In broken English, she said it would probably be two days before he was reunited with it. Derek zipped up his thin North Face shell.

Facing a gantlet of aggressive taxi drivers, we got cash and booked an “official” cab for 2,000 rubles into the city center. On this two-hour trip, we were introduced to the infamous Moscow Traffic, clogging streets in bumper-to-bumper standstills, blasting horns and moving inches at a time.

Inside our hotel, the Savoy, it felt like a different world though. Built in 1912 but recently remodeled, the lobby felt almost pre-revolutionary — while the bar was a minimalist, modern space with lighted walls and a curved staircase to a second floor seating area.

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Upstairs, our Business Suite gave us plenty of room to spread out. There was a spacious bedroom with soaring 15-foot ceilings, gilded chandeliers, original molding and parquet floors. Although the cot was essentially a lazy-boy chair, it didn’t matter: the separate living room was outfitted with a window seating area and a dining room table for eight.

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Oh, and there was a full-sized piano, too.

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Quite happy, we put on our long underwear and set out to find dinner. Lonely Planet suggested a restaurant that appeared nearby, but the curving ring roads of this city were challenging to navigate and none of the street signs or restaurant names were in the Roman alphabet.

We tried one place but the bartender barked something at us in Russian so we left. On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a bustling restaurant, Glavpivtorg, that remarkably welcomed us in — and then offered up menus with horribly translated English.

We could decipher one word though: bodka. Three shots to toast our arrival in the former USSR were immediately in order.

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