The great success of Moscow sight-seeing

Moscow, Russia

We agreed this morning that so far, this had been a frustrating experience. We have all traveled extensively around the world but had never been through anything like this before.

In Moscow for nearly two days and we had ate two meals at the same restaurant and walked around the inside of a department store. While this was largely the blame of our concierge, it could also simply be chalked up to the Soviet Experience — meaning, unexplained closures, the difficulty in navigating and a general unwillingness to give foreigners a helpful hand.

Today, we were confident that would change.

The concierge desk was closed for the weekend but Irina had confirmed our tour of the Kremlin with Capital Tours. But given our experience, it was unsurprising that when we arrived at the office, the babushka sitting behind the desk had no record of a reservation. “Can we just sign up now?” we nearly cried. “Nyet,” she replied. Entry tickets were purchased the previous day.

It was time to pull an audible.

We booked the same tour for the following day that we could squeeze in before our train to St. Pete and decided to try and cram everything else on the agenda today. Away we went.

First stop, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the icon of Russia. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, it has a long history — the multicolored domes were added in the 1670s. Napoleon ordered it be destroyed in 1812 but his troops thankfully ran out of time before the task could be completed.

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The cathedral’s name is a bit of a misnomer. In fact, it houses nine separate chapels which, having arrived right at its opening, we were able to explore in relative quiet.

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Overjoyed that we actually saw something successfully, we continued onward to Lenin’s Tomb. The process for seeing the embalmed body of the Father of Communism is complicated. There are limited viewing hours and only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time — and strictly, no bags, no cameras and no cell phones. Having learned the queuing fundamentals on our first day, we joined the line and began the slow wait.

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While the weather in Moscow has undoubtedly been cold since we arrived, we have managed with a strategy involving multiple layers, frequent indoor breaks and near constant movement when outside. Unfortunately, standing stagnant outside in 5-degree weather can take its toll. So we were relieved when we passed the final security checkpoint and entered the warm tomb.
Interestingly enough, it was the Soviets that, over 25 years, developed the strange embalming process that allows Lenin to remain preserved — in an almost wax-like state — under glass.

My visit here completed having seen the Communist Trifecta, the other two former leaders being Uncle Ho in Vietnam and Mao in China. It’s quite the accomplishment.

Back in the cold, we decided to grab some lunch at Bosco Café, a small pricey place inside GUM that overlooks Red Square. While the hot mulled wine warmed our souls, we agreed that we easily could have taken down two or three of the small $11 crust-less sandwiches.

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Able to feel our toes again, we ventured out to visit the Kremlin Armoury, which dates back to 1511. We found the small stand for tickets with a huge line snaking out of it — the near constant queues, along with Russians’ general contempt for waiting in any orderly fashion, would become a recurring theme on this trip.

Yet, we waited, slowly freezing and trying to understand why the booth closed for a 20-minute “technical break” when we were two away from buying tickets. By the time we were at the front, the timed entry at 2:30 p.m. was sold out. We bought them for the 4 p.m. and with Derek potentially bordering on the hypothermic, returned to State Historical Museum to warm up and burn some time.

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This museum is filled with artifacts from Russia’s long history, including carriages, furniture pieces, period dress and — this being Russia — plenty of bling.

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Bags and cameras checked, we returned to the Armoury to see the vast collection of weaponry, thrones, carriages and more bling, before trekking back to the hotel. It was getting late and we had 7 p.m. tickets to see the Nutcracker at the Bolshoi, the historic theater that debuted the iconic ballet in 1919. Our seats weren’t the greatest but we enjoyed the ambience and surroundings — oh, and the music and dancing wasn’t bad either.

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We debated returning to our favorite (and only) restaurant for dinner but also thought it was time to try something new. The Russian capital is flooded with Caucasian restaurants — these are places serving up cuisine from surrounding areas like Georgia and Uzbekistan. We had read about one restaurant simply called Uzbekistan and decided to head there.

It was a wild meal that started with baysky soup, described on the menu simply as “the ancient recipe” and served with an entire quail. The broth was super tasty and we tore apart the mini-chicken filled with a lamb sausage. Next was achuchuck, a juicy tomato salad served with hot chili peppers, home made cheese and traditional Uzbek bread that kind of looked like a bagel. For entrees, we ordered a distarkhan lamb pilaf, served table-side by the chef.

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Stuffed with easily the best meal of the trip, the bill shock was easier to stomach. Making our way home later, we agreed, the tide had turned.

We were finally starting to figure this country out.

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