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The International Writers Magazine
: Jess Clifford Russia Diary - Warning Long Read

Jeff Clifford

April 17, 2004

Why did I want to visit Russia, the former USSR?
In Roman letters: S.S.S.R. = Soyuz Sovyetskikh Sotsialistichetskikh Respublik;Translated into English: U.S.S.R. = Union of Soviet Socialist Republics)

It started in my childhood; my father was in the United States Air Force during the cold war and at one point was stationed at Monzano Missile Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico during the Vietnam War. It was no secret where some of those missiles were pointed at as the USSR was aiding the communists in the region. I had heard about the cold war, the Iron Curtain, and I distinctly remember the pointless duck and cover drills we did in school in the 60’s-70’s in the event of a nuclear attack, only the USSR had the bomb besides the US at the time. I joined the Air Force myself in the early 80’s and it was still during the cold war. In fact, I have a Certificate of Appreciation from the Secretary of Defense in recognition for my military service during the cold war. Then, in the early 1990’s, things changed. President Regan told President Gorbachev: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these walls". We had glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reforms). Then the tanks came rolling in to Red Square (Krasny ploschad) and President Yeltsin climbed on the tanks. The Berlin Wall was torn down the, Iron Curtain removed; the ability to visit was there.

Also through film I increased my fascination with Russia: Doctor Zhivago, Gorky Park, From Russia with Love, Firefox, Moscow on the Hudson, The Russia House, Red Heat, The Hunt for Red October, etc. Then other forms of culture Tchaikovsky, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Barishnikov, Yakov Smirnof (I know). Who were these people that I had always been told were the enemy, so opposite from Americans, so different? I met a few Russian people in California, they had an accent, were a little reserved, didn’t belly laugh or smile as frequently as Americans, but they were good people. I knew that someday I would have to go to Russia and see for myself. My good friend Paul Dale Roberts called me one day wanting to go to Iceland. I thought, well, Iceland would be cool, but what destination would be really mind-blowing for seasoned international travelers such as ourselves? Paul was as excited by the idea as I was, as he had taught the Soviet Threat while in Army Military Intelligence. The trip was on!

First, we had to book hotels because you have to have a sponsor before you can obtain a visa to enter the Russian Federation. The hotel (or private citizen if you are going to stay with someone) has to petition an agency that will contact the Ministry of Tourism to get the appropriate paperwork. Then we went to the Russian Embassy in San Francisco, with the necessary forms and the even more necessary $100 application fee. Through some language misunderstanding, he informed me that I would be going to Moscow but not St. Petersburg; I informed him in return that I would be going to both Moscow and St. Petersburg and we eventually got it straightened out. All that remained was to obtain the visa, pack and do the usual travel rigmarole, including trying to learn some Russian and work on transliterating the Cyrillic alphabet into Russian then English. Finally it was time to go.
Our flight over on Delta Airlines was relatively uneventful, from San Francisco to JFK Airport in New York, then a plane switch to Moscow, they did however show "Lost in Translation" which was either unintentionally or intentionally ironic. Another note, at least on Delta International, booze is no longer complimentary, a real shock to my system and experience on previous international flights. The food quality and quantity also left much to be desired even though it was the cheapest flight alternative.

Day 1-Thursday, April 1, 2004, Moscow
At Moscow International Airport Sheremetyevo-2 (not to be confused with the domestic airport Sheremetyevo-1, ask Fed-Ex about that), we got through customs in about 40 minutes, it was around 1 pm Moscow time and Paul’s friend Anya was there at the other end waiting for him. We were immediately approached by one of the infamous Moscow taxi drivers, Sasha 1(more about the tale of two Sasha’s later). He waited for us while we ate lunch at the airport café where I had a delicious Russian dish, pelmini (beef in little dough balls) in sour cream. During the course of our conversation with Anya she informed us that one of her student’s (she’s an English teacher) had been killed in the recent bombing on the Moscow Metro, very sad. She negotiated a $50 taxi ride for us to the hotel, which we thought was reasonable (35 miles away). Anya had to leave and took the Metro, leaving us in Sasha-1’s capable hands. Sasha spoke enough English for us to ask questions about rules and logistics. Everything was jim dandy until we went into the hotel and exchanged US dollars for rubles at the hotel currency exchange. I handed Sasha-1 the 1500 rubles, roughly $53 US (28.5 rubles= $1) with a big smile. My smile quickly evaporated when Sasha-1 said, no, 2800 rubles. I did a relatively slow mental calculation, it had been a 24 hour trip at that point, and I said that’s around $100, not the previously negotiated $50, what’s up with that? He said, no, there had been a misunderstanding; I needed to pay him 2800 rubles. Not wanting a confrontation with the police or even worse the Russian mafia, we decide to pay the 2800 rubles. Sasha-1 shook hands with us and wished us a wonderful time in Moscow. Shrugging off that experience, we checked into our rooms in the Izmailovo Delta Hotel (there are also the gamma, alpha and beta buildings), located 9 miles from city center and previously hosts of olympic athletes for the 1980 games.. The rooms were doubles, a single bed, roomy enough, for $56 a night, including buffet breakfast. That being arranged, I then called the Bolshoi to see if I could pick up the tickets in person Friday morning rather than that evening, as I was too tired and leery to try and tackle the Moscow Metro and it’s 9 million daily riders that evening. We did, however, walk the two blocks over to the metro station to check it out. It was cold (25 degrees Fahrenheit) with a stiff wind which stung our wimpy California faces. The air smelled funky from the nearby smoke stacks and walking into the metro station, which was dark, dank, smelly and grungy and looking at a rush hour crowd with gray faces made me feel like I had plunged into a 1984 orwellian nightmare. Not figuring out how tickets could be purchased further plunged me into despair and we returned to our hotel. The first restaurant we went to in the hotel had a nautical theme and a dance floor, the menu was totally in Cyrillic alphabet and the waiter spoke very little English. He mentioned steak and potato, which didn’t appeal to me and we decided to leave. I wanted something traditional but the Russian restaurant was closed. We gave up and decided to eat at the Japanese restaurant. The chicken skewers I ordered tasted as funky as the air smelled, luckily my friend’s sushi rolls tasted good and he didn’t mind the funky chicken, so I did get some food. We walked over to what we thought was our hotel lobby, but was actually the gamma side. It apparently was a Star Trek Mirror Universe, both sides looking exactly the same. After a while, I could tell our hotel side by the plastic sheet covering a renovation area. Finally finding the right elevator, I called my friend Marina to find out if she would be able to see "Romeo and Juliet" at the Bolshoi Ballet Friday evening; I had bought the tickets online before I left California but had not gotten her last e-mail telling me she could go. I told her of our day and she told me that there was an old Russian saying; "If you make a wish the first night you are in another country it will come true", I thanked her and wished that I would get out of Russia alive and in good health. Turning in, still depressed at this point about my Russian adventure gone awry I drifted off to sleep.

Day 2-Friday, April 2, 2004, Moscow
With a good night’s sleep I got up and looked out the window, it had snowed overnight and the nearby park and frozen river were beautiful! Maybe today would be a good day. I went to breakfast with Paul who told me he would hang out with me today and we could brave the metro together and see Red Square, St. Basil’s, the Kremlin and pick up the Bolshoi tickets. Buoyed knowing my friend would have my back in Moscow we went to eat. Sadly, the juice and a lot of the food at breakfast still had the same funky taste. I bought a coke and ate some Russian pancakes with jelly. Paul had no problem wolfing down his food; I guess Army is tougher than Air Force. We made it to the metro station, I had read before that a round trip metro ride anywhere on the line was 20 rubles, so I forked over 40 rubles, pointed at my friend and made a round gesture with my finger; it worked and we had our metro tickets. I queried ploschad revolutionii (revolution square), the city center and she pointed down the steps. We were on our way, I had a copy of the metro map that I had printed out at home and had counted 5 stops to the center. We counted them off and barely spoke, as the unsmiling faces crammed into the dark blue 1930’s train weren’t either. We got off the train at the center Metro station and it was as gorgeous as I had previously read. Very spacious with many icons. Thoughts of the Metro station bombing several weeks back faded from my memory. We walked for a ways then came to the longest, steepest escalator I had ever seen in my life. Riding up it was amazing. We finally reached the end, walked out and saw a large yellow building a half a block away. We walked up to it trying to surmise what it was; a library, a historical museum? Getting closer, we saw playbills and writing, it was the Bolshoi Theater. By that we had our bearings. We made our way down to a large statue of a military man on horseback in front of a large red building. Were we on Red Square (krasny ploschad)?

We walked around the red building and entered another square and in front of us about 1500 feet was St. Basil’s church, with its’ beautiful, onion-top colored domes. Now we were on red square and we were the only people standing on it, Kremlin Guard were on a nearby sidewalk, watching. The dream of a lifetime was happening, there was some snow on the square and we started snapping pictures. There was a song by the Human League written in the early 80’s called Things that Dreams are Made Of. One of the stanzas that had always inspired me went: "Take a lift to the top of the Empire State, take a ride across the golden gate, march, march, march across Red Square, do all the things you ever dared". I had now accomplished the last two items on the list. We walked all around and I bought a Russian fur hat from a souvenir hawker then we walked over to a yellowish beige façade that ran the eastern length of the square and wondered if that was the Kremlin. As it turned out that was the facade for the state run department store, known as the GUM 2(Glawnyj Universalnyj Magasin) built between 1888-1894. It has been revamped inside and is now a modern department store rivaling the largest in the world. We walked through, looking at the Hugo Boss and Calvin Klein stores and found a café for some coca-cola, happily pervasive throughout Moscow.

Feeling refreshed, we went out to go on the 11:00am Kremlin tour. We passed the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the eternal flame, and took pictures. I then took pictures of approaching Kremlin Guard on horseback; the leader pointed his finger and yelled at me, apparently not appreciating the photo op, so we hurried along lest a beating ensued. As we approached the Kremlin tour ticket office we were approached by a English speaking lady named Ruth who offered to take us on a tour explaining everything otherwise we wouldn’t know what we were looking at. This sounded reasonable for 200 rubles each so we agreed. Ruth did a wonderful job; The Kremlin (fortress) is surrounded by red walls and is considered to be the grounds and all the buildings (including the churches) except for the Armory. She took us past the abandoned congress building built during Khrushchev’s era, the present administrative building used by President Putin, the world’s largest cannon never fired and the world’s largest bell never rung. We went into several of the beautiful churches and took pictures of gorgeous frescoes and innate ornamentation. I opted for the extra charge Armoury tour while Paul waited outside. I ran into an American lady who had been in Moscow 3.5 years, her husband worked for a US oil company. She told me what a fantastic experience she had had at the year 2000 New Year celebration at Red Square. They had partied until 2:30am when the Kremlin Guard came out in a big wave and urged them homeward. I helped her and I find the Faberge eggs. I also saw the Czar’s carriages, the armor and the old costumes and finery worn by the czars and company. Afterwards, we went past the large statue of Karl Marx to the Bolshoi ticket office and I picked up the tickets for that evening’s show. Feeling exuberant at this point, we went down the Metro escalator and immediately ran into two fights. One teenager throwing an older guy and a minute later we saw three guys beating on two guys; luckily the police whistles blew soon and they stopped the fight. I was having mixed feelings again and decided that Marina and I would be taking a taxi to the Bolshoi from the hotel that night.
Marina showed up at my hotel about an hour before showtime looking resplendent in a mink coat with long black hair. I told her about my Metro adventure and she was nice enough to tease me about being afraid to ride the Metro. She had a taxi waiting but I had already arranged one through the hotel. My ride ended up being 600 rubles($20), hers’ would have been 250 rubles ($8). We made it just in time to pass through the metal detectors and coat check at the world famous Bolshoi Theater. The ballet was a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, complete with a bed brought out for the scantily clad love scenes. With no speaking, it was up to each individual to interpret the play (albeit the story was well known) and a truly enjoyable experience. We caught a 250 ruble ($8) taxi ride back to the hotel and spent some time together.

Day 3-Saturday, April 3, 2004, Moscow
I woke up feeling better about things, despite the Metro beatings. Paul was otherwise occupied so I went over to the Izmailovsky Flea Market next to the hotel, the largest one in Russia, also known as the best place to get inexpensive souvenirs in Moscow. You negotiate there just as in Tijuana. I bought a lot of matryosha (nesting) dolls, replica Faberge eggs, KGB and USSR logo compasses (that some turned out later to have low-level radioactive radium needles as pointers). I ate delicious meat pies, potato pies, lamb skewers and drank Russian beer for lunch. I had read warnings before leaving the US not to eat food from the vendors, but I never got sick. Marina came over to the hotel for dinner, I wanted Russian cuisine and amusingly enough, she didn’t know any Russian restaurants so we had a delicious Russian buffet dinner at the hotel, with beef in stew, chicken, pork, perch, tomatoes, and brown rice. I had a Baltica beer, Marina a glass of Georgian red wine. We talked about our lives, she was Armenian, born in Chechnya, and had later joined the communist party prior to the party becoming a minor player in Russian politics. She had been to the US once to visit her uncle who lived in Los Angeles. She trained as a nurse, went to Medical College, but couldn’t keep her grades up, and ended up getting a degree as an English teacher. She showed me her book that she was required to keep with her at all times because she had a valuable wartime job skill as a nurse, brownish red, resembling a passport, that contained her war reporting station, her identity, her boot, trouser, blouse and cap size. She was currently working as a facilitator for foreign companies wanting to locate businesses in Moscow. She wanted to get a job as an English teacher, as she enjoyed speaking the language. We continued to talk and spend time together. A relaxing day and evening for me.

Day 4-Sunday, April 4, 2004,
Moscow Marina was busy that day, so Paul and I went downtown, braving the Moscow Metro again, a little easier this time since we had our bearings. We went back down to Red Square, this time 1/3 blocked off because Lenin’s Tomb was open for tours and there was only on entrance. Just as on the Kremlin Tour, smelling American from 2 miles away, Leon, a Belarus gentleman who had grown up in New Jersey and was fond of Americans because of his roots, he offered to take us on the Lenin Mausoleum tour for 250 rubles each ($8), a recurring theme. He explained that he could hold the cameras for us, while we were in the tomb, then walk around the open air mausoleum behind the tomb with us, explaining who the statues and plaques were for afterwards. We went to the head of the line, Leon gave the guards their cut, and we went through the metal detectors and were in the barricaded section of red square. Leon told us: "No talking inside, don’t put your hands in your pockets, button your coats, walk slowly, but do not stop or touch anything".
Inside Lenin’s Tomb, the Kremlin Guard were watching like hawks and reprimanded two German tourists who were whispering. I obeyed all instructions, and gazed upon the eerie visage of Comrade Part Leader Lenin encased in plastic, giving him the utmost respect. Afterwards, Leon took us around and we looked at the statues of Stalin, Brezhnev, Doetskevsky, Tolstoy, General Zukov, and many others, their bodies buried beneath. We were shown the plaques underneath of which were buried the remains of such luminaries as Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, and American journalist John Reed, who wrote a book called "10 Days that Shook the World", about the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. We talked about the German teenager who had landed a Cessna on Red Square, the cold war. This is where Leon and I got into a tiff as he stated that Nixon had been president before Kennedy. I corrected him and he bellowed "You don’t tell me, I know my history! Not wishing to anger our good guide, I dropped the subject. We took pictures, shook hands, and thanked Leon for his informative tour as snow flurries ensued. We proceeded downtown, took lots of pictures in front of the old KGB Headquarters and the Duma and ate lunch in a little café. I had a delicious chicken, cheese and salsa concoction wrapped in a pancake as well as a Baltica beer on tap. We continued on and came to a crosswalk. Looking over, we saw a lady, of unknown nationality, trying to cross over a heavily trafficked 5 lane roadway. There was an underground tunnel that everybody else used to cross under the street in front of Karl Marx Statue. Along with a Russian policeman, we watched her walk to each white stripe, with cars whizzing by, until she safely made it to the other side. The policeman blew his whistle, ran over and asked for her papers. Russian or a tourist I don’t know. He took her documents and led her away. I wondered at her fate. We went on our way and came across a very crowded Moscow McDonald’s. Just for the hell of it we decided to eat a big mac at the Moscow McDonald’s. I have now eaten at McDonald’s in the USA, Germany, the Netherlands and Russia. It tasted just like a USA big mac. We walked on, ogling all the beautiful Russian ladies decked out in the latest European fashions, past the Lenin library, which appeared to be closed or abandoned, hard to tell. We walked past the World Museum of Earth Geology, with an English sign, but the attendant would not let us tour, even though other Russians went in, never did find out what the deal was there. We went back to the hotel, and again decided to eat at the Japanese Restaurant, the Russian restaurant being closed. I stuck with the California rolls, they were delicious. On the way to my room, the elevator minder, asked in English if I had any quarters with the states on the back. I checked and came back down with some, he was very happy and upon hearing that I also collected foreign money, he promised me some old soviet coins, which he gave me a few days later. This was Sasha-2, a very nice guy. Sasha-1 bad, Sasha-2 good.

Day 5-Monday, April 5, 2004, St. Petersburg
Got up early, took a taxi to Sheremetyevo-1, the domestic airport for my 1.5 hour flight from Moscow to St. Petersburg on Aeroflot. Everything was peachy until the lady told me to wait until 8:00am to go through the second security checkpoint for my 8:25am flight. There had been a change from my original 9:25am flight and I assumed the Aeroflot rep had saw the e-mail changing the flight to 8:25 since the flight number indicated 8:25am. I got to the second Aeroflot counter and was told my flight was closed. After getting an English speaking rep who informed me the first rep had made a mistake and I was too late, I put on my best ugly American face and threw a fit, I was hustled to another Aeroflot rep who put me on the 9:25am flight, which would not have been a big deal except that I had already paid for a driver at the other end in St. Pete, who I knew would be long gone before I got there. In retrospect, I should have tried to call the agency in St. Pete. The flight was fine and Aeroflot must have changed because none of the horror stories about poor flying chickens in the aisles came true. It was just as modern and professional as any commuter plane, with flight attendants and food/beverage service. The only point of amusement was the sign in English on the emergency hatch that said "emergency rope pull".

Arriving in St. Pete, I got a calling card then realized I had only a fax number to the driver agency. Giving up, I grumpily negotiated a 2000 ruble ($70) taxi ride. Determined to get my money’s worth, I kept practicing my beleaguered Russian on the driver who seemed to get perturbed as the trip ensued. Making it finally to my hotel I decided I should get more rubles from the currency exchange. I presented my credit card and said nyet PIN as I had in Moscow with no problem. What was no problem in Moscow was a big problem in the former Petrograd and Leningrad. No PIN, no rubles. I called my credit car company back in the states and they told me I could apply for a new PIN and it would activate in 12-24 hours. This would work, so I breathed a sigh of relief and ate at the hotel restaurant. I went with a cold fish appetizer plate consisting of sliced salmon, red caviar (salmon eggs), herring, mussels, and a tomato with a spicy bell pepper taste and a Tuborg beer. It was delicious. Afterwards I went for a walk around the streets, pass the Cruiser Aurora, which had been used in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, and was also used to send up a gunshot to signal the start of the October 1917 revolution. I walked over one of the bridges spanning the Neva River. I see now why St. Petersburg is called the Venice of the North, even though its’ residents probably refer to Venice as the St. Petersburg of the South. A façade of buildings line the southern edge of the river, even though there are plenty of roads, the illusion is that there are none when viewed from the right angle. The sun didn’t set until 9 pm and I had a great view from my hotel room when I got back. Later, I went back to the hotel and called another internet friend Anya, and arranged to meet her at the Hermitage the next day at 2:00pm. Then I went down to the hotel restaurant and had ice cream and listened to live traditional Russian music with violin and viola, very cool.

Day 6-Tuesday, April 6, 2004, St. Petersburg
Got up early, ate a delicious buffet breakfast, lots of blue cheese, potatoes, bagels, croissants, orange and apple juice, no funky smell or taste. Tried my credit card with PIN, didn’t work. No problem, I still had enough rubles to tide me over for a while. Caught a taxi downtown to St. Issac’s Church of the Spilled Blood. Gorgeous church, an equal to St. Basil’s in Moscow. I took pictures, walked along the canals and made my way over to the Hermitage and Peter’s Winter Palace, marvelling at the ancient architecture, trapped between modern city venues. On the way, I was accosted by two guys, one in front of me waving rubles in front of me, trying to get me to exchange euros or dollars with him, he thought I was Italian, I guess because of my trenchcoat. His friend was bumping me on the right, showing me some painting. Luckily the street was crowded. Figuring this may have been a scam to get me to take my money pouch out, I pushed past them, repeatedly saying "nyet spahseebah (no thank you).
I hurried on over to the Hermitage, one of the first in line, I was happy I had gone off-tourist season. Even though there were relatively still a high number of visitors, the Hermitage is the largest museum in the world, plenty of space for everybody. I tried the ATM machine inside, still no luck with my PIN. I Spent three hours looking at gorgeous famous paintings by Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, the Flemish and Dutch Masters, and others I’m not cultured enough to remember as well as sculptures by Rodin and others, including a huge sculpture of a king on a throne sculpted in 1 AD. I had to hurry out to meet with Anya as I got lost in the vast labyrinth of the Hermitage. We had lunch, which I thought was funny, in a Russian City, at a Turkish café, splitting an Italian pizza. The waitress spoke flawless English, Turkish and Russian and she was very young. Afterwards, we walked over to the Chocolate Museum, which actually was not as impressive as I would have hoped. However, the adjoining café had coffee and all the chocolate you could eat for 19 rubles, and that provided a great dessert. Anya liked to walk also, so we decide to walk back to my hotel, stopping at the Zoological Museum, which was very impressive, including skeletons of whales and a wooly mammoth. Later, behind Peter and Paul Fortress, 5 teenagers wanted their picture taken. After doing so, one shouted "Thank you very much" in English, I happily waived. Forging the bonds of friendship across the ocean. It may sound corny, but I revel in those moments, trying to be an ambassador of good will. We also came to a part of a street that had been blocked off from car traffic and watched the military academy cadets march in procession for end-of-the-day taps. Decked out in their black uniforms and black commissar hats, they were very impressive.
Back at the hotel, still no luck with the PIN. Since the hotel restaurant doesn’t take credit cards, we opt for a Japanese restaurant in a mall around the corner. Again, I have California rolls, with miso soup, and the best green tea ice cream I have ever tasted. Anya has the same. I give them the same credit card and am told it has been refused. Luckily, I have enough rubles on hand to cover. We go back to the hotel, I call my credit card company, they tell me that, first, the info about 12-24 hours for a PIN activation is incorrect, it takes at least 48 hours, and two, since I tried to use an inactive PIN number so many times, the card has had a 72 hour security lock put on it. Now, you’re reading this thinking, why am I spending so much time reading about his credit card problems? Think how I felt over in Russia dealing with this. Luckily, I had enough rubles on hand to squeeze me through the next day if I was strategic in my spending. I spent some time getting to know Anya and enjoyed the rest of my evening.

Day 7-Wednesday, April 7, 2004, St. Petersburg/Moscow
I got up early, ate another great breakfast at the hotel, included in the hotel price, only $53 a night. I walked over to Peter and Paul Fortress, only about a mile walk. Explored around and climbed to the top of the ramparts overlooking the city. I looked down and did a double take as there is the Neva River, a frozen ice shelf blocked from the sun by big stone buttresses and in a concrete shelf behind the ice shelf are St. Petersburg sunbathers, standing up against the fortress wall in bikinis and swim trunks. It is 55 degrees Fahrenheit at best. I was in a sweater and trenchcoat, with long blue jeans. Afterwards I stopped at a street vendor and had cheese in a pancake. This held me over for a little while as I roamed around looking at the buildings, most of which were closed. I found another café inside the fortress and had a delicious and inexpensive lunch of grilled onions, mushrooms and fried potatoes with a glass of Russian champagne. Refortified, I went into the courtyard of the artillery museum, ogling all the tanks, rocket launchers, amphibious landing craft and other military vehicles. I made my way back near the hotel, stopping by the Cruise Aurora, which conveniently had a beverage tent next door and had a two balticas on tap while watching the Russian Military Academy guard check out the attractive tourist ladies. I then took a brief look around on the deck of the Aurora, walked back to the hotel and got a taxi back to Pulkovo-1 Airport. The return Aeroflot flight to Moscow was uneventful and I negotiated a 1500 ruble ($53) taxi ride back to the hotel. I found my other visa card and used it at the hotel currency exchange and took out 1500 rubles ($300), life was good again. I was hungry so I decided to walk over to hotel beta and see what kind of restaurants they had. I found a Russian one with German tourists and had a delicious bowl of borscht (hot beet soup with a dollop of sour cream in the middle), some edam cheese and bread and two glasses of tasty Georgian wine. Afterwards, I was sitting in my hotel lobby enjoying yet another baltica-3 (they range from 1-18 based on alcohol content) when my friend Paul showed up. He said his friend Anya had some gifts for us, namely schnapps and Czechslovakian beer. How could I refuse? So Paul and I sat up till 4 am drinking and telling stories before I slithered off to sleep.

Day 8-Thursday, April 8, 2004, Moscow Redux
I woke up late with hangover, breakfast is already over. Marina is busy and so is Paul. I make my way over to Izmailovsky flea market in search of Russian pop music cd’s as gifts. I start eating street vendor meat pies (pirohski’s) and potatoe pies and hot dogs. I find the cd’s then wander around as inconspicuously as possible taking pictures. I buy a couple of bottles of Russian beer and go back and drink them at the hotel lobby. I decide it’s time to venture over to Izmailovsky Park and it’s frozen river. This is where Peter the Great hung out in Moscow in the summertime and where he learned to sail. Not knowing about the closer entrance by the flea market, I take the long way around. There are not many people out so I debate the safety of this outing. I decide to persevere; after all, I am a world traveler and explorer, and sometimes that involves taking chances. I come across a beautiful orthodox church, who minaret spires I had seen from my hotel room window on the 26th floor. I point to my camera to the lady at the souvenir desk and she nods and says "da" (yes). I take roughly 7 pictures inside of the church before another lady comes over and yells a me for taking pictures. I point to the lady at the souvenir table but she is having none of it. She points out the people inside and conveys that this is an active church and they are worshipping. I beat a hasty retreat and walk along the river, hoping I haven’t offended to many people. I really try hard not to offend people in other countries. I enjoy the scenic walk along the frozen river and only encounter one other person. Luckily, he was not a mugger. I make it back to the hotel and run in to Paul and his friend Natalia. He asks if I want to join them for dinner. It sounds like a good idea so I call Marina to see if she wants to come. She is sick, so I call another lady I had corresponded with, Olga. She comes over to the hotel and we go to the Russian restaurant for the buffet dinner again. The perch was unbelievably good. I try to use the visa I used the day before to get money from the currency exchange. I am told the card is no good. At least I have enough money to get by if I eat cheaply enough. Olga and I spend time together and enjoy the rest of the evening. She worked part time as a waitress at a restaurant and part time as a barmaid in a disco.

Day 9-Friday, April 9, 2004, Moscow Redux
I wake up early refreshed and relaxed. Paul and I go to breakfast and he decides he’s going to hang out at the hotel. Olga has gone to work and Marina is still sick. I decide that it’s my last day, maybe ever in Moscow and I’m going to go for the 3 hour city tour for 627 rubles ($22). I brave the Metro alone and make it down to the City Center. I decided to walk over to Red Square for one last look around. On the way back I took the underground tunnel. I see two policeman checking the passports of two attractive young ladies, so I hurry along. Hungry at this point, I find a Russian café and have 2 cold pancakes filled with cheese and lettuce and a coke. Feeling very satisfied I make my way to the intourist office. My guide, Anna, speaks excellent English. She informs me that I am the only person that signed up, so I get a private guided tour with her and a minivan driver. Misha, the driver, also speaks flawless English. It turns out that he lived in Orlando, Florida for four years, working as an executive chef. He got tired of the humidity and missed Moscow so he moved back. We went out and around the city, stopping at various places for photo ops; Moscow University, Sparrow Hill overlooking the city, Swan Lake which had inspired Tchaikovsky, Gorky Park, The World War II Memorial, the New Arbat. I wanted to go to Cosmonaut Park to see the Yuri Gagarin Statue. Anna informed me that since it was so far out, the driver could drop me off, but I would have to make my own way back, as the driver would go straight home from there. Not wanting to make 3 or 4 line changes on the Metro with my limited knowledge and not having enough money for a taxi due to my ongoing credit card problems, I opted for continuing on the prepared tour. We returned to the dropoff point at the Bolshoi and I tipped my guide and bid them a fond dosvedanya. I planned on turning in since we were getting up early Saturday morning to begin the long journey home. However, Paul had other plans for me. I went to his room to reconnoiter our travel plans for Saturday. He told me to hang on as he phoned another friend he wanted to meet, Vatalia. She was at a jazz club down by the Kremlin with a girlfriend of hers. We didn’t want to go downtown having to get up early the next day, so Paul talked them into coming to the Izmailovsky Park Metro Station where we would walk two blocks over from the hotel and meet them. Paul promised me to buy me beer if I went along because I really wanted to just go to bed at that point. Never being one to turn down free alcohol, I agreed and we headed over to the Metro Station. We waited until 10:25 pm and concluded they were no shows. I walked around the deli next to the station and picked up some cheese and bread as I had not had any dinner. I came out and Paul told me I had missed a Russian woman beating up her drunk boyfriend or husband. We waited until 10:35 pm and went back to our hotel womanless. We stayed up till midnight drinking champagne and beer as I insisted that Paul hold to our bargain of plying me with booze.

Day 10-Saturday, April 10, 2004, Moscow/ New York, JFK/ San Francisco/home
Woke up early, ate a big breakfast, got a taxi to the airport, went through customs at JFK, flew to San Francisco, took shuttle home to Vacaville. A typical, international flight, customs, domestic flight, long, tedious, tiring day. Retrospective
I remember reading in my Rick Steve’s guide that "Moscow lacks the inherent beauty of St. Petersburg, but visitors here will feel as though they are in a place where things are happening furiously. Some days Moscow will leave you mentally and physically exhausted , wondering why you decide to go there and when the plane is leaving. Other days, though, you almost like it. Russophiles are evenly split between those who prefer Moscow and those who would chose nowhere else but St. Petersburg". To those comments, I couldn’t agree more.

Would I go back to Russia? You bet. There was a lot left to explore. Star City, Cosmonaut Training Center, Cosmonaut Park, with the great statue of Yuri Gargarin, possibly Siberia, The Urals, unexplored restaurants and museums in Moscow, how Marina, Anya and Olga are coming along. Probably a later spring visit, that won’t upset my California weather sensibilities. More experiences with people like Ruth, Sasha-2, Leon, Anna and Leon. I still have not seen Peterhof, the Summer Palace outside of St. Petersburg or the "white nights" of the St. Petersburg summer. Having been back in the US for a week, I still hear the siren song of Russia calling me back.
© Jeff Clifford May 2004
3. Rick Steve’s Best of the Baltics and Russia, John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1995, pp 37.

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