There is a delicate balance that must be struck in travel. While many will speak of their exotic locations whilst doing a delicate dance of complain-bragging of the hardships endured while abroad—the full truth is, of course, that most of us want both. We want the full and authentic experience of a place un-touched; yet, we also would love an actual bathroom and relative safety. So picky!
For most of the early 90’s, as Eastern Europe began to make travel easier for Westerners, for example, there was mythical talk of huge and flavorful cultural indulgences in Praha (Prague) for a fraction of the cost; beers this big for a nickel—they would say while mimicking what must have been the largest stein in history. One simply had to get there before it was too late. Alas, it is. The trail is well worn and both the deals and the untouched experience of Soviet influenced Eastern Europe have mostly given way to cultural gentrification, long lines, and overpriced hawk-like souvenir-slingers.
However, for those still in the hunt, the off-season trip can be a great way to recreate the local experience that eludes us once the coach’s full of octogenarians show up. Such is the case with a recent trip to Russia. Now, first the caveats: it would be fair to suggest that Russia, specifically Moscow, is no longer particularly exotic. However, to them I would say-go in the dead of winter, and then lets talk. The reality is, for much of these northern countries, the winters are so unbearably cold that those of us in the more temperate parts of the world would neeeeeee-ver think of going off-season. Plus, the visa process can be a bit of a pain, admittedly. Still, in doing so we were able to find the excitement, exhilaration, and cultural payoff that can only be found by being completely out of your element.
The first morning after arriving in Moscow was spent in a direct beeline towards Red Square. Despite it being -18 Celsius it was still a tremendously exuberant and exhilarating experience. To first see the grandeur that is the Red Square with the onion domes of St. Basils Cathedral and the outside of the Kremlin running the length of the Western side, is to instantly be in awe of the military might that was the Russian empire. Unfortunately, Lenin’s tomb is temporarily undergoing a refurbishing that kept me from seeing the wax like icon. The obligatory Church gazing is also wonderful, and a trip through the Kremlin itself absolutely is just the tip of the iceberg for the traveler who wants to experience it all. One unexpected surprise that I almost could not be bothered to get out of bed for: Gorky Park in winter. Not just because of the grandeur of wide-open riverside spaces in the midst of a bustling city, all while the ice-crusher tour boats float slowly downstream in the background, but specifically for the winter wonderland that the park itself becomes. In addition to lights put up in decoration throughout, there was the unexpected surprise of the largest full path outdoor ice-skating rink. In fact rink is not the word for it (though there is a rink-like part), it is mostly all the normal lanes and ins and outs a park would have where you could skate for twenty minutes and never hit the same part twice. There is a huge wooden structure for non-skaters to navigate in maze-like fashion all around you, as well as more than 5 different snack and drink places that you could pull off to while skating— just like refueling the car here. Throw in lights, music and the snowboard ramp set up for a flipping exhibition and you have a wonderful winter play land.
A note about the metro: I read in a guide book that in Russia, if you need help, about the 9th person will come to your aid, I found this to be the truth, give or take a cold shouldered Russian snub or two. That said, the one who does help you tends to be amazingly nice and eager to help regardless of language barriers. Never are these differences in language more apparent than when you’re in the subway here. First there is the transliteration issue (a process by which you take the letters from one alphabet and attempt to represent them in another) of turning the Russian variant of the Cyrillic alphabet into the Latin alphabet- to deal with, then, trying to translate that into English takes an additional step; not undoable, just harder. However, even given these linguistic asides, the Moscow metro, once you get to know it, is actually quite simple. Despite the roughly 5 lines that go through the city center and one that goes in a huge circle around the city, there is a little trick here. If you are used to subways in NYC or other big cities, than you know that you can have as many as 3-5 lines that all go through the same platform, so that getting on the first coming train could take you anywhere. However, here, each line only goes to one platform, thus, as long as you are pointed in the right direction you are good to go. To get on another train you will always go up some stairs and down into a different tube. The ease that is the subway system here ends up being a huge benefit as taxis are not only expensive, but also prove to be the Russian equivalent of being stuck behind an accident, even on side streets.
While I am normally the first to suggest renting a car in any place, due to a want to explore and see random sites, here to do so seems almost a detriment. So, we forgo the rental in lieu of an overnight train to St. Petersburg- a straight shot north in the dead of night in the cold Russian winter. If you love novels it is hard to not be romantic about it. However, for the non-literary traveler, it was functionally terrific. We booked a private cabin, delivered with drinks, snacks, waitress service, beds, and breakfast service, plenty of room for the bags. Basically you go to sleep in Moscow and wake up in St. Petersburg.
For those of you who have been here before, you know the huge cultural secret that is the beauty of St. Petersburg. In fact, I scarcely want to tell you about it, less you all go and ruin it for me next time. But, again here we have all the literary bang you’d expect, from Pushkin’s apartment where he left to dual that fateful winter morning over a man trying to steal his wife, to the equally compelling Dostoyevsky house and museum, to the great bronze horseman statue of literary lure, to even the spot where Rasputin’s body was dumped into the river after being poisoned during a card game (as legend has it, he was poisoned, then shot, but it was actually the frigid water that killed him). All that and we haven’t even touched on the two weeks I got lost and wandered aimlessly throughout the Hermitage. What is additionally nice here though is a bevy of little side allies and shops with amazingly flavorful takes on traditional Russian dishes-truly wonderful. I made a special point of checking an army surplus shop on the industrial side of town just for the amazing glimpse into history to bring home with me- well worth it.
Really there is more to see here than such limiting bi-lines will allow for. Russia, for all its intimidating historical rhetoric about differences in people was well worth any effort put out to get the people to warm up a bit. I highly recommend it. Beyond all destination specific advice, in going off-season and at an otherwise unwelcoming time weather-wise, you can recreate a time in history that has most likely been lost by sheer virtue of the fact that you are planning to go there (the money saved, though notable, is just a fun side benefit).
Russia can be found in Russia. Don’t go; you will only make it worse for the rest of us!