Freaking Russia

So I love Russia and I hate Russia. On my mission, I loved the food and church members and little differences between Russian and American culture (like Russian Christmas and Baptism Day). Since coming home, I’ve loved telling people what Russia’s REALLY like instead of them only knowing what they see in American propaganda.

But as soon as I’d bought tickets to go to Moscow in January, I remembered that Russia isn’t a SUPER safe place. Flashbacks of being chased by drunks, dodging flying beer bottles, and being followed by teenagers came back to me. The last month of my mission, it really felt like I had SURVIVED, rather than served, a mission. And now, for some reason, I was going back and would have to SURVIVE another couple days!! Plus, I’d be ALONE this time, no mission companion to provide “safety in numbers.” I WAS GOING TO DIE.

Also (and this is important), I’d forgotten that the Russian government requires Americans to obtain a visa in order to enter their country, even if it’s just for three days, and the cheapest option for a visa cost more than $200. (Before you get too mad at Russia, just remember that we require the same inconvenience of Russians AND that Russians are poorer than us AND I’m pretty sure we deny them visas more often than they deny us visas, but I don’t know for sure.)

I tried for over a month to switch my flight from Moscow to somewhere else: Helsinki, Oslo, Athens, Frankfurt — anywhere but Russia again. Unfortunately, there was no alternative that would cost less than $400, so buying a visa and going to Russia turned out to be most economical option, even if it didn’t feel like the safest.

However, going back to Russia turned out to be one of the best parts of my whole trip. I’m so glad I went and I wish I had enough money to go every year.

The week before going to Russia (and to Europe in general) I was literally dreading it. I would probably get mugged, kidnapped, raped, and killed. But, since all that was most likely to happen in Russia, I told myself that if I could make it past three days in Russia, the rest of my trip (into four other countries and across three weeks) would be CAKE.

I landed in Russia with a dying phone and congested head. My ears wouldn’t pop and none of the outlets in the Domodedovo Airport would work. I had barely been able to sleep in the 15ish hours since I’d left San Diego. Fortunately, I was able to keep my head and not get stressed (which is something I learned about myself on this trip — I don’t get stressed easy).

I walked up to the first Russian I could and asked where I could find an “ay-tee-emm.” They were like, “What the freak are you talking about?” and I was like,”The thing that gives you money,” and they were like, “Over there, you loser American.” (They were a lot nicer than that, I’m just writing what they SHOULD have said.) Literally two steps after walking away from them, though, the Russian word for “ATM” popped into my head — “bankomat.” And I was like, “Yes! I got this!”

I found an ATM and withdrew 3,000 rubles ($50ish). After that, a representative from my favorite Russian phone company (МТС) was standing right outside the gate. I popped out my AT&T SIM card, gave them 1,000 rubles, and they popped in an МТС “seem kartichka” with 12 gigs of data on it. (I only used, like, 3 or 4 gigs in my three days, so that was a bit overkill, but it was nice not to worry about running out of data.)

The Domodedovo Airport is about 30 miles from Moscow, but since Europe is so much better about public transportation, I knew there must be a cheap shuttle to the city somewhere. The train that takes you to Moscow is called Aeroexpress (Аэроэкспресс). It costs 450 rubles and takes about an hour.

After buying some water, I jumped on the train and sat next to a really sweet girl from St. Petersburg who was going into Moscow to visit a friend. She reminded me of how normal and nice Russians are (By “normal,” I mean they’re literally just like Americans. STILL trying to convince people of that.).

I hopped off the tram when it reached its one and only stop: MOSCOW.

Since I served in the Samara Mission, I didn’t really know anyone I could stay with in Moscow. I ended up connecting with a random Russian couple over Couchsurfing who said I could stay with them. We’d agreed to meet in front St. Basil’s on Red Square at 10 pm.

I got off the train and, since I had no idea what I was doing or where I was, I picked a random person and followed him. I figured that he knew where he was going, so I’d follow him until he got there. He went into a big building and down some stairs into the metro. I made a mental note, found a cafe upstairs, charged my phone for a couple hours, then jumped on the metro to Red Square.

An escalator going down into the Moscow Metro.

I’d never been on a real subway before and I’d heard of how confusing the Moscow Metro is, so my only hope of finding Red Square was talking to people. Of course, like I said, Russians are beyond helpful and nice. I asked a babushka and she told me which train to get on and a student told me which stop to get off at. I got out on the street and asked a couple which way Red Square was and another lady corrected me when I took a wrong turn. I found Red Square, took a selfie in front of St. Basil’s, and met up with my hosts Katya and Slava.

I was so relieved to meet Katya and Slava. I’d been ALONE travelling for a day and a half and now I had friends! They were so nice and Katya spoke English very well. They gave me a whole apartment to myself (cuz they have two) and let me babysit their cat! They were the best hosts and they were definitely one the best parts of my trip to Moscow. They showed me around the best parts of Moscow the next day, found a nice banya for me to visit, made me homemade pelmeni (like Russian ravioli), and drove me to the airport on Friday. They’re the literal best!

Landing in Russia WAS the hardest part of my trip. I didn’t know what I was doing and I didn’t know how things would ultimately work out. I had to figure out how to get money, set my phone up, get transportation, navigate the streets of a foreign city, and find a place to sleep. But figuring all that out was really satisfying and making more Russian friends was the best! Despite my initial regrets and misgivings, Russia was one of the best places I visited my whole trip.

Here are some cool things I did while visiting Moscow that I think you should do (plus some tips!):

1) Learn the Cyrillic alphabet or bring someone who knows it. A lot of the signs are transliterated from Cyrillic into English, BUTT unless you’re used to reading and pronouncing words like “Preobrajendkaya” (Преображенская), the English transliteration won’t do you a lot of good.

2) Drink peach juice and Chudo (Чудо) drinkable yogurt and eat chocolate, especially Super Snickers. Why don’t we have more juice and yogurt in America?!! Also, my Norwegian friend tells me that the Snickers in Russia are the best in the world (better than American and Norwegian, at least), and I would have to agree. Ughhhh. AMERICA PLEASE MAKE BETTER FOOOOOOD

3) Eat at a restaurant on Old Arbat Street. Old Arbat is one of the oldest parts of Moscow and has a lot of touristy things to do and see, plus it’s not too far from …

4) RED SQUARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There are a couple things at Red Square you should see. 1) St. Basil’s: It’s not an operating church anymore, just a museum. It’s 250 rubles ($5ish) to get in, but it’s very worth it, especially if you wait for the choir upstairs to start singing! 2) Lenin’s tomb: It was closed when I went, but you should see it! 3) The Kremlin: It didn’t even occur to me that you can go inside while I was there, but I hear you need to plan in advance to get tickets to go in. I’m sure it’s way great! 4) GUM:It’s a big shopping center. Go inside and see what it’s like.

5) The Catheral of Christ the Savior: It’s the main cathedral in Moscow and it’s way pretty! It’s also not far from Red Square.

6) Banya it up: The idea of being surrounded by dozens of naked people (if you go in a gender-specific one), getting boiling hot, then drenching yourself with ice cold water (Ice Bucket Challenge eat your heart out) sounds awful to most sane people, but it’s a very Russian thing to do and I loved it. Just know you’ll be SUPER tired after. The one I visited in Moscow was called Sanduny (Сандуны) and I really recommend it. (I’ll post a vid of how-to lates.)

7) Spend time with the people and learn for yourself that they’re not cray cray.

My new friends Slava and Katya. They thought I was cool cuz I’m from California lol.

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