We arrive in Russia after a 3-hour flight from Yerevan, and after a surprisingly quick process at the immigration counter and a lengthy walk from the arrival area to the express train, we’re in the city center just after lunch. We reach our hotel about a 15-minute walk from the Belorusskaya station, and have lunch in a nearby Asian restaurant. Drained from staying up until 3 am exploring Yerevan’s (relatively tame) nightlife scene, I spend the rest of the afternoon sleeping.
I wake up just in time for dinner, and four of us – Yanyan, Joseph, Jay-R, and I – decide to venture into the city center, explore a bit, and have dinner there. Aided by Google Maps, we board the metro station (in itself a tourist attraction as well) to Teatralnaya and exit near the northern end of the Red Square.
And here for the first time we see the St. Basil Cathedral with its colorful facade lit, standing majestically in the southern part of Red Square, looming in the distance like a divine apparition. It’s exciting and touching at the same time, evoking the country’s rich history.
Established in 1147 as a minor town in Vladimir-Suzdal Principality, Moscow has grown to become a global city, playing key roles in world history as the capital of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and eventually the Russian Federation. As with any capital city, Moscow is teeming with life, culture, and traffic. Traditional Orthodox architecture dot the cityscape along with Neoclassical buildings and modern skyscrapers, reflecting the numerous influences on Russian culture. The metropolitan area’s 20 million inhabitants range from the broke and anonymous to the well-heeled and popular.
The next day, after another visit to the Red Square (the Kremlin is closed because of some military program), we avail of a hop-on-hop-off bus tour in an attempt to maximize our limited time in the city, since we intended Russia to be just an extension to our Georgia-Armenia trip. We thus hit some of the key sites like the Bolshoi Theater and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but never really get down and explore them. Our main destination is a building in the western reaches of the city center to get to the top of a building with supposedly great panoramic views of the city at sunset. Whether it’s true, we never really learn, since the building’s elevator turns out to be under construction.
Frustrated and exhausted, we return to our hotel, rest for the evening, and prepare for our flight to Saint Petersburg.
We return to Moscow two days later, and with a whole day left, we again tour the city center. The Kremlin is still closed for a military event, so we content ourselves eating ice cream in the GUM, a large ostentatious-looking department store at the eastern end of the Red Square. The building was commissioned by Catherine the Great in the 1800s to replace what were once the Upper Trading Rows. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the government nationalized the building and used it in various periods as a department store, an office space, and a retail store aiming to promote communist consumerism. Today, the building has been privatized and functions as a shopping mall, with high-end boutiques and stores housed inside.
In the afternoon, the rest of the group ride the metro to Arbat, a gentrified district in western Moscow known for its hipster vibe, while I go separately to Gorky Park. The park is Moscow’s main park, a somewhat smaller-scale Central Park where locals converge to stroll, bike, watch cultural events, or just hang around.
A few hours later, I’m back with the others at the hotel lobby, talking about how Russia defied our expectations of a country. The people are surprisingly friendly, down-to-earth, and warm, contrary to the Hollywood stereotype of staid and snobbish oligarchs. Sure, the smiles don’t come easily, but it just takes a few moments of conversation before the initial barriers break down and the dynamics become less formal. Winston Churchill once said that Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Here’s to uncovering a layer of that.