We were a bit nervous to fly on Aeroflot with all of our gear, we were unable to do an online check-in, and our instructions said to check-in no later than 120 min before the flight, so we got to the airport more than 3 hours ahead of our scheduled departure. Right away we met a young Croatian guy who worked at a luggage wrapping company – his English was very good, and he told us that Aeroflot’s ticket counter wouldn’t open until 2 hours before the flight (technically making it impossible to check in "no later" than 120 min before the flight, but we aren’t going to get into that). We spent our extra hour people watching and making sure our baggage wouldn’t be overweight by taking things out of Jer’s bag and strapping it to my pack, and then getting the Croat to “cocoon” it all together. Fifteen minutes before the ticket window was to open we decided to head down to the Aeroflot counter, there were only 2 groups of Russians ahead of us- standing right beside (and in one case, leaning on) the counter. The lady in the group had on a skirt, high heeled boots, and a leather jacket with a fur lined collar, a typical travel outfit. Apparently we weren’t standing close enough to those in front of us (silly Canadians, allowing for personal space) and other Russians came up behind us and asked if we were in line for the Russian flight... and so it all begins. After successfully making it through security we shared a beer, and picked up some duty-free Milka. The 3 hour flight was mostly empty, we lucked out with an emergency exit row. In the row beside us was a very tall Croatian guy, and his girlfriend. We weren’t certain, but based on his excitement (face pressed up against the window, taking photos even before departure) it seemed like his first flight. We landed and were one of the first ones through the passport line-ups, we got through without problem, and within a minute or two had our baggage as well, we (and Charene) could hardly believe it. Once Charene (one of my closest friends, dating back to physio school) found us, she located a “taxi”- more likely just a guy with a car who drives people from the airport (apparently this is common practise), she negotiated a price and we were off. Within an hour and a half we were close enough to their apartment that we could just walk with our stuff, with the assistance of Ryan (her hubby), who came down to help us. It was nearly 8pm, so we had some pizza and salad, drank some of Ryan’s beer (toasting their pregnancy- Charene starting to show, just reaching her 5th month) and then headed to bed.
Charene worked until noon, came home and we had lunch before heading out for our first taste of Moscow living. She took the time to explain some of the signs we should watch out for (exit, entrance etc- bare in mind nothing is in English, and the Cyrillic script makes no sense to us), and oriented us to the metro. The metros would end up being some of the most interesting things to see; the high-speed escalators travel you deep into the earth, the stations have a variety of marble columns, or mosaic-style pictures, or paintings, or statues... all unique and very beautiful. We were impressed with Charene's knowledge of the metro (and the way she was able to breeze in and out of the crowds, though I'm sure we held her up from her usual pace), as well as her grasp on the Russian language (though she'll try to tell you she's barely a beginner). On our way out of the metro, on the long escalator, I had a man say to me (in only a moderate Russian accent), "I notice you speak English, I was just wondering if you need any help", I thanked him and told him we were with a friend who lives here and is showing us around. He then asked where we were from, I told him Canada, to which he replied "oh, that's your home and native land!" - too funny! Charene was shocked at the exchange, saying that no one ever knows any English... we thanked him a few times and carried on. She took us to see some of Stalin’s influences- a large, wide road; probably 8-10 lanes across, huge apartment buildings and one of the “seven sisters”; a series of seven unique buildings are very huge, with a large central point. She took us into a grocery store that had been converted from a statesman’s home, gorgeous architecture- huge chandeliers, lots of expensive souvenirs etc. Then she took us through the first McDonald’s to come after the fall of communism. The ordering counter had probably 20+ tills, all of which had a small line-up, even at 2:30 in the afternoon. Then we made our way to one of their friends homes, first grabbing sandwiches for a group that would be congregating there before heading out to a KHL game for the evening. Charene and Maxim (a Moscow native who works with Ryan at Halliburton) took on the task of getting us to the game, and we arrived just in time for the national anthem. There wasn’t much of a crowd for the game between home team Dinamo and “visiting” Moscow team CSKA, which I attributed to the fact that they can’t sell alcohol at the game (apparently it gets too violent... but nevermind the rows of empty beer bottles we saw on the street outside the arena, and the obviously drunk fans screaming their team's chant). Actually, at each end of the ice sat each team's core fan base, each with a huge drum, and a loud cheering section; they even chanted to eachother, battling back and forth... it was more interesting than the game at times. Right away we noticed Alexi Yashin on the CSKA team, who was on the starting line, but didn’t end up doing much at all until the last 2 minutes of the game (they were down, and I suppose he thought he should earn some of his pay-check). The first period was very slow, but the speed and intensity picked up throughout the match. I can’t recall if any checks we actually finished, but there was a decent fight – he even listened when I said “punch him in the face!”
Charene doesn’t work Fridays, so we headed off in the mid-morning toward the Kremlin and Red Square. We toured the Kremlin and its churches (Assumption and Annunciation), then had lunch at the cafeteria style Soviet Cafe at the “Gum” (gyme – looks like rym in Russian), a historical building transferred into a large mall. After eating too much for lunch we crossed through Red Square and into Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which is even more impressive and candy-like in person. Somewhere along the way we spotted a sign for a fur exhibition, and decided to take a peak- what an eye opener... I’ve never seen so much fur in my life. Charene says these sales happen every weekend through the fall as the Russians prepare for a long winter of much fur wearing. Jeremy wasn’t feeling well when we got back, and Ryan was at a work dinner, so Charene and I went out for a small-ish supper at a Mexican restaurant where the “shooter girl” (who looked more like a street worker) kept offering us tequila shots- finally Charene told her she was pregnant, and she laid off, though first saying something to me, which I could only assume was "what's her problem?".
Unfortunately, overnight that night most of us became ill; making us lose the 29th, but at least we were in a comfortable home to recoup.
We all felt brave enough to leave the house, and embarked upon the Moscow market for souvenirs and some culture. There was much to buy, and bartering is tolerated, so we had fun for a couple hours. After a tasty Russian kabob lunch, where our stomachs ached as we watched the neighbouring table down nearly a litre of vodka, we headed for home... still not feeling super energetic, we watched a couple movies they had picked up at the market in the past.
Ryan headed back to work, and Jeremy had his turn with the flu bug, so again Charene and I were on our own. We did just a short tour, visiting Church of Christ the Saviour – the biggest church in Moscow, with impressive frescos in the huge dome-style cathedral. We stopped for a tasty cream puff, and battled the metro home, seeing only 1 group of teens slightly dressed up for Halloween (cat ears, faces painted). We stayed in for supper and had a quiet evening.
Our last full day in Moscow, we headed out for lunch to Charene and Ryan’s favourite Georgian restaurants... apparently Charene always over-orders, and we did it again, unable to finish all the meat filled doughy treats after soup and a cheesy bread treat. After lunch, she took us to one of Moscow’s most famous but unsuspecting tourist attractions- the Novodevichy Cemetery, where we saw many unique and beautiful tombs, including cosmonauts, sports and war heros, actors and Boris Yeltsin’s controversially placed, huge flag-like memorial, and the statue of Stalin’s second wife, now protected as it had been defaced (well, de-nose-tipped, as it were) years ago. She wanted to take us to a neighbouring monastery, but it is unfortunately closed on Tuesdays. We met Ryan back at their apartment before supper, and headed out to another of their favourites, a Ukranian restaurant. We were seated in a small area which had only one other occupied table, a group of 6 or 7 men who were loudly chatting, and toasting with many shots of vodka, and kissing eachother- on the mouth... We finished our tasty meal, and the waiter brought us our bill, then he brought over 4 chilled glasses and a bottle of vodka from the other table. One of the table members came over to pour it for us; Charene tried to explain that she was pregnant and couldn’t have any, but he told her just to raise the glass to her lips, then pass it over to Ryan. Soon we were invited to their table, and found out that loudest, and largest of the group had just received a promotion – they were all members of the police, and he had been awarded his third star; they kept calling him the “big chief”. They insisted that way stay, and a few ounces, and many kisses later, we were given souvenir t-shirts from the restaurant and taking photos with the group. They wanted to know about Charene and Ryan’s child, would (s)he have a Russian passport (no), and why not (the polite response was that one parent had to be Russian), well – they would help with that- the big chief took their passports, and made a couple calls (oh geeze!) At the other end of the table, they insisted that we try some of the plates of food they had out – I felt safe with some vegetables (pickles, cabbage, zucchini- all somehow preserved or pickled), then Jeremy had a hardboiled egg- again, playing it safe. They insisted we try something else, “here’s some frozen pork, eat it with bread” (there was only one guy who knew English well enough to act as a translator, so he kept bouncing back and forth, otherwise we tried to get by on a few English words, and lots of gestures). Well, the frozen pork ended up being pork fat, which was very chewy, and pretty nasty overall... we each took a bite, and washed it down with compote (which is also the vodka chaser- the only way we could have survived the evening!). Then they offered us another type of pork fat wrapped around a hot-pickled bean or something, they said you should pop it down and chase it with vodka, it will warm your belly... we shared it, and survived. Finally, around 11, we thanked them very much for the evening, but said we had to be going, we tried to pay for some vodka, but they refused; not wanting to be rude we thanked them again, exchanged some phone numbers (in case of any problem down the road), and gave the translator (Sasha) our Facebook names. On our way out, the big chief insisted that we have another shot of ... something, which Sasha warned us would be harsh- we all managed to swallow it down, and left, rather excited about the events of the evening... this had apparently never happened to Charene & Ryan before, to which Jeremy replied, "oh, you just experienced the Lisa effect!"- we have had a string of good luck meeting good hearted people on this trip. We made it home safe, and said good-bye to Ryan, who would be at work long before we got up, and we would leave the next afternoon.
Somewhat hurting, we woke up and craved McDonald’s breakfast. Unsure if I could handle it on my own, I waited for Charene, but we arrived after 10, and breakfast was finished... we settled on some burgers (?McTasty I think was the conversion of the huge burger I had, and some kind of a chicken burger for Jeremy) which seemed to hit the spot, for a while. We made it to the train station in just over a half an hour – which ended up being nearly 2 hours before our train was to leave. We unloaded from the Mercedes cab, and a local made a comment in Russian... I told him we didn't speak Russian, but that I assumed he was commenting about our number of bags, he agreed and wished us a "good trip". We passed the time people watching, and boarded the high-tech “Sapsan” train half an hour before it was to depart. We unfortunately were booked to sit at a table of four, which normally would have been ideal, but on the busy train we ended up having to stare at a couple in their mid-fifties the entire time. The >800km trip took 4:15 on the train which cruised around 200km/hr the entire time. It did have wifi, though the quality wasn’t great. I slept as much as possible. We arrived in St. Petersburg at 6pm, and quickly found our hotel which was just a couple blocks from the train station. After we unloaded our bags and got acquainted with the city we headed out for a bite to eat- settling on a blini shop (traditional Russian food- kind of like crepes that are filled with a variety of things) which did have an English menu, available on request... it was, alright- kinda... chewy. We walked a couple blocks but came back and headed to bed around 9, very worn out from the previous nights antics.