The first few days in Russia were pretty much exactly what I anticipated of the country. Cold weather, cold people and cold vodka. Add a tough case of jet lag and it wasn’t exactly a fun time. Staying up til 9 am and sleeping til 6, not the best way to get to know a new city. Thankfully that only lasted a few days and Moscow started to brighten up just as I did. The first hostel I stayed at isn’t worth mentioning and I made a move to a place called Vagabond to try and be around some like minded travelers instead of people living in a hostel. Vagabond was truly like a 2nd home. The owner, Robert, takes such great care to make sure guests are getting the most out of the city and enjoying every moment of his hostel. The nights there included big family dinners with locals and travelers all pitching in for a great meal, friendly political debates into the wee hours and overall just a damn good time. On top of the friendly atmosphere Robert and his staff went so above and beyond helping myself and others get train tickets and make sure we were on the right path. One girl Elena went to the train station twice to get mine for me to make sure I didn’t get lost or confused. I’ve never experienced such a helpful hostel.
Moscow as a whole isn’t my favorite city but it is still pretty impressive. There is something especially cool about going and seeing buildings that are older than my country. I spent most of my time hanging out around the Kremlin and St Basils Cathedral. It was just too beautiful. On my last day there the red square seemed to be almost magical. There was a full Orchestra playing really intense music in the Red Square, it was oddly warm out and the sky was nearly black behind the Cathedral with a storm brewing. It was one of those moments in life that you remember how lucky you are to be in such a place. The nightlife in Moscow is a damn good time too. A Brazilian friend and I went out for a few drinks on a Thursday to a bar called Propoganda and ended up having a crazy time. For some reason every single girl in this bar we were at flocked to us buying drinks and tossing out compliments like candy. They either wanted me or him or both. A couple of them aggressively tried to make out with me which had my naive mind shitting bricks. I was under the impression Russia as a whole is against the gay and at one point was worried I’d end up in jail or some crazy thing like that if someone saw them trying to kiss me. In retrospect thats a silly notion but a few margaritas deep and I was genuinely concerned. The night carried on with the girls in the bar rotating around us dancing and offering up threesomes and finally we decided it was time to leave. Without saying goodbye. Didn’t want to deal with all the girls making us feel bad for leaving them. Rough life aye.
After a few days of dinners, site seeing and partying in Moscow I decided to head off to St. Petersburg. Getting there is pretty easy, especially when you have such a helpful hostel staff getting tickets for you. There is a quick train that takes about 4 hours or if you are budget conscious you can take one that is 9 hours overnight. Its a cheaper ticket and saves on accommodation. Win win! One thing to note is the stations in Moscow can be confusing so make sure you go to the right one as there are 9 to choose from. I got directions to the station and didn’t realize I was at the wrong one until 30 min before my departure. Was a bit hectic for a minute but I made it thanks to a really nice old Russian man who helped me around. Once on the train its not the most comfortable bed I’ve ever had but certainly not the worst. I had a couple of really nice Russian guys in my car that insisted on sharing their alcohol with me. Super fun guys to talk to, one of them even escorted me to my new hostel to make sure I didn’t get lost. Later he joined me for an awesome dinner and tour of the city. I feel silly for have the misconception that Russian people are cold and unfriendly. Most every person I encountered was so helpful. If I stood on the street looking lost for a few minutes someone would come offering help. I hardly ever get that anywhere else and plan to be as helpful to tourists whenever I am back in my own city.
St. Petersburg is, in my opinion, one of the best cities in the world. This place has everything. Gorgeous architecture, History, Culture and FOOD! Some of the best food I’ve ever had. I highly recommend checking out a restaurant called COCOCO or (KOKOKO). I originally saw this on Anthony Bourdains show, Parts unknown, and if its good enough for Tony its good enough for me. This is one of the first farm to table restaurants in Russia and the food is a new take on traditional dishes with a quirky presentation. On top of being delicious it isn’t crazy expensive fine dining. I spent about $108 for 2 people, 4 courses, Caviar and Vodka. Thats not really backpacker budget but definitely worth it. There are plenty of Georgian restaurants in SPB and I highly recommend trying those as well as a Soviet cafe, Borscht at any place and Ukha. Russians really know how to do soup.
As for the hostel in St Petersburg I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Soul Kitchen. Wow. What a place. Coming in at one of the best hostels in the world via Hostelworld and TripAdvisor. I can not recommend this place enough. For those at home who are afraid of hostels come stay here. Queen size custom built bunk beds with privacy curtains, free phone for international calls, fully stocked kitchen with treats like Apple cake for breakfast daily. If I ever open a hostel I’d take lessons from the owners of Soul Kitchen, they got it right.
If you’re going around summertime the white nights are a blessing and a curse. Its pretty cool to have daylight until midnight but just throws off the body clock. Plus it rises again at 4 am so unless you’ve got black out curtains it can be rough. A few must sees around St Petersberg are The Cathedral on Spilled blood, The Hermitage (if you like giant museums) and the Soviet Arcade Museum. I am sure there is more to see and do but these were the highlights for me. My hostel and the company I had were so good I didn’t really care to do much more than relax.
General Notes on Russia:
Get a phrase book and familiarize yourself with Russian before going. There is next to no English anywhere in Russia aside from menus here and there. Getting around can be really difficult if you don’t know some basics and ordering food will be an adventure as hardly anyone speaks English.
Trans Siberian Rail
I was going to do the rail and changed my mind due to a few various reasons. A big misconception (at least amongst some Americans) is that you need to book everything in advance thru a agency. This is not true. I met several backpackers that were just winging it as they went and its really not so complicated. Highly recommend getting the “Rail Russia” app if you have a smartphone. Will make the planning much easier to navigate.
Don’t walk around smiling like a dummy all the time unless you want people to look at you funny. Apparently Russians think this makes you look like a moron. I can’t help it and smile at nearly everyone I pass and definitely got some weird looks.
As an American (and most other Nationalities) you need a visa that is somewhat complicated to get. You can do it on your own by paying a hostel/hotel online to get you an Invitation to come to Russia and then submit the application. It takes about 2 weeks. To make it easy I went thru a company called Travisa at home, they have offices all around the US as well. They have single entry and multi, I highly recommend the Multi as its quite easy to get to The Baltic and Nordic countries from there. So you may want to maximize your time and see a few other places while in the neighborhood.
One thing I found interesting that happened in my first few days in Moscow is not something someone else reading would find useful for a journey but I’m going to throw it in here anyway. I don’t want to forget it.
So the first day in Moscow I met a couple of Brazilian guys that I got along pretty well with. They were young. One of them, Luis, just seemed like such a kid to me. Braces, goofy and generally just young looking. He is 21. He told me that they were just stopping over on the way to Ukraine and have volunteered to work on the Ukraine side doing whatever they can to save lives of those wounded in this war or whatever it is thats happening. This made me think 2 things. First, wow what brave young guys. Second, damnit I am selfish for traveling around doing nothing for anyone but myself. It really caused me to reflect a bit and feel bad that I just galavant around from country to country carefree and self absorbed. After a few days they left and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye as I was still jetlagged and slept til 6 PM. So I sent Luis a message saying to be careful and how proud of him I was for doing such a selfless and dangerous thing at such a young age. He responds back and blew my mind. Turns out that he had lied to me and they were not heading off to save Ukranian lives. They were in fact hired killers, Mercenaries, for Russia. They were literally doing the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they said. This was confirmed by a flood of social media posts with RPG’s, Machine Guns and other destructive weaponry. I was floored. Why would this kid lie to me?? Why did he even say anything?? Could’ve just as easily said they were on holiday instead of making a blatent lie. Next question to arise is how the f*%& does a Brazilian get hired to fight Putins battle? I just don’t know how a sweet, tender 21 year old (yes I am really stuck on how young he is) gets hired for such a job.
At the end of the day its just like every other military force I suppose. They are all hired to eventually kill. Does it matter whether or not it is your own country you are killing for if the paycheck is high enough?