We’re Back from Russia! (A Quick Recap)

This entry is part 1 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

We’re back from Russia!  We’ve actually been back for about five days now, and I think I’m finally getting over the jetlag.  Our first three nights home I was in bed by 8PM each night.  Yikes!

So, what was the consensus?  We had a GREAT trip.  All of my fears and fitful sleep in the weeks leading up to the trip now seems so silly.  As soon as we arrived in Sochi, I instantly relaxed.  The entire city was like a fortress, and I didn’t have a worry in the world.  I cheered my heart out for Team USA and applauded the other teams.  It was a true sportsmanlike atmosphere.

Moscow and St. Petersburg were unlike anything I expected.  Both cities were very modern, and I never even saw any dashboard-cam worthy footage.  I guess I should be happy about that and not bummed!

We took nearly 3500 photographs during our two week trip, and I’m still sorting through them.  I need to curate them, edit them, caption them, post them to Facebook for my friends to see, post them here on the blog, and even eventually make a print album.

So, since I don’t have any pictures ready just yet, I thought I’d share with you my “Random Thoughts on Russia” to keep you entertained.  Photos (many, many photos) will be forthcoming.

Random Thoughts on Russia

Apparently Ken and I look Russian.  Everywhere we went, people spoke Russian to us.  If, for example,  an Olympics volunteer was giving guidance for where to go at an Olympic event, they’d tell us in Russian.  When we would say “We don’t speak Russian,” they’d easily skip to English and explain it to us that way.  This also happened in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Waiters and waitresses, museum ticket offices, and random strangers would always speak to us in Russian first.  We mentioned this to a tour guide we had one evening in Moscow.  He told us that there is no such thing as a stereotypical looking Russian.  So if you are white, then it is presumed you are Russian.  I told our guide that I thought I looked so stereotypically American.  I wasn’t wearing stylish clothes, I wore hiking boots instead of heels, and I carried around an SLR camera everywhere.  He said that didn’t matter.  There are many Russian speaking tourists, either from smaller Russian cities or former Soviet republics that come to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

That “Soviet Era” visual you may have of Russia is all wrong.  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I was expecting Russia to be a borderline third world country.  And, even though the Soviet Union fell 25 years ago, I was expecting supermarkets to be ill-stocked and clothing stores to sell basic, utilitarian items.  I was expecting traffic to be horrible and unsafe (thanks to watching all those Russian dashboard cam videos).  None of my preconceived notions was correct.  Moscow had three Cartier and Burberry stores in a three block radius.  We saw some beautifully stocked and arranged supermarkets.  The only “less developed” element I noticed was the air pollution.  Cars are filthy because when it rains or snows, there is basically soot in the rain that covers vehicles.

Streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg are VERY wide.  This seems like such a strange thing to point out, but it just stood out to us so much.  In so many large American cities, city streets are usually no more than two lanes each way.  Streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg were easily three or four lanes each way, making each street six or eight lanes wide!  There were a couple of explanations provided to us about this.  In Moscow, guides told us that 1) Stalin loved his parades, and therefore wanted nice wide streets to accommodate the parades.  He even tore down a 17th century structure in Red Square to make it wider.  And 2) St. Petersburg, founded in 1703, is a much “newer” city by European comparisons. When Peter the Great founded the city, he told the architects and designers to take advantage of the vast space, so buildings were not erected close together.  I’m not sure how I feel about that second explanation.  After all, there are many cities in the United States that are newer than 1703 yet still have much narrower city streets!  In Moscow, because of these wide streets, there were convenient underground walkways so that pedestrians did not have to cross the streets and affect traffic flow.

We never saw any dashboard-cam worth traffic incidents.  I’m not sure if I’m relieved or disappointed about this.  The traffic we saw was typically very orderly.  I was expecting to see Russians completely ignore stoplights and traffic laws, much like I saw when I lived in Egypt.  However, drivers yielded to pedestrians, obeyed traffic signals, and we even witnessed first hand that police enforce traffic laws.  We hired a tour guide and driver one evening in Moscow, and the driver got pulled over for making a right turn on red!  We were a bit nervous because we didn’t know what was going on, especially after the police officer made the driver get out of the car.  However, she was let off with a warning.  After the incident, our guide told us that corruption among police officers is decreasing in Moscow.  In the past, a police officer might have asked for a bribe, but with the increasing popularity of dashboard cameras, police officers do not want to be caught asking for bribes.

As they said on the news, security in Sochi was tight.  The city was a fortress.  During one of our bus rides from the coastal area to the mountains, I commented to Ken that there was virtually no traffic in the city, something I was not expecting.  Then we realized that the “ring of steel” that the Russians kept referring to, really was in effect.   I guess they weren’t letting hardly any vehicles on the roads.

The Olympic experience was amazing, Period.  Many people keep asking us, “So was Sochi ready?  Was it as bad as they said on the news?”  We thought Olympic Park was beautiful.  It was HUGE.  Transportation was very efficient and well organized.  Multilingual Olympic volunteers wearing those trademark colorful jackets were so numerous, you were never more than a few feet away from help.  As mentioned above, security was impressive.  But, since people are constantly asking us if anything was “wrong” in Sochi, I thought I’d point out a few (very petty) things I noted.

  • There were several landscaped areas with trees in Olympic park that seemed to be unfinished.  In one area, there were trees planted in the dirt, but only a single row of sod.  So it appeared that they wanted to sod some areas but either ran out of time or resources.

  • There was an ugly elevated scaffolding walkway featured prominently by the medals area.  It looked like it was probably intended to be some sort of finished, constructed walkway but that they ran out of time and built it with scaffolding instead.

  • The wait to get in the Olympics souvenir “superstore” was routinely 3+ hours long.  There were a few smaller “kiosk”-like souvenir stores in the arenas and venues, but those also had 30+ minute long waits. To make matters worse, the kiosks closed as soon as the events were over. Because of that, I almost didn’t buy any Olympic souvenirs.  But, after the speed skating event, I begged the kiosk store employees to let me in, saying I knew exactly what I wanted to buy.  They were kind enough to let me in.  Luckily, there was another large Olympics store in Moscow, so we bought most of our souvenirs there.  It was only a two hour flight from Sochi to Moscow, so we joked that you could fly to Moscow to buy your souvenirs in a shorter amount of time than it would’ve taken to stand in line at the superstore in Olympic Park.

  • The food selection was really awful in Olympic Park.  I’m not terribly picky when it comes to food.  I like trying new foods when I travel.  Ken is fairly picky, but enjoys fast food and other vendor-like foods.  But we both thought the food was awful.  And we weren’t the only ones to think that.  There was a woman who we met at a Moscow restaurant and she asked us if we liked the food at the restaurant.  It was kind of random (she had started to put her coat on Ken’s chair while he was up getting food and I tried to motion for her not to put it there.  She, of course, spoke Russian to me, but when she realized I spoke English, she quickly switched to English).  A few minutes of conversation ensued, and we mentioned how we had been in Sochi a few days earlier and the food was not good.  And she heartily concurred, “No, food in Sochi very, very terrible.”  On the upside, food was very reasonably priced.  Definitely not the exorbitant prices you would pay at a sporting event like a Major League baseball game or NFL game.

  • Olympic Park was almost TOO big.  Walking from the entrance of the park to the arenas area took nearly 30 minutes (and that’s only if you didn’t stop anywhere along the way.)  And, there was only one way in and out of the park, so when your event ended in one of the arenas, you had to walk ALL the way back to the way you came in.  Obviously this was my first Olympics, so that might be normal.  But I did visit Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta back in 2008, and I was kind of expecting something more compact like that.

Russians seem to have a low tolerance for cold.  As you probably heard on the news, Sochi was quite warm.  The same day that 12 inches of snow shut down DC while we were away, it was 63 degrees in Sochi.  But Russians continued to wear their heavy parkas and gloves all around the park!  I was totally perplexed.  It was definitely colder in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but nothing worse than the cold we have had in DC this winter.  (I would like to thank the Polar Vortex for making the Russian winter seem downright balmy).  But any time we would briefly walk with our coats unzipped or gloves off, people were immediately concerned that we would freeze to death.


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