The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day on our way to St. Petersburg, Russia

This entry is part 18 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

Our trip to St. Petersburg began here, at the Leningradsky Train Station in Moscow. It is the location of our worst experience of the entire trip. Something that has never happened to me during any of my other travels. Someone tried to steal my bags.

**Salty language warning in this post**

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In which I scare the bejeezus out of the man trying to rob us

We took a taxi from our Moscow hotel to the train station. When we got out of the taxi, there were men standing around wearing matching jackets and carrying luggage carts. We didn’t have much luggage so we could manage on our own, but we realized they might be helpful for directing us to our train. They seemed a bit pushy, but nothing out of the ordinary. There were tons of police officers around (not sure if that was normal or whether they had an increased presence because of the threats in Russia during the Olympics), so I figured if the baggage guys weren’t legit, the police would be scurrying them away, like we had seen in Sochi.  The guy that pulled our bags looked at our train tickets and started walking with us to the train platform.

We transited security x-rays to get into the train station, and then we waited on the platform. We tried to tip the guy for carrying our luggage, but he just kept talking to us in Russian, not accepting the tip, and just continued to hang around us. We exchanged as many niceties as we could given the language barrier. This included pantomimes for hockey and me saying “Ovechkin good America” many times. I always figure they love to know how popular their athletes are in other countries.

The guy started to give me the creeps. Not to sound gross, but it looked like he had recently peed his pants. Or something … else … in that general vicinity.  So I told Ken that we should take our luggage off his cart, so we did. Then I tried to tip him again (about the equivalent of $5). He just kept standing around.

When the train arrived, he spoke a perfectly clear English phrase.  “One Thousand Rubles.” Yep, he told us he wanted 1000 rubles, which was the equivalent of nearly $25.

I said no, and started to walk away. I kept holding the existing ~$5 tip amount in my hand high above my head, so people around could see that we were trying to tip him a reasonable amount of money. For perspective, our nearly 20 minute taxi ride to the train station had only been about $12).

This creep started shouting that he wanted 1000 rubles. I’ve been through situations like this before when traveling where ripoff artists like this are trying to get you to cave in and just pay them more money to leave you alone. I’m used to it, and there are a few tactics I use when something like this does happen.

Ignoring is usually the tactic I prefer. So I turned my back to him and continued to ignore him. There was a large crowd of people around waiting to board the train, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about safety or anything. In the meantime, I kept holding up the reasonable tip amount in my hand, hoping he’d get bored with causing such a scene and just take the money and leave.

Well, then he decided to start kicking my luggage.

Whatever. No skin off my nose. I didn’t have anything fragile in my bag, so he could kick my suitcase all day long if he wanted. We just continued to stand in the crowd to board the train.  We got the attention of the train attendant checking tickets, thinking maybe she could call security on her radio, but she didn’t care that this asshole was kicking my suitcase.

I still had my back to the creep, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw him kick my suitcase one more time and then PUSH MY HUSBAND.

I went into crazy person mode.

I turned around and looked right at his fucking face.

He seemed confused by the eye contact.  Then he looked down and then reached for the handle of my suitcase and tried to yank it out of my hand, but luckily I had a good grip on it.

“Holy shit, somebody is literally trying to rob me,” I thought to myself in about a millisecond of time.

I screamed.

Well, screaming is a bit of an understatement.

I let out a most blood-curdling, ear-piercing scream that went on for as long as my breath let me.

The entire train station went completely and totally silent. The huge crowd that had been beginning to board the train just stopped everything they were doing.  You could hear a pin drop when my scream was done.

The creep looked at me in absolutely stunned silence. But he was still in front of me, and I wanted him OUT OF MY FUCKING FACE.

So I stomped my foot and then let out another scream. So loud that it felt like something ripped far in the back of my throat. I screamed for probably another five seconds.

He had noticeably jumped when I stomped my foot, and when my second scream was done, he  turned around and started to scurry away through the crowd.

But I was still SO FURIOUS, even though he was starting to leave. I was furious that this huge crowd of people around us were doing nothing to help, including the train attendants checking tickets. That police officers manning the x-ray conveyors just 200 feet away didn’t come to see what the commotion was.  I was MAD.

So I turned my body to the left and took a few steps so I could look at the back of his head as he scrambled through the crowds down the train platform.  When I spotted him, I started pointing to him in the distance and screaming again. My throat was hurting so badly, but I didn’t care.

As I was letting out that third scream, he started running so fast, like he was in fear for his life from this crazy American woman.

That was it, I was satisfied with the response. No more screaming necessary.  He was gone.

We pushed through the crowd and boarded the train, afraid the guy might come back with some of his other luggage carrying buddies or something. After finding our seats, we tried to calm down, but it was hard. Adrenaline was pumping, and we were so irritated that nobody stepped in to help us. I have seen probably close to a dozen incidents during my years commuting by DC metro when something unfortunate was about to happen, and all sorts of bystanders step in to help. Like a fight breaking out or somebody getting harassed.  Folks always step in to help.  When I lived in Egypt and somebody started harassing me more aggressively than usual, folks always stepped in to help. When I was trying to figure out the Tokyo subway system, folks stepped in to help. I am used to people helping. Nobody helped us on that Moscow train platform.  I learned a big cultural lesson that day.

Ken was so mad about the whole thing, and I tried to explain to him that these types of things happen, and that I wasn’t going to let it bother me. That I have had to use that same scream before in my travels, and that I knew it was very effective. I told Ken that when I saw the guy push him, I just went nuts.

Ken told me that the guy never pushed him. I was confused. Ken said that at one point, the creep was kicking my bag and lost his balance and kind of fell in Ken’s direction, but the guy never pushed Ken at all. I started to wonder if I overreacted, since that pushing was what precipitated my screams, but I don’t think so. He certainly was not a good guy either way.

In retrospect, after we returned from Russia and I thought more about the incident, I’m not sure if he was actually trying to “steal” my bags when he tried to grab the luggage handle from my hand.  Instead, I think he may have just tried to hold my bags for “ransom” until I gave him the money he wanted. That doesn’t make it much better, but just a different perspective.  I think he really wanted that 1000 rubles more than he wanted my luggage.

But fuck that guy.  I hope he thinks twice now before he tries to rip off another tourist.


Train Ride Woes

Our train ride was annoying.  Typically we enjoy traveling by train, but the train had assigned seats, and we were at like one of those sets of four seats that face each other with a table in between.  So we were face-to-face with a 50-ish year old woman and (presumably) her mother.  The 50-ish year old woman blared music through her headphones like a teenager the entire trip.  There was a couple in the row next to us that made out and groped each other the entire time. I asked the attendant if we could switch seats, but she said it was a full train. It was not a pleasant five hours.

But, after the adrenaline stopped pumping and we had some snacks (available for purchase), we managed to read for a bit and take a short nap.

Unfortunately I was so distracted that I didn’t remember  to take photos of the train. I did, however, manage to capture a few views from the train.

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Despite our complaints about seat neighbors, it really was a nice and clean train. Also very fast.  There is a slower and cheaper train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we took the high speed one.  The bathrooms were immaculate, and there was even a food “cart” service, like you’d get on an airplane.

 

Taxi Ripoff Woes

When we arrived in St. Petersburg, we were anxious to get to the hotel so that we could stretch out and relax in a quiet environment.  We were staying at The W St. Petersburg, and their website stated that a taxi from the train station should cost about 300-500 Rubles.  After we exited the train station, we found a taxi driver and asked him how much it would be to the W St. Petersburg.  3000 Rubles.  Umm, no.  We can understand a slight ripoff for tourists, but 6 times the cost?  No thanks.

After we turned that driver down, another one approached us and said he would take us to the hotel for 1500 Rubles.  Okay, now we’re down to three times the price.

Ken and I were both in VERY foul moods after the events of the day, and this was making things worse.  I feel like if this was the “only” annoying thing to happen to us that day, we might have just gone with the tourist ripoff price of 1500 Rubles. Sometimes it’s the price of being a foreigner. But, we were being stubborn.  We waited around, seeing if any other taxi drivers would approach us with a reasonable price after everybody we asked directly wanted the same 2500-3000 Rubles range.

I called the hotel.  The receptionist was in complete disbelief that taxi drivers were trying to charge us 3000 Rubles for the taxi drive.  She said, “No, 500 Rubles at MOST!  Maybe their English is poor?”

Nope, these guys understand just fine what they’re asking.

So, she dispatched a taxi for us.  Ken and I waited in a coffee shop across the street.  Then she called back with a description of the taxi that would be picking us up.  It took us a while to find the taxi, because it was so crowded around the train station.  We ended up walking to a hotel about a half block away and waiting there for the taxi.  It was a less crowded location for him to find us.

 

Please don’t wreck the taxi

The driver picked us up … and proceeded to play iPad solitaire or something as he was driving through the busy streets.  I thought I was going to lose my damn mind. I kept picturing him getting into an accident while playing solitaire. Great, that would be the cherry on top of this craptastic day.

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Again, it’s one of those minor situations you expect when traveling in a place with different customs, but the cumulative effect of the events that day was trying my patience.  Seeing that driver playing solitaire made me want to bang my head on the window.  Hard.

I’m happy to report that, despite the driver’s solitaire addiction, there were no accidents.

 

I surrender, I surrender

I had never been so relieved to get to a hotel.

After the day we were having, I wanted to stay locked up in the room for fear that something else would go wrong.  I was even eyeing up the room service and in-hotel restaurant menus, just so we wouldn’t have to go anywhere. I wanted to eat, go to sleep, and have a fresh start the next day.

Alas, Ken convinced me we should at least go out to eat, especially considering the hotel meal prices were outrageous. After relaxing for a while at the hotel, we walked a few blocks to eat dinner, and stopped a pastry shop on the way back for some desserts.  Nothing went wrong.  Disaster averted.  Whew!

So, spoiler alert! The rest of our time in St. Petersburg was lovely!  That day was the only bad day of our trip. (Well, as long as you don’t count the Sochi accommodations saga).  And if you have just one bad day on a two week trip that takes you 6000 miles away, I’d still call that a win!

Like Ken always says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes for a good story later.”


 

Moscow, Part 3 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 15 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This post covers sites we visited in Moscow over the course of three days. These sites are all within walking distance of the Red Square area.

(For links to other parts of our Russia Trip Report, see the bottom of this post!)

Our visit in the cold February weather continued!

Kremlin and the Armory

On our second full day in Moscow, we went to the Kremlin and the Armory, which was quite the adventure. There were several different options for Kremlin tickets, and we were having a very difficult time discerning the differences. So, we just kind of winged it.

Our first stop was the Armory. It was kind of crowded … with middle school children on field trips! Unfortunately, photographs were not allowed inside the Armory, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it is really amazing and stunning! Although I will say that the artifact descriptions were a bit lacking, so I do wish we had had a guide for the Armory to point out some of the more key exhibits.

Outside the Armory at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia. Near the Armory in Moscow Russia

I had to snap a photo of this sign that was on the back of the toilet stall door in the ladies room at the Armory (I don’t think that’s actually breaking the “No photography rule, right?). I had remembered seeing a sign like this posted on some news outlet when everybody was complaining about the Sochi Olympics. What is the lavatory pan? Do they mean the toilet?

Funny signs in Russia when traveling. Do not drop toilet paper in toilet

Just outside the Armory, there were some great views of the Kremlin walls and the river that runs along it.

Kremlin walls and River in Moscow Kremlin walls and River in Moscow

 

Kremlin Grounds

After the Armory, we continued our tour of the Kremlin grounds. We walked towards the “Cathedrals” area. On our way there, we passed several government buildings. Unfortunately I don’t know what the actual buildings are. (Again, signage was lacking and we didn’t have a guide!)

The Kremlin in Moscow Russia The Kremlin Grounds in Moscow Russia Buildings on the Kremlin grounds while touring

I’m not sure why, but the guard in the below photograph started to get a bit annoyed apparently, let out a whistle, and shooed us away. We promptly complied and started pointing our cameras elsewhere!

Touring the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia Cannons on the Kremlin grounds Large broken bell on Kremlin

 

The Cathedrals Area of the Kremlin

After walking past the government buildings, we entered the “Cathedrals” area, which, as the name implies, consists of several cathedrals all grouped together. There was no photography permitted inside the cathedrals, but they were all very ornate!

Cathedrals area of Kremlin Outside the cathedrals at the Kremlin Cathedral door at Kremlin in Moscow Cathedral Onion Domes in Moscow Cathedrals area at Kremlin in Moscow Grounds of Cathedrals area at Kremlin Grounds of Cathedrals area at Kremlin in Moscow

 

Pedestrian-Friendly Streets in Moscow

I was pleasantly surprised by how pedestrian-friendly it was in Moscow. In fact, there were several lovely streets to walk along.

Just outside of Red Square is a street called Nikolskaya Street. Our guide explained had only recently been converted to pedestrian-only.

Walking along Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, Russia Side Street off Nikolskaya Street in Moscow Nikolskaya Street in Moscow

Another lovely pedestrian-friendly street that is a little further away from Red Square was called Kuznetskiy Most. There were a lot of high end shops around that street, as well as just some more basic restaurants and coffee shops. Ken and I went back to this area the next night for dinner.

Kuznetskiy Most street in Moscow Kuznetskiy Most street in Moscow

 

Supermarket in Gum

Another place we went to a few times was a kind of supermarket in Gum (Pronounced Goom – the large shopping mall in Red Square). Our tour guide introduced us to the market during our tour, giving us an overview of some traditional Russian foods, vodkas, and snacks. We went back a couple of times for snacks and desserts! Unfortunately I’m not sure what the name of this actual store was (and it’s kind of hard to tell from Googling it as well), but it takes up a large portion of Gum, so it’s hard to miss!

Supermarket inside Gum mall in Moscow Desserts at Supermarket inside Gum mall in Moscow

Dried fish, which is commonly eaten when drinking vodka in Russia.

Canned Dried Fish for Drinking with Vodka

And that was it for our touring around the Red Square area in Moscow! The next post will cover sites more on the outskirts of Moscow.


Moscow, Part 2 (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 14 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This post covers sites we visited in Moscow over the course of three days. These sites are all within walking distance of the Red Square area.

(For links to other parts of our Russia Trip Report, see the bottom of this post!)

We hired a private guide for a four hour walking tour of Red Square and the surrounding areas. She picked us up at our hotel, and we started walking to Red Square, just like the previous night!

As we walked towards Red Square, the guide stopped and pointed out the Bolshoi Ballet building. (We had considered seeing a performance while we were in Moscow, but there was only one showing during our time there, so it didn’t work out).

And just across the street from the Bolshoi was this statue of Karl Marx.

 

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Moscow Subway

The guide provided a brief overview of the Moscow subway system. When we were researching what to visit while we were in Moscow, we found that the Moscow Subway System ranked highly over and over again on travel-related review sites like TripAdvisor. The subway station was pretty amazing and included things like statues and marble walls!

 

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Ken started to use his video camera, and the guide look absolutely panicked. She started stammering, “Please, photos are okay, no video!” Ken had already wandered a few feet away videoing, so I ran up to him and told him to put the video camera away.

After the subway stop, we mentioned to our guide that we wanted to get some bottled water. She walked us to a small cafe that we would’ve never found otherwise. And we were so glad because that cafe served as our breakfast location for our remaining days in Moscow!

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Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow

Next on the tour was viewing a changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is located just outside the Kremlin walls and happens once per hour, on the hour.

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Just as a side note, the red walls along this path are known as the Kremlin Walls. Just on the other side of the building is the Kremlin, which contains several government buildings as well as many cathedrals.

We visited the cathedrals the next morning on our own (more on that in a subsequent post).

 

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Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

Next, we walked to Red Square. We had visited Red Square the night before, but it was nice to see it in the daylight! I love that you can see St. Basil’s cathedral peeking out as you walk up the hill to the Red Square area.

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Just outside of Red Square is what the tour guide explained to us as the “center of the city.” Folks will frequently toss coins into the circle.

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Lenin’s tomb is in Red Square as well. Ken and I both opted out of going inside. Something about seeing an embalmed body that has been on display for 90 years just didn’t quite appeal to us. But here it is from the outside!

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We captured some photographs of St. Basil’s cathedral in the daylight.

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Inside St. Basil’s Cathedral

The tour did not include the inside of St. Basil’s Cathedral, so we went there on our own on our last morning in Moscow. (Lots of photos! I may have gone a bit overboard).

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I should point out that St. Basil’s cathedral was not temperature controlled, so, considering it was winter, it was very chilly inside. The employees who monitor each room huddled around space heaters!

 

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And here was a view of Red Square from a window inside St. Basil’s cathedral.

 

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We had already seen so much in Moscow, but there was even more to see!


Russia Trip Planning (Russia 2014 Trip Report)

This entry is part 2 of 23 in the series Russia 2014 Trip Report

This trip to our first Olympics events ever started with one task … buying the Olympic Event tickets.

This took place in early February 2013. The Olympics, obviously, were not taking place until February 2014. That meant that we had to buy our Olympic tickets about 380 days prior to when the Olympics would start. And that presents a few minor problems. Since you can’t book airfare until 330 days from your intended departure, that meant that we had to buy Olympic Event tickets before knowing if there would be points options to get us to Sochi, or how much airfare would cost.

Also, most hotels also don’t allow booking until 365 days prior to your arrival. Which meant that we had no idea how much hotels would cost in Sochi during the Olympics!

Sure, we could estimate by checking airfares and hotel rates for December 2013 and January 2014, but there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t jack up the costs for the Olympics or pull award space.

So, it was quite the leap of faith. We spent $700 on Olympic event tickets well before we knew how much it would cost to actually travel to Sochi and stay there!

Prior to the 330 day window, it looked like Turkish Airlines would be our best bet for getting to Sochi. I definitely wanted to try Turkish Airlines’ long haul Business Class product, and it would cost us 50,000 United Miles each for our Business class tickets all the way to Sochi. I had plenty of miles sitting in my Chase Ultimate Rewards account that could be transferred to United, so that was no problem.

We’d have fly from Washington Dulles Airport to Istanbul, have about an eight hour layover, and then take a short, 1.5 hour flight from Istanbul to Sochi. The flights from Istanbul to Sochi only operated on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so that limited our options a bit. To arrive in Sochi on Wednesday February 12 for our first event, we’d have to depart Washington on Monday the 10th. So our itinerary would go like this:

Monday January 10 at 10:40PM: Depart Washington for Istanbul
Tuesday January 11 at 4:30PM: Arrive Istanbul
Wednesday January 12 at 12:05AM: Depart Istanbul for Sochi
Thursday January 12 at 4:05AM: Arrive in Sochi.

We also decided that, since we were already in Russia, we’d visit Moscow and St. Petersburg for three days each after Sochi.

Booking the Flights

The Flights to Sochi. All of March I kept stalking United Airlines’ website for award space on Turkish Airlines. As each day approached 330 days in advance, award tickets were still available.

Then it became 330 days prior to the Olympics start date. Award availability vanished. There were still plenty of award tickets for the Washington > Istanbul leg, but not for the Istanbul > Sochi leg. I checked Turkish Airlines website, and they were selling the Istanbul > Sochi leg that we needed for about $175 each in coach. I decided to wait a few days. There was some award availability that opened for Olympics time period for like the 17th and 19th of February, but those dates wouldn’t work for us.

I decided to book the Washington > Istanbul leg to guarantee our choice for Business class seats on Turkish Airlines for the long haul portion of our trip. And I figured I’d wait it out to see if award space ever showed up for the Istanbul > Sochi segment, and then I’d just pay a small fee to United for changing our destination on the award ticket.

There is something so satisfying about booking business class seats on a 10 hour flight for just $2.50 each

But alas, two months went by and award space never opened up on Turkish for the Istanbul > Sochi segment. So, I finally decided to pay for the Turkish Airlines coach seats, but by the time I booked them about two months later, the price skyrocketed from $175 each to over $400 each! I was so, so mad at myself for not booking the tickets when they were so much cheaper.

I researched some alternate itineraries on American Airlines that have us starting in Moscow or St. Petersburg instead of ending there like our original plans, but award space from Sochi was just as nonexistent (or incompatible with our dates) as the award space going to Sochi.

So, I bit the bullet and purchased the very expensive Turkish airlines tickets for Istanbul > Sochi. One good thing about that inflated price was that they were refundable tickets. So, if award space ever DID open up on that leg, I could cancel my paid ticket and get a refund.

With those segments of our trip in place, I started planning the rest of our itinerary. From Sochi, we’d fly to Moscow. From Moscow, we’d take the train to St. Petersburg. And we’d fly back to the United States from St. Petersburg.

(Spoiler alert: I checked. And checked. All the way up until the day before our departure. Award availability for the Istanbul > Sochi segment never opened, so we were stuck paying that inflated fare for just a 1.5 hour flight. )

Flights to Moscow. S7 airlines, a Oneworld partner, was going to be our best bet for getting from Sochi to Moscow. It is a short hop flight from Sochi to Moscow, so I was hoping that this would be a good value to use some British Airways miles I’ve had sitting around. But, it appeared that S7 had removed all award availability during the Olympics. Double bummer! But, those tickets were very reasonably priced, and again, refundable. So I bought them.

Flights Back to the United States. Our trip home from St. Petersburg was actually the easiest leg to book. Air Berlin, another OneWorld Partner, offered a daily flight from St. Petersburg to Berlin. From Berlin, we would fly AirBerlin from Berlin to Miami, and then American Airlines from Miami to Washington Reagan National Airport. No paid segments necessary. Award availability was plentiful and easy to book all right on aa.com. For two business class seats, we used 100,000 AAdvantage miles for the entire leg. (However, the St. Petersburg > Berlin segment would be a single class aircraft, so no business class would be available.)

Booking the Hotels

I then proceeded to book hotels for Moscow and St. Petersburg. (The hotel situation for Sochi was still looking dreadful). It was pretty much a no brainer that I wanted to stay at the Ararat Park Hyatt in Moscow. It would cost 22,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night (pre-devaluation). For our three night stay, I transferred 66,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to my Hyatt Gold Passport account and made the reservation. Done and Done.

I spent a little more time selecting our hotels for St. Petersburg, but ultimately decided on the W St. Petersburg, a Starwood property. Award redemptions were 12,000 SPG points per night. Only I had very few SPG points. So, back in August when SPG had an increased sign-up bonus, I signed up Ken for the SPG card in his first ever App-o-Rama! The 30,000 bonus points + 5000 minimum spend equaled 35,000 SPG points, meaning we only had to spend a bit more on the card to reach the 36,000 points required for our three night stay at the W. By November, I booked our stay.

The woes for getting a hotel in Sochi were seemingly neverending. I searched for hotel availability (and not just award stays, I mean ANY availability) for any hotel multiple times PER DAY for months. I talked about these problems at length previously, so I won’t rehash it all here, but we ended up booking one of the many cruise ships that the Russian government chartered to serve as extra hotel rooms during the Olympics. We booked the Grand Holiday. It was much more expensive than I had ever hoped to spend, $1500 for four nights for two people, but at least it included all meals and it would be in a very safe location. Plus, the location was fantastic.

Getting a Russian Visa

After we booked our hotels, we had to request our “Visa Support Letters” from our hotels. This meant we had to send the hotels some information, including our passport information, and then they would e-mail us back a letter on hotel letterhead specifying the details of our stay. Their letter includes their special designated code number that you have to include on your Russian Visa application. I am happy to report that requesting the Visa support letters from the Hyatt, W, and Grand Holiday cruise ship was very straightforward.

Now that we had the Visa support letters, we had to apply for our Russian Visa.

If you hear folks talk about getting a Russian Visa, it kind of falls in the category of things like root canals, flat tires, and fights with health insurance companies. I won’t go into all of the requirements here (You can read all about the requirements on the State Department’s website), but I will say that most people recommend that you use a Russian tourist visa agency to process your paperwork.

But we live right here in the Washington, DC area, and any time I have needed a visa for a foreign country, I just go to that country’s embassy. Well, perhaps they were just shills for the visa agencies, but I read on many internet forums that applying for the visa in person at the Russian embassy is a huge pain. That they’ll reject your application for any minor reason, and then you have to pay another application fee to have it processed again. For instance, I came across this advice on the TripAdvisor forums for Sochi.

“The Russian consulate is incredibly pickly and will reject applications for the most trivial of reasons. The visa agents have been through all this and will check your application before submitting it to ensure all info will pass muster. Going in person yourself can be very time-consuming and not always successful. On no account should you send your passport via a courier service direct to the consulate. If you can’t go in person, definitely use an agent.”

I have no idea if there was any truth to these rumors, but it was enough to convince me to use a Russian Visa Agency. We used Travisa. They do have offices right here in the DC area, so at least we didn’t have to pay for the outrageous shipping fees ($35 per passport) that non-locals have to pay.

We filled out the online application for a Russian Visa. That took about three hours total for my application alone. They required employment history, education, foreign travel, etc. going back a decade. So it took me some time to look up the required information, like my boss’s phone number from two jobs ago and the address of my university.

So one day in December, Ken and I went to the Travisa office with all of our paperwork (printed copies of our completed application, our visa support letters, copies of our airfare and hotel reservations, copies of our Olympic tickets voucher, etc.). We were there about a total of 45 minutes. A person reviews your application line-by-line, making sure there were no mistakes, typos, etc. Somehow Ken had managed to leave the line blank for his “current employer,” so the representative made him fill that out. The application then had to be reprinted, which took some time.

Combined, we spent $370 for our Russian visas.

However, make sure if you ever need a Russian Visa that you triple check all your paperwork that you bring with you. My brother-in-law’s visa support letter from the hotel had two digits of his passport number transposed. He couldn’t get a hold of the hotel visa support office since it was already late in the evening in Russia, so there was no one available to fix the letter. So Travisa turned him away and he had to come all the way back to have his visa processed another day.

About two weeks later I went back and picked up my passport and Ken’s, and verified that all of the information on the visas was correct, and that was it. All of the critical logistical elements of our trip were complete, and we would be on our way to Russia in just a little over six weeks!

Have you ever had to fill out a very detailed visa application form for Russia or another country?


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.