It’s safe to say that Russia does not have the best reputation internationally. Barely a day goes by without some scary story out of the Kremlin: an election rigging here, a corruption scandal there, a political assassination the other way. Nearly every documentary you see about the country involves the journalist being harangued by the police at some point, regardless of whether they are attempting to show Russia in a positive light or not. With Anglo-Russian relations at something of a low point, and given the painstakingly difficult process to get a Russian visa in the UK, you can imagine our nerves before our border crossing into the world’s biggest country.
Just to get this far had been, frankly, a pain in the arse. Due to the aforementioned geopolitical shenanigans between our two respective nations, each country has seen fit to punish the inhabitants of the other by making international travel between the two as difficult as possible. Consequently, to get a Russian Visa, we were require to fill in a stack of paperwork dozens of pages long (each), get a letter of invitation from a travel company, get new passport photos (in Sadie’s case a new passport because hers was full), declare all our social media profiles and assure the Kremlin that we had not ever, nor had any intention of overthrowing the Russian government or doubting the sovereign integrity of its territory. The paperwork also required us to list every country we have been to in the last decade, including when and why, which as you can imagine for full-time wanderers, took a while. Lastly, we had to go to bloody London to give our fingerprints and retina scans, which actually cost us more than our bus into Russia itself.
Anyway, I digress, but you can imagine how welcome we felt as we rocked up to the border. Our bus from Helsinki was full of Russians, all of whom seemed to know how to “do” the border, and they pointed us in vaguely the right direction. Eventually, with a bit of a scowl, they let us in. Success!
Our first stop was St Petersburg, Russia’s most popular tourist city. Within moments of arriving in the centre, we could see why – it was stunning. St Pete’s was designed by the Tsars over the centuries to impress upon people the grandeur of Russia, and it worked. For whatever reason, St Pete’s also escaped the ravages of the two great scourges of Russian architecture: war and Stalinism. Either that or after it was destroyed by the Nazis they painstakingly rebuilt it. Still – beautiful city. We spent days just wandering around the place soaking it in (literally – it rained every day). We went to the Winter Palace, an insanely opulent former Imperial residence, so full of gold and priceless artefacts that it made you realise why the Russians overthrew their royal family a century ago. We met an old friend for breakfast and made a new friend over drinks. We went to see a ballet (when in Rome) which I’m pretty sure was aimed at children, but never mind. All in all it was just a brilliant place.
An overnight train later and we found ourselves in Yaroslavl, self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Golden Ring – preserved Russian towns which are essentially open air museums to Russia’s past. Yaroslavl was absolutely full of beautiful churches, to an almost ridiculous extent, and all of them were adorned with the famous “onion domes” which make them so unique. We really enjoyed walking around the town and probably would have done even more so, had it not been for the incessant rain that was becoming more and more a feature of our Russian experience.
Next stop: Moscow. We’d planned the last leg of our stay so we had a night in Moscow, then a one day trip to Vladimir, another Golden Ring town, then back to Moscow for a couple more nights before leaving. On reflection it was a bit thick, because it severely limited our time in Moscow itself, cost a pretty penny to visit, and was (quelle surprise) a bit of a washout. It was frustrating because you could tell the town was beautiful, just underneath a thick blanket of fog and drizzle. We also tried Russian wine there, which was sadly terrible. We headed back to Moscow, damp and praying that our last few days would be drier.
They weren’t. We really tried to make the best of Moscow but the rain finally got the better of us. We spent a night at the opera at the iconic Bolshoi Theatre, which was a heck of an experience. We saw the Red Square, the Kremlin and its most famous sites, and spent a freezing afternoon at a colossal souvenir market, but it simply would not stop raining and there is only so much sightseeing you can do when you’re piss wet through and shivering. We got our taxi to the airport a little sad that we hadn’t made the most of Moscow, knowing how hard it is to get in the country that we likely will not be returning to for a while, if ever.
I’m writing this from Beijing, jet lagged and somewhat irritable due to the annoying-as-hell great firewall of China. This basically means you can’t use Google (and therefore Maps, Translate, Chrome, the Play Store, YouTube), Facebook (and obviously therefore Instagram, to Sadie’s dismay), Twitter (wtf?) and a whole host of other things. You can’t even get on Pinterest for fuck’s sake. I mean really, who is going to bring down the government with a mood board? Anyway, more on that next time. If they don’t block the post, that is.