From Russia with Love – Part 1

To post a day by day report on my quite epic trip to Russia would fill too many “blog weeks” and would also be too much detail, therefore I’ll try a summary under the following headlines:

1) Why Russia? And how to get there
2) Everyday life in Russia
3) History before World War II
4) World War II …
5) Ballet and Heavy Metal

Part 1: Why Russia? And how to get there
Most the time I use Japan’s golden week for island explorations, but this year was different.
Why did I go to Russia? Two reasons. When I was a kid, the Soviet Union was a very scary thing and not for the life of me could I imagine to be traveling there one day. Then came Gorbachev and he is kind of a personal hero of mine, because it is my firm belief that if it was not for him, East and West Germany would not have been united. He initiated some kind of mild romanticism for Russia in me, and I even took some Russian courses at an adult education institute before I left my hometown to study in Munich. There was always that thought that one day, I want to stand on the Red Square in Moscow.
It took me a while to realize the promise, but now i did it.

I flew with Aeroflot from Tokyo direct to Moscow and my has it changed. Actually, I flew Aeroflot during my very first trip to Japan in 1993 (No, no, no, I’m not that old ;-)) via Moscow of course, because I was a poor student at the time and Aeroflot was the cheapest thing around.
It was a horror trip! LOL. I sat in an old Ilyushin machine, with half torn seats and nets above your head like in a bus instead of overhead compartments. The plane went from Munich to Moscow and then the same machine would go from Moscow to Tokyo. I got only one boarding pass for Munich to Moscow and when I wanted to re-board the plane to fly to Tokyo, the lady at the gate didn’t let me in. “You no boarding pass!” She sent me to some office at the other end of the airport and I ran there past scary army guys with kalashnikovs. At the service counter some fifty people were shouting at one lone unnerved lady wanting something from her. I managed to get through, in complete panic, since pressed for time, fearing the plane would leave without me, and begged her for a new boarding pass. She took my passport and the print out of the ticket and left the booth! I stone-cold panicked that moment, thinking I’d be stranded in Moscow without a passport. Heaven thank, the lady came back with some paper and my passport and told me that would allow me to get back onto the plane. I thanked her and ran back through the airport to my gate and hallelujah they let me on board just in time. The return journey through Moscow went smoother, but I was scared shitless on the flight back. Ever since I did not fly Aeroflot again.
Nowadays Aeroflot is a member of the Sky Team alliance for more than ten years already. They fly Airbus and Boeing and behave like any other airline.
When I checked in online the plane was packed. Hm, so many people are going to Moscow? So many people are bothering with the horrendous visa requirements?
A word on those later.

The miracle was solved when I got to Narita airport. The plane went to Paris via Moscow. It was packed due to start of golden week and tons of people going to Paris.
Arrived in Moscow, 80% of the travelers went to the international transfer lane and a few lone Russians and some Japanese and myself went to the “stay in Russia” lane 😉
The immigration officer lady was super friendly. I’ve never had such a friendly immigration officer anywhere. She thought I could speak Russian and when she found out I didn’t (I’ve forgotten everything from my half year Russian course as a teenager) she was going like, oh, but Regina is a Russian name. I told her it’s Latin and means queen and on the British coins it says Regina Elizabeth all the time. That was news to her ;-). Since everything was in order with my visa, she let me through, wishing me fun. What a difference to for example American immigration officers who treat you like a criminal. Next up was customs. Customs? Those were the least existing customs I’ve seen after an inter-continental flight. There were no customs, you just walks through and the customs officer is not even looking at you. There were four people in uniforms sitting in a corner chatting.
There was only one negative thing and that is that I’ve been screwed over big time at the money exchange. A bank lady in Japan told me that it’s better to bring USD to Russia rather than Yen. So I exchanged to USD at Narita and there was one single exchange booth before customs where I exchanged the dollar to Ruble for a horrible rate. After leaving customs, there were more booths with much better rates. Argh…

I suppose more research would have revealed that, but I’m not a big researcher when it comes to traveling. I book a flight, a hotel and see what happens. I researched more than usual for the Russia trip already anyway, for example how to get from Sheremetyevo airport to the city. Maybe more research would have revealed that you do not not not exchange money before customs, but after it. Anyway, lessons learned for if I should ever go back there. I am not in the habit of visiting a place twice without having a special reason, but I still have this fantasy of one day going by train to Vladivostok = doing the Trans Siberian railroad ride.
But at least I had researched that you do not use the “official” taxis if ever possible but better take the Aeroexpress train which goes to Bellorusia station. I even had bought a ticket online for that train and it’s well marked inside the airport and I could brush past all the “official” taxi guys.
But now a word about the visa. Even for a simple tourist visa you have to go through quite a painful process. The corner stones being your flight ticket, the longish and demanding visa application itself, for some countries, e.g. Germans, you have to have proof of a travel insurance and the worst thing is, you need to have an itinerary with your hotels on them on a special Russian format. If you go with a tour, I suppose they provide that for you, but I went on my own and what you do then is you email your hotel and ask them for the thing. My main hotel in Moscow directed me to a website with a link to the format and they let you list up to ten places and hotels. You then pay about 15 dollars for them to issue this paper. When you have all that you have to go in person to the Russian embassy and apply for the visa. In case of a tour you can let the travel agent do that for you, but if you go as a private person, you need to show up at the embassy twice, to apply and to get your passport back. When the story with the paper from the hotels came up, I was almost giving up on the adventure, but then pushed through with it.
So, and finally the second reason for why I wanted to go to Russia. I took the opportunity of my favorite metal band (Amorphis) playing in Moscow as an incentive to go 😉
I didn’t have a ticket yet though, since the homepage of the venue was all in Russian.
More about the gig and everything in between arrival and the gig (which was on the last day of my stay) in the next blog entries