After waiting for nearly a year after booking my trip to Russia the day had finally arrived and I couldn’t be more excited! The week prior was a bit nerve wracking as my tourist visa had been in processing for over a month and questions were asked about specialized weapons training due to my military background. It finally arrived and I could rest easier allowing myself to ponder other questions such as whether I should take the new Mavic Pro drone with me…we’ll talk about that a bit later!
As always I continue to fly with American Airlines and needless to say I was ecstatic to learn I received a complimentary upgrade to business class seating – my first international flight in the lay-down seating cubicles and wow was it comfortable and the service was top-notch making my first leg from Raleigh to London fantastic. London Heathrow Airport can be a bit overwhelming for your first visit but after what seemed like miles of corridors I arrived at the British Airways gate for my next leg into Moscow. I wasn’t as fortunate with this flight seated in coach while staring at the many available business class seats. The airline had told me previously after inquiring that “We aren’t as nice as American but you’re welcome to buy an upgrade if you’d like”. Fortunately I was in a good seat and able to continue working on some spreadsheets.
Upon arrival at DME airport in Moscow I was extremely anxious to get out and explore this incredible country rich with history and fascinating architecture. I quickly discovered that wasn’t going to happen as customs was a very, very slow process, especially when no one spoke English. It took a little over an hour to finally make it through customs and now it was time to get a taxi to my hotel in the center of Moscow. My first hard lesson was about to be learned. A very official airport officer asked me if I needed a taxi and I nodded yes. He brought me over to the counter and another gentleman showed me the rate chart for different parts of the city. I read online weeks prior it was going to cost about $75 but hadn’t done the conversion to rubles yet…first mistake! The chart showed 9,100py and I thought that seemed high but this was an airport worker so he couldn’t lead me astray – or so I thought. After paying the fee I noticed he took about 5,000 rubles from what I gave him and handed it back to the guy I spoke with initially who then waved me to follow him outside. He walked me to a taxi and handed the driver about 1,500 rubles and pocketed the rest as he walked away. My total taxi fare was approximately $150 instead of $50. Had I been able to get my phone connected online with my global data package I purchased I might have had a different outcome – thanks Verizon! While sitting in my taxi I finally connected and discovered an Uber ride would have been about 2000py or $35…that was my last taxi ride this trip.
Traffic was extremely backed up and the 40-minute ride took almost 2 hours with what seemed like the entire city under construction...literally. We arrived at the InterContinental Hotel Moscow – Tverskaya which was only a 15-minute walk from the Kremlin and a beautiful hotel with a very helpful staff who spoke English thankfully, as I was still having difficulty learning how to say please and thank you in Russian. I quickly looked around the room noting all the wonderful amenities and luxurious accommodations provided knowing I wouldn’t really see or use them since I tend to walk and take photos with almost no rest…need to maximize the brief time I have so sleeping would have to take a back seat for the week. Unpacking would be a waste of time as I only had a few hours of daylight available so I unloaded my double harness and strapped both Canon 5D Mark III cameras on either side. On the right side, I had my Canon f/2.8L 24-70mm lens and on the left, my Canon f/2.8L 70-200mm lens for a little more reach. I grabbed some extra batteries, tripod and wide-angle lens tossing them into a smaller backpack and it was time to begin the walk.
The construction was present everywhere and the weather forecast for my entire duration was not good…unseasonably cold and rainy. I was disappointed but wasn’t going to let that get me down…I was walking through the heart of Russia! I walked down Tverskaya Road leading directly to the Red Square with all of its treasures. The architecture was amazing and couldn’t help but stop frequently to take urban photos despite knowing the prizes that awaited further down the road. Some of the highlights I planned on seeing today were the Pushkin Monument, Yury Dolgoruky Monument, Bolshoi Theatre & Kazan Cathedral in addition to at least walking through the Red Square.
As the sun began to drop I was absolutely in awe of the impressive structures within the square. People were everywhere but not crowded. I quickly noticed some differences in culture during my walk. No one ever really makes eye contact with you as you pass by. No friendly smiles or head nods were made…maybe I looked a little silly with all my camera gear lol. No, I realized they didn’t do that with others passing by either, although lots of laughing and smiles were shared between the couples and groups walking together. Men would often be walking with an arm around the other or arm in arm although typically older, while women and girls would frequently hold hands. Outfits varied considerably but seemed most women were dressed well and wore beautiful scarves and high heeled shoes. Many men would have on a sport coat and dress shoes even with jeans.
As I took in the scene I heard an all-too familiar sound above me…someone was flying a Mavic Pro drone in the Red Square with a long string attached to a flower bouquet! I started searching for the pilot wondering how quickly the KGB would pop-up out of thin air tackling them, no doubt to be dragged to a secret location for questioning! Surprisingly the many officers that were present everywhere in Russia did nothing but look on with little interest. The drone and flowers were lowered to a young lady in front of the main gate entrance next to the bronze statue and was apparently a unique and creative wedding proposal from the pilot I found not far from my location. She seemed confused at first but finally reached up and grabbed the goods while showing her excitement to all around her. I brought the drone with me but was somewhat nervous after reading about some of the stories online from other pilots, especially those living outside of Russia…but not nervous enough to leave it at home. Using Google translate I asked one of the officers flying here was permitted. He looked at me and pointed saying You? Niet!
With much difficulty in staying on task, I proceeded past many incredible sites but had to see the biggest prize of all – St. Basils Cathedral with its iconic onion domes and candy-like colors. Like the construction all over the city I was disappointed to see the vast majority of the Red Square was fenced and lots of event structures were being built for some type of reading festival. Not just any festival however…these semi-permanent structures were being built all over the city complete with historic reenactments at an unprecedented scale. As impressive as it was I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty wishing it was a week later so I could get the photos I came to capture. Maybe another visit someday! It was truly impressive thinking about how much history had occurred right where I was walking. How splendid the city looked and rich with life even in the chilly air and rainy weather. It was only a few hours of daylight but what a fantastic first day!
The next few days were a continuance of the first. I walked an average of 15-20 miles per day exploring the city approximately 20 hours with 4 hours rest. Needless to say my feet were not happy with me and sure to let me know. The pain was almost unbearable the last two days and I felt like I was part of the reenactment as the Hunchback of Notre Dame with my backpack and hobbling everywhere, but I wasn’t going to let the titanium rods, plates, screws and lack of an ankle on one side prevent me from seeing as much of the city as possible…I’d recover in a few days back home. Aside from the spectacular city views I saw walking street to street, some of the notable and iconic visits were inside the Kremlin, tour through the Armory, Dormition Cathedral, State Historical Museum, GUM, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the many parks dotting the city along the Moscow river. Along the way I had to try plenty of food of course. The street vendors would often cook using a wood or charcoal grill and tasted great. One Russian restaurant had some unique offerings where I was able to try elk, venison, lamb chops and black bear!
Day three was a new type of excitement. I was taking a high-speed train from Moscow to St. Petersburg and would take almost 4 hours at over 200kph. Once I arrived and began my walk from Moskovskiy Train Station to the many predetermined points of interest, ultimately ending at my hotel for the night. St. Petersburg was vastly different from Moscow and appeared to have much more French influence in the buildings and architecture. I couldn’t stop taking pictures everywhere I turned. The weather was on and off rain like it had been for my entire trip so far, and still cold enough to snow and sleet twice. I was in severe pain from walking and having my camera backpack and cameras strapped on my shoulders not to mention cold and wet, but it was so worth seeing everything. My first big site was The Church of the Savior on Blood. I was awe-struck…such a beautiful church and p
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