After an uneventful flight to JFK, we checked in at Terminal 1 for our Aeroflot flight to Moscow. I don’t think we’ve ever been in Terminal 1 in JFK before, but I’ll say this: the place is a zoo. Flights are departing to every imaginable destination with every imaginable culture being jammed through the same customer-friendly TSA security protocols. The people-watching was entertaining to say the least during our wait there. Check-in at the Aeroflot (Russian airline) desk provided some cultural hints at our next destination. For one thing, it’s interesting how ethnically diverse Russian people are. I mean, it’s easy to imagine a stereotype like Ivan Drago (Rocky IV), and there are definitely some of those around. However, there are a lot of Russians who look far more “asian,” as well as all shades in between. We were some of the very few tourists on the flight, but I don’t think it was our physical appearance that made that obvious. The one thing that all the Russians on the flight seemed to have in common was TONS of baggage. Ridiculous amounts piled up on rolling carts. These guys went shopping, big time, and they were bringing home insane loads of stuff. So there were Martha and I with our little backpacks, and when we were finally able to check in the lady seemed a little incredulous that we hadn’t/weren’t checking any bags. Our flight was delayed a couple hours from thunderstorms which was a little annoying but we eventually got out of JFK around 10 pm. Aeroflot flight staff are dressed really tidy, with the female flight attendants wearing these bright red (ok Martha, vermillion) dresses with matching hats and white gloves. All the uniforms have stylized hammer and scythe logos on the chest and/or sleeves which was pretty cool looking. Once up in the air, the flight itself was about nine and a half hours. Sleep? Well, if you read our section called “packing” you know that I originally planned on bringing a big inflatable pillow called the “cabin comfort.” Well, I have to say that after attempts at using it to and from Mexico, I faced the reality that this was not going to be the magical answer to sleeping comfortably during a long flight. So…. the “cabin comfort” pillow was left behind in Jacksonville, saving a little space and weight. Now, that being said, I did sleep comfortably, quite comfortably in fact, through the entire flight. In a word: Temazepam. Two of these sleeping pills and I was dead to the world for the next eight hours. Martha had Ambien which works well for her, but I’m half crazy as it is so I’m worried that Ambien might evoke some insane parasomnias in me, so I avoid them. I don’t want a sleeping pill reaction to result in spending the flight handcuffed and then in a detention cell in Moscow. Benzodiazepines are usually pretty predictable on their own so I got a script for enough to cover the flights on this trip. Anyway, we both arrived in Moscow around 3:30 pm local time, fairly well rested.
After checking in at our hostel and dropping off some stuff, we took a stroll down to red square as the sun was starting to get a little low in the sky. Red square is HUGE. And clean. I love that it’s kept devoid of any vendors or junk cluttering up the public space. As you first crest through the gates, the view of St. Basil’s Cathedral off in the distance is really stunning. Harsher, more angular buildings frame the square on each side as it leads to the cathedral at the end. The most striking thing about the cathedral is just how small it is for such an iconic building. We were definitely happy to get there as the sun softened and get some great pics. The crowds were pretty manageable too.
After exploring red square a bit we were both starting to tread into the “hungurgency” realm and the pressing concern became dinner. Well, after withdrawing enough rubles from an ATM at the airport to cover our hostel stay, we were now without ANY hard currency. We had tried to pull out some more cash at an ATM on the way, but it now rejected our card and said to notify the bank. And yeah, the “international collect” number on the back of the card isn’t very helpful when the operator only speaks Russian. So, at this point we were counting on our credit card for dinner. We went to a mall adjacent to red square called “gum mall” (but of course spelled out in those crazy ass backwards letters). We went to a place that served potatoes stuffed with all manner of Russian culinary deliciousness like beets and mushrooms and all kinds of gravies and unidentifiable and unpronounceable mixtures. For mine, I chose eggplant madness sauce with some kind of pickle and mushroom combination. Martha went with a simpler and more delicious giant mushrooms and cheese. We also grabbed a popular local beverage called “kvass.” It’s closest to a beer I guess, but also could be called a “rye soda.” It’s a little alcoholic, but mostly it’s a refreshing beer-like thirst quencher. We both liked it, although I think I liked it a little more. Anyway, headed home (sunset was like 11 pm here, yikes), tore into the ATM people over the phone and solved those issues, did a little grocery shopping, and off to bed for a full day tomorrow!
My first impressions of the city are excellent: it’s clean (cleaner than NYC, not as clean as Tokyo), organized, and overall the people seem pretty pleasant and friendly. Getting around is a little tricky since everything is written in their weird backwards alphabet. I mean, even things that should easily be recognizable (like say, a Starbucks) often aren’t. Of course, Martha already memorized the Cyrillic alphabet so we should be fine, she practically speaks Russian now right?
I remember watching some Discovery Channel shows highlighting the current prosperity in Russia and the emerging market here for luxury goods. So, I guess it really wasn’t a huge surprise to see the plethora of designer clothing and jewelry shops downtown here. Taking in the totality of the whole brand-conscious materialism here was somehow a little surprising though. Maybe it was just such a huge jump from our last stop in Mexico that it is a little jarring to the senses. The mall we went through near red square really put some of this on display. It was quite an incredible mall, three stories with three sweeping rows of shops all connected like a giant tic-tac-toe board.
Do you know the most expensive SUV in the world? You know, the one with the whale penis leather interior and gold plated bulletproof glass? Seriously. Yeah, that’s right, the Russian-made one. Well, I gotta say, I think I understand now why something like that might emerge from Russia. Why? Because Russians will buy it. They’ll buy it, and they’ll love it. It’s a culture right at home in Asia, loving luxury and boutique brands…. and right at home in the southern U.S. loving big trucks and guns. I can appreciate that. It’s definitely a fun city to explore and the people watching is priceless. Heading to bed now, and I’ll leave you with a couple of blurry pics I snapped hurriedly showing the kind of stuff I’m talking about.