My trip to Russia was a last minute affair- an e-mail sent to my boyfriend about a cheap plane ticket from JFK ($397 round trip- amazing, I know) and only two weeks to secure visas. I had no idea of what to expect from Russia, but was really excited to go. I should’ve realized what an adventure I was in for as I tried to navigate my way through the visa process. You must have a visa to travel to Russia and the embassy says to submit your application at least two weeks in advance of your trip. In order to submit your application though, you have to have a written invitation from someone in Russia inviting you to their country. I got our invitations from the train company from which I purchased our overnight travel to and from Moscow and St. Petersburg.* Completed visa forms and invitations in hand, I drove to the Russian Embassy in DC and submitted our paperwork with exactly two weeks to go. I was handed a note that said I could pick up our visas the following week. We were going to Russia!
The journey started with an hour drive to DC, a near miss of the MegaBus to NYC (their boarding location had just changed and we didn’t realize it until 10 minutes to bus departure), a subway ride to JFK, and a 9-hour flight to Moscow. That night we took the midnight sleeper train to St. Petersburg and woke, exhausted, the next morning in the Imperial City.
Traveling can be a humbling experience. In Russia I’m basically mute and illiterate. Russians use the cyrillic alphabet, which shares little in common with our Roman alphabet. I can’t even fudge my way through the country by kind of being able to tell what stuff is, like when I travel to Europe or Latin America. Very few Russians speak English and when I come across someone who does I am so thankful. Meals are the most frustrating time of the day. Unless there is a picture menu, and even sometimes when there is, you have no idea what will come out of the kitchen. Sushi is really popular here, as are 24 hour coffee houses. Sushi is great, but it’s like $10 a roll. Prices in Russia are shocking and you can’t escape a meal for two people in a cheap restaurant for under $40 (drinks seem to average $3-4).
We’ve hit all the main sites in St. Petersburg- the Admiralty, Peter and Paul’s Fortress, the Eternal Flame, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage, Catherine the Great’s Palace, Pavlovsk Palace, a bunch of parks filled with snow, a number of other churches, a mosque, and a synagogue. We do a lot of walking and it’s bitterly cold outside. It takes some time to get ready to brave the outdoors- I pile on long johns, pants, two shirts, two pairs of socks, a pair of knee-length boots, two jackets, two scarves, two hats, and a pair of gloves. I’m glad we came here in the winter, though, because it’s what you envision when you think of Russia. I am sorry that we missed all of the summer fountains and the green, well manicured parks, but it is really cool to see the river and canals frozen and covered in snow.
Yesterday was an off day- my feet hurt from three long days of sightseeing, I was frustrated from not understanding or being understood, and the constant cold was getting to me. I also hadn't adjusted too well with the jetlag. I felt like that 80s commercial, "this is you brain; this is your brain on drugs"- all scrambled up. At the end of the day I was grumpy and ready to sleep, but before bed we stopped to use the internet in a cafe. As I was sitting there, I thought to myself- I’m sitting in a coffee shop, knitting...in Russia. How cool is that?! And today, my last day in St. Petersburg, was great.
*If you are planning a trip to Russia you can also secure invitations from hotels when you book them and there are also services that charge a fee to issue you an invitation. If you don’t live near the embassy you can’t mail your visa application directly, but instead have to use a service.