Well... actually, for the first time. And Moscow is more accurate, which is now Russia. But other than that, it is pretty close to the song lyrics :).
This is the furthest that I have gone into Eastern Europe (not counting Asia, because, well... that is not Europe!) For a while, I was not sure if I would actually make it, since the visa application process was, without a doubt, the most tedious, time-consuming one that I have experienced to date. Not only did I have to fill out the application twice for submittal, but one of the questions -- "Identify all the countries that you have visited in the past 10 years and the years that you visited those countries" -- resulted in a few hours of investigation that I was not expecting. I stopped at 51 because I could not fit any more in the space provided. But, I got the visa in plenty of time (okay... two days) before I left home.
I must admit that before arriving at the airport, I felt a little anxious... mainly about getting from the airport to the hotel. I had been warned to be wary of "Need a taxi?" offers, and after getting some rubles from the ATM and then clearing the much-more-efficient-than-I-expected immigration area, I saw why. I stuck to the plan that had been presented to me -- go straight to the taxi stand in the airport and do not accept any other offers -- and after a 45 minute wait, I was on the way. My driver was very talented... he could drive, smoke a cigarette, talk on a cell phone (holding it to his ear), and shift the manual transmission all at the same time. No kidding.
I arrived at night, so I did not see much on the way to the hotel... only the snow that had fallen previously and white birch trees. And the crackle of studded snow tires, which seem to be used by most this time of year.
The reason for my visit is to play part in an event for recruiting Bentley Partners.
We hosted a half-day session that eventually continued into the afternoon. Presentations, some materials, and real-time translations were in native language (my colleagues in Moscow really deserve kudos for that, particularly since some of that presentations/information was provided later in the process). The pre- and post-event one-on-ones were as valuable as, if not more than, the actual event itself, but that was really one of the purposes of the event. In all, it was a very successful event.
After the event, we hiked about 3KM over to The Kremlin and Red Square, stopping at various places along the way.
What an amazing take that was. It looks totally different in person than it does on the telly. And in the winter, there seems to be something extra in the air (and it is not air pollution :)
The Kremlin is on the right. Lenin's tomb is sort of between the Kremlin and the cathedral. The cathedral was incredible just by itself. The area with the blue building towards the left of the shot was a huge skating rink (being used by a lot of people). Over on the other side of the square (on the other side of the skating rink) was a very long building that was *outlined* (very tastefully) with lights...
One thing that was very obvious was the alphabet used. The Russian (or Cyrillic) alphabet shares some characteristics with what I am familiar with, but not much. Check this out as an example:
Thank goodness for branding :) After a while (and before researching on the Internet), we were able to figure out what some letters were, eventually starting to read words like "Stop", "Restaurant", "Cafe", "Park", etc. Oh, and speaking of McDonald's... I popped into the one on Red Square and had to pass through metal detectors to get in. That was a first for me. We even learned a few of essential words, like the all-important spashibo (thank you).
The subway system is incredibly large, but very clean and very efficient. The depth below the surface and the layout of the stations reminded me a lot of Prague, which should not be that surprising, since they were constructed during the Cold War for a secondary purpose of being shelters. I noticed at one station that the trim on the escalators was real wood... all the way along the escalator. Word has it that the amount of people that use the subway in Moscow each day equals that of Tokyo PLUS New York. Now THAT is incredible... having now been on all three systems!
My colleague and I took the subway on our own the last day we were there over to Gorky Park. When I asked the concierge to make sure that we had the right directions, he looked at me with a strange look and asked "Gorky Park? Why do you want to go there?" Evidently, he had not heard that there was a book written about it, but after walking through the park, I could sort of understand why he asked... it is just a park.
One thing that was interesting about the park that time of year is that water is sprayed on the walkways and freezes. Most people in the park brought ice skates to get around... since we did not bring ours, we walked around VERY carefully. Still, it was a nice take.
Moscow is an extremely expensive city (even by European standards) and can be challenging to get things accomplished. Just for comparison, internet access from the hotel, which usually runs around $20/day in places that charge for it, was $50/day in Moscow. Similar trends exist for food at restaurants or even sodas in vending machines. That said, Moscow city proper appears a lot more "capitalized" than I expected. There is also an incredible amount of construction going on... as would be expected in most big cities.
Next stop on this trip... Beijing.
Great story Phil! I had the opportunity to spend a week in Moscow when it was still the USSR and very much under communist rule. Did you have a chance to visit the GUM department store, which, IIRC is adjacent to St. Basil.