|By Oneal Hector D'Cunha, Abu Dhabi [ Published Date: August 24, 2013 ]|
When I first floated the idea of visiting Russia several close acquaintances were surprised and threw apprehensions and naturally so for all the media hype, Hollywood cinemas especially James Bond taking on KGB that is portrayed as a rogue state, indeed a road less travelled and more so with a family. However here is a short synopsis of my tryst with the Russia.
A few wiki-facts to begin with. Russia is by far the largest country in the world geographically, shares its border with 12 countries, hosts a population of 150 million people, an GDP of 2 trillion USD and Moscow, the capital of Russia is called the city of billionaires. Having being a Tzardom, to an empire, later part of the soviet Union and since 1991 it is called the Russian Federation. Russia has finally got over its troubled past and is now on its way to be a real power, in the true sense of the term. Being a member of the permanent security council it holds a veto power.
Russia, a member of the BRICS, CIS, Russia remains a major economic and military power. History tells us that Russians, and especially Moscow city has also had the distinction of defeating two of the Europe’s greatest war lords: Napoleon and Hitler. Russia has been a pioneer in space exploration and created some of the greatest scientists, artists, painters, inventors, historians, socialists leaders. Therefore I was keen to see what lay behind the so called Iron Curtain.
Our visit covered two of the most important cities Moscow and St Petersburg. There is lots to see beginning with the iconic St Basil's cathedral followed by the Kremlin, the red square, the Mausoleum of Lenin, the Armory, the GUM shopping mall built over a 200 years ago are important highlights in Moscow. The Russian state library has about 40 million items including 18 million books. We also visited the cathedral of Christ the savior which is the tallest orthodox church in the world, The largest bell (that never rung) and the largest canon (that never fired) are remnants of the Russian tsars are adjacent to each other at the Kremlin. In fact all the major attractions in Moscow are in one location adjacent to each other and the only way to get around is walking. It is the central part of Moscow and indeed of Russia. Therefore one needs a good pair of shoes, lots of energy and a little money to spend a day or two at the Moscow central to explore on foot.
Moscow has also the worlds busiest McDonald’s. When McDonald’s first opened in Moscow 20 years ago, people queued up for almost 4 hours to get a sandwich and today there is a McDonald at every street corner, which are all busy. Same goes with cars, people drive luxurious imported cars and have done away from the good old Russian Lada. The traffic snarls are weary and besides Russians tend to drive very fast and caution must be observed. However there are plenty of underpasses which is a must to cross the roads. From the heights of space exploration Russia has also developed an excellent underground railway system. Moscow’s Underground Metro that is nearly 80 years old is excellent, also very reliable and most convenient too.
Some of the Russian metros are almost 86 meters deep and makes it the deepest underground in the world. Muscovite's maintain good discipline at least during the off-peak times that we used the metros. Of the 12 million people in Moscow, nearly 7 million use the metro each day making it the third most busiest metro in the world. There are several traditional concerts and ballets: Krostuma or the Russian National Dance which is played during the summer season only, goes through the history of Russia and gives an excellent version of most of the traditional dances from the advent of the Vikings to the current democratic Russia.
Our next destination was St Petersburg. There is a high speed train available from Moscow to St Petersburg called Sapsan that is very luxurious and chugs up to 240 KPH. Covers 650+ Kms in less than 4 hours. Advanced booking through Internet is possible and needed especially during the high tourist seasons. One can get an excellent view of the Russian countryside if it is the day time journey. St Petersburg is also called the Venice of the North for its replica and a much larger version of Italian Venice. Geographically it is close to Finland. Peter the great built the city from the scratch 300 years ago, after visiting the Western Europe in disguise and moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St Petersburg. The city was also called Petrograd and later to Leningrad during the soviet times and is now renamed St Petersburg.
The city has given Russia some of the great leaders including Lenin and the current president Putin. There is a lot to do and see at St Petersburg. The Peterhof palace, St Catherine's Palace are amazing for the imperial grandeur and royalty. Peterhof overlooks the gulf of Finland and was built as an answer to Palace of Versailles in France. The winter palace also called hermitage consists of 1050 rooms and is said to take 11 years to view In detail and is now dubbed as the worlds largest museums, ahead of Louvre of France; due to paucity of time we wound up the visit in 3 hours. We took some time off to watch the Russian Circus too. One of the important phenomenon in St Petersburg are the white nights where the nights are reduced to 3-4 hours only and on the 22nd of June it gets dark only for 45 minutes. Once again the Metros in this city of 5 million is excellent and are in fact are supposedly the most beautiful metros in the world, which have been used as museums, art galleries, war cabinets at various times in history.
Getting the visa to Russia is simplified as there are several authorized agents in the UAE that process your visa which includes cost of the visa, invitation letter from hotels, insurance and a small service fee etc all bundled into one. Getting local English speaking tour guides in Moscow and St Petersburg is also reliable through online. There are daily flights both to Moscow and St Petersburg from Abu Dhabi and Dubai and other airlines. The time zone is the same as Abu Dhabi, with +4 GMT.
Food is excellent in Russia, with my favorite being the borsh soup. Also a wide choice of steaks, salads and every known fast food of the western world. While language can be a constraint as English not widely spoken in Moscow and most signage’s are in Cyrillic script,
however St Petersburg is much more cosmopolitan. Change is visible and there is rapid development all around. Due to the iron curtain and the socialists ideals Russians for some unknown reason had forgotten how to smile and those are fast returning and turning into giggles. The world is now vising Russia like never before and Russians are accommodating them with open arms like the living Matryoshka (Russian dolls).