On a February morning in 1993 we leave for Brussels International Airport Zaventem. our flight leaves with a 25 minute delay. It’s my first experience with flying and I’m very excited about it. At 6:30 p.m. local time we arrive at Sheremjevo Airport near Moscow. Outside it’s a mess with taxi drivers arguing and shouting. Our bus driver drives like a maniac, but later it will turn out that everyone here does that.
Our hotel is simple and outdated. The water from the tap bathroom looks like diluted milk and smells like chlorine. The water from the shower on the other hand is brownish. The food in the hotel restaurant is the opposite of tasty. I don’t eat much of it. After dinner I join some others from our group who are going out into the city. We buy tokens for the metro (about 1 cent each) and a little later we arrive at the Red Square. This is amazing. I know the Red Square from television and here I am. An ordinary Dutch guy in the midst of the famous Red Square in Moscow. The Russian flag is waving above the Kremlin, otherwise only black sky and the snow on the trees in front of the Kremlin wall. Very impressive.
It’s the middle of the night and yet local women are standing on street corners offering food and drink for sale. This is is illegal though. Just when a couple of us are talking to one of the women, policemen in a Lada drive past, notice what’s going on, and try to turn around so quickly at the crossroads that they end up making a pirouette. We quickly leave the scene. At 1:30 a.m. we are back at the hotel. I’m tired and happy to go to sleep.
The next morning we go on a city tour, which will take us to all the Moscow highlights. We start at the University of Moscow, Sparrow Hill, which used to be called Lenin Hill and from where you look out over the Moskva River and the Olympic Stadium. Here we first encounter fanatical fur hat sellers. Moscow looks gray and somber. Everyone seems to live in appartment buildings. There are no children playing in the streets. You can’t see it from the bus, but behind the windows of many appartment buildings, people live in poverty. People pay no rent, however, it’s provided by the state. People only pay for gas, electricity and water, just a few cents.
Moscow has many monuments and statues of Lenin (although most of them have been removed), Marx and astronaut Gagarin. In the Red Square we witness the changing of the guard. Those guards stand at the entrance of the Lenin Mausoleum for half a day, without moving. What a job. Our visit to the mausoleum for me is truly the most impressive event this trip. In a darkened room, in a glass coffin, lit by spotlights, lies the man who called on the Russians to revolutionize and who died in 1924(!). He’s lying there as if he could go for lunch any moment. Very impresive! Next visit the largest church in Moscow and after lunch at the hotel, we visit two museums. One of them also has Dutch paintings.
It’s s about six degrees below freezing during the day, at night temperatures drop to about minus 20-30. Out on the streets we are constantly being approached by pushy sellers of fur hats, watches and matryoshkas. Begging children cling to you as well. It makes a strange feeling creeping up on me. It’s not really safe to walk alone in the streets as a tourist. You are very recognizable as a (rich) tourist and before you know it your money is gone. During this trip, no less than thirteen people of our group of sixty will be robbed.
Our hotel has two bars. One is the ‘ruble bar’, where you pay with Russian rubles, and there is also a bar where you can only pay with American dollars. In the evening, my friend and I go to the ‘ruble bar’, where we order two vodkas. The lady behind the bar hands us two bottles (!) of vodka, with two glasses. It’s well past midnight when I go to sleep. The next morning I pay heavily for having too much vodka… When I join the goup again in the afternoon, we take a tour along the most beautiful metro stations in Moscow. I think Moscow is more beautiful underground than above. After this we go to a large shopping street. It’s all about street sales here. In the evening, after a long drive, we visit a Russian folk evening with traditional music and dancing. Quite nice.
On our last day in Moscow we visit a monastery which is the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a 1.5 hour drive. I have little interest in monasteries and you have to pay extra if you want to take photos. In the afternoon we visit an ‘arbat’, a kind of market where they sell matryoshkas, watches, fur hats, t-shirts, and other touristy stuff. After dinner we have to pack our things, because at 7:45 p.m. we have to be ready to leave for Sheremjevo I airport. At 10:50 p.m. we leave on a domestic flight to St. Petersburg. I’m quite tired. We have a packed schedule, spend a lot of time on the bus because distances are so big and of course I go to bed way too late every day. During the flight I can barely keep my eyes open. Arriving at St. Petersburg the pilot descends at a dizzying speed and after leaving the aircraft we have to wait in the freezing cold for some time, after which a rickety bus takes us to the building that is supposed to be the airport. Fortunately our hotel turns out to be quite an improvement. At least this is a proper hotel. At 1:30 a.m. I go to sleep.
After a nice breakfast buffet we take a city tour. St. Petersburg has a much more ‘western’ feel to it. At least they have real street lighting here. The architectural style is also very different. According to our guide, this is partly due to French, German and some Dutch architects (I guess he says that to please us). The city is located in a river delta and therefore has quite a few bridges. Most of the buildings are from the time of Tsar Peter I. After lunch we go to the famous Hermitage. This used to be a winter palace of the Tsar, now it’s a museum. The large halls and the overwhelming luxury are impressive.
The next morning I fall back to sleep after turning off the alarm and therefore almost miss the bus. We drive for half an hour to two other former summer palaces of the Tsar that have been converted into museums. Taking photos costs extra here as well. In dollars please. I’m getting a bit tired of all those museums, but I guess I’m tired anyway. After lunch we visit another ‘arbat’ and walk a bit about the city center. In a department store it’s very busy at the ground floor, where the cheap, everyday stuff can be found. The higher up you go in the building, which has five or six floors, the more expensive the things get. And the more quiet. On the higher levels we find western brands coffee, washing powder, deodorant and such, very expensive for the average Russian. Weird.
After dinner, a part of the group goes to a ballet performance, I join a few others to go to a cinema. For a small amount we see a very bad American film with a Russian voiceover that does all the voices in the film. Afterwards we walk around a bit and then go for a drink a the hotel bar.
The next morning I skip the visit to a cathedral and a museum and instead sleep in. It’s the last day of our trip. When we walk about the city center in the afternoon, there is a cold wind. We do some shopping and then return to the hotel. At 7 a.m. the next morning we leave for the airport. Back at Brussels Airport, the long bus journey home awaits. No snow here. I set my watch back to Dutch time and take a familiar bus, down a familiar environment, to a familiar bed, but with my mind filled with a great experience.