From Russia With Love, Part I, or I Never Expected Moscow to Steal My Heart

From Russia With Love, Part I, or I Never Expected Moscow to Steal My Heart

Roll back to March 3, 2016.  I left my home in the small village of Xiashan, that I had grown to love.  At 7:30 am, I boarded a train for a 10-hour ride to my new home in Changning, Hunan, China.  Upon arrival, I met my new roommate, Yulia.  Yulia was from Moscow, Russia, actually, Dolgoprudny Moscow Region and had spent a year studying Chinese in Suzhou.  Definitely a plus for me is she had fairly good Chinese language skills.  We moved into our apartment and soon became fast friends, both enjoying cooking and sharing an evening cocktail or two.  She often skyped with her mom and told me many stories of life in Russia and even made borscht for me after we acquired some beets during an excursion to Hong Kong.  I had planned on buying a scooter for my time in Changning, but couldn’t bring myself to do it after Yulia told me how she walked one hour each way to her University in Russia.  Our walk to school was 20 minutes at best and we also had a transportation allowance for taxis during inclement weather. Our time together, came to an end much too quickly, a mere 4 months.  We tried our best to be placed together for our next teaching term.  It just didn’t work out.  With promises of keeping in touch and me promising to visit Moscow, I moved to Qingdao and Yulia returned to Russia.  We all make those big promises to keep in touch and although we mean well, often it just doesn’t happen.  Every now and again, we would catch up on WeChat or Instagram, but that was pretty much the extent of it.


Me and Yulia in Changning, Hunan CHina


Fast forward to June 2017, I had left Qingdao in February and landed in Dong’e County.  I would be making a trip to the states in July and found myself with some extra time at the end of June.  That promise to visit Yulia was always lurking in the back of my mind.  Honestly, Russia had never been a bucket list item for me, but living in China, I would probably never be closer to Russia than right now.  Out of the blue, I contacted Yulia and was like, hey, I’m coming to Moscow. Is that cool?  Where do you live so I can find a hotel? Luckily for me, she was on summer break from the school she where was teaching and she was thrilled I was coming to visit.  Her mother insisted I stay with them during my trip, to which I agreed.  Problem, we didn’t think about the visa I had to have.  I won’t go into that here because you can read about that madness in this post:

After solving the visa madness, I finally boarded a plane in Beijing on June 22 for Moscow, Russia.  Like I said, Russia was never a bucket list item and I realized I basically knew very little about it.  When I thought of Russia, I thought of the cold war and pictured a huge country grey, cold and unwelcoming.  I pictured Olga Korbut and the Russian hockey team overshadowed by chants of USA, USA, and a funny looking alphabet.  I thought of the letters U.S.S.R., but also pictured a gingerbread looking church of which I didn’t even know the name. I was thinking of St. Basil’s. I had heard of Red Square the Kremlin but thought the Kremlin was a building and of course, I knew Putin was the president, all Russians eat borscht and drink vodka.  There you have it, my so-called knowledge of Russia.  All of my excitement was about seeing Yulia and meeting her mom, other than that I really had no expectations.  Although, I did want a selfie at St. Basil’s.


Beet salad, meat, cheese, black bread, and Georgian wine.


Arriving late afternoon, Yulia met me at the airport and we headed to her home in Dolgoprudny, which is considered Moscow region.  Her mother had meats and cheeses, a beet salad, black bread and Georgian wine waiting to welcome me.  An interesting fact, Georgian wine just became legal in Russia in 2016.  I told Yulia my only “must do” was a selfie at St. Basil’s.  She replied, “don’t worry, I have plenty of things planned for us to do”.  That evening, under beautiful blue skies and fluffy white clouds which I don’t often see in China, we took a stroll in the brisk air along the river near her apartment where the riverboat cruises travel. On our way home we stopped at an open-air restaurant for some traditional Russian food.  Back home we settled in for a rest as Yulia told me she had a big day planned for tomorrow.


An evening stroll along the river



The next morning after some coffee, cheeses, meats and leftover beet salad we got ready to head into central Moscow.  The day was a bit dreary, luckily, the only one of my trip, we took a short 10-minute walk to the bus station, followed by a 20 minute or so bus ride to the first metro station taking us into the city.  Yulia told me I would LOVE the metro.  Boy, was she right.  The metro stations are like wonderful art museums.


Beautiful Moscow Metro


The metro opened in 1935 with one 11 km (6.8 miles) line and 13 stations. The metro now has 212 stations covering 360 km (220 miles), making it the 6th longest in the world.  The Moscow metro is an artistic and architectural wonder.  The artists and architects designed a structure that embodied svet (radiance or brilliance) and svetloe budushchee (a radiant future).  With their reflective marble walls, high ceilings, and grand chandeliers, many Moscow Metro stations have been likened to an “artificial underground sun”. This palatial underground environment reminded riders that their tax rubles had been well spent on svetloe budushchee.  Thank you, Wikipedia.  If you get to Moscow, I encourage to spend time just traveling metro station to metro station.  Yulia and I often went extra stations and then turned around and went back just so I could see the beauty.


Moscow Metro


Leaving the metro system we started walking toward the Moskva or Moscow River which flows through central Moscow to the Oka River a tributary of the Volga and finally into the Caspian Sea.  They were taking me on an hour-long river cruise to view Moscow from a different perspective.  They had wanted to take me to Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, but, for the first time in over 1000 years, the bone fragments of 4th century St. Nicholas were moved from their resting place in Italy to the Cathedral in Moscow. The queues were hours/day long. St. Nicholas is a favorite saint among Russians (I don’t know why) and many Russian Churches are named after him.  We passed the massive queues and continued to the river for our cruise.  After the cruise, we walked to the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basils. These are all in the same area or basically on the perimeter of Red Square.  Let’s start with the Kremlin.  The Kremlin, my lack of Russian knowledge thought the Kremlin was a building. NOT…….it is a walled fortress. The word Kremlin actually means fortress inside a city.  The Kremlin is enclosed by the Kremlin Wall and Kremlin Towers of which there were originally 18. Inside the Kremlin Walls are 5 palaces and 4 cathedrals and the Grand Kremlin Palace.  The complex also houses the residence of the President of the Russian Federation, currently Putin.  He happened to be “in the house” when Yulia and I visited the Kremlin (on a different day) but she didn’t think it was a good idea to go knock on the door.


Cathedral of Christ the Savior with the St. Nicholas’ Bone Fragments


We continued walking along the outside of the Kremlin Walls to the entrance to Red Square.  We passed the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and I got to see the end of the changing of the guards.  Then we walked through Alexander’s Garden’s which was one of the first urban public parks in Moscow. From here we came to the entrance to Red Square which is marked by kilometer zero.  It is good luck to stand on KZ and toss a coin over your shoulder, which I did and I consider myself to be rather lucky in this life.  I have now stood on kilometer zero in Madrid, Paris and Moscow.  Kilometer zero is supposed to be the point from which all distances in a country are measured.  After I tossed my coin and got a photo, we proceeded to the entrance to Red Square.  Before we entered, Yulia pointed out a small church. When I say small I mean like a room smaller than my bedroom.  I stopped in for a minute as there was a service going on.  I believe it was St Peter and Paul, but I haven’t been able to find any info.  We then walked through the gates and there was St. Basil’s in all it’s glory. And, yes it does look like a gingerbread church.  Yes, I got my selfie.  The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed is commonly known as St. Basil’s and was built 1555 to 1561.  The building is now a museum. Also on Red Square is Kazan Cathedral and the GUM Department Store and was known as the state department store during Soviet Times.  GUM is amazing and takes up an entire city block and definitely worth a visit.


Kremlin Wall and Tower


Wow, what a day. After leaving Red Square, Yulia had chosen a lovely restaurant for our dinner and then we headed home.  I had thought it was the time change that had kicked my butt, but Yulia’s mom, Marina, checked her watch or whatever calculates mileage and we had walked 12 km or 7.5 miles.  No wondered I was pooped and this is only really day one.


A toast to friendship


Day one, I have already fallen in love with Moscow.  In the words of Frederick Buechner, “ One life on this earth is all that we get, whether it is enough or not enough, and the obvious conclusion would seem to be that at the very least we are fools if we do not live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can”.

Stay tuned for From Russia With Love or I never Expected Moscow to Steal My Heart Part II

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier





Small Church at the Entrance to Red Square




Red Square



Selfie with Kremlin Guard


Selfie with the bus driver



GUM Department Store




Required Selfie at St. Basil’s