Moscow Visitors

I feel so lucky to have had visitors during my three years in Moscow. There’s nothing better than showing people you love around your new town. I continue to explore Moscow and having visitors is an awesome excuse to get to all those places I’ve put off or haven’t seen in a while.

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In March, my good friend Katie came for a visit. I’m sure her vacation destination was a bit of surprise to her fellow teachers but she made an amazing effort of it, traveling all the way from Minnesota on her spring break. A strong solo traveler, she took in Moscow while I worked and even trekked to St. Petersburg on her own. For those wondering, seeing both cities is definitely doable within a week.

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A Moscow Metro rite of passage for good luck at Площадь Революции (Ploshchad Revolyutsii)

Highlights of Katie’s visit included a brunch at the Metropol Hotel, touring the Kremlin Armory, and a Georgian feast (see below).

Just a few weeks ago, I hosted my aunt Susan for her first ever visit to Russia. Suz is a wonderful person to travel with and we planned her visit over the Victory Day holidays to get in a little extra time together.

When I was living in Korea, Suz gamely hopped a plane and visited me in Seoul. We went to China together, putting in thousands of steps all over Beijing and Xian. There really is nothing like sharing an incredible trip with someone you love and I’m so thankful to have family who are up for it!

Suz and I on a canal in St. Petersburg

We hopped the SapSan fast train up to St. Petersburg for what’s become a bit of a May tradition for me. We traveled on Victory Day which brought a few road closures but no major issues. The coolest, most powerful sight upon arrival was the Parade of the Immortals, commemorating the over 27 million (MILLION) Soviet soldiers and citizens lost in the Great War (World War II). St. Petersburg itself (as Leningrad) was under siege for over 900 days, the horrendous losses reverberating through the crowd carrying photographs of their loved ones lost. This is not a nation that will ever forget.

The Parade of the Immortals. Participants themselves number in the millions.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg
Suz in the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing my first ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg’s famed ballet stage. Only slightly smaller in size than the Bolshoi, the venue was stunningly gorgeous with supremely gifted dancers and magnificent stage sets. Made for the perfect birthday present – all thanks to my dad.

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Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

Another highlight from our St. Petersburg was a trip to Catherine Palace, a spot about 30 km outside of town. A summer palace for the tsars, the place is dripping in gold and excess. Each room is more stunning than the last – there is even a grand ballroom which evokes vibes of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

With the solstice quickly approaching, white nights are coming to St. Pete’s

Back in Moscow, we toured around as much as my school schedule would allow. Something new in the travelsphere is Airbnb Experiences. Many of you may use Airbnb rentals in cities around the world. The website now offers additional experiences at a fraction of the cost of private tours. I found Suz a walking tour of the Kremlin area of Moscow and she had a really nice time with her local Russian guide, Sveta. They traded stories and questions about culture, both in the States and here. I really can’t recommend a chance like this enough, especially for the opportunity to meet someone local. Call it next-level traveling but it truly enriches the experience.

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Suz picked the perfect time of year to be in Moscow – not too hot but no more snow!

As I look forward to two more years here in Moscow, consider this an open invitation! This city is constantly evolving and updating, and certainly has a past worthy of any history buff’s time. You never know – you might wake up to find this goober waiting to greet you 😉

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Troika Riding

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Fresh fallen snow, charming horses, and sleigh bells

приветствие from the frozen tundra! Yesterday I had the most amazing chance to get out to the Russian countryside and take a sleigh ride.

We traveled northwest from Moscow for about an hour and arrived at a fairly large farm. Immediately we spotted the horses in the yard, being run by adults and children of all ages. A friendly Bernese Mountain Dog trotted over to greet us and hens clucked underfoot.

Upon arrival, we were seated on benches of packed snow which were covered in thick blankets. Beyond a rickety barrier made of branches, a horse show was put on for our entertainment. Highlights included a horse jumping through a flaming hoop and a couple “dancing” on horseback. My animal rights heartstrings tugging at me, I accepted this as a cultural opportunity and enjoyed the beauty of the animals.

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Troika, a Russian style of sleigh riding, means ‘group of three’, and describes the number of horses harnessed to the sleigh

Soon after the show (which came replete with ear-piercing traditional music and an impromptu jig by a member of the audience), our sleighs arrived! The horse pictured in the middle (above) is a Clydesdale.

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Over the river and through the snow we went
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Our packed sleigh riding party with my friends Kyle and Sarah in the front with me
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The grey day provided the ultimate epic background to bring out hints of red in the horses’ manes as they raced through the deep snow

Despite being packed into the sleigh like sardines, we were plenty chilly after our ride, so we took shelter in a tin longhouse on site. A snack was already laid out for us, warming atop the crude antique stove.

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Blini! So timely as blini play a starring role in the upcoming Maslenitsa Festival which celebrates the sun’s return (blini = round like the sun). We drizzled these crepes with fresh sour cream, jam, and honey. Delish!
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Who doesn’t love dress up? Well, maybe this girl. But they gave us a chance to dress in traditional Russian costume and take photos with the troika sleigh.
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My friends Kyle and Shin were amicable participants and I played the willing group photographer
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The farm was a working one and we toured the facilities after eating. I fed the goats my apply core and we meet a goose along the way.

All in all, the trip was yet another once-in-a-lifetime deal here in Russia. I’ve ridden snowmobiles before but nothing compares to the tug of a horse-drawn sleigh as you make tracks across an open plain. It was magical.

Stay tuned this coming week for my school’s celebration of Maslenitsa, the pagan holiday turned cultural tradition which ushers in the coming spring. Cheers to that!

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Melikhovo

It was early Saturday morning when we struck out for Chekhov’s estate, Melikhovo, 75km south of Moscow. We hit a great deal of dacha traffic on the way which delayed us considerably. Just as people from Maine head out to camp and Canadians visit their cottages, Muscovites head to their dachas (pronounced dat-cha). But let’s just say there’s a tad more traffic on a Russian highway than on Mt. Ephraim Road. In Russia, you cannot move a vehicle from the scene of an accident until authorities arrive so you can imagine the back up (hours…days?).

A country home typically situated on a generous plot of land, a dacha provides a refuge from city life. As the Russian pension is quite slim, retirees often turn their dachas into farmland, supplementing their pensions by growing vegetables and raising livestock to either sell or sustain themselves. The dacha traffic gave me time to do some research on Chekhov – the man, myth, and revered legend.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov had a difficult childhood plagued by an abusive father and financial instability. As a young man, while studying medicine at university, Chekhov took over financial responsibility for his entire family. To make ends meet, he wrote satirical short stories. After earning his degree as a physician, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis, which plagued him the rest of his life. He continued writing as it was more fruitful than practicing medicine (my how the times have changed…). His story, The Huntsman, was one of the first to gain him literary cred.

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We raked leaves on the grounds in front of Chekhov’s home for a few hours to earn our admission ticket.

 

In 1892, Chekhov acquired Melikhovo with monetary help from his publisher. He soon became a staple of the countryside – helping to build roads, schools, and acting as the local physician. His services were so popular, in fact, that he would raise a flag to denote his availability as local peasants were known to show up on his doorstep as early at 5 o’clock in the morning. A skilled herbalist, Chekhov managed to keep the region rid of cholera as the epidemic swept through Russia in the late 1800s. He composed a number of works while at Melikhovo, including The Seagull. He retained the estate until 1897.

The kitchen adjoining the Chekhov residence. Note the intriguing tea kettle stove.

Finally out in the countryside, I was first struck by the birch trees. There are so many, stacking side by side, their white bark etched like chalk upon the dense forest. The green reads like the fields of Vermont and I felt instantly transported back there.

We spent a few hours raking leaves on the grounds, giving us time to enjoy the crisp autumn weather. The fresh air felt great and the gardens were simply beautiful. We were next treated to tea and hard sushki, which you might remember from the celebration upon our first arrival at school.

After watching a Chekhov play performed, we toured the grounds under the incredible translating efforts by one of my Russian colleagues, Lena. It was then I learned of Chekhov’s great efforts towards the area locals and his role as doctor-in-residence. By the end of the day, we were all tired and ready to pack it in for home. But I couldn’t help taking a minute on the porch to appreciate those blue-grey skies against the lush green grass. Fall in Russia is a gorgeous thing to behold.

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A Russian samovar – literally “self-boil”.