August 30th – September 1st, 2017
We started our Trans-Mongolian railway trip by flying to Moscow from Oslo with an old Aeroflot airplane. Tickets were cheaper than what we usually pay to get home to Northern Norway for Christmas, about 1200 NOK for a one way ticket. Before going, I read a little bit about what to expect when arriving at Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO). Some people wrote that they had been stuck for hours in border control as the airport supposedly was filled with people, almost like when landing at Newark in USA with an international flight. Our flight was landing at 00:30, so I was sort of expecting to be in bed very late, since border control reportedly could be so slow. The terminal turned out to be almost empty, so everything went pretty smoothly. There was almost no line at the passport control booths, so within a few minutes it was our turn. I guess this is one of the pros of travelling at night and late in season.
I walked up to the border police officer in the booth, smiled and presented my passport. The officer smiled back and asked me where I was flying from. Oslo, I told him, and he started inspecting my visa. He was apparently undergoing training, as there was a guy behind him instructing him. Even though I could clearly see that he was being trained – and the fact that my papers definitely were authentic – I couldn’t help but be just the right amount of nervous when they started talking while inspecting the visa very, very closely. They apparently felt the paper quality of the visa sticker, looked at it with UV lighting, and just generally studied it closely for a minute or two. No problem, though. They stamped it and sent me off with a slight smile. I guess you can’t always trust the rumours. Our experience at the border was actually quite good! The border police at Oslo airport asked me more questions when flying out than the officers at SVO asked me when flying in.
Previously that day, we had pre-booked transportation from the airport to the hotel in Moscow. We hadn’t done anything like this before, but did it this time to make the late night arrival be a little bit more predictable and smooth. We had to check two other companies, but ended up with Easy2Airport, since the other ones didn’t have any drivers available due to us booking it the same day as arriving. After making a booking request on their website, they emailed me within 15 minutes with a confirmation. The price was about 3000 Rubles. For that price, we got a driver in a newer looking Mercedes E Class, waiting for us at arrivals. The suited man was very friendly. He was also usable as a scarecrow to get rid of the few taxi hagglers who surprisingly were still active at 01:00. As part of the service, the transportation company wait for you for 1 hour for free. He drove us safely to the hotel in Moscow, although without many words exchanged between us.
We arrived at Eden Hotel which was pretty close to Red Square, and the receptionist greeted us. She didn’t speak much English, but that wasn’t really needed for the brief exchange of some information and a key. The hotel advertised themselves as a mini hotel, with only ten rooms. One of them was a suite, and that was the one we were staying in. It didn’t cost much more than the other rooms, so why not. It wasn’t a suite as per Western standards, but it was spacious and comfortable enough. Our only complaint was that there was only cold water in the shower, but the hot water returned the next day. Oh, and that the walls were very thin, as we figured out when we heard someone having a good time in our neighbouring room. We paid about 3000 Rubles per night, which was not bad considering the great location of the hotel. A fun fact about the suite is that they also rented it out on an hourly basis – I believe it was 1800 Rubles per hour. I don’t really want to know what has happened in that room.
At this hotel, we were introduced to how public WiFi networks work in Russia. It seems that the providers are legally required to make you identify yourself when using public hotspots, and this happens by calling a phone number or receiving an SMS to your phone number. At this particular hotspot and some others we later encountered, they only accepted Russian phone numbers, so we couldn’t get connected. I asked the receptionist about it, and she answered unambiguously: “Not work. Tomorrow”.
The next day, we walked to Red Square and had breakfast. I still regret that choice to this day, as we paid about 3500 Rubles for a couple of Caesar salads and two cups of coffee. Perhaps not very expensive for most travellers, but is very expensive to be Russia. There are probably places that are a lot cheaper on Red Square, but the square is more expensive than other areas closeby.
After eating, we walked on Red Square and just looked around. There was some kind of festival going on, and the theme seemed to be around making children interested in the military. We visited one booth where a boy, maybe ten years old, was taking apart then putting together a Kalashnikov impressively fast. Right next to him, there was a girl, perhaps fifteen years old, showing some pistols to another kid who was very intrigued. Not far from this place, there was another sort of festival where we could sit and watch a show with what apparently were people from Chile, dancing and riding synchronously on horses, carrying both Russian and Chilean flags.
Before going, someone told us that we should go watch when they change guards in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as this was fun ceremony to watch. We didn’t know their schedule, but guessed it was every hour, and therefore waited there until 14:00. We soon heard boots stomping on the ground, and saw the three guards goose stepping towards the guards. They marched slowly towards the two active guards, did a little ceremony when exchanging the guards, and then marched back. Fun to watch.
Just like we usually do when travelling, we did a lot of walking in Moscow. We walked to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, took some pictures and ate some ice cream, then walked to Arbat. This street is one of the classic tourist traps in Moscow, with lots of street performers and dressed-up women whom you can pay to be photographed with. There were several obviously very talented artists who painted or drew people on the spot, and a few of them produced drawings that almost looked like photographs. There were quite a few booksellers selling used books, which I might have been interested in had they not all been in Russian. While sitting outside at a slightly overpriced café on Arbat, we saw a guy walking past with a Kalashnikov over one of his shoulders. Nobody even batted an eye. Probably a fake or disabled gun, but still a little bit strange to see in a crowded place like Arbat.
After eating relatively expensive platter of fried stuff, we took the metro towards our hotel. It was just two stops, but we had to do it to take a look at a few stations and just observe how well the metro worked. The metro stations we saw were indeed beautiful, but there are probably many other more impressive stations in Moscow. The metro system wasn’t immediately easy to understand. I’m not really sure I understand it completely to this day, but we understood where to go and where to switch metros by using a map and looking around until we found what looked like the name of the right direction. Just as expected, every sign was in Russian, but that wasn’t really a problem as we had a map in Russian and I can read most Cyrillic letters. The time was about 19:00, which was considered during rush hours (18:00 – 20:00) according to a guide we read. It was a bit crowded, yes, but not as crowded as when we took the metro at 17:00 the next day.
Later that night, we ate at a nice Armenian restaurant called Noah’s Ark, close to our hotel. For the price of 2800 Rubles, we got two platters of lamb shoulder with Armenian bread, a glass of wine and a glass of beer. Excellent food and service. I still regret paying 3500 Rubles for the breakfast on Red Square earlier that day.
The next day, we started by eating breakfast at a Georgian café close to our hotel. While we sat outside, an older woman came to us, talking in Russian and probably asking for money. She soon lost interest as we spoke English to her. The next beggar didn’t. He was a 30-ish guy with a beer in his hand, talking in Russian and getting closer and closer for every word he spoke. Since he didn’t accept us talking English, I finally got to say a phrase I’d been practising: “ja nji gavarjo pa roski” (“I don’t speak Russian”). I of course didn’t understand his answer, but I think it was either “How can you say that when you don’t speak Russian?” or “What the fuck are you doing in Russia without speaking Russian?”. Either way, I did understand his swear words after he said “money” and we said “no, sorry”. Otherwise, the breakfast was good.
We took the metro to Partizanska in order to go to Izmailovsky market. It is located next to a Kremlin (fortress). Within this Kremlin they have a few museums – vodka museum with vodka tasting, chocolate museum (unfortunately closed that day), gun museum (very small but perhaps fun to visit). The market itself is just outside the fortress. The market was surprisingly quiet on this particular Friday afternoon, but I guess we were there early. The sellers sold items like Matrioska dolls, Soviet-era film cameras, watches, items from the Second World War, etc. Some items were probably authentic, but many of the items were definitely low-quality China-made copies. Fun place to walk around and just look at stuff. Most of the sellers lost interest when they realized we didn’t speak Russian.
We spent the rest of our last day in Moscow by pretty much just strolling around, eating and drinking a beer. When the time approached travelling time, we went back to our hotel where we had left our luggage, and the receptionist ordered a taxi for us. Taxis in Russia aren’t always marked with logos or have a sign on the roof, I had read earlier, and our taxi indeed looked like any ordinary private car. It probably was, too, because he had a child seat occupying one of the rear seats. We got our receptionist to ask him approximately how much it would cost, and he said “don’t know, taxameter” in English. It turned out to be one of the ride sharing apps, and I guess it was a Russian one since it didn’t look like Uber or Lyft. The price was 280 Rubles from the hotel in Moscow centrum to Yaroslavskaya, maybe a ten minute drive. Not bad. I have never seen a meter tick as slowly as this one. When leaving the car, the driver said what I believe was “have a nice trip” in Russian, and then he said in English: “Moscow beautiful, eh?”. He was right. Moscow beautiful.
For a slight moment we were not entirely sure it was the right station, as they wrote it in a different way on the tickets than on the sign. After our bags were x-rayed – which I’m glad they do – we asked an older security guard if it was the right station, pointing at the name on the ticket. He said something in Russian, then said “wrong”. My heart jumped, but it was quickly obvious that he didn’t mean that it was the wrong station, just the “wrong” time. We had arrived 1.5 hours early just to be sure.
The station was spacious and had many seats to sit down and wait, along with a few shops and vending machines. When our train number 110 3 finally showed up on the screen, we walked to the platform. It was platform number 2, one of the two platforms used for long-distance trains departing from Yaroslavskaya. The train arrived and was ready for boarding about half an hour before departure. The attendant checked our tickets and passports (identification is required for travelling by train in Russia), and checked that the passport numbers on the tickets were correct. We set foot inside the train and walked to our compartment.
The compartment wasn’t luxurious, but pretty good and spacious for two people. There was plenty of space underneath our beds to put our backpacks, in addition to more space behind the TV. Yes, there was a TV, but it didn’t work and we weren’t really interested in watching TV. With the window and the door closed, the compartment was just a little bit too hot. We slept with the window open the entire night, and it worked out great since we brought earplugs. I really recommend bringing earplugs!
Before going to bed, we visited the restaurant wagon to buy a beer to bring to the compartment. Since it was a night train, time flew by quickly.