I stood in Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral in the thick of Sunday morning mass, the men around me in their suits with their briefcases at the ready, the women wearing traditional skirts and head scarves as they knelt and bowed in cycles, the Russian Orthodox splendor dimly lit all around us. There were no pews, just an open room with a low ceiling, facing the golden altar.
The saints and saviors looked down on us from the ceiling and I tried very hard to not look like a tourist who had just barged in off the street.
A little girl in an adorable orthodox outfit pushed by me to get at the water dispenser I was foolishly blocking, as the angels looked on.
I had blundered in to see what the inside of the cathedral looked like, not expecting a service to be in full swing. But I ended up staying for the entire service because of the sound. Oh my god the sound!
The choir sang Russian Orthodox hymns that were like nothing I had ever heard before. I couldn’t even see the singers tucked away somewhere in the choir, I could only hear and feel their voices reverberating through the building and through my body. As the tones rose and fell, my awareness of my body melted away and I could feel my consciousness trying to push its way out of its physical constraints and up into the sky.
The male voices plumbed deep into the bass range, creating what felt like an energetic foundation below as the high female voices stitched together into a latticework of sound up above. I tangibly felt the vibration of the room rise as the sound broke apart any stagnant energy and dragged everyone in the room up with it, out of their everyday thoughts and emotions and into this higher space that had been created.
I briefly flitted back into my body and realized there were tears on my face. Normally I would be worried about how the people around me would react to this but in that moment I was just happy I hadn’t collapsed onto the floor.
Then the congregation around me joined in the hymn. Wow, how do they know all the Latin words? Wait, would it even be Latin here? Is it Russian? Slavonic? I have no idea. Goosebumps covered my arms as the sound swelled from all around me in every direction and emotion wrenched through my body. Wow. Clearly I’ve heard this before, perhaps in some other life.
My consciousness left my physicality again and went up into the sound, as the voices of the choir dipped and soared. In that moment I saw very clearly that a portal was being opened into a higher dimension, and we were all standing in the doorway. I thought back to the funeral service I had witnessed in Japan where I experienced the monks’ chants warping the space of the room and opening the way dimensionally for the soul of the deceased to pass into the afterlife.
I wondered how much the Orthodox singers and the people present were aware of any of this. Clearly someone at some point in this lineage had known what they were doing, now the tradition had carried on for hundreds of years and I wondered if anyone still knew. Were they just singing the same songs and repeating the same steps because it felt good? Surely at least a few of them could see what I was seeing, the heavens opening up and a higher, refined energy and light pouring through into the cathedral. This is amazing.
When the service ended I was shaken and buzzing. I stumbled out into the street. I would come back the next day to take photos when the church was empty, for right now operating a phone seemed completely impossible.
As I wandered down the street in a daze, I laughed that this was just my first morning in Russia. Well, I guess now I know why I came. I reflected back on the bizarre journey that had brought me to Moscow the night before.
I’d spent the previous day wandering around Germany, then whiled away my flight to Moscow talking with a nice Russian couple who advised me to go see the house made of trash and gave me several hilariously meat-heavy food recommendations. Landing in Moscow late at night, I caught the last train into the city.
The seat next to me wobbled loudly as the train vibrated off axis.
I rushed through the train station and down into the metro, knowing the metro system was going to shut down at 1am and I only had a few minutes to catch the last subway car across the city. Buying a 3-day metro pass in spite of not speaking any Russian at all went surprisingly smoothly, but then the rat maze of the subway system swallowed me up and within seconds I was totally screwed. The line I was looking for didn’t seem to exist and then I hit a locked door and I was out on the street.
A few days later I would discover that the “subway” line I had been looking for was actually an-above ground trolley line. Whoops. Now everything was closed and I needed to walk all the way across Moscow at 1 in the morning to get to my hotel.
“Moscow’s safe to walk across at night, right?” my friend Linda texted the next day. “No perverts?”
“Oh no, it’s wall to wall perverts.”
This was, admittedly, a little sketchy. Why didn’t I get a taxi? None of the taxi drivers in Moscow speak any English, Uber doesn’t exist there, and also, automobile crashes are a national pastime in Russia. “Russian Car Crash Compilation” is an entire category on YouTube. Everyone in Russia has dash cams so they can prove they’re not the reason there are sixteen cars upside-down on the freeway. I had resolved to stay out of cars while in the country, and mostly succeeded.
And how else would I have got to see Red Square glistening up the river, lit up like Disneyland at night?
Walking through the empty city and alongside the black river as sketchy cars cruised past, possibly sizing me up for parts, I made it to my hotel without incident (aside from the fact that it was down an unmarked alleyway and I had to play charades with a random guy who was smoking on the street in order to actually find it), because I was saving all my incidents for when I got there. Arriving at the “hotel,” I discovered it was more of a converted dentist’s office than a hotel, and the front door was locked. And there was no one at the front desk. I rang the doorbell and nothing happened. Eventually a dude wandered out, who ended up just being a guy who was staying there who thought I was delivering his pizza. The night manager was nowhere to be found, which made it difficult to check into my room.
What followed was about an hour of banging on the night manager’s door, ringing the doorbell 400 times, and calling the hotel phone, all of which woke up every single person staying in the hotel, many of whom came out to let me know I was an asshole, in Russian. They weren’t exactly wrong, although I had in fact worked out this arrival time with the hotel in advance, and the only nice guy option at that point would have been to sleep on the floor in the lobby by the coffee machine. And... nope to that. I wasn’t expecting to make a lot of friends on this trip anyway. I apologized and resolved to stop ringing the doorbell, then the second the guests went back to bed the pizza-waiting guy leaned on the doorbell for ten minutes straight.
Eventually the 20-year-old “night manager” woke up from his coma and the pizza-waiting guy yelled at him for ten solid minutes while he checked me in. Ahhhh. Welcome to Russia.
Walking down the street in Moscow the next morning, I took in all the things I didn’t expect to see.
One thing that struck me is that we tend to think of Russians as sort of a race in and of themselves, but the Soviet Union actually encompassed very diverse groups of people, and this was reflected in the faces I saw walking down the street in Moscow. There were quite a few Asian faces in particular that reminded me of the people I met in Kazakhstan.
I laughed out loud when I saw my first McDonald’s, partly because it made me realize I was subconsciously expecting it to still be 1985 in Moscow. As a kid during the Cold War, we heard about the USSR every day, and the first McDonald’s opening in Moscow was a huge deal. After the fall of the Soviet Union we kind of stopped getting updates, so it was with a touch of surprise that I realized the world had moved on here, too.
Entering the shopping district adjacent to Red Square, the sky was adorned with decorative stars hanging above the sidewalks.
It would be easy to have a jaded reaction to this but in all honestly it was completely magical and beautiful. I didn’t even know yet that they lit up at night.
Visiting famous squares is always kind of funny since they’re just big empty spaces where historical things happened that you can’t see now. Red Square is much the same, in that it’s just a big open space full of tourists, hemmed in on one side by the wall of the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum on another…
The famous GUM department store on another side…
And last but definitely not least, St Basil’s Cathedral on the final side.
Now this is more like it. This is the kind of onion dome madness I came to Russia to see.
It’s actually kind of difficult to get the perfect shot of the church, between the need to crop out several inconveniently-placed street lights and the 4.6 billion other tourists who are there with you.
Inside, St Basil’s is a wonderland of religious art covering every possible surface, as if this was some kind of contest.
Their favorite flourish and now mine too is was what I like to call “The Peek-a-boo Jesus.” Way up inside the domes of the towers, and only visible from directly underneath, Ceiling Jesus reminds you that he’s always watching you do your private stuff.
Apparently sometimes the guy who was good at drawing Jesus went on vacation, because they had to decorate the insides of some of the other domes with octopus fractals and swirlies.
As I wandered through the byzantine maze of St Basil’s many levels, staircases and tiny hallways, the sound of Orthodox chant echoed through the brick corridors. I actually questioned more than once if I was really hearing this, until I stumbled across the four dudes standing in a tiny room who were doing the singing. It was hauntingly beautiful.
After attempting to enter the Kremlin through the out door, and wandering around outside the massive complex until I found the ticket gate on the opposite side, and waiting in line forever because you have to wait in a separate line to get a ticket for each individual thing you want to see once you’re inside the Kremlin, and then another massive line to show your ticket to get in, I was in!
I was very happy to see the Kremlin had rebounded from Tom Cruise blowing it up. This is a very strange tourist site in that it’s a fortress, and a spiritual site, and also the president lives here only he doesn’t really. It’s sort of like if you crossed the White House with Disneyland and Notre Dame. It’s weird.
I mainly wanted to see the historic cathedrals within the Kremlin walls.
The cathedrals were indeed beautiful, though they suffered from a certain same-yness and the fact that you weren’t allowed to take photos inside any of them. Which wasn’t the end of the world since I wasn’t in love with any of the interiors, and the most interesting part was in the Cathedral of the Archangel, where virtually the entire floor space was taken up by the above-ground tombs of the various tsars from Russian history. Even the space inside this relatively small cathedral had good and bad neighborhoods, as the tsars and princes who fucked up and brought dishonor on their families were segregated along one Wall of Shame inside the cathedral. It made me chuckle to imagine your entire life boiling down to a value judgment pertaining to the fairly meaningless subdivision of a tiny piece of real estate.
In case you had a sudden panic attack that you weren’t being touristy enough, the Kremlin was there for you with both the biggest cannon and the biggest bell in the world.
The highlight of the Kremlin is The Armoury, which is their bizarre name for the big museum full of nice shit. There are a few guns and swords in there too, but if I had a room crammed full of gold bedpans and Fabergé eggs and royal carriages and bibles made out of rubies I wouldn’t start calling it “The Armoury” just because my cousin forgot his gun in there. But that’s why I’m not a tsar.
Russia has many, many, many rules about photography for no apparent reason. And thus you’ll have to make do with my ravishing verbal descriptions of the wonders from within The Armoury. There were… There were an awful lot of bibles with jewels on them. This was actually kind of cool, like the Russians of old were hip to the energetic properties of stones and were enhancing their holy books with amethysts and jade. Or they were just showing off how rich they were, but I prefer the first explanation.
The most popular display case within The Armoury was without a doubt the Fabergé eggs. Peter Carl Fabergé was a Russian jeweler from St Petersburg, which I didn’t know, and the dude made some seriously ritzy shit, which I did. Russian royalty have always been big on ritzy shit, so this was a marriage made in heaven. My favorite things in the case were the odd one-offs, like the little jeweled bulldog that Fabergé made. You could practically hear the Russian royalty responding like “Oh… Oh my. Now isn’t this interesting. Hmm. Carl, don’t you have any more of those lovely eggs?”
Beyond that were room after room after room of thrones, nice dresses, swank cutlery and beer steins so ornate they’d drive you to drink. So yeah, it wasn’t life-changing but it was raining outside and I was grateful to be indoors, what do you want from me? The Kremlin’s kind of like the Eiffel Tower of Moscow, you’re required to go before they’ll let you out. It was interesting to think about the ostentatious displays of wealth and how little we’ve changed, our current social media era perhaps having more in common with the age of the tsars than we realize.
Outside the Kremlin, Russia has an absolutely gigantic statue of my brother.
The GUM department store was frankly a little disappointing, as it’s just a modern high-end suburban shopping mall crammed into a ritzy old building. I was expecting some of the department store madness I’d experienced in North Korea, but the only reason this place didn’t have The Gap was because The Gap doesn’t sell enough camo track suits.
The highlight was definitely this sign for the historic toilet. I went downstairs to learn the history of this famous toilet but they were charging admission and that seemed a bit much for a toilet. Even if you get to take a selfie of yourself taking a famous shit, that’s a slippery slope where now all the other toilets everywhere are gonna start getting ideas and then your Instagram is full of the Kardashian of toilets thinking it’s a big deal. No thanks.
Wandering out of the Red Square complex, I ended up in some kind of extremely long boarded-over tunnel that I think was carrying us over road construction but until it ended I wasn’t sure if we were going to be mining coal at the other end or what.
By this point I was fabulously lost but it was the magical kind of lost where you wander through an eco-park that’s playing classical music and then by a bizarrely rocket-themed Russian café.
And then you eventually find a restaurant that inexplicably has vegan versions of Borscht, delicious Pelmeni dumplings, and Kartoshka for dessert. Mmm. Thanks Moscow!
The most disorienting thing about the center of Moscow is that there are no Russians there. It’s all Chinese tourists, and me. A full day of this made me philosophical.
Wandering through the throngs of Chinese tourists, the dirty secret of tourism suddenly became clear to me. Tourism as we know it is dependent on the fact that only a small percentage of the world’s population can afford to do it. That’s the only way it can work. This seems like a terrible elitist thing to say, and as someone who encourages everyone I know to travel for the amazing opportunities it provides to expand who you are, I hate the implications of this thought. But the math of it becomes obvious when you see the impact of just a slightly larger percentage of China’s population being able to afford to travel these days.
At this very moment, every famous tourist landmark you can think of in the world is currently surrounded by 20,000 Chinese people with selfie sticks. And good for them, they deserve to explore the world just as much as I do. But it raises the question of how many people can realistically pack into these finite physical spaces. It doesn’t matter that they’re Chinese, it would be the same if they were American or Australian or whatever. I think it’s just visually very noticeable right now because the Chinese weren’t doing this 10 years ago.
This realization reverberated through my entire trip. I suddenly started noticing that I could tell how the economy was doing in any country in the world just by seeing how many of its people were out traveling with me. No wonder why I encounter so many Germans, Australians and Norwegians. Huh.
What if twice as many Chinese people could afford to travel? What about India? Or the whole of Africa? The Eiffel Tower’s just not that big. Nor the Great Pyramid. It’s a bit like the realization that if the whole world could drive cars and consume goods like Americans and Europeans do, the environment would last about ten minutes.
There’s a point when places get too crowded to be in any way enjoyable or even logistically feasible, and I think we may be rapidly nearing that place at a lot of the big tourist sites around the world right now. Often when I travel, I think about how I wish I could travel through time rather than just space. Seeing Moscow in 2019 was wonderful, but I’d love to have seen it in the 80s, when it had more of what made it unique and less of the same KFCs and Prada shops as everywhere else. Before the whole world began to melt into one big strip mall. And the same stands for seeing these places back when the crowds were smaller and the focus was perhaps more on actual appreciation and less on taking selfies to boost your social media currency.
That’s the great paradox of course. It’s so much easier and more affordable to travel now, which is great. But that means everyone does it, which ironically kind of ruins it for everybody.
OK, so I’m going to blow your mind right now by revealing that I was keeping a secret from you that entire last chapter. I know, wow. The truth is, I was not feeling great that whole day I spent wandering around Moscow. I was tired. Like, deep tired. Bone tired. Unnatural tired. Like I might stop breathing tired. Soul falling out of your body and rolling down your pant leg and into the gutter tired. So tired you start to think it’s a good idea to just lie down on the marble stairs of The Armoury to take a little nap. They won’t mind, right? They know what it’s like to be tired. They’re good people.
After dinner I rambled back to my “hotel” and turned in at the elderly hour of 9pm, just barely getting my shoes off before I passed out fully clothed on top of the bed. Around 2am I woke up out of a bizarre dream and promptly barfed my everloving brains out for a solid hour. Now, the reason I just TMI’d you there is that this just isn’t something I do. I go years and years between horks. I’m someone who rides out food poisoning without tripping the light barftastic. I stumbled back into bed confused and puzzled at what was going on.
It hadn’t felt like I was coming down with anything, I’d just been unfathomably tired. And now my body was wringing itself out like a washrag. What the hell? The last time I threw up was when I was doing Bear Medicine for Japan… Oh. Uh-oh. And the last time before that was after Standing Rock. The tumblers fell into place and I realized I was doing Bear Medicine for Russia.
I flashed back to the previous morning during mass in the cathedral. As the choral singing soared I’d felt my heart open to the people there and to Russia herself. A deep, deep compassion and love welled up inside me. And laying in bed in the middle of the night I saw that this moment had opened the door for what I’d come here to do, to transmute some of the dense energy from centuries of suffering in this place. To take it all into me and then purge it all out. It’s probably a good thing I don’t ever know this is coming, I might not show up for the job. It surely would make the trip planning less enthusiastic. I mean, I was grateful for the opportunity to help and in awe of what I seem to be able to do on this level. But the actual experience still feels like soaking up the suffering of the entire world and then having it roar out of you like a hurricane of borscht.
I slept for something ridiculous like 16 hours, just like I’d done in Nagasaki. A big part of me wanted to sleep the rest of the day too, but that would mean missing the one thing I’d been dying to see on this trip: The Moscow Metro. I wrenched myself out of bed, got dressed, and prayed that classic prayer, “God please don’t let me throw up on the subway.”
I have a strange fascination with subway systems, there’s just something unreal about these mazes of tunnels beneath the great cities of the world. Combine this with the thrilling sense of freedom and independence you get from mastering the metro and being able to go anywhere you want in the city at a moment’s notice, and I guess the fascination makes sense. My favorite metro I’d ever visited was in Pyongyang, which is really just a very small imitation of the Moscow Metro, the mothership I’d always wanted to see for myself. London’s is older, New York’s is bigger, and the decorated stations in Paris are no slouch either, but none of them have quite the same “holy shit” to me as Moscow. This was the long-awaited Everest of my metro tourism.
Trying to take photos on the metro at rush hour is an exercise in hilarity, but the Russians were surprisingly accommodating and patient about this, several people going to great lengths to get out of the way of my photos without me even asking.
One station had several bronze statues representing various Russian archetypes. Rubbing the peasant girl’s cock is supposed to bring you good luck.
My favorite unexpected flourish on the Moscow metro system was the animated elephant warning you not to get your trunk stuck in the closing doors. I got a lot of sanity-questioning looks during my many attempts to get a photo of this adorable dude.
Walking through one of the stations, I passed this group of buskers who were being watched over sternly as they jammed to The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, which might be the least Russian thing I can think of.
All in all I spent about nine hours down there, deep beneath the Earth, criss-crossing the entire massive Moscow metropolitan area to visit a few dozen of the stations I’d wanted to see. I took thousands of photos, having to cut that down somewhat here so the page will actually load. This whole adventure was probably insane and not good for my health at all, but thankfully I managed to pull it off without barfing all over a hundred Russians in one shot at any point. Spending so long down there, after a few hours you start to feel like you’re living in some kind of bizarre post-apocalyptic dream where an unnamed catastrophe has rendered the surface uninhabitable. But it was also a really cool dream come true and my favorite thing I did in Moscow.
The last thing on my must-see list for Moscow was Gorky Park, being that it was one of the very few things in Moscow I was aware of when I formed my impression of Russia as a kid. Up until this very moment I would have told you I knew about Gorky Park because of the Russian band Gorky Park, who broke through on MTV in the late 80s and blew our minds with the revelation that they had rock music in the USSR.
The problem with this story is that I remember Gorky Park being some kind of exuberantly youthful proto-alternative band that sounded like Jesus Jones or The Posies, when in fact they were the Russian Whitesnake and were fully and truly terrible. That joke doesn’t entirely work because Whitesnake is way better than the actual Gorky Park, as are Warrant and The Scorpions and any other band I could think of as an insult. There’s no chance I liked this song in 1989. I’m not saying my tastes were infallible then, but I was into the B-52s and INXS when my friends were into Winger and Skid Row, hair metal just wasn’t my genre.
This is disorienting because I feel like I can even remember the video. But maybe I’m just jumbling together footage of Russian teenagers I saw on the news with having heard the band name somewhere, and, I guess, undigested memories of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin? I guess? What the fuck? Nelson Mandela, you dick.
Anyway, the actual Gorky Park is an amusement and park complex along the Moskva river that is way better than Whitesnake. It was fun to check out, regardless of any “eyewitness testimony should not be trusted” lessons that led me there. I’m kind of glad I didn’t hear the band until just now since that would have wrecked the actual experience.
Wandering through the children’s Fun Fair, I was greatly amused by the tiny flight simulator that was pitching back and forth at crazy angles while it made a metallic banging sound. The kids inside were obviously practicing flying into the twin towers.
A large fountain in the center of the park was clearly the place to hang out, even before it suddenly sprang to life with classical music and a fountain show, like the Soviet Bellagio. I sat at the edge of the water as a little girl in a ballerina dress spun by, dancing to the music. Nearby, young Russians played ping pong and a pod of ducks stood directly in the spray of the musical fountains.
One thing I was struck by, wandering around Moscow, were the occasional young people I saw who clearly were not part of the karmic cycle of Russian history. They were higher, lighter, and seemed to have come into this lifetime to help raise Russia out of the dense energy of her past. There was a striking contrast between them and absolutely everyone else, and I felt a bit less like an alien visiting Earth whenever I saw one of them.
Leaving the park, I looked up the river. Holy shit, what is that? There was an enormous statue in the middle of the river.
I walked along the river for twenty minutes, the immense figure growing larger and larger as I approached.
Man. Russia loves a huge statue but that boat’s way too small for that dude! It must have been embarrassing sailing back into port on that thing.
“Guys! I found the lyrics to Louie Louie!”
“Petyr, why are you in a kids’ boat, man? People are talking.”
Then they realized it was jengaed on top of a stack of other kids’ boats.
“Goddammit Petyr, that’s why none of our kids have boats! You asshole.”
When I left the restaurant where I was having dinner later that night, there was a dude standing on the street just holding a shitload of huge knives.
I paused apprehensively and he looked at me, like “S’up?”
S’up strange knife guy...
I think, and I stress the word think, he was wearing some kind of half-assed pirate costume. Which… I’m not sure if that should have made me feel better or worse. A good pirate costume might comfort you with the thought that this man is, in fact, a professional fake pirate and huge knife holder. The half-assed costume, if it even was that, just seemed to confuse the matter further and raise the odds somewhat that he was actually a crazy person with knives. It might have put my mind at ease if he had then started juggling the knives, but I wasn’t going to stick around to have this particular question answered, as much as “American Tourist Attacked by Time-Traveling Pirate” would be a fun way to be remembered.
Getting from Moscow to St Petersburg turned out to be far more of an adventure than I had in any way planned for.
It started with getting locked in my “hotel.” I went to check out early in the morning and of course no one was at the desk, I was expecting that based on the service so far, but what I wasn’t expecting was that the front door wouldn’t open. This had been a comedy trope for the entire visit so far, the door was broken and would just randomly open or not open. Now it wasn’t opening at all. I started looking around for a back door or a window I could climb out of. Neither. Dammit, I’m going to miss my flight.
Eventually I found a security buzzer behind the front desk that unlocked the door, like you might have seen when they lock you in the jewelry store so you don’t bonk the guy on the head and run off with that diamond-encrusted grill that says DEEZNUTZ. In time I realized this kind of set-up is extremely common in Russia, which apparently puts the risk involved in leaving a hotel on the same level as DEEZNUTZ theft.
Now I was hustling down the street, late, which wasn’t ideal but is also my normal state of being so I wasn’t too freaked out about it. Then the metro station ended up not being where Google Maps said it was. Google Maps was right just often enough for me to not totally give up on it during this trip, just barely, but it was never 100% right either. If it was right about where the metro station was, it’d be wrong about what line stopped there or when it would come. This whimsical frivolity was generally workable but occasionally completely screwed me over.
Eventually I found the metro station, now quite late. Following the signs through the underground tunnel, I emerged out into daylight on the other end, never having found the actual subway. What the hell?
I backtracked and realized the sign that said “Metro Line 7” with an arrow pointing right didn’t mean it’s off to the right over there, silly person. It actually meant “Right behind this sign!” which is known in many parts of the world as “straight.” Good one, Moscow.
Down the tunnel and onto the platform. Oh shit. None of the signs in this station have any English translations at all. Russia’s not generally fantastic about dual-language signs, but this was the first metro station I’d come across that said fuck it and abandoned them completely. If you’ve ever tried to read the Cyrillic alphabet you know just how screwed I was in this moment.
I crossed my fingers and jogged onto the first train that pulled up, pausing briefly to say “Sorry, I don’t speak English!” to a guy who was asking me a question in Russian. Wait. I mean- Never mind.
By some lucky break this train did take me to the main train station, but unluckily I’d missed the airport train by 2 minutes. The next one was in an hour. Both the train station and the train itself seemed to be made of some special cell-signal-blocking materials, which made checking in for my flight from my phone impossible. Hmmm.
Rolling into the airport 55 minutes before my flight was taking off wasn’t ideal at all, but seemed workable. Or at least it did until I was shit into the sea of chaos that is Vnukovo Airport. Uh-oh. Airlines usually have a rule where if you don’t check in by 45 minutes before your flight they won’t let you on, and the shot clock was running down on this one. I’ll just use a self-serve kiosk to… oh, they don’t have those here. I’ll just check in on my phone- “Sorry, online check-in is closed.” Argg. The lines at the check-in counters were all 50 people deep. I sweet-talked a woman in the business class line who almost certainly did not understand a word I was saying into letting me go in front of her, in a last-ditch effort to get on the plane. The counter dude seemed amenable but his supervisor pulled a Edie McClurg and told me I was fucked.
Nards. Well, this was only my second missed flight ever, so I was still ahead on the big board. This meant buying another ticket to St Petersburg for that afternoon, giving me the better part of a day to kill in possibly the least vegan-friendly airport in the entire world.
Several hours into this adventure I discovered these strange beauties, and kicked myself for not finding them earlier. I could have slept this whole thing away inside Voltron’s crotch.
Space food! Like the astronauts eat. How very Russian. I chuckled as I looked at the bizarre flavors on offer.
Ha ha, “Cherry Starch Drink” what kind of insane person would eat-OOH THEY HAVE A VEGAN FLAVOR! What are the odds of that? Muschroom Soup. Hmm, not sure how I feel about that typo but it actually says “Vegan” on the package, I think I’m required by law to purchase this. For the story if nothing else.
Seconds later, the tube was in my hand. It looked like a huge tube of toothpaste. I was expecting there to be some kind of soup-flavored paste inside, which normally wouldn’t sound very appealing but considering the dearth of other options it seemed like a memorably hilarious meal would be much better than nothing at all.
Following the Ikea-style instructions on the tube, I pierced the seal like I was opening a tube of Krazy Glue, crossed my fingers and squeezed the tube into my mouth.
Oh. Oh my god. Oh my sweet Christ. It wasn’t soup-flavored paste at all. It was legit mushroom soup, somehow, squirting cold and wet into my mouth. Oh god. My stomach tried to burrow straight through my nuts and down into the chair I was sitting in to avoid any contact with this soup.
I had a partial out of body experience as my senses and brain tried to get together on what had just happened in my mouth. I swallowed mournfully. Oh man. Yeah. Cold mushroom soup should not be a thing. Maybe I could microwave this? I looked at the metal tube. Okay yeah we don’t need an international incident in the Moscow airport. I put the cap back on the tube and stuffed it into my backpack for later, in case I got hungry or needed to brush my teeth.
I sat there in a daze for several minutes. Man, I was all over this for the story value but now I’m scarred for life. Wow.
I wandered around a for a while like Charlie Brown in a funk, trying to walk off the trauma I’d just experienced, when I stumbled across a Burger King I’d missed in my previous sweep of the airport. Incidentally, do you have any idea how hard it is to order French Fries from someone who doesn’t speak any English? Just stop for a minute right now and try to pantomime French Fries. It’s a charades game-stopper.
It was with both relief and apprehension that I finally boarded my flight. The flight I’d missed that morning had been with Aeroflot. I’d never flown with them before, but I heard horrible things and swearing from every person who was within earshot whenever I mentioned the word Aeroflot. So maybe I dodged a bullet missing that flight? But my second attempt at a flight was with something called Pobeda, which sounded completely made-up.
Part of the adventure of this trip was that I was attempting the entire 7-country odyssey with only a small backpack that counted as a personal item on the plane. Traveling this light was both something I’d always wanted to try and also financially necessary due the fact that most of my flights were on budget airlines that made up for their low prices by asking for your first born in exchange for bringing anything larger than a purse on the plane.
Technically my bag was over the limit for a personal item but I was able to get around this by taking things out and stuffing them absurdly into my pockets until the bag was half-empty and squishable into the demonstration boxes. Pobeda seemed to take this more seriously than any of the other airlines on this trip, which made me worried we were going to be flying on some kind of crazy little econo-plane.
To my relief the plane was completely normal in size, though managed to still be bizarre for having seats that did not recline at all. I was quickly distracted from this fact by the plane’s fascinating announcement recordings.
The English recording went first, and was voiced by a woman with a British accent who sounded like she was on the very edge of laughter as she told us about how fucked we all would be if the plane landed on water. This fascinating weirdness was surely a very practiced vocal style, which is what someone would sound like if they never stopped smiling, even while asleep. Is this supposed to be reassuring? I feel like I’m in a David Lynch movie. Also, no British person in the history of the world has ever talked like this.
Up next was the Russian recording, which was a hilarious contrast. The gruff male voice was definitely not smiling, and though I couldn’t understand any of what he was actually saying, it definitely sounded like it was much more to the point. Something like “Listen up fucks, if the plane goes down it’s because you failed the communist dream.”
Man, this flight is already fun.
St Petersburg could not have been more different from Moscow. Maybe it’s because St Petersburg is on the water, or because of the two cities’ different histories, but I’d traded in the dense vibe of Moscow for the much lighter and more pleasant vibe of a new (very old) city. It felt like you’d stepped out of the world of the KGB and the Cold War and into the land of the tsars and beautiful, historic architecture. Wandering around the city, it was all like a breath of fresh air... I loved it.
The cars and the ways they were parked in St Petersburg were both hilarious.
Throughout my three days in the city I kept looking at the signs on the street indicating where the metro stations were and wondering why they were marked with a stylized V in parenthesis.
Everywhere else in the former Soviet Union they’re marked with an M. That’s weird. I was way, way, way into the trip, days into trying to figure out what V stood for when I suddenly saw the M, like a Magic Eye poster popping into 3D. Oh yeeeeeeah.
Also, St Petersburg really hates photographers and expresses this hatred by putting cable car wires between you and every beautiful building in the city.
The metro in St Petersburg was unique in that the platforms are much smaller than the ones in Moscow or most other cities, so instead of a wide open space with trains pulling up on either side, you have a narrow, enclosed hallway lined with wood-paneled doors, which suddenly slide open right into the trains, like a closet leading to Narnia. This added a bit of a strange, magical feel to the journey.
It was with a degree of apprehension that I searched for my St Petersburg hotel. Was I going to get locked in or out of this place as well? This concern melted away when I discovered that the hotel’s address did not actually exist. I wandered around for a bit before entering a café and asking the guy there if he’d heard of the place where I was allegedly staying.
He promptly led me outside to a gate blocking off the alleyway, and punched a code into a small keypad that the wall seemed to be trying to eat.
After a long pause, the gate buzzed open. I walked down the alleyway quizzically, which led to a series of severe and identical Soviet-era concrete block apartment buildings. Hmmm.
I rang the buzzer on one. Nothing. Hmmm. I looked to the left and realized the next building over had something very small written on the keypad in a black sharpie. It was the name of my “hotel.” I pressed a random button on the keypad and was buzzed in.
Scaling the crumbling concrete staircase inside, I wondered what I had got myself into as I passed several floors of apartments. Keeping in mind that I had booked both this place and the last one on a very mainstream hotel booking site, not AirBnB or Crazy Uleg’s Maybe Hotels. On the fourth floor, I found an apartment door with the hotel name scribbled on it. I was buzzed in.
The very nice Japanese girl inside showed me around her large apartment, which had been converted into something of an impromptu hostel. This was all extremely weird but once I got used to it, it was kind of nice. My room was plastered floor to ceiling with colorful posters from Russian plays.
You had to be buzzed out to escape this place as well, but at least the button was in plain sight by the front door.
The Moscow Airport mishap had eaten up the majority of the day I’d intended to spend exploring St Petersburg, but I was rescued from this circumstance by the fact that it was July and I was now so far north that the sun wasn’t going to set until 11:30 at night. Plenty of time still.
I wandered off into the city, between the old buildings and along the beautiful canal. People in St Petersburg actually sit down and listen to street buskers, like it was a concert they went to on purpose. The first time I ran into this, I thought Elton John was in town. In the US, we respond to them like they’re a guy standing on the street corner handing out drawings of his dick.
The absolute show-stopper in St Petersburg is the Church of the Savior on Blood, which I think is the most heavy-metal church name there ever has been. It’s also perhaps the coolest church in the world, even with its main spire wearing a condom it still put the cathedrals in the Kremlin completely to shame.
The inside of the church was just one long “Holy Shit!”
If you became overwhelmed by all the spectacle around you, you could duck into one of the vestibules and be overwhelmed by the ceilings there instead.
I spent a long time appreciating Our Savior Is Drunk on Blood Church before carrying on across town to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a citadel founded by Peter the Great that is located on a small island in the Neva river. You cannot miss this fortress because the spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral is approximately four miles tall and can be seen from Sarah Palin’s house.
On the island, you pass over a bridge and through the fortress walls and are immediately accosted by several whimsical rabbit statues for no apparent reason.
I had no time for these, as Russian children were impatiently waiting for me to take that photo and stop cutting off their precious rabbit access with my stupid body, and I needed to find out why that spire was so goddamned tall before the sun went down.
As if in answer, the cathedral erupted into song, playing an entire symphony via the most elaborate orchestra of bells I’ve ever heard in my life. Usually when a church bell tower plays a song, there are about seven notes and you get what you get. But this thing was the Neil Peart drum kit of bell towers, sounding dozens and dozens of different notes and playing simultaneous melodies across different octaves just to show off. The other dazed onlookers and I sat on benches in front of the church, powerless in the face of an absolute shitload of bells.
Why is the four hundred and four foot bell tower so tall? Because it’s the tallest Orthodox bell tower in the world, that’s why! Okay. Inside the church, you’ll find the tombs of basically everyone who isn’t buried in the cathedral inside the Kremlin, including Catherine the Great and the last tsar, Nicholas II. I mean, you’d find those tombs if you visited when the church is open, which I did not do because I just wandered in off the street to see why it was so goddamned tall, and it was like 10 at night even though the sun was still up.
It turns out the carillon has fifty one bells, and has a long funny history that involved Peter the Great being so impressed by the church bells he heard in Amsterdam that he snuck into a church there in a disguise to spy on their bell-related secrets. Then he had a similar set-up made for the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which took years to complete and then burnt down after being hit by lightning. The many attempts to replace the bells were a centuries-long comedy of disasters, and they didn’t get it right until 2001, a mere 245 years later. This makes me feel really good about every deadline I’ve ever missed.
Russian wisdom: If you’re going to miss a deadline, it’s best to miss it so badly that everyone who cared died 200 years ago.
When the tower was being renovated in the 1990s, some poor SOB had to climb up and clean the angel at the top of the spire. He found a bottle wedged into the folds of the angel’s gown, and inside the bottle there was a note from the guys who last cleaned the angel in the 1950s. This thoughtful note said “Yeah we’re really sorry we fucked up the angel, have a good one.” Sting later wrote a song about this.
While I was in St Petersburg I ate multiple meals at two different vegan burger restaurants, which were fantastic and creative and staffed with wonderful friendly people. Neither, however, was called St Peter’s Burger, which is a fuck-up I cannot forgive. Come on guys, this is basic stuff. Get your shit together.
My second day in St Petersburg was planned around a huge lapse in judgment. I decided the most important thing I could do in the city was visiting Catherine Palace, the summer residence of the tsars, which is actually not in the city at all and is in fact a 90-minute bus ride away. But I wanted to see this because there’s a room made entirely out of amber inside, and I was very curious what this would feel like vibrationally. The original Amber Room was stolen by Nazis during WWII and hidden somewhere in Germany, that somewhere still being a mystery today, as well as how in the hell do you steal an entire room. A replacement Amber Room was finally finished in 2003.
Getting to Pushkin to see the palace involved taking the metro to a chaotic roadside conflagration of buses and sub-bus public transportation vehicles. I was destined to ride in one of these not-buses, a bizarre thing that looked like an ice cream truck that might also have tacos. Sadly, it had neither.
Arriving at the Palace, I discovered that the whole of China had beat me there. The line to get into the palace stretched back past a sign that said “4.5 Hour Wait From This Point.” Ay caramba! I’m not in Russia long enough to wait four and a half hours for anything. Hmmm. Well, it’s pretty from the outside.
I briefly thought I might be able to outsmart the masses by buying a ticket online, then quickly learned that to get tickets in advance you have to be up at midnight Russia time exactly 14 days before your visit, refreshing the Catherine Palace website over and over in hopes of snagging a ticket in the window between when they go on sale and when they sell out four seconds later. Hmmm.
Maybe I can tour the gardens a bit and see if that sign is lying about the wait time?
Returning to the main palace building, the line was even longer now. No one had moved more than four feet in the hour I’d been walking around. Nope, piss on this. Sorry Replacement Amber Room, you’ll have to be vibrationally mysterious without me.
Right as I ducked into the bus back to St Petersburg, the heavens opened and it began absolutely pouring rain, as cleverly foreshadowed in the photos above. I hope the hundreds of Chinese people in that outdoor line really, really enjoyed the inside of the palace and took a life-changing selfie, if they weren't washed into the Gulf of Finland.
Back in St Petersburg, I was off to find another vegan burger joint I’d heard good things about. I’d also heard it was hard to find, but I was up to the task. At least I thought I was, until I walked through a back alley, a parking lot, a construction site and then just started following a couple who looked like they might be vegan. We squeezed by some guys jackhammering a sidewalk and the couple called someone on an intercom and were buzzed through a security door as I pretended I was with them. Inside, a massive industrial building had been converted into hipster office space, and I wandered through endless corridors and the occasional juice kiosk or modern dance studio, always hoping the next endless corridor would end in a vegan burger joint.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t, but it was pretty fun to wander around inside whatever the hell this place was. I thought it was cool that the young people were reclaiming this Soviet-era landscape and making something new out of it, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what that new thing actually was.
I eventually found the burger place outside and down a different alley, a literal shack at the crossroads of two alleys, and it was amazing. And on the way there I’d passed a bizarre museum of some kind, which I backtracked to after lunch. It turned out to be a Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines. Okay then!
I paid for a matchbox full of vintage Ruble coins to play the games and I was off on a wondrous odyssey of not knowing what the fuck I was doing for a solid two hours. It was great. The best game, and the one I understood the best, I think, was this turnip-pulling game:
This was something like that game at the Fair where you hit the thinger with a sledgehammer to ring the bell and impress your date, only in this case you had to give yourself a hernia trying to yank a turnip handle out of the console. The first time I played, I was pulling in completely the wrong direction, because I am not experienced with soviet turnips. Once I figured out the mechanics of farming I tried again and received an actual score this time. The highest score attainable on the game is “Grandpa,” which I found hilarious. I scored “Little Girl.” Which, you know, #TimesUp Russia, but whatever. I played again and scored “Dog” which was baffling and hilarious enough that I left it at that.
My second-favorite game was the one I understood the least.
You tell me what is going on with that thing. I found the whole concept fascinating though and thought I had it figured out until I got to the end of the game and discovered I had scored a zero. Damn Russia, I thought I was winning!
The rest of the games fell between those two extremes of incomprehensibility, though mostly toward that Unfathomable Mooninites Game end of the scale. I thought I had a handle on this folkloric platformer until I was suddenly killed by bees. Or possibly Cs.
This submarine game was a lot of fun because you were peering through a viewfinder at a miniature sea set with little physical boats toodling back and forth for you to torpedo back to hell.
The pinball games all had at least two bum flippers and were fucking impossible.
This boat captain game involved navigating a red light through a series of abstract canals and was fucking impossible.
The main commonality among all of the games there is that they were all fucking impossible. The bee-allergy platformer had crucial buttons that would pop back up about three seconds after you pressed them. I’d hate America too if I’d grown up playing these games. It was all a fascinating window into the Soviet experience.
The one thing you are required to do in St Petersburg is to visit the Hermitage Museum. I had read some wildly carried-away accounts that this was, in fact, the best art museum in the entire world.
Yyyyyyyyeeeeeeaaaaah it’s not that. It is a very huge and very beautiful and very crowded building that is full of literally the worst collection of art I have ever seen, garage sales included. I don’t generally think of myself as an art snob, but the best thing in the entire museum was this horrific Tibetan statue of Birdie from McDonald’s:
What the hell is that thing? This was the painful moment when I realized Tibet could produce something I didn’t like. And it was all downhill from there. The entire collection seemed to have been purchased in bulk, like the curator was some party official’s brother who just bought the first example of each kind of art he saw until all the rooms were full, all over the course of a single weekend.
I suppose in a country where even the freaking subway is beautiful, the trade-off has to come in somewhere. At least the building was pretty, in an eye-searingly gaudy kind of way.
The treasure of the Hermitage’s collection is the Peacock Clock, which is a giant gold robot clock with a mechanical peacock, chicken and owl in it that preen, crow and look around confused, respectively, the one time a year they wind up the clock and let it do its thing. The clock was commissioned by Grigory Potemkin (of village fame) for Catherine the Great and, you know, it’s a big gold bird clock and stuff. The amassed Chinese tourists were crowding around this thing like it was the Mona Lisa, making getting a photo of it a full contact sport.
Russia has a lot of bizarre rules forbidding photography in pretty much any of their museums, which is a bummer. And which made my heart swing open wide for the four million Chinese tourists I was sharing the museum with, because good luck telling those guys not to take photos. Or tell them really anything at all. I was able to ride on the coattails of this anarchy and photographed the lack of palatable art to my heart’s content. God bless you, Chinese masses.
On the bus ride back from the Hermitage I witnessed a large car crash, and then after being forced to break my “no taxi” rule in order to get to the airport early the next morning, I saw a even bigger one on the freeway, which disconcertingly/hilariously involved multiple taxis. Yeah, it’s probably for the best that Google says I walked 34 miles on this trip.
What were my surprises, traveling through Russia? I was surprised how friendly the Russian people were. I think we basically have two stereotypes about Russians at this point: One is the cold-war era stereotype of the stoic hardass who “vil break yu!” Didn’t really meet anyone like that, though the Ukrainians do look a lot like that Ivan Drago visual stereotype of a Russian dude. The other, more current stereotype is of the “uncouth macho asshole” Russian. I didn’t really encounter this either, though to be fair I wasn’t around anybody when they were drinking. I’ve read that Russia is way behind the curve when it comes to gay rights, feminism, and accepting racial diversity, and that seems entirely plausible. But at least as a straight white dude wandering around I found everyone shockingly courteous and friendly.
This actually caused problems all its own, as I have never had as many strangers come up and talk to me on the street as I did in Russia. English is much less common in Russia than you’d expect, so this was a comedic combination. I also don’t think they get many non-Chinese tourists these days, since every person who tried to start a conversation with me seemed shocked and confused to discover I didn’t speak Russian. They were always overly polite and apologetic about disturbing me once they figured out what was going on, but their immediate reaction was always a confused, fearful look like I had surprised them in the shower. It was all very interesting.
The few people I met who did speak English were very accommodating, one guy who found me staring quizzically at an odd building in St Petersburg turned out to be a professor and he gave me a very long history lesson about that building and that entire section of St Petersburg as we walked down the street together.
If I could go back in time to before I started visiting the former Soviet republics I would learn to speak a bit more Russian, but I’m almost through them all now so that’s just a tip for the younger Looper version of me who’s going to shoot me in a few weeks.
The thing about this trip was that it was actually pretty fascinating, getting by with only knowing how to say “Yes,” “No,” and “Thanks” in Russian. You’d think this would isolate you completely, but I was shocked by how much I could understand of what people were saying just from the context of when and where someone was speaking to me, the tone of their voice, their body language and their facial expressions. It was basically like being a dog for a week.
I got through dozens of interactions with people who never realized I couldn’t speak Russian, because I could logic out what they wanted and give them the appropriate Da/Nyet answer, leaving them none the wiser that there was an Amerikanskiy in their midst.
At one point I decided I was being lazy not learning any more words and looked up how to say “here” in Russian (Bot), so I could tell the bus driver where to let me off. This backfired wildly as he loudly burst out laughing in response and then asked in English “You want me stop here?” Da, spasibo. Lesson learned, I retreated back to my three-word vocabulary for the remainder of the trip, without another hiccup.
One night in Moscow I was walking the long miles from the metro station to my “hotel,” probably later at night than was advisable. I peered warily over my shoulder at the shady group of four youths walking behind me. Hmm. I picked up my pace slightly, and then one of them spoke.
“There she stood in the doorway.”
Huh? What doorway?
“I heard the mission bell.”
We were walking by a church… okay, this is getting weird.
“And I was thinking to myself this could be heaven or this could be hell.”
Oh. Oh shit-
And that’s when they all broke into the chorus of Hotel California.