My current home town of NYC has some pretty amazing museums. The city is fortunate to have the world’s history and art come to them instead of traveling many time zones away to see it.
When I’m traveling I’m always up for checking out the ones that get a little less attention and are somewhat off the beaten path. I’m in search of what will never reach any museum close to home because it’s just impossible to really appreciate something that is thousands of miles away from its origin. It’s pretty hard to move an entire building as well. Some have been somewhat successful. For example, the MET in NYC did do a great job of bringing the Islamic world back after being in storage for a decade.
I usually find places that are more known for both their architectural beauty and small collection of art inside. Here are a few of my favorites from my travels over the years. Trips to Russia and Iran just require a pricey and lengthy visa approval process and Syria is considered very unsafe for foreigners and nationals alike. Things will hopefully the violence will end and peace will resume in days ahead. Here’s just a little look inside a few.
We all have a vision on how we will spend our precious days away from regular life. For some its traveling far from home to a place where most things are foreign. An evening stroll along the Volga viewing the red stars that light up the top of the Kremlin, Seven Sisters and St. Basil’s. There’s also the subterranean beauty of the extensive subway system lit with crystal chandeliers and elegant tiled passageways which look more like a museum then public transport hubs.
Intrepid shopping trips to the Vernisage in Izmailovo Flea Market checking out Matryoshki dolls painted with Putin and Medvedev faces, Lenin and Stalin commemorative Statues and other Soviet Kitsch objects.
Today, visitors can freely walk around the interior walls that surround the Kremlin fortress where former Czar royals lived in seclusion and away from the common people. Their ostentatious collections of jewels, thousands of pieces of cutlery, carriages, clothing and countless gives from allies are on display for those who can pay 700 rub or about $25 USD and no pictures allowed, viewing times are limited and just about everything is a bit irregular.
All there is to be seen in Moscow and much of Russia does come with a hefty price tag which starts with the visa and goes through the lack of budget accommodation. This is not an ideal backpacker spot since it’s impossible to just land and figure it out as you go. I guess if there is a will then there’s a way like but at an expense which would deter most vagabonds.
If a traveler has their heart set on a trip to Russia then the investment is well worth the hoops and greasy palms one must contend with before being let in. If not, there are less expensive alternatives which provide similar experiences with less of a price tag and hassles. Many former Soviet controlled cities offer a good alternatives for travelers looking for signs of the glory days of communism under Stalin and Lenin.
Tbilisi instead of Moscow
One of those is the lovely former Soviet satellite country of the Georgian Republic. This lovely country is on the move and could be a member of NATO as soon as this May when NATO holds their summit in Chicago. This doesn’t exactly thrill Russia and tension between the two still continues on.
Tbilisi lies of the banks of the Kura River and it’s hills contain medieval fortresses, parks and the larger than life soviet style Kartlis Deda Statue.
The war is over in Georgia and it’s a wonderful place to visit. Travelers can’t find any better Soviet kitsch then the Stalin Museum in Gori, Georgia. This is where you can see the home of Josef and his family and view the 83 ton very secure custom train the paranoid Stalin travelled in while visiting his post 1941 conquered regions. There is much more to Georgia than birthplace of one of the world’s most paranoid and murderous dictator. They are still in the process of removing him from their past which includes everything Soviet. Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-Western president, is trying to get rid of all Stalin references and not so long ago finally had his statue removed from the center of Gori. President Saakashvili wants to continue to sever all connections to Russia’s former occupation of Georgia.
Just trade it for Red Wine and/or Borjomi
Georgia continues in their quest to be known less for its conflicts and more for things like their fine wines, bubbly therapeutic mineral water and unique culture.The Russian’s continue their embargo on Georgia’s biggest beverage exports, wine and a salty mineral water with the labels of Borjomi and Nabeghlavi.
Wine is the blood of Georgians as vodka is in most of Russian citizens blood. Russia’s ban only makes both very affordable for locals and visitors. Vodka of all kinds is not hard to find and one of the few Soviet traditions that will be hard for Georgians to give up but the wine is devine and extremely budget friendly thanks to the Russian embargo and lack of interest from this feisty neighbor.
There’s nothing that can touch the beauty and elegance of the subway stations found in Moscow. The few built in Tbilisi which give visitors a feel for the signature look the Soviet designers were going for. Construction of most of these smaller marble walled stations was completed in 1966. Today, there’s no longer signs of Stalin, but they do deeply resemble those built in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The subway conductors and security do not allow picture-taking inside the subway system. I managed to accidentally bump my camera with this one below.
Budget low down:
Georgia: Free for most upon arrival
Russia: $130 on average and need to start process at least 2 months before departure
Accommodation in the city:
$40-100 USD/night for most hotels including breakfast and private bath similar to the Charm Hotel
$70-100 USD/night for most double with separate bath no breakfast at hotels like and similar to the Petrovka Loft close to Red Square
Splashed out 3-course meal: $30 USD
Traditional Georgian Cuisine Menu:
– a glass of wine for $3.61
– a liter bottle of Borjomi for 90 cents USD
– a plate of 3 Khinkali for 90 cents USD
– a large Khachapuri or cheese bread for $3.91 USD
Meal totaling: $9.32 USD without tip
Basic Budget meals: $10-12 USD without drink
McDonald’s Value Meal: $4.99 USD
Cheap Eats listed on this site made for foreign students staying in Moscow.
Cities of Georgia may not have the prestige of cities found in the former Mother Land of Russia but they are easier on the wallet. The choice is of course the travelers. Travelers will find a visit to Tbilisi an experience to remember. Travelers can see where Stalin grew up and how the first Soviet satellite country to declare independence from Russia has fared despite continuous conflict after cutting loose.
St. Petersburg’s skyline says it all. From the banks of the Volga the views include the golden cathedral towers of the Peter and Paul Fortress and the pointed towering Minerats and bright blue tiles of the mosque dome just to the right of it. Peter the Great wanted his capital to reflect the cultural make up of his vast empire.
Russian southern cities which lie on the Caspian Sea were the only real Russian ports linking the nation to the Silk Road trade. St. Petersburg is just up the Volga River from the trading post village of Novgorod. Russia supplied furs, honey and slaves to Muslim lands as far as Baghdad. The original route connecting the Volga River to the Caspian Sea until the 11th century. By the 13th century, another route linking the Black Sea to the Byzantine and Persian Empires replaced the original. This is the route workers travelled when Peter the Great invited all Russians to help construct their new capital St. Petersburg. This included the first large number of Muslims to travel to this part of the country. They were the Tatars from the Volga Region.
The Russian Empire connects the east to the west making it more Eurasia then Russia and covers almost one sixth of the earth’s surface. This being said – there has always been a rich cultural, linguistic and religious diversity among all of its people. Peter the Great had genuine interest in the affairs of the muslim community since Russia was beginning to extent it’s empire into Ottoman territory. Among many things, he personally ordered the first Russian language Qur’an to be published in 1716 to help welcome in Russia’s new subjects. It wasn’t until much later that a proper mosque was built for those how made St. Petersburg their home.
St. Petersburg wasn’t established as Russia capital until the early 18th century but today is home to one of the largest and northern most mosques in Europe. Csar Nicolas I gave the Emir of Bukhara permission to buy land near the tombs of the Romanovs in the Peter and Paul fortress island to build a mosque for muslim worshippers in the city. This location was important to the Emir because he wanted to show respect for the rest of Russia and to symbolize the Muslim citizens loyalty to the Russian Empire. The mosque wasn’t completely supported by all of the city but it was able to collect money from donors from inside and outside of Russia and was completed in 1920 after ten years of construction.
The mosque has suffered a lot over the centuries. It was shutdown by the Bolsheviks – like most religious institutions – and later used as a storage warehouse during World War II. The mosque’s doors remained locked through 1956 but didn’t get any major renovations until the 1980’s.
Today, nearly where a half a million residents and many descendants of the Tatars. The Great Mosque with its tall blue dome is hard to miss even on a foggy day. Most non-muslim visitors can only view the mosque from the outside gates since it is a working mosque. The exterior was originally designed to resemble Tamerlane’s Gur Emir Mausoleum in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The inside design is a combination of both the art nouveau popular in the beginning of the 20th century and traditional mosque motifs. I didn’t see but pictures show the interior filled with blue and green tiled ceilings and scripted passages of the Qur’an. The outside views are amazing and maybe the inside will be open for visitors next time.
Its something worth seeing while in St. Petersburg and not too far away from other wonderful sites like the Peter and Paul’s fortress and the former Bolshevik headquarters – Kshesinsky Palace. It’s just a short walk across the river or an easy tram ride from most parts of St. Petersburg.
Efim Rezvan, deputy director of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography states it best: “There is no panorama of the center of St. Petersburg that does not show two minarets. And this symbol is not only of St. Petersburg. This reflects the country itself, and the dramatic history of the mosque reflects the dramatic history of the country.”
So, going to Russia requires U.S. citizens to fill out a couple of pages of questions, getting a local invite (services usually charge around $30) and handing over some cash which is right now $131. This can all be done through a service I decided to do as much of it as I can on my own. I can just about walk to the Russian Consulate, so why not.
I see that it opens up at 9:30am and closes for an hour at 1pm and then open again from 2pm-5pm. I decide to be safe and go when they open. Things usually take longer then you think when it comes to dealing with foreign consulates. I get off the 6 train and head uptown to 91st and Madison. The Consulate is a lovely building located across the street from one of my favorite museums the Cooper-Hewitt.
I can’t miss it. The building has two entrances. Each one of them at this point has an entrance full of what look like Russian baby boomers. I walk up to the entrance with a sign that says Visa Entrance. I’m quite convinced that this is the correct one because everyone I try to confirm with does not speak english. I don’t but I just question why they all need to be getting a tourist visa. It’s a day after a holiday and the beginning of the month so they may be here for another reason (collecting a Pension or doing person business). So, I wait to see what happens and finally a kind person approaches me and says that I need to stand in line at the other entrance. They were like me but speak Russian. I wasn’t alone. It was getting a little wild there at this point. No one was getting in and the line was growing. One good thing that happened was a women came up to me speaking Russian. Does this mean I’ll not stand out so much? It’s probably just the blonde/white hair color.
So, if you are going for a tourist visa then go to the entrance closest to the Cooper-Hewitt (closer to Central Park) Stand to the left of the entrance behind the rope if it’s there.
I’m lucky because it’s just 9:30am at that point and have just a couple of people waiting ahead of me. I end up striking a conversation with a gentleman behind me who has been to Russia before. He gives me some good tips on where to eat in Moscow (Cafe Pushkin) and suggests sitting on the second level. He also mentioned a couple of day possible day trips. One was going to Zagorsk or as it is known today as Sergiyev Posad. Another suggested town is called Kostroma. I’ll research all of that later.
So the very friendly and good-looking man at the door lets me inside since it’s my turn. I hope I had everything in line because it’s never 100% clear what you really need to have in order to get a visa. This is why I don’t wait until last-minute. So, I get in and now get to sit and wait for my turn patiently. It appears to be only one person ahead of me…maybe two. The other is kind of hanging out and looking anxious. I strike up another conversation with the gentleman ahead of me. He has an interesting trip ahead of him. He’s one of the U.S. coaches of the Bobsled team just getting back from Vancouver. They had won the gold and Russian Officials wanted him to come over and check out there newly built course before the cold weather is gone. We had a great chat about the games. It was great getting a chance to speak to him. Very interesting man.
My turn…I think. There’s one person behind the plexiglass and he seems to be overwhelmed or just ready for lunch. I think there’s an event going on because a large delivery came in while I have been waiting. There must be a holiday going on. Election day maybe? So, I just take a chance and head up to the window and see what happens. It was my turn and it only was 10:45am. Not bad.
So he looked and looked at my papers, looking quickly through the passports (all for show I think). The only questions he had been asking me if I was going anywhere else besides Moscow? Where was I staying in Moscow? and the purpose of the visit. That was it. Done. I just needed to pay the cashier and come back at 11am March 24th (2 weeks) and pick up my passports. No worries.
So here is the list of things I had with me. If something goes wrong and I don’t get the visa on the 24th I will update on this blog.
1. Valid passport with a few clean visa pages available.
2. One photo which I was smiling in and it says not to smile but they let me get away with it. They cut and pasted the picture in for me so you don’t have to worry if it seems to big. Most places in town sell larger ones.
3. One invitation I got through a service called http://www.gettorussia.com which cost $34 and came within 5 minutes via email over the internet. There’s a cheaper $29 that takes longer and how long I don’t know. It was worth the extra $5 spot.
4. Completed Application form.
5. Bank Check made out to the Russian Consulate for $131. You can pay more for expedited service (about $100) but this one will arrive in 2 weeks. I have the time.
Now that’s done is time for more trip planning, memorizing the cyrillic alphabet, and learning at least the few key phrases. I can’t wait 🙂 I hope the Visa has some cool artwork.
The trip in May came down to two locations. Mexico or Russia? My husband and I had our usual debate. We breakdown each place and do the pros and cons, look to see what the weather is like when we can travel, find out if there are any holidays that could get in the way of travel, and write down the initial costs of going.
We decided on Russia. The weather is nice, the end of May will allow us to travel without the hassles of May Day and Victory Day that fall at the beginning of the month (parades would have been a sight but maybe another time) and we could use our miles with Capital One. The free flight helps when we think about how the costs of hotels, restaurants and all the other chiselers Russian we will meet along the way. At least we expect it.
So the plane tickets we decided upon are with Finnair. This way we won’t be flying through Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle, have a chance of getting a decent vegetarian meal and we get One World sky miles. The half hour turnaround in Helsinki is going to be a challenge. A carry-on in this case is required.
We will only be staying for 11 nights so booking hotels or hostels beforehand is necessary. There isn’t much room for a side trips on this one. Moscow and St. Petersburg are both known to be very expensive cities. It was tricky finding a budget price that’s within a reasonable walking distance to Red Square. There were plenty of hostels that were very close and have good prices but for the most part were bunk style accommodation and reviewers on the particular booking site seemed to be mostly 18-24 in age. They may have been an option 10 years ago.
Another option was renting a flat. This is nice because they usually have a kitchen (good if you are looking to save money and have diet restrictions), and have privacy. These are usually best if you are on an extended holiday that runs at least a month. The rates looked reasonable on a site called http://www.getorussia.com but if you read the fine print the quoted rates are based on a month or more. A few days stay goes up at least 30%. So that wasn’t an option.
With a little more research on Thorn tree and basic google searches I found a place called the Petrovka Loft. This place looks good through pictures they and travelers on http://www.tripadvisor.com had posted. There gets to a point where I have to just believe the reviewers. I found that they are listed on http://www.hostelworld.com. I like using this site or http://www.hostelbookers over others like Expedia and Orbitz because a reservation only requires a 10% down-payment. The remainder is paid when you arrive. If you don’t like it for some reason you don’t lose too much money if you keep on walking. It’s also a trust issue between yourself and the hotel. I have had the times when I show up at a hostel and they haven’t a record of my reservation. It’s always safe to make contact ahead if possible so they know you are coming. This may just prod them to check their bookings from outside agencies and update yours and other reservations.
The fun has momentarily ended. It’s time to gather documents for putting together the Visa application. Each country that requires a visa has their own system. Some are easy at the border stamps (they just really want cash) and others require filling out questionnaires and forking over large sums of cash. Russia is stuck in the pre-Pesrestroika days. The questions are pretty much aimed at figuring out if you are a Jason Bourne character whom they are trying to prevent from entering the country or just an innocent tourist wanting to take pictures and spend money. The questions are like an employment application. I wonder if they ever call up your previous employees and ask them questions about your character and if you legit? I had visions of the person on the other line not having a clue that I worked there since it’s been so long. Let’s just hope they believe I have written only the truth.
The Russian Federation is very thorough with each applicant. Visitors are required to get an invitation from a hotel, travel agency or person living in Russia. Basically, someone who will be responsible for you while in Russia. These days it’s just another money-making tool but you have to do it. The hotel you have booked can either vouch for you or they can recommend a travel company to process the paper work. We just paid the $30 used http://www.getorussia.com. It took less than 5 minutes on the internet.
Now, my (1) valid passport with at least two clear visa places available (2)a 1″ 3/8 X 1″ 3/4 photo of myself not smiling and showing my shoulders up (3) questionnaire is filled out, I have a copy of (4) my invitation, and now all I need to do is get (5) a $131 USD money order from the bank. I hope I don’t forget anything when I head to the Russian Consulates office in the morning. I’m fortunate to have a Russian Consulates office in town so I don’t have to mail off my passport and nervously await for it to come back to me via U.S. Mail or Fed-ex.
The process takes anywhere from 4-20 business days. I’ve got some time but these things seem to end up taking more than you think. Now, I have to go look for more trip information including what our hotel options will be in St. Petersburg, train schedules to St. Petersburg and what there is to do and see in each city. After that, a good nights sleep because who knows how long it’s going to take me to get through the consulates office tomorrow.
Maybe I should have gone with the room facing the Caribbean and the days of sipping margaritas on the beach…naahh
Click here for more information on obtaining a Russian Visa
Starting to plan a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg at the end of May…getting the visa seems to be one of the many milestones I’ll have to overtake before getting off the plane in Moscow. Keep up with my progress in the next couple of months. Come back and see how I’m doing.