If there’s one thing this trip has taught me, it is to never listen to other people. Somehow more people in Moscow speak English than in St. Petersburg! And here I was, worrying about the language barrier for days. Ha!
We arrived and navigated to our hostel, centrally located near the famous Red Square. We arrive before check in and choose to wait, savoring the downtime in our busy day. The receptionist tells us that the 16-bunk dorm room we booked is filled with a tour group and she doesn’t know when they will leave, so we should pay extra and upgrade to the 6-bunk room. I tell her that we reserved the 16-bunk room for a lower price on two specified days and it isn’t fair that they suddenly don’t have it available. If they want us to move, it should be at the price we originally agreed upon. She told us to wait, I assume while she talked to the manager or owner, and later came and told us that we would be given the 6-bunk room for the 16-bunk price. I’m not a fussy tourist but I know when something isn’t right. Business ethics are the same regardless of the country!
Better yet, no one else had booked the 6-bunk room so we would have it to ourselves, which meant I wasn’t forced to the top bunk! We dropped our bags and set off on a day of exploring. We went straight to the Red Square and saw the Kremlin, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and Lenin’s Tomb. It was jam packed with tourists, so I can’t imagine how crowded it gets in summer months. The sun was shining for the first time during our trip. While we loved the warmth, we hated the glare in all of our photos!
Next on the list was souvenir shopping. There were several little booths set up around the square selling the traditional Russian nesting dolls, fake fur hats, soviet shot glasses, and wooden jewelry. I originally wanted a nesting doll, but reconsidered when I saw the price and realized it would only be sitting on a shelf it’s entire life. Small dolls with two pieces cost around $5 while potato sized dolls with 5 pieces cost $15! The large football sized dolls with 7 pieces cost as much as $40. I decided to get a small garland of dolls to hang and it only cost $6. Throughout the trip, I’ve been buying a flag from every country we visited and I plan to string them together to hang on my wall.
We continued walking around and went into the GUM (pronounced Goom) mall. It is the most famous mall in Russia and the top floor used to be dedicated to private shopping for the elite members of society. Now, it is a huge complex of expensive designer stores. We had fun walking around in the warmth and seeing the special Sochi Olympics store filled with overpriced clothing.
Another interesting observation is that Russians love to eat ice cream while shopping. Several little booths are set up throughout the mall and everyone flocks to them. From children to elderly women, everyone we passed was licking an ice cream cone. Stores even have to have signs prohibiting ice cream from entering the store. Crazy!
Next we walked to the KGB building, but it was unfortunately under construction. My friend Tracy’s family has ties to Russia and her grandfather told her to look for a statue of her distant relative. We tried to find it, but the building it was next to was under construction so the area was fenced off. The temperature reached a high of 16 degrees all day, so we were frozen. We decided to go into a little cafeteria style deli for a late lunch/early dinner. I ordered a beet and garlic salad, a blintz (Russian pancake filled with cottage cheese), and a slice of cabbage pie. It was all very delicious, especially since it was my first meal in awhile other than granola bars and pretzels from my backpack!
We returned to the hostel to relax since it was already dark and only getting colder. It is pretty difficult to tour when the sun rises at 11am and sets at 5pm. We have been going to bed fairly early this entire trip!
The next day we set out to finish our souvenir shopping and see the St. Basil’s Cathedral at night. Since it started snowing in the morning, the ground was pretty slick, so the Red Square was almost empty by the time we arrived in the evening. The buildings were lit up and everything was even more beautiful than in the daytime! We took another round of photos and scurried back to the hostel since the temperature was around 9. Everyone who asked “Why are you going to Russia in December?!” was right. It was freezing!
Tracy bought a real fur hat in St. Petersburg for about $130. It sounds frivolous but they are so popular here! Every woman has one and a few shopkeepers have asked us “Aren’t you cold with no fur on your head??” Yes! Yes we are.
My last full day on the trip was also an experiment in budgeting. I woke up with 1200 rubles, or $36. I set aside 500 rubles ($15) for transport to the airport and to buy fruit so I don’t have to eat the gross airline food. That left me with $21. I spent 100 rubles ($3) on a flag and around 500 rubles ($15) at the grocery store on breakfast for the next morning, Russian tea to take home, and a few gifts. That left me with a grand total of 100 rubles ($3) to spend on food for the day. I ate half a bag of pretzels I had left over in my backpack for breakfast, but then had to scrape together the cheapest items at the grocery store to last the rest of the day.
I know I am quick to criticize people for not eating healthily, but today I realized just how temping junk food is from a monetary standpoint. I could have gotten four football-sized pastries for 100 rubles ($3) but I knew that wasn’t healthy, so I got a banana, a bag of dried prunes, and about 1/4 cup of beet salad. While a family may be able to survive for a day on 4 pastry loaves, there’s no way they could survive on my healthy options – it wasn’t even enough for me!
While I love to cook and eat at home, I like to ration my money while traveling toward admission fees and souvenirs, never food. One of the things I am looking forward to most is being able to cook at home again! First item on the menu: HUMMUS. And then a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and salmon. Mmmmm.