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To Russia with Love

November 22, 2010

The Compulsive Traveler: I am truly honored to invite Unfiltered Awesomeness to be my guest blogger. His observations about Russia from a foreigner’s point of view are amazingly accurate and hilarious. Please enjoy!

Unfiltered Awesomeness: I was very excited when The Compulsive Traveler asked me to be a guest writer for her site. Not only am I getting a chance to write for the Internet’s hottest new blog sensation, but I also get to share my experience in Russia this past summer from an American’s point of view. And I have to tell you, it was nothing like I expected.

Ever since I was little I always wondered what Russia would be like. American movies and TV shows had promoted various stereotypes that ended up sticking in my head and forming my expectations for the country. Was there a murderous Russian villain bent on world domination lurking around every corner? Or beautiful Russian spies waiting to seduce me in exchange for information? Also: does everyone wear those funny hats? And is it always cold there? What exactly is a babushka anyway?

As I grew older and wiser I realized my impressions of Russia were not all that accurate. Yet I was very curious. So when I finally got the opportunity to visit this mysterious country a few months ago, I was elated. This was my chance to take a peek behind the (former) iron curtain. I bought my plane ticket and looked forward to a vodka-fueled Russian adventure.

As it turned out, we picked the worst possible time to visit Moscow. As we neared the city, the plane became enveloped in thick, gray clouds. We learned later that dozens of fires had broken out in bogs just east of Moscow, which left the city completely engulfed in a heavy, oppressive smog. It was uncomfortable enough that people were walking around with masks and cloths clutched to their faces.

It was tough leaving our refreshing air-conditioned apartment, but nevertheless we ventured out that first night to a wonderful restaurant called Taras Bulba. It was named after one of the most famous characters in Ukrainian literature and featured incredible native Ukrainian cuisine. After I’d had my fill of potatoes and rabbit, we washed it all down with delicious kvass, which turned out to be a typical Russian bread-based drink. It had a purplish tint and tasted exactly like it sounds: slightly carbonated bread in liquid form. It tastes a lot better than it sounds, and is reminiscent of very light beer. I loved it, and had more than my fair share the rest of the trip.

The next day, the skies miraculously cleared, revealing a beautiful summer day and we were able to soak in all the history Moscow has to offer. We ran all over the city that first day and I have to say, Moscow is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I consider myself a pretty seasoned world-traveler—though certainly not as seasoned as The Compulsive Traveler—and I’ve seen some pretty impressive cities. But what impressed me most is the extravagant architecture of the buildings, which is completely unique to any other architectural style I’ve ever seen. Trust me, you’ll know Russian design when you see it.

Our first stop was the world-famous Red Square. The Red Square is considered to be the central square in the city of Moscow. It’s enormous, and surrounded on all sides by beautiful and historic landmarks. What confuses foreigners like me is the difference between the Red Square and the Kremlin. In reality the entire complex—the buildings around the Red Square—is called the Kremlin. Within the Kremlin are the official President’s residence, a large shopping mall with a beautiful façade, and Lenin’s Mausoleum, in which tourists can see the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. On the southern side of the Red Square lies my favorite building in all of Moscow: St. Basil’s Cathedral. I was completely unprepared for how ostentatious it was. It’s covered in all sorts of vibrant colors: from the basic red and white theme to bright blues, greens and yellows. Legend has it that the ruler of Russia at the time, Ivan IV—more commonly known as Ivan the Terrible—blinded the architect who designed the cathedral so that he might never be able to recreate his masterpiece. While I don’t generally condone blinding people, I can sympathize.

From there we visited another famous building, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.  Though not as extravagant as St. Basil’s, this cathedral was also breathtaking with its giant golden domes. Interestingly enough, Stalin’s communist regime completely destroyed this landmark—to make room for a public swimming pool. The cathedral was rebuilt in its entirety in the 1990s. If you ever make it to Moscow, I highly recommend you take a stroll through the Tretyakov Gallery, home to the biggest collection of Russian fine art in the world.

I could say a lot more about Moscow, (like the Triumphal Arch, Poklonnaya Hill, and the Monument to Pirate Peter the Great) but I fear I’m running out of space and I still haven’t talked about my favorite part of the trip: our jaunt into the Ural Mountains to a town called Izhevsk. Izhevsk is the capital of a Russian Republic called Udmurtia, and is full of luscious green nature and wonderful people. I enjoyed a bunch of traditional Russian dishes during my 10 days in Izhevsk including shanghi (a creamy mashed potato pastry), pelmeni (meat dumplings), zapenkanka (a delicious beef and zucchini casserole au gratin) and fresh crayfish caught from the Kama River, all thanks to my gracious hosts—The Compulsive Traveler’s family.

I was also fortunate enough to have a number of awesome experiences there, including night swimming in the Kama, a tour of an ice cream factory, and even a tour of the palace of the Udmurt president hosted by the president himself. Not too shabby. None of this however, was as thrilling/terrifying experience as my time in a traditional Russian banya. In a banya, you are thrust into a blisteringly hot sauna naked and beaten with bushels of leaves, after which you take a dip in ice-cold water…then do it all over again. It might not sound pleasant to most Americans (and believe me, I didn’t know what to expect going in either) but I’m really glad I did it. The sensation of full relaxation permeating your body afterwards is like nothing I’ve ever felt. The traditional vodka shots afterwards helps too. It was a truly awesome experience that I wish I could have repeated the next night, had I not been a central figure in an accident involving bourbon, a swing, and a precipitous fall…but that’s another story.

For more exciting pictures go to my flickr page.

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