Moscow is expensive. The Courtyard Marriott is perfectly located on a quiet street a few blocks from Red Square, and at $300-400/night, it is worth the price. Regrettably, they wanted $40/day for internet access. We spent two other nights at the Maxima Irbis Hotel, situated on the outskirts of town. Although half the price of the Marriott, it does require navigating the Metro to arrive at Red Square.
Souvenir shops along Old Arbat Street are no bargain, though I longed for a classic and threadbare CCCP t-shirt for thirty bucks. Everyone sells those nested Matryoshka dolls, all notably made in China, and available in every Western personality. Admission to the popular sites can get expensive, so get a good guidebook and check their recommendations.
One thing that is not expensive is the alcohol, a somewhat sobering reality in Moscow, with cheap beer and vodka sold at every claustrophobic corner store and outdoor vendor. Because of the low cost and availability, people drink openly in public, with bottles overflowing the trash receptacles and littering the public spaces.
Perhaps it is their disillusionment with life, as there are obviously many wealthy people in Moscow, yet so many more that do not share in this prosperity and probably never will.
There are strict visa requirements for Americans visiting Russia, with inflexible entry and exit dates. There is no such thing as a ‘visa on arrival’ – it must be obtained in advance of your visit from a Soviet consulate.
We organized our train trip through www.monkeyshrine.com, a travel company specializing in tours across Russia, with their Hong Kong office arranging all documentation and visas. After four days in Moscow , we caught the overnight train to St. Petersburg for an additional five days.
Surprisingly, our ATM card did not work in Russia due to a high rate of fraud, so check with your bank before leaving. Fortunately, we were able to receive cash advances on our Visa card to get by. English is not widely spoken, so be prepared for an adventure in communication.
Free WiFi is available throughout the city, and with the exception of two drunk locals who mistook us for long-lost cousins, the city has a safe feel to it. Curiously, private cars operate as taxis. Flagged down along the street, they will drop you off around town – just have a map so you can point out your destination.
Always carry your passport or risk a $50 fine from the non-English speaking police. Finally, unless you are a fan of Dr. Zhivago, I cannot imagine visiting during the frigid winter months.
With ongoing political unrest, undeveloped economic market structures, and a nagging repressive political structure, Russia has a ways to go to fulfill a true free society. Relaxing the onerous visa requirements and encouraging more tourism would certainly be a step in the right direction. Still, Russia lacks the thriving vitality and bustling economic energy so evident in Asia.
A repressive and socialist country trying to shirk off its failed communist pedigree, it has the potential, but only time will tell if it has the willpower and initiative. Moscow is a curious and fascinating city, with legendary sites entrapped in centuries of history and mistrust. After years of paranoia, Moscow now seems to be warming up after the Cold War, cautiously extending its hand out to tourists.
Ultimately, it is both a surprising and evocative destination.