Put on your somber facade, and come on a journey with me.
If you want to feel immense compassion for the foreigners who visit your country, come to Moscow for a week, and you’ll go back feeling guilty every time you turned away from a tourist’s plea for help because you were too concerned about drinking your Starbucks before it got cold.
As a U.S. citizen who sold a kidney just to obtain a visa to a country with a high language barrier, Moscow is intimidating. In the beginning, I felt like I was correct in thinking I bit off more than I could chew with Moscow. Not many speak English. Nothing is translated in English. Hell, the German flight attendant patted me on the back as I exited the plane saying “Good Luck out there”.
I landed in Moscow around 3am just praying that my backpack made it too, and by some unknown miracle, it did. My next concern was trying to communicate my need for a taxi to the hostel without selling my 2nd kidney. Luckily, there are plenty of cab drivers just swarming the exits waiting to be hired. Spent 15 minutes explaining where I needed to go, and on the way, I got a cool, night time drive of Moscow and its city lights. I arrived at my hostel at 5am, hit the bed and didn’t start my day until 1pm. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest relieved that all the stupid things I worried about turned out to be okay. It had been a full 24 hours of traveling and by the time I got to the Berlin airport where I nearly missed my flight to Moscow, I was ready to be done.
After a few days of crawling into the fetal position and considering leaving the country early, I started to warm up to Moscow. In order to feel comfortable in a new city, you have to go out, explore, see, do, etc. Immersion leads to acclimation. That’s the only way. I wouldn’t say there’s much culture shock, but adapting to the language certainly takes some getting used to. In general, you will find that Moscow is not tourist friendly, but I predict in the next 10-15 years or so it will be a tourist wasteland so I highly encourage you to visit now even though the communication barrier is high.
One important piece of advice I wish someone had told me before arriving was to carry small denominations of cash because you will find that many places don’t have change to give. In that situation, you’d either have to pay with a credit card, if that’s even an option, or you’re S.O.L.
There’s nothing like complete immersion to force you to learn a language. Riding around on the metro will help you learn to read Russian Cryllic, and listening to the locals will help you pick up on certain phrases as well as the accent. To blend in, start by learning the key phrases such as yes (da), no (nyet), thank you (spa-see-bah), hello (pri-VET), and goodbye (dah-svi-dahnya). As people converse with you, ask if they can translate or if they speak English. As I spent more time in Moscow, I realized people speak some English, the younger people in particular, but you have to ask.
If you’re desperate to have a conversation in English, talk to the staff in hotels and hostels, tour guides, university students, and representatives at the American and Australian embassies. To take it one step further, hire a translator or a Russian tutor who speaks English that you can spend a few hours with each day.
At the very least, you’ll be able to get by using a variety of hand gestures and pointing. Whatever you do, don’t give up. It can feel a bit like a silence retreat at first, but as you go out every day, you’ll get more and more acclimated. Also, be sure to get the itranslate voice app on your smartphone. You’ll be able to speak English into the phone, and it will translate it to whatever language you need so you can hold it up for people to read. Buying a good guidebook is essential as well.
The biggest challenge for me was finding a way to get food. Sure, you could go to the local supermarkets and buy food to cook dinner. The cashier tells you how many roubles it is, you pay, and you’re on your way. Part of the majesty of exploring a new country, however, is trying the different foods.
Moscow has your typical chains like Starbucks, Wendy’s, Burger King, TGIFridays, and Hard Rock Cafe, but I only recommend going there if you want to find someone who speaks decent English or unless everything else is closed. Near the hostel where I stayed was a kebab stand where you could get kebabs and sandwiches for about $3, and there is another restaurant called Pizza Klass where the staff speak enough English to order salad, soup, or some pasta.
There are a myriad of cafes that sell cheap sandwiches as well as popular fast food chains like Mumu’s and Azia Fusion restaurants. Also try Chokolatta cafe where they have cheap breakfast for around $7, and any of their pasta dishes are delicious too! When you’re in Moscow, be sure to try the hummus as well as blinny cake (as seen in the photo above).
One thing you’ll notice is that you’ll pay seemingly cheap prices for small portioned meals, and it costs a few roubles for water and condiments too.
My #1 recommendation for something to do in Moscow is to get lost, and you can do that without much thinking. It can be a bit disconcerting because you don’t know where you are or how to get back, but you sure will come across streets lined with the most beautiful architecture. For a great introduction to the city, take a free walking tour complete with an English speaking tour guide that will give you a local’s look into Russian history.
Obviously, you shouldn’t miss the Red Square, the Kremlin, and Lenin’s mausoleum. No cameras, phones, videos, food, or water allowed inside Lenin’s mausoleum so you will have to check your bags for a small fee of 4 roubles.
If you can swing it, go see a concert at Arena Moscow just off the Dinamo green line. It’s a huge venue, and people love to dance. Don’t forget that smoking is allowed indoors, and it’s not necessarily well ventilated.
Among other things, have a walk around Gorky park, tour the old underground bunker, take a metro tour, and visit each of the 7 sisters which are high rise buildings to represent each of Stalin’s sisters.
After a week in Moscow, I can honestly say it is a hidden gem of the world, and the amount of work you have to put into navigating, makes you fall in love with the city. You’ll easily get frustrated and want to give up, but I promise, in the end, the effort is worthwhile. More to come…