The packing of Russia deserves its own post because this was the first time I traveled to a climate so different from what I’m used to (before this, the coldest places I’ve been to is Iceland in the summer and Iran, both of which are downright balmy compared to this.)
As I’ve said in my other Russia posts, this past winter was the warmest in Russia since 1886, but with temperatures down to -25 degrees Celsius (in Murmansk), it still presented a big challenge for us. Adding to that, the Russians like to keep the inside of their buildings super toasty, and it’s all central heating so you can’t adjust it, so you don’t want to dress too warm or you’ll end up overheated when you step inside.
The answer is, of course, layers (actually, I’ve found the answer to all travel clothes is to layer.) Almost everywhere has a cloakroom, so you can just take off the layers inside. Here is an example of how I usually layered during my time in Russia:
Thermal shirt + Sweater + Down parka on top, Wool tights + Fleeced-line pants/jeans on bottom, then another pair of socks and boots, then of course a scarf, hat, and gloves or mittens (mittens are warmer, but gloves are more practical for photo-taking.) If it was particularly cold, like in Murmansk, I would add a turtleneck top and a pair of ski pants (this may sound a bit extreme, but they really saved me during those cold, long nights on the Aurora hunt.)
And here’s a sample packing list for a 12-day trip (we did laundry a few times):
– Top: 4 thermal top, 1 turtleneck top
– Bottom: 3 wool tights, 3 fleece-lined pants/jeans (I could’ve gotten away with just 2 pairs, but I like some varieties), 1 pair of ski pants, 1 skirt
– Shoes: 1 pair of snow boots, 1 pair of leather boots, 1 pair of flats (the flats and skirt were just for the ballet. I didn’t need to dress up – there was everything from jeans to cocktail dresses at the theater – but I wanted to.)
– Outerwear: 2 sweaters, 1 fleece jacket, 1 down parka
– Accessories: 1 beanie, 2 scarves (though the other scarf sheds like crazy so I ended up wearing my red wool circle scarf most of the time), 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of mittens, 1 neck buff (which can serve as a scarf or a beanie if necessaries, I mostly used it to cover my face.)
This served me quite well, at least on top. My feet were OK too, though sometimes I had to stick some packets of chemical hand warmers in my boots. The two bits that were constantly cold, though, were my hands and legs. If I ever travel to such a cold climate again, I would get a pair of warm glove liners to wear under my mittens and a more fashionable pair of ski pants (I bought my ski pants simply because they were on sale) to wear over my jeans, because even with wool tights and fleece-lined jeans, my legs were still like icicles. But hey, it’s part of the experience, right?
Our last full day in Moscow was a day of museums. We started the day at the State Historical Building (the red wedding cake-looking building on the other end of Red Square), which displays artifacts of Russian history from pre-historic times up to the end of the Russian Empire. Definitely get the audio guide (for 400RUB extra), because all the displays are in Russian, which I think is stupid, but what can you do? I was particularly taken with all the displays of the development of Russian culture from the 13th to the 16th century – after that, it became too European for me (though still interesting.)
Then, after lunch, it was off to the Kremlin. Here you have the choice of two tickets – one for the Cathedral Square (for 700RUB) and one for the Armory, which houses the treasures of the Russian Empire (for 1000RUB; you have to buy your ticket for a specific time like 10:30, 12, and so on). However, after the State Historical Museum, we decided to forgo the Armory and just checked out the Cathedral Square, which contains five 15th-century cathedrals built back when the entire city of Moscow was inside the Kremlin (“kremlin” in Russia means “fortress”, so there are many different Kremlins all over the country.)
The cathedrals are all impressive, though not as splendidly and lavishly decorated as the ones in Saint Petersburg. The ones in Saint Petersburg had all been restored, while these are left more or less untouched (though some are under renovation), so they look less polished but more authentic.
Later, we went to the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. It was fun and educational, though I was annoyed with having to pay extra for my camera (taking pictures with your phone is free), and the heat was making us sleepy (the Russians like to keep their buildings super toasty), so after poking about for a bit, we headed back.
If it wasn’t so freezing, I would’ve liked to check out the nearby VDNKh Park – a series of buildings intended to display the Soviet’s agricultural, industrial, and technological prowess – but we had one more place to visit, and it was my favorite, the Tretyakov Gallery.
This was near our apartment, and it was open late on Friday, which was why we saved it for last. Finally, I was in my element. Not that I wasn’t in my element at the other museums, but this was where I could solely concentrate on the artworks and not get distracted by the interior (like at the Hermitage.)
We had half a day left in Moscow, and it was time for some souvenir shopping. Having done my research and with tips from our walking tour guide, we headed to the Izmailovsky Market on the outskirt of Moscow (you can take the Metro there, but remember to get off at Partizanskaya Station, not Izmailovskaya Station. Confusing, I know.)
Here you can find the same souvenirs – Russian dolls, fur hats, amber jewelry, etc. – for a fraction of the prices of the shop in the city center. On the weekends, there is also a flea market selling everything from old clothes and toys to books, records, and silverware (I got two beautiful old pewter mugs from one of these sellers.) Bring cash and prepare to bargain – the sellers agreed to our prices so readily that we suspected we could have gone even lower. If we hadn’t run out of cash and time (and luggage space), we would’ve stayed for much longer.
Finally, after a frenzy of packing and 1.5 hours sitting in Moscow traffic (we had a lot of luggage so we had to take a taxi to the airport instead of the much-quicker Aeroexpress train), we were on our way home. Goodbye, Russia. It was a whirlwind of a trip, and I was exhausted – exhausted by all the traveling, by the extremes of weather, and by all the beauty – but left wanting for more. I still haven’t fulfilled my Trans-Siberia dream yet, so I’ll definitely return one day!
And on that note, I’m going to end the post with this video of a musician at the Metro – you don’t get much more Russian than this:
Saying goodbye to Murmansk, we returned to city life with our last destination – Moscow. Although we were tired after an early morning flight, the sun was shining, so we took advantage of it by walking to Red Square. You don’t know how much you’d miss the sun until you don’t see it for days on end – in Saint Petersburg we only had 6 hours of daylight each day (and it was barely light, as the sky was overcast most days), and in Murmansk even less, while in Moscow we actually had nearly 9 hours of daylight. What luxury!
Anyway, my first impression of Moscow is that it is a livelier and more urban city than Saint Petersburg – as fitting its status as the capital – despite being nearly 600 years older. Also, it feels more Russian than Saint Petersburg, which has more of a European feel. This is probably because Moscow’s architecture is more traditional Russian, especially around Red Square. As it was a bit late to go into the Kremlin, we just strolled around looking at all the colorful buildings and popped into GUM Department Store to warm up and try its delicious ice cream (made with the same recipe since Soviet time!)
I highly recommend visiting the Red Square at night as well – it got all lit up and was exceedingly pretty.
The next day, we went on another walking tour. Though we’d walked around ourselves the day before, it was still fun to learn more about the city from a local guide. For example, he advised us to lower our expectations for the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral – because it’s a series of chapels built next to each other, it won’t be the large, grandiose church inside. For that, he recommended the Church of the Savior, which is free to enter (we ended up going to neither, since we’d had our full shares of churches in Saint Petersburg.) We also got to see the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was great fun (though I felt sorry for the guards, having to stand there in the cold for an hour each day.)
Murmansk’s “Hero City” plaque and one of the Kremlin’s towers
After lunch, it started snowing quite heavily, so we took refuge in the famous Metro stations of Moscow. Armed with a map, we simply traveled around the circle line (which has the most beautiful stations) and stopped at whichever station that caught our eyes. A ticket costs only 40RUB and you can change lines as much as you want (as long as you don’t exit the station), so this may be the best and cheapest thing to do in Moscow. I was blown away by the level of workmanship and artistry at each station. Each is truly like a mini palace. We didn’t get to see them all, but we did get a good glimpse of them before the rush hours started and we had to head home.
Stay tuned for the last installment!
The main focus of our trip to Murmansk, and indeed to Russia, is, of course, the Aurora hunt. Our Airbnb host runs an Aurora hunting tour on the side, so we booked with him for three nights (for $65/person/night, it’s about $20 cheaper than other tour offers we’d seen.) At 9 PM the first night, we, along with a few other guests, got picked up by our host at a meeting point and then driven outside of the city. We were anxious because the forecast wasn’t promising – it’s a low-activity year of the solar cycle, so the KP Index (a scale of 0 – 9 that indicates the likelihood of Aurora) was low.
When the car stopped and the host said, “There’s the Aurora,” we all gawped at the sky and went “Where? Where?” like a bunch of idiots. That was when I learned the truth about the Aurora – most of the time, and especially when the KP Index is low, it’s not as bright as in those photos you see online. To our untrained eyes, it just looked like clouds. By the time I set up my tripod and took a few snaps, the Aurora had moved on. We drove around some more, but it didn’t reappear.
We all felt a little anticlimactic, so the host took us to a viewpoint to see the city lights of Murmansk. The lights are pretty, but it was the walk there that stayed with me. Imagine this: walking uphill through the snow, in the dark, when you’re sleepy and disoriented, and suddenly you see a bunch of fighter planes rising out of the snow like a row of eerie sentinels (later, I learned that it’s the Monument to the Soldiers of the 1st Air Defense Bulk. It looks a lot less ominous during the day.)
It snowed all day the next day and only stopped around 11 PM, so we didn’t set out until midnight. The sky was beautifully clear and I managed to take some great photos, but it was so cold (-25 degrees Celsius) and the Aurora is nowhere in sight.
When the host finally pointed out a smidgen of light in the distance, we were all amazed – how did he even see that?!
Since that didn’t really count as catching the Aurora, the host offered us a discount for the next night – also our last night in Murmansk. This was our last chance. And it didn’t look good. Again, the sky was clear, but as we kept driving around and waiting, driving and waiting, there was no sign of the Aurora. We began to resign ourselves to the fact that maybe luck wasn’t on our side.
However, just as we were settling down to warm up with some tea and fruit pies (which the host supplied every night), the host burst into the car, saying, “It’s starting!” Throwing the tea down, we scrambled outside and there it was – a streak of green in the distance. It still wasn’t as bright as we’d hoped, but there was no mistaking it for clouds this time. I don’t know if it was because our eyes were more used to seeing it or because it was actually brighter. We could actually see it moving around, undulating and shifting like a ribbon in the sky. Our extremities were all freezing, but we must’ve stood around for nearly half an hour, just looking at it.
Finally, after 3 nights of driving and standing around in the freezing cold, we were rewarded with the beautiful, memorable sight of the Aurora. There’s a reason it’s called a “hunt” and a “chase” – it was tough, but when we got the result, it was all worth it.
We went to Murmansk with the sole purpose of hunting for the Aurora, so we didn’t think much about what else to do there. In truth, there isn’t much to do in Murmansk, period. The top two “things to do” in Murmansk, according to Tripadvisor, is to visit a nuclear icebreaker ship, but after I read Midnight in Chernobyl, you can’t pay me enough to go near anything nuclear, and “Alyosha”, a World War II monument which we could kind of see from the window of our Airbnb apartment, so it doesn’t hold much interest for us.
Murmansk may not have a ton of tourist attractions, but it does have one thing – snow. A lot of snow. And snow, I find, is a great beautifier. You can take any depressing Soviet bloc city – and Murmansk is certainly not going to win any beauty contest – and bury it in a foot of snow, and it’ll look pretty and pristine and romantic. So we spent a lot of time just walking around and taking photos. When it got too cold, we would simply duck into a coffee shop or go to the mall.
The one tourist “activity” we did, other than hunting for the Aurora, is to visit a husky farm, Ulybka Alyaski. There are different husky farms around Murmansk, but this is the best one, since the dogs are trained for sled-racing, not for tourists; opening the farm for tourists is just their way of making money for the dogs. The staff is very friendly – we showed up without knowing that you need to pre-book a tour (there are trips of different lengths that you can go on the sleds – 3km, 5km, and 600m), but they fit us in for a short trip anyway.
In the end, we were glad we didn’t go on a longer sledding trip, because we weren’t dressed for it, and a short trip still gave us a taste of what dog sledding is like. Afterward, we had a lot of fun playing with the dogs (not just the sled dogs but also other breeds like the Finnish Lapphund, traditionally used for herding reindeers) and warming up in the cabin with tea and cookies.
Stay tuned for the next part of our Murmansk adventure – the Aurora hunts!
For our third day in Saint Petersburg, we took a day trip to Catherine Palace, aka the Summer Palace, which is located in the small town of Pushkin (also known by its old name, “Tsarskoye Selo”, meaning “The Tsar’s Village”), located about 30km away from Saint Petersburg. We could’ve taken public transport there (you’d need to take the metro, then a bus), but it was cold, so we decided to book a Yandex taxi. Divided between the four of us, the cost of a taxi was not that much higher than public transport and it got us there in half the time.
The drive was unremarkable, just passing through bleak industrial land, but Pushkin itself seems like a pleasant little town. If it hadn’t been so cold, I would’ve loved to walk around there and see more of Russian life outside of the big cities. But as we were freezing, we hurried into the Palace.
Inside, we found the same resplendent and luxurious interior as the Winter Palace – perhaps even more so, because at the Winter Palace, the artworks take the spotlight, whereas here, it’s just gilded carvings and glittering crystals everywhere.
The one thing I don’t like about these palaces, though, is that they don’t give a clear impression of how people used to live back then – as opposed to say, the palaces in France (like Fontainebleau and even Versailles), where the rooms are set up as if they were still in use. Here, some rooms do have furniture and stuff, but the furnishings feel more like decorations than actual things used by actual people. I don’t know, perhaps the decorations are so dazzling that I can’t imagine them being really used.
Afterward, we took a stroll around the park. In the summer, you’ll need a separate ticket (costing 150RUB) for the park, but in the winter, since all the outbuildings in the park are closed, entrance is free. Still, there is a certain kind of beauty about it, with all the barren trees clipped to an impressive symmetry and standing out against the snow. Plus, we practically had it to ourselves, which was awesome. There is also Pavlovsk Palace about 7km away, but we were getting tired, so we went home and took the rest of the evening easy.
The next day, which was our last day in Saint Petersburg, we checked out the inside of all the churches we haven’t managed to see in details during the walking tour – St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and Kazan Cathedral (Kazan Cathedral is still a working church so no photography is allowed inside.)
If you think that the interiors of the Winter Palace and Catherine’s Palace are resplendent, then these churches are resplendence on steroids. My friends and I soon dubbed the trip “A Pain in the Neck” because we were forever gazing up at ceilings and murals and mosaics. I’m a staunch atheist, but even I felt awed by these churches.
Afterward, while we were on the colonnade on the roof of St. Isaac’s, the sun came out – the first sun we’d seen in four days! So we spent the rest of the day walking along the Neva River to soak in some vitamin D. There are still tons of sights to see (like Peter & Paul Fortress, the Faberge Museum, and the Kuntskamera, a museum of curiosities), but we’d had enough of gold leaf, so we just walked around until it was time to return to the apartment, pack up, and head to the airport. Like I said, you have to save something for next time, and I hope there will be a next time in Saint Petersburg for me.
Up next is our Northern Lights adventure in Murmansk, so stay tuned!
We arrived in Saint Petersburg late at night, and after a good night’s sleep, we set out for a free walking tour (with petersburgfreetour.com), which I always recommend for your first day in a new destination – it’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the city. While the tour was great fun – we learned a lot about the history of the city and got some good tips from our guide – it was marred by two things:
One, the weather. It wasn’t because it was cold (though yes, it was freezing, “warmest winter in 133 years” or not), but rather, it was depressing. There wasn’t much snow; there was just gray slush on the ground and gray clouds in the sky. Against such weather, the stately architecture of Saint Petersburg ends up looking gloomy and menacing instead of imposing, and it’s understandable why the city is nicknamed “City of Sadness” (according to our guide, it only has 62 days of sunshine a year!)
Two, I accidentally dropped my camera and damaged the lens, so after the tour, I had to scramble around trying to get it fixed, which ate up precious sightseeing time. But I was determined not to let it ruin the trip and eventually sorted things out (and don’t let the stereotype about the cold, unfriendly Russians fool you – the people at all the different camera shops I went to were so considerate and helpful, even if they couldn’t fix my lens.) We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets, and I must say, under the twinkling lights, Saint Petersburg looks a lot prettier.
The next day, we started out early for the Hermitage – pretty much the #1 thing to do in Saint Petersburg, and perhaps in Russia as a whole. I’ve been obsessed with the Hermitage ever since I saw Russian Ark in college, so this is a dream come true for me. Upon arriving, we realized we’d made the right decision to travel in winter – there was no crowd at all, as opposed to the summer, when the line can stretch around the block (you can always skip the line by buying tickets at the ticket machines just inside the main gate, but then you’d have to deal with the crowd inside.)
Once inside, we soon discovered what the Russians did to combat the depressing weather outside – they gilded the shit out of everything. I’m not kidding. Everything is carved to within an inch of its life and covered in gold leaf.
The interior is so jaw-dropping that I almost forgot about the artworks themselves. Almost. We were there for half a day and only managed to see a fraction of the museum (a well-known rumor goes that if you spend one minute at each of the displays, you’ll need 11 years to cover the entire museum), but we did see all the important ones – the Jordan Staircase (you can’t miss it, as it’s the first thing you see upon leaving the cloakroom), the Raphael Loggias, the Italian Fine Art rooms (the Red Rooms), the Peacock Clock and the Pavilion Hall, and the Malachite Room.
The Peacock Clock was supposed to be wound that day (it’s wound every Wednesday at 7 PM), but as we had to leave for the ballet, we missed it. But then again, you have to save something for next time, don’t you? We ended our day with a night at the ballet, which I’ve described here.
And that concluded our first two days in Saint Petersburg. More to come next week!