When people had spoken to me in the past about Russia, I couldn’t help but imagine those fur hats you always see Russians wearing in movies. I’d imagine cold, bone-chilling snow-storms. I’d picture the videos I’ve seen before, of bears wandering through streets, of pedestrians carrying guns.
So when I found myself with the opportunity to spend time in the city of Moscow, I was surprised to feel extremely excited. I’d never imagined this country as one of my first choice travel destinations. But faced with the option of an 18-hour flight, or a few days in Moscow breaking up a long trip home – I chose the latter.
I sped into the Auckland airport car parking on the day of my flight home, positively quivering with anticipation. I thought:
“F**k. This is it”.
I was about to fly, across the world and visit my very first communist country. I didn’t know what to expect. I was totally unprepared for what was to come – emotionally at least. I had obviously sorted out all my visa requirements. I was not about to get into trouble for that.
I had no idea what to expect. But I did not think that for one second I would find myself falling in love with this mystery country.
Entering the city for the first time, what hit me first was cold. Of course; Russia has temperatures lower than my expectations. The cold is so intense it literally hurts your body. Within seconds, I was frozen to my core. Luckily I was ready for this. Donned in a full-length puffer jacket, with a thermo-socks and merino glove combo I had wisely picked up on my way through New Zealand.
I had arrived at Domodedovo International Airport. One of the largest airports in the country. I was instantly hit by culture shock. There were no English signs anywhere. All writing I saw was in the foreign language script.
For me, this was a surprise. I had never been in a situation where there were no English translations for signs. I don’t know why I didn’t expect it.
From the windows of the airport, I could see oceans of cars. A familiar traffic jam at least. Above them, traffic lights and signage hung across wires. The developing nation imagery was very, very clear. It was reflected in the architecture of the building itself. Of the homeless that I would witness later, contrasted drastically with the luxury vehicles that sped past frequently.
Once I finally left the airport itself, my impression of the country changed. It’s a truly beautiful place. Structurally it seems to be a city that grew extremely fast. As with most developing countries, this has left some resources lacking.
The poverty itself is unavoidable. Many of the streets are lined with the homeless. Desperate in their pleas for assistance: cash or food donations. Which in itself is heartbreaking.
Once you move past these factors, the historical aspects of Moscow and Russia itself are extremely fascinating. Many of the buildings are centuries old. This is reflected in their huge fortress-like structure which was really quite unlike anything I had ever seen.
I was also taken aback by the natural beauty I encountered along my journey. The snow itself, though extremely cold, looked absolutely stunning from a warm hotel room. The sunset and sunrise were beyond beautiful in their purple, red, orange and yellow blooms.
I was lucky enough on my visit to experience the wildlife that Russia offers in abundance. It was incredibly exciting to see large bears and wolves outside of the confines of zoo’s cages. The danger and thrill they brought to my experience of Russia were unlike anything I’d ever felt.
I’d never imagined that I’d see a huge white canine majestically strolling a pavement (while I was in the safety of a vehicle, of course). I found out later that such situations of wolves in the city are dreaded amongst residents, but it really was a beautiful thing to see.
I’m not entirely sure what single aspect of Russia triggered my fascination. I wasn’t sure how the enormous city of Moscow managed to grab my heart with it’s surface level hostility. In the beginning, it seemed as if everything about the place was trying to repel me.
But somewhere along my short-stay, I managed to find myself seeing the beauty in this notorious nation. The culture itself is unlike any other. The sheer foreign-ness to any other European region is extremely unique. The people themselves, friendly, quiet and stoic in their stance to foreigners. The residents I encountered on my travel were very helpful. They were grateful and insistent on advising me on the safest routes, of the best places to visit and of the things I needed to try.
I had never heard of Russians being particularly hospitable, but my experience of the city, beneath its surface, was one of the most welcoming places I had ever encountered (even the stray dogs seemed to welcome me).
Following my experience in Russia and still with me today is the longing to return. I’d never thought I’d hear myself say this, let alone think it daily. But I can’t wait until the next time I get to visit this country. And I know, the next chance I get – I’m going to jump at it.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Russia as a destination to visit for all travellers. It offers so many unique experiences that are unavailable in other countries. The sheer beauty of the city itself is enough to be appealing, but there is so much more below the surface. Of course, it’s essential to be safe while in any foreign country. But I would never want fear to deter anyone from getting to experience this magic region.
If you ever get the chance to visit Russia, take it.