An unforgettable two weeks in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Helsinki

Moscow

On his first visit to Russia, Krish Pillai finds the country charming and irresistible. Additional contribution by Oksana Chergantseva*. 

Moscow calling.

I was hoping to visit Russia for a long time, and finally I did it earlier this summer. From Washington, DC, there is a direct Aeroflot flight and many other convenient variants with a stopover in Europe. I flew via Paris, and by afternoon was already in Moscow.

A friend of mine, who has been living in Moscow for over 30 years, picked me up from the airport. While driving, he told me a lot about the Russian Federation and the Russian people. From his stories, I got a new perspective about the place I arrived.

In the hotel, Azimut Olympics, a big statue of Lord Krishna greeted me near the reception. By his side also prominently stood a well-adorned Lord Ganesha statue. Later we had a wonderful masala dosa at an Indian restaurant within the hotel, which is run by an Indian entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu.

The next morning, I woke up early due to jet lag. I opened the window and saw the sun rising in the horizon. A good sign. However, the time was 3.30 in the morning. My friend arranged a car and driver for the city tour, as my scheduled tour guide called in sick.

During that tour and later from the rest of my journey within Russia, I got to know a lot of amazing things about this wonderful country.

Russia has a fascinating history. It belongs to those few countries in the world that managed to maintain their heritage of art and architecture immaculately even today. Magnificent monument buildings of the great Russian cities are visual delights for visitors and their photo shoots.

It is well-known that Moscow is one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of more than 16 million. The city is very clean and has a mixture of old USSR-style and modern Russian Federation-style architecture. It boasts well planned wide roads and many small, medium and large-size public parks. Approximately 30 percent of the city’s land area is devoted to beautifully-maintained public parks, which makes it very green and welcoming. More than 95 percent of the population lives in high rise apartment complexes, interleaved with public recreation areas like before parks.

The city’s outstanding public transportation infrastructure — underground metro, cable cars and electric busses — help people move around the lengths and breadths of Moscow efficiently and economically. There are also plenty of private cars and taxis. The most popular taxi brands are Yandex and Uber, which costs a lot less here than in Western Europe. There is no serious gridlock in the traffic system, which allows one to get from point A to point B very quickly and conveniently.

It’s interesting, though not surprising, that American brand hotels and fast food restaurants are seen here and there. There are also more than 10 Indian restaurants in the city and many vegetarian eateries.

Over three days, one can visit all major attractions such as the Kremlin, the Red Square, the Moscow River, Moscow State University, the 1,200-foot-high Ostankino Tower and the Exhibition Arena.

I learned that Moscow residents love walking. Not surprisingly, most of the Moscow specialty city tours are walking tours. English-speaking guides are available to walk with you for a payment of anywhere from $10 and $20 an hour to explain the sites. Since the metro system is so large, walking guides are available for metro tours as well. In addition, guides can take you to river cruise. With all the lights on in small boats, such excursions are pretty impressive.

Another interesting thing one may notice is the advent of yoga studios that provide regular yoga, meditation and other practices in well-designed environments in posh residential areas from 7 am to 10 pm.

Is there any Indian who doesn’t love Indian food if he is away from home?

One day, I noticed groups of Indians exploding in to my hotel. Turns out more and more Indian companies are sending their  “the best of the team” employees for fully paid vacations to Moscow.

The reason I decided to stay at Azimut was because of the Indian restaurant. On the first day, after the check-in, I decided to taste something Indian since I was sick of eating bland food in the airlines for nearly 24 hours. The butter masala dosa turned out to be delicious. So I thought the decision to choose this particular accommodation was the right one.

After spending five days in Moscow, I made a short trip to Saint Petersburg and Helsinki, and then returned back to Azimut hotel to enjoy the Indian food again. This time, I found much larger groups of youngsters from India at the hotel. The only difference this time was they were all from a giant pharmaceutical company in India, whereas the group that stayed a few days earlier was from a finance company.

These folks seemed to have more clout, as I was able to feast on more varieties of delicious Indian food. You know that it is a real challenge to organize Indian feast for such large groups of over 3,500 people so far away from India. But they did it gracefully. I was able to chat and congratulate the man behind this business for providing over 3,000 meals everyday for a week to all the valuable visitors. He also introduced me to an Indian consular officer and his family in Saint Petersburg visiting Moscow. It was another memorable day for me in Moscow.

Spices and herbal products in Russia.

 Indian spices store in Moscow.
The writer (left) at an Indian spices store in Moscow.

In 1994, two young entrepreneurs from Tamil Nadu, who came to study at the Friendship University in Moscow, started the first spices and grocery venture at their foreign students’ hostel. Although one partner left to take care of his aging parents’ business in Madurai, the other took it over and promoted spices and herbal products among Russians.

Today, it is a fast growing business, having shops in various locations in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. It sells only vegetarian products. Even hot dogs, hamburgers and salami are strictly from vegetables only. It sells all kinds of spices, herbal products, cosmetics, varieties of oil and freshly frozen vegetables from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and South America. Ayurvedic products are also being introduced in these shops. It has a web site in Russian language, too: www.indianspices.ru

Do Russians practice Yoga?

Yoga and meditation based on ancient Indian Vedic traditions, and similar mind control techniques, such as martial arts traditions of Japan, China and Korea, are getting popular among the Russian youth and middle-aged people irrespective of gender.

I had the opportunity to meet Vladimir Sidorov, a master in Chi Gong, which is a traditional system of internal energy development, and Tai Chi — the most soft and civilized form of martial art. He is a champion in several world competitions.  Many years ago, he mastered this art from great Chinese masters and is currently a personal student of Shifu Pan Houcheng, the successor of Great Master Feng Ziqiang. In his turn, Vladimir is guru to hundreds of regular practitioners at his yoga studio near Mayakovskaya metro station in central Moscow.

A visit to his studio was an unforgettable experience. At one of the entry level sessions, I had the privilege to participate and experience the pain and the pleasure. Like any practices of the kind, it is hard in the beginning because of the inflexibility of the body and the mind. Once you start the practice, body-mind awareness is created, the more you practice, the more you enjoy.

Technically, it has two components in my view. First, the mental preparedness, second the physical ability to be flexible in clockwise and anti-clockwise motion. I have also met and talked to several of his followers, who adore him for his simplicity and devotion to the practices that he shares whole-heartedly for the betterment of his disciples.

No doubt, yoga and similar practices seem to be a growing trend in the Russian Federation.

A visit to an Ayurvedic Clinic in central Moscow.

The Kerala Ayurvedic Clinic in the center of Moscow is a unique and amazing establishment. It has been providing Ayurvedic treatments and related services for the last 12 years. The clinic is a full-fledged Ayurvedic treatment facility with over 50 people working, including therapists, beauty clinician, Indian chefs and yoga instructors, besides the chief physician, who is also from Kerala, India.

There is also a trained yoga instructor from Kerala to help and coordinate group and private yoga practices.

The center is built in typical Kerala-style architecture, where all original artifacts are made from exquisite Vayanadan forest wood. Kerala-style antiquities are evident as soon as one enters the reception area. The doctor told me that his brother, who was the architect that designed the facility, built it to have the look and feel of the herbal aromatic Ayurvedic system.

The clinic is located in the city center, not far from the Kremlin, in a very modern building complex. This large facility has its own pharmacy, various types of treatments rooms, individual and group yoga and meditation rooms, in addition to the cafeteria that caters vegetarian delights to patients and staff. Patients are normally scheduled for specific treatment plans in advance. All items used are disposable. It’s evident that cleanliness is a top priority there.

All in all, this this amazing facility is a jewel in the Ayurvedic treatment arena outside India. I am glad that I was able to visit it during my first visit to Moscow.

A little Russian girl in Saint Petersburg already an entrepreneur

I was heading to the Hermitage Museum. Suddenly, I saw a girl standing with ponies. She provided rides for half-an-hour in front of the large courtyard for 200 rubles. That is about $3. I decided to have a conversation with her. I asked: “Can I get a ride?” She laughed and said:”It is only for kids, you can ride in the horse carriage there.” Pleased with the look of optimism and innocence in her face, I took my purse and gave her some money. She was surprised and asked me, “Is it for me?”

As I was walking away from her, I thought I should have done better — I should have given her more money, so that it would motivate her in the little venture, a gesture from an unknown person to make her life better.

In the Hermitage Museum, it took several hours even to have a quick and casual view of artifacts displayed there. There is no doubt it is the largest museum in the world, in terms of floor space and the varieties of exquisite paintings, sculptures, ceiling artworks, and even the flooring tiles I have ever visited. Nowhere else in the world did I see such a large collection of top-rated paintings, sculptures and other forms of arts than here, in Petersburg, popularly known as the Pearl City of Northern Europe. It is deservedly called the Cultural Capital of Russia. I was hugely impressed by what I saw and felt in this city, and would love to come and see it again.

My mind was still on the little girl, who must have been a year or two older than my own granddaughter, who just completed her third grade. I came out of the museum looking for an ATM to draw some money, but walked several blocks in different directions in vain, based on my google search for an ATM.

So, without any more cash in my purse, I continued with the last item for the day — a river cruise for two hours through the inlets of Bosporus Bay surrounding Saint Petersburg. Cash was not a problem, as I could give my credit card to pay for the boat ride. It was a worthwhile ride, during which something interesting occurred.

Earlier that day, I had lunch with an Indian doctor visiting Leningrad, whom I met in the high speed train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. A travel enthusiast like me, he was young, smart and articulate. So we became friends easily.

We visited together the Summer Palace in Pushkin, about 40 miles outside of Saint Petersburg. We also ran into each other at the city attractions, took photographs, kept contact by phone every day. He even came to my hotel to collect me for the Pushkin trip. He had visited Saint Petersburg earlier also, and had several friends in the medical profession in Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

While we were walking toward an Indian restaurant for lunch, he told me about a 2 pm scheduled meeting with a doctor friend. The lunch was nice. He ordered fish curry and I had chicken vindaloo; we shared the dishes and enjoyed the food. Soon we found it was already 2 pm, and I insisted that without waiting for the bill, he should proceed to meet his doctor friend on time. I said I would make the payments for both of us and we can settle the bill later. He agreed and rushed for his meeting. After paying for our lunch, I continued for my planned visit to the Hermitage Museum. Outside the museum, I met the little pony girl again.

After a whole day of exhaustive walking trips to several museums and boat ride I was very tired. So when my doctor friend called me to ask whether we can meet in the night near the Russian Museum, I declined and said we shall meet somewhere in the future, if that was destined. That was my last day in Saint Petersburg and the next day I was planning to head to Finland.

I knew he called me for a reason: he wanted to settle the lunch bill before I left. Next day while I was in the train, my friend called me to ask how I am doing. He knew that a senior citizen traveling alone may need help, and he was familiar with Helsinki, too. As a matter of fact, he came all the way from Australia to attend a medical conference in Helsinki.

While he was on the phone, the thought about the little pony girl came to my mind again and again, reminding me of the failed opportunity to give her some more money. It may not have met her needs, but would have presented her with a unique experience in life. So I sent a detailed WhatsApp message to my friend requesting him to walk over to the Hermitage Museum area sometime, based on his convenience, and hand over 1,500 rubles, his portion of the restaurant bill, to the little girl.

I thought that it was only a genuine favor to ask from a friend. To my surprise, he was reluctant to do so and made several excuses. I still tried to persuade him, and even sort of insisted to do it on moral grounds, after all the money he may have to part with is what he owed me, and he has nothing to lose in doing so. I even reminded that any kindness to others in times of need may give immense satisfaction to them. He declined again and I was disappointed very much for that lost opportunity. Later, I realized that being humane to people is a process, and not easy to drill into someone’s mind.

But no matter what, he would be still my friend.

Portrait artists in the street.

As I was wandering the streets of Saint Petersburg, before the bus ride back to the hotel, I saw a group of artists craving to draw picture of everyone who walks by just for one thousand rubles. It is their livelihood, so I decided to give them a try.

I sat on a makeshift stool for an hour watching the actions of artist. It was a fascinating experience. My body started aching after a while. I sat there still and stiff biting my teeth. I did my best not to fail my artist, because I realized he was trying to draw me as perfect as he could. I could not see his drawing work, as he was facing me, and the drawing board was facing him.

But I could see his facial expressions and hand gestures of the bystanders viewing his work. From their affirmative facial expressions, I thought it was worth sitting there without disturbing his concentration. Every 10 seconds he would look at my face for three seconds, and turned his face back to the drawing board to complete that momentary action. This went on for an hour.

I was wondering how his brain worked. Deciphering my face point by point, pixels by pixels, or line by line? Or is he seeing me the analogue’s way in various shades, or digital way of black and gray dots?

I wanted to interrupt him as a thunderstorm was seen in the horizon. He did not speak English and I didn’t speak Russian. All initial transactions were by sign language. When thunderstorm moved in, he adjusted his umbrella to protect me from getting wet. I was happy to see a couple of onlookers showing me thumbs up. After a while, the rain stopped. When his drawing work was complete, he was anxiously looking for my approval. I nodded my head and paid the bill. His face brightened, as we parted happily.

From Helsinki, Finland.

After four days of hectic tour in Saint Petersburg, I set out on another train journey to Helsinki, Finland. Finland is the only country with land border to Russia and not a member of NATO. There are several high-speed train connections every day between Saint Petersburg and Helsinki.

Since it is an international travel, at train station and inside the train, immigration and customs officials from both countries make sure passengers have the right documents to leave one country and enter the other. It is fairly routine and systematic. Since I had the right Russian entry visa, there was no issue. The train trip itself was only about four hours through the Northern European vast plan land, dense dwarf forest, lakes and waterways. The compartment was very cozy with fine leather seats, clean toilets, mobile charger facilities and free WiFi connections. Lunch was free as the part of my ticket and offered multiple choices including a vegetarian option. The hospitality in the Finnish train was superior, although the Russian train services were equally good.

Uber is common for local travel. As my accommodation, I chose the Crown Plaza hotel, whose staff was pleasant and cordial and gave a nice room on the seventh floor. Since I was exhausted during very eventful days in Russia, I decided first to relax and rest in the hotel – many things were to be done in Helsinki. So in the morning, with the help of the reception staff, I worked out a plan for the next three days. I purchased a 48-hour Helsinki card that allows one to travel in all buses, trams and hop-in buses. I also bought a ferry ticket to Tallinn, Estonia. The reception staff was indeed so nice. They took time to understand my tour plans and issued all the necessary tickets for the tours. I noticed that, unlike Russians, most Finnish people speak English, as the language is taught well in schools.

To Moscow again.

On July 17, 2019, I returned to Moscow. That was the final day of my two-week visit to the Russian Federation and, therefore, packed the day with activities. A second visit to a yoga studio in the morning, where practitioners kept coming all throughout the day, based on their individual schedule. I became even more convinced that the body, mind and soul development pursuit seems to be a growing obsession with Russian youth and old alike. It is a commendable trend. I was pleased to interact and share my ideas on the subject with many people. In the evening, I met with two well-known Russian painters and was able to view their outstanding artistic creations, which is a great story in itself, and which will be a subject of a future article.

All together, I spent about five days for sightseeing Moscow, four days in Saint Petersburg, and four days in Helsinki, Finland. I found it is an easy going country, like many other countries I visited during the last 10 years.

After two weeks of travel to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, I have become a fan of the Russian Federation, at least that is what my family said on my return from Moscow. I must admit, I saw only good things, good places and good people there. Being a US Citizen who is traveling to Russia alone, and not being followed by any KGB operatives (at least to my knowledge), and having been registered with the US State Department well in advance before my trip, I had only good things to remember. I had many pleasant experiences and made several acquaintances, including with well-known artists, yoga gurus, a lovely pony girl, academicians, entrepreneurs and fellow travelers from different parts of the world. I also recorded my experiences with amazing pictures, since both Moscow and Leningrad are a photographer’s paradise.

*Oksana Chergantseva is a linguistic scholar in Russian, Ukrainian, German & English languages and an upcoming writer, editor & translator, who lives in Moscow.

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One Comment

  1. Thank! This is a great story about your trip! I live in St. Petersburg and therefore I read about your impressions of our city especially carefully. It is very good that you reacted to our country without any prejudice. Thank you again!

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