Freaking Russia

So I love Russia and I hate Russia. On my mission, I loved the food and church members and little differences between Russian and American culture (like Russian Christmas and Baptism Day). Since coming home, I've loved telling people what Russia's REALLY like instead of them only knowing what they see in American propaganda.

But as soon as I'd bought tickets to go to Moscow in January, I remembered that Russia isn't a SUPER safe place. Flashbacks of being chased by drunks, dodging flying beer bottles, and being followed by teenagers came back to me. The last month of my mission, it really felt like I had SURVIVED, rather than served, a mission. And now, for some reason, I was going back and would have to SURVIVE another couple days!! Plus, I'd be ALONE this time, no mission companion to provide "safety in numbers." I WAS GOING TO DIE.

Also (and this is important), I'd forgotten that the Russian government requires Americans to obtain a visa in order to enter their country, even if it's just for three days, and the cheapest option for a visa cost more than $200. (Before you get too mad at Russia, just remember that we require the same inconvenience of Russians AND that Russians are poorer than us AND I'm pretty sure we deny them visas more often than they deny us visas, but I don't know for sure.)

I tried for over a month to switch my flight from Moscow to somewhere else: Helsinki, Oslo, Athens, Frankfurt -- anywhere but Russia again. Unfortunately, there was no alternative that would cost less than $400, so buying a visa and going to Russia turned out to be most economical option, even if it didn't feel like the safest.

However, going back to Russia turned out to be one of the best parts of my whole trip. I'm so glad I went and I wish I had enough money to go every year.

The week before going to Russia (and to Europe in general) I was literally dreading it. I would probably get mugged, kidnapped, raped, and killed. But, since all that was most likely to happen in Russia, I told myself that if I could make it past three days in Russia, the rest of my trip (into four other countries and across three weeks) would be CAKE.

I landed in Russia with a dying phone and congested head. My ears wouldn't pop and none of the outlets in the Domodedovo Airport would work. I had barely been able to sleep in the 15ish hours since I'd left San Diego. Fortunately, I was able to keep my head and not get stressed (which is something I learned about myself on this trip -- I don't get stressed easy).

I walked up to the first Russian I could and asked where I could find an "ay-tee-emm." They were like, "What the freak are you talking about?" and I was like,"The thing that gives you money," and they were like, "Over there, you loser American." (They were a lot nicer than that, I'm just writing what they SHOULD have said.) Literally two steps after walking away from them, though, the Russian word for "ATM" popped into my head -- "bankomat." And I was like, "Yes! I got this!"

I found an ATM and withdrew 3,000 rubles ($50ish). After that, a representative from my favorite Russian phone company (МТС) was standing right outside the gate. I popped out my AT&T SIM card, gave them 1,000 rubles, and they popped in an МТС "seem kartichka" with 12 gigs of data on it. (I only used, like, 3 or 4 gigs in my three days, so that was a bit overkill, but it was nice not to worry about running out of data.)

The Domodedovo Airport is about 30 miles from Moscow, but since Europe is so much better about public transportation, I knew there must be a cheap shuttle to the city somewhere. The train that takes you to Moscow is called Aeroexpress (Аэроэкспресс). It costs 450 rubles and takes about an hour.

After buying some water, I jumped on the train and sat next to a really sweet girl from St. Petersburg who was going into Moscow to visit a friend. She reminded me of how normal and nice Russians are (By "normal," I mean they're literally just like Americans. STILL trying to convince people of that.).

I hopped off the tram when it reached its one and only stop: MOSCOW.

Since I served in the Samara Mission, I didn't really know anyone I could stay with in Moscow. I ended up connecting with a random Russian couple over Couchsurfing who said I could stay with them. We'd agreed to meet in front St. Basil's on Red Square at 10 pm.

I got off the train and, since I had no idea what I was doing or where I was, I picked a random person and followed him. I figured that he knew where he was going, so I'd follow him until he got there. He went into a big building and down some stairs into the metro. I made a mental note, found a cafe upstairs, charged my phone for a couple hours, then jumped on the metro to Red Square.

An escalator going down into the Moscow Metro.

I'd never been on a real subway before and I'd heard of how confusing the Moscow Metro is, so my only hope of finding Red Square was talking to people. Of course, like I said, Russians are beyond helpful and nice. I asked a babushka and she told me which train to get on and a student told me which stop to get off at. I got out on the street and asked a couple which way Red Square was and another lady corrected me when I took a wrong turn. I found Red Square, took a selfie in front of St. Basil's, and met up with my hosts Katya and Slava.

I was so relieved to meet Katya and Slava. I'd been ALONE travelling for a day and a half and now I had friends! They were so nice and Katya spoke English very well. They gave me a whole apartment to myself (cuz they have two) and let me babysit their cat! They were the best hosts and they were definitely one the best parts of my trip to Moscow. They showed me around the best parts of Moscow the next day, found a nice banya for me to visit, made me homemade pelmeni (like Russian ravioli), and drove me to the airport on Friday. They're the literal best!

Landing in Russia WAS the hardest part of my trip. I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't know how things would ultimately work out. I had to figure out how to get money, set my phone up, get transportation, navigate the streets of a foreign city, and find a place to sleep. But figuring all that out was really satisfying and making more Russian friends was the best! Despite my initial regrets and misgivings, Russia was one of the best places I visited my whole trip.

Here are some cool things I did while visiting Moscow that I think you should do (plus some tips!):

1) Learn the Cyrillic alphabet or bring someone who knows it. A lot of the signs are transliterated from Cyrillic into English, BUTT unless you're used to reading and pronouncing words like "Preobrajendkaya" (Преображенская), the English transliteration won't do you a lot of good.

2) Drink peach juice and Chudo (Чудо) drinkable yogurt and eat chocolate, especially Super Snickers. Why don't we have more juice and yogurt in America?!! Also, my Norwegian friend tells me that the Snickers in Russia are the best in the world (better than American and Norwegian, at least), and I would have to agree. Ughhhh. AMERICA PLEASE MAKE BETTER FOOOOOOD

3) Eat at a restaurant on Old Arbat Street. Old Arbat is one of the oldest parts of Moscow and has a lot of touristy things to do and see, plus it's not too far from ...

4) RED SQUARE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! There are a couple things at Red Square you should see. 1) St. Basil's: It's not an operating church anymore, just a museum. It's 250 rubles ($5ish) to get in, but it's very worth it, especially if you wait for the choir upstairs to start singing! 2) Lenin's tomb: It was closed when I went, but you should see it! 3) The Kremlin: It didn't even occur to me that you can go inside while I was there, but I hear you need to plan in advance to get tickets to go in. I'm sure it's way great! 4) GUM:It's a big shopping center. Go inside and see what it's like.

5) The Catheral of Christ the Savior: It's the main cathedral in Moscow and it's way pretty! It's also not far from Red Square.

6) Banya it up: The idea of being surrounded by dozens of naked people (if you go in a gender-specific one), getting boiling hot, then drenching yourself with ice cold water (Ice Bucket Challenge eat your heart out) sounds awful to most sane people, but it's a very Russian thing to do and I loved it. Just know you'll be SUPER tired after. The one I visited in Moscow was called Sanduny (Сандуны) and I really recommend it. (I'll post a vid of how-to lates.)

7) Spend time with the people and learn for yourself that they're not cray cray.

My new friends Slava and Katya. They thought I was cool cuz I'm from California lol.


How to go to Russia (BORING butt informative)

Babushka cat lol
Back in October, I decided that I was a winner and to congratulate myself on being such a winner, I bought open-jaw plane tickets to and from Europe for $900 flying into Moscow and out through Dublin.

HOWEVER, I'm a cheapskate and I forgot that Russia requires you to get a visa (an EXPENSIVE visa too) and an official invitation in order to enter the country, so I tried to reroute my flight for almost a month, but it's almost impossible to economically change your flight once you've purchased airline tickets. LESSON LEARNED.

I finally decided to buy a visa to go back to Russia almost six weeks before my flight to Moscow. I contacted BYU's Kennedy Center because I heard you can get free help getting a visa (and I was still a student at the time). They directed me to a company called Travel Broker that basically does all the paperwork for you. You pay them $100, they take care of the finer details of the visa application AND get you an invitation into the country. So, no free help, but I think it was the best option for me at that time. The visa itself cost about $250, so the entire visa process cost me about $350. :( But whatever.

Travel Broker sent me to the Russian visa website. They told me to fill in the visa application, then print it out and take it to them.

A couple things about the visa application:

  •  It asks you to list every country you've visited for the past couple (five or something) years. I just wrote in every country that's stamped my passport in the past five (or something) years.
  • It asks you to write the address of every place you'll be staying in Russia. Travel Broker told me that I could just write any address in the city where I was visiting (Moscow) because the government doesn't follow up once you get there. So, I just googled a random hotel in Moscow and wrote its address. (And no, I didn't stay at that hotel and no it wasn't a problem.)
  • It asks you to write in every city you'll be visiting and how you plan to travel in between cities. I was only going to be in Moscow, so I didn't have to worry about that part, but I assume you can just write in whatever you want here too because they most likely won't be following up on you.
  • It also asks you to write in the dates of every other Russian visa you've ever had. If you've had multiple Russian visas in multiple passports, you only have to write in the visas that are in your CURRENT (active) passport.
  • Remember that when you're visiting Russia, if you stay in any city/location for more than three days, you have to register, so it's easier to plan to be in the city for three days or less.

So that's basically the tricky part of the visa application.

I filled out all the paperwork, brought it to Travel Broker (they have an office in south Salt Lake), and I had a Russian visa within 2 1/2 weeks.

Next post: what to do/how to survive in Russia. IT WILL BE A FUN POST, I PROMISE.


Why it's worth going to Russia.

Almost five years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, "Crap. Russia." I didn't want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn't seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that didn't even have cars or indoor plumbing.

When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.

No technology
First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I'd learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I've ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.

Unfriendly people
Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I'd heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who'd told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?

Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word "cold" before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I'd lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I'd ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.

They'd laugh and say, "You know it's going to get colder, right?" and I'd laugh and say, "That's not even possible, right?" But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn't typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable.

I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn't Russia if your nose hairs don't freeze.

Hard language
Yeah, Russian's hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said.

So the language is daunting, but it isn't everything.

Uninteresting history and culture
So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They've existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they've had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.

Of course, I didn't know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I'd seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you've been to Russia before and you're wondering "What the eff???"

So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ....