Backpack Benji

Moscow.

Because of my military background, it took over two months and three attempts to secure my visa to make an unaccompanied trip to Russia, the largest nation on our planet. I flew into Moscow, where there are four airports to serve the population of over twelve million residents.  I took the express train from the airport to the cities’ central metro station and worked to figure out the mass transit system in order to find my hotel.  There are over two hundred metro stations in Moscow and each is uniquely outfitted and decorated, some with grandiose chandeliers and classical music playing loudly. The Moscow metro is one of the best and most efficient in the world and virtually always on time.  I could not read the signs, so worked to count the number of stops to know where to exit the train.  Moscow is certainly not a tourist-friendly city and there were very little instructions, conversations, or signage in English.  I stayed at the Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel where there were warnings stating that if you had dark skin or were of Arab descent that you should not leave the hotel at night.


My friend Natalya who works as a finance officer in the hotel industry was able to grant me access to the rooftop lounge of the trendy Ritz Carlton where the views of the Kremlin and the city below were unbeatable. We looked down at the wide streets, ruled by motorcycles racing along with their mufflers booming echoes between the Stalin sized buildings.


We went to Tretyakov Gallery where the mysteries of the Russian soul come to life.  The gallery was founded in 1856 and is hands down the world’s number one museum of Russian art.  From mysterious 12th century icons to many politically charged canvasses – the collection is a rich and revealing insight into the history and attitudes of the long-suffering yet inspired Russian people.  That evening we had dinner at a fabulous Georgian restaurant called Hachu and ate delicious khachapuri cheese bread made Adjarian Batumi-style served with a raw egg on top that cook-melted with the butter into the giant puff pastry in which it was served.  We also had marinated Georgian vegetables, and a cast iron skillet filled with delicious dolma (lamb-stuffed vine leaves served with matsoni yoghurt) and finished with some house-made baklava for dessert.


I took a cruise along the Moscow River and took in the unparalleled views of the sites on both banks from the rivers vantage point. I visited the Gum Shopping Center, the biggest and most over-the-top mall in Moscow, full of ultra high end stores inside of splendid architecture.  I strolled through Gorky Park and then took a taxi out to the Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy Park, an elaborate complex of massive buildings and statues where everyone was very dressed up and traditional Russian music was broadcast throughout, reminiscent of the passing era of Soviet glorification.


I was surprised to see a small tourist street with a handful of iconic western fast-food spots.


On the morning of my scheduled departure I thought my flight was at 1:20 PM and was taking my time at breakfast and in my room. I had planned to take the train to the airport and double-checked my flight schedule. It was then that I noticed my flight was not at 1:20 PM but at 10:15 AM! It was 8:30 and the airport was an hour away.  I threw my belongings in my backpack and raced to the front desk and asked if they had a car to get me to the airport.  They graciously and promptly offered me a black Mercedes sedan with a driver who spoke zero English.  He drove me to the airport and seemed to go five miles under the limit the entire time; every car was passing us and I was sitting in the seat next to him with my stomach churning for him to speed along.  At airport customs there was more delay due to confusion at passport control since I did not have an entry stamp into Russia on my Russian visa.  This was because I flew into Russia direct from Belarus which is still part of the Russian Federation.  The agent was confused and had to call a supervisor to come show her the explanation – I don’t think many people enter Russia for the first time via Belarus so it was a somewhat unique situation.  I just made my flight to Budapest and then made my way to my home away from home – Frankfurt, Germany.

After some time in Frankfurt, I woke up early one morning and decided it was time to get back to the states. I knew there was a flight leaving that morning from Ramstein so I jumped on the train to Landstuhl via Mannheim. I arrived in Landstuhl at 8:42 and grabbed a cab, telling the driver that I needed to be at the airbase terminal by 9:00.  The cabbie raced and there was much traffic due to the morning work commute onto the huge base.  I walked in and stood in a short line.  I was the last person called to come forward and be marked “present” for the outbound flight at 8:58.  There were a few people behind me that were flatly told they did not make the cutoff and would not be able to make the flight.   One really must have the constitution for travel.  While this trip had its tight connections and felt frantic at times, I have learned to go with the flow and know that I can always find an alternative.