It was only a week we were in Russia but there were quite some thoughts in head about the trip. Those three nights in Murmansk and other three in Moscow didn’t just turned out to be a fantastic getaway but also I got to learn something inside my head.
There wasn’t much time of a proper photo session in Moscow, unfortunately. The only one was in Moscow Metro circle line–Koltsevaya line.
It took about 90 minutes to hop on and off the train on each of the twelve stations. I wish I had more time but had to regroup with others to see a circus. Otherwise, it could have been a real joy to explore details on the unique decors of each station. More than that, juxtapositions of contemporary local commuters and Soviet Union architectures built during the cold war were truly fascinating.
While taking the Metro, I just couldn’t help thinking of London Underground I experienced the year before. Even though the navigation for passengers couldn’t top London, it was still easy to get around and very efficient, especially, for a megacity like this. And to have permanent public arts (even they were propagandas, then and now) in public transports set Moscow Metro apart from any other cities in the world.
Our main plan for first full day in Moscow was the Kremlin Museums. The excursion turned out to be full of walking, walking, and walking in the shivery spring breeze. Apart from that, it was an exploration beyond expectation.
Usually, tourist sites weren’t really my things to explore but that’d be hard to dismay the itinerary when you were travelling in a group of friends. So, I needed to find something else occupy myself along the way.
Then, I started to decipher Cyrillic script from a Metro sign. From that, I got into it, using a Wikipedia page to work on signs throughout day. Photography was dropped from my own agenda on the day.
It was a very chilling and windy day. With that weather and without a clue, we were queuing up a long line to get to Lenin Mausoleum, thinking it was the entrance to a ticket office. That wait took us the whole morning away. After that, we had a lunch break and steered back to the plan to the Museums.
Unfortunately, we realised that signs and directions in the complex weren’t clear. It took us a while until we finally got to the ticket office. There were about five different tickets but we didn’t know what tickets to get. There were English descriptions but they weren’t comprehensive. I’d say communication designs failed.
Eventually, we purchased two tickets each for adults: one for the architecture complex and another on for the Armory Chamber. I got it later that the first one was to get in the complex with entrances to the cathedrals inside plus exhibition. Armory Chamber ticket were sold separately. The cheaper tickets must be to get in the complex but not the cathedrals.
It was about three hours of walking in the complex and the Amory Chamber. That was when I found my enjoyment, working on deciphering Cyrillic script on museum labels. It was so much fun. By the time we were done in the complex, our legs were tiring us.
Anyhow, the weather got better a bit when got out. So, we had some more walk around Red Square.
Next mission was dinner. The goal was at White Rabbit restaurant. We had been in one of their branches in Murmansk. And it had been really good. However, after a train ride and a lost on the street, we got to the place to find out that we needed a reservation. We ended up in a pan-Asian restaurant in the same mall called Zodiac.
An Asian restaurant in Moscow? I was skeptical. But it would be interesting to try Thai food there. I had fish with green curry flavor and a lemon tree. That would be the closest to Thai in the menu. The rest got other Asian dish. With a surprise, the dining experience blew us away. The presentation was intricate. Moreover, the flavour was on point. We were really impressed. On top of that, when the chef came to meet us, we would not ever expect a young Russian bloke, showing up. That was even more surprising. Apparently, we got the craft from his Chinese master. Good on him!
After the long cold walk, the self-study on Cyrillic, and the dinner, my mental state was overloaded and I needed some drinks. As the girls went straight back to the hotel, the boys made a stop at an Irish-theme pub. And I finished it off with some Ukrainian craft beer and three shots of vodka to end up the long day.
Before we left for Moscow, there was less than half a day for Angelika—our guide—to take us for a city tour. Even though the tour was short, it was the last chance I could really see the city. And I got to know more about the city.
We were picked up from Aurora Village back to Murmansk city. The ride was the half way from Teriberka. But the weather was much better than the way to see the Artic. So, the landscape was less exciting, I found. Plus I had a little sleep from the faint aurora sighting the night before.
Angelika joined us in the city. The itinerary was tight. She took us to Church of Saviour on Waters, Alyosha Monument, Waiting Woman Monument, then a quick late lunch break at Murmansk Mall, and finally, an exclusive tour at Lenin nuclear icebreaker.
The one nature of a package tour is quantity over quality, I found. However, when I asked about the port, I got to learn more from Angelika about the ties between its people and Norway, which was closer than Moscow. I’d say my curiosity went beyond usual tourist stuff. But what I couldn’t take my eyes off was the Khrushchyovka as when I first arrived the city. I really wished I’d had more time with it.
After the city tour, they dropped us off to the apartment we took through booking.com. There were some issues with the place. One was the communication with the owner. He didn’t speak much of English. Luckily, Angelika came up with us to the apartment and translated for us.
And there was something dodgy about it. The place looked great. It was a spacey one-bedroom apartment and a living room with a sofa bed. I didn’t mind sleeping on it but didn’t realised my friend actually booked for two apartments for the price she booked. The problem was that the other apartment was a bit of a walk away. At that moment, we were tired and I just wanted to stay put and rest. The catch was the owner would offer a discount if we would stay in that one place and my friend would cancel the booking on the website. With some internal discussion, we decided to take only one. Of course, the boys would take the sofa bed. It was just for one night anyway.
The discount he gave us was about one-third of the original reservation. Since we pay cash on the spot and the booking had been cancelled online, he received more money than the apartment was listed while the other one was now available. It felt like a rip-off but we had to let it go. However, it was gold for me that Angelika rolled her eyes about him while interpreting for us. It was somehow a reassurance about being human.
Interestingly, I met more Thai people in Murmansk than in DC, from the night at Aurora Village, a tour at Lenin icebreaker, and at the aurora hunt on the final night. It was noticed by a Russian woman from another group tour I had conversation over the vodka that more Thais had come to the city in the recent years. Obviously the tour operator, targeted Thai tourists.
It was my third and last full day in Murmansk Oblast. And it was the first time in years that I was with a tour guide. Fortunately, it was toward the end of touring aurora season in mid April. So, it wasn’t too busy and five of us were pretty much exclusive almost the whole trip they took us. And we had to thank Angelika, whom took care of us along the trip from the day trip to Teriberka, the two nights of aurora hunts, the city tour. Certainly, it was quite an adventure and really memorable.
How we got to Russia was primarily from what wanted to see the northern light. And Murmansk just happened to be the most reasonable place for us. To me I needed to get out of the US for visa requirement. It could be anywhere but Russia was more convenient for the other Thai friends since no visa required for Thai to enter the country.
We got three nights to try our luck on sighting aurora. It wasn’t the best timing, unfortunately. However, as the nights was evolving, something else got me realised aurora hunt was more than it was meant to be. That happened on the daytime ramping up to the night as well.
Night 1: Arrival and Get Going
The Thai friends arrived on the night before I did. They had a chance to explore the city on the day. Whereas, I spent most of the day at Sheremetyevo Airport, connecting flight to Murmansk.
I finally joined them in the afternoon just to learn that aurora hunt would start tonight and we’d be on the road from 10pm. So, there wasn’t much time for me to wind down from travelling across the Atlantic.
Before the night ride, we decided to get dinner from a supermarket near by. My eyes, of course, were on the local beer and we picked some local IPA. At the checkout, a security took them away. We were perplexed but didn’t make any noise. It must have been the legal time limit to buy alcohol out. And our guide confirmed it. So, my first night in Russia was sober.
I met our guide, Angelika, for the first time, when they picked us up. She would take care of us until our last night.
The weather was snowy and cloudy. We drove to three distant sites but there was no luck. Still, the night landscapes of the city and roads around were foreign and captivating to me.
Suddenly, Angelika told the driver to stop the van and pointed us to something faint behind the snowy clouds. To be honest, I was skeptical. It was easy to mistake city lights reflecting the clouds with aurora. I realised the luck wasn’t just on Kp-index but also on the weather on the location as well. And in this weather, you’d need local expertise to spot it.
That faint aurora was just a tease. It lit us some hope for the two nights to come.
We got back to the hotel. I was tired and needed to rest.
Before that day trip, we needed to stock some food for the night and for the morning. Now, that we knew, we lingered in the supermarket until 11am to be able to buy some alcohol. So, we got a bottle of vodka and some beer to supply the night.
We, five of us, stayed together in the same cabin. Half of it was made of transparent plastic into a dome so that the sky was visible.
Later, another group of guests arrived. Apparently, they were all Thais.
The forecast would be a window of clear night from 10pm to midnight. Actually, while we were waiting for a drive to get to the cabin, the clouds were dispatched and the sun appeared for the first time in the day. That sounded very promising.
Unfortunately, after midnight, the sky still wasn’t clear. We drank all the booze we bought. I was the last one standing and the only thing to drink was complimentary sparkling wine. It was terribly too sweet but kept me going, watching wood fire burning away. I needed time on my own to recharge my introvert battery.
Until around 3am, the sky cleared up and the stars were visible from the cabin. I went outside with a little hope, of not something happened at least, to enjoy the stars without city lights.
Then, I noticed a pale white strip across the sky. That, I haven’t seen before. I’d be just happy if it was the Milky Way but it wasn’t a strip of clusters of stars. To make sure what it was, I walked to the staff cabin to ask someone. There, he was plowing snow on a walkway (do they sleep at all, by the way?) but we couldn’t see the strip there because of the cabin light.
At the guest cabin area, without fluorescent light interference, he saw that pale white strip. There, he showed me his mobile screen, translating his Russian, “It’s aurora.” At once, I got back to the cabin to wake the others up. He also knocked on the rest of the guests.
It appeared for about ten more minutes. A friend of mind saw it turned green at one end of the horizon. By that time, I was a tad drunk and overwhelmed by how the night was unfolded. I didn’t bother myself to get the DSLR or even tried to take any photo with the phone.
What we saw wasn’t like in typical aurora photos. It wasn’t as spectacular as one would normally expect. Nonetheless, to me, it fulfilled the mission, technically. All and all, I could say I’d seen the northern light. Beyond that, it was a good deed to get others to see it.
Night 3: More about Drinking
We checked out of Aurora Village and still had one last night for the hunt. We were back to a night ride again but with less enthusiasm. And there was another person joining us in the van. He was Thai.
It wasn’t as gruesomely snowing as the firs night but still too cloudy. The chance of seeing aurora was very slim. So, the night was shifted into something else.
Angelika offered us a shot of vodka. Then, a coach arrived on the scene. It was a bigger tour group. They equipped with snacks, wine, and vodka.
Since then, the night wasn’t about just aurora hunt anymore.
They kept getting me more vodka. I had fair amount of drinks and interesting conversations with the other group.
Eventually, we had to get back but I still need more drinks. After they dropped us off at the apartment building we stayed. I determined to keep going and explore the city at night. That was after 1am when I decided to go out by myself.
It took me about 20 minutes to a bar. No one was on the streets. It was very quiet and I didn’t feel there would be any harm.
I was able to get two more beers before the bar was closed. And I was the last customer there.
However, it was more difficult on the way back. The buildings looked similar and I got to a wrong one on the other side of the street. It was almost 4am when I finally found my way back to the right apartment.
Those were the three nights in Murmansk. Each night we I stayed in a different place with different experience. Even though aurora we saw wasn’t as what we expected, I got the feeling that we got more than what we expected of it in those nights.
The next morning we would get to Moscow for another three nights, another interesting adventure.