After a frenzied month on the road, I’m finally getting some much-needed rest and recuperation here in Beijing, having arrived via the city's central railway station earlier this week. As in previous trips, I’d like to share with you guys my first impressions from this trip, since the detailed write-ups will likely take me some time to complete.
I’d like to say this trip had a little bit of everything, but in reality it was a lot of everything – from an eye-opening first glimpse into the fascinating peoples and cultures of Russia, to relentless World Cup festivities; from an unforgettable stay at the luxurious St. Regis Moscow Nikolskaya, to a gruelling series of train rides along the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian routes over the course of 12 days.
Getting to Moscow: A Traveller’s Nightmare
I'm pretty good at navigating any obstacles that come my way during my travels. But some days it feels as though everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and the beginning of this trip was one of those days. Let’s see…
First off, my Lufthansa flight from Toronto to Frankfurt is badly delayed, meaning that I already know I’m going to miss my onwards connection. I figure it’s nothing but a slight hitch, since Lufthansa has an interline agreement with Aeroflot, so I might actually be rebooked on the direct flight to Moscow Sheremetyevo (SVO).
The flight itself goes smoothly until the obvious pitfall of non-private business class seats rears its ugly head. That’s right: clumsy seatmates. The guy sitting in the seat next to me spills his gin & tonic all over my laptop while trying to open his tray table.
To his credit, he's apologetic about it and offers to pay for the damages, but by some miracle, my laptop survives the ordeal unhurt. Nevertheless, I'm forced to sit through the rest of the flight soaked in sticky G&T, picking lemon slices off myself every now and then. No fun.
The Frankfurt layover therefore comes as a relief. I’ve missed my connection, so I head to the ticketing desk to get myself rebooked, and since this is Frankfurt Airport after all, I waste about an hour’s time going through mysterious security queues only to end up in the exact same place I started.
Eventually, I arrive at the ticketing desk, where the agent gleefully announces that they’ve rebooked me on the Lufthansa flight to Moscow Domodedovo (DME), but since I have an airport hotel reserved near Sheremetyevo, that means I’d have to take a two-hour taxi ride across town upon arrival. I beg and plead for the agent to rebook me on Aeroflot, and she reluctantly concedes in the end.
I board the flight, and to my surprise, Aeroflot has a “proper” business class cabin rather than the glorified economy seats you’d usually find in Europe. I briefly wonder whether I ought to write a review of the flight, but end up falling asleep before I can get any proper pictures. Looking back, this was both regrettable (given how nice of a business class experience it was) and inevitable (given the lack of sleep I’d been running on at the time).
By the time I get to baggage claim at Sheremetyevo, all I want to do is go to the airport hotel and have a lie-down. Except – you guessed it – my luggage never arrives.
That’s right, it had gotten stuck at Frankfurt Airport in the midst of all the changes to my itinerary. I curse the travel gods and spend another hour completing a lost baggage claim before finally catching the shuttle bus to my hotel. The silver lining? My luggage eventually arrived later that same night, meaning I could pick it up from the airport the next day, right before catching the Aeroexpress train into the Moscow city centre.
The Best of Moscow
Our one-week sojourn in the Russian capital was a little disorganized by our usual standards. Jessica and I have been travelling quite a bit lately, and I think it’s fair to say that a tinge of laziness might have crept into our routine. While we usually try our best to be out and about looking at attractions, this time around in Moscow we spent a good chunk of time hanging around by our hotel (a few bouts of mild illness didn’t help the situation either).
The Marriott Moscow Tverskaya took care of us brilliantly, with one particular highlight being the daily breakfast buffet. Its location was also pretty good for a mid-tier hotel, as it’s right next door to the Belorusskaya train station, an important transport hub within the city, while also being within a 30-minute walk to Red Square along a major street.
When we did manage to get out of our Belorusskaya bubble, we mainly spent our time visiting the standout attractions and enjoying walks around the city streets punctuated by stops at cute cafes. Of course, Red Square and its environs – St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin, the State Historical Museum, and the Lenin Mausoleum – were not to be missed.
Further afield, we visited the Izmailov Kremlin, a castle from a bygone era in the outskirts of town that’s now a bustling street market; watched a few games in the pubs and restaurants at the Arbat, a popular pedestrian street; and tried our luck at the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games.
Of course, with the World Cup being the primary motivation of this trip, the football was on the agenda every day as well. Spain v Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium was a real treat in particular, as we assimilated into a home crowd of 80,000-strong to cheer on the Russians as they reached their first-ever quarterfinal.
The Best of St. Petersburg
If you were to interpret Moscow’s wide avenues and blocky buildings as representative of Russia’s socialist past, then the canals, wrought-iron fences, and neoclassical opulence of St. Petersburg would encapsulate all things European about the country. Indeed, the city was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 and remained the capital of Russia for 200 years, and the the tsar’s many learnings from his time in Western Europe is clear for all to see.
A funny thing happened with regards to our accommodations here – we had originally booked an Airbnb, although we found the living conditions to be downright unacceptable upon arriving. We agreed to grin and bear it, but after two nights of back-breaking sleep, I opened the chequebook (or should I say, the Marriott app) and moved ourselves to the Renaissance St. Petersburg Baltic Hotel instead.
Located immediately next door to St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Renaissance was the ideal base from which to explore the main sights of the city. We visited the Kazan Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, before spending a full day within the halls of the Hermitage, the world’s second-largest museum whose collections comprise over three million items.
Needless to say, we were only ever going to see a fraction of what’s on display, and we did our best to absorb as many exhibits as possible before the clock struck closing hour.
We had tickets to Sweden v Switzerland, which allowed us to get out and see the fancy new developments of Krestovsky Island as well. However, there’s also plenty of sights that we sadly didn’t have time for, such as Peterhof, the palaces and gardens of Peter the Great; the Peter and Paul Fortress on the banks of the Neva River, which served as the city’s original citadel; and of course, the remaining 90% of the Hermitage Museum.
From the Luxurious St. Regis Moscow Nikolskaya…
Of course, the vast country of Russia is given colour by much more than its two largest cities, and our itinerary was about to take us on the long journey east into Siberia. But before that, a brief, unexpected taste of the good life came our way, as a serendipitous change of plans for our overnight stop in Moscow gave me my first ever stay at a St. Regis, and an innocuous email to the hotel resulted in a suite upgrade that simply blew us away…
While we loved our St. Regis Suite so much that we ended up changing our train reservations for the next day, the “soft product” at the hotel was top-notch as well. St. Regis hotels are known for their butler service, which at the St. Regis Moscow Nikolskaya took the form of complimentary 24/7 coffee and tea delivered straight to your door, as well as two pieces of complimentary garment pressing per guest per day.
I totally “get” the appeal of the St. Regis brand now, and look forward to staying at other properties around the world soon, especially in light of the upcoming luxury hotel sweet spots in Marriott and Starwood’s new loyalty program.
…to the Gruelling Trans-Siberian Railway
“Mixing the luxury with the spartan makes the luxury that much better,” as a friend of mine puts it. As you can imagine, the contrast – from the luxuries of our St. Regis Suite to the rickety rhythms and often pungent interiors of the Trans-Siberian trains – couldn’t have been more stark.
In all honesty, my thoughts from this two-week journey across much of the Old World are far too numerous to be included here, and I do plan to publish a separate article detailing my reflections from this leg of the trip.
For now, I’ll let a series of pictures do the talking, and I’ll just say that it was a tremendously rewarding experience that defied my expectations at many turns. If you love travel and seeing new parts of the world, I’d highly recommend giving it a spot near the top of your bucket list.
Despite the inauspicious start, this was probably one of the best trips in recent memory in terms of the volume of new experiences I encountered along the way. Two great cities, the World Cup, an unforgettable hotel stay, and a journey by train over taiga, steppe, and desert. It’s been an immensely fulfilling journey, and one that bears plenty of reflection over the weeks and months to come.