Monday, June 29, 2015

The Golden Ring, Part I - Vladimir and Neighboring Towns, Homeless in Moscow

Russia is a cool place. It’s also really fucking big, and most people don’t venture too far from Moscow and St. Petersburg. My original plan was to spend 3 days revisiting Moscow and then a week in Turkmenistan before heading into Uzbekistan, but when my visa for Turkmenistan was denied a few weeks before I left, I had to rework my plans. Since the rescheduling was at the beginning of my trip, my options were somewhat limited – I couldn’t change too many flights and hotels and dates, so instead I decided to spend longer in Russia.

Around Moscow there are several cities and towns which are excellently preserved and offer an excellent glimpse of medieval and pre-Soviet Russia (as well as plenty of fun Soviet buildings and landmarks). The collection of these cities is known as the “Golden Ring” and rightfully so – The cities are spectacular. I couldn’t find much information on transportation between cities online, so instead of doing a proper ring (and trying to find a way to get from Vladimir or Suzdal to Yaroslavl or Kostroma), I decided to overnight in Moscow and do everything by train.

The cities I visited were Vladimir and Suzdal (from Moscow), then I returned to Moscow and visited Sergiev Posad and Yaroslavl, also from Moscow. It turns out I probably could have done a true ring – there are tons of buses leaving from Vladimir, and Yaroslavl and Kostroma are served several times a day – but I am quite happy with my route.

I left off my last post having arrived into Vladimir. The train station has a neat old Russian locomotive in front of it, and right in front of the locomotive are the buses from the station to the city center. 

Locomotive, Vladimir

Following my hostel’s directions, I got on the bus (an old Soviet gem of course) and got off at the Golden Gate. 

Golden Gate, Vladimir

After a slight ascent and very steep descent (my phone suggested it was about 70 feet, or the equivalent of 7 flights of stairs), I reached my hostel, Samovar Hostel.

As with most Russian hostels, there were a few people living there full-time, but the hostel itself was quite nice – They have a terrace overlooking a church and the railway station, several comfortable couches, a working hot shower next to the kitchen (which, as it turns out, almost proved to be an issue when I forgot to bring a towel in with me…), comfortable beds, and free tea or coffee (read: hot water to put tea or Nescafe).

When I arrived, there was nobody there. Not like “no people in charge” but actually nobody – Turns out the owner had to run a few errands, and so I made myself coffee and he returned a few minutes later. Since there was nobody in my bed the previous night, he let me check in early. At this point, I faced a difficult decision: I could collapse and sleep for a long time (remember, this is after 39 hours of travel and very little sleep) and then have severe problems adjusting to the time-zone change (11 hours, and it was noon in Vladimir) or I could go out and try to explore the city a bit. I seemed to get some sort of zombie resurgence of energy, so I set out to explore…

Unfortunately, part of exploring meant climbing back up the giant hill I had just come down. By the time I reached the top, I was seriously reconsidering my whole zombie energy thing, but I hadn’t climbed the hill just to go back down and collapse. I loitered around the Golden Gate for a couple minutes, then found a café to eat lunch.

So, a common theme when I travel is that unless I have a clear restaurant in mind, I generally hate having to find food. I try hard to avoid tourist trap type restaurants, and as a result I will often wind up wandering around for a long time trying to find something that looks “reasonable” but also not “a serious danger to my health.” I also don’t eat pizza or most “Italian” food unless I am in Italy. This process has led to some great finds, but also to some failures. I’m a creature of habit once I find something good, but generally I dislike having to hunt for that place, and TripAdvisor doesn’t have great coverage in former USSR countries. All this is to say that I usually only eat 2 meals a day, and sometimes I’ll forget to eat if I’m caught up in my sightseeing or traveling. This digression is to say that I hadn’t eaten in about 24 hours when I went to the café, and after having some reasonably good food I felt even better.

After lunch, I headed out to explore the city. I found a nice overlook and a water tower which offered an excellent view over the city:

View of several churches from the water tower, Vladimir
On the ground, Vladimir

After taking a bunch of pictures and enjoying the view, I headed over to get an up-close look at the things I was looking at from the tower. Vladimir has several old white-stone churches from its medieval glory days, including one of the best examples of Russian stone-carving from the 12th century.

Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir
St. Demetrius Cathedral, Vladimir - The exterior carvings depict the story of King David, and were carved in the 12th century.

Vladimir has a funny charm to it, and the park surrounding the churches adds a nice touch – There were even horse-drawn carriages offering rides (no, I didn’t). 

Park, Vladimir

I had a nice time exploring the churches and wandering around the park, and after a bit more wandering I finally felt my crash coming on… I headed back to the hostel (by another classy old Soviet bus) and fell asleep shortly after getting back. I didn’t set an alarm, and I slept for 14 hours straight, but goddamn I needed it.

Freshly rested and having visited more of Vladimir than I had planned to on the first day, I decided to move my Suzdal daytrip to my second day instead of the third. I grabbed breakfast at a coffee shop (cappuccino is a universal language) and headed to the central bus station to catch a bus to Suzdal. Russian public transportation is excellent and usually quite efficient, and after buying a ticket inside for ~65 RUB, I waited a few minutes for the bus (another old Soviet one of course) and was off.  

Bus Station, Vladimir

The ride was a bumpy 45 minutes, and conveniently the bus goes beyond the bus station in Suzdal and actually goes into the town. After the bus station, the driver collected an additional 18 RUB and we continued into the town. I got off at the Kremlin stop since I wanted to visit there first before heading to the monastery.

The Kremlin has a couple exhibitions and a stunning blue-Onion-domed church, an excellent example of a wooden church, as well as a couple other buildings and a large green space behind it. 

Wooden Church of St. Nicholas & Cathedral of the Nativity, Suzdal
Interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity, Suzdal

I wandered around for a while, then found a great place for lunch (“Russian Restaurant” on the left near the Kremlin – didn’t exactly fit my bill for “non-touristy” but it seemed good, and indeed it was). I bought a small bottle of Medovukhzal, a honey-based wine, and continued to the monastery (stopping to wander through an entire field, yes, literally a field, of paintings – I wish I had bought one, though I’d have had to mail it home).

After the Kremlin, I headed over to the Monastery, home to several exhibitions, churches, a bell-tower, and a nice courtyard. 

Church and Bell Tower of the Monastery, Suzdal
Interior of the Church, Suzdal

As with most Russian monasteries, it was rather quiet and relaxing (with the exception of two Chinese tour groups being whisked through), and it’s a nice place just to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. After spending awhile at the monastery, I negotiated a cheap taxi back to the bus station where I bought a ticket for the return to Vladimir. Unfortunately I was not so lucky this time, and I got the dreaded “MECTO: 0” meaning that I would have to stand. The ride back was a bumpy but pleasant hour, and I spent a few minutes wandering around Vladimir before getting dinner at a hotel restaurant (since I couldn’t find much that seemed good, and the place I went before was closed).

The food was decent, but I refrained from ordering their “specialty” …

A delicacy, Vladimir

I spent my last day in Vladimir wandering and revisiting a few places I went to the first day (with a significantly less zombie-like approach). Again, the city is fun just to walk around, and I spent awhile doing that, visiting the Golden Gate (which was finally open after 2 days of trying, and houses a small military museum up a large and steep set of stairs), and just generally checking out anything that seemed interesting. I’m glad I gave myself a bit longer in each place on this trip, since being able to wander and revisit places is quite nice, and it’s easy to miss some things the first time around.

In the afternoon, I decided to try to visit the nearby town of Bogolyubovo, which also has several churches included in the UNESCO list. I caught a bus from the center to a nearby bus station where I changed to the Bogolyubovo bus (try saying that 10 times fast!). I hopped off when I saw the monastery, and went in for a few minutes. The inside of the church was under construction, but the outside was still quite enjoyable.

Monastery, Bogolyubovo
Leaving the monastery, I followed the lacking directions I found online and the even more lackluster directions offered by Google Maps to try to find the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl. Google seemed to think it was in the middle of a mess of train tracks, while my directions also sent me nowhere useful. I soon found myself wandering around abandoned train tracks and ruins along with a few small houses. After a while of wandering and not seeing any sign whatsoever of the church, I decided to give up and head back to Vladimir.

I finished up my last day in Vladimir by clambering down the hill to my hostel, spending a bit of time planning my next few days, and clambering back up the same hill to catch the bus to the train station (where I had left my bag in the morning) to catch my train.

Vladimir was a fun place to start my trip, and armed with my train ticket, I headed off for my overnight in Moscow… The following day I would take a train to Sergiev Posad in the morning and then continue to Yaroslavl that evening, and everything seemed great until I arrived in Moscow.

Since I was doing a quick overnight in Moscow and I knew which train stations I would be visiting, I had booked a small hotel, the Unicorn Leningradskaya, across the street from the train station so I could just wake up and go. After arriving in Moscow, I took the metro to the train station I was leaving from the following morning and after quite a bit of searching, found the address where my hotel was supposed to be located. Unfortunately, all that was there was a small gate, but when someone else went through, I managed to run through behind them and keep the gate open.

“Wow, I’m lucky” I thought, as I was approached by a rather unhappy security officer who spoke no English. I mentioned that I was supposed to be staying in the hotel here, and he held up a piece of paper with the hotel’s phone number on it. The paper also said to call 1.5 hours before arrival, which, having arrived at the hotel, was not all that helpful. Thankful for my data plan, I called the number and had the following exchange with the person on the other end, supposedly the manager (me in bold):

“Hi, I am in the courtyard of your hotel, can you please show me where to go from here?” 
“Did you call 1.5 hours before arriving?” 
“No, but I am here now. I didn’t have phone service on the train.”“ 
Well, you MUST call 1.5 hours before arrival or we cannot check you in.” 
“Okay, but I have a reservation and you MUST have that, right?” 
“Yes, but if you don’t call, then we don’t stay at the hotel. There is nobody there now.”
“Well, maybe you can send someone over to check me in?” 
“No, you did not call 1.5 hours before you got here.” 
“There was nothing on my reservation information telling me to call!” 
“That’s not our fault. You must call.” 
“Well, where do you expect me to stay tonight? I made a reservation. I am in a foreign city and have nowhere to sleep because I didn’t call?!” 
“That’s not our problem. You must call. There is nobody here now.” 
“I feel like I’m in a Seinfeld episode. Did my reservation mean nothing?! Can you not send someone to the hotel now?” 
“Well, good-bye. I hope you like one-star reviews.” 
“Good riddance to you too.”

With that settled, I quite obviously was going to have to find another place to stay. I left the courtyard with the angry security guard and went to try to find somewhere with WiFi. Everywhere with WiFi was closed, however, because it was 10:45pm by now, so I once again was thankful for my data plan and stood outside the train station to call I figured they would be able to provide me alternate accommodations near the station. I called, explained the situation, and was put on hold while the agent called the hotel. Amusingly, she received no response. She came back and told me she would transfer me to reservations, and after 10 minutes on hold, the reservations agent answered. Apparently she had not put any notes in my reservation, so I had to re-explain my whole situation, wait on hold while the reservations agent called the hotel, etc.

The reservations agent returned having actually spoken to the hotel. He said they were willing to come back and check me in, but I would have to pay extra. I told him that was absurd, that my reservation was for a specific price etc, and that after my previous conversation with the hotel, I did not feel safe going there. The agent said that since it seemed the hotel was honoring the reservation, there was nothing he could do. By now I had been on the phone for 45 minutes, and it was 11:30pm. I realized that getting a refund and dealing with could wait, but finding a hotel for the night could not. After a couple more minutes attempting to talk sense into the agent, I thanked him, hung up, and began my search for an actual hotel (again, using data because I had no WiFi). I didn’t find much in the area, so I eventually decided to just book the same place I would stay later when I returned to Moscow. It was about 20 minutes from the train station, but I didn’t care. I booked it (having to call again, because by the time I decided this it was past midnight, and booking sites don’t allow you to book a reservation for that night after midnight), arrived at my hotel around 12:30am, and decided I didn’t want to wake up in 8 hours for my train… So I cancelled my train and decided to take a local one to Sergiev Posad instead (which run every 30 minutes).

I went to bed pissed as all hell, but hey, at least I had a bed. That’s more than the Unicorn Leningradskaya offered me. Next up, Sergiev Posad and Yaroslavl.

Practical Information

Since I'm visiting places where there are not many resources on the internet about them, I'm going to try to add an information section at the end of my posts, mostly relating to lodging and transportation, along with a few other odds and ends. So...

  • Booking Russian train tickets
    • Booking Russian train tickets online is difficult. While Russian Railways has an English version of their site (, I constantly had problems using a credit card to pay. Of all the third-party options for booking tickets, I found that had the best prices and least significant markups. Their site is straightforward, and although I initially had trouble using a credit card, a quick email to their support office resolved the issue (and I still am not totally sure what the problem was -- I think it had something to do with account verification). The booking process was smooth and very fast, the tickets were issued very quickly, and overall the site offers an excellent service. I highly recommend them, and I used them for all my train tickets.
  • Buses in Vladimir
    • Local city buses run extremely regularly, and there is a stop right outside of the train station. Exit and turn right.
    • Buses are cheap and easy, and they are the best way to get around the city if you don't feel like walking everywhere.
    • The bus station in Vladimir is a fairly major hub. There are buses serving Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and most other cities in the region which leave several times a day. I don't know the exact times, but the important thing is that they exist (which, if I had known, would have potentially avoided the entire Moscow debacle)
    • Most of the short-haul buses are standard old Soviet affairs, but there are also some nicer buses which I assume serve further destinations.
    • Buy your ticket inside of the station from one of the many counters. I had no trouble, despite my practically non-existent Russian.
    • Buses have assigned seating. Your seat number is marked on the ticket under "Mesto" and if it is a 0, it means you don't have a seat and likely have to stand.
    • Buses to Suzdal leave every 30 minutes, usually from place #10.
  • Buses in Suzdal
    • The bus from Vladimir to Suzdal first goes to the Suzdal bus station, but you should stay on -- The driver will come around and collect an additional payment (18 rubles) before continuing into the city.
    • Same as in Vladimir, on your return, you should buy your ticket inside of the bus station. I don't know if it is possible to get on a bus in the city and continue to Vladimir as I didn't try that.
    • Buses back to Vladimir leave every 30 minutes, although there are buses every 15 minutes during a few peak periods (from 4-5pm if I recall correctly)
  • Vladimir timing
    • I visited for about 3 days, spending one in Suzdal. It's certainly possible to spend only 2 days total, but trying to visit both Vladimir and Suzdal in one day is probably too much.
  • Lodging
    • I stayed at the Samovar Hostel. The facilities, staff, and hostel are great, but the location leaves a bit to be desired. It's about an 8-10 minute walk from the Golden Gate, and down a very steep hill. Climbing back up the hill each morning was an inconvenience, but I am still quite happy with my choice to stay there.
  • Being stranded in Moscow
    • The best thing to do is find WiFi if you can. Don't worry about getting refunds and other logistical details -- Finding a place to stay is most important, and should be your primary focus. HotelTonight does work in Moscow and is a suitable backup option, but most of the hotels were quite pricey.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Getting There is Half the Battle - San Francisco to Vladimir, Russia

So, a bit of backstory – I have wanted to try out the A380 for a while and haven’t had the chance to do so yet. While British Airways and Emirates serve SFO with it, BA didn’t fly it on the day that I wanted to leave (and leaving from SFO on it was way more expensive) – Instead, I decided to go through Los Angeles, connecting to London on the BA A380 before going on to Copenhagen (my technical destination) and connecting on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow (my actual destination). It was an extra stop (and a LONG connection – 7 hours), but I figured it’d be totally worth it for a chance to try the A380.

I got to the airport around 12:20pm for my 2:20pm flight to LAX. I checked in and decided not to go through security until a bit later. As I was waiting, I got a text saying that my flight was delayed. Normal enough, but just to be safe I checked the inbound flight and found that it was delayed by three hours, due to arrive at 3:30pm. The posted delay on my flight so far was only 30 minutes. There was nobody in the AA elite line, so I figured I’d take a moment to plan my strategy. I had a few options; first, I could do nothing and take my delayed flight (with a first-class upgrade); second, I could ask the check-in agent to protect me on the next flight which left at 4:40pm and keep my plans for the delayed flight if things worked out; third, and most amusingly, BA offers a nonstop from SFO-LHR leaving at 4:40pm which I could potentially switch onto.

Undeterred, and using the fact that the SFO-LHR nonstop was operated by a 747 as an excuse, I decided to keep my plans to go through LAX and ask the agent to protect me on the next flight, the 4:40pm one. When I asked him to do so, he looked at me as if I were crazy. “But your flight has only a 30-minute delay!” he said. I ever so politely informed him that the inbound aircraft would barely be taking off at the time my flight was now scheduled to leave. He grimaced and eventually was convinced to protect me on the next flight. Fast-forward about 20 minutes and I got another email, this time a cancellation! I immediately went back to the desk and got a confirmed seat on the 4:40pm flight; though I lost my upgrade, it was still a bulkhead – Not too bad, all things considered. I went through security a few minutes later and spent a bit of time in the lounge where I amusedly watched several angry passengers on my former SFO-LAX flight that had to be accommodated on much later flights. Flying is the best source of schadenfreude on the planet.

AA Lounge at SFO (feat. angry passengers in the background)

Soon I was boarding my flight to LAX, and it turned out that my seatmate was also an aviation geek who had done quite a bit of plane-spotting. I picked up on it when I saw him taking pictures of the Emirates A380 as we taxied past. We spent the whole ride to LA talking, and he left for terminal 4 to make his AA flight to LHR while I headed to the international terminal for my hard-fought-for BA A380 flight. My 7 hour layover had dwindled to 3.5 hours, and after dinner in the OneWorld lounge, I was off to board my flight. 

OneWorld Lounge LAX, feat. my bags

I had a seat on the upper deck, so boarded after going up an escalator in the jetway. The flight itself was a lot of fun, and I wandered around the plane a bit when I could. After a quick 10 hours (read: NCIS marathon), I landed in London.

I headed to the BA lounge where I once again ran into a plane-spotter. He suggested a great place outside of the terminal, and since I had a few hours to kill, I decided to get a passport stamp and join him. Among the highlights were a Saudia A330 and the Kuwait Airways A300 – One of the last of its kind in service.

Connecting in Jeddah doesn't sound like the most fun...

We headed back through security and customs and spent a little longer in the lounge before heading to our respective flights; him to Athens, and me to Copenhagen. I got to the gate to find out my flight was delayed an hour. This turned out to be quite nice, however, since it turned out that sunset in Copenhagen was around 10:45pm, and we landed shortly after sundown. I got an awesome timelapse (despite the bumpy approach) and a few other nice pictures of the spectacular sunset.

Arrival into CPH

Now, as I mentioned above, in order to get the incredible deal I got on my flights, I had to book my OneWorld ticket to Copenhagen and add on a Moscow flight from there. I was flying Aeroflot from Copenhagen to Moscow, and had given myself 3 hours in Copenhagen just in case anything went wrong. Well, 3 hours turned to 2, which eventually turned to 1.5 hours. I no longer had time to go through customs to the Aeroflot check-in desk to check-in, and so I headed to the gate instead. At the gate, I found nothing. Not “oh, there’s nobody here” nothing, actual nothing. It was shuttered closed, and there were a couple people sitting on the floor nearby. I asked and was told that the gate wouldn’t open for awhile. I resigned myself to sitting on the floor and waiting, and eventually about 30 minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off, an official-looking woman came over and unlocked/unshuttered the gate. Immediately she was swarmed by about 150 Chinese people who seemed to materialize out of thin-air. Obviously they all wanted to board, but I had a more pressing matter – I had no boarding pass. I had managed to check-in online successfully, but with no boarding pass, I was kinda stuck. She tried to print it, but found that there was no ticket stock at the gate. As she was heading off to find some, I finally managed to connect to the internet and navigate Aeroflot’s minefield to get a boarding pass on my phone.

I entered the gate area after she checked my visa, and began waiting. Of course the entire Chinese mob hovered so close to the entrance to the jetway that one of them got hit in the head by the door when a flight attendant came out. Again, schadenfreude at its finest. After a little longer, we boarded and were off – a short 2 hour and 20 minute hop to Moscow… It was unfortunate, however, that the hop included a time zone and was effectively a redeye: We left Copenhagen at 12:20am and arrived in Moscow at 3:40am.

I am terrible at sleeping on planes. I was, however, so tired by this point that I managed to get an hour of sleep despite being woken up by flight attendants twice to ask if I wanted water. It turns out that no, I did not want water. In fact, while it may seem hard to believe, when I am asleep I don’t want to be violently shook by a Russian woman in a bright red uniform and asked if I want water! Water and sleep are not a great mix, and thus I didn’t sleep much more on the flight.

Pokey-water-woman and the Aeroflot A320 business class (I had the bulkhead in economy)

So, you see, it turns out that I am a cheap fuck. No, not like that, get your mind out of the gutter. What I mean is that originally I was supposed to take a 4:40pm train from Moscow to Vladimir, and I had booked an airport hotel so that I could sleep when I arrived. A few days before I left, however, seats opened up on the earlier, 9:30am train. I rationalized the switch to myself by suggesting that it’d be nice just to get to Vladimir, and that 6 hours isn’t that terrible, that I would be jetlagged and miserable if I slept until 2pm the day I arrived, and that maybe I’ll have slept on the planes beforehand (hint: no). I cancelled my hotel reservation and instead decided to rough it for 6 hours while waiting for my morning train. Maybe that would have been okay, but I did another stupid thing: I decided that while taking the Aeroexpress into the city would be nice, the first one didn’t leave until 5am, and since Moscow traffic wouldn’t be bad at 4am, I decided to take a taxi to the train station. Why I didn’t wait at the airport with power-plugs and comfy seats, I will never know.

Pro tip: Don’t spent 5 hours at a Moscow train station. The waiting rooms were closed, so I spent an hour languishing on the ground next to a power outlet before deciding that there had to be some better way. I headed upstairs at that point and found an empty seat where I watched NCIS for the next several hours. I was too tired to move, my head hurt, and I couldn’t fall asleep because I had all my stuff with me and was surrounded by, well, less-than-scrupulous characters. You know, the kind you might find in a train-station at 6am.

Anyhow, eventually after several doses of ibuprofen, by some miracle it was 9am. I checked the train-board and found my train was supposed to leave from track 1. I went out to the tracks and there was no train. It was 10 minutes before departure and Moscow was the origin, so I found that a bit odd. I glanced down to platform 11, however, and sure enough my train was there. I don’t know whether I just missed a “1” or whether the listing was actually wrong – By now I was mostly a walking zombie.

Leaving Moscow

After a 2-hour train ride I finally arrived in Vladimir where I got off the train, took a local bus to the Golden Gate, and walked down a giant hill (hint: what goes down must come up) to my hostel for the next 2 days. I left Stanford at 11am Pacific time on June 9th, and arrived in Vladimir at 12:10pm Moscow time on June 11th; roughly 39 hours of travel. Despite my extreme lack of sleep, I had a second zombie-resurgence – With my stomach growling (and no longer feeling as miserable), I decided to get lunch and explore the city a bit...