russia: day 0 and 1

(so, i've been on my russian trip for over a week at this point. meaning from the day i left houston. but i'm trying to go back and write some stuff about my experiences each day, and i'm going to post them on the day that my experiences took place. i'm sure i'm forgetting a bunch and leaving out plenty of things, but most people won't care much about reading this stuff anyway, so it doesn't really matter too much i guess, does it?)

i for the most part waited until the day of the flight to do my packing. it went okay, although i spent more time during the day running errands than i'd planned (buying soap and toothpaste; buying cat food; picking up my jacket from the tailor's - which they did an awesome job on, and it was a thousand times better than i could have ever done...awesome idea, heather; trying to buy a travel soap dish - no luck; and trying to finish up buying gifts for people here in russia). but the packing itself went okay.

heather drove me to the airport in my soul, then she took it back to my house afterward. (or at least i assume she did, i wasn't around to verify.) traffic was jacked up on i-45 between i-10 and 610, so we took 59 instead, which was flowing well. (thanks iphone / internet access / gps / google maps! this same gratitude has come up a whole lot since then.) even though i got there an hour later than i had originally planned, it was still two hours before the flight. heather and i said our goodbyes, and i headed into the airport.

in line to check bags and register, i talked with a chinese guy who goes to uofh who was part of a group of students going to several countries in south asia. this flight was on singapore airlines, which has a non-stop from houston intercontinental to domodedova / moscow. but the flight continues on to singapore or somewhere in south asia, and it seemed like a lot of people were probably not getting off in moscow.

once through tsa (which wasn't too bad of an experience overall), i exchanged $300 for rubles at a currency exchange booth. i think they gave me 27r:$1, which isn't all that good, but oh well. minus their fee, i got 7900 rubles.

the flight was mostly uneventful. although with the first meal they had a choice of chicken or fish, and by the time they got to my row they had run out of chicken, so i had to eat fish. i don't really like fish, but it was pretty good. maybe my tastes have changed some. i sat next to a brother and sister (probably in their 50's) that were doing a few days in moscow with a personal guide, then on to helsinki or stockholm or somewhere. in the middle of the 12 hour flight, i slept maybe around 4 hours or so. while in flight i watched a few episodes of "big bang theory", the movie hugo, the latest movie in the underworld series, and a documentary about geeks taking over popular culture that got cut off because we were getting to moscow. i might have watched some other tv show or shows, but i don't recall them so if so they didn't make a big impression.

once we were getting close to moscow and got low enough that we were below the clouds, i was curious to see what the land looked like. to be honest, out in the country it looked like u.s. country from high above. isolated houses and houses in small groups, mostly two stories, squares or rectangles, and most of them looked to have metal roofs. once we got closer, suddenly large groupings of apartment buildings started showing up. buildings from 7 or 8 to 20 or more stories, in groups of anywhere from a few to 5, 10, 15, or even 20 or more. most of them looked fairly old, although i saw some very new ones as well. although usually the newer ones had only 2 or 3 buildings.

we landed and i said goodbye to the brother and sister. in the hallway of the airport i saw the chinese guy i'd talked to in houston and stopped to wish him good luck. (his group, like some others on the plane, were in transit to singapore, so they weren't exiting the airport and thus weren't going the same direction as me.) at first signs were in both english and russian, but the hall came to a 3-way split and i don't think the signs were in english. i don't recall. if they were, there was a ton of text on them and i was having problems figuring out what to do. there was a lady in a uniform/outfit there, and she was asking people in russian where they were going or what their status was or something. she pretty quickly said "transit?" to me, and i shook my head "no" and she directed me toward one of the three paths. i figured i was getting my luggage, but when i walked around the corner there was a big line of people leading to some booths that were passport control. and more signs in russian that i couldn't read. i was worried this might put me "outside" the terminal area, in which case how would i get my one checked bag? a cute little blond russian girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old, in line in front of me kept staring at me. i would look at her then smile then look away, and eventually she smiled at me. i finally heard a guy in front of me speaking english to the woman he was with, so i asked if they knew if baggage claim was on the other side of the passport control. she was russian, but spoke english - he was american. after i got in line, the line had also gotten huge behind me, but then a couple of times someone had come and said something in russian and a bunch of people left. so i also wasn't sure what that was about. she went away, then came back and said they were letting people go to other areas, but the lines were just as long. then she asked (in russian) a lady behind us in line if she knew about baggage, and the lady said it was on the other side. humorously, all of this experience also gave me some experience with some "russian" traits (stereotypes or not). some people would come up and start their own lines up in front, some would cheat up, etc. there were also maybe 10 passport control booths, but only 2 were open. and they never put any more, even when the lines got huge. but i think in general some people are like that with lines everywhere, and bureaucracy knows no political boundaries. it took me maybe an hour to get through airport checking and screening at iah, and generally they weren't particularly pleasant, helpful, or understanding.

anyway, i got through that line and up to the booth, then handed the lady my passport. so spoke no english, i guess. she asked me if i spoke russian, i said not much. she was happy enough, smiling, talking to the other lady that she was in the booth with. then she said something i didn't understand. she said it (or something similar) again and pointed at her eyebrow. but she was still smiling / laughing and talking to the other lady. so i guess she was talking about my eyebrow piercing, but i don't know what. she processed my passport and said "studyent, ah?" and smiled and i said "da". she gave me my immigration paper. (that's something to note: in the past, on the plane they would give you a form perforated top to bottom down the middle, you'd have to fill out both sides with info about yourself - name, passport, date of birth, reason for visiting, etc. - then hand that in and they'd stamp it and give you half and keep half. well, that bit of bureaucracy has been streamlined: now you give them your passport and they look at your passport and visa and enter it all into a computer, then print out the immigration form already filled out and give it to you. at least at domodedova. i was told by someone in my russian class they still had to fill it out themselves at the airport they came into.)

once i got through passport control, it was on to baggage. it took so long they'd taken all the baggage from our plane off the conveyor belt and put it on the ground, but it was easy to find my one bag. i went to walk through customs, but i didn't want to claim anything so i walked through the green side instead of the red side (thanks djalil:). i guess i either looked too suspicious or got randomly picked though, because a lady by an x-ray machine said something to me, which i assumed meant to put my bags on the conveyor belt. i tried to tell her i had a laptop in the bag, but she didn't seem to care and just pointed. so i put my bags through. nothing went off and no one told me to do anything else (another person was having a bunch of fruit, nuts, etc. thrown away), so i picked up my bags and walked off.

at this point, i knew i wanted to take a train to the metro, but i had no idea what it was called (although i'd seen signs for "аэроекспресс" ("aero-express") and assumed that was what i wanted), where it was (although there were signs pointing for aero-express), or how to go about doing it. i had sort of kept talking with the american guy and russian girl, but she had wandered off and the american guy didn't know, so i decided to wing it. i walked up to some automated machines, hoping they were maybe to buy train tickets, but they looked more like an atm and some other kinds of machines for something. (I later learned these machines are everywhere, and are to pay your bills - phone, cell, electric, etc. - from lots of different companies, and the people who set up the machines take a commission.) several people had been standing around saying "такси! такси?" ("taxi"), but now a more assertive guy came up. in broken english he asked where i was going, and he said he could take me there for 2000 rubles (about $67), if not i'd have to take the train, go into metro, change trains. i said no thanks and kept walking. after continuing walking for some time, i eventually came upon a bank of machines for the aeroexpress. after watching a few people, i jumped on one. i chose one ticket, on "стандардный" (which i assumed meant "standard" - the other, more expensive, option was the word "business" in russian). the ticket cost 320 rubles (~$10.50).

with my ticket purchased, i decided to use the restroom. as i was opening the door, two cleaning women were in there. i went to turn around, and they let me know (in russian) i could go in. it seems like when i was in asia, having a female in a public bathroom cleaning it is no reason for guys to not keep using the space. i also used this opportunity to put on my money belt, which i hadn't done so far. upon leaving the restroom, i put the shoulder strap over my head and hit my glasses, which were perched on the top of head. i then had to do an awkward pulling on the bag, my glasses, etc. while trying to not drop anything. (this bit of story will have a payoff shortly.) i walked out of the airport and by a guy in a uniform who was keeping people from going in the way i was coming out, hoping i was going the right way, and going onto the correct train system.

i got to a big train schedule board, most of which i couldn't understand, then went to turnstiles. i watched some other people and figured out i was supposed to hold the bar code on the machine-printed receipt/ticket to a reader on the turnstile. i did that and went through. i walked down the railway platform, wondering if i was supposed to wait on a train on line 1 or line 2. i figured i'd just take either one, since they both dead-ended at the airport. i sat my bags and for some reason suddenly reached up to my ears. one of my plugs was gone. i must have knocked it off with the shoulder strap and glasses situation (there's the payoff.) so the deal is, i'd had a pair of these black and red swirled glass plugs i loved, but i lost one a month or two ago when riding my motorcycle. i decided i really liked them, so even though i was going to likely be stretching from a 0 gauge to a 00 gauge in june, i bought a new pair for the trip to russia. and within about three hours of being on the ground in russia (having not even exited the airport), i lost one. i took the other one out and put in my stainless steel tunnels, just so i wouldn't have a big hole in my ear with no jewelry.

a train showed up. i tried to make sure i wasn't getting on a business class car, so i walked way down the train to where all the cars looked the same for awhile and didn't say anything on them. i hopped on and waited. the train took off, and i was on my way. i wasn't sure if the train had stops or what, so i just sort of waited to see what happened. we went for maybe 45 minutes or something, no stopping. on the train ride i saw lots of big apartment complexes in poor repair, quite a bit of graffiti (in both english and russian), several stations we didn't stop at, a fair bit of trees, and lots of people walking by/near the railroad lines (and the guys drinking beer). as the train started to slow, everyone appeared to be getting ready to exit the train - so i decided it was one-way, no stops, and this was the end of the line.

i got off and headed in the direction toward the station, with everyone else. lots of people were waiting at the station, but we went through them and i decided i should probably enter the doors where other people were going. it took me into a building with lots of shops. at this point, i was quickly realizing that all of the stuff people had told me about the way russians dress, and how much i'd stick out, really wasn't true. i saw a fair number of people wearing all sorts of bright colors and multicolor clothes (including guys); i saw a fair number of young people with piercings (gauge earrings, nose, eyebrows, etc.), shaved heads, mohawks (shorter ones), etc. punk and alternative dress is alive and well in moscow. would i stick out a bit? maybe, but not nearly like so many things had said.

i had wanted to buy a new russian sim card for my phone, and had read they were in the stations, so i looked around. i found a sign that said "мтс" ("mts"), which is a cell company in russia, but when i went that way i found nothing but a dead end. i turned around and walked back, and saw two little stand-up podiums for "мегафон" ("megaphone") and "билайн" ("beeline"). i decided to try beeline. i walked up and...he didn't speak english. i tried to say in russian that i needed a micro-sim for my iphone. he pulled an envelope that said "микро sim-карта дла ipad". this worried me a little bit, since an iPad isn't a cell phone, but i couldn't talk to him to verify it could do calls and sms, and i think it was the only micro-sim card he had. i also didn't have the pin to eject the tray with my at&t sim, so i had to say "у вам есть" and point my finger at the tray pinhole. he figured it out, but didn't have one, so he borrowed the name tag from the megaphone guy, and i used the pin on the back of it to eject the tray. i put the new sim in, powered the phone up, and it said "beeline" (in russian) instead of at&t. it's at this point that i learned russians say numbers *really* fast. i could not for the life of my understand what he was saying. finally he flipped the envelope over and wrote "400p/500p" on it. which still didn't understand. so he pulled out his phone and showed me a text that showed his "баланс" (i.e. "balance") and then pointed at the 400p. that's when i realized i was to pay him 500 rubles, and i would have a 400 ruble balance on the account. so 100 rubles for the sim card. i paid him and thanked him and went on my way.

i walked into the doors the appeared to be the metro entrance ("вход"), then immediately didn't know what to do next. i decided to use this opportunity to try and text olga, who was the girl i rented a room from on for the two nights i'd be in moscow. except i couldn't. i really didn't know how to properly format a phone number for russia, but i also wasn't sure if my sim card had cell service. i did have internet though, so i tried using other online apps. i never could get anything to do what i wanted as far as calling anyone, texting anyone, etc. so i decided i probably bought an internet only sim, and gave up on that. (at this point it was around 6pm.) i saw other people using automated machines to buy tickets, so i decided to do that. i went up and i recognized the russian word for "train" and buttons with "1" and "2" along with 28 rubles and 56 rubles, so i decided it was for one trip or two trip tickets. i bought a one-trip ticket. i walked up to the turnstiles but didn't really know if i was supposed to give the ticket to the people standing near one of the turnstiles or what. i walked up and showed them the ticket, and they pointed to a reader. so i put the card up to it, it turned green, and away i went.

i knew the colors of the lines i was supposed to take, and i knew the names of the stations i was supposed to get off at and change to. but when i got down the escalator, there was a long hall and metro stops along both sides, along with other signs pointing in various directions with other names and colors. first, some of the colors don't distinguish very well (orange vs. red, for example). then, it took me awhile to decided i was actually waiting in front of the right train. i let quite a few pass. i did learn they come very frequently (or at least this line was) every 1.5 minutes or so. eventually i could see in some of the cars that it had a green line with station names, and i wanted the green line, so i was pretty sure it was the green line. plus on the wall across from the platform was a line with different names on the line, then below some of them one or more names with a different color and names listed below them. i finally decided this was other stations, and the lines you could catch there to go to other places. (what i didn't realize until later, is that a lot of times where two or three lines meet, each line has it's own station with it's own name, and you have to walk between them...i just figured multiple lines met at one station and it would have one name. not so.) kind of funny, a couple of other guys ended up standing there for some time, and were holding a city guide, so i asked them in english if they were trying to figure out if this was the green line, and they said "yes". i told them my theory and that i was pretty sure it was, but they decided to go back and wander around some. i was also waiting for a car that seemed to have some open room. so when one finally stopped and met my criterion for space, i got on. it did take me the correct way, i did manage to change lines successfully (my experiences in the taiwanese subways with ash helped me understand this some, i think), and i made it to "китай-город" station. i picked a direction with "выход в город" (exit to the street) and walked along, went up an escalator, walked some more by little stalls in the underground passages until i saw stairs and went up.

and there i was, in downtown moscow. i pulled out my phone and used it to get my bearings. i had walked out by a small park. the temperature was really nice, maybe upper 70's, and the sun was shining. i walked a couple of blocks, then came to the building where i was renting a room for two days. (for $75/night through, a good deal for a place to stay in downtown moscow that isn't a hostel or such.) olga (the owner of the apartment i was staying in) had said she had people leaving the same day i was arriving, so i wanted to make sure they were gone before i went up. thus began the difficulty of me trying to talk with her without having a regular cell phone sim. i eventually used talkatone (app) to make a phone call over 3g/edge. it worked, but not too well. she had a hard time understanding me, as there was gaps and such. after a couple of minutes of this, i decided to just go up.

the hallway was kind of in disrepair, and as i climbed the three flights of stairs i noticed most of it was not particularly clean or well kept. i got to a door that said both 7 and 9 on it. olga opened the door and let me into a small entryway that went to another door that was to her apartment. she showed me the room i'd be staying in, i dropped my stuff in it and unpacked some stuff. the inside of her apartment was really nice, and pretty big. all of the furnishings, flooring, etc. were new and modern styling. i went into the kitchen where she was and she asked if i wanted some tea or coffee. we talked for a bit, and she let me know that they'd just left a note on the building door earlier that day saying they were going to turn off the hot water while they worked on things, and it's common here that they don't give much warning before they work on things. i also remembered i probably should remove my shoes when inside - i asked if this was the case and she smiled and said yes. i didn't really have plans or know what i was going to do, so said she needed to run some errands and if i wanted to tag along i could. i agreed, and asked if she could also help me get a real cell sim. she said we could do that too. at this point she gave me my set of keys. a code for the building door (which she'd already emailed me), a key to a glass that entry door that might sometimes by closed, a key for the entry door to the entry way and a key to her door. after explaining the many keys to me, off we went.

we walked by the headquarters of the kgb (now fsb), and went on teatralny prospect. she went and bought some coffee (she uses n'espresso individual coffee canisters), then we went to an mtc store and i got a new sim card. she did most of the talking. they actually used a handheld sim cutter/punch to cut a regular sim down to a micro-sim, which worked fine. the card cost me 200 rubles, with about 155 ruble balance. i had told her about losing my plug, so she took me to a tattoo/piercing shop, but they didn't have any large gauge jewelry. (again, olga did all the talking.) she told her somewhere to go that had a good selection, but olga said it was too far away. we went up tverskaya street to pushkin square, then down and over to red square, the kremlin, lenin's tomb, gum (not sure why they write it that way in english, since it's pronounced like "goom" not "gum"), etc. it was a lot of walking, and i was wearing my motorcycle boots. and i'm sure i saw a lot of things but had no clue what they actually were. i asked her questions about various things about living in moscow, political stuff, russian perspectives on things, cultural stuff, etc. we ended up going to eat at a ёлки-палки (yolki-palki), which is a russian food buffet chain place. i sampled a bunch of different stuff, some of which i knew what it was, some not. but i didn't have anything that i couldn't handle. of course, i also avoided putting things that looked too dicey on my plate in the first place. we walked back to her apartment, and i went to bed.

thus ended what started on a u.s. thursday (i got up around 7am) and ended midnight or so on a russian friday (so ended a 32 hour day for me, minus the 4 or so hours i slept on the plane).

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