I remember in my childhood watching a TV series narrated by Sir Peter Ustinov and it was this memory that bought me on an unlikely journey to Russia. In the series the narrator took us through the evolution of Russian aircraft and made frequent references to the central air force museum in Monino. In my young mind, Monino was talked about by Ustinov with such reverence that it became enshrined in my imagination as the pinnacle of aviation museums.
Planning for Monino
The seeds of the journey were sown many years ago, I set about planning this trip with the same eagerness and excitement that I should imagine I felt when I saw my first airplane (although, I don’t remember when that was). Monino is located in the Moscow Oblast area in Russia, it was easy then to deduct (as it lies 25 miles away) that the best place to stay would be in Moscow. As I had decided to head in that direction, I thought it would also be best to incorporate a few more places into my adventure.
I had decided that my trip to would also take me to two other countries on the Baltic sea, firstly Estonia, specifically the city of Tallinn to see a world-famous submarine, then I would stay overnight in Helsinki, Finland before catching a connecting flight to Moscow, Russia.
There were however a few things I needed to prepare before I even set outside my door!
Russian Tourist Visa – Visiting Moscow
Unlike in the old days of the Soviet Union, obtaining a visa these days is almost straight forward, note I said almost! First off you have to go to the Russian visa website which is run by VFS Global. Here you will spend at least fifteen to twenty minutes or in my case an hour filling out information about yourself, your family and also your past trips abroad.
Because I travel extensively, this bit took me a long while, you should find it a bit more straightforward, but bear in mind, accuracy is key! You must select single entry if you’re going in and out once, multiple entry allows you to cross the border a few times so only select it if you will be crossing the border more than once; do not get confused with this. You must also list off the countries you have been to with approximate dates in the last ten years and it was some feat to fit some 45+ countries on to my application.
You then submit this online you and must ensure that you print it out. Why? Because now I had to go to London to submit the application in person.
Another key item to have and you must have this otherwise your visa will be denied is a formal invitation to visit the country, you can get this through I Visa and it will cost between £30 and £40 roughly; most hotels cover it in the booking fee and will email it to you. If you’re staying in a private residence or hostel, they may not cover it, the invitation looks like this (see below) please make sure you print it out on A4 paper and in full size. Otherwise it will be rejected!
Travelling to London wasn’t an issue (as London is local to me). I had been to Russia a few times before so I knew the process. Located on Gee Street, Farringdon the unassuming dull corner building is like walking into a rundown council estate block of flats, which I imagine is daunting for first timers.
Inside the situation was much more habitable and in true basic Russian style the lay out is easy to follow, after a quick security search you get your ticket and sit in the rows of seats awaiting your number to be called. It’s almost like a trip to the doctors. Once your called you have to present your printed application form and passport, the clerk will then check your passport thoroughly along with your application.
I urge you not to forget this form as it will cost you money. Beside the seating area are a bank of computers that cost you £6 per 15 minutes to use them, a further fee of 50p per sheet of paper is levied to print and for this reason I recommend you print it out.
Once the clerk has checked and double checked your passport and forms, they will give you some options, you can have your application expressed which will cost around £100, normal service around £85. You also have the option to collect the visa or for a fee of £23 it can be delivered to your home address. It was already an expensive day without the cost of using computers and printing forms.
I asked the clerk how I will know if I have been granted a tourist visa; she smiled and kindly replied “it is like kinder egg a surprise inside”, it appears since the end of communism Russians have found a sense of humour.
I had chosen the normal service with home delivery option, oddly, it is cheaper than a train ticket by a good margin. I waited and waited, my passport was nowhere to be seen it took nearly three weeks before the knock at the door came, I hurriedly opened it to find inside my visa. Bear in mind that they do retain your passport, so this is not the time to be undertaking other travel plans.
Planning Travel to Russia and In Russia
During my wait time for my visa, I decided to plan for getting around. When travelling to Russia you should always plan ahead and always double check your routes, times and method of travel. It is advisable to have a backup ready for each leg of the journey as public transport in Russia is notoriously unreliable.
I had decided I wanted to travel via train from the airport to Red Square, this seemed easy enough as it was one train, it was then I noticed my error. Be advised that Moscow has two main airports Domodedovo which is the largest international hub and Sheremetyevo more of a domestic and European hub airport. As I was flying from Helsinki I would be landing in Sheremetyevo and there are no trains connecting to the city at that time. A bus was a good alternative to link up with the metro but I chose the taxi.
TAXI WARNING – Hustlers operate inside the terminal and will charge you a high price for a taxi then walk you to the taxi and split the money with the driver, you’re best off just saying “nyet spassiba” and walking outside to do it yourself.
As I was going to be staying outside the city, I had planned much of my trip around public transport with the focus on using expensive taxi’s as little as possible. The metro is the best way of getting around and unlike the bland stations of the London underground or New York’s subway, much more effort has been made to make the stations attractive. There are a lot of soviet era mosaics and statues still adorning the walls and stair cases making the metro a cultural sight in itself. Tickets are cheap too; much cheaper than a taxi.
Always check the location of your hotel and how far it is from a station; luckily for me it was a short walk between the two. Train times and bus timetables can be found by a simple google search though you should treat these as advisories only, as often as mentioned Russian public transport is very unreliable.
This blog post picks up the trail on the ferry to Helsinki, Finland, I will write about my amazing experience in Tallinn, Estonia in another blog post! In Helsinki, like all of the locations on this adventure, the air was frigid to the point that breathing through my nose became painful, my flaring nostrils freezing and feeling like sandpaper with every drawn in breath. If you’re not used to cold climates or don’t fair well in freezing conditions, I would recommend a summer visit. The ground was frozen and covered in sheets of slippery ice and snow. December travel to the Baltic is not for the faint hearted.
Fortunately, I prefer colder climates to warm weather, and I have experienced colder weather previously having made a brave trip to Kiev, Ukraine in the heart of their winter. This weather, being slightly warmer didn’t phase me and I coped well. Albeit fully equipped and clothed for cold weather. I would strongly recommend the purchase of a Ushanka hat, it will be invaluable throughout your stay, especially when the temperature dips below freezing.
I make it to Helsinki in one frozen but happy piece and check into my hotel the Best Western. It is a short taxi ride from the ferry terminal and I was more than glad to be heading to a nice warm bed after a long day of travelling. In less than 24 hours I had been in three different countries, travelled by car, plane and ship so a rest and some good food was well needed.
This hat, available on Amazon, is invaluable in cold climates.
Best Western Hotel – Helsinki, Finland
My room was the standard affair, a nice double bed in the middle with a tv mounted on the wall. The bathroom with combined shower and bath, it was safe to say, I felt almost at home. Starving, I dumped my bag and decided to check out the bar and grab some dinner.
Finland is westernised and I found the menu to be somewhat like walking into any restaurant back home. There were a few oddities that caught my eye so I decided that I should take a brave pill and plumped for elk sausages with mash and gravy.
I have had many different cuisines in my life but elk was certainly not one of them, when it arrived, I could hardly tell the difference in look between the English bangers and mash and what lay before me. My word, the mash was creamy light and fluffy the onion gravy was crisp but best of all were the sausages, I have never tasted a sausage like it, not in Germany, Poland, England or anywhere. I enjoyed them so much when I went home, I actively searched for them, having a few Romanian’s as friends helps as well as I later learnt they know where to go to get the good ones.
Once I had filled my stomach with dinner and a little tipple of vodka to warm the cockles I decided to go to bed. I was a little disappointed that my stay in Finland was so short, it is a place I would recommend and I hope to one day return.
No Matter How Prepared You Are – Things Will Go Awry!
Perhaps the single most infuriating aspect of travelling around the Baltic and specifically Russia is that you should expect the unexpected. Of my many adventures, I planned extensively for this trip, ensuring that I had correct documentation as well as scheduling all connecting public transport and flights. I learned very quickly that preparation only gets you so far, literally.
After a night of very deep sleep in the warm Helsinki hotel, I made my way to the airport where I was booked in to fly to Moscow. This is where my journey could easily have been stymied and I would have found myself in the frequent horror stories you read about in tabloid newspapers with headlines like “Family stranded in…”.
My flight had been cancelled. By cancelled, I mean completely cancelled with no alternative flight to cover the cancellation. I was half frozen from my morning commute to the airport, it would have been easy to boil over. Fortunately, the comfortable bed and the fantastic night sleep I had, put me in good stead for the day.
I noticed there was an Aeroflot plane already at the airport, with the destination being Moscow. That is where I wanted to go! After a bit of pleading and some puppy dog eyes, I managed to charm the desk into letting me onto that flight. It was here, inadvertently, that I met one of my best friends to this day, by complete coincidence.
Aeroflot to Moscow – With a FREE Upgrade
After making my way from the desk feeling pleased with myself, I made my way to the airport lounge. It was here that I met a young Russian woman named Irina, and no, before you get carried away, this isn’t a Hollywood love story where two hapless strangers fall madly in love in an airport terminal. It did however prove to be a wonderful encounter, Irina was/is an Aeroflot stewardess, although off duty at the time and travelling back home to Moscow. After chatting for a long while as we waited for our flight, she managed to talk the airline into giving us both a free upgrade.
It turned out that my cancelled flight to Moscow, turned out to be one of the best flights I have ever been on. Irina was more than helpful when I landed as well. She helped me to find and get a cheap taxi to Red Square.
It was then after many times into Russia I had finally come to the centre of it all, there before me lay the walls of the Kremlin, in front of me the beautiful cathedral of St Basils and off to my side the famous Gum department store. Behind me was the mausoleum of Lenin.
There was no mistaking it, I had arrived in Moscow.
In Part Two, you will be able to read about my grand Russian adventure as well as my visit to the aviation museum. Be sure to subscribe to be notified when this is published! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram too.
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