I could not hold back my excitement when I was informed about my selection as a delegate at a World Health Organisation (WHO) event to be held in mid-October in Moscow — my dream destination.
I could almost picture the magical colours of autumn.
Going to Moscow had been a childhood fantasy — majestic buildings, architecture, public parks, theatres, monuments and remnants of the two World Wars and communism. I had also wanted to experience the chilly weather and put my self-claimed immunity to extreme cold to test. And, of course, observe the lifestyle of the rich Muscovites.
Little did I know what a nightmare obtaining a Russian visa would be. Arranging the documents required for visa was so complex that I started having doubts about my intensions of visiting my dream….
The visa application requires a police character certificate to prove there is no criminal case registered against you (though crime-free record does not necessarily mean you have a good character), original hotel and ticket bookings, endorsements from the Russian government departments if you are invited by them and so on. Even a minor error in printer setting can waste your application form — and with it a day’s hard work. The visa section at the Russian Embassy in Islamabad operates only two working days in a week.
I was about to inform the event organisers about my unlikelihood to attend the event because of visa-related issues, when a friend asked me to contact the Islamabad-based travel consultants who were on the panel of the Russian Embassy. They charge a fee to process visa applications and save you from hassles.
When I contacted them they agreed to offer assistance but refused to charge fee, despite my insistence.
That was the first time I had a feeling that Moscow was calling me.
Things worked out fine from then onwards. The journey was pleasant. All the stress of the past couple of weeks turned to excitement.
On arrival at the Moscow airport, I was struck with awe. The view from the plane of forests in autumn colours was mesmerising. Once on land, I realised hardly anybody knew English or wanted to converse in English. The only option I had was to use sign language which has no written code and can be modified according to the needs and response you get in return.
So, it is advised that whoever goes to Russia must get familiarised with Cyrillic alphabets which are somewhat similar to English alphabets but sound different and learn some commonly used words and sentences. This is important as signboards, directions and instructions at metro stations are written only in Russian language. I was also advised this but did not take it seriously.
Fortunately, another Pakistani delegate, Sohail Sarfraz, whom I met at the airport, could read Russian words and speak a few sentences in the language as well. Our first encounter was with the taxi driver who conveyed to us that he had no idea about the destination we were heading to. This announcement came mid-way and for a moment we feared he might be a mafia guy trying to rob us of the little money we had on us.
The suspense ended when he called at the phone number of the hotel reception that we found after sifting through a lot of papers.
We reached the hotel but the taxi driver refused to leave — without taking more money. He said the fare he charged would go to the company and he got a small salary. We paid him 200 roubles that he took angrily and left while murmuring something.
In the next five days of our stay in Moscow we learnt that one could not get away easily as tourists. Tourists are supposed to carry travel documents such as passports etc. to satisfy the police always on the hunt for illegal immigrants. This becomes more important because you cannot speak the language.
A saving grace was that Pakistanis were treated better way than Americans. The staff at the counters of banks and forex companies suspect the dollar bill the most. The visa application and approval process for Americans is more complicated than for Pakistanis.
Despite the complexities involved, Moscow is a great tourist destination. Metro is economical and convenient, especially when it gives you respite from Russian winter. A ride costs 40 roubles (100 rupees) regardless of the number of trains you change to reach a destination.
Kremlin, Red Square, St Basil’s Cathedral, Bolshoi Theatre and more are popular tourist spots. The Novodevichy Convent, in south-western Moscow, built in the 16th and 17th centuries in Moscow Baroque style, is also a must-see, 300 roubles as entrance fee is on the higher side but definitely worth it.
Once we were in, nobody asked for the ticket. We regretted buying the expensive ticket at a place where we could have sneaked in without it. There are some places that charge special price for foreigners. At others places, they either charge the locals and the foreigners equally or the entry is free. And nobody chases you to sell souvenirs.
Visiting nightclubs is not advised without a local host who can keep you safe from gangs. The city is expensive for those who do not have knowledge of cheaper options and quite affordable who know where to shop. Most tourists visit the traditional Arbat Street to buy souvenirs such as the traditional Russian dolls, keychains, postcards, t-shirts, clothes and local chocolates. The prices are far lower than those at shopping malls and the duty-free shops at airports in Russia.
The cuisine in Moscow is diverse and one reason is that people from all over Eastern Europe, Central Asia and several other regions have landed in this city, legally or illegally, to earn their livelihood.
Due to this exposure, people of Moscow are very welcoming towards tourists. I remember they would spend too much time explaining things or directions to us. If we were not sure due to the language barrier they would walk us to the place or ask somebody else, heading in that direction, to take us along.
In a nutshell everything, including the weather, is welcoming tourists — though the experiences one has before embarking for the journey suggest otherwise.