Finding kindness in Moscow

This item appears on page 60 of the April 2009 issue.

I just finished reading the reader’s letter titled “Impressions of Russia” (March ’09, pg. 32) and disagree with his evaluation of Moscow as dirty, expensive and unfriendly.

My husband, Bob, our friend Carolyn and I arrived in the city in early June ’08 at the end of a 15-day Trans-Siberian Railroad trip arranged for us by Tim at T.E.I. Tours & Travel (Pleasant Hill, CA; 925/825-6104, Moscow is a beautiful city with friendly people, and to us it didn’t seem any more expensive than any other major city in the world.

Tim booked us into Hotel Cosmos, a tourist hotel not centrally located but close to an underground station. We had asked Tim for a half-day city tour the first day. We paid about $100 each for it, which is high, but our guide, Tatiana, was so gracious and the tour so good that we felt it was worth the cost.

Knowing that we planned to travel the underground on our own, Tatiana showed us how to buy tickets and find the platforms. She also helped us buy circus tickets from a street vendor. After that, we were on our own. Here’s how we did it, even though none of us speaks or reads Russian.

First we got rubles from the ATM at the hotel, then we picked up an underground map and went to the English-speaking help desk at the hotel. Before we went out each time, we had them circle the station stops we needed and write the name in English and Russian.

With our rubles in hand, we entered the underground and threw ourselves on the legendary “kindness of strangers.” We were never disappointed.

After buying our tickets (about 35¢ each), we went down the escalator. With our destination circled on the system map, I would approach a friendly-looking person with what I hoped was a diffident manner and my best smile, point at the circled word and ask in English which train to get on.

It never failed. With an answering smile, the person would point or sometimes even take us to the right platform. We found only one man who spoke English, and he just said, “Follow me,” which we did.

The one time that I just couldn’t understand the gestures, I went to the woman guard at the foot of the escalator and repeated my performance. She came out of her booth, pointed to her larger map and explained it all in Russian, which I didn’t understand, of course. So she repeated it several more times, each a bit louder than the time before. Finally, understanding dawned and I took her hand to thank her. Laughing, she grabbed me and kissed me. Now, that’s friendly in any language!

Entry to museums is inexpensive. Even entrance to the Kremlin is only $8, and it comes with a booklet in English, making a self-guided tour possible. That outing took most of a day.

We bought our gifts for friends at the many shops in our hotel. I bought several lacquered boxes for less than $20 each.

A large buffet breakfast was included in the cost of our hotel. They also had a reasonably priced buffet dinner at about $16 each. Lunches were snacks bought at museum cafés or whatever was handy, certainly not 24-dollar hamburgers. Once we had delicious pastries that we chose from a glass case at the GUM department store.

Our memories of Moscow all are good — the city, the costs and, above all, the people.


Rio Rancho, NM