Updated: Oct 25, 2019
I've always wanted to go to Russia, but had previously been too nervous. Mainly due the fact I didn't speak the language, but I may have been deterred by it's Bond villian-esque political leader as well. Finally, at the ripe old age of 32 I felt brave enough to give it a go. That being said, Russia didn't exactly make it easy. If you plan on visiting anywhere other than St. Petersburg for more than 2 days, you will need to apply for a visa ahead of time. I chose to apply for my visa through an agency as there was a lot of red tape, and I was concerned I would make a rookie mistake. I live in Dublin and found this agency to be super helpful. I had to provide a specific itinerary (dates, addresses etc) for my planned journey to Russia along with a list of every country I had visited in the past 10 years with approximate dates (thank god for social media), and some education and work history. 180 euros and 7 days later, I had my visa!
I was incredibly nervous on the plane ride over, practicing 3 essential phrases on my free Russian language app ( I don't speak Russian. I am Canadian. Do you speak English? ) until I was sure I had them memorized. There was a slight mishap with my in-flight meal (according to S7 Airlines, Vegetarian = Pescatarian so I gave my mystery fish meal to my seat buddy), but I didn't have much of an appetite anyways. Once I landed, the adrenaline really kicked in. The ultimate test was ahead - interacting with the customs officers.
I made my way to the first officer who gave me a stern look and waved her hands at me to step back, so I dutifully waited in line for the next. Once I felt it was my turn to approach I stepped ahead to an officer who literally rolled her eyes at me but mercifully didn't turn me away. After I blurted out "Ya ne gavaru pa Ruski" with a nervous look on my face, she burst out laughing and started pointing at my passport whilst speaking with her colleague. After a tense few minutes of pointing, examining my passport and saying stuff to me in Russian I clearly did not understand, she stamped my passport with conviction. The thud of the immigration stamp has got to be one of the best sounds in the world. Along with my passport was an immigration slip, which contained my itinerary and visa number for the entire trip. At any point the police can stop you in the street and ask for this tiny piece of paper so it's pretty important.
I had pre-arranged with my hostel (Godzilla's) to have a driver pick me up as I was arriving late at night, and nervous about navigating the city on my own in the dark. The driver wasn't there yet so I went and purchased a local SIM from one of the many kiosks at arrivals. I always pick up a local SIM if there is no data coverage for the country I'm visiting as I feel much safer knowing I can use Google maps and call the hostel whenever I need to. The SIM cost 2000 Rubles and would cover me from Moscow to St. Petersburg for the week. After I picked up my SIM and took out cash, I spotted my driver holding a sign with my name on it.
He was a lovely and chatty guy (the stereotype of the unfriendly Russian was not holding up here) and insisted on carrying my bag to the taxi. He let me know the drive would be about 45-60 minutes and asked if had any musical requests. I wanted the full cultural experience so I just told him I was happy with whatever he wanted to play. He proceeded to pop on some absolute bangers, including a house remix of Russian folk singing. It was such a surreal experience to drive through the city at night with The Red Square all lit up. It finally hit me that I was IN RUSSIA and I couldn't wait to start the real adventure tomorrow morning.