Drum roll please... After 3 days of sorting thru 532 photos and writing almost 12 pages of narration here is the long anticipated and very long winded LLC Report for my recent 3 week trip to Russia. If you don't have time to read the full report you can skip directly to my summary at the bottom or click here to view my photo album.
Thursday, August 17th
After 17 hours of flying Jim and I arrived in Moscow around 10am. The flight was long, but uneventful and we had no problem going through immigration or customs. Once outside of customs we had to fend of some pushy cab drivers, collect our luggage and make our way to the “official” taxi counter for a ride to our hotel. The ride to the hotel gave us a glimpse at the layout of the city. Moscow is a huge city with 20 million people, but more than one-third of the surface area is still green space – supposedly the highest ratio in the world. This is achieved by cramming everyone into massive 30-40 story apartment complexes clustered around Metro stations (the subway system). In between these complexes are vast forests comparable to Forest Park here in Portland. There is very little suburban sprawl like we have in the US and almost no single family, detached homes. They do have a highway system but the majority of the traffic seems to be commercial or public transport - trucks, buses, taxis, etc.
After about 45 minutes we arrived at Hotel Cosmos, which is a gigantic hotel (1700+ rooms) that looks like it belongs more in Las Vegas than Russia – bright neon signs, casinos, slot machines, bars, gift shops, etc. Upon check-in we were given the news that we only had reservations for one night instead of two and that the hotel was booked full for Friday night. We received no explanation as to why but were told we could come back at 10am Friday morning and see if something opened up. Frustrated and tired, Jim and I went to our rooms and took a brief power nap.
Later that afternoon we explored the All-Russian Exposition Center across the street from the hotel. It is the Russian version of Washington Mall in DC and was built as a tribute to the Soviet economic system. It's about 2 km long by 1 km wide and has dozens of ornate fountains and massive Soviet inspired buildings. Ironically with the fall of the Soviet union the grounds are now in state of disrepair and contain a myriad of street vendors selling everything from Made-in-China souvenirs to cheap TVs, cameras and other consumer electronics.
After spending several hours roaming around the exposition, we returned to the hotel and attempted to order our first meal in Russia. We decided to play it safe and ordered sandwiches. What we got wasn't quite what we expected. My sandwich was editable but small – only a slice or bread folded over with something which looked like ham in the middle. Jim's was nothing but a piece of bread. After trying to explain to the waitress what he ordered, Jim ended up with a new sandwich, this time containing a hunk of raw fish. Too exhausted to care we paid our bill, went back up to our room, ate some of our climbing food and went to sleep, hoping this was just first day culture shock and not a sign of what was to come.
Friday, August 18th
Traveling half way around the world definitely presents a problem with jet lag. We were 11 hours of of sync with Portland - night was day and day was night. Having gone to bed around 6pm the night before we both woke up around 2-3am wide awake and unable to sleep. We went back downstairs to the lobby and found it bustling with activity. With 1700+ rooms in the hotel, tour groups arrive around the clock and the casino, bars and restaurants are all open 24 hours. We parked ourselves at table with a view in Cafe Sacvoyage and ate dinner around 4am in the morning. Jim had a bowl of split pea soup and I had a very tasty pork roast. This more than made up for the sandwiches the day before. We washed it down with a beer then went back upstairs to try to sleep a few more hours.
After several attempts to secure a room before 10am the hotel finally let us keep our rooms and after having our passports processed again (every night in Russia needs to be registered) we headed off on the Metro towards Red Square.
Moscow's Metro, like St Petersburg's, is modeled on the same color-coded, single-price model that Washington DC, Mexico City and several other major cities have. It's an excellent system that doesn't require you to speak the language to get around. The various lines all have different colors and once in the system you can ride it all day until you exit. Each platform has two directions - you only need to recognize station names to decide which direction to go, then count stops to get to where you want to go or to transfer to another line. Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet so recognizing station names was a bit more of a challenge but still manageable. What is unique about Moscow's (and St Petersburg's) Metro system is that over 9 million people ride it daily and it looks like you are in a museum or some sort of palace. Above ground the stations are grand structures with huge columns. Below ground the walls and floors are marble and the place is lit with enormous chandeliers.
Red Square is a large public plaza and not red. The west side is bordered by the Kremlin and Lenin's Tomb. The north side has the State History Museum and the south has St Basil's Cathedral. The east side is bordered by the GUM or State Department Store. During the Soviet era is was where one went to wait in line to get your loaf of bread or one size fits all shoes. Now it is a high-end mall rivaling anything we have in the US., carrying brands like Gucci and Prada. The square itself seems like a fashion show for what is sold in the GUM. All the women are wearing 3 inch heels, carrying Prada bags, Paris Hilton sun glasses and designer clothes. Strangely the guys just wear jeans, t-shirts, and these long pointed dress shoes that look like something you'd see on Santa's elves. We were the only ones in shorts even though it was in the mid-90s.
We spent the day in and around Red Square. We visited the inside of St Basil's Cathedral, walked the perimeter of the Kremlin, saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, walked through the GUM and ate lunch at this amazing restaurant called One Red Square inside the State History Museum. This place had the best Borsch Soup and Beef Stroganoff I've ever tasted and specialized in recreating dishes from years gone by. Originally we had planned to go into the Kremlin, but decided to wait to go with the rest of the group after we came back from St Petersburg on our way to/from Elbrus. We finished the afternoon in Red Square and I took some of my typical panorama shots.
That night we slept slightly better but still made midnight trip to Cafe Sacvoyage before waking up to head to the airport for our flight to St Petersburg.
Saturday, August 19th
Saturday morning I woke up with the beginnings of a cold, just in time to fly to St Petersburg. I knew from experience traveling in other countries that everything - band-aids, aspirin, toothpaste and so on is a "controlled substance" that requires going to a pharmacy. As such I started guzzling the OJ at breakfast and taking my Airborne – the only thing I had with me.
Moscow has 3 airports – Domodedovo and Sheremetevo 1 & 2. On Thursday we flew into Sheremetevo 2 which was the international half of the dual terminals. To go to St Petersburg we flew out of the domestic half - Sheremetevo 1. Neither of these terminals are very big considering the size of Moscow and the domestic terminal appeared especially rundown. Trying to figure our way around was difficult as we had to go through a couple of checkpoints just to get to the ticket counter. Once inside we meet a group of post-doctorates from the US who were attending a conference and on the same flight to St Petersburg. One of them was fluent in Russian and helped deal with the Aeroflot ticket agent. Contrary to what most people asked before I left, Russian airplanes are not that bad. The planes are a little dated, but the service isn't any worse or better than our airlines. The flight itself was short and uneventful.
Having left the bulk of our luggage (climbing gear) in Moscow, we opted to take the bus to the nearest Metro station and then ride the Metro to our hotel. As was the case in Moscow, St Petersburg's Metro was easy to navigate and we arrived at Hotel Moscow without any problems. Check-in was smooth, although we failed to notice 3 days instead of 4 on our hotel badge. Our hotel in St Petersburg was about the same size as the one in Moscow, but arranged differently. It only had 6 floors (instead of 25) and was one long building. We estimate the hallway to be about 1000 feet long and our room was all the way at the end of it. Worse yet only 3 of the 6 elevators were working so going from the lobby to our room was a half mile walk.
After dropping off our luggage in our room we decided to hop back on the subway, get something to eat and then head to Peter and Paul Fortress. We ate lunch at a cafe called Troitsky Most which specializes in vegetarian dishes. Russians mostly eat meat-and-potato type dishes but the mushroom lasagna here was delicious. After lunch we wander over to the fortress which is the oldest structure in St Petersburg, built to defend against the Swedes but never used in that capacity. It was instead mostly used as prison for revolutionaries, free thinkers, etc and where Peter the Great torture his own son the death.
We walked along the outside wall along the Neva River with views of the Hermitage and wandered the ground inside before buying a ticket to see the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the center of the fortress. This cathedral is where all the czars are buried including the remains of Nicholas II and family, recently added in a post Soviet-era controversy. The cathedral itself is the highest structure in St Petersburg and currently undergoing renovation (something they they fail to mention when we purchased tickets). We had also hoped to go the Commandant's House which is now a museum on the history of St Petersburg, but it closed early (something else not mentioned when we purchased our tickets).
Since everything was closing up we headed back to the hotel and along the way stopped for burger at Propaganda an interesting restaurant with a industrial-goth theme to it. We finished it off with a walk along Nevsky Pr. This huge street is the main shopping area for St Petersburg and could be compared to the Magnificent Mile in downtown Chicago except that all the buildings date from the 1700s with imperialistic architecture. It was interesting to see McDonald's sitting in a 300 year old building.
Back at the hotel, we finally started to adjust to the time difference and went to sleep a little after midnight and a couple of beers.
Sunday, August 20th
Sunday morning we joined up with 4 more of our group at breakfast and decided to head to the Hermitage. Former Winter Palace of the czars, it is now one of the world's largest art museums. We had heard from another American couple we met in Red Square that it was good to get there early since it's THE attraction to see and very crowded. Fortunately Sunday seemed like the day to go. I speculate it has something to do with most Russians being very Orthodox Christians and in church instead on in line. The entrance was still crowded and we had to practically fight our way to the ticket counter but once inside it wasn't too bad. Nothing I've seen elsewhere prepared me for the scale of this place. It has over 500 rooms, most big enough I can put my entire condo inside each room. The artwork covered everything imaginable – Christian-Baroque paintings, Egyptian artifacts, massive sculptures of Greek and Roman gods, and entire rooms restored and furnished to how they looked when the czars lived there.
We spent most of the day in the Hermitage then took a stroll on the side streets back toward Nevsky Pr, stopping at a Caucasian restaurant called Kavkaz for some excellent Georgian food. Back at the hotel we meet up with 4 more (10 total) of our group. As I was going to sleep it dawned on me that our checkout date was on Tuesday and not Wednesday as we expected (3 nights instead of 4).
Monday, August 21st
Monday morning at breakfast we discussed the reservation problem. Gary had already checked with the front desk and we got the same story as at Hotel Cosmos - all the rooms were full and there was nothing we could do except check in the morning to see if anything was available. They did offer to help us find something else nearby if we wanted.
Realizing as before there was nothing we could do, Jim and I acted as tour guides, showing the group how to use the Metro on our way back to Peter and Paul Fortress. Jim was able to sneak into the Commandant's House with his expired ticket from Saturday while everyone else went briefly into under renovation Peter and Paul Cathedral and later joined him at the Commandant's House. Having a full blown cold and feeling a little ripped off from my first visit I opted to sit outside and watch the people go by. People watching in Russia was an entertaining way to pass time. Western fashions (especially on women) seem to have really caught on in Russia – uncomfortable looking high heels, Paris Hilton sunglasses, even those ridiculous lapdogs. What's odd is hairstyle – it looks like something from the early 80s with those Joan Jet, flat, bowl cuts. I even saw a few women with mullets. Interesting to say the least.
After everyone finished going through the Commandant's House we decided we'd walk across the bridge over the Neva River and try to find the travel agency we needed to get our train tickets back to Moscow from. After some route finding issues we finally found the agent, got our tickets and had lunch at a Russian-European restaurant called Da Vinci. Supposedly at night it has a real mix of random entertainment from live jazz and classical music to strippers and disco tech. Lunch proved to be more mellow than the travel book had advertised and we ate a delicious meal.
After our mid-afternoon lunch we made attempt to visit St Isaac's Cathedral but got trapped in a torrential downpour before heading back to the hotel.
Tuesday, August 22nd
Tuesday was a catch up day. First we had to take care of the hotel problem. I put on my humblest look and practiced my Russian lines. When I was ready I picked the friendliest looking person at the front desk and made my move. It worked out perfectly. At first they would only let me keep my room, but eventually we ended keeping all 5 rooms. I was beginning to think being kicked out of your room was just part of the experience.
After that we headed back downtown to St Isaac's Cathedral and visited the colonnade at the top of the dome. The staircase up contained 262 steps in a most impressive carved stone spiral staircase. From the top we had a 360 view of St Petersburg.
After St Isaac's Cathedral we split into groups. Jim and I wanted to try a nearby Indian restaurant called Tandoor for lunch. Afterwards we wandered back along Nevsky Pr, stopping in a few bookstores to look for Russian phrase books.
Wednesday, August 23rd
Wednesday morning we checked out of our rooms and locked our luggage in storage. We booked an organized tour for the afternoon to Peterhof, the summer palace, and then broke into a couple of groups for the morning. I went with a group to the Russian Museum which is near the Hermitage but houses a smaller art collection that is entirely Russian in origin. It was an amazing collection and you really need a whole day to see it.
Around noon we're hurried back to the hotel to meet the rest of the group for the tour to Peterhof. Being an organized tour we had a van with an English speaking guide who showed us many sites on the way out to Peterhof. We learned a lot about the restoration of St Petersburg after WWII and how it wasn't until Putin came to office that it started to receive any funds to help restore the old buildings. It took us 90 minutes to drive out to Peterhof and like Moscow, most residents of St Petersburg live in these massive apartment high rises with the Metro as their primary mode of transportation.
Nothing can prepare you for the scale of Peterhof, the czars summer palace. What's even more amazing is that it was built just to entertain guests. The czars never lived there, preferring to live in other nearby palaces. Peterhof was built by Peter the Great after he visited Versailles in France. The main palace itself is beautiful with grand ball rooms, gold leaf everywhere and intricate wood floors and paneling. Even more astounding are the grounds. Fountains are everywhere and the entire system is gravity feed – no pumps. We made a quick tour of the palace which is only half restored from the Nazi invasion then spent most of our time outside.
After returning to the hotel we went back downtown to do some last minute gift shopping and have dinner at Tinkoff – the Russian version of a microbrewery. After dinner we returned to the hotel to get our luggage and headed off to the train station to take the overnight Red Arrow back to Moscow.
Russian trains (at least in first class) are impressive. It's like something out of the movies. Each car has an attendant and the are constantly stopping by with food and drinks. The individual compartments are for 2 people, but could easily seat 6. The beds fold out with fresh sheets and pillows. There's even an LCD TV and radio with individual headsets. I've been on Amtrak a couple of times and it's doesn't even come close.
A bunch of us stayed up late taste testing some Russian Vodka we had purchased earlier in the day. 4 hours and one and half bottles later we finally went to sleep. I'm not a big Vodka fan, but it did make my cold feel better.
Thursday, August 24th
We arrived in Moscow around 8am in the morning. Those of us who had enjoyed the Vodka the night before were suffering an extreme hangover. This was cured with a quick, rough trip through the Metro system back to Hotel Cosmos. After waiting a couple of hours to check-in Jim and I went to our room and took a power nap until lunch time. We then headed back down to Red Square to look for the rest of the group. Unsuccessful, we ate lunch at One Red Square again, then wandered around the square some more before heading back to the hotel.
Friday, August 25th
Friday morning we checked out and packed all our gear to Moscow's third airport - Domodedovo. This is by far the newest and nicest of Moscow's airports and looks much like the airports we have in the US. This time we were flying on Siberian Airlines which imposes a strict weight limit of 20 kilos (about 44 lbs), including carry-ons. Hauling all our climbing gear everyone was hit with overweight fees and looks of disapproval from the ticket agents. Fortunately the fees were minor and we proceeded to our gate without much problem.
As was the case with the flight from Moscow to St Petersburg it was an older TU-154. One of these had crashed earlier in the week and their maintenance was being questioned. Needless to say we made it to Mineralyne Vody without crashing. The airport there was little more than an shed and while we waiting for our baggage we meet a group from Malaysia who was also on there way to climb Elbrus. Our guide Johnny (real name Eugune) met us outside the airport for the four hour ride to the Baksan Valley below Elbrus.
The ride itself was on par for my experience with taxis & shuttles in foreign countries – fast and death defying with no seat belts. Once out of the city of Mineralyne Vody we sped through numerous small villages, their inhabitants quick to get out of the way. Cattle were roaming all over the place often walking down the middle of the road. The road into the mountains was very curvy as it followed a river clogged with silt and no side rails to stop us from going in. On several occasions it felt like the van was going to tip over as the driver accelerated into the turns. After about four hours we arrived at the end of the road and our hotel at the base of Elbrus. That night we ate dinner at the hotel and met a group from Holland along with the Malaysians we saw at the airport.
Saturday, August 26th
After breakfast on Saturday we did a “hike” up nearby Cheget Mountain. The “hike” involved about on hour walk downhill to the next village to ride a couple of chairlifts up the mountain. We did hike another hour beyond the top of the lift to a nice viewpoint at around 11,000 feet. Having been in Moscow at sea-level less than 24 hours prior I can understand not pushing it on our first hike, but this seemed a little too easy. I started probing our guide to see what his experience was and what type of clients he typically had. Johnny is a young, fast climber with more than hundred “technical climbs”. He's just finished college and living his own version of LLC by guiding in the summer, skiing and ice climbing in the winter and relaxing in between. According to him half the clients he takes up Elbrus are not climbing and know nothing about climbing. That explains the chairlifts.
After the hike and back at the hotel Johnny informed us he was pushing our first summit attempt back a day and that if we wanted a 2nd or 3rd guide we'd need to pay extra for it. When we inquired as to why we were paying more but getting less than the standard package advertised on their website, Johnny would merely shrug his shoulders and say we needed to talk with his “chiefs”. After dinner we sent our leader (Gary) and lawyer (Keith) down to argue with Johnny's “chiefs” about what we paid for and were not receiving. An later they returned defeated – Pilgrim Tour 1 Mazamas 0 – and we were paying for a 2nd guide.
Sunday, August 27th
Sunday morning we packed up our gear, moved out of the hotel and took 2 cable cars plus a chairlift up to the Elbrus base camp at 3900 meters (12,795 feet). The base camp is a collection of barrel huts around a cement staging area with a cook house and pit toilet. Once everyone and their gear made it up there we waited around for about an hour to be assigned our huts and informed when lunch would be. After lunch we headed out on the glacier for a short hike to the higher Diesel Huts.
The glaciers on the lower part of the mountain are in a sad state of cleanliness. There is garbage everywhere and the runoff smells of human waste. Our boiled water supply was came from the glacier, but I'm not sure where from nor do I think I want to know. The higher huts and bivy sites have several large trash heaps just sitting on the side of the glacier. It was sad to see such all the trash and it made me very thankful for how clean places like the Cascades and Olympics are.
Our hike was relatively short, just a couple hours up to 4400 meters (14,435 feet). By the time we're heading down the late afternoon sun had created a maze of creeks running over the ice and small crevasses to navigate around the way back to base camp. Interestingly our guide all but disappeared, leaving us to slog back through the slush by ourselves.
Despite the trash problem, the views from base camp are staggering! The Caucasus Mountains are as jagged as the North Cascades but are 2- to 3-times higher. Even with the all the runoff coming off Elbrus, the glaciers are still enormous and the ice hundreds of meters thick. I was shocked to find that in the southern most part of Russia we're only as far south at Oregon. The entire time I was there I starred in awe at Ushba – supposedly the most difficult mountain in the Caucasus.
After dinner we retired to our huts and attempted to sleep. Almost as soon as we turned out the lights we started to hear mice scurrying about in the walls and on the floor. At some point in the middle of the night I awoke to find one crawling on my arm and the next morning had to dump one out of my pack. We later found food – cookies, crackers, even a whole loaf of bread, under most of our beds. However, even after cleaning this up I did battle with the mice the next four nights, getting virtually no sleep and eventually losing my CamelBak, MP3 player case and a stuff sack to the rodents.
Monday, August 28th
Monday we basically repeated our hike from Sunday but went higher to 5000 meters (16,404 feet). Having only had 2 days to acclimate from sea level and still battling my cold, I was starting to feel the effects of being so high up. If I tried to move fast I ran out of breath and when we finally hit the turn around point I had a splitting headache, slight nausea and feeling totally out of it. I kept quiet but I was worried about AMS and glad we were heading down. Fortunately our guide was setting a slow pace and that seemed to be the turning point for my cold.
Tuesday, August 29th
Originally Tuesday was going to be our first of three summit days until Johnny changed it. Instead we used it as a rest day and to further acclimate. We slept in until 9am and after breakfast I went back to bed for a while since the mice seemed to be active mostly at night.
Elbrus is big enough to generate it's own weather system, but it seems to have a pattern. Very high winds and whiteout conditions most of the time on the summit with sunny skies lower on the mountain. There seems to be a brief window late in the morning when the summit exposes itself before the clouds and afternoon storms come back. By evening there's lightening and hail all over the place. Not good climbing weather.
Regardless, the other group from Malaysia and Holland stuck with the original plan and had left around 4am to head to the summit. We joked about Pilgrim Tours being like RMI, slave drivers taking their clients up the mountain regardless of the conditions just to make a buck. In the morning we were able to watch the group on the traverse above 5000 meters until they disappeared into the lenticular cloud on the summit. Four hours later we finally saw them emerge from the clouds, making there way back to base camp. Later that day we got the whole story from them, 12 hours round trip, one meter visibility, brutal winds. 4 of 10 on the summit. The guide had turned most of the group back 10 minutes from the summit.
Our turn was next so we ate dinner and went to bed early. The plan was to wake up at 2am and head for the summit at 3am. As we went to sleep the lightening filled the sky.
Wednesday, August 30th
Needless to say I didn't sleep much. Between the mice, the lightening and the usual pre-climb jitters I tossed and turned until 2am. While we ate breakfast the lightening was still striking the summit of Elbrus so Johnny postponed our start time to 4am. We returned to our huts to try to sleep for another hour. I spent my time gathering extra water bottles and trying to figure out how I'd keep them from freezing, having had my CamelBak destroyed by the mice sometime in the night. At 4am we could see stars overhead, the lightening had stopped, and although the summit was still in a cloud we decided to give it a shot. We gathered to take the Snow Cat up to 4400 meters.
At first I had serious hesitation about using a Snow Cat. Is hitching a ride (actually paying yet another fee) part way up a mountain really climbing? It would be like riding the chairlifts up the Palmer to climb Hood and I'd never do that. However after I did the math it was fine by me - without the Snow Cat Elbrus is a 6000 foot summit day starting at 12,795 feet. No other high altitude climb does something like that on summit day. Even with the Snow Cat we'd still be facing a 4000 foot climb and a 6000 foot decent.
After riding the Snow Cat for 45 minutes we arrived at 4400 meters. The visibility was bad, the temperature had dropped significantly and as the Snow Cat turned the full force of the wind hit us. It took about 2 minutes for us to decide it wasn't going to happen. We'd have to spend hours walking head on into the wind and then we'd probably have to turn around anyway. We also knew this was suppose to be the last trip for the Snow Cat. The lack of snow and condition of the glacier was making it too dangerous for the Snow Cat. Already one Snow Cat was sitting broken with it's tread off. Even though we had serious doubts about a 2nd attempt tomorrow we head back down the mountain.
After returning to the huts and sleeping in again, we gathered for a pow-wow about the next day. Most of us we're so tired of the extra fees Pilgrim was hitting us with we didn't care. Johnny managed to get us another Snow Cat for the next day (for another fee). Some of us inquired about going back to the hotel but that would have required more fees both for the ride down and to stay in the hotel instead of at the huts. After waiting hours for Johnny to get a weather report, find out about the Snow Cat and whether our ride that morning was considered a climb, he gave us 5 minutes to decide if/who was going to climb the next morning. Most of us were sitting on the fence or leaning towards throwing in the towel. I have to hand it to Jim, the only person who definitely wanted to go to rally everyone else for a second attempt.
This time the plan was breakfast at 1am and leave at 2am since we needed to be back at base camp at 3pm or walk another 6000 feet down to the hotel at the base of the lifts.
Thursday, August 31st
As before I slept maybe half an hour before my alarm went off at 12:45am. However, this time I could see the stars and there hadn't been any lightening all night. Even the summit was clear and was silhouetted against the night sky. We quickly ate breakfast, loaded into the Snow Cat and rode it up the mountain. By 2:45am we were unloading at 44000 meters heading up the mountain. Several hours of French Technique going straight up the slope brought us to the traverse and sunrise. If there was any doubt it was gone now. We climbed on as the shadow of Elbrus spread across the Black Sea. Just like on Pico de Orizaba watching sunrise from that high up is a moving experience. It's just so beautiful that I get teary eyed for no reason. Maybe it is having gone so far and being so close to my goal.
We rounded the traverse and took a short break in the saddle between the two summits. At 17,500 feet you can definitely feel the lower atmospheric pressure so we slowed our pace and reached the summit around 9am in perfect weather with deep blue skies and almost no wind. We spent about 30 minutes on the summit taking pictures, admiring the view and enjoying the usual summit traditions.
The 6000 foot descent back top base camp was long but uneventful. We had plenty of time so we weren't in any hurry to get back before the chairlifts closed at 3pm. By the time I trudged into to base camp and off the slushy glacier I was completely beat. We only stayed in base camp long enough to gather our belongings, receive some congratulations from the cooks and then took the lifts back down to the hotel.
A quick shower at the hotel and we were off to lunch at 3pm. There was a celebration dinner/party and picture show at 7pm that night but I crashed at 4pm and slept until almost 8am the next day in the mice-free hotel room. My first solid night of sleep in 5 days.
Friday, September 1st
Friday morning we had breakfast, did some last minute gift shopping then loaded up in the van for the 4 hour ride back to Mineralyne Vody and our flight back to Moscow. Once back in Moscow we arrived to a city packed with visitors for it's 859th birthday celebration the next day. Our 45 minute ride to the hotel turned out to be almost 2 hours of being stuck in traffic. We finally arrived at the hotel around 9pm, checked in and ate dinner back at Cafe Sacvoyage.
Saturday, September 2nd
Saturday we decided to check out the Arbat shopping district on our quest for some final souvenir shopping. This area is a long street several blocks long which has been turned into a pedestrian way. The shops all contain the usual gifts, but more interesting was the activity in the street. Being Moscow's birthday we saw a Russian military band playing music and several other sideshows. Unfortunately I left my camera back at the hotel so I have no photos of any of this to share.
After making a loop through the Arbat district, we decided to brave high security and estimate 3 million people a go see what was going on in Red Square. Several checkpoints later we we're walking down streets which had been closed off to vehicles and were now filled with people. The streets were lines with hundreds of police and soldiers standing about 10 feet apart watching the crowd. The intersections we're blocked with cement barricades and heavy trucks limiting access. Closer to Red Square we saw truckloads of soldiers waiting to react to some threat. We slowly made our way through the maze to Red Square only to find it completely shut down. It seems odd that on the city's birthday the largest public plaza was closed. Perhaps it was for some security reason, we never did find out.
After trying to sneak a few photos of the empty square and all the security we wandered around looking for something to eat and eventually headed back to the hotel for our last night in Russia.
Sunday, September 3rd
Sunday morning, after almost 3 weeks in Russia, we were all very eager to be going home. Each of us was on a different flight and as such we left for the airport at different times. Jim and I were in the last group to leave the hotel at 9am. We had to go through 5 security checkpoints at the airport before boarding onto Delta #47 for the flight home. The first leg of the flight to Atlanta was 11 hours and went by quickly. The second leg from Atlanta to Portland was 5 hours but seemed like forever. Whenever I come home to Portland I always feel a sense of relief and happiness to be back. However after being so far away for so long on this trip I was especially happy to be home. I almost wanted to go out and kiss the tarmac. I resisted the urge and instead kissed and hugged my girlfriend Kerry who waiting for me at the last security checkpoint I had to go through.
I would recommend a visit to Russia for anyone who has an interest in going. However be warned it is a country in transition from communism to capitalism and that brings with it its share of problems. Currently Moscow is the most expensive city in the world. Everything costs a lot more than you'd expect. Cheap hotel rooms are $100-$200 per night. Lunch is $50. A cab ride is $50. Also, with a few exceptions it is not very tourist friendly. Hotel reservations disappear without explanation. Prices change overnight. Lines are chaotic pushing matches at best. Trying to speak a little Russian seems to help warm things up when interacting with others, but I still observed the same lack of service at restaurants, hotels, ticket counters, etc. regardless of the language being spoken.
Despite these minor issues I did have a good trip to Russia. The country has a very interesting history and like the rest of Europe a lot of its past is being restored and preserved for future generations to experience. I especially enjoyed my visit to St Petersburg - the Hermitage and Peterhof being my favorite attractions. I'd probably go back to that city again if I had the opportunity. Climbing Mount Elbrus was a real challenge, more in dealing with our guide service Pilgrim Tours than the mountain itself. Despite the weather, lack of cleanliness at base camp and never ending difficulties with Pilgrim, we did have a perfect summit day and all made it home safely.
Overall the trip taught me to appreciate what we have here in the US. There are many things we take for granted that other countries simply don't have. Russia itself is a beautiful country with a lot to share with the world. I imagine it will learn how to deal with its transitional pains and in time will become a far friendlier and easier place to visit.