A CULINARY MISSION. On my 1992 visit, I often went hungry because after a couple of bad-food experiences I was afraid to buy meat or food in Russian stores. Yet I didn’t want to pay the higher prices for safer food in Western stores and hotel restaurants – such as $11 melted-cheese sandwiches. Thankfully, now all sorts of cafes have sprung up offering espresso, ice cream, sandwiches, fried chicken and salads. It’s all here, not inexpensive, but available.
Eating out is something of a mission for many Westerners in Moscow – their small way of supporting small Russian businesses. Kombi’s Deli is one of the new cafes, with bright purple columns and doors that stand out from the surrounding gray buildings. Submarine sandwiches, salads – even Oreo milk shakes – cost $1.30 to $4.00. For the next month I lunched daily in this sparkling clean cafe, sharing tables with both Russians and foreigners, eating, “supporting the Russian economy,” and gaining weight.
CHANGES, CHANGES. Because I was on a business visa instead of a tourist visa, I didn’t have to pay the required two nights lodging which can run up to $400 a night. Fortunately, I was house-sitting for some out-of-town Moscow friends, but could easily have rented an apartment for a couple weeks for $500 to $800 by checking ads in one of Moscow’s several English-language newspapers. From my apartment phone, I dialed direct to the U.S. on nights and weekends for about 50 cents a minute. From a hotel that call would run $3-$10 a minute.
More changes from my earlier visits: The recently opened Travelers’ Guest House, less than two miles from Red Square, had beds for only $12 a night. Rooms were shared with two or three other travelers; a single room was $25. In St. Petersburg, the International Hostel, a new and friendly hostel for all ages, offered shared rooms and a continental breakfast for $15. I spent a few nights in both places; though spartan, the accommodations were clean and safe.
DEALING WITH CRIME. On my 1992 trip I was hassled, perhaps because I was alone so often and an easy female target. Although the crime rate has increased dramatically in the past year or two, it still wasn’t as bad as, say, New York City. Last spring, I was more careful, but determined not to let the threat of crime scare me away. I kept my jewelry, earrings and purse in a nondescript shopping bag and put on the jewelry when I arrived at my destination. I also talked with locals so I could avoid the high-crime streets and neighborhoods.
Some recent isolated attacks on foreigners caused my friends to discourage me from taking the eight-hour overnight train trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg. I rode the train anyway, sharing a two-bed compartment with a young Russian businesswoman. I got a good night’s rest, first-class, for just $15 each way. I was told it doesn’t hurt to take a belt or wire to secure the train door during the night trip. I also promised myself to not travel alone so much next time, to help reduce my risk of becoming a crime victim.
PLENTY OF FOOD. Food was fresh and plentiful, though a bit expensive: $1.20 for a pound of carrots; $7 for a pound of hamburger; $4 for a can of chili con carne. But a loaf of pungent Russian black bread was 25 cents; Russian champagne, $2, and sour cream just pennies a half pint. Food was sold at mom-and-pop kiosks as well as in the popular rynoks (markets). Booths were set up near metro stations and along busy streets, their owners selling everything from kiwis to canned hams. I even stumbled across a kiosk selling guns alongside Nescafe coffee and Juicy Fruit gum.