The Izmaylovskoye Market is the best flea market in Moscow.

Wan Norliza Wan Mustapha finds Moscow and St Petersburg fascinating places to visit despite the cold weather

WHEN I asked my friends if they would like to visit the Russian capital, most were not keen. Their main reasons were the language barrier, difficulty in getting halal food and in finding places for prayer, and also, personal safety.

Some felt that it would not be safe to travel to Moscow. Perhaps the fear stems from news reports and movies, especially those involving the KGB, which portray Russia in a less favourable manner.

Despite the negative stories about Russia, I decided to take a trip to Moscow with my husband. We’re fortunate because we have a friend who has been stationed in Moscow for almost five years. He has been inviting many people, including friends over to find out what Russia offers to tourists and investors. We took him at his word and made the long and cold trip to Moscow.

We stopped over in Doha after a six-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. We then took a six-hour flight to Moscow.

The long-haul flight could be another factor that discourages many people from visiting Russia. In fact, a staff at the KLIA check-in counter asked why we wanted to visit a faraway place when the weather was still freezing. My husband gave the staff two reasons. “First, because there are important things to do in Russia, and second, because we are ‘crazy’,” he said.


CHILLY MOSCOW

We were hoping that the weather would be nice since it was going to be spring soon. But we were wrong. The gust of wind that greeted us when we stepped out of the Demodedovo Airport complex reminded us that we were in for a two-week wintry holiday. The temperature was negative 10 degrees outside. It was still snowing in late February and freezing cold for elderly people like us.

As expected, language is a problem as not many speak English in Russia. Using the underground train or buses can be tricky we moved around in Moscow with the Grab-car service and this was quite a breeze. The staff from the call centres not only spoke in English but checked on whether we had arrived safely at our destination.

Taking the Moscow River Cruise was an weather interesting thing to do.

The Moscow Metro Stations are beautifully decorated with huge chandeliers and gorgeous mosaic art ceilings.

It’s a wonderful city. At the heart of Moscow, there’s Moscow Kremlins, a fortified complex that overlooks the Moskva River to the south, St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square to the east and Alexander Garden to the west. Then, there’s Izmaylovskoye Market, the best flea market in Moscow.

But what attracted us the most was its food, like the simply delicious grilled salmon and lamb prepared by the Uzbeks.

The Gum Shopping centre in Red Square is another not-to-be missed place. The former Upper Trading Arcade building, known nowadays as GUM, is reminiscent of 17th-century architecture, though it was built in the 19th century. This enormous department store with a glass roof, graceful bridges and fountains, houses not only shops but also cafes, restaurants and halls for fashion show.

And then, there were those beautiful ballet shows. Our choice was the iconic Swan Lake.


HISTORIC ST PETERSBURG

After three days in the capital, we took the high speed train network, Sapsan, to St Petersburg, a beautiful city 800km from Moscow. We left at 7am and reached St Petersburg two hours later. The sun was out but it was still freezing. Nevertheless, we felt warm, from the hospitality on board the train. Friendly staff spoke in English and also provided assistance for hotel reservations and connecting flights to travellers.

St Petersburg is a Russian port city on the Baltic Sea. Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great, it was the imperial capital for two centuries.

We took the hop-on, hop-off around the city, which has retained most of its 18th-century structures to preserve the historical beauty of the area. You won’t find any skyscrapers in the city.

We visited the Hermitage Museum, a museum of arts and culture and one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Founded in 1754 by Catherine the Great, it has been open to the public since 1852.

Taking a stroll at night in the brightly lit park near our hotel was simply awesome. There were many people walking about, even babies all dolled up in winter wear. We were shivering and had to move around to keep ourselves warm. It was quite an experience and despite the freezing temperatures, we spent quite a while in the park, wondering how the locals survive the elements.


ISLAM IN RUSSIA

The official religion in Russia is orthodox Christianity so there are many beautiful churches in St Petersburg and Moscow. There are also a number of mosques in Moscow.

The latest is the Cathedral Mosque in Moscow. Located on the Olympiysky Avenue near the Olympic stadium, it was opened by Vladimir Putin in September 2015. This mosque is also considered one of the most beautiful mosques in Europe.

My husband had the opportunity to join the Friday prayers there. Muslims have to go through metal detectors before being allowed into its compound which, on Fridays, is guarded by security force. Latecomers have to pray outside.

My husband said he initially felt intimidated by the number of security personnel and police dogs but later found comfort in the thought that the security check had made the mosque a safer place for the congregation. After the prayer, the faithfuls hurriedly leave the mosque to allow the authorities to reopen several streets to traffic that are cordoned off during the prayer.

Despite the initial not-so-rosy news about Russia, I feel it is a wonderful country to visit.

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