Three weeks of unadulterated Russia. An awesome trip that gave me a lot of time to explore the intriguing country.
How am I on another trip already?
That’s a story for another post. For now, let’s stick to the Russia story. My story. Not the story that keeps breaking the news. (If you know what I mean)
My trip kicked off in Moscow, but as always, I was not going to roam around another big city. I am from one and they are all the same. All the major cities in Europe pretty much follow the same template. There is one city square, some churches, museums, and of course, the business centers. Whoever travels to see business centers?!
So, instead of Moscow, I made plans for Murmansk, a city situated far up north, north-west to be exact.
After a 2-hour flight from the bustling capital of Moscow, I was transported to this small city. It had the smallest airport that I have ever seen. It was just a series of small rooms and a parking lot. My driver was already waiting for me in the parking lot. If there’s one thing that I have learned from my many travel experiences, it is this – if you are going to a small city, hire a taxi for the whole trip. Otherwise, a 1:00 AM arrival will end up with you stranded at the airport. You are welcome.
The Azimut Hotel, where I was staying, was considerably far and the driver dropped me there at around 2:30 AM. I was exhausted and excited at the same time. I still had 5 hours before my taxi driver would return to pick me up.
And, why was I in Murmansk? To see the Northern Lights, silly.
Yes! I was on a hunt for the Northern Lights. I was also intrigued to see the city by the Kola Peninsula that does not receive any sunlight during the polar winter for 40 days straight. The indigenous people here are called the Saami. These are some badass people. They might look like quaint reindeer herding farmers, but the geography of this tundra region is branded in their brain, which makes them master hunters and fishermen. They know where to find food in this freezing cold. And I was going to meet them later at the Siberian Husky Farm.
Oh, it was great!
I went reindeer sledding, dog sledding, and even got to feast on a traditional Saami meal. There was hot salmon soup and delicious stewed reindeer which was absolutely perfect for the weather. And the buckwheat with cowberry pastries for dessert was a completely new experience. It was so sumptuous.
I also went to a Saami Settlement. Unfortunately, no one in the settlement spoke English and their Russian was broken too. So, I had to leave without getting a chance to interact with them.
But leaving the disappointment behind me, I was ready for nature’s ultimate magical show – The Northern Lights. My viewing point was in the snowy village of Kirvosk. Now, I was super excited because I had intel from one of my followers that the Northern Lights had made an appearance in Finland the previous night and I was basically looking at the same sky. Kirvosk too was another food fiesta for me. I can’t even remember what all I ate, but I do remember having a lot of mulled wine.
My last day in Murmansk was the highlight of my trip. I embarked on a 4-hour snow mobile tour, which was definitely one of the best things I have ever done in my life. It definitely makes it to the top 3 – alongside hiking the Lions Head in Cape Town and skydiving over the Swiss Alps. Imagine the mountains, in all their snowy glory, and not even one soul in sight. It is weirdly peaceful.
Did I mention the temperature? Well, it was -18 degrees farenheit. So, it was double the fun. Thank the lord that I was not there during the polar winters when the sun is on a 40-day vacation. The sun does rise, but only barely from 11:00 AM to 3:00 PM. It kind of sits in the middle of the sky in a midrise for the entire four hours creating this beyond picturesque backdrop.
I know at this point you’re wondering wait – "What happened to the Northern Lights? Did you see the lights?"
Well, no. I know! I was disappointed too, but I had contingency plans, which worked out just fine.
Mexico City is a city full of infinite experiences and absolute magic. This ancient city has now developed into a sprawling metroplex lined with history, culture, and romance that would take more than one lifetime to explore. However, if you only had one-day there are a few things you should be sure to experience before you return for more.
On my way to Cancun for a wedding, I had a 17-hour layover in Mexico City. I landed in Mexico at 6 AM . It took me about an hour and a half to get through immigration and another 45 minutes to freshen up and find the lockers where you can store your luggage. I was ready, I got on the subway to meet my first tour guide.
If you thought the trains in NYC were packed you don't ever want to see the ones in Mexico City; I might have been borderline sexually assaulted this morning. The trains are so crowded they designate the first two cars of every train as "women only" cars for safety. So, it took me another 45 minutes to get to my meeting point and I was pretty early so I decided to eat breakfast. I ordered a scrambled egg/chorizo/chipotle concoction, which turned out to be quite amazing.
Finally met my guide, Francisco, and I ended up being the ONLY person on the tour, so I convinced him to take me to all his spots (Lol) after seeing the tourist sites of course. The best place to head for a short day long layover is the main plaza of Mexico City – Zócalo. I visited the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral which dominates the vast expanse of Mexico City’s central square.
The Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitana) is not only one of Mexico’s most treasured architectural masterpieces, it is also Latin America’s largest and oldest cathedral. This historic place is a great source of Mexican pride and now houses the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico.
My next stop was The Templo Mayor on the northeast corner of the plaza. Since I'm already in the plaza, we headed over to the Museo del Templo Mayor, one of the best and biggest museums in Mexico City. The museum tells the history of Mexico from the very early tribes to the rise of the great Aztec empire and the eventual conquest by the Spanish. There are thousands of things to see and you can easily spend most of your day in the museum if you are a history fan.
Then, we headed to The Casa de los Azulejos or "House of Tiles" – an 18th-century palace in Mexico City. I suppose it is so iconic and stunning inside. Bit like visiting NYC and going to the Empire State Building or London and seeing the Houses of Parliament. It's a Mexican institution. The building is distinguished by its facade, which is covered on three sides by blue and white tile of Puebla state.
The Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) is another prominent cultural center in Mexico City I visited. It has hosted some of the most notable events in music, dance, theatre, opera and literature and has held important exhibitions of painting, sculpture and photography. Consequently, the Palacio de Bellas Artes has been called the "Cathedral of Art in Mexico". Interesting architecture, some decent murals, a few noteworthy paintings make the Palacio worth a visit.
The building is located on the western side of the historic center of Mexico City. Now normally, museums are a bit of a bore and you can blow through them in about an hour (maybe you are dying to escape by the end of it), but museums in Mexico City are completely different.
After the touristy stops, the real fun commenced! We went to eat crickets and some other weird animal. We also took shots of Mezcal at the local market and he took me to get tacos. Yup! I'm in love at this point (Lol). The only acceptable thing to eat for lunch in Mexico City is street food. If you don’t eat the street food in Mexico City, you’re basic.
That tour finishes and Francisco walks me to meet my next guide, Rod. Once again, I'm the ONLY person on the tour, so we make our way to the Teotihuacán Pyramids. I climbed half way up on both the big ones (view from the midway point is amazing). The mysterious Teotihuacán Pyramids were built around 100 BC as the centerpiece of an enormous ancient city. They were inexplicably abandoned centuries before the arrival of the Aztecs, who called the ancient architectural marvel the Birthplace of the Gods.
One very interesting thing he told me is that the pyramids are not necessarily pyramids in the typical sense (like in egypt). There is nothing inside the pyramids in Mexico; instead they climb up to the top of them and use the altars for prayers. They basically use it to be closer to God.
From there we go visit three local families and spend some time with them for a few hours. One of the host families cooked us dinner. I ate cactus, chicken, chorizo, rice and beans and then I had tapioca for dessert. Later had a Victoria beer (coronas rival) to wash down all the goodness, I had a few more shots of some homemade alcohol and now I'm back at the airport.
All in all, Mexico City is a place that offers you unique experiences that you won’t be able to get anywhere else. A mix of poor and rich, new and old, paintings and performances, you are sure to have an unforgettable adventure!