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Category: Russia

Cover Story For Malaysia Airlines Inflight Magazine!

It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing –…

Cover Story 1_GoingPlaces_Nov15It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing – mostly on blog posts here and some contributions on other travel sites. And this November, my feature article was chosen as cover story for Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Going Places in-flight magazine.

I’ve been flying MAS since I was very young and in more recent years I’ve realised that in-flight magazines are what I look forward to when boarding flights. Going Places has been a signature for MAS and I’m stoked to have contributed to its pages.

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The TransSiberian rail journey in itself is a lifetime experience. It crosses three countries; China, Mongolia and Russia and passes through five different time zones. Culturally, it is a robust experience, awakening every facet of your physical senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The real game changer for a holiday like this, is the people you choose to go with. I went with my husband and two-year-old toddler and they were fantastic travel buddies. We learned so much more about each other and about the world – the small train cabin forces you to be within close proximity. So choose your travel buddies wisely! 🙂

If you’re looking for a rich experiential holiday, take a read and decide for yourself if you’re up for a rail adventure of a lifetime.

The online version: http://bit.ly/GPTransSiberian

The November issue here:  http://bit.ly/GPnov15

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Radisson Sonya, St. Petersburg: A Literary Boutique Hotel

Step into Radisson Sonya in the heart of St. Petersburg to uncover the pages of one of Russia’s most celebrated literary novels – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. If…

Step into Radisson Sonya in the heart of St. Petersburg to uncover the pages of one of Russia’s most celebrated literary novels – Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. If you’re like me, I knew nothing much about this novel but found a deep compelling sense to find out more after my stay at the Radisson Sonya.

The story starts in the lobby, a re-creation of the author, Dostoyevsky’s studio where he begin penning the novel. A large bookshelf filled with 100 or more copies of the novel in various languages and editions jumbled with some manuscripts and photos of Raskolnikov and Sophia, the two main characters of the novel.

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The novel is a tale of a gruesome murder committed by Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student as a result of an ideological poisoning. Raskolnikov conceived himself as being an extraordinary person and believed that if he murdered a despicable pawnbroker, he can use the money to make the world a better place. After the murder, Raskolnikov went into a mental spiral, overthinking his crime and was literally eaten away by his thoughts.

The light of redemption illuminated when he met Sophia “Sonya” Semenova Marmeladova, a sweet middle-class girl forced into prostitution to save her family from bankruptcy. He confessed the murder to her and she talked him into turning himself in. He was sentenced to prison in Siberia and begun his transformative redemption.

The hotel echoes chapters of the novel through interpretive decor starting at the lobby with a large sofa taking the form of a Russian lacquer box beautifully painted with scenes from the novel and a dark-glass coffee table etched with a 19th century map of St. Petersburg where Raskolnikov, in the novel, spent many gruelling hours walking and contemplating the murder he committed.

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The hallway leading to the my suite is shadowy, accentuated by the dark printed carpets and pictures of old St. Petersburg in black and white, depicting the long wandering walks that Raskolnikov took around the city as his mind raced in delirium after the crime. Each room number is accompanied by quotes from the novel.

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Entering the Business Room, I initially thought there was a mismatch in its decor. It is not the run-of-the-mill business room with white-washed walls and minimalistic decor. Instead, the wall featured a painting of a woman’s arm, whom I later found out was that of the Sistine Madonna, a character mentioned in the novel. The room featured a lounge area, an extended sitting area in the small oval overlooking the busy street, a working desk and a modern dark-tiled bathroom.

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The combination of furniture, colours, patterns, art and objects have been carefully selected to enhance the Russian atmosphere and to make it creative and a little eccentric. After all, the novel is a whirlwind of frantic thoughts and events. There are only two suites at the Radisson Sonya and it features a grand photo of Napoleon, the very character that gave Raskolnikov the inspiration to murder the pawnbroker.

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Meandering through the hallways of Radisson Sonya and uncovering the little details that bear reference to the novel is an adventure on its own. Unlike any other boutique hotel, a literary boutique hotel is both a work of art on the part of the designer and the author.

Radisson Sonya is located along Liteyny Avenue and is a great starting point for exploring St. Petersburg. It is within walking distance to Nevsky’s Prospect and the Summer Gardens and a few subway stops to the famous Hermitage Museum.

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Baltschug Kempinski, Moscow: A Taste Of Luxury

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It…

Every city has a tourism heritage distinct to her own history, culture, tradition and socio-economy status. Very few ‘first’ hotels are still standing, much less in operation or thriving. It was a great honour to visit one of the first 5-star hotels established in 1898 in Moscow, the Baltschug Kempinski. This luxury heritage hotel can’t be in a better location, overlooking the Moscow River and a panoramic view of the Red Square, the Kremlin and the unmistakable St. Basil’s Cathedral, Russia’s architectural icon.

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Built by the well-known Moscow architect Alexander Ivanov, the stunning facade embellished with decorative figures is the only remnants of the original building dating back to the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. By nightfall, the building illuminates and its reflection shimmers on the Moscow River, a great reminder of this hotel’s grand history.

The hotel is not short of VIP guests from international dignitaries to celebrities like Tina Turner and Sting. It’s hard to resist a charming hotel that’s a stone’s throw away from the Red Square with unobstructed views of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We were ushered into our Kremlin Suite, a beautiful and spacious suite tastefully decorated with luxurious European-styled furniture in shades of royal blue, dark grey, and creme.

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The suite has a large lounge area, a powder room, a small study desk and in a separate room with curved walls and windows looking overlooking the river and the Red Square is the master bedroom, the hallmark of the Kremlin Suite. The bedroom connects to a walk-in-wardrobe leading to a sensational bathroom featuring a standalone claw-footed bathtub on marble flooring, rainwater shower and a double dark-marble sink. I have been told that some suites have been designed by minor members of the British royal family.

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After catching a glimpse of the suite and its decadent decor, I was ready to taste the fine offerings of the Baltschug Grill. Chef Louis Badenhorst introduced himself and recommended some signature dishes – yellow fin tuna tatar and gazpacho for starters and for mains, prime steak cooked to perfection, paired with a red wine & thyme sauce and a green-pepper sauce and a grilled seabass on a bed of fresh greens and consomme. The table was beautifully filled with delightful side dishes like pommes allumettes (finely cut french fries), mashed potatoes, juicy asparagus shoots and a platter of cheese and crisps. Seth, our little toddler had his own serving of handmade freshly made pasta which he gobbled without much effort. Our amazing lunch ended on a perfect sweet note with a surprise from Chef Louis, a special that’s not on the menu – salted caramel ice cream macarons.

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The following day, we enjoyed another decadent breakfast at the Baltschug Grill. The open grill was whirling with activity and the restaurant offered a luxurious buffet spread of Russian favourites like blini and caviar, a salad bar, cheese bar, cold meats counter, overflowing sweet pastries, fresh fruits and other continental favourites like sausages, baked potatoes and eggs cooked in any way you desire. We sipped on beautiful rooibos tea and tucked into a hearty breakfast while enjoying the buzz around us.

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With professional and top class standards of service that befit the Kempinski Hotel group and as member of “Leading Hotels of the World”, the Baltschug Kempinski is a luxurious haven of peace and comfort away from the large crowds in Moscow city center, yet close enough to not miss out on the city’s happenings. I climb into my deep bathroom tub for one last soak, taking in all the grandeur this city has to offer – it truly is the glimpse of the glitz and glamour of the rich.

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Moscow In 48 Hours

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a…

Moscow has long had a reputation as the one of the world’s most expensive cities to visit. I was warned by other travellers to make sure that I had a big budget and to keep my money safe when exploring the city. What an irony! This reputation could have stemmed from the Cold War where wealthy foreigners inhabited the city and they were charged exorbitant prices and treated like royalty. It doesn’t help that the city boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world – that’s 84 billionaires according to a Forbes report.

But this notion should not shun you from visiting Moscow. The city has so much to offer in terms of history, world iconic buildings such as St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin, rich decadent food, spectacular metro (subway) stations, beautiful ballet and a vibrant arts scene. If you’re in for a splurge, dig deep into your pockets and sink into lavish beds at the Four Seasons, St. Regis, Ritz Carlton, the heritage Baltschug Kempinski, or for a family-friendly option, try Mamaison All-Suites. Dotted across the city are other more affordable accommodation options for the budget keepers. Try Petrovka Loft, Mercure Arbat or Ibis Moscow.

When it comes to tucking into a good meal there is no shortage of options. There are 2,750 restaurants dotted all across the city of Moscow and still counting. Make sure you check TripAdvisor for the current top ranking restaurants because competition is tight in the F&B scene. For a full Russian fare, definitely give Pushkin Cafe, Russkie Sezony and Dr. Zhivago a try. You will be enthralled by the grand 18th-century decor and be prepared to be served by waiters dressed in crisp suites and starched white aprons.

Getting around the city can be quite a challenge if you don’t read Russian Cyrillic, especially when using the Metro. So make sure you have some sort of translation app on your phone or stop passers-by on the way. You can also flag down almost any car on the road and, if it is going your way, it will become a taxi – again, that’s if you can speak Russian. The cheapest and most efficient option is to take the metro and the city is very pedestrian friendly.

Now let’s get to it. If you had 48 hours in this dazzling city, here are some suggested must do’s to capture the pulse of Moscow.

(FREE) Walking Tour

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Yes, you read it right. It’s free with an option to tip at the end of the tour. Usually, most people tip because these walk tours are highly informative, very engaging and it helps you navigate in a new city. I recommend taking the tour on the day of arrival as I found that incredibly useful especially when it comes to insider tips at the end of the tour about where to eat, shop for souvenirs and things to see.

The Red Square & Kremlin

Red Square

There is no escaping this – the Red Square remains the essential starting point for sightseeing in Moscow. Red Square is an expanse of space bordered by the colourful and charming St Basil’s Cathedral, with its iconic spiral domes; the historical GUM State Department store – where only international luxury brands make it here, the massive Kremlin – the famous seat of Russian rule and the Lenin Mausoleum – where you will have a chance to ‘meet’ the ruler himself in a glass casket.

You can easily spend more than half a day in the Kremlin – within its walls are enormous palace complexes, old cathedrals and a house of just for armoury, bedazzling jewels, carriages and thrones. The ticket prices vary, get your ticket at the ticket office on site and it opens at 9am. The Kremlin is closed on Thursdays.

Moscow night

You need to see the Red Square by day and by night. The lights from the GUM department store, the evening glow from the museum, the illuminated St. Basil’s Cathedral and clock towers in the Kremlin is a wonderland after night fall. If there is one attraction in Moscow worth seeing twice, it is Red Square. Head there again when it’s dark to see the evening glow on St Basil’s and the GUM department store.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

St Basils

Although it’s often seen as part of the Red Square, the beautiful cathedral has garnered a name for itself and is known as the unofficial icon of Moscow. The Cathedral’s full name is the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat – thankfully Ivan the Terrible who commissioned the building of the cathedral shorted it to St. Basil. Named after a holy hermit who lived on the streets, Ivan the Terrible seemed to have found a liking for him. Legend has it that after the architect finished building the cathedral his eyes were gouged upon the strict command of Ivan the Terrible because the ruler did not want him to build another cathedral as beautiful as this.

Contrary to popular belief, St. Basil’s Cathedral is not just one church, instead it is a cluster of nine churches sitting on one foundation. The interior of the church is not airy and spacious, instead it is narrow and winding. Get tickets and explore the interiors of the church while appreciating the view of the Red Square from the many small odd-shaped windows.

GUM Department Store

GUM

Even if you don’t purchase anything from here, it is still worth a stroll. The high domed ceiling and open bridges connecting the floors are an exquisite example of pre-revolution architecture. If your legs give way after a full day of exploring, this is a great place to chill and have a cuppa. You have to try the famous ice cream here. I heard from a local that the ice cream sold at GUM dates back to the Soviet era where children could be seen walking out of the departmental store with a cone in hand.

Bolshoi Theatre

Bolshoi

The historical Bolshoi theatre is home to some of the best ballet shows such as Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty and Romeo & Juliet. Book in advance if you want to catch a show here. There are standing tickets available and ticket counters open two hours before the actual show, but be sure to stand in line early as tickets get snapped up pretty quickly.

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

The Central Park of Moscow, this green lung has a small man-made ‘beach’, lakes to paddle in, playgrounds and carousels for children. There are also fountains, skateboarding ramps, running trails along the Moscow River and plenty of space to bask. On weekends and on weekdays, Gorky is packed and you’d never go hungry with plenty of food stalls to choose from – corn, sandwiches, hot dogs, ice cream, you name it. Be sure to also check out the latest funky Garage Museum of Contemporary Art.

Explore the Metro

Moscow-metro

Moscow’s metro is no ordinary subway, not just because some stations were dug deep to serve as bomb shelters (the escalators are incredibly steep), but because the metro stations are in itself a work of art. It is said that the metro stations were designed with intricate carvings, elaborate hanging lamps and etched with paintings as a channel for art to commoners who otherwise had no access to the elite world. Notable metros include; Komsomolskaya, Taganskaya and Prospekt Mira.

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Exploring Pokrovka In Moscow

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train…

We arrived in Moscow after a 40-hour train ride from Omsk. Two nights on the train with mediocre food and no shower, I was ready to jump off the train and explore Moscow. Coming from the east, we made stops at Ulan Ude, Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Omsk – each city with its own distinctive charm but it lacked the buzz of a thriving metropolitan like Moscow. We exited the train station and caught a cab to our hotel. The sparkling clean city and her grand architecture stood out amidst the growing morning traffic.

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Moscow boasts the largest number of billionaires in the world according to a Forbes report with New York coming in second. I imagine this city has a lot to offer to satisfy the deep pockets of the rich. It wasn’t too hard to imagine when a group party goers followed from behind, dressed in designer cocktail dresses, to-die-for stilettos, crisp suits and shiny shoes as I entered into the lobby of Mamaison, an all-suites luxury hotel in Pokrovka.

This trendy property with a modern artistic feel is the perfect getaway for savvy executives, artsy hipsters and weekend staycationers. Our suite was bright and lively in a pastel palette of minimalistic and modern furnishing. It had all the mod-cons – a fully equipped kitchen, dining area, lounge and a separate bedroom with a large comfortable king sized bed. While the rooms are more modest in design, the wow factor is definitely in the choice of eclectic furnishings and elaborate chic-looking chandeliers at the hotel’s lobby and restaurant. mamaison1 Mamaisoniphone2

The neighbourhood around Mamaison was a great place to start our exploration around Moscow. Pokrovka Street is filled with dainty cafes, boutiques, upmarket bars and restaurants. When evening falls, the place comes alive and beats a different tune – friends mingling over a bottle of wine on outdoor terraces, live music from a nearby garden bar, families tucking into Japanese bento boxes. Walking the Pokrovka stretch was enough to convince me that Moscow is a melting pot of cultures.

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I later learned that the street itself had a wonderful history to keep. It was the first stone road build in the 17th century and it was the roadway that connected the Kremlin to the Tsars villages. This was an affluent and gilded neighbourhood speckled with large homes and opulent cathedrals. The glitz never wore off, instead it evolved with time. Old buildings and cathedrals have been restored to near perfection, some new buildings have been put up and sandwiched in between high-end restaurants and bars are small groceries shops – a reminder that this was once a residential neighbourhood.

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We cooked a full breakfast the following morning taking advantage of the fully equipped kitchen and fancy cutlery. Having slept in the train for two-nights, waking up to a sprawling living room and bacon sizzling in the kitchen is pure comfort.

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Putting it on the map: Mamaison All-Suites is located 40 minutes walk from the Red Square. That’s also where the Kremlin, Lenin mausoleum, GUM departmental store and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral is located. It’s a 10 – 15 minutes walk to the closest metro station – Kurskaya Metro Station or 20 minutes walk to Kitay Gorod station.

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