A trip to the land of snow and ice

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Throughout my lifetime I have visited quite a few countries.  While serving in the Foreign Service for over two decades, I was lucky enough to travel to countries around the world that included one country which most of us might not have even thought about or if so was unable to visit due to various reasons. Other countries that I have been to are places which most of us have been and nothing much to say about them.
Whenever I mention this country my friends give me a strange look wondering what kind of a person was I to visit this place. http://wherewelive.org Some even inquired why did I go there or did I enjoy being to this country. My simple answer was I was a civil servant and wherever I was assigned I had to go as I had no choice. This country was Russia. I suppose most of us have no idea about this country or even dreamed of going there. However, I don’t mean all as there might be some fortunate guys like me. As soon as I knew I was assigned to the biggest country on earth, shivers ran down my spine. From my childhood days I have seen many movies where Russia was portrayed as a cold gloomy country with its Communist system and unfriendly people.  Then there were those long cold winters with freezing temperatures without any sunshine and not much to see as other countries. So my first impression to go to this country was, to tell the truth, I was nervous. What kind of place on earth was I suppose to go, how will I cope with the people as I did not speak their language, will I be able to fulfill my tour of duty and so forth which came into my mind.  However as I did not have the means to be plucky and fussy, I headed to the land of snow and ice with serious doubts. Finally my family and I arrived in Moscow on a December afternoon and to be precise December 8, 2001.  Our flight from Paris arrived Moscow at 3 pm in the afternoon.  As I looked out of the window while landing, I could only see white clouds.  I thought we were still in the air but later found out that it was snow and ice everywhere. Only when our plane landed, I saw that all the planes parked on the tarmac and the airport itself was covered with snow.  I have never ever seen so much snow in my life and I had a strange and exciting feeling. Then after answering many questions raised by the Customs and Immigrations officials with much difficulty, due to language barrier, we were able to leave Sheremetyevo airport. Then came the second hassle where the temperature outside the airport was – 20 Celsius.  I could not believe it. The previous day I was in Asia where the weather was hot and humid and just overnight in a land which was freezing. The cold was unbearable but I thought to myself that this was the weather that I was to face for the next three years. Russian winter is from November to March, where it can be extremely cold with heavy snow.  Then in April, the snow begins to melt and from May until September its summer time, lovely warm-hot and dry with temperatures of +30 Celsius or even warmer. Then in October the weather changes and starts to get cold.  Being the largest country on earth, Russia has nine time zones. As we arrived in December it was a long Christmas holiday season in Russia like the rest of the world.  But something strange was Christmas was celebrated not on December 25 like other countries but on January 7.  Then I came to know that Russians follow the Orthodox faith so Russian Orthodox is different from western Christianity. During winter there are winter festivals across Russia such as ice skating, ice sculptor shows, and as snow becomes so plentiful in Moscow during winter, snowmen are made out of snow and there are also competitions across the city. Then there are performances of traditional Russian songs and dances.  So although the cold weather was unbearable I found that Russians turned this snow and ice into an unforgettable experience for foreigners like me. Although it was my first time experiencing a very cold winter I was able to make it. Then came summer which was from May to September.  Summer in Russia was a lovely time as the weather was hot and dry. I always thought that Russia was cold and damp the whole year round but was totally different at this time of the year. Being summer time the sun rises as early as 4 am in the morning and sets at 11 pm in the evening, so there was a lot of daylight. It was sunny the whole day and full of activities in the city.
Moscow had so many places to see.  Museums including the famous Pushkin Museum, the famous Gorky Park, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, Saint Basil’s Cathedral with its colourful onion-shaped domes on Red Square, stunning architectural interiors of one of the world’s largest rapid transit systems, the Moscow State University, a few which I visited while in Moscow.
The culture in Russia is totally different from Asia so I had to take some time to adapt myself with this culture.  But one thing very similar to our culture that I found was when one enters somebody’s home, the guest takes off his or her shoes which creates a very encouraging sign for the relationship between the guest and the host. I also learnt some things which were superstitious to Russians. That was when someone visits a Russian home it is important to bring a present even if maybe flowers.  However, make sure that the flowers should be in odd number as even number is a sign of rudeness. Then if one owes a friend or relative some money, make sure that the repayment does not take place during night time as it is a bad sign so the repayment should be done in the morning or daytime. I wouldn’t like to say that staying in Russia for me was plain sailing without any difficulties. Whichever country you go, there are always pros and cons so I also encountered many difficulties. Facing long and extremely cold winters with temperatures below freezing point, traffic jams, language barrier as majority don’t speak English and their attitude towards foreigners as most say Russians are not friendly and difficult to deal with. However I not only came across every difficulty during my stay in Russia but even made some friends who were charming and good in cracking jokes.  As for the food my favorite was the Russian dumplings which was very tasty and could be easily purchased from street stalls and fast-food outlets. So although as much as I encountered difficulties, I learnt so many new things like their traditions, culture, their way of dealing with foreigners and cuisine. Just when I became acquainted with the Russian way of life, my tour of duty ended so I had to say do svidaniya, which means ‘until we next meet’ to my Russian friends and headed back to the Golden land. So I would like to say is that traveling gives one of the greatest joys. Witnessing another culture, exploring and going on adventures in new lands are one of the best ways to experience life. Traveling gives you new eyes to see the world and truly expands your knowledge base.

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