It was 7am a few Mondays ago in March. I woke up inside a hotel when my phone pinged new message. I grabbed it and saw the breaking news from a friend that Russia had just closed its borders to foreigners.
Now, it just so happened that due to a strange twist of pandemic fate, that’s where I was on an unplanned tour that took me from Bangkok to a nuclear powered ice breaker in a Russian port on the Arctic Ocean, and a few places in between.
But it was in Moscow near the end of this tour – I had subbed in for an uncle too ill to travel (not coronavirus!) – that I realized I was one of the last Thai tourists to see Russia for some time. I had entered the country only three days before travel was suspended, and friends told me I was “lucky” to have one of the world’s largest capitals all to myself.
Though weeks before President Vladimir Putin would reverse months of denials to concede the dire situation there, it was clear in mid-March, despite claims of only a few dozen infections, that Moscow, empty from Red Square to the Bolshoi Theatre, was in siege mode against an enemy no scorched-earth policy could halt.
As front pages around the globe were showing the world’s biggest cities empty – New York, Rome, London and even my own Bangkok – I seized the chance to explore it in a way few tourists could.
The 1 kilometer Arbat Avenue walking street, usually packed with tourists clattering down its brick surface, was nearly empty. Most people seen were staff from its souvenir shops, restaurants and bars coming out to coax the few tourists into coming inside.
I walked into a random candy shop and the cashier seemed delighted to have a customer. A bearded skinny waiter at Hard Rock Moscow – where only a few tables on all three floors were occupied – kept asking, friendlily, if I wanted more hot water for my tea or any other refreshments.
Maybe the truism I’d heard, that “Russians don’t smile,” wasn’t true during a pandemic?
Despite what was a good sunny day at a comfortable temperature, by Muscovite standards, of 8C, I arrived at Moscow’s most popular tourist attraction to find it eerily quiet and deserted. I was in awe of Red Square, that nexus point for five centuries of history since it was built under Ivan the Great.
Now, only patrolling police officers were among the few souls strolling the no-longer-busy historic venue.
I wasn’t alone in appreciating the surreal scene; apparently some locals shared quite the same feeling.
“I just texted my friends and showed them the pictures,” said Lada, our Russian tour guide. “In my entire life, I’ve never seen the Red Square this empty.”
Given the ban of foreigners until May, at least, Lada said she wouldn’t have any work until the nation lifts restrictions and a sufficient number of tourists resume traveling.
A peaceful few-minutes walk from the Red Square, I stood in front of the majestic building housing the Bolshoi Theatre – the world famous ballet and opera theater – where Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff were just a few to premiere shows.
Its doors had been ordered shut.
Only a few pedestrians were hanging out to enjoy the sunlight, next to the theatre’s dry fountain, no water running as usually. Not being able to step inside the Bolshoi was considered a real blow to our group, to not even glimpse inside, and I, like everyone riding out the storm worldwide, don’t know when that will change.
A week after my return to Thailand, Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin ordered restaurants, parks and stores except for pharmacies and groceries in the city to shut down. All construction and maintenance work has been suspended, as well as ridesharing services.