Scott Swan's Russian adventure
The Winter Olympics begin 100 days from now in Sochi, Russia.
In addition to covering the Games and athletes, it is also a WTHR tradition to find human interest stories beyond the Olympic host city.
Photographer Steve Rhodes and I spent two weeks in Russia. We took ten different planes, two boats, plus trains, subways, taxis and vans.
You can travel all over Russia, explore its beauty and enjoy the music and culture. But there is no place with more Russian history than the Kremlin. It remains Russia's most important place.
"For me, the Kremlin is almost like the motherland," said one Russian tour guide. "We say that Kremlin was Moscow itself, first of all. In old times when all Moscow was enclosed into the defensive wars of the Kremlin. Nowadays, most of the Kremlin is open and famous, like a museum."
Red Square in Moscow also draws a crowd. It is a spectacular place for a photo op or an encounter with a President Putin look-a-like.
"Lenin's tomb is on one side. The great big GUM department store is on the other side. St. Basil's Cathedral is at one end and, it's a great big open square," said tourist Mike Hilder.
We found Russians love to celebrate weddings by taking photos in front of the country's most symbolic buildings like St. Basil Cathedral in Red Square. Young couples place padlocks on the wedding bridge and fling the key into the water.
"What it symbolizes is this lock is the unit of marriage. So, we lock it and we throw the key away. So no one can separate us," said one young Russian groom.
American influence is everywhere. On Arbot Street, Russians enjoy fast-food restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts.
During our two-week journey across the country, we discovered reminders of Russia's past. There is one major statue of Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. Statues of other Soviet leaders have been moved near a local museum.
A flea market in St. Petersburg will take you back in time where vendors sell coins, ammunition and patches from the Soviet era.
"Welcome to USSR because many people have a lot of money from USSR and clothes from USSR. People like USSR in this place. If you want to find USSR, you come to this place," said our St. Petersburg tour guide.
We traveled to Chernobyl in Kiev, Ukraine site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. We toured empty schools and apartment buildings in the village where people evacuated after the power plant caught fire and exploded in 1986. Our tour guide used a small device to point out the hot spots where radiation exists in high levels.
"It's not safe to live here but it's good be here for short periods of time. For visitors, for a one-day trip, two-day trip, that's nothing. But we can't live here. Because we can't use the water and the soil," said our Chernobyl tour guide.
Despite the country's troubled past, we found Russians were friendly and proud of their rich heritage. It's obvious in their love of music.
"Russian music is very close to my heart," said Russian violinmaker Amiran Oganezov. "There is no other instrument like the violin in the world. It sings with the human voice."
Russians are passionate about ballet.
"Ballet is deep in our souls. It's difficult to explain. It comes from parents," said dancer Talgat Kozhabaev of the Moscow City Ballet.
Russians are proud of their famous museums, breathtaking cathedrals and glittering palaces, like Peterhof.
"Not everything that glitters is gold. But here, in St. Petersburg, we say that everything that shines and glitters is gold - mostly gold leaf," said our St. Petersburg tour guide.
The Russian spirit was evident in wedding celebrations, artwork in the most unlikely places and in homes where families work together to create the country's number one souvenir, matroyshkas.
"I make 100 matroyshkas a week. It requires a lot of preparation to cut the trees, to dry the logs. Then, we have to cut it. It's alot of work," said one craftsman from the birthplace of the Russian matroyshka, Polkhovsky Maidan.
It is this kind of culture, architecture and beauty that lured a young woman from Indiana to live and teach in this country.
"There's just something in me that loves it. It's fascinating. It's mysterious. It's really old, ancient culture. And, it's really interesting every day," said Indiana University graduate student Ingrid Nelson. "I'm never bored here. Every day there is a new challenge. Every day there is a new adventure. And, I just love it."
And, we think you will love it too. In February, we are taking you beyond Sochi to become an Eyewitness to Russia.