In September last year I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel with my partner to Russia, as well as to England and France. This had been a dream for many years. As Russia was under communist rule until 1991, we suspected it would be less accessible than many Western nations. However, we were confident that with determination and planning we would be able to overcome any challenges.
Accessibility in Moscow
We deliberately avoided extensive travelling on public transport by staying close to the well-known Red Square in Moscow. On our first walk in the city, we realised it would be challenging to push my manual wheelchair along. Older pavements were narrow and cracked and there were no flat kerbs.
Arriving at a major road, we could not find a pedestrian crossing anywhere. We then realised there was an underpass to get to the other side. On this occasion, I had to get out of my wheelchair and struggle through the stairwell while my partner lifted the chair.
We also soon found out that there were no pedestrian crossings in Moscow, although we did locate two underpasses not far from Red Square with modern ramps. When we did run into trouble, many people spoke a little English and were quite willing to help.
The first place we visited was the tourist area Arbat Street that is packed with numerous souvenir shops, restaurants, cafés and street performers. Here, we found that the tourist buses had easily accessible ramps. We jumped on the bus and were excited to see the Kremlin and St Basil's Cathedral tour.
We later found out the public buses had ramps and sometimes we used them just to get across the ten-lane roads. An amusing incident occurred when a bus driver failed to put down the ramp for me and a Russian lady began yelling at him for his neglectfulness.
The Kremlin and Gorky Park
The Kremlin is a huge, imposing structure. The wall encompasses an area of 275,000 square metres (68 acres). Inside the walls lie the Grand Kremlin Palace, stunning cathedrals and beautiful gardens.
The Kremlin Armoury holds precious Russian, Eastern and Western European artefacts that date from the 5th to 20th centuries. The Kremlin was partially accessible with the exception of the Armoury. The cathedrals were difficult to get into, but offered a good view from the outside.
The Russian Senate building still exists within the Kremlin wall, and this is where government meetings are held. In fact, while there we saw Putin's helicopter fly into the complex.
In Moscow I would also recommend wheelchair-friendly Gorky Park, with its 300 acres of gardens, woodlands and lakes.
The Hermitage Museum
When arriving in the city of Saint Petersburg we were happy to find that there were accessible public and tourist buses, and regular pedestrian crossings. However, many buildings had steps and no ramps. The highlight of visiting Saint Petersburg was the Hermitage Museum. It has ornate rooms in the baroque and the neoclassical architectural style, alongside countless renowned paintings by artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt. The Hermitage was fully accessible. I was invited to jump the long queues and both my partner and I got in for free.
The Russian metro
We dared to use the Saint Petersburg metro at the encouragement of a Russian friend who was with us. Unfortunately, like the other metro stations, there were no elevators. I soon found myself being helped onto an escalator, in the chair, by a station attendant who assisted me to the train platform. I quickly realised the escalator was unusually long and steep. And at 125 metres, the escalator at Admiralteyskaya station is the second longest in the world!
Due to their poor accessibility for people who use wheelchairs and scooters, I would recommend avoiding the Russian metro. We found the best course of action was to familiarise ourselves with the city bus routes. However if you chose to use the metro, staff are very willing to help and are unfazed by the difficulties of transporting a wheelchair down stairs and escalators.
Worth the challenge
The colourful buildings and rich history Russia had to offer was unique. It was unlike anything I have seen in Australia or other European cities. Despite the challenges, the country was definitely worth my persistence.