Tips for traveling in Russia

All photos by Evy Hua
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Russian language
This is probably the main problem, people have traveling through Russia as it is necessary to understand at least basic Russian and be able to read some signs. In the larger cities quite a lot of people, mostly members of the younger generation, understand English, but don't expect to find alot of English-speakers.

Swindles
Even though nearly all of my experiences in Russia have been positive, there are some things that never change. Just like in every country, if you buy souvenirs and the price is not posted, tourists usually end up paying more. Then, when I planned a trip to Lake Baikal through an agency, they offered us a room for around 3,000 rubles per person per night. When my boyfriend, who is a native Russian speaker, called the hostel directly, it was 750 rubles. If you plan a trip to Russia and speak basic Russian, it makes sense to surf the Internet and try to contact hotels/hostels directly. Or try the couchsurfing social network. You get in contact with people before your trip online and after agreeing, you can stay with them a few nights literally on their couch.

Unfriendly people
My Russian language skills are basic, but I am generally friendly to people I meet on my journeys. Like everywhere you will meet grumpy people and friendly people, but I would not say that Russians are in particular more unfriendly than people in any other nation. I remember an old lady on Olkhon island in Lake Baikal who communicated with me despite my very basic Russian and offered me homemade jam and mushrooms. Or the lady we met on our journey who invited us a to spend a night at her home so we could save on the hotel. People seem open to foreigners and are generally interested in meeting them. Don’t be afraid if some Russians invite you to drink with them. Its generally a great opportunity to make friends and get into interesting talks with them. Russians are very understanding if you don’t pour the vodka down like them and normally will never force you to drink.

Crime
Just like in any other place, you can get your wallet stolen by pickpockets if you are not careful. Personally I never felt particulary unsafe, not in Moscow nor in the regions. Pickpockets are not endemic to a special place, they can be anywhere.

Bad road conditions
Traveling by car can be a problem because some roads are in rather bad condition, even in Moscow. If you arrive at Sheremetevo airport, the main highway going into the center is not in the best condition and is always packed with cars. If you arrive in Moscow, I strongly recommend taking the aeroexpress train to the center. But around Moscow a normal car will usually do to let you experience the countryside. Siberia is a little more tricky. If you decide to travel to Irkutsk and on from there, please think twice about trying drive by yourself. Recently I drove 414 miles north on the Dalton Highway (a mostly gravel road, also called the “suicide highway”) in Alaska and gained some valuable experience in driving. However, driving in Siberia is still something I would leave to local professionals. Driving there is a hard-core off-road experience. When we took a small van from Irkutsk to Olkhon, our driver stopped twice to change a blown tire. Sometimes it seemed that the entire vehicle would flip over. And of course the further you go from Irkutsk, the worse the roads become. When the roads are bad, at least the landscape seems even nicer and enjoyable. And you can always travel by train. Of course there is a way to travel Russian style. Its called “platzkart” and you will really mix with the locals. But there is also the normal or deluxe booking class.

Russian Airlines
Some people still seem to have mixed feelings about flying with Russian airlines. Budget airlines such as Avianova and SkyExpress exist, and their service is in my opinion not different to European budget airlines. Also their planes are neither old nor shabby. Tickets can be booked over the Internet and they have an English-language website. I personally like Aeroflot's service very much and recently flew with them all the way to Beijing.

Hygiene in rural areas
For my very personal opinion I usually like to compare Russia to China, where I have also traveled around a little outside big cities. Of course public toilets for example are different in the countryside. Even around Moscow many people have dachas (country houses) without plumbing. Of course the Siberian toilet facilities are very functional. A hole in the ground – no fringes. As to food, I ate at pretty remote places and never had any problems. I think the risk is not higher than anywhere else, but of course that depens a lot on the sensibility of your stomach.


Where to stay in smaller towns and in the countryside

In St. Petersburg, we stayed rather cheaply in a so-called mini-hotel. It looks like a large private apartment where several rooms have been turned into guest rooms. Some rooms share 1-2 bathrooms, like in a hostel. There are mini-hotels in many Russian cities and when I first came to Russia it was something completely new to me. The general hostel culture in Russia is not very well developed. In the remote village Khuzir on Lake Baikal, local people wait next to the bus stations to offer private rooms to visitors starting at 300 rubles per night. If you are adventuerous, then this is surely a way to get to know locals.

Some peculiarities and specialties I experienced while traveling
On domestic flights within Russia they check whether your luggage tags match the strips on your boarding pass when you leave the baggage claim. This I also experienced by the way on domestic flights in China.

In Russian airports, you will see weird platic wrapping-machines. Russians often pack their luggage in clear plastic wrap to protect their luggage against theft. I asked my neighbor what happens if someone is brave enough to disrespect the subtle plastic wrapping and cuts it open and steals stuff from the bag? “Well then you can go and complain," answered my neighbor. “Where do you complain?” I ask. “The first person you get a hold of,” he answers. I still don’t really understand.“And you can sue them? Or the airport or somebody and be reinbursed?” I really want to understand this concept. “Well, no. No you can't really sue anyone.” Pause. “But if you wrap you luggage it is less likely that somebody opens and steals from it.”

As a foreigner, you most likely will be checked for your registration at the airport on domestic flights. If visit a city for longer than three business days you should register (usually the hotel will offer that service).

Prices are noticeable lower outside Moscow. You can easily afford the small town’s fanciest restaurant. I remember we once got the bill in Veliki Novgorod, a city close to Petersburg and my boyfriend burst out laughing in relief. It might have soundes arrogant to the poor waiter, but for us it was just really a very pleasant moment to experience such an affordable bill.

Little rest cafes are a perfect place to take rest from driving on highways and streets. They often are 24 hours open and sell typical Russian food. Something like a Russian type of diner I guess.

Like everywhere, the brave traveler discovers interesting sights: we found a little Internet café on Olkhon island located next to a typical local house in a Yurt (kind of a tent).

You might be able to try exotic food, beause Russia has many minorities and cultural influences. In parts of Siberia they have for expample great Mongolian-influenced food.

If you have the chance, try the Siberian banya. It's not quite a sauna, but in my opinion, it is really better. There is usually a place to sweat and then you can throw cold and hot water over you. You will never feel fresher and cleaner, and I would happily exchange any bathroom for a good banya.

Sometimes you can find random people willing giving you a tour around the area. In Veliki Novgorod we met a professor in the Kreml there who was not really an official tour guide but walking around the area, offering to show as around. Be prepared, though. These tour guides often have quite a lot to tell and might not stick to your time limits. On Olkhon, a 17-year old boy gave us by far the greatest tour. Leading us on an adventurous climb at the shore, showing us the perfect place to swim and telling us all the mystical Shaman tales of the island. People you will meet on your journey around Russia will certainly have a very special place in your memory and well, heart.

If there are any questions about the trips or tips mentioned in my blog, I am very happy to receive e-mails and I will give information as much as I can about my travel experiences.

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