Many travellers are keen to visit the mysterious land of the tsars, but are put off by the visa applications and language barriers. Austrian expat Evy Hua offers some tips on how to travel around.
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 no 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
In my personal opinion I usually like to compare Russia to China, where I have also travelled 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 for 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 depends a lot on the sensibility of your stomach.
Where to stay in smaller towns / 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 RUB 300 per night. If you are adventuerous, then this is surely a way to get to know locals.
Some peculiarities and specialties
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 is also something I have experienced on domestic flights in China.
In Russian airports, you will see weird plastic wrapping-machines. Russians often pack their luggage in clear plastic wrap to protect their luggage against theft. I asked my neighbour 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 neighbour.
“Where do you complain?” I ask.
“The first person you get a hold of,” he answers.
“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 your 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 you 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 sounded 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 open 24 hours and sell typical Russian food. Like everywhere, the brave traveller discovers interesting sights: we found a tiny 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, because Russia has many minorities and cultural influences. In parts of Siberia they have, for example, 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 may meet random people who are willing to give you a tour around the area. In Veliki Novgorod we met a professor in the Kreml who was not an official tour guide but who offered to show us 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 – he led us on an adventurous climb at the shore, showed us the perfect place to swim and told us all the mystical Shaman tales of the island.
People you meet on your journey around Russia will certainly have a very special place in your memory and well, heart.
Evy Hua / Expatica
This article was first published on Russia Beyond the Headlines on http://rbth.ru/articles/2010/04/30/russia_travel_tips.html.