Is it Safe to Travel to Russia?
Using Common Sense in Russia
When you are traveling in Russia, there are some common sense rules you should keep in mind. Crime in some parts of the country is a bigger issue than what you see in most developed countries in the world. When you are traveling by train, you should lock up your luggage or even book a compartment for yourself. Booking a compartment is going to be quite expensive but it will be worth the peace of mind if you can afford it.
Pickpockets are generally not a problem anymore in the United States but they are very much an issue in Russia. Be very aware of your wallet when you are riding on public transit or walking through crowded streets. Be especially aware of what’s going on if you feel as though someone has bumped into you on purpose.
You should also be aware of the fact that you are required to carry official documentation with you at all times. This is yet another reason why you’re should be especially aware of anyone who might look as though they are trying to pick your pockets. You don’t want to be in a situation where you need official documents and realize your wallet or carrying case is gone.
Personal protection companies are big in Russia. If you feel as though you need this kind of protection, you should absolutely hire bodyguards in order to protect you and your belongings.
Places to Go
Locating the best place for adventures in Russia comes down to knowing what type of adventure you are seeking. The massive landscape includes country houses, endless types of resort atmospheres and natural wonders. To find the ideal vacation location, it is necessary to know exactly what type of fun, or escape is desired the most.
The distances between hot spots in Russia are not like those in Europe. It is not a matter of a short taxi, or metro ride to the next beach. A “nearby town” in Russia could mean a six-hour drive, but locals are quick to direct tourists to interesting destinations despite the common misunderstanding. In order to make these long treks easier, plan Russian vacations around a less busy time of the year. Late August, for instance, is a very taxing time for Russian trains and air service. Try traveling in the early summer and spring.
It’s no secret that Russia is a fantastic place for extreme adventure enthusiasts. A climb up 18,480-foot Mt. Elbrus(“гораЭльбрус”) allows tourists to say they have climbed Europe’s tallest peak. A swimming and sailing adventure at Lake Baikal (“озероБайкал”) is a rare way to create a memory around the world’s deepest lake. Relaxing in a volcanic geyser stream in Kamchatka (“Камчатка”) after a cross country train ride is something very few people do in their lives. A simple Russian steam bath can be more exciting than most world tours. Of course, a Siberian helicopter ride to spot rare tigers is only a simple matter of booking a flight from there.
Reserved Russian tours can include historic surveys like those surrounding the cities of the Golden Ring. These are Владимир, Суздаль, Углич, and Ярославль. Seeing these four cities will also include a great tour of secondary sights. End a long tour of the country with a visit to the beaches of places like Сочи. This Olympic site now offers incredibly modern and diverse tourist comforts. Again, enjoying the many interesting locales in Russia requires knowing exactly what a preferred adventure entails. The options are endless, but it is important to plan ahead.
Where to Stay When You’re in Russia
Room and Board in Russia
Soviet-era restrictions have made it difficult for Russian hotels and villas to gain significant ratings on international boards. There is an abundance of lodging locations in Russia that would normally earn four and five stars on popular boards if they were properly promoted. Many of these locations have attractive and affordable prices. Coincidentally, not all of the lodging locations in Russia that have high prices are of stellar quality.
This is the main reason why independent rentals in Russia have gained such a high reputation among traveling groups. Many small and independent property owners have begun listing their properties as travel lodge destinations, and have posted attractive rental rates. It is highly advantageous for travelers to research these locations, via town registries and social media, before booking travel arrangements.
Many large travel companies in Russia have switched to listing private lodging rentals instead of traditional hotels because they offer amenities that go above and beyond rating systems. The best part is that these locations can be booked for extremely attractive prices. Many of them are also located near the most popular visitor destinations.
An Apartment and “Дача”
Approaching the large Russian cities, you’ll move your way through the “спальныерайоны.” These are the dormitory type apartment complexes that reach approximately nine and twelve stories upward. Once state owned and with a shared municipally controlled heating system, the dormitories are now privatized.
Unfortunately, very few families are able to afford the apartments since Moscow’s real estate prices are among the highest in the world. Instead of sharing information about the dwelling such as the number of bedrooms, interested occupants would much rather hear about the number of rooms. Two to four rooms seem to be the typical norm for most of the apartments in the area.
Once an American was describing what his apartment in New York was like to his friend who was living over in Russia. He explained, “I have a study, sitting room, bedroom and a room for a child.” He then asked his Russian friend, “What about your apartment?” The friend who owned a one-room apartment in Russia stated, “my dwelling is similar, but without the internal walls.”
But many Russians are fortunate because they can escape from the smaller confines of their apartment to “дачи.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “дача” is a country house and integral way of life for many residents of Russia. Although some may travel back and forth to work from “дача,” many have a city apartment and solely use the country house as a place to reside with the family during the summer months or on weekends.
What to Do in Russia?
What to Do in Russia
In general, Russians love to stay at home. This is probably why sofas and slippers are the bestselling items in Russian Ikea stores. This desire to stay comfortable and cozy inside may be due in part to the cold weather Russia is famous for. If you do want to go out, however, there is plenty to do. Museums, theaters, clubs, concerts, tourist sites, and hikes are just a few of the multiple entertainment options available to the adventurous visitor.
Despite the tendency to stay indoors, Russians do have and live out the expression “cultural hunger.” Due to the Russian love of art and culture, the lines for an art exhibition or a new drama production can be longer than the lines for a Harrods sale in London. If you are looking for something to do, keep in mind that newer or more popular cultural attractions can be crowded, not just with other tourists, but with native Russians; be prepared to stand in long lines, or stick to smaller or little-known attractions.
The good news is that you can find activities in Russia to match not just your interests, but also your budget. The wide variety of cultural sites and entertainment options means there is something for everyone in Russia, regardless of their financial status. Keep in mind though that the capital tends to be one of the most expensive locations to visit or live – even the cheapest restaurants there can be expensive.
A Tale of Two Cities – The Beauty and History of Moscow and St. Petersburg
Moscow and St. Petersburg are the two likely arrival cities of visitors to Russia. Though each is a sprawling metropolis with an abundance of restaurants, hotels, and theaters, they each have unique atmospheres.
Moscow was originally a collection of villages that were brought together under a common growth plan. For this reason, the city requires a more adventurous spirit to explore. Although this is the location of Russia’s tallest and most modern buildings, there is an endless array of traditional areas to discover. Like its eclectic makeup, this city remains a melting-pot in the classical sense. It is a wealthy cultural center for countless people hailing from all parts of Russia. It is an extremely art-centric locale, and filled with people who recognize the value of eccentric living.
St. Petersburg, on the other hand, is a truly modern city. It was designed using an efficient and pragmatic mindset. It resembles some of the most advanced cities in Europe with its transportation options, and business-oriented city center. The layout of this city is geometric, and its infrastructure facilitates easy navigation for residents and tourists. Though this city is incredibly modern, it retains a traditional core. Large and modern cities tend to represent and house the most progressive populations, but St. Petersburg is very different. Despite some global urban trends, St. Petersburg remains one of the most conservative and non-progressive cities in Russia. The 2005 publication by ABBYY Software House lists many of the language and cultural differences between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The comparisons are extremely useful for visitors who tend to place these two cities in the same category.
Shopping for food can be a primary part of a family’s budget. Open from 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. and until 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. at night, the food shops here in the community can be a great resource. You may even find private corner retailers open 24 hours.
The days of empty food shelves in the Soviet shops are long gone. Long lines are also a thing of the past. Russians follow a more as needed approach when purchasing dairy, sausage, bread and ham. Because many people make twice weekly trips to the store, you won’t see the food shop shelves barren. There are also no preservatives in many of the products, so their shelf life is short and foods can spoil easily.
Dairy products such as yogurt and milk are universal items. But you’ll also find foods that are distinctly related to the Russian culture such as “простокваша” and “сырки.” If you’re unfamiliar with the items, it’s a version of sour milk or pieces of cottage cheese wrapped in chocolate and then stuffed with nuts or jam.
McDonalds to Russians equates to ready-prepared foods for sale. The delicatessen aisles are stocked with popular food items such as fried fish, pickles, baked meats and home-style salads. Russia also has its own version of ravioli, called “пельмени,”which are always filled with some kind of meat.
At the outer edges of the larger cities you’ll find modernized supermarkets. Making a trip to one of the giant superstores is a popular pastime for market goers on a Saturday. You’ll also find international giants in Moscow such as France’s Auchan and Britain’s Tesco.
Enjoying the Great Outdoors
The Russian love of nature is expressed through actives such as day or weekend hiking trips, fishing, and mushroom and berry picking. These activities sound relaxing and certainly can be, they all serve a practical function as well.
Hiking is a popular activity to celebrate events like graduations, birthdays, or the beginning of summer vacation. Russian hiking consists of a march to a pre-designated spot (sometimes with a quick glance at the surrounding woods), followed by a picnic or an overnight stay in a tent. Mushroom and berry picking are often done out of necessity rather than as a pastime, though even rich Russians with dachas in the south of England are known to roam their private parks in search of autumn mushrooms.
Fishing (“рыбалка”)is the Russian equivalent of golf; it is the most silent form of team building, and the best way to avoid unpleasant tasks such as household chores. It is important to return home with a catch though! The summer weekend markets do a brisk trade in fresh river fish of all sizes.
Hunting or target practice is another, more up market team-building and trust-building exercise. It is an important activity for networking and facilitating business deals. Even if you have never held a shotgun before, don’t reject an invitation – the picnic afterwards might lead to one of your most profitable deals. Just remember the advice of Russian politician Viktor Chernomyrdyn: “Hunting is my favorite leisure pastime. It gives me a chance to walk, to ramble, to wait, and to hide.”
The Banya (“Баня”)
In the 11th century, Nestor the historian described Russian bathhouses in a glorious treatise. His writings highlighted how Russian baths were places of communion, brotherhood, relaxation, and rejuvenation.
“…naked and joyous, they beat each other with birch twigs, and at the end pour ice-cold water on themselves, thus washing themselves, and not tormenting…”
This is a rather short description of traditional Russian baths. “Баня” is a place where both men and women go to beat the cold, but in the summertime “баня”is also very popular. This is a healthy and invigorating place similar to western saunas. Somehow though, “русскаябаня” is much more extreme. True immersion in the Russian bath requires the need to experience an entire rejuvenation. This is not the place to constantly sit and bask in a sleep-like state. It’s the place to use the elements to drive-out body toxins, while taking part in herbal treatments. The use of birch and oak switches, so called “веники,” and other natural essentials, helps the cold and hot treatments to shock the body. The experience of “баня” is something that Russians take very seriously. They considered it to be a type of mini vacation.
Facilities like СандуновскиеБани in Moscow not only feature traditional whipping massages, but TV lounges and tea service. These types of baths offer many options for body health, relaxation, community interaction, and enjoyment. In the past, русскаябаня gained a reputation for being the location of less-than-desirable actions. The increase in popularity of these facilities by tourist crowds has helped them transform into some of the most interesting and enjoyable places in Russia.
How to Get Around in Russia
Driving – Only for Adrenaline Junkies
There are two passenger car travel options in Russian. One is renting a car from an agency like Hertz or Avis. To rent car from these agencies, a traveler must be 18 years old, and able to carry some form of insurance. The other option is booking service with a private car and driver. The second option is best for many travelers because it eliminates the need to know the laws of the highway, and how to negotiate difficult roadways.
It is no international secret that Russian roadways are filled with reckless drivers. Excessive speeding and other dangerous driving behaviors are very common. 37 mph is the most common city speed limit, while 56 mph is the prevailing freeway speed. Though these safety limits are posted everywhere, Russian traffic flows seem to completely disregard them. Local car drivers are adept at keeping travelers safe on the roadway, and exercise great levels of reserve.
If a traveler elects to rent a car, they should be aware that the Russian road systems are patrolled heavily by the GAI. All travelers should carry a license, registration, rental agreement, and Visa when driving. Travelers could encounter several types of distracting road warnings about maintaining proper speed limits. They will also encounter strange and erratic behaviors by other drivers. Like other countries, driving in Russia is best done with a keen sense of defensiveness and caution.
Travel, Health, and Security
Everyone traveling to Russia must understand that it is a huge country in terms of land mass. Its reach is literally hemispheric in scope. This means that the vast majority of travel in the country is done using a complicated and vast system of roads. Many of these roadways meet international standards for safety and convenience, but others are still quite dangerous to travel.
Many of the roads in Russia that are being modernized are the same roads that have existed for centuries. Incredible amounts of local lore and history are intimately tied to the mystique surrounding traveling Russia’s great landscape. It is said that walking Russia’s roads is like taking a trip through time itself. According to one noted author, Russia’s roads are similar to fools in that they are one of the country’s greatest misfortunes. Navigating Russia’s roadways however, is not as daunting as some legends would suggest. They only require planning, caution, defensive driving, and an amount of good common sense.
Like many industrialized nations, Russia is lacking in infrastructure improvement. The job of maintaining Russia’s roads is incredibly difficult. For this reason, Russia experiences a large number of roadway accidents and fatalities each year. This is due partially to road conditions, but more so to the inexperience and aggression of drivers. More than 350,000 deaths have occurred on Russian roadways in the past decade.
Many alternative forms of transportation are now being offered to counter the problem of Russia’s roadways. Small private airline charters offer travelers an option over the choice to drive the countryside. Many of these charters operate without the advantage of government regulation, and present many dangers to visitors themselves. Larger airline services like Aeroflot (“Аэрофлот”) however, offer reliable services throughout the country.
Traveling by Train
Light rail trains are a great way to get around Russia, but travelers should know that the types of trains taken vary in style and amenities. Transit rail that travels between metropolitan centers like St. Petersburg and Moscow are extremely modern. They offer many conveniences like restrooms and sit-down booths. Other rail vehicles in Russia reflect the locations that they serve most often. Modern Russian rail transport systems operate on strict passport schedules. This means that lines like the Red Arrow will streamline bookings with only a few days advance notice.
A significant portion of the Russian population uses rail transportation systems on a regular basis. In general, there are three types of Russian rail travel. The luxury class system includes private sleepers with beds, called as “СВ” or “люкс.”“Купе,”coup-class travel, includes certain luxuries, but has the imperative of sharing space with other travelers. The least comfortable train travel arrangement is “плацкарт.” This is an open-bunk and seat arrangement that affords little privacy, but is always affordable. Many changes to laws regarding this class of travel have been made by the Russian government. Attention is now being made regarding the varying needs of male and female travelers.
Whenever a tourist chooses to use the rail systems in Russia for cross-country travel, they elect to interact with a wide variety of people. Travelers should understand that the rails are a popular form of travel for many local people. They will likely encounter a wide array of individuals who use the train to travel for various reasons. Russian train rides are full of opportunities to share stories and languages with diverse individuals.
“Метро” is a modern rail system that has been implemented to circumnavigate the problems associated with overland train travel in Russia. This system is operated using a strict Cyrillic language system, but is available to anyone visiting Russia and who wants to avoid difficult overland routes. The Metro system is color coded for easy navigation, and localized by color code. Moscow for instance, is color-coded with brown markers and time indicators.
“Метро” is one of the main travel modes used by Russia’s working population. It is extremely busy during the rush hours of 8-9 a.m. and 5-7 p.m. Its operational hours are only closed during the waning hours of the morning, but are active from 5:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. each day. Every travel ticket price is calculated based on the number of rides you plan to take.
Russia takes pride in its Metro system. Each Metro station is adorned with attractive architecture and historically interesting features. Station “Комсомольская” is a model of baronial art, while stations “ПлощадьРеволюции” and “Киевская” feature provincial themes. Each of these stations is as extravagant and intriguing as the many museums promoted throughout the Russian city network.
The Russian Metro system includes service by bus, rail, trolley, and streetcar. Visitors should be aware that the schedules for these services are loose. It is not uncommon to wait for an hour past scheduled arrival times to connect with a vehicle. Though each mode of transport is easy to see with color-coded signs and directions, many connections can be missed. These connections only operate at night. If a connection is missed in the early morning hours, there are taxis available to cover the missed routes.
By Taxi or Bus
Catching a taxi cab in a large Russian city is a matter of phoning-in a request, and looking for a specific car model and number. This is not unlike any taxi service in any other big city, but it does require patience and watchfulness. Many of Russia’s larger cities are travel hubs. They are bustling with activity. People ordering taxi service should be constantly aware of the details surrounding their service.
Unlike many urban systems, Russian taxis are highly independent. They operate on a profit-driven basis. Taxi drivers can turn down passengers if their destinations are not profitable. This is true even for travelers making scheduled pick-ups. Fortunately, there is a vibrant network of independent car drivers who specialize in serving tourist needs. A little hitchhiking skill is needed, but travelers can find excellent city service simply by hiring local drivers. These drivers do not work for companies, but they offer extraordinary service for paying patrons. This type of private service is best utilized during daylight hours.
Pay-as-you-go buses are always operating around metropolitan areas. These are wonderful options instead of hiring a private driver. These buses meander through city routes, and stop anywhere that a paying patron desires. Simply look for a sign that indicates a bus stop and has a company moniker like “маршрутка,” look for vacant seats, and ride anywhere. Though disembarking one of these buses might require a walk to a final destination, the ride is safe, comfortable, and affordable at any hour.
A Brief History of the Moscow Metro
Debuting in 1935, the Moscow Metropolitan was constructed as a part of Soviet propaganda. With its architectural designs, a keen observer can note the real intention of the structure. It was initially intended to predict the success (“светлоебудущее” or bright future) of the empire with “свет” or light as the design principle.
The Soviet Union leaders’ busts, such as Lenin, are all over the Moscow Metro today. There are also murals in which the elements of the Soviet propaganda, including the Homo Sovieticus, can be observed. You can even say that the Metro is comparable to a Russian museum.
When it first opened, Moscow Metro ran for 6.8 miles and only had 13 stations. It is considered the first ever underground railway system in all the Soviet Union countries. Even until today, it is still mostly underground. The deepest section is believed to reach 276 feet below the surface, which is at the station “ПаркПобеды” and is currently one of the world’s deepest parts as well. However, it now has over 200 stations, and the length of the route is at least 210 miles – the fifth longest line in the world.
The Moscow Metro is among the busiest subways in the whole planet with billions of people using it each year. Indeed, the Metro holds a few bests, including a world record of accurate times for departure and arrival. The Moscow transport department claims the Metro is 99.99% on time, which is quite impressive since the interval between trains is only 90 seconds during rush hour.