Notes for the travellers in Russia
Whether you are travelling to Russia for the first time or are a regular visitor to this vast country you can be certain that any journey in Russia will lead to new adventures and that you will return home with many traveller’s tales to tell.
Russia today is a very different place to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago as with each year it becomes more open and receptive to foreign tourists. Visitors to Russia may still have to overcome a few more bureaucratic hurdles than could reasonably be expected for travelling to an open country but once you are passed the visa politics the tourism industry in Russia and the supporting infrastructure have developed to a level now where even non-Russian speaking tourists can travel to the distant wilds that would have been unreachable before.
English and to a lesser extent German are now widely spoken to a high level across Russia as tour operators develop to meet the growing flow of tourists from Europe and the US. Tour operators are also shifting their marketing focus to attract interested visitors from the west which has lead to a sharp growth in the amount of information available about travelling and tours in Russia and Siberia. As might be expected, some of this information and its presentation can be very questionable but it is open to the interpretation of the responsible traveller as to what is reliable and what may be less than authentic information. In Russia, there is not as yet the same regulation of tour companies as we may take for granted in Europe or America, so whilst I don’t want to paint all tour companies in Russia as cowboy operators it does pay to play on the side of caution and do that extra bit of research when surfing through the pages and pages of tour operator websites in Russia.
Making your journey
Making any journey in Russia, be it long or short, travelling by train is not only still the most iconic way to travel but also one of the easiest, most reliable and most enjoyable ways to cross the mindboggling distances in this country.
There rail network is extensive with regular departures going to and from anywhere you can find on a map, especially if you are travelling in western Russia or along the Trans-Siberian heartland. Despite the distances covered and the ‘days’ taken to reach your destination, the trains are surprisingly punctual and are rarely late by any significant amount. Being on board for longer journeys will also mean that you will get to know quite a few of your fellow passengers in your little ‘wagon community’.
With the modern day restaurant cars not quite living up to the stories of their former well stocked selves the Russians come prepared for their journeys bringing enough jars and pots of food to ensure that no one in the carriage would go hungry. I have always found my fellow cabin travellers to be more than generous with sharing their food and especially with a foreign tourist. Having something of your own to offer in return always seemed to make the atmosphere a little lighter even though your fellow travellers will probably refuse your offer profusely saying that you will need all the food you can get so that you grow up big and strong to survive the Russian wilds.
Buying train tickets can still pose something of a challenge, once you have found the right ticket window and joined the right queue (watch out for the teams of granny babushkas who each stand in a different ticket queue and then all flock together when one of them make is to the front of their queue…there’s no hope for the plucky tourist who starts complaining about ‘pushing in’ either). The ladies behind the ticket window have certainly become a lot more cooperative and patient with foreign travellers but it still pays to have your journey (point of departure and destination, train number or approx. time and day of departure, upper or lower bunk) written down, in Russian if possible.
If you are on a sleeper train then it is worth bearing in mind that you can choose an upper or lower berth, both of which have their pros and cons on a long journey (there are even side berths if you travel 3rd class / platzkartnii but these are best avoided if possible). Also, try and ask for low numbered berths as these will be nearer the teapot and carriage caretaker or provodnitsa and away from the bin and slamming door at the other end of the carriage.
Flying has now become an alternative worth considering if you need to get to your destination quicker than the train will take you. There are flights to and from most major destinations and tickets can now be bought online. Prices vary so it is worth checking all options but some great value tickets can be found online (sometimes at special online prices).
If it is your first journey to Russia or if you are thinking of joining an ‘outward bounds’ tour then you should be prepared to experience some cultural differences. Russian tour ‘expeditions’ are certainly more rugged and without the home comforts that might be expected on a similar outing in Europe or America. The hiking and camping tours that I have joined in Russia didn’t even flinch at terrain or distances that would be considered ‘challenging’ elsewhere. There is also not the same overbearing focus on health & safety as is common place in Europe and the US. This is not to say that I have ever felt that a Russian tour group has been lead recklessly or put lives in danger. There is just a different mindset, focussed on enjoying the great outdoors and not constrained by rules and regulations.
These are just the impressions of a European tourist who has spent a lot of time travelling through Russia and a few thoughts on cultural differences that you might encounter that I hope will be of some value to anyone taking a trip to this grand country and its wilder inner reaches.
Alastair Lock, GB (London)