Arriving in Russia, during winter, as an unseasoned traveller is a daunting experience. Many of the well travelled people I’ve met recently have said Russia is the hardest place they’ve ever visited, so as a first timer I was comforted to know that I wasn’t alone in finding the going tough.
It is however a vast, intriguing country that is still struggling to find its cultural identity in a post communist, pro-capitalist era. With a mixture of seventies style concrete soviet tower blocks, ornate and intricate cathedrals and churches, luxury high street stores in St Petersburg and Moscow and sprawling Siberian scenery that goes on for days, there is so much to see and do if you are prepared to seek it out.
From my short time there, here’s a few observations for any Russia rookies:
- If you expect anyone to say please or thank you…you will be disappointed
- If you expect anyone to smile at you…you will be disappointed
- Learning Cyrillic will reduce your chances of feeling isolated and offer a much more rewarding experience (And no, I didn’t!) If you have at least a clue what a bank, cafe, pub, museum or hotel looks like from the outside (and it is not always as obvious as you think!) that is half the battle
- Take a guide book and Russian dictionary…you will use both and it will enhance your chances of striking up a conversation (and once you do you will find people thaw and are generous and friendly)!
- Be prepared to pay more as a “foreigner”. It grates and you will feel hard done to, but get over it and just go with the flow
- If your guide book translates maps to English, get a Russian street map or tourist map – the road signs are in cyrillic (where there are any)
- Be VERY careful when crossing the road, pedestrians are very much second class citizens
- Eat Borsch (Beetroot and carrot soup with beef in), Bilini (pancakes) sample Vodka, eat a meat or mashed potato doughnut (yes, doughnut with mash in it!) and try smoked Omul at lake Baikal and you will have pretty much tasted the main Russian delicacies. The food is for fuel and not fancy
- Take cash rather than cards or travellers cheques. Its easier and smaller shops and cafes prefer it. British Pounds and Euros get a better exchange rate than the US dollar
- Visit the metro stations…many of the ornate stations in Moscow are something to see and give the London Underground a run for its money
- Book a guide or an interpreter for some or all of your trip. Tourist attractions cater only for Russian speakers and without any English explanation museums are not worth the entry fee. Guides are also invaluable for finding trains, explaining tickets and making the most of the time you have available
- Be prepared for some less than PC views on race, religion and sexuality
Above all go with an open mind and expect the unexpected! It is an interesting and overwhelming place and would recommend a visit at any given opportunity (but if you go in Winter, make sure you pack your warmest wardrobe!).