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Tips for travelling to Russia

Early September I spent 2 weeks travelling across Russia, covering over 5,200km by train on this itinerary. It was only my second visit to this vast country, after having done a short tour to Moscow & St. Petersburg in 1990. Find below my top tips for travelling to Russia as a World Heritage Traveller.

1. Incorporate different regions in your itinerary

I’d recommend to not focus solely on the Moscow region or the Moscow/St. Petersburg corridor. Although it has the highest density of WHS in the country, it has a very common European vibe and many of the sights do feel a bit similar. Already after a few days I was beginning to dread visiting yet another white church with a golden dome. Incorporating parts of the South and the East in your itinerary, though these regions are very much Russified as well, will bring you in touch with different cultures and landscapes. Bolgar and Lake Baikal became the highlights of my trip.

2. You don't have to be afraid of the language barrier anymore

A few weeks before my departure I started doing daily Russian lessons via Duolingo. And I added the offline version of Google Translate to my phone, so I could take snapshots of things like signs and menus. Furthermore, the Ruceks and Alexander Barabanov reached out to me to offer help in case of trouble. But in the end, I found it all very easy on the language side. Most young people that I encountered did speak English. There were signs in English most of the time. The hosting of the 2018 World Cup seems to have been beneficial to this wider spread of foreign languages (Chinese signs can also be found). My efforts with Duolingo proved to be futile by the way, when in a conversation do you ever need a sentence like “The cat drinks milk”?

3. Enjoy the long distance train-subculture while you still can

It may be a matter of time before low cost flights will replace long distance trains in Russia, as they did in other parts of the world. But in 2019 the Russian Railways is still an institution with its own rituals and customs. But they did away with the ‘Moscow time everywhere’ rule recently and restrict access to the platforms so no more babushka’s selling food will be awaiting you. Although you do not see that much along the way, I would not have missed riding the Transsiberian as a once in a lifetime experience. I booked my train tickets beforehand via Real Russia. The advantage of a specialist like this is that you can reserve tickets before they become publicly available and they will supply you with an invitation letter for your Russian visa.

4. Look out for those communist leftovers

One of the characteristics that sets Russia apart from its European neighbours is its Soviet Architecture and other remnants of communist days. Every city seems to hold on to its Lenin statue in a prominent place, although it must be said that he is the only one of the former Soviet leaders that is still more or less revered. At a restaurant near the shore of Lake Baikal I was so lucky to taste ‘Baikal’, the Soviet counterpart of Coca-Cola. It looks like it and tastes similar, though after a few sips an unusual herbal aftertaste comes through.

5. You don't need a fat wallet

Russia still is an inexpensive country to travel in. Especially food, entrance fees and local transport are cheap. A local simcard can be bought for next to nothing. What I found remarkable on the money front as well is the high density of possibilities for mobile and contactless payments. I just could tap my Dutch bank card everywhere to pay for groceries, metro tickets etc.

Els - 27 October 2019

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