“The action of Russia is
a riddle wrapped in a
mystery inside an enigma. ”
- Winston Churchill
(Which isn't always the case. The country in many ways often goes off its rails!)
In the book I leave out most of the boring, practical travel details, although that kind of information may be of great interest if you plan a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Here I'll try to be of more use. This is also where you can find the colour photographs that I had to leave out of the book.
Keep in mind that it's been a while since I went to Russia, so some of this may be outdated information!
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Some people feel the book lacks a good photo of Russians tanning themselves by standing. Although I hate to make fun of innocent people, I am happy to fulfill a wish from my readers. So, here's an example of what a morning on Cheboxary beach may look like.
I have put up some photos with captions here.
Despite the low standard of living in many parts of Russia, it is not a cheap country to travel in. Most Russians don't travel much. Whether that is the the reason or a result I don't know, but you cannot expect much value for your money as a tourist in Russia.
In order to enter Russia at all, Europeans and Americans have to be invited. Which isn't that strange, considering what a party the country is! If this hadn't been the case, everyone in the world would immediately pack their stuff and go to Russia. Haha. That was sarcasm. Anyway, you must have a visa to enter the country, and to get a visa you must first have an invitation. The easiest way to get an invitation is to book an expensive room at a hotel in Moscow. Then the hotel will be very eager to invite you.
With an invitation in hand you can apply for a visa at the Russian embassy in your country. If you want the visa the same day, it'll cost you a lot. If you can wait a couple of weeks, it'll be cheaper.
Most people enter Russia through an airport near Moscow or Saint Petersburg. You may be able to get a good price on your flight there, but if you're not careful, getting from the airport to the centre of Moscow will cost you more than the flight did! For Sheremetyevo, the cheapest option is to get on a bus from the airport (Sheremetyevo) to a metro station, and then use the metro from there to the city centre. It'll cost you less than the price of a bottle of vodka. And vodka is cheap in Russia! An option that has been added since I was there is a special express train, which takes you downtown for the equivalent of about US$10. If you really want to splurge, arrange a taxi from the fixed price taxi stand inside the terminal. It may cost US$50-60 (2013). Do not negotiate a price directly with a driver, it will cost a lot more.
Russia is a parallel universe to the rest of the world, and Moscow and Saint Petersburg is another world inside that again. While those two cities really try to be modern metropolises, with insanely high prices and high quality hotels, the rest of the country lags seriously behind. Well, at least when it comes to quality. Pricewise they're following Moscow fairly closely.
"If a good hotel room in Moscow costs two hundred dollars a night, it should cost the same here!", is what I believe hotel managers across Russia are thinking. The only problem is that they don't have many good hotel rooms east of Moscow. Most seem to have been built in the 1960s, and none of them have seen any hot water, maintenance work or soap since the end of the 1980s.
Even if there's a certain selection of hotels in the city you arrive in, they may be reluctant to let you stay there. Unless you speak Russian, most cheap places will tell you to go somewhere else. Russians are friendly people, except for when they're at work. Particularly those who work at hotels, it seems. Only the most expensive hotels will have staff that speak any English or German, and as a rule, you as a foreigner will be directed to one of these whoever you ask for directions.
A good way to save on accommodation is to travel by train by night. It gives you a good night's sleep, and the distance between two interesting places in Russia is often as much as one and sometimes even two nights of travel. The train ticket, including a bed, will usually be cheaper than one night's stay at a hotel of acceptable standards.
There are few hostels in Russia outside its two main cities. If you find a place that introduces itself as a hostel, it is likely that you soon wish you had not found it anyway. Usually these places are private initiatives, a small room for rent in a small home with very basic conditions, run by hosts that lock all doors before they go to bed at nine in the evenings. It's interesting to see how normal Russians live, but it's not so much cheaper than a hotel that it's worth trying it more than once or twice.
Never ever pay for more than one night in advance until you've actually stayed somewhere and decided you liked the place!
If you can read a little bit of Russian, you may want to try booking rooms through komandirovka.ru. It probably beats just walking around until you find something upon arrival.
It's difficult to explain how much it costs to travel by train in Russia without giving a lengthy answer. To put it short; it's cheap, safe and you'll depart and arrive at the scheduled times. There are several classes to choose between. Going by train becomes relatively more and more cheap the farther you go, but after a day and a night on a Russian train, you're probably in the mood for a break from the world of trains.
If you read Russian or feel lucky, you may try booking tickets on-line at rzhd.ru. Good luck!
How much you pay for your ticket depends on where you buy it. Some agencies arrange train tickets for you, but prepare to pay a high premium for the privilege of not having to stand in line for the tickets yourself. On the other hand, unless you speak Russian, you might not even be able to buy a ticket for yourself, so the fee to the ticket agency may be money well spent.
In the first class the compartments have two beds each, and there are nine compartments per train coach. In the second class there are also nine compartments, but there are four berths in each, the lower ones functioning as seats during the day. A third class coach is just one large dormitory with beds for about fifty people and all their children. Fourth class fortunately only exists on shorter distances and has no beds, but the three others are available for the entire Moscow - Vladivostok stretch, some 9,288.2 kilometres.
The provodnitsa, the train hostess (or the host, the provodnik), will serve you tea for a few roubles. You can also rent bed sheets from her at a low cost, and she'll change it for you every second day. She serves a basic breakfast and a small hot meal during the day, included in the ticket price. Unless you find someone nice to go and have dinner with in the restaurant wagon, there's no reason to go there. Instead you can rush out of the train whenever it makes a stop somewhere and buy edibles from people on the station. They will sell sausages, pancakes, water, soft drinks, berries and fresh fish, all depending on what's in season. It costs next to nothing, and is much more tasty than what's on offer in the restaurant wagon. Keep in mind that many of the stops are very short, so you have to be quick!
Do not play cards with men you meet on the train. You'll either lose (most likely), or you'll win, and then feel so bad about having taken money from the poor men, that you'll give the money back to them, and they'll be very embarrassed.
As I mention in my book, travelling by boat for a couple of days is a nice break from the train. Although it was more expensive than the train, it was a completely different experience, and three days with a cabin on my own on a river cruise boat worked out much cheaper than two nights at a hotel of decent standards. In addition to my own cabin, I had access to clean toilets and a noisy shower room with scaldingly hot water, having first been used to cool the engines. It was like being in a steambath!
There are way more expensive cruises available, catering mainly to European and American tourists. If you don't mind sharing a boat with happy Russians on vacation, I think you'll have a better time with the Russians.
If you're interested in the expensive options, check out cruise operators like Affordable Tours, Volga Dream and Vodohod. If you'd like to travel with the Russians, just go to Russia, find a city with a river terminal and head there and book yourself onto the very next cruise boat that passes by!
If you're happy with very basic food, mainly of the deep-fried, not so healthy kind, you can get by cheaply by eating at street stalls and beer tents that are found everywhere. If you prefer more advanced food at restaurants that actually have cutlery, it's slightly more expensive. If you want to make food yourself, and you need Western standard ingredients, it'll cost you almost the same as in Western Europe. Large cities have shops with a wide selection of imported, expensive food. The number of customers in these places is often smaller than the number of armed security guards present.
To get around in and around cities, you can do it insanely expensive by taking a taxi, or you can do it almost for free, by going on "marshrutkas". Marshrutkas are minibuses driving ("marching") back and forth along set routes, taking on and letting off passengers all the time. No matter where you're getting on and off, the price is the same, and it's low.
Apart from the accommodation, a visit to Russia is likely to cost less than you planned. The reason is that outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, there are simply no services or attractions available to tourists, so all you can do is to walk around in the cities and forests for free.
There are lots of museums in Russia, but not many that are worth visiting. They also have the bad habit of demanding an entrance fee not just for you, but also for your camera. Often it costs more to bring the camera in than to get in yourself. I guess they really don't want people to see photos of how bad their museums are. Also, as a foreigner you often have to pay much more to enter than Russians do. It just feels wrong, but when you think about it, maybe it's fair enough. Most of the time it's cheap anyway, except for in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. On the other hand, in those two cities, the museums are actually often excellent places to visit!
There's not really much on display in Russia, but here are a couple of things you may want to explore.
Well, I have to recommend the Summer in the Pity chapter from my own book, I guess. #8D)
Try to find books that have been published as recently as possible, as the valid facts in the region can change rapidly!
Apparently not many writers have been sufficiently impressed/inspired by travelling through Russia yet.