Yes that’s right folks, Covid-19 keeps us all tightly away in our homes, but it doesn’t mean you can’t travel – just that now you’ll have to be content with virtual travel. That means coming along with me, today to the world’s largest country of Russia, as I take you to places that thanks to lockdowns and most of the world’s flights being cancelled, you couldn’t go to even if you wanted to.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, there are few places on this Earth I wouldn’t travel to if I had the chance. Yep even North Korea holds a curiosity for me, the only issue I would have would be going to places where security is a major concern. Syria maybe, Iraq maybe, Somalia, maybe DRC… but that’s as of now. Well, okay much of the world is a concern when it comes to you know what.
Russia though is the journey of the day, a country that I have visited three times and still seen only a tiny fraction of. Because it stretches from Europe to almost Alaska. To really get to know it you’d need years I reckon. And considering I’ve been back to St Petersburg and Moscow, I have not used my time to cover much of it.
See, just writing the intro now reminds me that I still really want to head up north. To the Arctic Circle, Murmansk, I reckon it would be really interesting. And I for one prefer the cold to the heat. But back to my experiences.
One Country, Three Visits
Last time I visited was a couple of years ago, and I engaged in my favourite form of travel – train travel! And yes, of all countries in the world, Russia is the one that allows you to stay on the rails for as long as you can imagine. I cheated – I went through China and Mongolia to get there, but you can of course start from the far east – Vladivostok or even Magadan for the extra adventurous which are further from Moscow. And then why not continue all the way to St Petersburg??
It’s a great country to explore by rail. BUT – you may be happier that it has been me rather than you on two-day train trips if you don’t share my over enthusiasm for the conveyance that is train!
Train is the Way to Go!
Although – train is a great way to meet people. On the Trans-Mongolian train I met a lot of people, especially other travellers on the same or similar routes. But also I met locals, and was force-offered vodka (naturally) by my cabin mates. I’m not sure it helped me sleep, but it allowed me to muddle through conversations with them even though I only knew a few words in Russian and they knew a similar amount in English.
The Russian psyche is one that visitors worry about, that everyone they meet is going to be unfriendly. But that is not the case at all. Many people from this part of the world take time to let their guards down and open up to others. But when they do they are some of the warmest and most generous people you will meet travelling this great globe.
Money and Clothes
So the Russian Ruble has not had the best time over the years since the Soviet Union disbanded. Still, there are shakier currencies out there and I found that generally I was always able to find a ‘Bankomat’ (a rather cute name for an ATM) when I needed to get out some money in towns or cities. Otherwise I exchanged cash at the borders – I crossed the Estonian border in 2007 and in 2017 obviously the border with Mongolia, although I think there was an ATM there too.
I also have only been to Russia in the cooler times of the year. Not the dead of winter, but April, May and October. Although in May it was warming up to mid-20s in Moscow for a couple of days which was really nice, I generally found that multiple layers, beanies etc were the go. One thing any visitor should be aware of is that heating, when it’s on, is very effective in Russia, at least in hotels. For example, Yekaterinburg was giving me daily maximums of single digits Celsius, but the hotel room was mid-twenties if not more. I would have the window open and only needed a t-shirt and shorts inside.
Get Your Visa First!
One thing I’ve had to do three times to get into Russia was to organise a visa. To do this I had to get an invitation – organised by a travel company (Real Russia is the one I used in 2017) or sometimes your accommodation can do it (I did it through my hostel the other two times). Once you have your invitation, you complete a pretty exhaustive form, send it with payment and passport to the embassy and then wait. There is talk though that Russia is going to make visa-free arrangements for some circumstances, such as if you fly in and out of St Petersburg and only stay a short while. Fingers crossed but right now they won’t be bothering with any such changes!
Places I’ve been in Russia, in summary!
So let’s imagine my three trips to Russia were one, and let’s bundle them into one approximately five to six week adventure.
See – From Mongolia to Russia
So. Naushki is the border town just on the Russian side on the Mongol border – if your on the train at least and I was lucky (?) enough to spend a few hours there whilst waiting for the connecting train. A single carriage sat at the station – the one I had been on – to be joined to the Russian train to Irkutsk and the few – all foreigners – people who arrived in the carriage were left to wander the little dusty town. No there is nothing of note there, it really was a sort of ‘Twilight Zone’ location. But there were a couple of cafes and minimart. Mostly unsealed roads … but when I was there there was a sort of memorial day happening and the young soldiers were in uniforms in the street and then…
Irkutsk & Listvyanka at Lake Baikal
Just to the west of the amazing Lake Baikal is the city of Irkutsk. I was on the train and a regular visitor to the town mentioned it was the most boring place on Earth. But it’s not and I actually really liked Irkutsk. It’s leafy and charming in a very Russian way, with lots of wooden buildings, some beautiful churches and this amazing ice breaker boat which is now a museum. Some of the historic houses are mini-museums in themselves.
Listvyanka is a lakeside town right on Lake Baikal, a local bus ride from Irkutsk and an easy daytrip. Looks like a great place to be in the summer, plenty of places to stay and a camp ground.
See – Ekaterinburg
A couple of nights on the train gets you to Yekaterinburg. This is a pleasant city, with a great observation deck that shows you the whole city. It’s a city, and there are some nice places to eat. It is most famous for being the place where the Romanaov Family was executed when the Soviet Union began over 100 years ago now. There’s a museum about it all, and as in all Russian cities, you can find some interesting and beautiful churches, and an ‘idol’ museum.
See – Moscow, City of Wow!
Moscow, the Russian capital, is everything you have imagine it to be and more. Full of monuments, the Kremlin, churches, theatres and so much more you could easily spend a week or more exploring it. The first time I went I wasn’t a huge fan, but last time I went I loved it. And getting to see Lenin is… an experience. I also loved hunting out Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’ – monolithic buildings dotted about the city. Taking the Metro is an experience in itself, and then you can catch a concert – I caught some brilliant Tchaikovsky at the theatre named after the man.
And then you have Saint Petersburg. My personal favourite, all the way in Western Russia. With the Hermitage, one of the world’s most incredible museums housed in the palace that used to be where the Tsar ruled from. Nevsky Prospect is the main avenue which has all the shopping, from Hermitage to the train station. There’s the serene Nevsky Monastery too, worth a visit, and so much more. There is something so special about this city – if you only can get to one place in Russia in your life, make it Saint Petersburg!
So there you have. Russia. Wish I’d got to more, but I suspect one day I will return! Thanks for visiting – and May the Journey Never End!