Russia (Overall thoughts/Tips)

I just want to add a few things, that I’ve probably gone over in previous blog posts, that might be handy for anyone who might want to travel to Russia.

  • Visa’s – From my experience, if you can fork out the extra dough to get one from an agency, go for it, probably less hassle in the long run, as if you done it all yourself, you would have to dick around getting invitations, there are probably going to be the odd person reading this that think I’m talking balls, but hey, its only an opinion.
  • Money – If you are in St Petersburg or Moscow, you should be okay, plenty of cash machines there, my debit card from Norn Iron worked okay there, I’m sure that plenty of others should work there too.  The girl who took my Russian class said she used her debit card down around the Black Sea, if you feel you need one or two readies before you get into Russia, you can get them in any of those bureau de changes in an airport, just know that you are probably going to get shafted exchange rate wise.
  • Language – Wouldnt do any harm to know at least a wee bit of Russian, but if you are in St Petersburg/Moscow, you could manage okay, up to a point, with English only.  Still, I would recommend knowing some русский, and at least have a fair idea of how to read the cryllic alpahabet.  Overall, St Petersburg is the easiest place for westerners, as you have the bi – lingual metro, a lot of the shops in the west, are there too.
  • Transport – Dont be a wally, and do what I did, and spend most of your time walking around.  My feet were worn out after the 2 weeks, I would wholly recommend using the metros, also, if you arent too sure of them, you can book tours of the metros first, plenty of companies/people do them, if you are a bit inexperienced in using underground subways.  Plenty of buses there too.
  • Things to see – Look up google, to see what you might find interesting, each to their own I suppose, plenty of things to do and see, just depends what floats your boat.
  • People – Like anywhere, you get people who are helpful, and people who arent, but I would say in some respects, St Petersburg and Moscow, are big melting pots – you have the natives of each city, as well as Russians from other parts of Russia, then Asians, Central/South Americans,  Europeans, the list goes on.  I couldnt really fault anyone there, if you just keep the head down, you should be fine.  In general, they are more reserved, but get a few drinks in them and they open up, just like everyone else.
  • Food/drink – I thought the prices were pretty reasonable, you have good choices between local cuisine and western fast food.  Drink is easy enough to get too.
  • Culture – I don’t think its radically different to western culture, yes its different, but its not like comparing Belfast to Bangkok.  I know some people have this idea that Russia is like the wild west, but I found it okay, mega busy in Moscow, but nothing out of the ordinary, if you’ve been to huge cities in other parts of the world.
  • Toilets – If you want to do a bit of log cabin building, just remember, you kind of have to put the toilet paper in a bin beside the toilet – isnt so bad if the bin gets emptied regularly, not so good if it was like one place I was in, full to the neck with shitty toilet paper and the odd jamrag, the smell would’ve make you gag.
  • Clothing – Winter time, thermals are a must,  big jumper, jeans, I have known people who said to wear baggier jeans in the winter, as you feel the cold more with tight jeans, not really sure if thats totally true, proably a part of it is in your head.

Theres not much more I could add at this point in time, only to say, if you want to goto Russia, its easily doable, just plan ahead, as you would with any other holiday destination, and you should have a good time!

 

Russia (Part 5 – St Petersburg….stop off before home)

 

 

Well,  I spent the final few days back in St Petersburg, got the train from Moscow, no issues, from what I could remember it was on time, no dicking around, fair enogu, you had to put your luggage through the conveyor belt security things, but it was pretty straightforward, and it seems pretty normal for train travel here.

I got checked into the hostel when I landed into St Petersburg, got a few beers, then got talking to a few Russians, an Argentinian, an Englishman, some Kiwi girl, everyone got a few beers, and then we headed out to a “club”, basically it looked like some disused building, with a cloakroom, a bar, and DJ playing some cheesey techno, or whatever genre of dance music it was.

Had a good night, felt a bit rough the next morning, actually arranged for a metro tour of St Petersburg, it was great, the tour guide was sound, really informative about the history of Russia, and made me feel at ease.  The metro itself, a beautiful place, so many things to see, home to one of the deepest metro stations in the world.  Its crazy to think that I passed through one of the  metro stops that got hit in April – R.I.P victims of St Petersburg.

I just chilled out that night, as I was leaving on the Sunday.  I asked for advice, and it seemed that the metro and a bus was a convenient way of travelling to the airport.  It seemed that way, that was until I went to get the bus, and there was no way to pay the driver (I think, with a heavy emphasis on the think, I’ve found out why – it seems that buses have conductors onboard, I’m bit wet behind the ears at times).

I thought – how am I supposed to get to the airport?  I seen a young couple, tried to speak to them in broken Russian, kind of gave up, and spoke broken English, and they understood my dilemma, the girl got on her phone, and she and her boyfriend (she said she was from Ukraine, and he was from some part of Russia that was – 50 i.e takes ball freezing to a new level) took me across the road to some McDonalds liveried bus, outside a McDonalds, I think it was the equivalent of 40 pence to get from there to the airport, an absolute bargain considering the distance it covered.

I got checked in, got the connecting flight in Amsterdam, it kind of left me thinking, the hassle of airport security, yes, I get what its for, and why we have to do it but when they spend so much on these new machines, yet you have to go through the rigmarole of taking off footwear, and get a full on pat down, where you have some jobsworth fondling your genitals.  I’ll be honest,  I’ve been through airport security in many places, been through Schiphol airport security twice, in 2006 and 2017, both times the same shitty experience.

The contrast?  when I went through security in St Petersburg, through the same machine, whatever pat down I got, nowhere near as invasive, didnt have to take off your boots, makes you wonder sometimes, why some places are so super tight, yet others are more reasonable.

When I got back home, it was 9 degrees celsius, felt like a heatwave!  So warm to what I had been used to in Russia.

 

Russia (Part 4 – Moscow)

On the Monday morning, I got the train from St Petersburg to Moscow,  I decided to get the super fast train, it was super comfy, the experience was really good, staff were courteous and helpful (coffee tasted nice too), the train was really shifting,  hit speeds in and around of 140 mph.

When I got there,  I got kind of lost, I stopped off in a shop, asked for directions, the young guy I asked for directions, he was super helpful,  got his phone out and showed me where to go,  spaseeba compadre!

I got checked into my digs, staff were super helpful, gave me maps, washed my clothes, unofficially you couldn’t drink there,  but one of the staff offered me a drink,  and made me feel at home.

It seemed in some ways that Moscow was  easier than St Petersburg for English speakers, I was still wary at times,  still having my wits about me, this being a super big city.

One of the people which worked in the hostel was from Uzbekistan, some 4000 km from Moscow, there was also a girl from Siberia, no idea what part, puts things in perspective about places being far away.

I was informed by her and another Russian guy  staying there (who was part americanised) that the way I was pronouncing no in Russian was incorrect.

You see, when westerners learn it we pronounce it “neeyet” , yet it should really be “nn-yet” , then again most people find my accent sounds garbled at the best of times.  I think they laughed even more when I tried to ask them about Russian tv series Brigada, it took them a minute to work out what I was talking about…

The more time I spent there the more I realised that to have a decent look at Moscow,  you would’ve needed a full week,  rather than the 4 days I spent there.

I seen many monuments, actually tried Русский foods, had some meat ball soup, which was nice, a few other things that I couldnt remember now, there is some buffet restaurant chain pronounced moo moo (my my), prices seemed reasonable, and plenty of choice too.

I didnt really head out at night, there wasnt that many staying at the hostel, one or two Finns, they seemed okay, but just done their own thing, I was chatting to an American, think he was from Texas, he seemed a nice enough guy, but he didnt really seem overly keen on heading out.

St Basils cathedral and the Kremlin were a sight to behold, so, so many other places to see here.   I walked down The Arbat, an old street, that has a lot of history tied into it.  There wasnt much happening when I was there, probably because of the time of year.

I would definitely recommend going to Moscow, but I would advise going there when its a bit warmer, and spending a full week there, as its so big.  Some people told me that it was grand looking, but I thought although it had all those grand sights, it seemed a whole lot more industrial, in comparison with St Petersburg.

Russia (Part 2 – St Petersburg: days 2 – 7)

I’ll start this bit off, with a word of advice.  First things first, always get registered with the first place you stay at, and if needs be, be INSISTENT, and speak clear and concise English, русский, or  whatever language you have to speak to the person you are dealing with at the place you are staying at.

Basically, because of this hitch, I had to cancel the trip to Veliky Novgorod, because I wouldve been leaving on the Friday without being registered, so I had to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg, to get it all sorted.

Moving on, my first full day was just walking around, might’ve been slightly aimless, but I seen some nice sights, and seen things that I wouldnt have normally seen.  The architecture here is really nice, very eye catching, I know that theres some redskis and bolsheviks out there who probably loathe it, but I think it helps lighten up the place, makes it more charming.

Was it cold?  Damn right!  If you avoided the wind, it wasnt too bad, as long as you wore thermals, a good hat, a big coat and some gloves.  However, when you got closer to the Neva river, it got seriously icy, in terms of feeling cold, a few times you got a chill down the back, my hands felt very numb at times, like I had hypothermia.

As for my face, I thought I was going to need a face transplant, it was that chilly, Got used to it after a few days though.

I seen plenty of things in the city, and although people might think I’m a philistine for not going to any museums, to be honest, I just couldnt be arsed, I thought it would be better to see as many attractions as I could, on foot.  In hindsight this was lunacy, as my feet were destroyed by the time I got home, and the subway here, and, I may add, in Moscow, is dirt cheap.

Things I would recommend anyone to see?  The usual things, Savior on the spilled blood, St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral, Kazan cathedral, Peter and Paul Fortress, Palace square, St Isaacs cathedral, there are plenty of other things to see, if you are unsure, google is your friend, its a great aid and help, so much to see and do.

Food wise, I was pretty damn lazy, probably because I could get away with it, if you are from the west, you have your usual McDonalds, Burger Kings, Subways etc, etc.  I’m probably ashamed to admit that this is all I ate in my first week, as my Russian was very poor, so bad that when you spoke to a shop/restaurant person in Russian, a lot of the times they spoke back to you in English.

Observations?  I was kind of led to believe that St Petersburg would be the most welcoming for westerners, considering that the subway is bi – lingual, but at times it felt like not that many people spoke English, I did get one rude person in a post office, she seemed like a dragon, but in general, people did try to help you, even if sometimes it wasnt of much use.

Seeing so much more ppolice about was, a little intimidating, especially when you went into the main train station, and weree going through metal detectors, but once you got through it, it was okay;  different, but as long as you werent acting the maggot you were fine.

I didnt head out to that many bars, because of the language barrier, as far as dealing with Russians in the hostel, it felt like, at first, they were cautious, reserved, but once you got to know them, and got a few beers in them, they were more open, and seemed pretty sound.

Russia (Part 1 – planning of trip and day 1)

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At the start of the year, I spent two weeks in Russia, it took a bit of planning, but overall it was definitely worth it!

Starting off, I had to make some sort of plan, but I find if you become too rigid, it can interfere with your holiday, becoming a bit of a chore.  The Idea was to fly into St Petersburg, spend 4 nights there, go down to Veliky Novgorod for 3 nights, then spend 4 nights in Moscow, and finally back up to St Peterburg.

Once I had an initial plan, the next step was booking flights, and getting the “de rigueur” visa sorted.  I decided at this stage, to get a visa through one of those agencies, I knew that they would charge more that if I cut out the middle man, but it meant a bit more flexibility and less hassle, and as far as getting the visa processed, they were first class, if anyone out there ever needs to use them, http://visaworld.ie/ come highly recommended.

I then got the flights sorted out, getting a connecting flight in Amsterdam, same thing the way back.  I started to learn a bit of Russian, well, tried to, it was a struggle, as I have a bit of a stutter, and it takes a while to get your head around a different alphabet, and sometimes forgetting that some letters look the same, but sound different.  I did eventually learn a few phrases, and a few words that would come in handy

It was interesting trying to learn it, as the teacher in class (she was from Siberia), gave me a few tips for going over there, and one of the other people in the class gave me a map of St Petersburg, and more advice for travelling there which came in very handy.

Because it was going to be Janurary, I had to get my thermals sorted too.  I also had to sort out travelling between the major places, and got my tickets booked, even though one of them went to waste.  The website http://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en/main-pass/public/en/ was invaluable, especially as it allowed you to plan things out a lot easier.

As the trip neared, although I was looking forward to it, there was slight trepidation, but its better to be more cautious, than be gung ho and bale into somewhere, without putting any thought into where you are going.

The flights went without a hitch, got into St Petersburg, and although I felt a bit nervous, when going thorugh border control, or whatever equivalent of it was, strangely, it felt a whole lot more stragithforward that going to the USA.

All it amounted to was handing over the passport (which had the visa stuck on one of the pages inside of it), some person, sitting in a booth looked at you, then gave you a migration card (really its just one quarter of an A4 page), and voila, you are in Russia!(note – just make sure you get registered when you land in at your first place of stay, can be a bit of hassle if you dont, will talk about it later)

After that, I went to book a taxi, and thought this would be a good opportunity to use whatever Russian I learnt, but as I got to the front of the queue, I chickened out, as the counter girl seemed in a bit of a pissy mood, and no one in front of me had spoken any Russian.

I got the taxi booked, the taxi drivers English was even more non existent than my broken Russian, he took me to where I was staying which was no mean feat, as Nevsky Prospect was chock a block, with people out buying stuff in the new years markets and the like.  I got settled into the hostel, it seemed a bit rough and ready, and got an early night.