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HOME > Russia   

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Russia travel info

16 days, dec 2003- jan 2004

For more about Russia (San Petersburg) visit also my San Petersburg 05 travel


Kind of travel:
A wholly independent travel

heart of the 2003 winter

How I moved:
mainly by train, sometimes by bus

Where I slept:
on the train and in old soviet style hotels; (there's nothing cheaper)

How much:
travelling in Russian is NOT cheap at all, mainly for the accomodations. Consider at least a budget of  45euro/day; being two people help to share the expenses since most of the time there are not single rooms

Baking or freezing?
freezing obviously (-20 +4)

drunk people and loosing the patience dealing with the people

What I liked:
the charming atmosphere on the train, the frozen  Volga and the unexpected safety, it turned out a very off-of-the-beaten-track travel

What I disliked:
the rough attitude of the people

What you do need:
warm clothes (see below), to be able at least to read cyrillic and PATIENCE dealing with Russians!! And you cannot miss to read: 'In Siberia' by Colin Thubron



For me Russia has always been a kind of mystery every time I looked at the globe: almost 150 millions of people living in17 millions of square meters, an huge area rarely named, as something non-existent. In addition the idea of this land covered by ice and snow during the winter really charmed me.
I wanted to travel in Russia, to come back with an idea of its immensity; that's why I skipped S. Petersburg and I had a quick view to Moscow, preferring moving inland towards east till entering in Asia.


Lonely Planet says:" In Russia your fun will be proportional to your skill in reading and speaking the language". In September I started studying Russian for more than 3 months. It has been quite tough, but I liked it (I still like since I'm carrying it on) anyway at the end I can say LP statement turned out to be true! It's very important at least to be able to read cyrillic.


Another important point was to decide about the clothes. Looking the average winter temperature in Russia is quite scaring and thinking to backpack there even more. My outfit was: a pair of trekking shoes with thick socks, loetard under the pants, very expensive thermal shirts under a sweater that in turn was under a warm swedish jacket, a cap (often double), a scarf (sometimes I wore the mask to shelter the chin and the mouth) and two pairs of gloves. I've never frozen up apart from the hands every time I needed to take off the gloves, namely to take a picture or to show the passport that happened very often. But frankly I've been lucky since in such period the temperatures stayed over the average (between -5 C and -12 C, apart -18 C in Moscow the last day) so I've never faced the real coldness (luckily!). Anyway, as I presumed, the hands and the feet were the most critical parts (here for more tips).
I also carried my ice skates from Italy hoping to skate over the frozen Volga, but I left them in Moscow since my backbag was too heavy. At the end it turned out a wise idea in fact in 16 days I've never seen a "skateble area"


Visa are always a pain in the ass, and the russian one particularly!!!You need patience and money, but nowadays it's possible to get a visa to travel freely in the country without being obliged to book in advance the accommodation.
Here are the steps:

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  • in you find the forms to get the invitation ($30 (11/03)). In the form you've to indicate the itinerary. I wrote one completely different than the one I did, but in the visa it's not specified so it seems what you write doesn't make a difference. I wondering what's the purpose.

  • When you've got the invitation and the voucher by email bring them to the nearest russian embassy or consulate. Don't forget to bring all the other documents they request: passport, photos, sanitary insurance, flight tickets. Pay an amount of money depending on the days you can wait for the visa (in Milan for 1 day $ 250, for 8 days $30 (11/03)) than you can go and get it.

  • Do you really think is over?? Nooooooo, you must register your presence once you are in Russia by 72 hours. You can do in a hotel or, like me, waste one morning doing it in an agency in Moscow, which address you must request to the agency who sent you the visa. Of course it costs!! $20 for two registration, but at least it took few minutes.

Total cost of the 30 days visa: $80, but I was free as a bird!!!!!!!!

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I arrived in Moscow was for one day I have been guest of a russian friend of her. I had to get the visa registrated, to leave the not-essential stuffs of my too heavy backbags, to learn how to read the complex train schedule and how to buy a train ticket, then I was ready to head toward the Urals!!!
I remember clearly the night I left: the long train waiting on the side of the snowed and frozen platform, where the "pravadnitsa" (the women who look after for each carriage on the train) were standing to check carefully the ticket and the passport of any passenger. I was looking forward to get on the warm train while I had to took off one of the two pairs of gloves to hand my document to this serious tough woman and finally she let us on: this was the beginning of the travel. After 8 hours in a snowy and cold morning I got off the train in Nizhny Novgorod. It was wonderful to walk still in the darkness through the town while huge snowflakes were covering everything, frozen Volga included. I walked few hours before finding a cheap hotel (1300 rubl =45 $ for a double (12/2003)) where I could warm up my frozen bodies.
I spent two days hanging out in the town, visiting the Kremlin, the Volga riverbank, downtown and of course drinking the typical russian cafe with milk (cafè c malakò). But my best memories are the trips on the funny trams, where, at random you could get on the cold vagon, so cold that the windows were frozen inside, or the warm ones, so hot that I felt to be in an overheated oven!! While concerning the outdoor temperature it wasn't so bad since in Nizhny Novgorod it has never dropped below -11 C.
Time was flying and I had to leave again towards Kazan, the capital of the Tatarstan region. Definitely being the most caratheristic town, Kazan has been my preferite one of the whole trip. The colorful trams seeming like sliding on the snow, the big outdoor market where you can find everything you need (if you dare to take off your gloves and remove the ice layer that covers the displayed goods). But the best was the white endless frozen Volga where I walked for hours reaching the fishermen who fished in the small holes through the ice.
It has been a long travel by train (15 hours, 800 rubl= 26$) the one who took us to Yekaterinburg, where I arrived in the middle of a windy night.
Yekaterinburg is a big industrial town, one of the ones closed to the stranger till the 1991, being centers of the military and nuclear research during the cold war. Frankly after Kazan it appeared us being a kind of unexpressive town where it is difficult to focus a downtown or some typical features. Anyway 50 km north of Yekarinburg I visited a nice typical rural small town called Revda, whose images of the kids dragging sledges loaded with water tanks, or of the colourful smoking wooden houses plunged in the snow are still my best memory of the russian countryside.
Time was flying and the 2003 was about to be over. I spent the new years eve in one of the main square of Yekaterinburg, in a kind of entertainment park built by ice, where you can slide down several meters high ice slides and surely experience the fun of smashing against somebody drunk crawling on your way.
My last leg before coming back Moscow was Samara a town 25 hours far from Yekaterinburg heading south-west. Although it is definitely not a touristic highlight and no agency would suggest it (frankly no agency would suggest you the whole trip) I liked it. I felt really off-of-the-beaten-track, in a place where you can enjoy the russian style of life: walking on the Volga riverside and crossing it on foot, seeing all the kids sliding down the slopes in the parks, eating some strange fried stuff at the funfair, poking around in the indoor market buying caviar, salami, smoked fish, in one word: travelling.

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Get out from the airport I had a positive impression about Russia: nobody bothered me to take a taxi or any kind of other service, further on the minibus I met a funny man with who I tested my first words in russian and, probably surprised by my efforts, took me to the metro paying us the ticket.
The continuation of the travel confirmed my initial impression that Russians don't seemed surprised or became curious seeing a stranger, so you don't feel peered walking in place such as stations or outskirts. While this "indifference" towards me, walking with a huge backbag and speaking an unknown language, let me to feel at ease almost everywhere, on the opposite unfortunately I found almost everybody I dealt with quite rude and unpatienced. I did every effort to try to communicate in their language, but from their own almost nobody strove a bit to understand, but started shouting roughly, as very upset by the difficulty of the communication. This happened to me so many times in so different situations: buying the ticket (a big effort!!), on the train with the "pravadnitsa" (the sleeping car chief), asking to somebody an information on the road or at the bus station, buying some food at the market, registering the visa, paying for the room of the hotel, ordering at the restaurant, in the shops. (read the story) I noticed that this rudeness was normal even among them; on the opposite dealing with me many times they seemed softer, simply they stopped yelling before because I didn't answer, or maybe they were sweetened by the fact I greeted and smiled before starting to speak; sometimes they seemed surprised and a little upset (or maybe embarrassed) by such kindness, like something they were not used.
Definitely greeting is not the preferred habit in the russian land. They should learn by Africans; in Mali it took about one minute to exchange the greetings to the respective families with everybody they meet walking. It was nice, but not a pleasure since it happened while your brain was toasted under a 50 C sun; in Russia maybe you would freeze up, but at least wouldn't fry! :-)
I think such rudeness is their way of communicate, I mean their normal attitude, but for a stranger something so hard to get used to. Anyway several times I found out behind this thick bark an helpful person whose helpfulness didn't match with his tone and expression. So I ended up with my personal explanation: when you deal with a Russian, his not promising external attitude could not be representative of his real intention!!!!!
The real exception I met was the family in Moscow where I have been guest for a bunch of days. They turned out to be so kind with us, despite stilll now, I think, they don't still figure out what the hell there's of such interesting for an Italian in getting to Yekaterinburg, Samara, Perm to see the russian people in the winter time!!!!! :-)
(Thanks Miscia and Irina!!!!!)
For instance I remember the guy who, getting off the train in the darkness in N. Novogorod, seemed quite upset to suggest us a hotel. Then he grabbed one of my heavy backbag and started walking fastly inside the station, where he stopped saying seriously he wouldn't have got out if I hadn't worn the cap, since it was cold (funny innit??). I thanked, but no way to get rid of him. He proceed outside and without saying a word he walked for a quarter of hour in a snowy cold night, while I was behind him wondering where he was heading and if I was supposed to follow him. After a while I ended up at a hotel outside which I seriously greeted and disappeared.
One normal russian behaviour among the people is to push like hell getting on and off the means of transport, especially minibus and metro. I think you don't need to travel till the Urals to experience it, since Moscow is enough to understand what means to have no pity for anybody getting off the underground. The funny thing is that it's considered so normal that nobody complains or gets angry if you smash him against the others pushing from the back. In Italy one time would be enough to end up in a brawl.
One positive characteristics I noticed was that people tend to be very honest as concerns the money, in particular in the prices and in the change. It has never happened they charged me more being a foreign, even the poor and frozen women of the stalls said my the standard price, that I knew since I listened speaking to the other customers. And sometimes as happened when I forgot getting the change, they joined me to give me it, obviously yelling.

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The disappointment I got by the people was fully compensated by the memory I still carry for the russian trains. In Russia trains are the main mean of transport and the huge distances turn in very long travel through the endless russian land, hence trains become a kind of house for the Russians.
Before travelling here I expected to wait hours freezing up at the stations for trains that nobody knows when they arrive, or to buy tickets for placed already busy by somebody else. Nothing of all these things. Trains are very punctual, even in very long travels, and the ticket system is very efficient. What can be quite difficult, especially for the first times, is to buy the tickets, since the serious woman beyond the window of the ticket office presumes you say her the number of your train, don't expect she will find the train for your destination, for this you must translate the schedule... good luck! (read the funny story)
Even the condition of the train stations surprised me positively. Also the ones of the big cities were clean and well organised, and apart from the drunks I didn't find any bothering person. Anyway stations still remain the main place in the towns from where you must keep out as much as possible.
You can have overnight travels in first class (never experienced.sigh.I'm too poor L ), second class (kupè) and third class (platzcart), my preferred one!!! Third class means a sleeping car with 54 beds without compartments. Maybe it could sound spooky, but I promise you, I felt at ease. First of all russian trains are clean and tidy since the woman in charge of controlling each sleeping car (the pravadnitsa, (provodnitsa)) usually is very efficient. It's right the pravadnitsa the character who you'll have to deal with for everything you need while travelling on her sleeping car. It's a russian woman so forget smiles, greetings and every other sign that could show humanity, but, most of the time you won't get disappointed by the way she keeps the sleeping car. For example it was a morning I was travelling on the train from Yekaterinburg to Samara when I experienced the cleaning time in the sleeping car: a serious pravadnitsa entered, obviously without asking, and pushed everybody out while hoovering and, dragging her vacuum cleaner, moving everything she found on her way. Then, after one minute she moved to another compartment leaving my well cleaned.
The pravadnitsa is also the person who wakes you up and takes you a cafe when you reach your destination, even if it's in the middle of the night. The cafe, in particular the cafe with milk, will soon became your best travel mate when you are on russian trains. In fact in every sleeping car there's a Samovar, a huge (1 meter high) cup containing boiling water heated by a fire burning underneath it. If you have your own cup you can get as much as you want hot water for free and using some very cheap Nestlè powder, you can prepare your cafe.
One thing that I really didn't expected was the unbearable hot temperature inside the trains. Many nights I slept so bad for the hot and in particular for dry air that I was looking forward to getting off for some fresh air. What I can suggest you is to bring light cloth and some water.
I like travelling by train, and particularly on the russian ones in the winter time. I remember once in the evening when the train stopped in a small station and looking for some food for my dinner I got off. It was cold, so I opened the heavy wooden door to enter the station hall. The hall was high cold and almost empty, apart from few drunks crouched on the chairs; it seemed time stopped forty years ago there. Dominating everything there was a huge map of the russian railway painted on the wall, as to remember how small was such place compared to the immensity of Russia: once again I felt a point on the map, and I wondered how representative could be the small part of Russia I was travelling in compared to the whole. I would have stopped there to peer every corner of places such these discovering a reality different than the one of the cities, but where to sleep and how to move in such places with so tough weather conditions? A lot of time during this travel I felt the temperature like a kind of constraint for my curiosity of wandering everywhere, like a kind of big window that let you to see but not to explore such places. However the snow and the ice were the charming ingredient of the landscape and I don't think it would have been the same without.

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