“Russia is big. Damned big. Getting a real sense of the place is almost impossible, even though only a relatively small part of the country is actually inhabited, and open to visitors. Even if you only want to see ‘European Russia’, it’s still bigger than the rest of the continent put together.
The fact is, though, there are only a very few places that are worth travelling hundreds or thousands of kilometers to see, and almost all of them can be reached by train. Between the former capital, Saint Petersburg, and the current capital, Moscow, the former is of course the more interesting. You could easily spend a week here and have things to see all day every day.
Moscow didn’t strike me as such a big deal, but it’s still worth a visit, because you sense that it’s the capital of a vast empire. Nor is it just a decaying old communist metropolis, as I’d long pictured it, but an evolving, ‘westernizing’ city. In the countryside, meanwhile, the further east we go, the fewer sights there are to see, and those that do exist aren’t all that impressive. It’s relatively easy to get almost everywhere, but finding out how to do so isn’t so easy. As a rule, if the train doesn’t go there, it isn’t worth visiting (the exception is Baikal).
The habit of listing everything according to central, ‘Moscow’ time is extremely annoying, but you just have to get used to it. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and end up having to spend two full days in the world’s most boring city, Krasnoyarsk. I recommend the night train, because in terms of attractions, most cities are worth no more than a few hours.
Nightlife in Russia is totally different to what we’re used to in the West, but I’d only recommend sampling it in the larger cities. The Trans-Siberian Railway is no longer the week-long vodka party most people imagine, for the simple reason that ordinary people can no longer afford to travel on it. It’s a very boring, stimulus-free journey, and there’s hardly even anything interesting to see from the window either – just the endless forests. The only excitement comes with the arrival of an occasional settlement.
Public transport coverage in cities is excellent, but it’s a good idea to buy a guidebook that includes minibuses, because communication can be difficult. Timetables and route maps are extremely convoluted in the countryside, and the largest cities are enormous. It’s almost impossible to get around on foot in cities, and the taxi drivers are cheats, so get yourself a Lonely Planet. It also doesn’t hurt to have some sort of GPS that shows where you’re going, because there’s usually no indication of which stop you’re at. This is obviously even more true when you take a taxi, but it depends on the city.
Unless you speak good Russian you probably won’t get to know the locals, because though contrary to popular opinion they aren’t hostile towards foreigners, hardly any of them speak a foreign language. Locals in big cities aren’t too friendly, but in smaller towns and villages people are extremely hospitable, and you can always count on being invited in for a drink. Only a small percentage of young people can speak English, but those who do are remarkably fluent. Since the Russian media is more or less a brainwashing device, English-language media is almost the only way they can get information about the more ‘normal’ half of the world.
Many people are afraid of the internet and where it leads. If you do get into a conversation with a young person who has more than two braincells, the conversation is likely to quickly turn to politics, and you’ll begin to see that life in Russia, especially in rural areas, is both bleak and unpredictable. The situation has gotten so bad in recent years that many can’t even afford the train fare, meaning that they’re stuck in their small towns and can’t get to Moscow. Many people are extremely thirsty for some other news than what they’re fed by their leaders. I was pleasantly surprised by the attitude of the young people I met.
If you’re waiting for a bus, don’t be surprised if an old lady pushes you right in front of it, because she has to be first on to get the seat. No one pays any attention to others – they focus exclusively on themselves. This is equally true on the roads, so avoid driving if you can.
Accommodation is expensive and not high quality. You can find a lot of cheap, terrible places, but be cautious with booking.com. You can sleep well on the train, which saves a lot in accommodation costs, but for the above-mentioned reasons I’d rather recommend Couchsurfing, and you can expect an invitation everywhere except the two biggest cities. Be aware: hosts will often want to have a real conversation with you, so put aside some time for that as well.
Eating and drinking costs approximately the same as in most Central and Eastern European countries, but you can find gold in the little eateries. I lived in these places, and came out with more money than if I’d shopped for groceries in the supermarket. A little bit of adventurous spirit doesn’t hurt when it comes to such places, especially if you don’t speak Russian.
It’s difficult to talk about ‘Russian cuisine’ – this is a country, after all that spans half the world. Some ethnic groups have their own cuisine, and you should absolutely try them. It’s possible to eat very well in Russia, and cheaply. But try to avoid too much drinking! You can buy vodka for about the price of tap water, but whoever drinks it deserves what they get.
Prices are generally similar to Central Europe, or maybe a bit higher, but if you’re clever you can find ways to stretch your money out further here. Eateries, supermarkets, Couchsurfing and fourth-class railway cars – these are the keys to the backpacker life in Russia. Of course, there are places where we have to open our wallets, but it would be a crime to skip the Hermitage, for instance, to save a couple of dollars. The most important thing is to plan the trip well in advance, or, if you have a Russian boyfriend/girlfriend, don’t sweat it!
Would I go back? No! It’s a sad, run-down country, full of people who deserve much better, but who have long given up hope that things will ever be better for them. I felt this with the young people too, and I have no wish to feel it again.