There is one main thing in Russia which attracts tourists - it’s a mystery. You might have heard enough of soft landscapes, endless sceneries, unique architecture and much bigger hospitality and humaneness than in Western culture and thus you might be willing to approach all this at once. But further on a lot of “however please bear in mind” begin.
Everyone needs a visa for entering Russia and this issue will be your headache while preparing for the trip. You’d better start collecting papers at least a month prior to your departure. A tourist visa might be enough, it is valid within 30 days and with it you can enter the country once or twice. In case you are going to stay longer you’d better have a business visa.
Russian embassies may have different rules of granting visas as well as their costs. You’d better apply for a visa in your own country. For example, tourists traveling through Mongolia should know that getting visa in Beijing or Ulan-Bator is an expensive, nervous and finally useless process.
On entering Russia you fill in a migration card a half of which will be kept by you after your passport is checked. You need to be rather careful while keeping it otherwise you’ll have problems with registration and for sure while leaving the country. Your visa should be registered within 3 days. This can be done at the hotel or at the travel agency (for some payment).
Every time you come to the next town and stay there for over 3 days you need to put a new stamp. The more stamps you have the safer you are. You’d better keep all the tickets as well so that you might be able to prove the date of your arrival to some diligent policeman. Being greedy for fines they often walk near Moscow train stations in order to catch hurrying or disorganized tourists.
Where to live in Russia
Some hotels may refuse to check you in because you are a foreigner or these may be only the most expensive rooms. Some hotels have different prices for foreigners and the Russians. This doesn’t happen too often now, but if you face such a problem you can hardly do anything even if you came with your Russian friends.
The quality of the rooms and their prices can be quite various but foreigners as a rule are offered the most expensive ones. In Soviet time receptionists had the habit of telling the customers that in their half inhabited hotels no rooms were available. It’s not like this now but in some old hotels there is a room or two for those who is persistent in his requests.
In a hotel typical for Soviet epoch on every floor there is a dezhurnaya who keeps keys to all the rooms in her small kingdom. If she is out for lunch you have no chance to get into your room until she appears. It’s hard to explain but some double rooms are cheaper than single ones. In small towns you may pay a half for a double room (but finally you might find yourself sharing the room with the stranger, that’s why you’d better ask beforehand about potselenye).
There is no problem with hot water in hotels but in summertime whole districts may stay without hot water for a month or more, only the most expensive hotels have their own water heating systems. In Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and other big cities with large Universities one can stay at the hostels although it’s not easy to get a room there, it depends on the manager’s mood.
What to do in Russia
Russian Banya (sauna)
You can’t say you’ve been to Russia if you haven’t visited the banya. The main element of banya is the parilka (steam). It’s so hot there that Finnish sauna might seem something non-serious. The burning hot stones are poured with water, people take a venik (a switch of green birch twigs) and begin hitting themselves. It hurts but the effect is finally pleasant and cleaning.
Canoe and rafting
There are a lot of chances for this sports but the quality of water in many rivers prevents from coming closer to it at all.
Bad roads and drivers - these are 2 main problems of bicyclists in Russia. However, inhabitants of small towns are very friendly, so all you need is to make sure your bike is adjusted to the most severe conditions and take more spare parts with you.
Make sure you are in good shape: distances between villages in Russia are much more than in other countries. Learn as much as possible about places where you go as Russian “routes” are more like ideas than marked paths.
Be careful while dealing with officials, police in particular (and everyone who looks like them) who ask you to show them your documents or tickets at the stations - they are likely to extort money from you or try to find something wrong with your documents and will hold them to ransom. The right thing in this case is to remain calm and polite. Try to stop some passer-by to help you either in translating or at least to become a witness.
Generally speaking we recommend you to avoid any contacts with police. It’s known that a lot of policemen enlarge their modest income either by robbing the foreigners or by fining them. If you really need help (for example you were robbed), you’d better go the police station accompanied by a Russian - for language and morale support. If you are arrested the officials must inform the embassy at once. But don’t think things will be like it’s told in our rules, so be polite and everything might be better.
Be very careful while crossing the street in big cities: some drivers absolutely ignore traffic lights, at the same time start driving as soon as the lights change and leave you inside the moving stream.
Gradually it becomes better but most of tourists still say that this branch is still full of rough and gloomy people. You may meet a receptionist who is indifferent to your arrival or a shop assistant who looks like a paralytic unable to face the customer. “What would you like?” - is a strange but frequent greeting in provincial museums as if you entered the wrong place.
Besides the Russians have very specific rules of standing in lines. They might keep the place and go shopping or start pushing the others because their train is leaving shortly. Neither politeness nor wrath will help you. Just advance you elbows, learn some rude phrases and go ahead - through the crowd. Good luck.
In getting information you depend on the mood of hotel and travel agencies staff. The latter exists to sell tours and hotels and if you don’t look like being eager to buy something your questions might be left non answered. Russia doesn’t have travel agencies abroad and consulates provide very little information.
Russians love children and it might be funny to travel with them only if you relax and be patient. The rooms for diaper changing are not widely spread and you will be not enthusiastic about using public water closets.
In big cities you can see plastic booths in popular places. The other toilets are rare and not clean. There is a babushka in all public toilets whom you pay about 10 rubles and she will provide you with a small piece of toilet paper, so you’d better carry it with you.
Sorry, but it’s a problem in Russia. Be careful while walking around Hitler’s birthday (April 20th) when groups of young people seek for fighting with someone who doesn’t look Russian. Anyway, if you look like a foreigner - you’ll be treated with suspicion especially by police.
Young Russians living in cities won’t pay much attention to whom you are in love with. But this doesn’t refer to most of the population. Not everyone is so persistent as Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov who prohibited homosexuals parade in Moscow in 2008 calling it a Satan’s event. But however bear in mind this is a conservative country and homosexuals are not approved.
By Vasiliy Serov, March 23, 2010