I have to admit, that unlike any of my earlier travels, I was quite nervous about my trip to Russia. Despite minutely planning every little detail (yes, I am a control freak!), I was unsure of how the trip will turn out to be, thanks to the media playing Russia out as the antithesis to a travel paradise, also there had been a blast in St. Petersburg and Moscow just days before our travel, and the language barrier seemed pretty large!
However, all of my nerves surrounding my visit to Russia turned out to be completely unfounded and it blew me away with its beauty, culture, food and the ease of getting around. There were some challenges, but they did not take away from my experience of this beautiful country.
So did we face the language barrier? Yes and No.
Yes, since in Russia people can’t speak in English at most places and the script is also written in Cyrillic with the exception of St . Petersburg, which is more European a city than Russian. Even the sign boards are in cyrillic, so it can be difficult to navigate to places. So the barrier, beyond a doubt, exists.
And No, as we had Google Translate as our official interpreter, through which, interpreting Cyrillic became an adventure, almost like a quest on our journey. Plus, the people were incredibly patient and nice, and more often than not, co-operated with understanding us through Google translate, the entire experience almost being like a game for both sides. One old gentleman, at a metro station, dug out his glasses and phone hidden in the deep interiors of his bag, missed his immediate train connection (without a frown) and meticulously, through sign and google language, helped us find our way.
Russians are beyond a doubt the most misunderstood lots. Them being shy of the English language is often branded as a sign of being racist or rude. We, in our 11 days of travel, only experienced two incidents where we felt short-changed for our colour, but that’s true to any place and can happen very much in our own city!
Constant visits to accuweather and other forecast websites told us that a trip to Russia is best enjoyed in the months of June-July (unless you dont mind bearing the -20 degree weather in winter, which I am sure will be a phenomenal experience too!) . However, to our very unfortunate luck, our visit turned out to be the coldest summer in the last 20 years, and we were welcomed with showers, 4 degree temperature and swirling winds in Moscow. The day would start with bright sunshine, become overcast, and soon turn into a storm. How truly Englandlike. Weather in Russia can be very unpredictable and being prepared with an umbrella, a wind cheater and a warm jacket is a must!
The official currency is Ruble and a Ruble costed around Rs. 1.30 Rupees in exchange during our visit. Axis Bank Debit/ Euro cards don’t work here, so preferably get a card from other banks. Russia is definitely cheaper than Delhi in terms of travelling and eating out. An average meal at a decent-good restaurant costs you about 1000-1500 Rubles for two, with desserts. Vodka, is of course the cheapest. Having said that, though, the difference between the price of street food vs. a decent restaurant is not much and you may end up shelling about the same amount. So truly communist!
Local transport by trains and buses are cheap, convenient and run to the dot as per schedule. A train experience is a must do in Russia (for Sheldon and non-Sheldon types!). The types of bus (rickety to super-posh) varies from route to route and some need to be booked in advance while the others can be booked on the spot.
Applying for visa can be a hassle, as you need to get a voucher couriered from your hotel certifying your stay at the hotel and then apply to the IFS with the document. But the visa service is pretty swift at the Russian embassy and is not as expensive as the European counterparts.
Food in Russia was phenomenal and I will cover it in detail as I discuss each stop.
Russia is vast and usually, with the language barrier, having a plan is more a necessity than an obsession. Having said that, being flexible with your plan is also important as the cities are so big that you will always end up missing a thing or two. It is essential to bookmark restaurants in the area you are visiting that day, as getting from one place can take over an hour and being hungry while on a vacation is the last thing you may want to do!
Tap water in Russia is not potable and therefore you should only drink mineral water!!
Two blogs that were very helpful in planning my trip were russiable.com and rusmania.com. We have bookmarked the Trans-Siberian rail and the Lake Baikal experience for the next time and there hopefully will be another time and soon.
Our itinerary for the trip was:
Day 1-3 +1: Moscow (But one must add a 4th day as it is impossible to cover everything in 3)
Day 5: Suzdal (Train Connection)
Day 6-7: Yaroslaval (by Bus Connection)
Day 8-11: St Petersburg (By Train) (If you want to do a day trip to Kizhi islands, add another 2 days).
If you have patience (marriage helps!!), can keep an open mind, are a history buff, enjoy seeing architectural wonders, and love to explore nature and unique cultures, then Russia is for you! If not, then you should choose otherwise, as it can be overwhelming. Else, you are in for a pleasant surprise!