Straddling both the geographical and cultural divide between Europe and Asia is a country seemingly bleak in outlook and cold in climate, but Russia is so much more, including one of the greatest contributors to classical music and literature and a smorgasbord of different cultures.
Travel to Russia used to be rare and only available by special invitation, but with the fall of the Soviet Union and the growth of Democratic practices, the country has grown far more hospitable to travelers from the West.
Getting into Russia
Visiting Russia, even as a tourist on vacation, is a bit of a complex procedure. Fortunately, though, it has become easier recently. Before an agreement between the US and the Russian Federation in 2012, you had to have an invitation from a Russian citizen before your entry in the country could even be considered.
Since the agreement, you don’t need this if you are traveling as a tourist, but you still have to apply for a visa with a stated purpose for your visit. If you apply for a tourist visa, you will need to include your reservations for lodging, so it’s best to plan your trip in advance before applying for the visa.
The biggest thing to remember about traveling to Russia is that you cannot stay past the allotted time listed for your tourist visa without big problems. Even if you stay a minute past this time, you may have to stay in the country for up to twenty additional days while an exit visa is processed. Furthermore, staying in Russia with an expired visa makes it tough to find lodging.
In addition to your tourist visa, you will also need a passport that will remain valid for the duration of your entry visa. You will also need a letter of sponsorship, which you can get from the place where you will be lodging, which is another reason why planning your accommodations in advance is necessary.
Two important things to consider when reviewing your tourist visa are the Russian use of the Cyrillic alphabet and their use of the European convention of dating rather than the US convention. The Cyrillic alphabet is the alphabet of Russian and will be primarily the only text you see when you are in Russia. Since some of the letters in Cyrillic look exactly like they do in the English alphabet but have different sounds, it can be a little confusing. It will help immensely to memorize it as best you can, however. It will also aid you immensely in learning to speak Russian.
In the US we primarily order our date when we write in month, day, year. Thus we would write a date out as July 4, 1776 or 7/4/1776. The European and Russian way of writing out a date puts the day first, followed by the month, followed by the year, so that our Independence Day written out the way they do it in Russia and Europe would be 4/7/1776. This is especially important to remember when determining the dates for your tourist visa, and could be disastrous if misunderstood.
Is traveling in Russia dangerous?
While the relative level of danger in Russia largely depends on the region, the one area where the US State department advises US citizens not to travel in at all is the North Caucasus area which is volatile right now. Some areas there such as Chechnya are considered active war zones. Other areas, such as Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics are being held, have experienced spillovers from the violence of the region.
Other areas in Russia are relatively safe, although you should be careful and always observant of your environment. When the Soviet Union broke up, the level of crime rose to huge proportions. It has since dropped substantially so that the level of crime there is moderate. Pickpockets are common in the tourist areas, and are often children who use various tactics to distract and crowd you. In such instances, it is best to make yourself an unattractive target by forcefully confronting the situation. It’s a good opportunity to practice your more sternly worded Russian phrases, too. There are other types of crimes specifically targeted at tourists, such as fake inspectors on mass transit and unmarked taxis. Reports of the use of GHB to abduct and assault tourists are not uncommon. Other dangers include buying fake vodka, which can be avoided by purchasing it only in large stores or specialized stores that have a sticker over the top with the name of the region on its side.
Russia also has a reputation for having one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. This includes traffic police making encounters more likely in well trafficked areas than on smaller and quieter streets. In some of larger cities in Russia, racism and homophobia abound although hate crimes perpetrated against tourists are atypical. When you travel to Russia, be sure to travel with companions, stay in groups, behave with decorum, and avoid any drinks that you haven’t witnessed being poured. Also keep a copy of your travel visa and passport on your person at all times, as well as a business card from your hotel, but keep your original travel documents in a secure place, such as a hotel safe.
What to do in Russia
Moscow and Saint Petersburg both offer great cultural sights and museums. Orchestral and folk music concerts are also first rate, as well as ballet, for which the Russians are world famous. The unique church architecture with its Byzantine and Muslim influence is a great attraction as well, especially in the Golden Ring area, which is a collection of ancient cities in Central Russia.
Russian food is rich and heavy, with stews and soups being a staple, but it is all delicious. Russian hosts will try to continuously feed you, and multiple helpings is considered polite. You may have to be firm about it. Similarly, Russians consume a lot of alcohol and will want to feed you shots of vodka throughout a cold evening. A polite, but firm refusal might have to be repeated multiple times.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is a large railroad that cuts across Russia and is a great way to travel through many different towns and see Russia in all its variety. It is the largest continuous railway in the world in fact. Parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway also cross into China and Mongolia. A US passport allows you entry into Mongolia for up to 90 days without a visa, but you will need to apply for a visa if you plan on crossing into China via the railway.
Since Russia is a vast and cold country, there are many parts of it that are sparsely inhabited or completely uninhabited. This makes it a dream for nature lovers and offers numerous places to hike that lack the presence of civilization. The downside to this is that many of the unspoiled places do not have any roads or infrastructure. There are numerous nature preserves and national parks throughout the country. For travel through some of the more remote areas, you will want to hire a guide.
How much does it cost to travel in Russia?
Travel through Russia can get expensive. While the cost of getting a tourist visa is relatively inexpensive, even the cheapest hotels start at roughly $100 a night with more mid-range hotels getting up to $150-200 a night. Eating in restaurants is also expensive since most Russians don’t frequent them as regularly as we do in the US. A meal for one in a nice restaurant can cost a minimum of $20. One inexpensive option is to rent a room from a Russian host, who will usually provide breakfast and some may even give you access to a kitchen. Exploring Russian supermarkets and cooking yourself is far less expensive than eating at restaurants.
If you want to do Russia in comfortable style, expect to budget for about $300-350 a day for expenses. If you plan to travel across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway, you can save money by booking tickets in advance.
The Russian unit of currency is the rouble. The best places to change money in the larger cities such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the change windows set up for that purpose. You will get better rates than at banks or ATMs. Many places throughout Russia don’t take credit cards or foreign credit cards at least, so it is necessary to carry cash with you. If you have American cash with you, make sure the bills are clean and unwrinkled because many money changers will not accept otherwise.
The traveler’s tongue
Except in the most highly populated tourist areas, English speakers are rare, and even in these areas, it’s not common to find people who are super fluent in English. In addition, since everything in Russia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, you will want to study the alphabet and become well versed in speaking survival Russian. You will find more English speakers in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Numerous languages are spoken throughout Russia, but if you can speak a small amount of Russian you will be able to get by.
Despite some of the dangers and difficulties in visiting Russia, it’s a beautiful country that’s well worth a trip.
C.W. Garay is an alumnus from the University of North Texas, where he received both his BA in psychology and an MA in English, specializing in creative writing, fiction. When not traveling he resides in Denton, TX, rated as the number one small town in which to live in the US according to Business Insider’s 2013 survey. In addition to writing articles on traveling, he also writes fiction under a pseudonym. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.