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GUIDE TO RUSSIA

GETTING AROUND RUSSIA


AIR

Flying in Russia is like the country itself -a unique experience. Timetables, generally posted up or available at all ticket offices (of which there are now many), are often based on fantasy. Many flights (except those be­tween major cities) are delayed, often for hours and with no explanation offered.

Buying Tickets

Tickets for all domestic Russian airlines and airlines of former Soviet republics can be purchased from offices in cities all over Rus­sia (see city chapters for locations) and through travel agents in Russia or abroad. Note that some city ticket offices still have a huge Aeroflot sign over the door even if none of the airlines serving that town actually uses that name.

Generally speaking, you'll do better book­ing internal flights once you arrive in Russia , where more flights and flight information are available, and where prices may be lower.

Whenever you book airline tickets in Rus­sia you'll need to show your passport and visa. Tickets can also be purchased at the air­port right up to the departure of the flight and sometimes even if the city centre office says that the plane is full.

Check-In & Luggage

Check-in is 90 to 40 minutes before departure and airlines are entitled to bump you if you come later than that. To minimise the danger of loss or theft, try not to check in any bag­gage: many planes have special stowage areas for large carry-on pieces. Also note that you put your carry-on luggage under your own seat, not the one in front of you.

Have your passport and ticket handy throughout the various security and ticket checks that can occur right up until you find a seat. Some flights have assigned seats, others do not. On the latter, seating is a free-for-all.

TRAIN

European Russia is criss-crossed with an ex­tensive rail network that makes rail a viable means of getting to practically anywhere. Train journeys can be cheap and relatively comfortable but they usually take a long, long time. If you like trains, and if you or your traveling partner speak good Russian, they're an excellent way to get around, see the countryside and meet Russians from all walks of life. A good 1st- or 2nd-class berth on a Russian sleeper train could prove more civilised than one in Western Europe , as they're often larger and more comfortable.

Trains have a remarkable record for punc­tuality, with most departing each station on their route to the minute allotted on the timetable, something British and American train travelers may marvel at. However, there arc underlying reasons for this punctu­ality: managers have a large portion of their pay determined by the timeliness of their trains. This not only inspires promptness, but it results in the creation of schedules that are at best forgiving. You'll notice this when you find your train stationary for hours in the middle of nowhere only suddenly to start up and roll into the next station right on time Another inconvenience of Russian train travel is that, like roads and Rome, many train lines lead to Moscow. Thus journeys to cities that are geographically close but lie on two different lines can be very long, as the train goes part of the way to Moscow before joining the line to its destination.

Train Types

All trains have numbers. The lower the num­ber, the better the train; if you want the best trains look for numbers under 100. Odd-­numbered trains head towards Moscow , even-numbered ones head east of the capital.

Long Distance The regular long-distance service is a skorvy poyezd (fast train). It stops more often than the typical intercity train in the West and rarely gets up enough speed really to merit the 'fast' label. Foreigners booking rail tickets through agencies are usually put on a skoryy train. The best skorvv trains often have names, eg, the Rossiva (the Moscow to Vladi­vostok service) and the Baikal (the Moscow to Irkutsk service). These 'name trains', orfir­mennye poyezda, generally have cleaner cars, polite(r) attendants and more convenient arrival/departure hours; they sometimes also have fewer stops, more 1st-class accommoda­tion and functioning restaurants.

Apassazhirskry poyezd (passenger train) is an intercity stopping train, found mostly on routes of 1000km or less. Journeys on these can take an awfully long time, as the trains clank and lurch from one small town to the next.

Short Distance A prigorodrryvpoyezd, also called an elektrichka (suburban train), is a local service linking a city and its suburbs or nearby towns, or groups of adjacent towns - often useful for day trips, though they can be fearfully crowded. There's no need to book ahead for these -just buy your ticket and go.

In bigger stations there may be separate timetables, in addition to prigorodnvv zal (the usual name for ticket halls) and platforms for these trains.

Timetables

Timetables are posted in stations and are re­vised twice a year. It's vital to note that the whole Russian rail network mostly runs on Moscow time, so timetables and station clocks from St Petersburg to Vladivostok will be written in and set to Moscow time. The only general exception is suburban rail ser­vices, which are listed in local time.

Most stations have an information window; expect the attendant to speak only Russian and to give a bare minimum of information. Sometimes you may have to pay a small fee (around R5) for information. See the boxed text 'Reading a Train Timetable' later for ways to crack the timetable code on your own.

Buying Tickets

At any station you'll be confronted by several ticket windows. Some are special windows reserved exclusively for the use of the elderly members of the armed forces. Very occasion­ally there are special windows where for­eigners have to buy tickets, even though Russians and foreigners now pay exactly the same fare. The destination chapters will point out if there is a special ticket window at a sta­tion you should go to.

Otherwise, the sensible option, especially if there are horrendous queues, is to avail yourself of the servis tsentr (service centre) now found at most major stations. At these air-­conditioned centres - a godsend in summer - you'll generally encounter helpful, sometimes English-speaking staff who, for a small fee (typically around R100), can book your ticket. In big cities and towns it's also usually pos­sible to buy tickets at special offices and some travel agencies away from the station; again, individual chapters provide details.

Whoever you end up buying your ticket from, it's a good idea to have the following written down, preferably in Cyrillic, to hand over to the sales assistant:

  • your destination
  • the train number, if you know it
  • date and time of departure
  • type of accommodation wanted
  • number of tickets

When writing dates, use ordinary (Arabic) numerals for the day of the month and Roman numerals for the month. See the boxed text 'Reading a Train Timetable' for more infor­mation.

Even if the ticket-sellers tell you a partic­ular service is sold out, it still might be pos­sible to get on the train by speaking with the chief provodnitsa. Tell her your destination, offer the face ticket price first, and move slowly upwards from there. You can usually come to some sort of agreement.

BUS

Russian buses are a great but slow way to travel between small towns, although some­times they can be faster than an equivalent elektrichka train. In some regions, such as central Karelia, southwestern Russia and the Kola Peninsula , bus travel may be the only public-transport option you have. Russia's long-distance bus stations - like those every­where-are scoundrel magnets, and are rarely pleasant places to visit after dark.

Today there are over 300 million bikes in China , more than can be found in any other country. Some are made for export, but most are forMost cities have a main intercity bus sta­tion (airronoK.ta.i, ovtovokzal, af-tah-vahk­ zahl). Prices are comparable to 2nd-class train fares; journey times depend on road conditions.

Tickets are sold at the station or on the bus. Ticket prices are normally listed on the timetable and posted on a wall. As often as not you'll get a ticket with a seat assignment.

HIRED CARS

These are private cars operating as cabs over long distances and can be a great deal if there's a group of you to share the cost. Since they take the most direct route between cities the savings in time can be considerable over slow trains and meandering buses.

Typically you will find drivers offering this service outside bus terminals. Someone in your party must speak Russian to negoti­ate a price with the driver that typically works out to about R5 per kilometre.

Select your driver carefully, look over his car and try to assess his sobriety before set­ting off.

CAR & MOTORCYCLE

Driving in Russia isn't everybody's cup of tea hut if you've got a sense of humor and don't mind some fairly rugged road conditions, a few hassles finding petrol, and getting lost now and then, it's an adventurous way to go. You experience at least one aspect of Russian reality as the locals do, see more of the coun­tryside, and have total independence from the Russian transportation system.

Motorbikes will undergo vigorous scrutiny by border officials and highway police, espe­cially if you're riding anything vaguely Ninja­ish. But one traveler reported that while riding his hand-built motorcycle across Rus­sia , the only attention he attracted from the police consisted of admiring questions and comments.

Motorcyclists should note that while for­eign automobile companies now have an established presence in Moscow, St Peters­burg and other major cities, motorcycles in the former Soviet Union are almost exclu­sively Russian or East German-made - it is to he doubted that a Ural-brand carb will fit your Hog.

See the Car & Motorcycle section of the Puropean Russia Getting There & Away chapter for information on planning and preparing a trip to Russia with your own ve­hicle and details on border crossings.