GUIDE TO RUSSIA
RUSSIAN VISA SERVICE
When to Go
July and August are the warmest months and the main holiday season for both foreigners and Russians (which means securing train tickets at short notice can sometimes be a problem). They're also the dampest months in most parts of European Russia, with as many as one rainy day in three. For these reasons, early summer (May and June) and late
summer/early autumn (September and the first half of October) are many people's favorite seasons. Early autumn is stunning as the leaves change color, with locals disappearing into the forests to gather buckets of mushrooms and berries.
Winter, if you're prepared for it, is recommended: the theatres open, the furs and vodka come out, the snow makes everything picturesque, and the insides of buildings are kept warm. (But then there's the first snows and the spring thaw, which turn everything to slush and mud.)
What Kind of Trip
Try to see at least a bit of Russia outside Moscow or St Petersburg. Even the historic towns of the Golden Ring are relatively tourist-free and you will be rewarded with a slice of rural Russian life far from the frenetic city pace.
Independent vs Group Tour Independent travel in Russia can be a lot of fun, although you shouldn't expect it to be necessarily cheap or, indeed, easy to organise. The important factor to note is that your enjoyment will be directly in proportion to your ability to speak and read Russian. Away from the major cities, your odds of meeting anyone who speaks English are slim. With limited language skills, everything you attempt will likely be more costly and difficult. However, it's far from impossible; if you really want to meet locals and have a flexible itinerary, independent travel is the way to go.
To smooth the way, it's a good idea to consider using a specialist travel agency to arrange your visa and make some of your transport and accommodation bookings along the way. Most will be happy to work on any itinerary. It's also possible to arrange guides and transfers - the prices can sometimes be better than those you'd be able to negotiate yourself (with or without language skills).
Once in Russia, excursions and trips can be booked through agencies in all large cities; elsewhere it's usually not too difficult to find locals ready to escort you on nature expeditions, treks and the like. Many interesting places are far off the beaten path and the best way to reach them is often through a local guide or travel agent. We have noted some examples in the various destination listings.
On group tours everything is taken care of; all you need to do is pay and turn up. Tours can cater to special interests and range from backpacker basics to full-on tsarist luxury. Bear in mind you'll seldom be alone, which can be a curse as well as a blessing (depending on the company). This will also reduce your chances of interacting with locals, with opportunities to head off the beaten track or alter the itinerary limited, if not impossible.
Moscow and St Petersburg maps are available from many outlets in the respective cities, and outside the country. Russia country maps are also readily available. For other city maps, as well as detailed regional maps useful for hiking and other activities, the choices are limited - check this book's listings for each individual destination.
Good overseas sources include a bilingual wall map of Russia from RIS Publications; the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) map from German publisher Hallwag (one of the clearest all-Russia maps, covering the whole country and the rest of the CIS - main roads and railways included-on one sheet) at a scale of 1:7,000,000; and Hildebrands Travel Map CJS. Bartholomew publishes a map covering European Russia at 1:2,000,000, while Freytag & Berndt's CIS map has European Russia at 1:2,000,000 on one side, and the whole country at 1:8,000,000 on the other. National Geographic produces far and away the bestlooking wall map of Russia.
The most accurate commercial maps of smaller regions, produced by the United States Defense Mapping Agency, depict parts of rural Russia in unmatched detail; they are available for US$13.95 each (divided into many sections) from A Galaxy of Maps (Tel: 800-388 6588, fax 954-267 9007) in Tampa, USA.
What to Bring
Luggage unless trekking, it doesn't much matter what you carry it all in. As always, the less you have the better, as train and bus storage can be tight and you'll find no-one to help you. A light day-pack is very useful for excursions. But strap-on bum bags (fanny packs), flags, English-language patches and other 'Hi, I'm a foreigner' accoutrements should not be used. To really fit in, use a plastic bag as a day-pack.
Clothing Brightly colored clothes can mark you out as a foreigner and may attract unwanted attention. That said, in the trendy big cities, such as Moscow and St Petersburg, dressing shabbily may also get you picked up by the police. (We're told that's because they may think you're from the Caucasus, rather than any affront to their fashion sense!)
For winter you'll need a thick, windproof coat (preferably long), a hat with ear-flaps (to guard against frostbite), as well as gloves, scarf and thermal underwear. Because buildings are well heated inside, many light, removable layers work better than a few heavy ones. Footwear should be warm, thick-soled and waterproof (even insulated, for the north or Siberia ).
In spring, summer and autumn come equipped for sudden chills and rain. In autumn you'll need a hat and a raincoat or light overcoat. Late autumn and early winter tend to be wet and slushy, so shoes should be stout and water-resistant. When it's hot Russians wear as little as possible, although shorts are less common in rural areas.
Except for some posh restaurants in Moscow and St Petersburg, you can dress casually for evenings out. Wear something modest for visiting churches and mosques, possibly including a headscarf for women.
Other Items Western toiletries, tampons and condoms are readily available, even in small towns, so you should pack extra only if there's a brand you must have.
Unless you are going to spend all your nights in four-star Western hotels, bring a small towel for trains or hotels that lack such a luxury. By all means carry toilet paper with you as you will rarely find any when you need it, but you won't need to bring a lot from home as adequate brands lie, soft) are widely sold.