GUIDE TO RUSSIA
RUSSIAN VISA SERVICE
Inside the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, the official Tourist Information Office (Tel: 311 28 43, fax 15 97 96; www.spb.ru /eng; Nevsky pr 41; open 10am-7pm Mon-Sat Sept-May, daily June-Aug) has multilingual staff and can help with individual queries, but staff don't book accommodation and there's little in the way of official literature. There are plans to open kiosks at Pulkovo-2 airport, Peter & Paul Fortress and Petrodvorets.
Your visa should ideally be registered by the hotel or hostel in which you are staying, or through the company that invited you. However, it may be that you might have to go to a local passportno-vizovoye upravleniye (PVU; passport and visa department) office to register it yourself. For general inquiries, try your luck at the main office (Tel: 278 24 81; Kirochnaya ul 4; open 9am-5pm Mon-Fri).
Headaches can be minimised by getting your visa registered at any hotel or hostel which can do so, even if you are not staying there, usually for a fee equivalent to the price of one night in its cheapest room. Ost-West Kontaktservice (see Travel Agencies later) can also help with visa registration.
Exchanging Money There are exchange offices all along Nevsky prospekt - shop around since some places offer better rates to foreigners than others. A reliable currency exchange is Ligovsky (Tel: 325 10 93; Ligovsky per 2; open 9am-9pm daily), near the Moscow Station.
ATMs are located inside every metro station, in hotels and department stores, main post offices and along major streets. If you want to get dollars from an ATM, try those in the major hotels.
Note that American Express (Tel: 326 45 00, fax 326 45 01; Malaya Morskaya u123; open 9am-5pm Mon-Fri) now only offers travel services.
St Petersburg's main international and domestic post and telegraph office (glavpochtamt; Pochtamtskaya ul 9; open 9am-8pm Mon-Sat, 10am-6pm Sun) is two blocks southwest of St Isaac's Cathedral. All nonbook parcels leaving Russia must be sent from here, from Window 24 (this keeps changing though; just walk to the far left side of the main hall and look for the sign).
There are also 400 branch offices that are scattered throughout the city and these vary in services usually in proportion to size. A particularly friendly branch (Map 6; Stremyannaya ul 14; open 10am-8pm Mon-Fri, 10am-5pm Sat & Sun) is centrally located (between the Fontanka and ploshchad Vosstania), not very busy, and the motherly staff will wrap your book or souvenir parcels (up to 5kg) and help you fill out those ubiquitous forms.
Express Services Inside the main post office, Window 16 offers a special overnight service to Moscow and Minsk. Euroletter at Window 26 will send letters and parcels up to 2kg, charging US$6 for up to 250g, US$10 for 2kg. It uses express post until Sweden, then Swedish post, and swears it only takes five days to reach the USA or Australia.
Express Mail Service (EMS) is provided by EMS Garantpost (Tel: 311 11 20). Documents up to 2kg (500g) to the USA costs US$21; to Australia US$30) and packages up to 31kg (5kg to the USA costs US$56; to Australia US$78) take five days to reach their destination (three days to European capitals). It has several outlets in the centre, but the head office is at Konnog- vardeysky bulvar 4, behind the main post office.
Westpost (Tel: 275 07 84, 327 30 92; www.westpost.ru ; Nevsky pr 86; open 9.30am-8pm Mon-Fri, noon-8pm Sat) is a privately run, international mail service. Mail is transported daily from St Petersburg to Lappeenranta in Finland, and mailed from there. To the USA, a 20g letter costs US$2.20, and a 2kg parcel costs US$64. It has a full range of delivery and courier services.
DHL (Tel: 326 64 00; Izmailovsky pr 4), Fed Ex (Tel: 311 98 40; nab kanala Griboedova 16) and UPS (Tel: 327 85 40; Shpalernaya ul 51) are the main global express mail services in town, offering twoday delivery to Europe and the USA/Canada, and three-day delivery to Australia/New Zealand, all with services starting at US$38 for letters.
Receiving Mail The most reliable option for those not staying in luxury hotels or the HI St Petersburg Hostel (which provide mail service via Finland ) is limited to American Express and Optima cardholders. American Express (see Exchanging Money earlier) will hold mail (letters only) for cardholders and holders of travellers cheques for up to 30 days; the mailing address is American Express, PO Box 87, SF-53501 Lappeenranta, Finland.
Westpost (see Express Services earlier) offers post boxes in Lappeenranta, with daily pick-up or delivery to the Westpost office or, for corporate clients, to an address in St Petersburg.
Calling from a private phone is the simplest, though no longer necessarily the cheapest, option - except for local calls, which are free.
Payphones Taksofon (payphones) are located throughout the city. The green ones are the most common (but not the cheapest), and accept prepaid phonecards (with the letters SNM -(CHM in Cyrillic - on them), readily available from metro token booths or, at slightly higher prices, from telephone offices. Occasionally you'll need to press the star button as soon as you hear your party answer (you'll know you'll need to if they scream 'Alto? Allo?' after you start speaking).
Newly installed, coin-operated phones are now quite popular; you can find one inside every metro station. On these, the rate is RI per minute, though coins seem to disappear quicker than that. They accept 50-kopeck and one-, two- and five-rouble coins.
There are several types of card payphones (Peterstar,Tel: 329 90 90, had better prices but fewer phones at the time of research; BCL charges the highest prices), and cards are not interchangeable.
There has been a recent proliferation of prepaid, pin-code-operated long-distance phonecards. Scan the St Petersburg Times for ads. Pricing systems are mind-boggling, but using one still ends up cheaper than dialing direct or using the SNM cards. These cards can be used from any private or public phone and are very handy. Peterstar has good deals, as does Fon-Mezhsvyaz (Tel: 233 65 87). Only thing to note: these cards (at least for the time being) are not available anywhere but directly from the companies themselves. However, representatives of these companies will meet you anywhere in the city and bring cards to you for no extra charge.
State Telephone Offices The central long-distance telephone office (ul Bolshaya Morskaya 3/5) was indefinitely closed for renovations at the time of research; there are several other branch offices along Nevsky prospekt including at Nos 27 and 88. From these offices you can make direct-dial calls anywhere, or order them through the operator.
Cellular Service Mobile (cellular) phones are fast gaining ground. European mobile phones work here (double-check with your service provider before leaving home), yet the costs will be sky-high, unless you sign up with a local service provider. This is easily done with pay-as-you-go SIM cards for as little as US$30; service providers include Northwest GSM, Biline and MTS - their offices can be found all over the city.
You can rent a cellphone at the most convenient branch of ATS Telecom (Tel: 326 86 40; Bolshaya Morskaya ul 19). You will need a US$150 deposit and rental is about USS3 a day, on top of the cost of your calls.
Fax & Telegram
Faxes can be sent and received at the branch of the long-distance telephone office on Nevsky prospekt 88 (Tel: 314 14 80); the incoming fax number is - 314 33 60 and the cost to retrieve them is RI S per page. Faxes can also be sent and received at the business centres in all major hotels and in the Moscow Station, as well as at the two youth hostels, for much higher prices.
International telegrams can be sent from many of the larger post offices, as well as from Window 38 at the main post office.
Email & Internet Access
There are Internet cafes all over the city and many of them are open 24 hours. One of the most prominent is Quo Vadis? (Tel: 311 8011; Nevsky pr 24), which charges R60 per hour, has 65 terminals and a quiet library in which you can browse foreign newspapers and magazines. Kro Magnon (Tel: 279 57 26; Nevsky pr 81) is cheaper (R40 per hour); its office is on the right side of the courtyard and on the 2nd floor.
Other handy places at which to surf the Web include Nordic (Tel: 269 42 22; Sadovaya ul 8/7); Active Centre Internet (Tel: 311 63 38) on the north side of Griboedova Canal ; and Tetris (Tel: 164 48 77; ul Chernyakhovskogo 33).
Some of the most reliable include:
Sindbad Travel (Tel 327 83 84, fax 329 80 19; www.sindbad.ru; 3-ya Sovetskaya u128) Owned by the HI St Petersburg Hostel, it has two offices in town. The first is inside the hostel itself; the second (Tel: 324 08 80) is inside the St Petersburg Philological Faculty building on Vasilevsky Island, Universitetskaya naberezhnaya 11. Both are genuine Westernstyle student (and adult) discount air-ticket offices. Staffed by friendly, knowledgeable people, Sindbad operates as a full-service ticketing centre for STA and Kilroy Travel, sells and issues train tickets, can service any student-issued tickets regardless of its source and can book youth hostel accommodation through the IBN system. It also sells ISIC/ITIC cards.
Ost-West Kontaktservice (Tel: 327 34 16 or 272 87 61, fax 3273417; www.ostwest.com ; Nevsky pr 105; open 10am-6pm Mon-Fri) Here's another winner. Staff can arrange tourist and business visas for you, find you an apartment to rent, organise tours and tickets - heck, they'll even sell you a Lomo (they're the city's official distributor of the nifty little Russian camera). The multilingual staff are down-to-earth, willing and able to help.
Wild Russia (Tel/fax 25 93 30; www. wildrussia.spb.ru; Nevsky pr 22/24) Apart from organising wilderness expeditions in the far reaches of the country, the friendly guys at Wild Russia can also arrange outdoor activity trips in the St Petersburg surrounds, including rock climbing and kayaking around Lake Ladoga.
Newspapers & Magazines
Published every Tuesday and Friday (when it has an indispensable listings and arts review section), the English-language St Petersburg Times ( sptimesrussia.com) is well worth picking up. It's available at hotels, restaurants and youth hostels, as is the free monthly Pulse, a slick color monthly with the occasional good feature and review, available in English and Russian editions.
Also monthly is the dull Nevn News, which tries hard in a hyper-patriotic way. Still, it often prints useful historical facts about the city.
Radio & TV
Most of St Petersburg's popular radio stations play a mix of trashy Europop and its even more over-the-top Russian variant. Still, their playlists are often unexpectedly eclectic. Some of the more popular FM stations include Eldoradio (101.4 MHz), Radio Hit (90.6 MHz) and the cool Maximum (102.8 MHz). Two stations - Echo Peterburga (91.5 MHz) and Severnaya Stolitsa (105.9 MHz)-focus almost exclusively on St Petersburg-related news, music and features (in Russian only).
As well as the main state TV channels, St Petersburg has several local channels, including Peterburg and Kanal 6. Satellite TV is available at all major hotels, and the British Council (see Cultural Centres below) has a TV perennially tuned to BBC World.
St Petersburg's best organised - and busiest - foreign cultural centre is the British Council (Tel: 325 60 74; www.britishcouncil.ru; nab reki Fontanki 46; open 12.30pm-7pm Tues-Fri, noon-5pm Sat), which holds classical concerts, theatre and other performances and arranges for exchanges of students and professionals between Russia and the UK. It has a great resource centre for foreign teachers of English. For use of its excellent library the annual membership fee is R150 for teachers, R300 for everyone else.
The Goethe Institute St Petersburg (Tel:311 21 00) is in the same building as the British Council and also has a well-stocked German-language library.
The busy Institut Francais (Tel: 311 09 95; www.fr.spb.ru; nab reki Moyki 20; open 10am-7pm Mon-Fri) has a library with over 12,000 French-language books, magazines, videos and CDs. It also organises numerous cultural events.
The US-sponsored Office of Public Diplomacy (Tel: 311 89 05; Millionnaya ul 5; open 9am-5.30pm Mon-Fri) has a small library with Internet terminals.
Most hotels offer a laundry service. Otherwise, there is only one Western-style 'beautiful laundrette' in the city, Prachechnaya (Tel: 323 74 98; 11-ya linia 46; open 8am10pm daily) near metro Vasileostrovskaya. It'll cost about R150 to wash and dry 5kg while you wait, slightly more if you drop off your dirty stuff and pick it up later. All other places in town offer next-day service at best, usually longer.
Inexpensive public toilets are scattered around town, marked with the Latin characters 'WC' or the Russian CHM (platny tualet; pay toilet). There are also toilets at bus and train stations. Some may even be clean. Your best bet is to use the facilities inside McDonald's, the Idealnaya Chashka coffee shop at Nevsky prospekt 15, or the facilities on the main floor of the Grand Hotel Europe (just stride in meaningfully then turn left).
All the major train stations have luggage lockers and/or left-luggage services. You can also check your bags in at most of the major hotels (if you're a guest).
Within Russia, St Petersburg is second only to Moscow in medical services and offers adequate routine, and some emergency, treatment. More serious medical emergencies are best treated outside Russia ; Finland is the best option.
The best bet for Western-quality treatment in St Petersburg is the US-run American Medical Center (Tel: 326 17 30; Serpuhovskaya ul 10), which offers a full range of medical services including gynaecological and paediatric care, dentistry, 24-hour emergency care, ambulance services, house calls and medical evacuations. Prices are stellar; a check-up won't be less than US$100, and an HIV test will cost US$75. Prices are marginally cheaper for members, but they're already paying US$55 a month for the privilege.
For routine matters, a Russian poliklinika (medical centre) provides perfectly adequate care. One of the best is Poliklinika No 2 (Tel: 316 62 72; Moskovsky pr 22), the former clinic of choice for diplomatic staff. The clinic charges US$70 for house calls, US$26 for in-house visits with doctors, and US$31 for an HIV test.
Pharmacies Aptekn are located all over the city and most are well stocked with Western medications and toiletries. Apteka Petrofarm (Nevsky pr 22) is an excellent, allnight pharmacy. After hours, use the side entrance on Bolshaya Konyushennaya ulitsa (under the archway of house No 14 and to the right).
Emergency telephone numbers (Russianspeaking operators) are 01 for fire and 02 for police. The state-run ambulance service is still free; Russian-speakers can get help by dialing 03. If you're trying to find out if someone's been in an accident and been picked up by ambulance (and where they were taken), dial 278 00 55.
Dangers & Annoyances
Every year in early spring and during winter thaws, several people die when child-sized, sword-shaped icicles fall from St Petersburg's rooftops and balconies. Walking a city block at this time can be exhausting: while stepping with trepidation on sheer ice, negotiating potholes and avoiding pedestrians, you must also crane your neck skywards to make sure one of these monsters is not dangling above your head.
Mosquitoes are another nightmare. From May to September, you may wish to leap from the very window that let the bastards in the first place. Bring along industrial-strength repellent that's at least 95% DEET. The plug-in gizmos which slowly heat repellent-saturated cardboard pads are available everywhere in the city and are pretty effective.
If you're staying in a ground-level apartment in the city centre in early autumn, just before the central heating is turned on and after it starts getting cool, you may have problems with fleas, which come up through floorboards looking for warmth. Yes, they are very happy to feed off humans if rats, their usual sup, are not around. At the first sign of these hopping devils (usually itchy ankles!), get out of the place.
Watch out for pickpockets particularly along Nevsky prospekt around Griboedova Canal. It's also wise to avoid crossing directly in front of Moscow Station, unless you have to, since the police there have a nasty habit of trying to shake down foreigners for supposed infringements of visa registration rules.
If you are a victim of a crime, you can report this to a police line (Tel: 164 97 87) that supposedly has multilingual staff. Just in case, vorovstvo and krazha both mean theft in Russian.