Some tips and tricks and resources for travel in Russia.
We spent a month in beautiful Russia travelling along the Trans-Siberian route and stopping in multiple cities. Go here to see our tips and tricks specifically for the Trans-Siberian.
Sim Cards in Russia:
Unless you like to build up roaming charges, getting a local sim card is an affordable option to keep you connected.
Best value for long travel time across multiple cities:
This sim cost 600 Rubles and gets you unlimited 2G/3G/4G data, texting and calling to other YOTA users for 30 days. It can also be used in any part of the country (where a mobile signal is available, most of the Trans-Siberian route is 3G). To sign you up to use the sim, they need your passport and a signature. As you are a tourist they use a random address as your address to be registered.
We found that other telco companies offered limited data and inability to use in multiple cities. This is essential if you are on the Trans-Siberian. For example, we bought a MegaFon sim in Irkutsk. We then had to get it unlocked (and pay 200 rubles) when we got to Krasnoyarsk to be able to use it. After a lengthy time in the shop using google translate, we knew we needed to find a YOTA sim straight away. A YOTA stand was a hard thing to come by if you enter Russia in Irkutsk. Keep an eye out and hold out for them, they are worth it.
Visas for Russia:
Before you can even consider traveling to Russia, you need to know the Visa requirements.
Getting a Visa for Russia can be a tough one. There are different requirements for different passport holders and different requirements in each country.
A commonality is requiring an invitation and an itinerary.
As we applied in New Zealand with a British and Irish passport, we required more information for them. We applied for a 30-day tourist visa and used exactly those 30 days. We wanted the cost of the visa to be well worth every cent.
- Many consulates require that you must be in your country of residence or have a visa for the country you are applying in. For us, this meant an NZ citizen endorsement in our passport.
- You have to have an itinerary. No matter what you read that says you can get around this, it’s not true, you will be declined.
It is simple enough, though. If you are purchasing your train tickets through Real Russia, you can ask for the itinerary of your trains and it is free. Otherwise, if you don’t book your trains through them it is a small fee.
They sent me our train itinerary and then I sent back all the accommodation to be included in it. It was completed within 24 hours.
- You have to be invited to Russia. I thought the same thing… Um, what the hell!
No, you don’t have to befriend a Russian and beg them to invite you. Instead, Real Russia offers an invitation to Russia too. Once again, they provide this for free if you have booked at least one train ticket with them, otherwise, it is from £15.
- Needing original signed copies. This is another hurdle we read, that if you provide the original invitation you do not need the itinerary. Getting the original document couriered from Real Russia in the UK was over $100NZD. Apparently, though, they still ask for the itinerary.
We had no issues handing over our own printed versions of the itinerary and invitation. And it didn’t cost us anything extra.
- Booking accommodation and proof of payment. Not only do you have to proof you have an itinerary, but also that everything is booked and paid for. We booked all our accommodation to add to the itinerary, then once we received the Visa’s we went back and made some alterations. The Russian consulate did not require proof of payment or booking (your booking confirmation print out) for the accommodation, they only wanted the itinerary for that.
Real Russia provided confirmation of payment for all services. No, you do not have to pay. Just in case you get declined for your visa and have to cancel. To secure the train tickets and to receive this proof of payment they ask for a £100 deposit.
(We were not paid to say anything about Real Russia, we just thought their service was great and they did everything complicated for you)
Russian is a relatively hard language to learn, speak and read. The accent is strong and the alphabet is too close to the English alphabet that it all gets confusing.
Especially if you are only there a short time.
We found most hostel/hotel owners and workers to speak fluent English. Strangely enough, though, in St Petersburg and Moscow, the hostel workers hardly spoke English.
Jacob passed the long hours on the train using this app, Read Russian in 3 Hours.
After repeating it a couple of times and practicing, Jacob got the hang of it and could read Russian characters.There are also many helpful YouTube videos with basic phrases to help in your travels.
As Russian has quite a few borrowed words from English, some things translate directly from their alphabet to ours.
Essential words to know:
Hello – Zdravst-vooyte
The informal hello (Prvyeet!) used for acquaintances, will hardly be heard as a traveler, as you hardly meet anyone you know!
Good morning – Dobroe utro
Good evening – Dobre Vyech-er
Thank you (very much) – Spasi-ba (Bol-shoi Spasi-ba)
Please and reply to Thank you – Pa-zhaol-sta
Yes – Da
No – Net (or simply No in english)
One – (when requesting food, bus tickets or other such things) – Ah-deen
Two – (when requesting food, bus tickets or other such things) – Dvah
Transport throughout Russia:
Trains: The Trans-Siberian trains all run on Moscow time, the tickets state the Moscow departing time of the train. All train stations have two clocks, local time and Moscow time.
You can plan your Trans-Siberian/Mongolian journey on Real Russia.
For more information on the Trans-Siberian, you can read about our experience.
Buses and Trams: The buses, trams and mini buses in each city seem to have different payment systems.
In most cities, someone (wearing an apron) comes and collects your money on the trams and larger buses. They tend to have a designated seat with a comfy looking cover on it, do not sit here. These buses tend to not have a window to pay the driver, so its easy to know the payment system.
Mini buses (Vans) you pay the driver at any stage in your journey. If you are not sitting up front, pass your money along. If you require change, it will be passed back to you.
All buses and trams are a flat fee. Thankfully they will have a large printout somewhere at the front of the vehicle with the price. Look for this symbol руб. Average prices we paid were 15руб for a tram and 30 to 40руб for a bus.
Food in Russia:
Look out for the next article about vegetarian and vegan eating in Russia.
Supermarkets provide the best (cheapest) choice for dinner options.
Utilize the hostels’ kitchen and you can cook most things.
Supermarket deli’s offer a huge range of ready to eat food if you find a good one. Most can be reheated in the hostels’ microwave. From shredded carrot (it became a favorite of ours), cold chips, pre-cooked vegetables, cured meats, a variety of salads, not the leafy kind (most of which were beetroot based), Kasha and baked goods.
There are some great Vegan and Vegetarian restaurants dotted around. Using the great restaurant resource of Happy Cow, we were able to try out a few. They are more popular in St Petersburg and Moscow.
Delicious Russian food:
Being Vegan, I struggled to find genuine Russian food that is at least vegetarian. Below is what I came to enjoy.
Piroshki was the most difficult, the fillings were always words I didn’t know. I discovered I would buy what I think was a mushroom filling, rip it open, inspect, and if questionable, get Jacob to try it and determine if it contained meat.
Porridge (Kasha) – каша – I know, porridge is porridge. But the Russians make some different concoctions that are rarely oats. Using buckwheat, millet, semolina, barley, oats and rice.
Blini – блины́ – Thin pancakes or crepes. Toppings can be butter, jam or sour cream.
Piroshki – пирожки – Stuffed buns. Normally filled with a single ingredient or mix, cabbage, mashed potatoes, onions and egg, mushrooms, (chicken or beef).
Shawarma – Like a Kebab or wrap. Jacobs most sought after food. Cheap and can be customized with whatever ingredients you like.
We fortunately only personally encountered one scam. But we saw plenty others around.
A common scam we witnessed is to trap a tourist into paying money. A lot of money.
In Moscow, scams are rampant in the park and fountains in Alexandrovsky Garden, near the Red Square. People with animals, women dressed as 19th-century ladies who barge into your photo then demand money, selling cheap and crappy “tourist” gifts for extortionate prices.
Do not approach these people, if they approach you, walk away quickly and do not interact.
If you are caught, do not hand over their requested amount of money. Attract attention to the situation by raising your voice. They will be embarrassed and hopefully stop, you will not.
Our encountered scam:
Without your permission, as you walk past these scammers, they place a bird on your shoulder. Feeling that you cannot just shove the bird off, you are trapped and forced to interact with them. While you are trying to tell them no, they put more birds on you!
Way to trap a human, under harmless little birds! But, if like us, you do not hurt animals, it unfortunately works. They then insist on taking photos and then “releasing” the birds.
Here comes the crunch, as you try to walk away, they demand money in a brash and harsh tone, no longer friendly like before. We were curious just how much they were after and think they could get, so we asked. As we were in a crowded area and knew they wouldn’t harm us. They replied with “2000 rubles”. Now that is a hell of a lot of money (It was approx NZD$50)
We knew we did not have to pay that. So we told them “No f*%cking way” and Jacob held out 100 rubles and told them to take it or leave it, they were reluctant but when we began to walk away they took it and moved on the the next dope. Being in a crowded location they obviously weren’t going to kick up any kind of fuss. Don’t get pulled into these scams, just move off.
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