In September 1997 I went to Russia with Karine. We spent about 10 days in Moscow and 5 days in St Peterburg. I though I'd write up some of this stuff with as much digitised imagery as I could scrape up. From what I saw I'd say Russia is a bit special. I am unconvinced that I am convinced.
Before we left we bought the Lonely Planet guide to Russia (November 1996 edition) and their Russian phrase book. The guide is a good buy although normally I hate guides because they're always written by idiots claiming to have some knowledge of the area and displaying none. However, it's a bit heavy to carry around every day (I hate carrying things). The phrase book fits nicely into the left back 501 pocket. It is pure coincidence that Lonely Planet are also Australian.
As per usual I packed light (jeans and a collection of t-shirts) and stuffed all the useful stuff in my Nomex CWU-36/P flight jacket: passport, ticket, travellers checks, Ericsson GH 388 GSM phone, Magellen 2000 GPS, Fischer Space Pen, Bart Simpson pen, Securenet SNK-004 cryptokey, Sony D-202 Discman, Dowty SMOKESHEILD and random credit cards.
For the confused, GPS is the US DoD Global Positioning System. Don't get lost without it.
Before we left I also started to learn Russian, but that all crashed and burned after about two hours worth of lessons. I also bought Teach Yourself beginner's Russian by Rachel Farmer, ISBN 0-340-63910-5. It's quite well thought out.
Given the volatility of the Russian currency it's going to be a hard job to describe prices exactly. I will use a mixture of roubles and US dollars, whichever seems appropriate. At the time 1000 roubles was about 1 French Francs and there were 6 French France to the US Dollar. So, 1000 roubles was about 17 US cents. As you can see from my numbers I don't care much for precision when it comes to currency conversions. The numbers are there just to give you an idea.
Often Russian prices are given in US Dollars. In shops and restaurants there is normally a sign which gives the day's exchange rate. Although the price may be quoted in US dollars you will (normally) have to pay in roubles, at the given rate. Some places advertise that all cash payments must be in roubles. It must be very weird to live in a country where the currency of your one time most hated enemy is used rather than your own.
Given I was unsure about the ATM availability I chose to take Travellers Cheques. I felt American Express US Dollars was the go because at least there would be an American Express office where they would be accepted, if everything went bad. However, it was unnecessary. There are not a huge number of ATMs, but there are more than enough to not have to take cash or Travellers Cheques. A large number of restaurants and shops accept all the major cards (VISA, DisasterCard, etc).
To go to Russia you need a visa. To get a tourist visa you need to have either an invitation or a planned itinary. Most people will use the planned intinary method with involves having a confirmed hotel reservation for each day you will spend there. With without this documentation the Embassy will not grant you a visa.
When you receive you hotel reservations they should indicate all the normal stuff but also the number of the hotel. This number is understood by the visa section. Not having this information will make life difficult for you.
We booked cheap (two star) hotels with Nouvelles Frontieres and they sent us next to useless confirmations; no number of the hotel and not even the name of the city. I wouldn't book anything through these idiots again. When I went to see them and explained the problem, three times, to the same person, the question was:
Donc, vous voulez payer?
So, you want to pay?
They may be cheap, but they are incompetent.
In the end this problem was fixed because we got a visa agency to do the application who was able to convince the Embassy. The application normally takes 5 days to process, but you can pay more and have the visa sooner. The normal cost, in Paris, is 275 FF.
While the visa circus was being played out I went to pay for the tickets at Air France. They started to quiz me about whether I wanted insurrance, to which I replied no. I explained to them that I already had insurrance with Elvia and that I didn't need any additional. They then tried to claim that I couldn't purchase the tickets without visas. So I explained that I had applied for visas and should I wait for them to be issued before buying the tickets the reservations would timeout and would be cancelled, so just sell me the tickets, ok? They finally agreed and added to the tickets the comment:
CONTRAT SOUS RESERVE VISA POUR RUSSIE FP 100085523
Don't you just love upper case.
We flew with Air France from Charles de Gaulle (CDG), Paris to SVO-2 in Moscow. The arrival formalities only really involve the Customs Declaration as you will already have your visa so it's unnecessary to fill out an immigration document.
To get to the Moscow from the airport you can choose a cab, a hotel organised transfer or you can take the Metro. We decided to take the Metro because it would be more interesting than sitting in a cab. There is no Metro at the airport so you take the 551 bus to Rechoy Vokzal, which is at north end of the Zamoskvaretskaya (dark green, number 2) line. The bus fare is 4000 roubles and it takes about 40 minutes, passing SVO-1. From there it's about another 20 minutes to the center of Moscow.
All up the the fare from the airport by bus and metro was 6000 roubles, about a dollar. If you take a cab the cost is reported to be in the order of $40. You may be able to negociate some rate with the driver. My Russian wasn't up to it and I don't haggle. On our return we got charged an extra 4000 roubles for our bags. Heartbreaking stuff.
I suppose it just depends on how sporty a time you want to have. My mate, Lt Tyler Hathaway, USARNG says:
I have a friend who opines that the more that goes wrong when one travels, the more satisfying the experience becomes. Do you agree?
I guess it's just a question of degree.
There are two problems with Russian timetables. The first is that the times given are always in Moscow time. This is fine if you're in the same timezone, but not so great if you're, say, in Vladivostok. The second problem is that the journey time is given rather than the time of arrival. I was aware of the first problem, but had forgotten the second. Sitting on the train to St Petersburg we did a double take which was later confirmed by the Time To Go displayed by the GPS.
Buying your ticket is the next problem because unless you can convince them that you are sufficiently Russian you will have to buy it at the special Intourist ticket counter. Finding the counter is a bit of a challenge because it is usually non obvious. You will need your passport and you should write down the destination, the date, time and name of the train (if it has one). This will simplify the transaction. Knowing how to read and write Cyrillac is a plus.
When you buy you ticket you will be given a copy of the conditions in English and in Russian. You also receive an insurrance certificate for up to 2000 Swiss Francs.
A token in Moscow (left) costs 2000 roubles. A token in St Peterburg (right) costs 1500 roubles. It's insanely cheap.
Destinations are marked on both the bus/tram and the stop. I never saw a route map at a stop or in a bus/tram. Several times we just took a bus/tram to see where it went. At least with a GPS we were able to work out where we were when got there. I'm not sure I would have taken the 15 bus in Moscow to the terminus without a GPS.