For many of us Russia is, in the words of Churchill, ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’. Half European, half Asian, straddling both continents, this vast country encompasses eleven time zones and a multitude of cultures. Its leaders and its people have always been different, watching the rest of the world with a wary eye. The Russian soul has been formed by a combination of autocracy, isolation, the orthodox tradition, long harsh and dark winters, endless forests and successive waves of invaders. A tough nut to crack, they can seem as cold as a Siberian gale, and as hard as the frozen January soils. You need to work on a Russian, but the rewards are great if you manage to break through the façade. A round of vodka might speed up the process. Once you have made friends a whole new world will open up to you.
This country, however is more than vodka swirling locals. There are countless minorities, from Tartars, to Chechens, to Yakutsk to Nenets. While overwhelming orthodox, there are also sizeable groups of Muslims, and smaller pockets of Buddhists, Jews, Catholics and animists. From the tribes in the Caucasus to the bureaucrats in Moscow and the reindeer herders in the frozen north, you will discover there is no such thing as one kind of Russian.
Gape open-mouthed at the Imperial decadence of St. Petersburg’s many palaces, unravel the mysteries of the Russian state in Moscow’s Kremlin, watch an incense swirling priest and pious candle-lighting Russians venerate icons in one of the myriad onion domed churches, take the Trans-Siberian through the everlasting Taiga to Vladivostok, drink vodka with new made friends, ski in the deep south, hike the wilds of remote Kamchatka or take a slow boat down the Volga.
Russia, you will discover, is like a Matryoschka doll there is always another doll inside.
Highlights from Russia
- The Imperial city of Saint Petersburg (aka Sankt-Peterburg or Санкт-Петербург) is like nowhere else in Russia. Get to know Russia’s window to the west, with its world famous Hermitage Museum, its canals, its parks, its stately houses, and the opulent and decadent palaces of the Czar’s a short hop away
- Visit Veliky-Novgorod (aka Novgorod-Veliky or Великий Новгород) and learn about Russian history, and its orthodox traditions
- Wander around the Kremlin in Moscow (aka Moskva or Москва), visit St. Basil’s Cathedral, walk over the Red Square, and be pious at Novodevichy Convent
- Take the Trans-Siberian from Moscow all the way to Vladivostok (aka Владивосток) to understand just how big Russia is!!
- Watch the sun set over Lake Baikal (aka о́зеро Байка́л), the deepest lake in the world and a unique eco-system
- Hike in the wilds of far flung Kamchatka (aka Камча́тка) with its snowy topped volcanoes, geysers, reindeer herders, and bears
- Make you way along the ‘Golden Ring’, a collection of towns and cities northeast of Moscow, full of onion domed churches, kremlins, gingerbread houses, the most famous ones are: Sergiyev Posad (aka Сергиев Посад), Pereslavl-Zalessky (aka Переславль-Залесский), Rostov-Veliky (aka Ростов Великий), Yaroslav (aka Ярославль), Kostroma (aka Кострома), Ivanovo (aka Иваново), Suzdal (aka Суздаль) and Vladimir (aka Владимир)
- Take a slow boat down the Volga to Volgograd (aka Волгоград) where the German advance into Russia was finally halted, or further down to Astrakhan (aka Астрахань) on the Caspian shores
- Ski or hike the Caucasus down south
- A bit controversial, but whether anybody likes it or not, the Crimea (aka Krim, or Крым) is now in Russian hands, and it is a must-see destination, so I am including it in my highlights for Russia because that is the only way you will be able to visit it. So, go to the Crimea with its palaces, beaches, nature, and much more
Hints and Tips for Russia
- Visas are a bit of a nightmare for Russia, best to use an agency, even if it will be more expensive that way.
- English isn’t spoken much in Russia, bring a phrasebook or learn Russian. Also try and learn Cyrillic if you want to be able to read what it says on road signs, or basically any sign.
- Russia is vast! Trains are an economical, comfortable and good way to get around. Take night trains to save money.
- Instead of taking the Trans-Siberian in one long go, think about splitting it up and stopping along the way, there are plenty of things to see along the route. Stop of in Yekatarinburg, where the last Czar and his family were killed, or Kazan which has its very own Kremlin and is home to the Tartar Muslims, Irkutsk and the Baikal Lake should also not be missed.
- Russians love to drink vodka. If you are up for it, it is a good way to make friends. Or learn the language, then you will really melt the cold Russian hearts.
- Beware that a big part of the Caucasus is a no-go area, with simmering tensions and insurgencies going on in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. That said, the area around Sochi where the Winter Olympics were held is perfectly safe.