The nuts and bolts of traveling in Mother Russia

     (63 rubles = $1; 70 rubles = 1 euro)

cs russia

     I haven’t had much Couchsurfing luck in Russia. (Couchsurfing as a concept might be on the wane.) When I search for a host, I filter out those under 30 and those who haven’t logged in within a month because it seems a waste of time, but then what happens is when I create a public trip for anyone to respond, it’s usually someone under 30.
     I had great Couchsurfing experiences with people who offered to host me in Volgograd (left) and Rostov-on-Don (center) and then in Yekaterinburg it was fun to hang out with a student (right) who wanted to meet and practice English. Without that girl, I never would have known that I could get sea buckthorn juice in Russia.
     Even if you think to yourself, ahh, I’m tired, I don’t feel like talking much, I’m not in the mood to hang out, I discover that when I am with the local person, I find all kinds of things I want to talk about and I learn a lot more about the country, which is the whole point of Couchsurfing.

50 euro note

     This is a very clean 50-euro note that was refused by money changers because there is that stamp blemish you see. They can be very picky in Russia. You need to bring only the best notes you have. Of course, they think nothing of giving you ratty old ruble notes.

     I am a big fan of VTB Bank ATMs for two reasons: the maximum amount you can take out is high, 100,000 rubles, and they offer you small banknotes. The most common bank, Sberbank, only gives a 5000 ruble maximum on (foreign?) debit cards and then they give you a 5000 ruble note, which is not fun to try and break. I had one bank tell me with a straight face that it is against Russian law for them to give small change.
che smart phone

     SIM cards are cheap. (Are USA and Japan the only two horrible countries for mobile data? In Switzerland you can’t buy a SIM card if you are a foreigner; maybe you can rent.) I pay 500 rubles a month for 5GB of data and more minutes of SMS and calling than I will ever use, and that is just a basic plan. Better deals are sure to be had.

     Registering with the police can be a mess. When you enter Russia you should consider staying at a well-established hostel or hotel for the first two days just to make sure you are registered. Hostels and hotels in Moscow and St. Petersburg are used to the charade and can get you the paper you need quickly and maybe for free. I have stayed in places away from borders in private homes or in newly-opened hostels and it can take a while to get the paper—and you need the paper when you try to leave the country.
     It’s happened that I just hand my passport over and I get the registration paper back in an hour. It’s happened that I had to drag my Airbnb host to the post office for an hour after getting photocopies of the main passport page, the visa page, and the migration paper, costing a nominal 250 rubles, as I recall. Some hotels won’t let you stay if you haven’t registered already, depending on when you entered Russia , even if it is a paid reservation.
     My registration paper has been replaced several times by hotels, which doesn’t make sense. I have had hotels photocopy every single page of my large passport, which is also inexplicable. Often reception staff look relieved when I say I don’t need to be registered or re-registered.
bla bla driver altai

     My blablacar driver and his wife. We went through the Altai Mountains from Gorno-Altaisk to Kosh-Agach, the last town before Mongolia. Blablacar really saved me on that trip. Hitchhiking might have been possible, but it was rainy, and most cars were packed with vacationers. Only once did we nearly die when he passed five cars and two trucks on a curve. Six or seven hours of this excitement was 800 rubles.

     Blablacar (rideshare) is tricky to get right, but it’s nearly always the cheapest way to travel in Russia. I can’t get them to stop sending me notifications and emails in French. You need to use the version of the website for the country you are in. You will see some listings in Russia on the UK website, but the real action for Russia is on and then you have to use Google Translate to make sense of it all. (It’s built in on Chrome browsers.) I write to drivers in Russian using Google Translate. Only some have spoken a little English. I wish there were more female (i.e. mellow) drivers.
     In Siberia there is a sudden increase in the amount of Japanese cars on the roads, and I don’t mean made in Japan, I mean imported from Japan: right hand drive. On blablacar I try to avoid young drivers and right hand cars in bad weather. You haven’t lived until you’re in a car with a hotshot young punk trying to pass blind in the rain on a bad road in a right-hand-drive car.
novosibirsk room

     My bizarre four-bed(!) room in Novosibirsk. 800 rubles.

     Airbnb is no less tricky, and the lack of customer service on any of these websites is maddening. (How many billions do they have to make before they hire a customer service team in the Philippines?) Russia has a fair share of zombie listings, some of them with automatic bookings. If you book and it turns out to be inactive, you will wait many days to try and get it straightened out while Airbnb keeps pumping out nonsense like, “Try contacting your host. 95% of all problems can be solved through direct communication.”
     Also, I think Airbnb has a minimum threshold of $10, so even if you see a listing for $5, say, you can bet you are the first to try and book it. And then they use fanciful arithmetic to round up their fees. I can come up with more negativity, but the fact is I still use it a lot. Finding a single room in someone’s home for the same cost as a dorm bed is impossible to turn down. Like Couchsurfing, if you can come up with a host to talk with, you can learn a lot about where you are.
     The great feature about Airbnb that Couchsurfing once had but ditched was the ability to search by map. You can find some very interesting, out-of-the-way listings with that feature. I search by “private room” or even “entire apartment” because hosts make mistakes in their listings that can work in your favor, but too many times hostels cheat and claim a 12-bed room is “private”. and also have this scourge. Again, most listings on Airbnb will be in Russian and Google Translate…
novosibirsk station

     Novosibirsk train station. Novosibirsk is the third biggest city in Russia. Don’t pretend you knew that! It’s the only place in Siberia I’ve been that I didn’t like.

     Russian Railways has this good English website to show train times, costs, and availability, but keep in mind that all trains in Russia run on Moscow time, as does the website. It can be confusing. Some railway stations in Siberia will have a huge clock on their facade showing the time in Moscow, which is at least four hours earlier.
     This is one reason I prefer the Yandex website (Russian only—the Chrome browser with built-in translation is your friend) which shows everything in local time with bus possibilities and blablacar options, too.
russia sleep train

     See the foot sticking out in the middle? I’m taller than that guy. It’s too hard for me to sleep on overnight trains, so I try and avoid them. I haven’t had good experiences. I’ve been out of my mind and so easily irritable to the point that on a train from Saratov to Samara I lashed out at three Navy sailors for making noise at 3am. One of them was loudly smooching the provodnik (train conductor) in the bunk under me. What I didn’t know was that they were coming home as heroes as dozens and dozens of people greeted the train with balloons, waving flags, crying, celebrating, and pouring drinks on the platform at 8am.

     The best trains I have taken are called firmeny. They are deluxe expresses with comfortable seats in nice, new trains with annoying announcements in the stuffiest British English they could find. The problem is twofold: those trains have dynamic pricing where the cost fluctuates, and you’ll pay significantly more closer to departure. Also, other trains are called firmeny that aren’t exactly the same, and I still can’t tell which is which.
biysk electrichka

     This “electrichka” from Barnaul to Biysk in Siberia was a gem. For some reason electrichkas don’t always show up in the online timetables. The only way I found out about it is by holding up my phone to the station administrator that asked, “Is it true there is only one train a day to Biysk from here?” Again, it’s confusing.

     I can write what specific train I want in Russian with the train number, departure and arrival times, date and class, and then I hold my phone to the window with a message in Russian saying that I would like to be in the middle of the wagon by the window (that isn’t in the sun) facing the direction the train is going and near an electrical outlet (which are usually in the penultimate compartments on both ends.) They usually laugh at this or wave it off, but the very last train ride I had, the woman looked at it closely and gave me exactly what I asked for.
     Twice I have had train ticket people discourage me from buying the cheapest “platskart” ticket—there are two varieties, apparently—on the train because it is in the last car, and they mention something about toilets. I figure they have my interests at heart and I let them sway me.
     There are ticket kiosks in many stations that are severely underutilized. I don’t know why Russians don’t embrace it over standing in line. You can buy tickets or have tickets printed out that were bought online. You can also pick your seat this way. I tried it with my credit card—they don’t take cash, sadly—but I don’t have a PIN code for it, which is a requirement.
russian train map
     I had no idea how many train lines there were before I came to Russia. I assumed there was one main line going east. The clickable map above surprised me; there are lots of choices.
     In my last blog post I said taking the Trans-Mongolian or Trans-Siberian train was insane. This is because you can buy tickets as you go along. (I can’t verify whether this is problematic farther east than I have been so far on the main line, Novosibirsk.) I get in a lather about this because Siberia is great for visiting, not for blowing through.
     I may have been harsh. Who am I to rain on your parade? If you want to sit on a train as a seven-day endurance test, go for it.
outdoor center

     This was $8 or $10 for a single room in Krasnaya Polyana where the Olympic alpine events were. I found it on, which blows chunks all over in Russia. There are always serpents in paradise, though, and my room was windowless, meaning it was stuffy and too hard to sleep. I know no one feels sorry for me, but being perpetually tired is a drag.

     The learning curve was steep for me after I flew in to Sochi. First I was surprised to discover that the airport and most of the 2014 Winter Olympic venues were in Adler, a distant suburb by the Abkhazia border. Then I didn’t realize Sochi is 110km (70 miles) in length, technically, and so “Sochi” could mean anywhere, hardly Sochi town. Adler was Sochi. I almost jumped at this listing on Airbnb for a private room for $10 in the middle of Adler town, but it was directly and closely under the flight path of the very busy airport.
     I started in Russia with some rough bus and train rides, not rough in the struggle and strain way, but rough in the I’ve-done-this-too-many-times way and now the ambient noise of life irritates. Incessant cell phone pings drive me nuts. One minibus driver had a noisy radar detector that went off at seemingly every piece of metal we passed, and I had to listen to it for hours and hours over the din of some Eurotrash techno trance crap that played in an endless loop. And yet, I’ve traveled 6000km in Russia, and I’m hitting my stride now. That’s my roundabout point: I’m very pleased I didn’t give up and leave.
     My plans now? I’m taking advantage of my multiple entry visa by dipping down into Mongolia. I expect to nip back up into Russia near Lake Baikal and continue east to Vladivostok—if cell phone pings don’t drive me berserk first.
     The next blog posts won’t be as boring as this one. I already have a good story about hitchhiking to the Mongolian border and Russian immigration not letting it go that I’ve yet to be married nor have kids.
     Special thanks to Daniel of Eurasia Overland for answering my many, many questions.
yekaterinburg metro

     LOVE the metro everywhere in Russia. This is Yekaterinburg, where I visited every station just because I was so entranced by the variety.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something witty on Twitter, check for a non-boring photo on Instagram, and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

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The nuts and bolts of traveling in Mother Russia — 8 Comments

  1. Very interesting as always, Kent. Are you down on Airbnb in general, or just in Russia? Happy travels!

  2. Hi Ken informative. As always. I noticed on the map you included there seem to be railroad tracks (?) going all the way up to the Bering Strait and one side-track even into Magadan (at least I assume that’s what they are, maybe they’re just tracks for dog sleds … ). What a trip that would be, except I cannot find any evidence elsewhere that such tracks actually exist and my Russian isn’t up to deciphering the map legend. M.

  3. To Michael
    “…my Russian isn’t up to deciphering the map legend…”
    Look at the map’s name at the top-right, it reads Plans of Railway Infrastructure Development in the 1st Half of the 21st Century.
    Map legend basically indicates that black and white railways are the existing ones, and the color railways are those in plans. Yet to be built.

  4. Hey there, i came across your post quite by chance – and i happen be russian so it was quite exciting to read abt your experiences in my country:) you’ve got some nice recommenations there, i only wanted to add that all electrichkas (=local trains) should as a general rule show up on the yandex page you gave a link to.
    As for train stations, there are normally separate ticket offices for long-distance trains (кассы дальнего следования = kassy dalnego sledovaniya) and for electrichkas (пригородные кассы = prigorodnye kassy). perhaps it cud be helpful next time you need a local train – there’re usually many…
    Wish you nice and safe travels! I know it can be tough when noone around speaks your language… 😉

    p.s. btw the map you guys are talking about indicates only the planned tracks to be built over the next several years… so perhaps at the moment there’s only a dog sledge if any 😀

  5. Yes, I am learning things like separate ticket counters as I go along!
    That’s good to know about the train tracks. There are still many, many trains, if not train tracks. It’s an amazing system.

  6. Thanks for clearing that up about the map. And there I was getting all excited about being able to take a train to Magadan……

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