Follow your heart, but take your brain with you
Dr. Alfred Adler, founder of the school of Individual Psychology
The previous two blog posts under the series Мечта have focused more on the pursuit of gathering experience and the quest to fulfill the dreams through traveling. They also gave a small slice of the Marvels of Russia and the unending battery of pleasant surprises in store in Russia, and dispelled some of the unfortunate myths around Russia to enable the reader visit there and have an experience of a lifetime.
One must always follow his/her heart and do his/her liking. But to do so, one needs a systematic plan, homework and follow certain procedures to help the dreams turn into reality.
This blog post is dedicated towards the aforesaid purpose. Hope this helps all the curious souls dispel a few more myths and misconceptions and get a hang of what needs to be done (or avoided) to have a great experience worth cherishing for a lifetime.
A general disclaimer before we start off with this blog.
DISCLAIMER: While the information written here is based on my personal experience and true to the best of my knowledge and beliefs, I do not accept any liabilities, damages or loss of any nature or quantum based on the information written in this blog. The readers are strongly advised to research more and get updated information from relevant sources and contact relevant authorities for information before venturing out for such expeditions.
A. Getting the Russian Visa (for Indians staying in India)
Contrary to the widespread myth, getting a Russian visa is quite simple involving less amount of paperwork as compared to its peers in Europe.
I applied for the visa about 2.5 months before my scheduled date of departure, to avoid hassles due to possible delays or rejections or last moment rush.
There is an update on this: In September-October 2018, the Russian Visa Processing (document collection) was done by IFS for India. As on January 2019, that process seems to have been handed over to VFS. However the respective Russian Consulate, assigned to take up visa applications from the designated VFS Centres, remains the sole authority in India having the power to grant or refuse a visa. This has not changed.
Have a look at the documents required as per the VFS Website.
I won’t speak much about those in detail over here, as the list is self explanatory. I would however share some details about a few activities which Iundertook to get the tourist visa to Russia.
Invitation Letter or Tourist Confirmation Letter
This has to be issued by an authorized tour operator in Russia, containing the information as requested in the VFS Website.
A pre-requisite to get this confirmation letter is your hotel booking (s). It is advisable that you book your hotels / hostels as per your desired itinerary and get their booking vouchers before approaching the tour agent to get the tourist confirmation letter.
There are a number of tour agents in Russia issuing this letter. Most of them don’t even require that you book the hotels with them. The agent however charges a fee, payable online in US Dollars. Hence, having a credit or debit card with International Transactions facility enabled in it, is necessary.
I got mine in ~ USD 19. There may be more agents available charging cheaper than this, but as per my personal search, this seemed to be the cheapest one. I shared information like my Passport Number, Name, Cities to visit, Hotel Booking Vouchers, Date of Intended Entry and Exit from Russia, to the agent, to help them issue the Confirmation letter (on mail).
Though the VFS and erstwhile IFS website mentions the same list of items to be shown during the documents collection at VFS (or IFS), it is advisable that you take the following additional documents in general:
- Hotel booking vouchers
- Airline Tickets (entry to and exit from Russia)
- Offer Letter / Appointment letter from the Company you are currently employed with (with something to indicate your designation, like visiting card)
An important note: If your passport is issued by a place (Eg. Ranchi PO for Jharkhand) which does not fall under the jurisdiction of the application centre of Visa (Eg. VFS Mumbai), then you will need to show an additional document which will be used as address proof of your current residence (Eg. Mumbai or other areas under the jurisdiction of VFS Mumbai for processing Russian Visa). Preferably, get a bonafide letter from your company certifying your employment, position and your current residential address. The Russian Consulate might even call you for a separate interview to check these documents (happened to me and the interaction was quite friendly)
B. Intercity Travel
Just like any other European Country, Russia offers a great network of roads, railways and airports connecting several major cities, both within the country as well outside the country.
Without going into much details over the choice of the appropriate mode of transport, I would like to say that I personally prefer the train journey because of the following reasons:
- It offers breathtaking sights and scenes of the country and the route. Those sights are seen from the point which is the closest one can get to nature while commuting
- It offers an opportunity for increased people to people connect
- It is comfortable – especially for moderately long distances (~2000 to 3000 km). You can get to sleep, eat, laze around, read, or simply gaze and be awed by the spectacular sights outside the window.
- It is cheap (expensive only if you want it to be)
Of course, I do not mean to say that you must travel only by train. There might be several other factors you would like to consider before coming to a decision.
There are several categories of Russian trains: Luxury Sleeper, Regular Sleeper, Chair Cars and Sapsan High Speed Trains
The Regular Sleeper trains ply on longer routes involving overnight journey. There are 3 classes in a regular sleeper train: First Class (Most Expensive and Luxurious), Coupe (Second Class) and Platskart (3rd Class – Cheapest). All these classes have AC systems or heaters during winters.
I traveled in both Coupe and Platskart. The Coupe can be considered to be equivalent to First AC coach of Indian trains, though the Coupe is way more luxurious.
Similarly, Platskart can be considered as an equivalent of Second AC Class of Indian trains structurally.
The tickets should preferably be bought online from the Russian Railways Website RZD.
Once the tickets are bought, they need to be printed out and carried alongwith your passport and shown to the Ticket Checker before boarding. Russian Railways also have a practice of issuing a boarding pass, prior to boarding your train. This boarding pass can be collected from the ticket counter of the station of origin by showing your e-ticket print out and passport. You may then show the boarding pass and passport to the Ticket Checker on duty to board the train.
Though the boarding pass is not compulsory, it is still advisable that you get one.
You may also choose your seat, coach, class and food while booking your ticket.
I used the following scheme for the intercity travels in Russia:
- Moscow to Murmansk: Coupe on a Regular Sleeper Train
- Murmansk to St. Petersburg: Platskart on a Regular Sleeper Train
- St. Petersburg to Moscow: Sapsan High Speed Bullet Train (Chair Car) – The Sapsan traveled at nearly 240 kmph when I was traveling.
Traveling in train cruising through the near infinite expanse of ice and snow fields is a dreamscape one which one might not like to miss.
In case I didn’t mention – Russia ranks the THIRD in the World after USA and China in terms of total length of railway networks. Russia also uses powerful 12,000 HP Electric Locomotives for haulage, which a very limited set of countries like China, Germany, Sweden and USA use. India recently joined this club.
C. Intracity Travel
Again, like most other parts of Europe, Russia offers excellent Urban Public Transport Systems in the form of Metro, Bus, Tram, Monorail, Light Suburban Rail, etc. You name it, the cities have it.
Moscow Metro Rail system offers a cheap and comfortable traveling option free from traffic jams, for the city of Moscow and a few of its outskirts.
The Moscow Metro, opened in 1935, is mostly an underground system and is the FIFTH LARGEST in the world covering about 381 km. It operates the Moscow Metro, Light Rail and Monorail Networks.
One ride costs (Russian Ruble) RUB 55, irrespective of the distance traveled.
A good way to save some money is to purchase a Limited validity Transport Card or Troika Card (24 hour, 72 hour, 168 hour) which offers unlimited rides for a fixed amount of money.
I purchased a 1-day Transport Card for RUB 218.
The Transport Card could be used seamlessly for Metro, Bus, Light Rail & Monorail (but NOT on AeroExpress Metro line connecting to the Airport)
Google Maps help quite a lot in locating the nearest Metro Station or Bus Stop with great accuracy. Look out for the sign shown below around you to know whether you are close to a Metro Station or not. Keep your mobile power bank handy while commuting.
There is a separate Metro Rail System called AeroExpress Metro, which connects Moscow’s Airports (Sheremeteyevo, Vnukovo, Domodedovo) to the Main Metro Rail Stations (Belorussky, Kievsky, Paveletsky respectively) from where one may interchange to the other lines of the Moscow Metro System. The Sheremeteyevo Airport – Belorussky AeroExpress fare was RUB 500 per trip.
The announcements in the Metro coaches are made both in Russian and English. Also the stations and markings are written both in Russian and English.
Unlike Metro systems in India, the Interchange Stations in Moscow can be named Separately for Separate Lines. Hence, special attention to the Line Colour or Line Number is very essential to avoid confusion.
For example, consider the tri-junction station as shown below (Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)
This same station can be used to interchange between Lines 1,6 and 10. All the 3 stations are housed in the same underground interconnected complex. However the TABLE given below can help you get an idea of the system of naming the same station differently for different lines:
|Red||1||Bulvar Rokossovskogo – Salaryevo||Chistye Prudy|
|Orange||6||Novoyasenevskaya – Medvedkovo||Turgenevskaya|
|Lime||10||Seligerskaya – Zyablikovo||Sretensky Bulvar|
Hence, if you are on the RED line (Line 1), then the above station will be named as Chistye Prudy and the announcements will be made for Chistye Prudy when the train approaches that station. You may alight there and interchange via the interconnections to reach the other lines (Turgenevskaya or Sretensky Bulvar), as per your requirement.
So, I guess that is all from my side as far as Moscow Urban Transport System is concerned. It is user friendly, cheap and comfortable.
Did I mention that Moscow Metro can boast of extreme punctuality of offering services at a precise gap of 1 minute 30 seconds between two successive trains? Atleast that is what I saw during my trip, in morning, afternoon, evening and night time.
The Metro system for St. Petersburg is similar to the one for Moscow. Saint Petersburg also offers a combined Public Transport System consisting of Metro, Tram and Bus.
The Sign or Logo to look for to help in easy identification of the Metro station is shown below:
A single use ticket costs RUB 45.
There are passes based on the number of journeys as well as prepaid Smart Cards offering discounts per trip available for use on Saint Petersburg Metro. The updated fares and structures can be viewed on the Official Website of Saint Petersburg Metro.
Did I mention that Russian Metro Stations appear more like Elegant Palaces with intricately carved designs, artworks and sculptures, making the station resemble nowhere close to a place of public commute? See for yourself.
D. Murmansk and Teriberka – The Arctic Zone
I reached Murmansk from Moscow via Train, and left Murmansk for St. Petersburg, again by train. Information about trains have been given in one of the previous sections in this blog post.
Within the city of Murmansk, there is a well developed bus service available. However I cannot say much about the same as I didn’t avail the bus service owing to the proximity of my hotel to the Railway Station, Fjord and the City Centre.
I went to Teriberka through an SUV arranged by a local tour operator. The entire round trip cost me RUB 13,000.
It is advisable that you book your tour slot about a month or two in advance to avoid unnecessary delays or cancellations on account of high tourist inflow.
Although in winter the chances of tourists visiting are less owing to extreme cold Arctic Temperatures, yet taking such unnecessary chances is not advisable.
People usually visit Murmansk during Winters in order to:
- View the Aurora Borealis (especially the weather hardened Aurora hunters)
- Experience the Polar Nights
- View the Fjords, especially the Murmansk Fjord
- Adventure Trip to the Arctic Ocean
- Continuing their onward / return journey to / from Norway, Sweden or Finland
- Winter Activities like building or touring ice sculptures, visiting ice hotels, skiing, etc.
I guess these bits of information will cover quite a lot about your Russian odyssey regarding travel or transports. Let us now cover some other general aspects.
Food in Russia can be expensive usually, if one considers dining in restaurants for normal meals. Hence, a word of advice is in place for budget travelers who would like to avoid shelling out on food (myself included).
Relax your preferences as much as possible to have decent food at affordable prices in Russia.
Let me clarify what I mean to say. As Indians, most of us are quite accustomed to having rice, dosa, chapati, dal, curry etc. as the main course food during lunch or dinner. Even if we go to restaurants, our orders remain mostly centered around curry (vegetarian, non-vegetarian or both) alongwith chapati and/or rice. In the Southern part of India, people generally prefer having dosa, idli in place or rice or chapati.
If you are in Russia, or any other country for that matter, it is advisable to try to adopt a bit less “strict” approach to your dietary requirements (of course, health and hygiene should NEVER be compromised with) because either Indian food would not be available, or it would be expensive.
Now in general, one can trust normal Russian or European hotels for their hygiene, as they have very strict food quality standards, which are rigorously implemented. So this factor need not be scrutinized in general if you are ordering from a standard restaurant or food joint.
Try their local food or standard food available in KFC, Burger King or McDonalds (if cheap, and doesn’t come in conflict with your personal or religious beliefs).
I usually stuck to KFC for lunch and dinner as a 2 piece chicken drumstick costed me about RUB 170. And those two pieces were too much to have for me. Sometimes I also opted for McDonalds meal, costing around RUB 230.
I tried a Russian dish once in a fine dining restaurant in St. Petersburg, themed in lines of an explorer ship of circa 1700-1800 CE. The dish cost me about RUB 950. I had to try that out since I am a bit of a foodie myself, hence, can’t resist the temptation of fine dining once in a while for a totally foreign locale.This is Chicken Kiev, in the Flying Dutchman, St. Petersburg. If you want a literal experience of “food melting in the mouth”, you should be here and try this one. To add sauce to the tomato, you can get a feel of the oil, meticulously filled in inside the food, oozing out per bite of the food. The rich aroma of the food makes you crave more of the same.
Bottled water can be quite expensive in Russia. It cost me about RUB 50 for a 500ml bottle usually. Hence, before venturing out of the hotel for sightseeing, I made it a point to fill my bottle (I carried a 1L bottle everywhere) for free over there and consume it. In case 1L didn’t suffice, I purchased a 1.5L bottle at RUB 75 from a local supermarket nearby. Purchasing bottled water of 1-2 Litres from supermarkets is a bit cheaper.
F. General Information
As the name goes, this section will deal with general information one must keep in mind while visiting Russia. These are in addition to the ones covered under the sections concerned with Travel, Food, Visa, etc.
- Keep your Passport (Visa Stamped) always with you while traveling outside, even for going to the block next to your hotel. The Russian Police can stop you and check your visa anytime, anywhere.
- If the Police stops you for verifying your visa, please be polite with them and avoid arguments (assuming that you might have been stopped and checked previously). They are just doing their job. Moreover refusal to cooperate (to save 2 minutes) can create unnecessary legal complications for you. Just show them your passport, be with them while they take the photographs of your passport, take the passport back and get going within 2 minutes.
- One might be subject to additional checks in Murmansk as Murmansk is a Border Oblast (bordering Norway and Finland). Hence, in addition to your passport, it is advisable to keep the following documents too with you (hard copy or soft copy/email):
- Hotel booking voucher
- Travel agent email / receipt / voucher for excursion (eg. car booking emails for Teriberka)
- Train / Flight ticket showing your date of departure from Murmansk
- Master Card (not Maestro) and Visa Credit or Debit cards with International Transaction Facility works well with the POS Terminals in shops, hotels, Metro stations or Bank ATMs. Make sure you get this facility enabled in your Credit / Debit Card by talking to your Bank or the Card Company.
- Russia is mostly cashless, way more than India from my personal observation. Hence, it is not necessary to carry a large amount of cash in the wallet in Russia (it may carry the risk of putting you in a fix if it gets stolen). The Debit / Credit Card might just be sufficient to help you perform monetary transactions during eating, shopping or traveling. Bank ATMs are also widespread, so you might as well withdraw cash if the need be.
- Get your currency exchanged to Russian Rubles in India (not in the Airport), after receiving the Visa and Air Tickets. Exchanging the currency in Russia and Airports is expensive. Also, it is not advisable to lose money twice by exchanging INR to USD and then USD to RUB.
- A pair of good quality adventure shoes is of utmost necessity during Winter in Russia, as you might as well have to walk on frozen roads and snow. I had a pair of heavy Woodland Shoes with good grip. Worked well under these situations. Normal sports shoes or running shoes may be utterly useless under such conditions.
- Get some gloves offering flexibility to digital movement in addition to offering protection from sub-zero temperatures. I had to uncover my hands in order to take pictures. I could notice the drop in picture quality on account of taking pictures in a haste as my fingers would literally freeze within seconds of uncovering them.
- Get a good quality DSLR camera having long exposure time and specially suited for very low light celestial and landscape pictures. I overestimated my mobile phone camera’s capability while taking the pictures of the Arctic Tundra and Aurora Borealis during the Polar Night. Needless to say, they could not be captured well through the phone camera.
- Have Metro Maps and Google Maps (on Phone) handy, as these will help you seamlessly navigate within the city to catch the Public Transport and to see the places to visit. Moreover, electronic devices tend to consume more battery power when exposed to cold temperatures (I am in no mood to bore you out with the underlying principles of Physics). Hence, carrying a charged power bank with cords is essential.
- Although English is quite prevalent in some areas of a city, in general, signs and markings will be in Russian language mostly. It is thus advisable to read and write in Russian language to understand the signposts, bus/metro destinations, shops etc. In case one finds it difficult to speak Russian or understand spoken Russian, then he/she may use Google Translator, though the speech/tone recognition of the same is not that reliable. Explaining via hand signs/gestures also helps a lot.
- Regarding cellular networks or services, it is a good idea to purchase a local temporary SIM from the Russian Airport upon landing. I purchased a local SIM for RUB 2000, which offered unlimited Data per day. That immensely helped me use Data Intensive apps or services like VoIP (WhatsApp/Facebook video calls), Google Translator, Google Maps, Social Media quite seamlessly. If a better deal is offered by a Cellular Network Service Provider in India for use in Russia, it might be considered.
G. Safety Precautions
Prepare and Prevent, Don’t Repair and RepentAnonymous
There is no doubt that Russia looks magical during Winter and is a textbook example of Magical Realism. However, disregard to safety rules or lack of knowledge thereof, can turn this Magical Dreamland into a Frosty Hell for the errant person.
It is thus important to research more and be fully prepared before visiting places where constant exposure to sub-zero temperatures and icy winds is inevitable. Here, I have listed some safety precautions which should be followed. Please note that this list is not exhaustive, and further research / preparation / updates are strongly recommended before visiting such places.
- Russian Metros usually have the THIRD RAIL as the power source. In simple language, the trains draw power from the third rail (~800V DC) running parallel and close to the tracks. Hence, any mechanical or electrical contact with the tracks (or close proximity to them) may even be fatal. Avoid rushing or staying near the edge of the platforms to prevent accidentally falling to the tracks. Maintain a safe distance from the edge of the platform.
- Although it might be tempting to drive through the thick ice and snow on a seemingly empty Arctic Road, it is advisable NOT to try that without proper license, training or experience, even if you get an SUV with a host of safety features like ABS, EBD, ESC etc. Driving on snow can result in uncontrolled skidding of the car. Taking a trained driver with you for such Arctic excursions might be expensive, but it is the safer way of exploring these places.
- Russia is full of frozen lakes, glaciers and rivers, especially during winters. While those are good to see, one should not attempt to walk or drive over them or even dig the ice. It is nearly impossible to gauge the strength of the ice or its thickness by merely looking at it. Walk over them only if it is marked as safe to do so by the local administration.
- While there are several reports of Russian trying out “Winter Swimming” (Swimming in winters in an unheated, frozen lake, river or sea), it would be better for an untrained tourist to avoid “winter swimming” to save himself/herself from falling sick due to exposure to sub-zero temperatures.
- Avoid touching metals or anything exposed to the icy environment with bare hands to save yourself from getting a frost-bite. Wear good quality protective gloves and then touch those, if the need be.
- In the rare eventuality of an encounter with an unchained dog in Russia, it is wise enough to stay calm, and very slowly move away from the dog. Scaring tactics like picking up stones would make the matters worse. Slowly move away and try gesturing the passers by / owner (if present) for help. A full frontal attack to eliminate the threat should be carried out if and only if all other methods of avoiding / calming the animal down fail or you sense the animal is hell bent on causing you physical harm. It is worth noting that in general, Russian dogs are larger, bulkier, thus possibly more powerful than the strays in India.
That is all from my side regarding the pointers which might be helpful and handy while you undertake the Russian odyssey on your quest to explore the magical dreamland of Russia. I hope you have an experience worth cherishing for life..!!