Russia has provided what can only be described as a life changing adventure. I will never ever again complain about the service we get in Australia from the banks, phone and insurance companies.

Gardens, Summer Palace of Peter the Great, St Petersburg, Russiaoutput_2f99
Gardens, Summer Palace of Peter the Great, St Petersburg, Russiaoutput_2f99

 

Bureaucracy, bureaucracy and more bureaucracy

Russia seems to be stuck in a place where all the old communist procedures need to be followed but for no good reason now that capitalism is in.

On the flight to St. Petersburg, we were given arrival cards and goods declaration forms

that we had to fill in duplicate. They asked for every detail including the make and the model of the mobile phones we had. We were told that on departure, they will check the second copy against the arrival copy and if there are any discrepancies, we will be detained.  Well, I was born in Ukraine so I know a little about Russian way of life. I made sure every form was filled correctly and the copies were kept in a safe place.

 

I should have known better!  They did not look at either of the copies when we left!  That was just the start.

Red hammer and sickle emblem
Red hammer and sickle

Russia seems to be stuck in a place where all the old communist procedures need to be followed but for no good reason now that capitalism is in. Everything needs to be authorised – our visas needed to be registered, tickets to use the camera needed to be bought (no one checked), me wiping my bum needed to be approved (just about). To top it all off, we were told that we cannot take rubles out of Russia. You think there was a currency exchange at the airport??? Not a chance!!! We had to buy something in an Irish pub that quoted prices in euro, only accepted rubles and only gave change in $US. Sums the whole country up really.

State Hermitage Museum plaza
State Hermitage Museum plaza at 11pm

Russian People

As I mention, I have a Ukrainian/Russian upbringing so it pains me to say this that in general, As per our local tour guide classic statement: “Russians on general are the loudest, pushiest and rudest people I have ever known”. Nice opening statement for a walking tour on out first day in Moscow! She did say it after she was elbowed out of the way by a babushka ( literary translated as grandmother but generally means an old woman) walking by. It was actually so well done, I was impressed by the efficiency of the elbow strike to the stomach and the swear words that accompanied it. I guess it was the guide’s fault, she was standing in the way. 🙂

Russians in general are the loudest, pushiest and rudest  people I have ever known.

This of course is a gross generalization and we have met a number of great friendly people on our travels through Russia. However, as I mention, I have a Ukrainian/Russian upbringing so it pains me to say that in general I agree with our guide (and she was a local!). I guess because life was tough under the Soviet regime and still is for a large majority, the rule here is to look after number one first and don’t get in my way.

 

Drinking culture

The first sight we had of Russian people coming out of the airport was of two of them walking down the street drinking beer straight out of the bottles. And that was at 10am!

It is common to see people drinking on public transport and on the street. I guess between the cold weather (when I say cold, I mean brutally cold) and the state of economy, a bottle or 10 a day can’t hurt much. After being in Russia for a week, we were ready to start drinking so I can relate.

Even after all that and some very bad weather we still really had a lot of fun and thought that Russia really is a special place to visit.

Saint Petersburg

St Petersburg summer palace Peter the Great
Summer Palace of Peter the Great, St Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg is truly a magnificent city and every person who enjoys traveling,  should put it on their bucket list. You can easily spend days or weeks just getting around the Hermitage museum. Add to that beautiful churches, opulent palaces, stunning architecture, great restaurants all backed by one of the most stunning cities you can ever visit and you will start to appreciate why I could easily come back to St Petersburg  again and again.   No matter whatever you enjoy doing and seeing on your holidays, you will find it here and will fall in love with St Petersburg. Oh, and try to travel there in summer. That way, you will avoid really cold weather and will experience white nights when it’s still light at 11pm. Spectacular!

Our trip there was taken to another lever by a couple of friends we met in Thailand a few years before. They took us around to some of the places we normally wouldn’t have seen (you should really visit a night club called  Traveling Bag for a Pregnant Spy. Talk about unusual  decor!).

State Hermitage Museum at night
State Hermitage Museum at night

They also took us to a private restaurant owned by a wealthy friend of theirs (at the time of our trip, St Petersburg had 19 billionaires. Yes, 19!). This guy owned a hobby restaurant which consisted of only two tables for friends and family to visit and eat in for a nominal fee. He didn’t know who will come and when so the chef, 2 waiters and kitchen staff where on hand everyday with a 3-course meal ready just in case someone would turn up. I thought that it would be just a home style place but couldn’t be more wrong.

The place was stunning and the first question the waiter asked is what kind of music we wanted playing while we ate!!! This turned out to be a vegetarian restaurant where they made their own butter, baked their own bread and made a lot of their own dips, jams and side dishes. The ambience was stunning, the food was unbelievable and the service was impeccable. If it was a public restaurant, I am sure it would have  been in the Michelin guide. I wouldn’t know but I venture to guess that when you are very rich, the hobbies get very extravagant.

Get inspired by checking St Petersburg in Photos.

Banquet Room, Summer Palace of Peter the Great, St Petersburg, Russia
Banquet Room, Summer Palace of Peter the Great, St Petersburg, Russia

Moscow

St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow Russia
St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow Russia

I have to say upfront that Moscow was not my favorite city every visited.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a very impressive place. Moscow now has some of the best restaurants in Europe and is one of the major centres in Europe for amazing night life with great bars and life music venues. And the Red Square is great to experience in person (it is smaller that I thought it would be after watching all the military parades on TV over the years).

Moscow undergraound station
Underground metro stations in Moscow are works of art

My favorite part of Moscow was the visit to the Kremlin. This is a must see. I loved the golden domed churches, the Armoury museum and the Diamond fund. My other favorite was the underground metro. Each of the stations is like a museum. The underground metro stations in Moscow are the most beautiful in the world by far.

Unfortunately, after visiting St Petersburg first, I found Moscow lacking the same beauty, the same oomph factor. And a lot more pricey for what you get. Maybe if I visited Moscow first, I would have enjoyed it more. One day, I’ll give it another chance and see if I enjoy it more (happened before with Madrid and other cities so will keep an open find).

One of the more unusual things I did in Moscow is to go into one of their public sauna houses (banya in Russian). A very tradition past time to spend time with friends. There is normally a very (very, very) hot steam room where you sit for as long as you can take it while occasionally hitting yourself or getting others to hit you with birch branches. When you can’t take it anymore, you go to another room and have a dip into  barrels of water ranging from cold to freezing. The idea is to sweat out body toxins and then to invigorate the skin and promote blood flow. There are totally different spaces for men and women.

The experience started well with me getting shown into a private change room where I got a locker, a towel and a bath robe. There was also a nice relaxation area where you can lounge around and chill while having a drink. I did get a little stumped as to why there were little head caps for sale at the front desk. I wasn’t confused for long.

Within 5 minutes in the steam room, the top of my head was so hot, I felt like my brain was boiling over. Thank god for cold water baths! I must admit, it was a little weird watching hairy fat naked men smacking each other all over with dry brunches and seeming to enjoy it but when in Russia, do what the Russians do so I did. All up, an interesting experience and, actually, very relaxing and invigorating at the same time.

Get inspired by checking Moscow in Photos.

Inside Kremlin armory, Moscow, Russia
Inside Kremlin armory, Moscow, Russia

 

Finishing up

Russia is a great country to visit. by all means, see as much of Russia as you can. You will find it fascinating, interesting, amusing, frustrating and challenging. But you will have experiences and memories you will talk about for years to come. If you don’t have a lot of time, I would recommend to spend much less in Moscow (2-3 nights) and as much as you can in St Petersburg.

Oh, and please don’t buy a fur hat with the communist hammer and sickle badge on the front. You will never wear it. Trust me on that, been there done that, have a hat to prove it. 🙂

Just buy a matryoshka doll instead. 😉

Matryoshka dolls
Matryoshka dolls

 

 

 

 

Author

Igor is a travel lover, an enthusiastic amateur cook and an exercise advocate. He founded travelcrank.com to help people travel better and inspire them to travel more.

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