Late last summer Real Russia had the pleasure of working with travel writer Jessica, Collector of Countries (over 50 so far!), of the website How Dare She, as she embarked on the greatest rail journey in the world, the Trans-Siberian railway; well, technically a bit each of the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Siberian!
While taking in a hundred new experiences, she found the time to write a few new guides for Real Russia; guides that should hopefully help you, “make the most of the Trans-Siberian railway”, and most importantly, give confidence to solo female travellers that the Trans-Siberian is eminently doable while flying solo.
In addition to this, Jessica has written four blogs exclusively for Real Russia, taking in topics such as what it is like to mingle with the locals, and what it is like on-board the Trans-Siberians famous trains! These will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels.
For now, we thought we would ask Jessica a few questions, to get a better idea of why she travels, and what inspires her.
1. What is it about travel that inspires you?
I love learning and creating the opportunity for every day to be different.
2. What is it about rail travel that intrigues you?
In the United States, we don’t travel much by train; so it has always seemed like a fancy mode of transportation from the past, but I know it’s very modern and common today.
3. What do you aim to achieve from your travel blog and Instagram, and what inspired you to start them?
I share my travels because I want people along with me, and I want them to see that the world isn’t so scary. That people are as kind as you let them be. And this is best told through stories.
A view of Nevsky Prospect and famous Zinger House in St.Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Jessica.
4. What advice would you give to people who would like to become travel writers themselves?
I have a degree in journalism, so I felt confident as a writer, I just needed to add in the travel. But the advice I give to anyone who wants to write – whatever the topic – is to read more. Read veraciously and you will find the styles you like and don’t like, and it will help you find your voice.
5. What was your favourite travel experience, and what makes it different from the rest?
I ended up going to a Kazakh wedding because I was eating mashed potatoes with my toothbrush. I was on a train in Kazakhstan and had made a cup of mashed potatoes (like a cup of noodles, where you just add hot water), when I realized I didn’t have a spoon. The closest I had was my toothbrush, so I used the handle to stir and started eating. One of my cabin mates was laughing watching me do this and offered a spoon. That started a conversation that lasted the rest of the train ride, and weekend, ending in me going with him and his friends to their high school friend’s wedding because they thought it would be a neat thing for me to experience. It was!
6. What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway?
The first morning on an overnight train, I was up before the sun. I walked from car to car as the sun rose and delighted in the beautiful sunrise that I had all to myself. A few legs later, I was in third class and ended up playing a Russian card game with my new friends for hours. On another leg, I had the cabin to myself and enjoyed the ride to myself, staring out the window and reading.
7. What was the first experience you had that made you realise your passion for travelling?
The first that I remember is that when I was little, my dad travelled a lot for work. He would come back from cities I’d never heard of, usually with a small toy for me. I didn’t care about the work stuff, but I always thought it was so cool that he went so many places (plus the gifts didn’t hurt).
8. Based on your experiences, what do you get from rail travel that you can’t experience with other mode of transportation?
I think that rail travel is the most social form of transportation. Because you have space to get up and around, and a dining car with beer, there’s no reason not to chat with the people traveling with you.
9. What is the one place you haven’t travelled but would like to go?
Very high on my list is Antarctica. When I get back to South America, I’ll have to go.
10. What is the best piece of travel advice you have ever been given?
Always bring a scarf!
11. For someone who has never travelled the Trans-Siberian, what would you say to them about the experience and the adventure?
It’s infamous for a reason. Several days by train, several countries; there’s nothing in my travel past that I can compare it to. But to best experience it, be sure to stop along the way. I met too many travellers who were stopping in Irkutsk and Moscow only, but there is a huge country between those two cities!
Thanks Jessica for your fantastic answers.
Don’t forget to check out her guides to making the most of the Trans-Siberian, and travelling solo on the Trans-Siberian, and come back soon to read her exclusive blog about her incredible adventure!
Oh, and remember, if you want to keep up with Jessica’s ongoing travels, head over to her website, How Dare She, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at jess_ismore.
We have a well-established team of highly experienced travel specialists, who are happy to assist with your travel needs, or find your perfect destination within Russia and the surrounding countries. These are the people who make our company so special. Today let us introduce Igor, a Tour Operations Supervisor.
Igor Skorodumov joined Real Russia team in 2007. Igor has a Specialist’s Degree in Economics and, in addition to his native Russian, speaks three foreign languages, English, French and German. Whenever he has free time, he reads books, works in his country house (dacha), makes crafts at home, practices sports, takes photos etc.
He likes to travel and often travels with his family within Volgograd and Astrakhan regions of Russia, as well as further afield.
As Igor is a well-known enthusiast of travel within Russia, a fan of history and simply a ‘human encyclopaedia’, we decided to get straight to the point.
Which city in Russia is the most appealing for you ?
It’s a difficult question, because each city has its own authentic beauty, history, population, dialect etc. The further one goes away from Moscow, the more vivid the local character of the city becomes.
Apart from well-loved Moscow and St.-Petersburg, I would like to accent here four cities along the Trans-Siberian railways: Kazan, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk and Ulan-Ude.
Kazan is a mixture of past and present, Muslim and Christianity, with many stunning monuments on the Volga River. It is surprising to see how the different cultures, religions can coexist peacefully for several centuries. I think this is one of the “must-see” cities in Russia for those who want to dig deeper and see the 'real' Russia.
Against the Kazan Kremlin wall
Yekaterinburg is one of the cities that played the most important role in the history of the country. It is the city where the last tsar’s family was executed putting an end to Imperial Russia; it is the city where the first President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin was born; he was the one who put an end to the Soviet Union; there is a border line between Europe and Asia; it is the city that culturally can challenge St. Petersburg in the number of rock bands, musicians, composers and actors it has produced. The city is beautifully located South of the Ural Mountains. If you are making a stopover in this city, don’t miss a chance to taste Ural dumplings and walk along the streets that have preserved the style of the former Soviet Union.
Nestled along the Ob river, Novosibirsk depicts the grandeur of the Russian Empire: the biggest buildings being the railway station and the Opera House. Nowadays it is the scientific and intellectual centre of Russia. Siberian culture shows itself through the authentic meals, the way they are served and the way people communicate. There are lots of places to visit, for example, the Trans-Siberian railway museum, an Open-air Museum of locomotives and carriages, and the beautiful embankment of the Tsar Alexander III.
Ulan-Ude is the capital of Buryatia, and is striking to its visitors, with its colourful Buddhist buildings and traditional clothes. People here are very hospitable and friendly. The city has lots of featured buildings that absorbed both the local, and the Russian, cultures.
Where did you spend your last holiday?
My family and I went to the Russian analogue of the Dead Sea, the lake Baskunchak. We had a tour at Bogdo Mountain, a sacred mountain for people who believe in Buddhism (Kalmyks, Buryats, Mongols etc.).
Last year you embarked on the Trans-Siberian railway with other members of the Real Russia team. How could you describe your experience on the Trans-Siberian in three words?
Contrasts, knowledge and history.
What was the most impressive in your trip?
We had a chance to witness the contrasts between two continents- Europe and Asia, between three countries along the Trans-Siberian – Russia, Mongolia and China, and observe a variety of cultures and lifestyles, as every place we visited has its own character and story to tell. After an intense and history laden two weeks in Russia, Mongolia was very quiet and sparsely-inhabited. And then, just one night away by train, we were in heavily-populated China; another incredible change again.
Why do you think Mongolia captured you?
I expected it to be a totally new experience for me, however, it is there, in Mongolia, where I felt more like at home than anywhere in Russia. This feeling was intensified when we came to Terelj National Park. I enjoyed this authentic atmosphere of simplicity, hospitability and friendliness. This country has the authentic values and is developing at its own pace, thoroughly keeping its character.
Igor in Terelj National Park, Mongolia
What advice would you give to customers that are planning on travelling to Mongolia for the first time?
Well, I would suggest they be prepared for lots of walking (take comfortable sport clothes, sneakers etc.), exchange their currency for the local one to be able to give tips or buy some sweets to share (for example, when visiting Nomads).
For vegetarians, I suggest searching in advance for the restaurants or check with Real Russia travel specialists about places serving vegetarian food or, if tour is booked, then it should be noted beforehand, because meat is the main food in the country.
Why do you think the Trans-Siberian route is so popular among foreign travellers?
It is the longest railway in the world stretching through two continents, several time zones and different landscapes. It is the best way one can experience Russia, Mongolia and China, admiring through the window, sitting in a comfortable compartment on a train.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I like to listen to Rock music at a high volume when I am alone at home.
What are your favourite books?
Les Misérables’ by Victor Hugo, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, and ‘The Adventures of Werner Holtv’ Dieter Noll.
What do you love the most about Real Russia?
I love the most about Real Russia that it is a real team. Many of team members are from different backgrounds, cultures, and countries, and, nevertheless, we have the mutual supportiveness and dedication that make every day at work great. For me, we have a team of professionals that have been awarded the World Travel Award for being Russian’s Leading Travel Agent for last four years not by chance, but by hard work.
We thank Igor for squeezing us in, and look forward to introducing you to another member of our amazing team soon. Click here to find more series of our interviews!
Let us help you with your next adventure, contact our travel specialists.
For the seventh year running, we are delighted to be nominated as Russia’s Leading Travel Agent, at the World Travel Awards.
The World Travel Awards are very prestigious; they are known as the Oscars of the travel industry. That’s why this is a huge honour for everyone within the company, and we would love it if you could help us win the title for the fifth time!
Time flies by for us! And we grow and we develop. As we are very passionate about Russia and the Russian people, we would like to do our bit for this incredible country. This year, as a part of our World Travel Awards campaign, we will be supporting a Russian charity, the Life Route, which helps disabled people in Russia get one-to-one support and raises the awareness of adults’ mental issues. They are doing a very important job, and we are happy to contribute in the Life Route’s valuable efforts.
Therefore, this year, for every vote we receive from our World Travel Awards page, we will donate to the Life Route.
The Director of the Life Route charity Ivan Rozhansky kindly agreed to speak to us about their mission, programms and challenges.
Can you give us a quick overview of what the Life Route does?
We focus on providing aid to disabled adults, and people with mental disorders (autism, genetic syndrome, organic lesions of CNS, etc.), those who live with their families, not in the care homes, within Moscow. We have also started helping people with mental disabilities living in psycho-neurological boarding schools.
Normally, their life in Russia is confined within four walls. To break this rule, the Life Route organises training in practical applications, such as joinery, pottery etc., and various recreation programs. This enables the participants to engage more socially and learn skills that would never normally be offered to them. Our volunteers work with groups of disabled people to give them social skills and entertain them, thus, give their parents a chance to have a break from everyday hardworking routine.
What programs do you implement?
We have several ongoing programs intended to improve the quality of life for people with mental disorders, and their relatives (who care for them). We are engaged in the organisation of daily employment, permanent employment and recreation. An adult, despite mental and physical disorders, wants to benefit others, to do something with meaning, to see the result of his work. The lack of it leads to a loss of self-respect, meaning of life, a life joy.
We arrange their participation in hand-made production of toys, ceramic and wooden souvenirs etc. and in recreation programs that include physical exercises, art therapy, walks in the city.
We also help and assist families in crisis situations, for example, when the guardian gets ill and cannot support the mentee for a period of time, or just to give a break to a family from everyday care of members with disabilities.
You mentioned that you help people to find employment. What kind of employment are you able to find?
We have two workshops that provide jobs for people with mental disorders. With assistance of educators, craftsmen, painters they can participate in producing toys, wooden and ceramic souvenirs, items from cardboard, felt and bast.
We also seek to ensure that people with disabilities can work in regular companies. It means that we need to arrange the escorts, for example, to help them to get to workplaces. And of course, it is necessary that those around them should not be afraid фand stand aside of them.
Are there many foundations in Russia working in a similar area?
Only a few charities are working with adults with mental disabilities. For example, in Moscow, there are several volunteer organizations, and a charity called ‘Вверх ’ (‘Up’). There are similar projects in different regions of Russia (Pskov, Vladimir), and Moscow, in some way, is still behind the regions. But over time, there are more organizations and volunteer movements dealing with the problems of adults with mental disorders coming up.
How many people have received help from you?
This year, 98 people participated in our programs. More than 100 received consultation assistance (psychological, informational, legal).
What challenges do you face as a charity?
First of all, lack of funding to implement our programs all the time. We are also facing with a shortage of work facilities and a high rental cost. But, on the good side, this year we have grown very much, including our reputation and brand recognition.
Which trends in the charity sector in Russia can you highlight?
Charity becomes a part of our life, and more people get involved in it. TV and social media mention those, who are in more difficult life situation, encouraging a more positive attitude to disability, and help to raise funds for them. It is still much harder to collect money for adults than for children, but this is possible! Unfortunately, one of the negative trends is the fraudsters and fake philanthropic foundations that bring discredit to charity in general.
How has the attitude to people with disabilities changed over the last few years?
The attitude changes, though, very gradually. It is already indecent to discriminate a disabled person, as used to happen in public places recently. Many public services (from ramps to employment for disabled people) do not seem to be logical yet, but some steps toward taking people with disabilities out of their four walls are being done!
And yes, it's one of our tasks to change attitudes, make a man with mental disability not scary or dangerous to society, make him more understandable, probably. We believe that public fear starts from lack of awareness, we want to tell more good stories, to be more enlightened about the possibilities of our wards so that they are not afraid to be treated with understanding. And that families where there are little children with disabilities know that everything can be normal in the future! Encourage them not to hide their children, not abandon them, demonstrating that they could get help, education, communication and support.
Do you have many volunteers working with you?
We do have many volunteers. Most of the projects are implemented by their forces (under the guidance of specialists). Most volunteers are of the age of those who they help, 20-35 year old. Some of them are going to link their professional activities to therapeutic pedagogy, psychology and psychiatry. Most have nothing to do with the topic, but simply want to be useful. Among our volunteers there are musicians, philologists, programmers, actors and accountants. We also have ‘special volunteers’- people with additional needs who lack communication and are happy to be helpful.
How else can people help you?
As mentioned above, we are always short with funds to fulfil and expand our projects. The best help for us is a small but regular donation through our website www.liferoute.org.
People can also come to volunteer with us, just write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. People are welcome to provide us with an equipment, materials, even food products for one of our programs. You can buy products made by our mentees at charity fairs. Some of the items can be purchased in gift tents at VDNKh in Moscow. And we are constantly searching for new premises for our projects and appreciate any help with this.
We thank Ivan for answering our questions!
We have spoken a little about the ThePromise before, but to give you a better idea of who they are, and what they do, we thought we would get in touch with some questions. Who is better placed to tell you about ThePromise than ThePromise themselves after all.
To discover their answers to our questions read on!
Can you give us a quick overview of what ThePromise does?
ThePromise works to improve the lives of disabled children in Russia by promoting a system of support (Portage) for disabled children in partnership with families and carers, and by encouraging a more positive attitude to disability.
Our pioneering work focuses on training and supporting teams of Portage workers in the community, working with families with disabled children in their own homes and rehabilitation centres.
What inspired the charities founders to help disabled children in Russia?
Sarah Settelen, the founder of ThePromise, made a promise to her profoundly disabled daughter Ellie, shortly after she died in January 2000. She promised Ellie that her cherished short life would not be in vain and that other children in the world, many of them hidden or silenced, would be heard, celebrated and supported.
After volunteering in a Russian orphanage for children with disabilities in the summer of 2002, Sarah made a pledge to the children she met that she would do whatever she could to improve their chances of a future.
What areas in Russia do you cover?
ThePromise now works in Ryazan, the city where the original Portage Projects were setup, as well as Moscow, Taganrog and excitingly are about to support a new project in the city of Voronezh.
What services are you able to provide to the children?
We enable Portage to be provided to disabled children on a one to one basis, allowing them to learn and develop essential skills. We also provide some specialist advice around Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, and Speech and Language Therapy from volunteers based in the UK.
How are these services contributing to improving the lives of the children you work with?
Portage provides the children with opportunities to learn, communicate and develop important skills. This in turn opens up new avenues such as feeding themselves, communicating with others, playing, making friends and even going to school.
Could you describe what ‘Portage’ is, how it helps to improve the lives of the children and how it differs to traditional teaching methods?
Portage is a system of one to one early childhood education used successfully with disabled children in many parts of the world. It utilises what we know about ‘normal’ development and breaks every stage down into small achievable steps. The Portage worker devises specific activities and games for the children, and family or carer (in the case of the children in orphanages), to practise together which will focus on the skill the child is trying to achieve. Over time, the children make significant developmental gains.
How many children and parents have you helped so far and what does that mean to your charity?
ThePromise has worked directly with over 300 children and families or carers. We have also trained over 350 students, specialists and carers to become Portage workers, and many organisations who have gone on to set up their own Portage services. Little by little we plan to spread the word about the life-changing power of Portage to groups and organisations throughout Russia.
How do you measure success in terms of the impact your charity has on the children’s development, and on their everyday lives.
Many of the children and families we work with tell us that without Portage and the support from their Portage worker they could not imagine what their life would be like. For example, a child who can feed themselves at meal times can join in with the rest of the family at mealtimes rather than having to reply on a parent feeding them. Children are learning to walk and so are no longer reliant on someone passing them the toy they want.
Before Portage, families simply wouldn’t leave the house, they wouldn’t feel able or confident enough to take their child to the park, to the shop or to a nursery. But with the skills and confidence Portage gives the children and parents, they are able to access services and enjoy life as a family.
What challenges do you face as a charity?
We face similar challenges to lots of charities in this day and age. We rely heavily on the generosity of our supporters to help us fund the projects we are supporting, and new projects that we want to help get started. We are very aware that our supporters and being asked by many charities to donate their hard earned money and we try to be as sensitive and grateful as possible. We hold a number of events throughout the year in order to offer people something enjoyable while at the same time raising money for our work in Russia. We work very closely with our partner organisation in Russia and together we raise money for our programmes from donors in both the UK and Russia.
How can people find out more about The Promise?
How can people keep up to date about your current initiatives?
Details of our work, new projects and events can be found on our website www.thepromise.org.uk. We are also on Facebook and Twitter, please like or follow our pages to see what’s going on. We have a large email database to which we send quarterly newsletters. To join our database simply email email@example.com.
Do you have any events that people can take part in coming up?
Yes, on Friday 2nd October we are holding an 80’s Boat Party in Kingston-upon-Thames. We would love people to join us for this leisurely evening cruise along the river, enjoy traditional Fish & Chips delivered fresh to the boat and dance the night away to some 80’s classics. There will be a bar and plenty of chances to win great prizes in the raffle. Tickets are just £40 and available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have been very lucky to be invited by Westminster Russia Forum to be a the charity of the evening at their upcoming Art Exhibition and drinks reception on Thursday 15th October, details can be found at http://www.westminster-russia.org.uk/#!events/cfvg.
We are also very excited to be taking part in the Brandenburg Concert Season for the first time this year. On Saturday 14th November we will be at St Giles-in-the-Fields, enjoying ‘A Choral Celebration’ as part of this wonderful Autumn Series. There is the option of an hours walking tour of the area and the church before the concert, so please get in touch with Jo at email@example.com for further details – we would love to see people there on the night.
How else can people help The Promise?
As mentioned above funds to enable us to support and expand our projects are always needed. Coming to our events, taking part in a sponsored event of their own to raise money for us or becoming an Angel (our regular givers) are all amazing ways people can help us. Just £30 a month provides Portage to a child and their family. There are lots of other ways on our website, including recycling print cartridges and registering with EasyFundraising so that every time you shop online ThePromise will receive a donation.
We are also always looking to work with corporate sponsors and can provide information on this.
And don’t forget, they have a JustGiving page set up at https://www.justgiving.com/thepromise/donate.
Our Managing Director recently sat down with the Travel Trade Gazette to talk about Russia, and some of the things people need to know when choosing to travel there.
The Travel Trade Gazette is the world's oldest travel trade newspaper, and so we are delighted that they chose to speak to our MD in relation to Russia!
Here is a short excerpt from that interview:
Aside from Moscow and St Petersburg, what other highlights should UK visitors cover?
Try the “glitz” of Sochi on the Black Sea coast, home of the 2014 winter Olympics – millionaires gather here for skiing and beach in one. Take a river cruise down the Volga to the hero city of Stalingrad, or a night train to Yekaterinburg on the Europe/Asia border in the Ural Mountains.
To read the full interview, visit the Travel Trade Gazette’s website.