Real Russia Blog

Perceptions of Russia
24
October
2017

Perceptions of Russia

Why was Russia the biggest surprise of 95 countries Jessica has visited.

It is very easy to get a distorted view of a country, or people, from watching Hollywood movies and following social media. The easiest (if not the cheapest) remedy to this, is to travel and see the world for yourself. Continuing her series of blogs written exclusively for Real Russia, Jessica, creator of travel blog How Dare She, shares with us how her perceptions of Russia and her people changed when she had the opportunity to visit the country herself.
I didn’t know what to expect of Russia. Of Russians. Of Russian food. And out of the 95 countries I’ve been to, I’d have to say that Russia was the biggest surprise of them all. Where I expected ice and snow, I found rolling greens and lakes. When the stereotypes told me to expect Bond villains, I got boisterous, affable friends.

Russia is huge

If you look at a map, this should be quite obvious, but Russia really is huge. It doesn’t sink in fully until you’re planning stops on the train journey. There are so many options, how to choose? I was surprised when I talked with other passengers on the way from Mongolia into Irkutsk – most were stopping in Irkutsk and then going the long haul to Moscow with no stops in between. While the East and West of the country are quite different, surely there were cities in between worth visiting. At least that’s what I figured … I was right.

I stopped in Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Each unique, but with common themes. Tall, beautiful, friendly people, delicious food and interesting architecture.

In Irkutsk you are a few quick hours from the stunning Lake Baikal. I did not give myself enough time there. I wish I had known on the front end that it was so ecologically diverse (known as Russia’s Galapagos) and so massive (it contains 20% of the entire world’s freshwater supply). I also wish I liked fish because everyone seemed to be enjoying it.


Lake Baikal

On to Novosibirsk, where I went to the famous opera house to see my first opera, in the first row, for $4, and the next day went to the zoo and saw my first liger. A lot of firsts in Novosibirsk.

Next up was Omsk, where the Soviet architecture stood out. It’s a big city and I just enjoyed walking around, or riding the (very cheap) busses around when my feet got tired.


Novosibirsk Opera House

Both Perm and Yekaterinburg were great to explore by foot, helped by tourist paths painted on the sidewalk so you don’t miss anything.

Moscow is the main event. So big that it’s almost overwhelming, but with such a great transit system, it’s as if the city shrinks – pro-tip, get the multi-day transit pass, it’s unlimited and cheap. Red Square and the surrounding area is beautiful by day, but even more charming by night. St. Basil’s Cathedral is popular for a reason and an absolute must – not just for its beauty, but listening to a chorus sung in the cathedral gave me chills. Oh, yeah, and the city has a Vodka Museum. So, it’s a winner for me. I could definitely live there.


Inside St.Basil's Cathedral


Red Square

St. Petersburg honestly wasn’t on my radar, but I was going to be going onward to Finland, so it just made sense logistically. I strolled the city, taking in another different, but still clearly Soviet, style of architecture. I ended up on a canal cruise, which was in Russian, but I didn’t mind. I was less interested in the buildings’ history and more interested in a relaxing time seeing the city from the water. By canal or by foot, the city was way more than just a logistical stop. I finished my time in Russia with a local folk show, and it was a fantastic evening to wrap up the experience.

Savior on the Spilled Blood Church, St. Petersburg​

Russia experiences summer

That Russia does experience summer, is another point that might seem quite obvious. But as someone who doesn’t care for snow, all I was worried about was not putting myself in a blizzard. And on the Eastern shores of Lake Baikal I got scared. Snow. And lots of it. Then we rounded the lake and entered into summer. June and July in Russia are delightful. Blue skies, warmth from the sun during the day and enough of a chill at night to cool back off.

This was probably best exemplified walking around the parks of any of the cities, which were filled with families enjoying the weather, eating ice cream and ambling around on rollerblades. Squares across the country had mini-electric cars that kids could take for a spin or animals to pet. Did I mention the ice cream?

Russians are so Russian

Everyone is so ‘Russian’,” I thought to myself as I got to Moscow. Even upon reflection, I can’t come up with a better way to describe the style. It’s as varied as it is bold and confident. Someone decked out in traditional Eastern Orthodox clothing wouldn’t look out of place sitting next to a woman dressed to perfection for a business meeting, or teens with hair from any color on the spectrum.

By this point, I also knew that being so Russian meant that while someone may not be smiling, it didn’t mean that they weren’t friendly. Whether meeting on a train or in a pub, I found the people to be incredibly warm and genuinely curious.

“What do Americans think of Russia?” A question that I would be asked over and over, and which I would learn my answer for was totally incomplete. They were so curious about what we thought, as if I represented the whole of the USA.

I don’t know what Americans think of Russia, but I certainly know what I’ll be reporting back. Must visit, and I’m sure planning to make use of that three-year visa.
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Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your experience travelling across Russia, the largest, and possible most enigmatic, country in the world. Be sure to check out her other, equally fantastic, blogs.
And don’t forget to follow her inspiring travel adventures on her blog, How Dare She, her Facebook, Twitter and her Instagram jess_ismore.

If you want to follow in Jess’s footsteps, Real Russia offer a comprehensive range of tours, taking in the three different ‘Trans-Siberian’ routes, between Moscow and Vladivostok, and Moscow and Beijing.
Click here to take a look and book now!

Real Russia Blog

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part three)
11
November
2015

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part three)

Arriving in Beijing

The end of this epic journey approaches, as Helen and Charles near the end of their Trans-Siberian adventure.

Having started in Moscow in part one, travelled to Irkutsk and Baikal in part two, they now find themselves heading onwards to Beijing, before exploring one of the most incredible cities in the world.

Travelling on train 20

It was good to be active in Irkutsk ahead of our next 3 days on the train again. A chance to catch our breath and reminisce and relax and mingle. It transpired we were the only people in the whole carriage, which not as plush looking as our first train, functioned much better, the beds were more comfortable and were cleaned daily. A Chinese family boarded later on who were really nice neighbours.

The dining car not as nice as the first one, but we had stocked up in Irkutsk and actually did not get that hungry as we were stationery most of the time. We followed the stations along the way and liked anticipating where we would be stopping next and for how long. Very few vendors on the stations, but the few which did have, we shopped at, mostly ice cream and airtime! I was intrigued by the female voice making the announcements at ALL the stations en route and the number of female railway workers in overalls or uniforms. In our country it is strictly male dominated. This train was a steam train we realized, which was interesting in itself, and much smoother than the first train. The female Russian conductors were efficient and quite friendly, which made a change for our first train which was manned by Chinese men, rather gruff and not terribly friendly. We did get the odd smile out of one of them!

The second train (Vostok) quite different to the first, as I may already have mentioned. Definitely cleaner and more comfortable. I considered what it would have been like had we booked on the Golden Eagle (which I think is your top train and very expensive). And I realized we would not necessarily have enjoyed it more. The basis of the train trip was that we would have passed the same scenery, stopped at the same stations, and not had much to do on the train other than what one had brought with one and mingling with other travellers. I felt sure it would not have been as easy striking up friendships on the Golden Eagle. Our neighbours were down to earth types and easy to chat to. The awe of knowing one is crossing 7 time lines and the famous Russian/Siberian countryside was constantly in my mind. It was meaningful to me.

I do think the first train (Chinese train 4) should have been cleaner and that the water should have worked in the shower, definitely.

I was astonished at the 6 hour stop in Zabaykalsk and then another 6 hours at the very next station! I visualized we could have used that time in Beijing! The Russian officials were more concerned at our leaving their country than the Chinese our entering theirs. A part of the trip we will never forget and an exercise in crossing borders.

Finishing the journey in Beijing

And then our arrival in Beijing. Lilly spotted us straight away, no waiting involved and walked us to her driver. When we got to the hotel it was established that we could not go straight up to our room as it was not 8.30 and also that we could not have breakfast as it had been booked for the following morning! An awkward moment which we made the best of. We definitely wanted to shower and get our cases up to our room and prepare for the long day ahead. So, we arranged with Lilly that she would leave us and come back at 9. Whilst waiting for our room to become available we strolled out of the hotel and found a place to have breakfast. Eventually we were allowed into our room and a quick shower – then off to first the Jade factory and then The Great Wall. We realized we were not going to fit in the silk factory, taking into account traffic in Beijing that day ahead of a special day in China the very next day. Lilly was friendly and accommodating and gave us some interesting background to Beijing and Jade, and The Great Wall.

Once at the Great Wall, Lilly led us to the starting point of The Wall and left us to climb as we wished, which we thought was appropriate. Because we were several hours on the Great Wall there was not enough time for lunch. I think, had the travel time in rush traffic been taken into account it could have been established, at the time of preparing the itinerary, that we would not fit all of the places in!

We had a couple of hours back in our room to collect ourselves before Lilly returned to walk us to the chosen restaurant. Because time was of the essence, we were a little alarmed at the long walk we took to get there. Lilly explained she did not know exactly where it was, just a vague idea. It transpired that we could have taken a much shorter route as she realized after the meal we had taken the long way round. I was a little on edge as we had to be at the airport by 8. Meal was very nice and we loved the Peking Duck. Once again traffic was an issue and we got to the airport an hour later than advised but it did not seem to matter.

And, we headed for home … With sights and sounds dancing around in our heads.

A real adventure of a tour Alla, I loved all of it. 14 days was the right length. I am impressed at the way the tour flowed, all our guides were punctual, friendly and accommodating and well informed.

I believe the slight hitches we experienced were due to the language and in fact, in my opinion added just that bit of surprise, thereby enhancing the tour.

And that is that!

Thank you Helen and Charles for your fantastic tale and feedback.

Anyone else feeling inspired to hop on the Trans-Siberian now?

If you are, then take a look at our range of Trans-Siberian tours. If you want to follow in the footsteps of the intrepid duo, look specifically at our Discovery Range Siberian Eye tour!

Fancy sharing your Trans-Siberian tale? Get in touch with us at marketing@realrussia.co.uk.

Part one can be found here.

Part two can be found here.

Real Russia Blog

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part two)
6
November
2015

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part two)

Through Siberia and on to Lake Baikal!

Part two of this ‘Customer Tale’ takes place as our intrepid customers leave Moscow and head east into Siberia, visiting the beautiful Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk.

If you missed out on part one, catch up here!

If you didn’t, let’s continue this tale!

Boarding the train number four

By the time our departure day arrived we had begun to feel a part of Russian life in that area, and knew we would miss it. However we were excited for the next leg which was on the train of course. We were impressed and grateful for Rita getting us to the station and even onto the train with our luggage before leaving us. We would not have managed this alone. A big thanks to her. I have emailed her in the meantime, as well.

Dining car on Trans-Siberian train 4, Russia

Dining car aboard train number four

I had an idea what to expect from the train from pics you had sent me, so was not surprised to find the compartment quite small, but the wooden panelling was nice and we had our own shower hand basin attached and a flask in our cupboard to fill at the samovar. A disappointment that the water came out at a trickle in the hand basin which also meant we could not shower either. I was not too fazed about this, but I think Charles was! We brought along a big supply of wipes and found we did not really get dirty on the train, I liked the fact it was not exactly as we expected and found it added to the adventure, but I think for some that would have been a problem. I needed to unwind from the time before we left on the trip and catch up on some daily notes and just feel all pressures fall away. I loved the movements and sound of the train, which incidentally reminded me of my school days when I attended a boarding school far from my home. We used to catch the train to school each term. I was interested to note that we travelled on both electric and steam trains. The dining car on our first train was nice, and we had a taste of Russian matriarchal dominance, but once Natalia had gotten used to us I think she quite liked us! I was able to take a few pictures on the train through a partially open passage window and was grateful for that. Managed to capture a few nice ones that will forever remind us of this train trip. I enjoyed our neighbours in the other compartments of our carriage, all of them going straight through to Beijing without a break in-between as we were doing. I imagine they may have been a little envious when we got off after 3 days. I think 6/7 days at a stretch without a break could have become tedious.

Welcome to Baikal

Our driver was waiting for us with a sign saying MRS ALLEN & 1! And we were whisked away for an hours’ drive through Irkutsk to Listvyanka. I had visualized being right alongside Lake Baikal in what I consider to be a chalet, but equally nice was Nikolay’s Cabin, which is actually a part of his house, and about a kilometre from the Lake. We were well looked after, meal wise, and Erene even did two big laundry washes for us. A lovely setting in a small valley with forests on either side. The front to Lake Baikal and the small town was not terribly interesting except for the Lake itself and the boats.

Lake Baikal, Russia

A walk along the shores of Lake Baikal

Little did we know we were to experience some beautiful views of Lake Baikal and endless birch forests on our ‘Easy Hike around Listvyanka’ – a complete surprise as it was not an easy walk at all, but quite a strenuous hike. Alex was very professional and accommodating and went the extra mile by carrying with him the food and utensils he would need to provide for us what we would consider a 5 course picnic, with typical Russian fare, including soup and tea! We were astounded. And, I was so hot after the 5km hike through the forest that I decided then and there, as we got to the beach that I was going to swim in Lake Baikal, no matter how cold it was. What an absolute highlight for me. How many people can claim to have swum in Lake Baikal! We were very tired when we got back and Alex had said good-bye, almost too late to catch the bus back to Irkutsk. And then that night we experienced Banya – my word! We assumed it would be a regular sauna the way we know it from our gyms over here. Not at all, Nikolay led us through the whole process in great detail. Without resisting we followed through and were quite alarmed to know the temperature was over 90 degrees in the Banya, unheard of in our part of the world. How wonderful to experience something truly, uniquely Russian. Never to be forgotten! I was covered in bright red blotches overnight but did not feel worried, and in the morning it had cleared!

Exploring Irkutsk

Ivan drove us back to Irkutsk and launched straight into our tour of the city. Once again very intense and informative, luckily I can look up names and dates on the internet of cathedrals and statues which were pointed out, as we could never have absorbed all the facts given out. Different architecture and feel to the city compared to Moscow, and we learnt of the importance of Irkutsk in Russian history.

Our hotel was well situated too Alla, thank you. We did a lot of walking in Irkutsk and almost got lost once. Luckily we had a map and Charles was good at getting us to where we wanted to be. Very interesting was the statue of Alexander III who commissioned the building of the Trans Siberian Railway, that was pertinent to me. And the Angara River, deep and faster flowing that the Moskva, was interesting to know that it linked with the Yenetsei, which we crossed while on the train, and then on to the Arctic Sea.

The story continues…

And part two comes to a close. If this has inspired you, why not take a look at the tour that Helen and Charles took through Russia, our Discovery Range Siberian Eye tour.

Check back soon for part three, as the train draws ever closer to China’s incredible capital, Beijing!

Part one can be found here.

Part three can be found here.

Real Russia Blog

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part one)
23
October
2015

Customer Tales: Trains, and banyas, and exploring! Oh my! (Part one)

Overcoming language barriers and soaking up Russian life

To continue our series of customer tales from the Trans-Siberian over the summer of 2015, we have a three part tale taking us from Moscow, via Irkutsk and Lake Baikal to Beijing on a tailored version of our Discovery range Siberian Eye tour!

Read part one below to find out their thoughts on arriving in Russia and exploring Moscow, and then keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels and our blog page to read parts two and three over the next couple of weeks!

Arriving in Russia

Good Morning Alla

I wanted to mail you once I had fully settled back here and could think clearly as I am sure you will be interested to hear about every detail of our trip.

My head is half full of Russia as I go about my daily things, visiting another country give one an opportunity for adopting a different perspective and a better understanding of oneself and another culture. Just love it. We have taken so much from this trip. The Russian language, whilst I cannot fully read it I feel familiar with it when I see a Russian word. Charles was good about learning quite a few phrases and words which came in useful on many occasions. I liked the way we communicated and eventually managed to get the other person to understand what we were saying. I think the few hitches we had were mainly because of the language difference and looking back actually enhanced the trip.

Our arrival in Moscow was a little disappointing as any airport might be, the officials were extremely unfriendly and when we arrived in the main entrance hall and got to the Academ desk, the little girl behind it could not understand what I was trying to explain to her even after taking out my Russian itinerary, and it seemed we were not going to get through to her, but eventually she called a gentleman over and he seemed to understand and said because it was a Sunday they would not be able to organize a taxi. However, I persisted and eventually we got a taxi – and a long ride into Moscow.

The receptionists in the Maxima were very nice and helped us always, although once again not all of them could speak good English. The Maxima was perfect from a location point of view Alla, thanks for that, right next to the Metro, which we took twice, after asking a kind receptionist to put in English the station names next to the Russian ones so that we could recognize which station to get out at! We found a supermarket right there as well, with the prices very comparable to ours, and an Exchange Bureau which was very handy.

Exploring Moscow

Our boat cruise was a lovely introduction to Moscow and our guide Olga, although a little quiet, was suitable actually, as she was quite right, we did want to take a lot of photos and she did not interfere, but made herself available to any questions we asked. We realized the following day that we would be covering most of what we saw on the boat trip, again, with Rita, which on reflection was very good, as it helped us retain some of the facts given out. Rita was the complete opposite to Olga, brisk and very knowledgeable, we walked our feet off that day but felt exhilarated nevertheless.

Once we had recovered in our hotel room that night we felt keen to visit Red Square again and go into the Kremlin and get to Arbat Street, which is exactly what we did. This time we could take it a little slower and savour and re-inforce what we had learnt with Rita. The weather was perfect the whole time in Moscow and in fact the while trip through, we were lucky. Charles was very keen to visit the Armory in the Kremlin and disappointed we could not take photos in there! I had no idea how many cathedrals there would be in there – full of Byzantine art, and oozing with history, really beautiful. We had thought we would be allowed into the Kremlin itself and would have appreciated if the lady we booked the ticket with had been able to convey to us that that would not be possible, but once again the language was a barrier. Charles was disappointed!

We loved wandering the streets in the area around our hotel and explored almost every single shop, and especially a delightful bakery across the road. I liked listening to the Russian accents and watching their mannerisms. They all walked very briskly and upright, almost as though marching, very unlike our pace of life over here! Very few smiles, but a feeling of serenity on the faces of passers-by, as though they all live a good life.

We noticed how clean the streets were and even street cleaning machines. And we noticed stray dogs crossing busy streets, Charles had heard that there were packs of wild dogs that roamed the streets, but Olga denied this.

…to be continued…

Excited for the journey ahead?

What did you think to part one? Come back over the next couple of weeks to continue reading about this fantastic journey.

And while you wait, why not take a look at our Trans-Siberian tours?

Alternatively, why not tell us all about your Trans-Siberian tales in the comments below, or via email to marketing@realrussia.co.uk.

Part two can be found here.

Part three can be found here.