From the Ruler of the East to St. Peter's town.
March 9, 2007 9:46 AM   Subscribe

In about a year, my father, brother and myself will be traveling to Russia, and I have a few questions.

So I've done a little looking around, been briefly in contact with the website, but still have a few questions.

The first is the most important, really. What exactly are the visa issues that I should be aware of?

While we haven't really planned out the whole trip by any means, I'm pretty sure that we will be in Russia for less than a month, which falls within the limits of a tourist visa. We plan to fly into Vladivostok, take the Trans-Siberian rail to Saint Petersburg, then go out through Finland, to Stockholm, etc.

Now, we would like to make multiple stops along the way. Lake Baikal, Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg, and perhaps a few others along the way. Once we have our visa, can we just do this willy-nilly? Can we just get on and off the train at will, or do we really need to have exact dates for all of these stops determined in advance (as well as our tickets, I suppose)?

Also, the visatorussia people suggested that if we wanted to stay for longer that a business visa would be the way to do it. Are there problems with doing so, considering that we would be going to Russia as tourists?

Lastly, is it a good idea to rely on organizations such as these, or is it possible (and worthwhile) to get a visa and invitation on our own?

Ok, technical questions aside.

Where else should we look at going? Irkutsk, Yekaterinburg have been suggested to me, As well as Murmansk up in the north. What other stops along that rail route, as well as off that route are worthwhile to visit? Where have you had good times, what are some beautiful sights to see in Russia?
posted by vernondalhart to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. It sounds like you've never been to Russia before. That's a big trip to start with. Start reading. I think there's a Lonely Planet about the Trans-Siberian, you should read the Paul Theroux book, and several others that are out there. They'll give you practical advise about moving around, not getting ripped off, etc.

The one thing you will experience is heavy drinking and eating. Pretty much every male passenger comes on board with a bottle of vodka, some sausage, tomatoes in the summer, a heavily salted dried fish and a chunk of bread and will be very very insulted if you don't drink with them. And its not one drink, its the bottle. And they get more insulted as they drink and you don't. Being able to play guitar and sing is a huge advantage. You'll get a very intensive introduction to Russian life; its like being in the living room/kitchen/bedroom of all the people in your car. For a month. And you can't leave. Learning as much Russian as you can will be of immense value.

There will be one or two people (usually very large women) in each car responsible for the hot water, samovar and clean sheets. They must be your best friends. Tip early, bring them something from the US.

Many of the towns along the route like Yeketarinburg are fairly non-descript, but try to seek out the non-Russian cultures - indigenous, Muslim, Caucasian, etc.

Not to be a total buzz-kill, but I'd consider flying some of those long siberian stretches. The planes and airport are every bit the expereince of the trains.

Oh and you can come and go as you please, as far as I know, and most people use some kind of a visa agency.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:44 AM on March 9, 2007

Just doing some reading on the Trans-Siberan Railroad article on Wikipedia and came across this gem:
Russian train tickets can only be purchased within the Russian Federation or in Finland. Tickets can be purchased only 45 days in advance. Many travel agencies can arrange to have tickets purchased by proxy, but the 45 day limit is strictly enforced.

The article also mentioned that that trip is 7 days long which is a long time to be on train in a Vodka fueled stupor.
posted by mmascolino at 1:10 PM on March 9, 2007

Regarding the visa issues, it will probably mean what anything having to do with formalities means in Russia: no one cares about the formalities, but they will be used as a way to get you to pay bribes. Please note that following all the formalities does not mean that you will not have to pay bribes. Just bring a set amount of money reserved for this purpose and don't worry about it, it's the way the country works.

As a Russian, everywhere in Russia is beautiful (I am not objective). You will have natural beauty coming out of every orifice, wherever you go, but the steppes do get damn monotonous after a while.

However, that effect wears off once you've finished off your second bottle of Zubrovka and pretended to sing along to "Katyusha." At this point everything will seem crystal clear and you will never want to see civilization again, just you and your new train buddies who understand you better than anyone can on a never ending train ride to nowhere.

Try to locate a copy of Victor Pelevin's story "Yellow Arrow." It captures the Russian train riding experience better than any travelogue.
posted by nasreddin at 1:19 PM on March 9, 2007

That or Venedikt Erofeev's "Moscow to the End of the Line," which is much better but specific to local trains.
posted by nasreddin at 1:21 PM on March 9, 2007

My experience was quite, quite different than the above posters, apparently. Nobody rammed vodka down my throat.

I actually technically took the Trans-Mongolian, which comes from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar and then meets up with the rest of the route in Irkutsk, and on towards Moscow.

For the Trans-Sib itself, I recommend stocking up on a bunch of non-perishable food, drinks, etc, and also a bunch of small bills in rubles so you can buy delicious foods from every babushka peddling along the way. 20 rubles will get you some damn amazing sausage rolls.

I traveled with a friend, also American, and we never shared a cabin. The cabins hold either two or four people, and odds are good that if you get a four-person cabin with three non-Russians, they'll leave the other berth open, unless it's a very busy train.

Secondly, stopping along the way is not as trivial as it is in many other train-accessible areas. Plan ahead and check out timetables. I wouldn't necessarily buy tickets, but I'm a pretty relaxed traveller.

The visas are easier than people say. I got mine a few days in advance via a "invitation" from a travel agency (read: bribe) and it worked out great. They'll try to intimidate you with schedules and registration, but who cares. I didn't do any of that, and nobody asked me even once, at borders or elsewhere. If you do stay in a town for more than a few days, it's worth registering, but beyond that it's not the nightmare people describe. Additionally, if you are very bold, you can get a more flexible tourist visa at some Russian embassies by simply pleading your case. Urgency often helps your case, bizarre as it might sound.

Fourthly, forget about Finland and go to Estonia. Finland is dark, austere, and ridiculously expensive. Estonia is wonderful, charming, and cheap. The languages are basically the same, and Estonia got bombed a hell of a lot less than Finland did during WW2.

Finally, the only two danger sources in Russia are the Mafia and the police. Staying out of casinos frees you from the first, as a foreigner. As for the cops, just never give them your passport- hold it up for them instead- and have a mobile phone ready to call an embassy if they want to take you anywhere. (This obviously doesn't hold for the border police- they'll take your passports where they want and cannot be bribed.)

Don't worry about the horror stories that various web sites like to sell- it's easier than anybody says it is. It's my experience with travel that if you are not too picky about your exact dates, everything is easy. Have fun! удачи!
posted by thethirdman at 1:24 PM on March 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

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