We’ve only been in China, or rather out of Russia, for 11 days and it seems a world away. I guess it is really, Russia felt European and even towards the far East in Buryatia there’s still a large Slavic community and other European descendents from those Stalin had forced this way. China has a very different feel with new smells and sounds I didn’t know humans could make, but more on that in later posts… Here’s what we learnt about Russia in our 22 days there.

  1. People’s natural resting face is a scowl. It took us a while to realise we haven’t actually offended them, they just don’t like to smile too much. Apparently it can be a sign of stupidity. Unfortunately I tend to smile at everybody so I’m pretty sure I was an oblivious fool across the country – that or they thought I as laughing at them. Not good.
  2. The bus you want to get is most likely a minibus. The passengers pay the driver either when you get on, sometimes when they’re driving or when you get off – it seemed to change with every bus. Also you have to shout when you want them to stop the bus. Don’t watch how they’re driving, it won’t make you happy.
  3. Download the 2GIS app (pronounced “double gis”). It is offline maps for most Russian cities and it works extremely well. It will give you directions by car and by public transport. It tells you the bus numbers and if you select the bus you can see its entire route around the city. The app lets you type in Russian (if you have a Russian keyboard installed) and English. You can select any building and it will tell you which businesses are on which floor with phone numbers and other info. Select your favourite cafe and it will show you the other branches around the city. It was invaluable – only downside was the lack of walking directions.
  4. The further east you go the more likely you’ll find squatting toilets. You almost always have to pay for public loos, up to 70 roubles (£1) a go. I quickly learnt to nip in MacDonalds, Burger King and other cafes as they were free and no one stopped me… Also bring your own loo roll, it’s unpredictable which do and do not have any. Sometimes you’re given a few sheets once you’ve paid, and sometimes there’s a dispenser on the wall instead of in the cubicles. Also, its like China where you cannot put toilet paper down the loo, it goes in a bin next to it.
  5. It’s worth your time learning the Cyrillic alphabet. A lot of words in Russian are common between English, French and other languages, but unreadable until you learn. For example, you’ll see “ресторан” everywhere. Once you know that р=r, с=s and н=n you can sound it out and understand what it means. There’s a few new letters (ю=yu, ф=f) and a few false​ friends (н=n, в=v) but Mischa picked it up pretty quickly. Oh and the script can be different to cursive, but script is most common on buildings and menus.
  6. Homes and hostel kitchens will not have a drying rack. Instead, the cupboard above the sink opens upwards where there is a rack which acts as the plate cupboard. No need for drying up any longer.
  7. The Russians love couchsurfing! Put the cities you’re going to as a public trip (visible by hosters) and you will get a lot of messages offering accommodation. That’s how we ended up in Baikalsk – a couchsurfer host contacted us. As anywhere else on the internet there is always interesting people… One person who contacted us wanting to meet for tea as he had been to the UK to sell tweed, duffle coats and sweaters.
  8. It’s not always easy to find vegetables. Sometimes you just crave some dark green leafy vegetables, you know, the ones which contain the most nutrition. We saw no fresh broccoli, spinach, kale, etc, yet a ton of cabbage of course. In the supermarkets vegetables are roots and salads and fruits. We finally found a stall in the central market of Ulan-Ude selling tubs of broccoli and it was delicious. However the second time it wasn’t so delicious, we’ve never tasted broccoli that bitter before.
  9. Guidebooks aren’t always reliable. Admittedly ours was a couple of years old but, as we were told and found out, “this is Russia, things change quickly”. The prices were generally higher, the free Metro Museum in Moscow had moved (we never found it) and the Bolshoy Hotel which housed the Ural Stone Museum in Yekaterinburg had closed and was surrounded by a concrete wall. Best advice is to ask your hostel or head to the tourist information where there is usually someone who speaks good English. The guidebook was invaluable to have though as it gave introductions to all the cities along the trans-siberian, and a short history, including those in Mongolia and China. And, for train nerds, route maps and things to look out for along the way. Perfect 🙂 We used Trailblazer Trans-Siberian Handbook (Thanks Chris!)
  10. Canteen food is delicious – especially Муму/Moomoo in Moscow. Traditionally soviet is canteen-style eating. This makes it very easy as a tourist – pick up a tray then pick or point to the dishes you’d like. Minimal Russian needed. The cow-themed Муму even had the English translations next to the Russian. Tasty and cheap!
  11. The weather is changeable. This means you can experience snowy blizzards below zero then temperatures in the high twenties! The weekend before we arrived in snowy St Petersburg it had been 15 degrees. I definitely preferred the snow and the cold.
  12. Bring slippers. It is rude to walk inside a house (homes and hostels) with your outside shoes on, they must be taken off just inside the front door. If you do not then you will feel bad when your host cleans the floor behind where you walked. Some hostels will provide them for unprepared guests – here’s my favourite…

6 thoughts on “Lessons Learnt: Russia

    1. Thanks! They’ve been my favourite slippers so far, in China you’re given a pair in hostels too but always the same plain blue ones which are too big for me :p

    1. Seems that way :p It’s nice to know they save their smiles for when they sincerely mean it, just a bit off-putting from a overly-polite-british point of view!

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