We had written and shared extensively about our Russian adventure in the journalogs (here & here). This handprint story focuses more on the planning and budgeting process we went through before determining to join a tour group rather than giving independent travel in Russia a go.
Now Russia has always been a challenging destination. In the sense that there are not only bureaucratic to navigate, but also the challenge of language and information.
A few years back, we scanned our travel handprint to update our bucket list. And there in the middle between Europe and Asia was this big patch that had no prints on them of us. Wow we thought. Wouldn’t it be great if we can plaster our hands all over it? And the options are a plenty. From train journeys across Siberia to city breaks, there are so many ways one can slice and dice up Russia. From a travel perspective anyway, not geopolitically…
Getting there in the first place
We knew that getting into the country in the first instance will be a challenge. A valid visa is required and it does not last very long since it is supposed to indicate an entry and exit date. There are 7 types of which only one would be applicable to us. Most of all it takes time to get it processed too unless one pays for expedited approval. A single entry visa will cost around S$170 (including handling charges etc).
We were told very early in our planning that one cannot get a visa without an ‘invitation letter’ from an approved entity within Russia. So for independent traveling one needs to obtain one from a hotel or guarantor to even kick off the process of applying for one. What they must send is called a tourist confirmation, and not just a confirmation of booking. Experiences shared from others who had made their journey independently suggested we pay for accommodation at Moscow with a reputed hotel to secure such an invitation.
Most importantly, it appears that one cannot stay in Russia longer than 30 days. Unless one is American. Strange that for all that diplomatic wrangling they actually extend the best visa terms to US citizens… so that is clear on how we can get a visa. So…
Where to start?
While we fantasized about making it across Russia and into the off beaten locations, it easier said than done unless one has more than a month, which in any case visas are hard (if not impossible) to obtain unless one is American. Since the country is also the largest one in the world, there are obviously also a lot of places to see right?
When we first wrote about our intent to touch Russia, we made reference to the trans-Siberian rail journey that cuts across the country. It makes 8 stops before getting into Moscow (westbound train) or vice versa to Vladivostok. The tricky thing though is to get in and out of Vladivostok. International flights from our little red dot will lead us to visit an array of airports – both ways. But let’s just assume that is a non-issue.
What were we looking? Why the luxury train ride of course! It costs just US$16,000 per person for the lowest class of travel for this 15 day train journey. But it would be the experience of a life time! Now looking at our little “bankie” we thought that this would be too much stress on it. In fact it is still on our bucket list, which means we can take a little more time to save up for it before kicking it. Alternately if one were to take the normal trains, it would be a 6 day ride over the same 9259km, with many many stops along the way. Unless one intends to stay ON the train throughout, one would need to get off, find a place to stay and get back on the train again.
Too much work right?
So back to the drawing board that we decided on the basis of available time we had (12 days) and budget we could spare (max S$9000 for two) to look at packaged tours that handle everything for us. All we need to do was to choose a route we like, pay and get on with it. And we are glad we spent less than the allocated budget we had available.
The itinerary that we eventually chose was more like 2 city breaks. Unlike other itineraries such as the “golden circle” that coaches out of Moscow to a string of cities before reaching St Petersburg, this one focused solely on exploring both cities only. Sure there were the short excursions outside of the cities, but the tour largely stayed within the periphery of them. Which is probably a better approach to sampling Russia for the first time.
But it was not just any itinerary that we chose, for we did not want to experience the overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg. Because we’ve heard too much horror stories about those night trains. You know, about how the sleeping cabins were broken into and tourists being robbed. We were probably wrong about all of that, but we did not take the chance.
The journey itself
In some ways was very good. Because there was a Singaporean chaperone/guide that came along with the group of nearly 40 people. While he was not the person performing the guide function per se, he was there for the much needed interface with the local guides and hotel people who may not fully understand some of the folks on the tour. Sure we need to tip the guy at the end too, but it was well worth it. Of course it also means having to adapt to a group mentality too and much depends on the attitudes of the other travelers.
So let’s list out the other pros and cons of doing a group journey:
- Economy of scale? In the sense we book a whole train cabin for the group.
- “Priority” in the how we were processed for entry to attractions.
- ‘Hands free’ in that our stuff can be left in the coach.
- No fuss and stress to get around between attractions or to meals and accommodations.
- General feeling of security that one is being looked after.
- The itinerary is set. No deviations.
- Time at attractions are limited to what is allocated as a group.
- Dining locations are fixed. Varying quality of meals.
On the overall experience it is far more positive than we had expected. And that to us is mainly thanks to the hard work put in by the respective guides both local (in Russia) and local (as in the red dot representative from the tour agency).
So what were some of the other highlights that we did not share in the journalogs?
For one thing you really need to sample both ice cream the GUM and Bosco stalls when you are the department store. The texture definitely different. And when you get tired get to the 2nd floor and look for one of them colorfully painted benches. Get a list of chocolate brands to buy from your guide and have him/her write it down since Cyrillic is a very different written form of language. Best of all try some caviar with locally brewed sparkling wine.
We would have loved to explore more stations of the Moscow subway. The four that we were introduced to were nice, but there are many more out here that extensive network. And as you explore the city’s streets you might come up to an old Russian branded car too!
While in St Petersburg, one of the most memorable activity was the visit to the Hermitage. Now there are many things to see, but did you know they actually displayed a mummy in the Egyptology department?
We enjoyed trying our hand at painting a Matryoshka doll. Sure it was a disaster (especially for Mel) as we did injustice to the wooden pieces, but it was all for fun. Today the amateur painted dolls stand proudly next to the ones produced by professional hands. Oh how we reminisce whenever we catch a glimpse of them in the display cabinet. It was our work of art!
So this journey was definitely a teaser.
We probably would love to revisit St Petersburg, which seems less “polluted” by Soviet era architecture. However we are also mulling over other cities such as Novgorod and Kazan too. As we also mentioned earlier in this essay, a luxurious train journey across Russia to cap off our lives would also be an icing on the cake.
We toured Moscow and St Petersburg in May 2016