A South African's first impressions of Russia

2016-08-28 13:31 - Marc Dinkelmann
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South African Marc Dinkelmann had a rather close encounter with a tumour named Franked - read his full story here... How a brain tumour made one South African change his life and travel the world...  These are his ensuing Dinks in Transit adventures.

Russia. It’s one of those countries that the rest of the world only hears bad stories about, be it the criticism Putin draws from the West, the conflict in Crimea with Ukraine or old tales from the Cold War. Either way you look at it, it’s one of those places that interests people for reasons that we sometimes aren’t so comforted by.

I chose to do the Trans Siberian railway through Russia and here are a few of my impressions, whilst wearing my South African cap:

1.  Russia needs to be viewed as 2 separate places

Russia and Siberia, much like the way South Africans see Cape Town and the rest of South Africa being two separate places. Russia, home to Moscow and Saint Petersburg are the financial and cultural capitals of the country. You’ll find some of the worlds best museums in Saint Petersburg, like the Hermitage which will astound you – it will give many famous museums a tough run for their money! 

Siberia is the rural heartland of Russia. It’s raw, rural, mostly undeveloped and home to some astounding natural beauty in the form of Lake Baikal – the worlds largest fresh water late, containing 20% of earths fresh water. Siberia reminds me a little of the Eastern Cape in the sense that some of the natural beauty will take your breath away!

 2. Getting into Russia

South Africans no longer need a visa to visit Russia, so this is rather welcomed since as South Africans – we need a visa for lots of places. You can now use that money on your day-trip experiences instead.

SEE: 6 Unintended things about your passport that could see you booted back home

3.  The language barrier

I hate to say it but the language barrier is huge here. Saint Petersburg was probably the city that was most English-friendly.

Moscow was a shocker.

If they want to make a success of the FIFA World Cup in June 2018, they need to seriously become more ‘Western Friendly’. The Russian alphabet is Cyrillic, whereas ours in Latin. What I found helped a lot is treat the subway system as a game of Pictionary – think of the words as pictures and match the pictures to the subway map.

It works 95% of the time for me. The other 5% was me ending up in parts of the city I don’t want to go back to!

SEE: 29 Amusing Dutch words South Africans will find even funnier

4. Public Transport

Whilst on the topic of the subways, the subway system in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is world-class with the exception of the language barrier referred to above. It’s seriously larger than the Gautrain network though, so be prepared! The rest of Russia outside these 2 cities relies heavily on a bus network.

Also train times.  This was a quirk I think all South Africans need to be aware of. Russia is massive and spans 11 time zones. For reasons that don’t entirely make sense to me, all train times are listed in Moscow time, despite wherever you are in the country. I don’t know why it can’t work like an airport (stating arrival and departure times in the local time) but it is what it is.

5. Go for a walk

South Africans are spoilt with an endless supply of walks and hikes located all over the country. Russia has a few of these but they aren’t well advertised. If getting into the outdoors does it for you, take note of two towns called Krasnoyarsk and Irkutsk. This is where you want to be to get some fresh air and escape the maddening crowd!

6. It gets cold!

Summer in Russia is beautiful, and at times can get pretty warm. When I was there the temperature reached 30 degrees and the poor folk in Moscow were collapsing in the subway (bless their cotton socks).

Winter, however, can drop to below negative 40 degrees, so be prepared if you go in winter. It will make Sutherland look like a beach resort in winter!

7. Vodka

Yes, the stories are true. You’ll see more Vodka here than you’re seen in your life, and the chances are you’ll be drinking more of it than you ever will want to again! You need to know a few important things when drinking Vodka with a Russian – this is serious business!

- Once a bottle of Vodka is cracked open, it’s customary to finish the bottle. You read that right: Finish the bottle.

- If you’re a bloke, down Vodka as you would a shot – it’s considered a sign of weakness to gently sip it. Ladies – you’re saved from this one.

-  Always eat when drinking this elixir of life (or potentially death) as Russians believe that if you aren’t eating and are only drinking, the chances are you’re an alcoholic.

-  Never place an empty bottle on the table, rather place it under the table. It’s otherwise considered bad luck!

Russia is certainly one of those places to go if you want to experience something a  little different. The country has a wealth to offer and with the likes of Emirates flying to Moscow and Saint Petersburg frequently, it’s not that difficult to get to.