After the amount of negative reports I had read prior to my trip to Russia, I thought that I would write a review on my first holiday to this country.
First let me start by saying my husband and I are a black British couple. Prior to booking the holiday we had read from some official websites that racism was a problem and that people of African / Asian origin should exercise extra care but we decided to go anyway. After booking and paying for everything, I began researching exactly what we would do when we got there. That’s when the real scare mongering began. In brief, certain websites had me believing that we would be attacked, robbed, bribed by the police and even killed, simply because of our skin colour. Now I’m a seasoned traveller and take on average 5 holidays a year, all around the world and have never been scared about visiting any destination but after reading all of these negative reports I got frightened and even thought about cancelling the holiday and losing the £2,000. However my husband (who hadn’t read any of these reports and whose arm I had to twist in the first place to visit Russia in the winter) was adamant that as we had already paid for everything we should still go. I am pleased I listened to him.
We spent 3 nights in Moscow, overnight train to St Petersburg and 4 nights there.
We arrived on a BA flight at Domodedovo airport on Boxing Day. It took us about 10- 15 minutes to clear customs which I was pleased with as I had read it could take more than an hour. We had to wait a bit longer for our bags but hey ho. We then made our way quickly and easily to the express train that would take us to Paveletsky station in the city centre. Tickets cost 250 rubbles each and were easy enough to purchase from the ticket office even though the lady spoke no English. Train looked a bit older than I had imagined but journey was fine and took about 40 mins. My husband had met a guy who lived in Moscow earlier in the year at a work conference in Berlin. He met us at Paveletsky and helped us get the metro to our hotel. It was about 10pm by the time we arrived at hotel so we didn’t venture out that night.
The next morning our hotel had a complimentary bus tour around the city which we took advantage of. Quick stop to Red Square followed by some other sites, some panoramic views of the city and then back to the hotel 3 hours later. The tour was informative and helped us to get our bearings. Made use of the hotel’s facilities – sauna, free dvd rental etc until that evening when my husband’s mate came to collect us. He took us to a traditional Russian restaurant where we were able to sample Slavic cuisine and then for a tour around the metro stations. Moscow does indeed have some impressive underground stations – far more picturesque than the London underground . I was glad we had a local with us though. I didn’t mind all the stares we got but on a couple of occasions a few unsavoury looking characters (mostly drunk I must admit) made their way toward us until they realised we had someone Russian with us.
The next day we ventured out on our own. Visited the inside of St Basil’s cathedral, the GUM shopping centre and wondered around red square. As I was still a bit wary about everything I read I insisted that we get back to the hotel before it got dark which wasn’t really practical at that time of the year. Nevertheless we were back in by 6pm.
Our final day in Moscow came quite quickly. Hotel kindly allowed us to check out at 3pm as our train wasn’t until 23.30. It was a gorgeous hotel (Kempinski) and I found it hard to tear myself away so again we made use of the facilities until checkout time, left our bags with the concierge and then headed out. The snow had started which I was really excited about as that was my main motivation for visiting Russia at this time of the year. It had only started a few hours early but already it was piling up. We had fun watching a few locals slip and slide but out snow boots served us well. The plan was to visit one of the Kremlin museums but as the president was actually visiting the area most of Red square had been closed off – gutted! None the less we walked around the streets of Moscow enjoying the sites in the snow and stopping to have a meal. Returned to the hotel where my husband’s mate met us and helped us to the train station to get the overnight train to St Petersburg.
We took the number 006A train – Nikolaevskiy Express. I booked first class tickets at a cost of £116 per ticket and found myself having to explain to my husband why we were paying more than 2 and a half times the cost of a flight, plus taking 7 hours longer than necessary to go by train when we could have flown! I explained that it was about the experience and he seemed happy enough with this reasoning. Our compartment was very disappointing for the amount of money we had paid. The compartment smelt a little mouldy and was smaller than I had expected. There was a slight draft coming through the windows and the bottled water supplied had past its use by date. Nonetheless, as a lot of snow had now settled it made for a gorgeous view looking out the window. We turned out the lights in our compartment, sat on one of the beds with our legs outstretched on the other bed, cuddled up and enjoyed the view as we left the city, until it became too dark to see much then we each took a bed and dozed off. I wouldn’t really say I slept as such and was very tired by the time we arrived in SP but it was an enjoyable experience. Even though I paid a lot more and it took a lot longer than flying, I’m pleased we went by train.
It just so happened that my husband’s mate in Moscow knew someone in SP who agreed to meet us at the station – at 7.40 a.m.! Now that’s what I call hospitality. He helped us to get a bus to the Petro Palace hotel where we were staying. The hotel were adamant we couldn’t check in any earlier than 2p.m. unless we paid for an extra half a night so we left our bags, grabbed a McDonald’s breakfast and the SP guy showed us around the city. It was a lot colder in SP and within a couple of hours walking around, my fringe (sticking out from under my hat) had frozen – amazing! When it was time for the hermitage to open, we made our way there. For some reason we had to try 3 different entrances before we actually got in. The SP guy pointed us to the ticket window but didn’t want to come in with us – I guess he’d probably visited it many times before. We purchased our tickets and an audio guide and made our way around the museum. I’m not much of a museum lover but I must admit it’s a great museum. Funnily enough I was actually more impressed with the outside of the building – must be something to do with the wonderful colours set against the backdrop of the snow. That evening, the SP guy took us to a little Mexican hangout he frequents called Concheta Bonita. Nice place but very smoky. Russia doesn’t have the same anti smoking laws as the UK and even in places where there is a non smoking section, you can still smell the smoke.
The next day hubby and I ventured out around Nevskiy Prospekt and to the Church on the Spilt Blood. Nice, but I preferred to St Basil’s. Unfortunately it was closed and we couldn’t go in. There was a lovely park next door, completely covered in snow which was great for frolicking and taking photos. That evening we ventured out to Palace Square to see the light illumination around the Hermitage. There were 4 massive stages set up, each with something different happening, a Santa musical band (or should I say Father Frost as he is called in Russia), some singers, a performance for the kids etc. There were police with riot gear lining the entire area which made me wonder what they were expecting to happen. As it was so cold and we had started to see a few drunken people stumble around we headed back to the hotel and didn’t wait for the mid night fireworks. A bit of a shame but even in London I never venture out on new years’ eve into the city centre.
1st January was spent wondering around and taking in the sites of Places like St Isaac’s Cathedral as most places were closed. Visited the Nikolaevsky Palace in the evening to see the show, Feel Yourself Russian. Thought it a little pricy for what it was but it was a lovely, fun show. The four guys singing at the start are excellent. And on our final full day, we visited Yusupov Palace.
I am pleased to report that we had a trouble free visit to Russia. Yes we got a lot of looks and stares and the odd person wanting to take photos (but nothing compared to what I got in China a few years ago where every other person wanted to touch me and give me food in exchange for taking my photo). Yes we didn’t find Russians as smiley as people from other counties we had visited but I guess that’s just their manner – nothing wrong with that (apart from the consistently miserable reception workers at our hotel in SP. If you're working at the reception desk of a hotel you can at least try to force a polite smile at your guests). Yes there was a bit of a language barrier but it was not as great as I had been led to believe. Even the dispatch taxi driver who took us to the airport on our last day spoke perfect English. The police did not stop us on any occasion and ask to see our paperwork and then try to bribe us by saying our documents were incorrect. The custom officers at the airport on our way out did not try to extort money from us. No one picked our pockets nor tried to snatch my bag. We were not attacked. We were not killed.
I feel kind of silly now that I’m back home that I got so worked up in the first lace about visiting this country. In retrospect I would have gone out more / later in the evenings (but then again, maybe that’s why we didn’t run into any trouble? We’re not drinkers nor do we frequent clubs). Would I visit Russia again? I’m tempted by the White Nights in SP I have read so much about. But until the price of the visa’s come down (I paid £125 each for ours) then it won’t be on my list of places to revisit. Would I recommend others visit – yes, it’s a great country. And it helped a lot that we had a couple of locals who showed us around for a few hours and helped us out. Would I recommend that black people visit – yes, definitely. But as with anywhere else in the world, exercise caution and keep your wits about you. And get your friends and family – especially your mum, to pray for you before you go and everyday while you’re out there. That’s what we did and praise God I can say we had a safe journey and a lovely time in Russia.
P.S. Thanks to everyone on this forum that gave me advice for this holiday. The info was helpful. Stan J, thanks for the taxi number. I paid 660 rubbles for a trip to the airport in SP as opposed to the 1700 the hotel was charging.