For us it was OUR VERY FIRST TIME TO RUSSIA, needless to say we did have some apprehensions, as would be expected. Allow us to walk u through what we did to give you (as a first timer) an idea of what u would expect to happen.
Now, the very first thing you have to consider before going to RUSSIA is u need to decide do u want to travel with a group, or would u prefer a level of independence. In a group situation everything is organised for you and it’s a case of doing what everybody else is doing. If that’s the type of tour/trip u want then go for it, BUT bear in mind organised tours are pricey, especially when going to RUSSIA. If u decide that u want a more independent tour then u need to consider your timing, as to what time of the year would u go. As a first timer WE WOULD STRONGLY SUGGEST u visit during the months of June, July or August and make sure ur heading home towards the end of August, because your there in their summer months. With their colder months the logistics of moving around can be horrendous, especially for a first timer. (eg u can’t speak their language and u have organised a hire car to do the GOLDEN RING CIRCUT. What happens if u break down during a trip in the middle of no-where and u require help, BUT u can’t speak their language so how do u organise someone to come and help u?) Ok, so u have decided to visit in August for 12 days. Have a word with a TRAVEL AGENT and map out a trip. The most common destinations are MOSCOW and St PETERSBURG – in through MOSCOW & out through St PETERSBURG. In our case we organised a private guided tour of 9 days, taking in MOSCOW (2 days) and St PETERSBURG (3 days) and also included the GOLDEN RING CIRCUT as well, which added a further 4 days.
PS.. make sure ur TRAVEL AGENT has “HEDGING INSURANCE PROTECTION”, so that in the event of a price increase from the first time u are told the price to the actual time where u are paying for the trip, that it hasn’t gone up, “as a result of supposed currency fluctuations”. One agent tried to increase it on us using this excuse and we “CLEARLY”, pointed this out that it hadn’t gone up over a $1,000 EACH in a month as a result of the currency changes.
In working with your TRAVEL AGENT they will get the “INVITATION LETTER/S” (2 max) (these have to be supplied through a licenced RUSSIAN TOUR WHOLESALER OR TRAVEL AGENT and usually detail ur movements, from the time u start to the time u finish, ur RUSSIAN leg.) which are required to be presented, (with ur visa application) in order for u to get your visa. If u try and get these urself and u supply more than two then ur visa application will be immediately cancelled.
If u happen to live in Canberra, Sydney or Wellington, u can actually take ur application in and present it urself and save quite a few $$$. Ignore all the B/S online about what ppl supposedly went through when they presented their application. If u follow through on the guidelines, as outlined in THE ONLINE APPLICATION PROCESS, then u will have no problem. We presented our own applications, which were; the ONLINE APPLICATION FORM printed out, the TWO INVITATION LETTERS and our PASSORTS. They checked the paperwork in front of us, then said proceed to the cashier, the cashier went through and rechecked everything again and asked for the VISA FEES, ($110 EACH) which we paid by c/card and said ur applications will be ready to pick up, with ur passports next Friday. We called back and they were waiting for us. So at that point it effectively was all in the bag. The actual visa is a page added inside ur passport.
Let me point out that neither Cas or I have ever spoken any RUSSIAN let alone know what written words mean. In other words we were totally dependant, 100%, on any AND everyone else to assist. This is why we are adamant that u ABSOLUTELY NEED A TOUR GUIDE WITH U, B/C THE RUSSIAN DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH AT ALL! If anything ur hotel will b ur sanctuary in a lot of cases, b/c that’s likely the only place where u will hear ENGLISH, very occasionally u might see ENGLISH on a billboard, but not often.
Our impressions of MOSCOW were NOT positive at all. This city continues to be frustrating for many travellers, b/c it really isn’t a tourist friendly city, by comparison to the other areas of the country. Definitely do not expect to many gastronomic delights, BUT let’s not dwell on the negatives. RED SQUARE and the GUM SHOPPING CENTRE were quite absorbing, along with the METRO UNDERGROUND – THAT WAS SIMPLY FABULOUS, every station had a different theme.
The more which u can “PREPAY” in the form of MEALS, ACCOMMODATION & TOURS in RUSSIA, before u actually leave home, the better off u will be. The only times when we used the ATM’S were when we were in our hotels, not that we made a point of carrying much cash on us purposely. From a safety point of view we never felt threatened at all, BUT one thing u had to be aware of was, “WHO IS NEAR U AT ALL TIMES“.
If you look on a map of RUSSIA u will find THE GOLDEN RING which is a set of ANCIENT RUSSIAN CITIES & TOWNS, located in the north-east of MOSCOW, which forms a circle. Some of these account for RUSSIA’S MOST SACRED SITES – cities and towns such as SERGIEV POSAD, PERESLAVL-ZALESSKIV, KOSTRAMA, VLADIMIR and of course we can’t forget SUZDAL. In summary, these places represent the cradle of RUSSIAN CULTURE and the beginning of its modern history. We found the 4 days which we set aside to do THE GOLDEN RING extremely rewarding and most gratifying. The architecture started from a simple log cabin (restored) belonging to a “PEASANT FAMER”, right through to some extremely ornate, sumptuous and opulent (even to the point of being ostentatious) CHURCHES, MUSEUMS AND PALACES.
Now, with train travel between MOSCOW & St PETERSBURG becoming very competitive and the introduction of the SASPAN FAST 4 HOUR TRAIN it makes sense to consider using that in preference to the overnight service, (from a security aspect) from a time factor, or perhaps using a plane when u take into account the cost and time taken to get to the airport at one end, then to transfer from the plane/airport into the centre of town at the other end It is a timely exercise when u consider that most of the train stations are pretty much already located in the heart.
St PETERSBURG IS DEFINITELY A MUST SEE CITY. It’s layout, architecture and history is so much different to MOSCOW. With St PETERSBURG we would MOST DEFINITELY go back there again, WITHOUT ANY HESITATION.
Visiting RUSSIA is certainly a wonderful and very interesting experience. Let us say, “that it warrants and is worthy of your consideration as a destination to visit”. Cast ur minds back, thinking, that it was only back in the early 1930’s that RUSSIA actually opened it doors to foreign tourists, primarily as a result of the introduction of the EMERGENCE OF INTERNATIONAL AIR TRAVEL. Not to be forgotten RUSSIA holds 23 UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITES, (with a lot more under consideration) of which a number are located within the GOLDEN RING region.