Guide books to Russia cover about 20% of the country – European Russia, The Trans-Siberian and a few Far Eastern cities. So what’s out there in the rest of the world’s largest country? Total, utter wilderness; an inhabited area the size of Canada with no roads or railways; people living in log cabin villages only accessible by helicopter, snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle; nomadic reindeer herders living in tents, speaking languages unrelated to Russian and following ancient, animistic religions.
Getting around without Russian language
Very few people in Russia (especially outside Moscow and St. Petersburg) speak English or are used to dealing with foreigners. If this doesn’t bother you then you can still fairly easily get around those parts of the country covered in guides such as The Lonely Planet where road and rail connections are reasonably good. However, in some of the areas I cover on this site (for example the Yamal Peninsula or northern Kamchatka) there are no roads or railways and travel is about finding the next all-terrain vehicle that’s going to do a three-day crawl through the tundra to the nearest village or hitch hiking lifts with bear hunters and reindeer herders on snowmobiles. For this sort of travel, some knowledge of Russian language is obviously absolutely essential.
Booking train tickets in Russia
Train tickets go on sale 45 days before departure. You can buy tickets from or to any station in Russia at the ticket desk of any station in Russia. However, if you buy them the day before, you are liable either not to be able to leave on the day you want or to have to pay lots more money for a more expensive class of ticket. Therefore, if you’re traveling by train on a tight schedule, you should book all your tickets in advance. If you understand Russian, you can buy them for the same price as at the train station through www.rzd.ru. If not, find an internet agency that will book them through you (for a fee, of course).
If you don’t book your tickets in advance you are still unlikely to be stuck in one place more than a couple of days. If you do get stuck, if you want a break from train travel or if you just want to meet some locals, hitch hiking in Russia is VERY easy and as safe as anywhere else.
Accommodation in remote parts of Russia
Many train stations, even at tiny towns along the BAM such as Novy Urgal and Fevralsk, have resting rooms where you can get a cheap bed for 6, 12 or 24 hours. If you are in some really small village such as Baikalskoe or somewhere really remote such as the Nenets Autonomous Okrug then you should ask at village schools if there is somewhere you can stay. Failing that, ask at the head of the village or the administration and failing that in a shop. Though you may feel a little self-conscious doing it, Russians (particularly in such isolated areas) are extremely warm and hospitable as well as being very interested in foreigners so will always help you out.
In summer (and even in winter if you have a tent, sleeping bag and clothing from Marmot or Northern Outfitters) camping is also possible. Just make sure you go about 10km outside the nearest settlement and far enough from the road that your tent is not visible. Pitch it among trees if possible.
Accessing supposedly inaccessible parts of Russia
Guide books and many internet resources give the impression that the whole of Northern Siberia, Yakutia, Chukotka, Kamchatka and most of Northern European Russia is inaccessible to those without mountains of cash for helicopters or, more often, they simply don’t mention these areas’ existence.
In fact, during winter a nationwide network of zimniki (temporary winter roads on frozen rivers or made of compacted snow) opens up, rendering every settlement in the country accessible to land transport. Some zimniki are rarely used and would require your own transport to travel while others see a lot of transport and can even be hitch hiked. See individual pages on the Yamal Peninsula, Kamchatka and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug for information on individual zimniki in those areas.
Another myth is that when it gets really cold, travel becomes impossible. The thing is, as the Chukchi of Chukotka say, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” To cite an extreme example of what they mean, I once spent six hours outdoors on the Yamal Peninsula in -50C without even feeling slightly chilly, due to the fact that I was wearing reindeer fur clothing. Therefore, with the right clothing, winter travel in Russia and even hitch hiking is possible. The two companies manufacturing the warmest clothing on the market are Northern Outfitters and Marmot. Both offer trousers and jackets good down to around -50C. The fact that they also sell sleeping bags and tents means camping in these temperatures is even possible comfortably. Stuff worth getting as well as a jacket and trousers sold by the above companies would be several pears of woollen socks, the Northern Outfitters Arctic Boots, full-body thermal underwear, a polartec 300 fleece, a woollen jumper, polartec fleece trousers, the Northern Outfitters Arctic Mitten Set, a Russian fur hat, a balaclava, a woollen scarf and ski goggles. Of course, such a complete outfit is only necessary for extremely cold places such as the Yamal Peninsula and even then only if you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors.
Obtaining permits for closed areas of Russia
With places that do actually receive a few tourists, such as Yakutia, Chukotka and Kamchatka, getting the special permits required for certain areas can usually be done by sending your documents in advance by email or fax to a local tour company. For areas that receive zero tourists such as the Yamal Peninsula or Nenets Autonomous Okrug, google the words “погран отдел” (Border Division) followed by the name of the town or area you want to visit and look for a page with their contact details. They rarely have their own websites and you are more likely to find these contact details on Russian language forums or blogs. Different areas require different documents to be sent in and take different amounts of time to get the permit so ask them in advance.
Click here for one of my blogs about Russia. It’s 5777 words and 15 photos.
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