"What do you you think of Russia?" People asked us when we returned from our trip.
H and I found ourselves having a hard time answer the question. "It was different than what we imagined". That was the best way we could describe our feelings about this trip.
Before this trip, Leo Tolstoy's literature and Tchaikovsky's music came to mind when I thought of Russia. I imagined it being a freezing, dark, depressed and repressed land with people who were stern and harsh. H still had vivid memories of watching news of the Soviet Union with his grandfather growing up. Secret police giving us hard time and the inevitable bribery to get us out of trouble was what he expected of this trip......
Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg and Moscow, we could not find any trace of evidence that associated to the impressions we had of Russia. St. Petersburg was as beautiful as many Eastern European cities, and Moscow did not miss a beat compare to any other global metropolitan city.
The trip demystified Russia for us. To be 100% honest, we were almost disappointed that we did not find the Russia we had pictured; the Russia that was a bit dark and dangerous to satisfy our cravings for adventure.
Shortly after we came back from Russia, H started look into traveling to North Korea out of curiosity.
I cracked up. For someone who hesitated traveling to Russia at first, this was a little extreme, don't you think?
- There definitely is a lot of room for improvement when it comes tourism in Russia. Although the system can be challenging for tourists, most people we encountered were very nice and helpful.
- There were times when we travel to other cities, and we felt that the hotel staffs or store clerks were flaky in a way that they were trying to make a few more bucks and be less truthful about the information they gave you. The people that we encountered in Russia were endearingly direct and honest. We never felt once that we were misguided to spend more money.
- I think what really surprised us about this trip was the soft side of Russians. The arts were amazingly colorful and cheerful; so many restaurants were tastefully done and elegant. The most charming thing we had quickly discovered was that Russian people LOVE flowers! At the customs exit at St. Petersburg Airport, I have never seen so many men holding bouquets of flowers, waiting to pick up their loved ones. Walking in the streets of St. Petersburg, it was a common sighting to see women holding flowers that their dates brought for them. There were flower shops in every metro station. Who would've thought that Russian men were so romantic!
- Travel Resources: I bought two guidebooks for this trip: Frommer's and Eyewitness Travel, but found the these guidebooks either did not cover a lot of details or were not up to date. The best resource for the trip planning to Russia for me was the Tripadvisor forum. It is especially useful if you are an independent traveler.
- Midnight Train: Although we had a good experience taking the "Red Arrow" train for our overnight trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow, I discovered the "Grand Express" after I came back home and found that it was probably a better train to take. The travel time is longer which allows you more sleep, and the facility on the train seems new and modern compare to the Red Arrow. The most important thing is that the Grand Express has an English website and is so much easier to navigate and purchase tickets.
- Opening Hours: Traveling to Russia in the winter may be a different story, but a great benefit about traveling to Russia in the summer is that a lot of tourists sites and shops open very late. You really feel that you can do so much in one day. Do not rely on the guide book's information about the opening hours since we have discovered that many tourist sites change their opening hours from season to season. It is best to go to their websites for the most updated information.
- A-La-Cart Admissions: Get used to may layers of admissions at one site when you travel to Russia. Most audio guides cost extra, many special exhibitions cost extra, and in rare occasions, it will cost you money to take photos or videos. If your budget is tight, you may want to do some homework and be more strategic about what to pay and what to skip.