Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tips before a trip to Russia, #1 - of cabins, food and drink

So you've decided to go on an organized tour of Russia.

Why organized? Because that's the kind of trip we went on, so that's all I know, for now.
As for "Russia" -- it's a huge country, you know, so take into account that I only visited a bit of St. Petersburg a.k.a. Sanct Peterburg, Санкт-Петербург, a bit of Moscow a.k.a. Moskva, Москва, some rivers, canals, villages and cities in-between, and the ins and outs of a river boat.
River boat M/S Andrei Rublev, moored at Uglich

All that took 11 days and 10 nights, leaving me and most of my fellow-travelers exhausted. So I hope you're either young, or fit, or both.

Israel is notorious for its strenuous organized tours. The local agencies, familiar with their target audience and knowing that people want to feel that they're getting their money's worth, cram as much as they can into their itinerary, rushing people off their feet from dawn to dusk, or more accurately,  from early morning till late at night. I don't know how you, dear readers, feel about this. As for me, I prefer to sleep in when on vacation. And on every other day as well. So getting up around six a.m. is practically a nightmare for me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First things first:

1. Learn Russian. Okay, let me qualify that: Teach yourself the Cyrillic alphabet. If you're used to English, French, Spanish and the like, you'll find the Russian alphabet rather confusing. You look at the Russian sign above a shop or establishment, see the word ресторан, and mumble to yourself, "Pectopah? What on earth do they mean? Something to do with pectorals, maybe? Is this a gym, perchance?" Only to find out that it's pronounced "restauran", which is a perfectly understandable word.

Once you get acquainted with the alphabet, you'll find that you can make sense of lots of signs that provide a tourist with useful info. You'll be able to identify a traffic Stop sign (no, they do not use the standard hand symbol!), the location of bars and pubs, a few words on the menu (e.g. for soup, yogurt, banana, tea, coffee and more); and last but not least: туалет = toilet.

So, unlike my first tip concerning language in my China trip post, I am totally serious here.
Of course, you could travel with a Russian-speaking buddy and just follow him/her like a puppy. But I assure you you'll be awfully proud of yourself when you manage to figure out some of the words.
And remember the essential "please", "thank you", "hello", and "how much [does it cost]?" In transliteration, respectively: Pazhalista, spasiba, privyet, skolka soit...? [point to desired item].

2. Pick your travel agency with care. Research. Google. Ask friends for recommendations. Then go to their office if possible, or phone them, ask as many questions as you can think of, and write down the answers. Ask for the website addresses of the hotel/s or ship you'll be staying at; ask for names of the guides who will accompany you; make sure they speak your language fluently; ask for names of and contact details of previous travelers to your destination of choice. Read proposed tour plans. 

None of these steps are foolproof. But the more you know, the more prepared you are, the better.
For example: 
- We were told in advance that the cabins we would be assigned on the ship were small. We could easily see the cabins on YouTube, for example, and on the ship's website. So when we got there, we were not a bit surprised, and made ourselves comfortable. (No point in uploading a pic of a pristine, unlived-in room...)
Cabin #230, main deck

Another couple from our group, however, may not have looked into this issue, so when they walked into their cabin, they nearly had a fit, and demanded to be moved to a more spacious cabin. Which cost more, of course.
Nina doing her Russian homework

3. Food: Remember, you're in Russia. The food will most likely be either Russian, or an attempt at western/European food. It may not be what you're used to. But no worries! The big cities (certainly Moscow and Saint Petersburg) have plenty of McDonalds, McCafe, Burger King, Starbucks, and KFC. Of these, only KFC retained its English letters; the others' names are written in Cyrillic letters, which make them look weird... But the logos remain the same, and I'm sure you'll easily identify them. The  prices of light meals such as a sandwich or a salad at one of the bars aboard the Rublev were very reasonable, compared to Tel Aviv, say. See prices, in Rubles, below: (Yes, a sandwich is under a dollar, a Greek salad just over 2 dollars.)
However, the size of said salad or sandwich may be smaller than you are used to... For dessert, for instance, one of the options (after dinner) was always a so-called fruit platter. Which typically looked like this:

4. Drink: We were warned not to drink tap water. Bottles of mineral water were available on the boat, costing 130 rubles for a 1.3 liter bottle. That's just under 2 US dollars, or 1.65 Euro, or 7.30 NIS as I write, i.e. at late August 2015 exchange rates. That adds up if you consume a bottle or more a day. So, if convenient, buy water at any grocery or mini-market you come across. The sign will say something like продукт or similar, which -- once you've practiced your alphabet -- will sound like "product" or "products", which you can easily make sense of.
But cheer up! Beer and other spirits are relatively cheap! With special discounts during Happy Hour.(See below.)

On that happy note, I shall call it a day, and write my next list of tips as soon as possible.
See next list here.

Drinks menu #1 (prices in Rubles)

Drinks menu #2

Soft drinks & hot beverages

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