General information on Russia
”Reason is of no use when it comes to understanding Russia…”
These famous words from the well-known poet F.I. Tjuèev always tend to be quoted when people start finding it difficult to explain what makes Russia tick. One of the inescapable attributes that crops up time and time again in connection with Russia is the depth of the Russian soul, the hospitality and heart of simple Russians, who know how to appreciate and enjoy the simple things of life. Like so many clichés, this one also has a grain of truth at its centre, but this view has rather more to do with the way in which we Germans like to think of Russia than it has to do with Russia itself. The ever-changing history of Russia, from the Kiev Rus and the yoke of the Mongols, the role of the hanseatic cities in the north of Europe, the colonisation of Siberia, the founding of St. Petersburg, Russia’s wars and wars against Russia, tsars in exile, the revolutions of the 20th century, Stalinism, the time of the thaw and perestroika are every bit as enchanting as the beauty of the huge variety of landscapes. This enormous country offers an unforgettable experience. Nature reserves, parks, open-air plays, the Baikal as one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, steppe, taiga, endless fields and birch groves.
People in Russia nowadays live in a social cataclysm between environmental protection and catastrophe, between patriotism and nationalism. They live in a place where the lives of the Buryat people with their Shamanism and Buddhism stands in stark contrast to the strictly controlled lives led in Orthodox Russian monasteries. Where life in the country with no phone or electricity stands in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the large cities. This country with its many different faces has a great deal to offer, and is just waiting to be discovered.
The time difference varies between different regions, ranging from 1 to 11 hours.
Russia is the largest country in the world; not only does it span two continents (Asia and Europe), but in terms of surface area, too, it is almost as large as two continents (Australia and Europe). The country extends far enough to contain Europe’s longest river (the Volga), the oldest and deepest inland lake in the world (Lake Baikal), the largest body of freshwater in the world (Lake Ladoga and Lake Baikal), the longest railway line in the world (Trans-Siberian Railway), virtually every climatic zone and 11 time zones.
With its surface area of 17,075,400 square kilometres, Russia is the largest state in the world. It covers around one eighth of the world’s land surface area. It is more than 2,000 km from north to south and 9,000 km from east to west. Russia stretches from a longitude of 15° east to 169° west. It lies between the latitudes of 48° and 81° north. Its border, which is shared between 14 different states, is 19,990 km in length. Its coastline is 37,653 km long, including the Baltic, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Pacific Ocean (Bering Strait, Bering Sea, Sea of Okhotsk, Sea of Japan) and the Arctic Ocean (White Sea, Barents Sea, Kara Sea, Laptev Sea, East Siberian Sea and Chukchi Sea).
Russia extends to include all the different climatic zones other than tropical. Most of the country lies in the temperate zone, and the climate can be described as continental. The southern half of Russia’s far-eastern region has a monsoon climate. With the exception of the Black Sea coast, average temperatures in January throughout Russia are below freezing. In eastern Siberia temperatures fall to as low as –50°C. In winter the weather is cold and dry; summer temperatures, on the other hand, are extremely variable. Average summer temperatures in the far north of the country are +1 to +2°C, while in the semi-steppe and steppe regions in the south they are around +24 to +25°C. Many areas of Siberia and the northern half of Russia have permafrost.
You should certainly take summer clothing with you in the summer months, but you would also be well advised to take one or more warm wool or fleece garments with you for the cool evenings and nights. You should certainly also take waterproof and windproof clothing. In general you will need hard-wearing, warm items of clothing. We recommend that you bring a sunhat, suncream and good UV-protective sunglasses with you for sunny days.
Over the centuries Russia has developed its own culture of cookery, and it is remarkable that there is virtually no difference between the types of food typical of the different regions. From the Pacific to the Baltic, from the desert of Turkmenistan to the Arctic Circle, Russians enjoy their daily bowl of porridge and sweeten their lives with little buckwheat pancakes.
Like the Russian soul, Russian cuisine is characterised by two circumstances: these are the long, cold winters and the Russian Orthodox Church, which regularly calls for lengthy periods of fasting. Because of their long winters, Russians eat a lot of pickled, home-made foods such as gherkins, sauerkraut and marinated mushrooms. Fresh fruit and vegetables are only readily available in the short but hot summer months. For the cold season, households lay in stocks of various root vegetables and brassica, dried mushrooms and stewed fruit.
There are a number of Russian dishes and ingredients that have become famous around the world; these include caviar, pickled gherkins, vodka, Crimean champagne and borshtch. Russia’s national drink is, of course, vodka, which is always consumed with great gusto.
There are hotels of a good standard in all the larger cities. In some areas, on the other hand, the only available accommodation is in hostels that appeal more to a boy scout than an older traveller with more refined tastes.
We take care to choose especially scenic locations for overnight campsites so that your fascinating day can be rounded off perfectly with an atmospheric evening sitting round the camp fire. The camps will be set up in rural locations and will not have toilet facilities of any kind. All participants are required to help set up and clear away the camps. You’ll find there is plenty of space since a spacious three-person tent is allowed for just two of you. If your holiday includes camping you should bring a sleeping bag that is warm enough for use at temperatures down to at least -10°C.
The national currency in Russia is the rouble. Roubles are not allowed to be brought into or taken out of the country. A rouble is made up of 100 kopecks. Money can be changed at any bank or foreign exchange bureau, or it can be obtained from an EC cash machine. You can also use Eurocard, Visa, American Express or Diners Club to pay in Russia. You should carry your passport or other form of personal ID with you at all times; you will always be asked to produce this due to the prevalence of credit card fraud in Russia. In provincial areas of Russia, cash is the only form of payment accepted. To enable you to cope with any eventuality it is advisable to also carry with you a few dollars in the form of smaller denomination notes.
Making a phone call from Russia to Germany can turn out to be a remarkably costly business. The state telephone company in Moscow (MGTS) calculates units by the minute, and starts counting as soon as you dial "8” to even register that you wish to make an international call. To make an international call you have to dial "8”, wait for a dialling tone, then dial "10” followed by the international prefix "49” for Germany. This is followed by the area code within Germany, but without its initial "0”. The prefix for Russia is: 00-7. To call the police, dial 02, and for other emergency services dial 03.
The large cities, especially Moscow and St. Petersburg, have a considerable number of private hospitals and private doctors’ surgeries with excellent medical facilities. In rural areas, however, medical care does not usually meet the standards expected in Central Europe. Should you fall ill during your holiday, you should either go to the local dispensing chemist (apteka) or to a hospital (bolnitsa). Many medicaments that are widely available in Germany can also be procured in the large cities of the Russian Federation. But even in the large cities you cannot assume that all these medicaments will be available from chemists at all times. This applies especially to insulin preparations in special pre-loaded doses or other specific forms and presentations. For this reason, if you need to take medication on a regular basis it is better to bring it with you in sufficient quantity to last throughout your visit. If you are bringing significant amounts of medication through customs it may also be expedient to bring a certificate or letter from your general practitioner. The drugs laws in the Russian Federation are considerably stricter than those in Germany. Certain tablets that are commonly used in Germany for psychiatric conditions and also a number of painkillers are subject to drug legislation in Russia. These medicaments are prohibited in the Russian Federation, and it is illegal to have them in your possession. To avoid problems on entering the country, medication of these types should therefore not be carried. (The above does not apply to medicaments such as aspirin, paracetamol, indometacin, etc.).
In terms of hygiene, conditions in Russia are better than one might suppose, but certain precautions should be taken all the same: wash your hands frequently, never drink tap water or unboiled water, and always wash or – better still – peel fruit before eating it.<strong/>
It is also advisable to check that you have been inoculated recently against diphtheria, tetanus and polio. We would also recommend vaccinations for hepatitis A and B, typhoid and perhaps also rabies. Travellers should obtain information and medical advice on how to protect themselves against infection, what vaccinations are required and other prophylactic measures well in advance of their departure date. We would refer you in particular to the general information available from health authorities, doctors experienced in travel medicine, doctors of tropical medicine, travel medicine information services or the Federal Centre for Health Education [Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung].
In many Russian houses and also older hotels the electrical sockets are somewhat old-fashioned. If you want to use electrical devices that you have brought with you, either they should have flat plugs fitted or you should bring a suitable adapter.
Mains voltage is generally 220 volts, with a frequency of 50 Hz.
The following items may be brought into the Russian Federation duty-free: 400 cigarettes or 200 cigarillos or 50 cigars or 500 g of tobacco products, 2 l of alcoholic beverages (applies only to those aged 21 or over), perfume for personal use, gifts and other goods up to a value of 65,000 roubles.
When entering the country a customs declaration must be completed, and this must be presented on leaving the country. Any personal items being brought in must be recorded on this form, including currency and valuables. If you should find yourself subject to a detailed customs inspection, the formalities involved can be really quite protracted. None of the following items are allowed to be brought into Russia: armaments, munitions, narcotics, drugs, any items that may be construed as drug-taking accessories, pornographic material, animals, fruit and vegetables, photographs and printed materials undermining the Russian Federation.
Life in Russia, especially after the enormous political and economic changes of the 1990s, now seems at first glance to be very similar to life in Central Europe. Housing, shops, clothes, transport – you can feel the way in which Russian culture has always been strongly influenced by the West through history. In a rather strange way this just compounds a tendency for small differences to lead to misunderstandings and tensions in situations when you least expect them. However, this can be easily avoided by following a few basic rules. Thus, even though Russia is rightly known as the land of vodka, it is generally taboo to drink in public. You can be fined for drinking in public, but the way in which such fines are implemented is a different story. Another activity which is deemed totally unacceptable in public is nose-blowing; it is considered to be in very poor taste to do this in the presence of other people, and is in fact a complete taboo in Russia. On the other, the practice of controlling a runny nose by snuffling, which is considered rude in Europe, is quite acceptable in Russia. There are a number of ground rules you should remember if you plan to look round Orthodox churches. Women should always wear some form of head covering, and ideally also a full-length skirt. Men, on the other hand, should remove their hats and not wear short trousers. It is also not the done thing for men to take women by the hand.
The photographing of airports, railway stations, border crossings or anything else related to national security is prohibited.
Russia is generally considered to be a safe country to travel in. However, there are a number of issues that you should be aware of in order to avoid experiencing any problems. You should never leave valuables or luggage unattended in your car or indeed anywhere else. We also recommend that you do not wear ostentatious jewellery or display large quantities of money in public; you should keep valuables close to your body and always be aware of what is happening around you. You should also divide any cash you may be carrying between a few different places. You should make photocopies of any important documents you have with you, and keep them separate from the originals.
No tours operate in the regions classified as unsafe by the Foreign Office: Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.
Stages in or through Russia
This information has been compiled to the best of our knowledge, however this may be subject to change. We are not liable for the accuracy of the stated information.