The World Cup diaries: Rasha in Russia

“My name is Rasha…Just like the country but it’s not.” That sentence would be my ice breaker when I introduce myself to non-arabic speakers but it broke more than ice in Russia. People cracked jokes, broke in laughter specially after I decided to add a new cliche: “…and my dog’s name is Vodka by the way.” That was the kick starter for conversations that lasted for hours. I had traveled for the world cup which is not typical of me. Yes, I am a football fan but I tend to avoid high season travels and floods of tourists, however this was not just another world cup; our national team had qualified for the first time in 28 years and we were popular already as everyone was cheering for Mo Salah.

Mosalah
Mo Salah and Rasha in Moscow

Russians were completely laid back, friendly, generous and hospitable. The only draw back is the lack of English proficiency. The signs were placed less than 6 weeks prior to the World Cup opening ceremony and were not completely done till the second week of the event. So keep a translation app on your phone because at some point it’d be the only way to communicate, I used google translate with voice.  I’ve heard from my colleagues some horrible stories about airport interrogation rooms, police demanding you show your passport randomly in the streets, that the most important thing to get out of the country is registration and Russian mafia episodes. That didn’t happen, the government was facilitating the flow of foreigners in and out of the country. They were working hard to make everyone happy…

volunteers
They’d always be happy to cheer…

The Russians did a perfect job that deserves respect; Message delivered and mission accomplished. It’s a beautiful big country with a lot to see and I, Rasha, would love to come back one day and explore more of Siberia and the south. That’s not just me, and there is a nice article that captured the 5 things that impressed foreigners during the world cup. Left click on google chrome browser to translate to English.

traincompanions
The fun party with the greats Vera & Arsin and my Egyptian fellow Moamen on a 32 hours train.

My journey started in Moscow, I was taken aback by the width of the streets, side walks and above all the time the escalator takes to reach the metro platform. Needless to say, 10 minutes was the time needed to travel from one station to the other. I remembered Michael Jackson’s lyrics “like a stranger in Moscow”

How does it feel (How does it feel now)
How does it feel
How does it feel
When you’re alone
And you’re cold inside (2)
Like a stranger in Moscow (oh, not the same) (2)
We’re talkin’ danger
We’re talkin’ danger, baby
Like a stranger in Moscow
We’re talkin’ danger
We’re talkin’ danger, baby
Like a stranger in Moscow
I’m livin’ lonely
I’m livin’ lonely, baby
Stranger in Moscow
It wasn’t cold though; 30 degrees and the sun was burning hot. I was puzzled how the weather changes from freezing cold, minus 40 degrees in winter, to an unbearable heat and humidity in summer. It’s also colder than cities on the same altitude however it seems that those cities are facing the ocean which stores the heat all summer and releases it in winter; a privilege that Moscow doesn’t have.
Sunny Moscow
A perfect summer day in Moscow…
A good way to move around is to buy a Travel card that you can recharge from any metro station and is valid for all public transportation in both Moscow and St Petersburg.
It’s also better to download few Yandex apps that will help you move around; maps, metro map and routes, taxi. Those will be more helpful than google and uber.
arbatskaya
The marvels of Moscow metro stations
There are around 7 national airlines that offer great rates outside of the World Cup zone as it was the national opportunity to make money all over from the small street vendor up to chain hotels. I flew with S7 only and it was decent enough, however that depends on your location, each company is working more intensively in certain regions barring Aeroflot. The alternative to local flights is sleeper trains and depending on your destination, your ride can prolong to a week. Seat 61 offers a very decent guide on train types and how to book. I personally couldn’t book from the official site as my card was rejected so the next cheapest option for me was Tutu as the commision they charged was much lower than other proposed sites relative to the rates on the official site.
s7airport
Getting an S7 ready ahead of its flight to Moscow from Petrozhavodsk airport.

Tip 1:

Having an English language option or tab means that the website content is fully available in English, sometimes it’s just the first few pages so use google chrome and always use the right click to translate page.

Tip 2:

Train travel can be a very good way to save on accommodation, travel overnight and leave your luggage in the station storage (250 Rub/ luggage item).  You don’t always get individual lockers with your own key, sometimes it’s just a numbered tag and your luggage is stored on a rack. But no worries I’ve left my stuff in 6 stations only one of them was automated and it worked perfectly every time, you also need to have your passport. it’s also good to understand what each class has to offer. For example the below photo is from the free train which was actually a second class cabin, I had 3 fantastic companions but just in case you are unlucky opt for the third class where you can enjoy the company of 53 other passengers. 1st class rates isn’t worth it…

trainsecondclass
On the FIFA free train to St Petersburg

Where to go?

Russia is a vast country, closer to a continent, but most of this space remains non-utilized, relatively speaking that helps you limit your options a little bit. Also you need to define your points of interest and willingness to travel long distances. As you can see in the map below the Russian mid land is quite empty, up north there isn’t much.  Which leaves you 3 options; the western land full of cities and few natural attractions or the breathtaking south of Siberia or the extreme east or the magical Kamchatka Peninsula.

russia map
Travel Options and routes

1- Culture & Heritage

Applied arts, museums, theaters, palaces are all over Moscow and Saint Petersburg. They are also the closest two cities as it takes a 4 hours Sapsan or an overnight train to travel between the two cities. Moscow is large and full of attractions that are spread around the river unlike St. Petersburg whom attraction are focused in the center or the old city, it’s not a small walking distance though but much more relaxed and reachable and It also gives a more European character to the city.

hermitage
A room in the Hermitage museum, one of the best collections in the world…

What to look for in Moscow:

I am not diving into details but  here are the things that brings to us the smell of wander since Moscow has a recent history and was actually built around The Kremlin and the red square before Peter the great moved the capital to Saint Petersburg.

Red Square
A wide view of the red square

There’s the smell of fine arts and extreme orthodoxism that you may find in museums like the Tetryakov gallery or the marvels of Saint Basil, Kazan and Christ the saviour cathedrals which are not merely attractions but marvels. The bolshoi theatre holds a dear memoir for ballet and opera lovers. Not to forget Gorky park, remember Scorpions wind of change?

gorky
Bridge view of one of Gorky park entrances…

 

What to look for in Saint Petersburg:

I am not sure if you’ve read War and Peace but anyhow Peter the Great transformed the city in the 18th century from a small fort inhabited by some Finn tribes to the Capital of Russia and its main port over the white sea for two centuries to follow.

palace square
The main square of the city…

Hence the centre is full of palaces overlooking the river around Peter and Paul fortress which form the major attractions. You shouldn’t miss the world renowned Hermitage museum which is part of the winter palace, or the major cathedrals like Saint Isaac and Saviour on spilled blood.

orthodox church saviour spilled blood
the interior of the Saviour on spilled blood are all ornamented with gold and Mosaics…

In summer, you are welcome to spend the white night out in the open or even better down the river in a boat watching the draw bridges open up.

2- Mountainscape

The most famous Caucasus mountains in the central west running from the Caucasian sea to the black sea maybe suitable for our fellow mountaineers. I didn’t go but it was an option to consider if you like hiking or climbing or even skiing.

Another dream of mine was to visit the Kamchatka land of Ice and Fire. It’s called so because there are so many volcanoes there, rivers and hot springs. Google it up, it’s beautiful but was a little off budget for that trip.

3- Lakes and Islands

I was eager to go somewhere off of the world cup territories to get a real local flavour. Other than the mountain sides, I was pondering Lake Onega and the Baikals. The later was also a more expensive option but remains a dream to enjoy Siberian lanscape and pure water.

kizhi
A house in the open museum of Kizhi Island…

I ended up choosing the Karelian Onega targeting Kizhi Island and to get a bit closer to the white sea. The Island is iconic with its wooden structure reserved in an open museum containing sample houses of people with different professions with what they would traditionally store and how they would furnish their house. There is also the remarkable transfiguration church and one village where people still live in. You only get four hours on the island and not allowed to sleep over.

white night Petrozhavodsk
Petrozhavodsk is a small city where you can observe clearly the sunset where the sun never actually goes down past the horizon level and causes a white night to occur…

4- Sea side

It’s mainly the black sea cities and resorts, most famous is Sochi. It’s the place to enjoy the summer and la dolce vita of Russia day and night but that was my last priority of things to do and see in Russia. Sochi is also famous for once hosting the winter Olympics.

Budget

Compared to Europe, it’s cheap even though I visited when all Russians were trying to make money out of the world cup opportunity.

Accommodation: I managed an average of 15 euros per night depending on where I was and the hotels fill rate at that point of time which also depended on games played in the specific city at that time.

Trains: I had 80 hours of train travel during the whole trip in the third class which would cost between 10 and 35 euros/ride depending on the distance and availability.

Note: as mentioned above, I booked through an agent not directly which means that these rates include commission.

Meals: Around 20 euros per day, all 3 meals in decent restaurants including snacks barring alcohol and fancy spots.

sirniki pan cake
The famous russian pan cake with cottage cheese or Famer’s pan cakes…

Alcohol: A beer would start at the rate of 2 euros, there is also a super fantastic “To Go” option. A vodka shot is less than 6 euros. The rest is up to you.

I cannot obviously talk about the shopping budget because it’s a personal taste and a matter of priorities, however most rates are similar to Europe. Russian souvenirs are cheaper whether it’s a wooden item or a food specialty.

Why go?

To conclude, here are the top 5 reasons in my opinion, Rasha, to visit Russia:

1- Russians are genuinely generous and super friendly if they feel you are willing to connect and communicate.

2- The land is vast and beautiful with so much to explore.

3- Cheap.

4- Local Cuisine is awesome.

5- There is an overall sense of finesse despite the crude appearance.

Note: all photographs are taken by myself Rasha Abdelmalek, all copyrights reserved.
Cheers beer
Cheers!

Next: A guide to the Russian Cuisine

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