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Backpacking in Russia
September 1, 2008 10:59


Baikal Lake, Siberia

An Introduction to Traveling on a Budget from St Petersburg to Siberia

Russia is a fantastic backpacking destination – exciting, exotic and affordable. What’s more, with the recent relaxation of visa laws allowing travelers to enter the country independently rather than just by organized tours, it’s become much more accessible.

There has also been a significant increase in the number of hostels in Russia, as well as activities and transport options for English-speaking travelers, to cater for the rise in budget tourism.

Although backpacking in Russia can be a tricky experience because of the language barrier and enduring social and economic problems, heading off the beaten path and exploring this intriguing country is always very rewarding.

Around St Petersburg

With a decent selection of affordable flights connecting major European cities with St Petersburg, it’s one of the most common destinations for backpackers arriving in Russia.

The government’s visa agreements stipulate that as traveler’s first few nights’ accommodation must be booked in advance so that the hostel or hotel can validate their passport (a process that can take anywhere between 24 and 48 hours).

However, budget accommodation is both easy to find and book in the city, with plenty of quality St Petersburg hostels offering cheap beds and visa validation to backpackers.

As well as providing an affordable base for exploring the sights of the city, hostels in Russia are a great place to meet like-minded travelers and pick up invaluable advice about traveling around the country.

Despite this recent increase in the number of visitors to Russia, there are still no real tourist offices in St Petersburg. Hostels, therefore, assume this role, organizing activities and providing information on events and sightseeing. Some have even employed local history students to conduct tours for a reasonable price.

Using the local bus and tram system is relatively straightforward, allowing travelers to explore all the fascinating sights of St Petersburg on a budget. From the beautiful Summer Gardens and Isaac Cathedral on the edge of the Neva River, to its numerous museums and theatres, the city has an extraordinary legacy of art, culture and tradition.

Overnight to Moscow

Moving on to Russia’s next major city, Moscow, is perhaps best done via the overnight train. Although some caution should be exercised for safety during the journey (try to get a sleeping car with other backpackers heading that way from your hostel), it’s certainly the most cost-effective way to travel.

As on your initial arrival, it’s necessary to register your visa in each new town or city and, like St Petersburg, hostels in Moscow can help travelers to complete all the necessary processes in addition to offering sociable budget accommodation.

There’s just as much culture to experience in this exceptionally diverse city which combines towering modern skyscrapers and communist architecture with the elegant reminders of Russia’s Imperial past.

On top of offering a cheap and extremely efficient way to see the sights and Moscow’s metro is, in and of itself, an intriguing example of this mix of modernity and grandeur, with each station uniquely decorated using marble, mosaics and chandeliers.

This vibrant city is also home to a thriving nightlife scene concentrated in Kuznetski Most (downtown Moscow) full of laidback bars, live music venues and huge dance clubs.

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Beyond the Cities

Beyond Moscow and St Petersburg, there is a wealth of provincial culture and tradition to explore. The Russian countryside is very different to these major internationally influenced cities and the small towns lying to the northeast of Moscow offer an intriguing contrast to the hectic metropolis nearby.

Known as ‘The Golden Ring,’ this circle of villages and towns is one of the oldest trade routes in Russia and buses and trains still provide affordable transport between each destination.

Although hostels are few and far between in the area, there are a handful of small guesthouses and monasteries which provide cheap, friendly accommodation to backpackers exploring The Golden Ring. Alternatively, some places of interest (including Suzdal and Rostov Veliky) can also be reached from hostels in Moscow on a day trip.

Siberia

Yet, when you consider that this is a country that stretches across a total of 11 time zones, this region is still just a tiny portion of an almost unimaginably vast landmass. Much of Eastern Russia is remote and even inaccessible but the famous (and affordable) Trans-Siberian railway has opened up this unique area to backpackers.

Taking more than six days in total, the journey from Moscow to Vladivostok reveals the country’s diverse landscape and culture. It’s possible to stop over at various points along the way, from the magnificent Baikal Lake to Novosibirsk, the gateway to the Altai Mountains and the biggest city in Siberia.

But the Trans-Siberian train offers more than just transport to such destinations – the trip itself is an unbeatable experience. This historic railway has its own significance in Russian tradition and is also a great way to connect with the other travelers (both locals and backpackers alike) on this epic journey.

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Alice Woolliams


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