With all the negative publicity given to the host of the Winter Olympics these past weeks, I started thinking about my own experiences in Russia a few years ago. The unbelievable “fail” photo’s and comments that sports journalists in Sochi have been tweeting got me “LOL’ing” as well as thinking: “why am I not surprised?!” During my travels through Northern European Russia I’ve encountered similarly bizarre scenes. However, when I call that trip to mind, I remember so much more than kitchens in the bathrooms or getting a fork to stir my tea with, because they ran out of spoons…
A very open and elaborate drinking culture
Straight off the airport, we were walking down the street trying to find our host’s apartment. Noticing we were tourists, a random man stopped us and begged us to put down our backpacks for a minute so we could have a drink. He pulled out a large can of beer from the left inner pocket of his jacket. From the right inner pocket he pulled out two cups and started serving us. He made a toast and we drank the beer. We had been on Russian soil for no more than 30 minutes and here we were, standing on a side walk, sharing a beer with a stranger. Talk about a warm welcome!
The stunning metro stations
The metro stations in St-Petersburg and in Moscow are awe-inspiring. We spent a few hours going on and off the metro just to admire the stations. Why don’t all metro halts in the world have ornate chandeliers?
The midnight sun
Traveling past the Arctic Circle in July means it doesn’t really get dark at all. We’d stay up all night and chat with fellow travellers watch the sunset last for hours.
The unique and diverse architecture
You might associate Russian architecture with massive concrete blocks with zero personality. Granted, these Sovjet blocks are predominant in the street scene but there is so much more to Russian architecture. The unique styles left a permanent impression on me.
Staying with locals
We spent most of our nights either on the train or at locals’ houses. Some hosts we found through CouchSurfing, others randomly on the street -such hospitable people! My favourite host, we met and stayed with by chance. He was a man of few words, but when he said something… As you can see from the photograph below, he stayed true to the Russian ‘no smiling in pictures’ rule… Is it because smiling gives you wrinkles? A double chin maybe?
Weird breakfasts in hotels
The few times we did stay in hotels, we were offered the strangest breakfasts. It was probably due to our careless hotel choices, but every breakfast that was served to us seemed like a cluster of edibles found in the back of the fridge, stacked on a plate. Once we got a chocolate bar for breakfast…
The Russian delicacies
I was on such an extremely tight budget, I didn’t get to sample much of the staples but I did have the opportunity to try some fine vodka and caviar. Two items I wasn’t fond of before the trip. I realised I probably disliked these because so far I had only tasted a ‘crap quality’ version of them! Also delicious, borscht (beet-cabbage-soup), Pelmeni (the Russian answer to ravioli), blini (Russian pancakes) and the chocolate, which is a big deal for a Belgian to admit.
The old school countryside… On the Solovetsky islands
Picking wild flower from a meadow, wooden cabins, washing our faces in a babbling creek, eating berries all day long, lying in the long grass spotting shapes in the clouds… The Russian country life brings a sense of carefree childhood. It’s probably one of the most cliché descriptions but it really does feel like traveling back in time. There were hardly any cars or telephones, women were washing laundry by hand, kids were running around laughing. It seemed so far away from modern reality, well, the Solovetsky islands are literally far from the modern world.
Unfortunately the bad reputation Russia is making for itself is not just about poor accommodation in the olympic village. It’s about corruption, homophobia, violence… Yet, traveling around Russia was one of the most exciting journeys I’ve done so far. I could hardly read the signs and nobody spoke a word of English in most of the places we visited, but somehow we managed to communicate and get along very well despite the fact that I am an obviously foreign-looking woman. This brings me hope that someday- sooner rather than later- Russia will grow to be a more open-minded and tolerant nation.
Have you ever been to Russia? Would you consider going?