Neil’s been taking me through some of his thoughts about what makes for a safe, fun, and hassle-free trip. At the end of the post I’ve attempted to give as useful as possible a list of things to bring with you, so if you’re after the basics only, scan down. But for more informative and wondrously exciting stuff, read on.
The process of joining the Russia Experience essentially involves: choosing a package on the website; filling in the booking form; and accepting the terms & conditions. Neil has a few footnotes to add.
“There’s a necessary element: they have to accept our booking conditions before they go on the trip. They have to have travel insurance. There are some silly people who still think they can travel the world without it, and that somehow or other they’ll be bailed out if they get into difficulty… It’s these kind of people who found out back in April, with all the ash [from the Icelandic volcano eruptions], how very valuable travel insurance can be.
“Little but necessary things like that. We ask them for a small deposit for the trip. The balance will be paid later. They get not only an itinerary but what we call a ‘trip dossier’: a more detailed day-by-day account of what’s going to be happening along the trip, which also includes things like recommendations for clothing, footwear, and other necessary items you might want to take. A couple of our trips include going out into the wilderness, so we suggest you take a torch. It’s not always easy to guess in advance what kind of footwear you night need, if you’ve never been to that place before, so we try and help people with as many hints as we can think of.
“With quite a lot of our trips, you arrive at your main destination then go off for a few days into the countryside, so it can be a good idea to have your bags separated into your main case and maybe a separate weekend bag for two or three days. That way you’re not lugging a big suitcase around when you go off on these side trips. On the train itself there’s plenty of baggage-storage space, but often in large overhead lockers. You don’t want to be dragging your suitcase up and down from there too often, because you’ll put your back out. A large-ish, two-or-three-day bag is quite a handy thing. It’s surprising how annoying it can be when these things don’t occur to you until you’re underway. They can really make a difference to the quality of your trip.”
Obvious And Yet Not
Any other things that seem obvious to some, but not to everyone?
“Well, let’s take visas. Although it seems obvious to you and I that you need a visa to go to somewhere like Russia, not everybody thinks of it. Or not everybody realises that it might be a bit of a palaver. It’s not just a question of, ‘Please can I have a visa?’ and ‘Of course, here it is!’ You have to fill in a form. You have to take some photographs. You have to submit your passport. It takes two or three days before it comes back, and then you have to do the same for Mongolia and China. It’s very difficult do all this in under two weeks, unless you start paying monstrous courier fees to have documents motorbiked from embassy to embassy!
“And then there are vaccinations,” Neil continues. “We don’t know what jabs you had as a kid. If you don’t come from an EU country, you may have had a very different set of vaccinations. Or you may have had none at all. We suggest that you consult a doctor, or better still a travel clinic (most GP’s aren’t very up to speed on what the latest situation is). In some places in China, there’s a possibility of yellow fever. In Siberia, it’s ticks. You may want to get an encephalitis jab, although you would be extraordinarily unlucky to contract this from ticks, which anyway are only infectious from May to June. Since most of our clients go after that time, it doesn’t usually become an issue. Some jungle gel to keep biting insects off you is a good idea.”
Neil explains that being bothered by ticks is not, in contrast to fleas, due to “unsanitary” conditions, but is simply a consequence of exposing yourself to the environment in which they naturally live.
“We do like to make sure that people are aware, rather than turning up and saying ‘Bloody hell, we should have been told about this before!’. There’s nothing much to worry about really; in the end, these are fairly simple countries to go to. They’re all quite civilised. It’s just about letting people know in advance what they are going to need. Sun cream, for example: it’s amazing, the number of people who haven’t clocked that in Siberia in the summer the temperature gets up to 40°C, and they turn up in anoraks thinking that they’re going to freezing Siberia so they’d better dress up and take their gloves! You can never predict the assumptions that people might have made. Without nannying them too much, we don’t want them to fall ill, and we want them to have a good time, and to come with everything they need to get the most out of every day of the trip. Everything in the end is for their safety, comfort and convenience – some of it, for their legal safety, and the rest to make sure they don’t get bitten by some horrible insect!”
Neil also suggests that women bring a head scarf. Not for the ticks, but because in Russian Orthodox churches (90% of the churches in the country), women are supposed to cover their heads. It’s a question of how concerned you are not to cause offence. Men, conversely, are supposed to take their hats off in church. The monastery in the forest where the Romanov bodies were burnt is very strictly Orthodox, and doesn’t like to admit women in jeans. As such, Neil’s guides distribute over-skirts for anyone who needs them, to ensure that everything goes smoothly. That way, women don’t have to worry about bringing their own skirts, which would be unnecessary except for these 20 minutes of the trip. A little preparation can go a long way. As Neil puts it:
“They are going to countries and cultures where things that happen in Melton Mowbray [a small Leicestershire town] don’t necessarily apply…”
Excerpt from the Trip Info Pack
Don’t leave home without…
- Photocopies of your passport, visa and travel documents. Better still, scan and email them to your web-based email account – then you have them, wherever you are in the world.
- Student ID (ISIC) – gets you good discounts on museum & gallery admission tickets, sometimes 100% off!
- Any prescription medicines that you require.
- Money belt that fits under your clothes.
- First aid kit. Leave everything in original wrappers to avoid confusion at customs if inspected.
- Contraceptives – if you think you might need them. Better safe than sorry, eh?
- Batteries (other than AA or AAA batteries, which are easily available).
- Anti-mosquito gel or spray, and antihistamine cream (May–Sept).
- Sun cream and sun hat. From May–Sept expect scorching sunshine in Russia, Siberia, Mongolia & China.
- Multi-way electrical adaptor. Russia and Mongolia use standard 220V European plugs (i.e. two round pins). China (mostly) uses 110V American-style flat-pin plugs.
- Your own tea, coffee, sugar and mug. Nescafé, Lipton tea etc. is available in Russian/Mongolian shops at normal prices. If you like white coffee, take packet creamer, as it’s always served black in Russia, and requests for milk often fall on deaf ears. Russian hotel rooms practically never have mini-kettles, so a one-cup immersion boiler is handy.
Next time: Trips And Tales (Part 4)
Money: all 3 currencies of it. Also, food and vegetarian-skinflint-religious-nutter spies…(you know who you are).
[Photo by Vladislav Besrukov]