Russia Experience’s Odette Fussey has been giving me some insights into the effects of international political machinations, as felt by the tourist at ground-level.
Okay, we’ve covered the major potential negative of the Ukraine crisis: a subsequent escalation to an all-out inter-continental nuclear exchange that reduces the major habitable centres of the world to smoking deserts of radioactive ash; and with drifting blankets of fallout and a nuclear winter slowly snuffing out whoever is left.
There’s that. On the other hand, the immediate positive is that by the miracle of global economics, your stay in Russia in these unsettled times has suddenly become a bargain – with the caveat that the travel costs remain largely inflexible. That’s just the Russian system being typically ‘stoic’. “Niyet!” as they say.
Odette refers to the consequences of current international sanctions against Russia: “Service prices have almost halved because of devaluation,” she reveals. “Moscow and St. Petersburg – once quite expensive – are now very attractive. There’s no better time based on budget.” Okay, it may not compensate for annihilation per se; but that’s still a win, right? In pretty graphic terms it means that whilst off the tracks, your stay-time could effectively double for the same budget. Or that more of the treasures of Russia’s principle cities can suddenly drop into your price-range. And that’s really what the trip is all about.
The open secret is that the Trans-Siberian trip never was about the damn train anyway! The magic happens down on the culture-laden streets, through the interactions with the populace, intertwined with the histories you wander through and lives you encounter.
There is yet another knock-on from the crisis which has arguably been felt more amongst Odette and her compatriots than the travellers themselves: the marked lack of those unprepared for what a trip to Russia really means. “Passenger numbers are down” Odette tells me, as a result of Ukraine; “but those that are left are used to the ‘idiosyncrasies’ of travel”. Uncertainty has pared the troops down to the hardcore, the philosophical and the plainly tolerant. The impact-zone of the “uncertainty” is of course a good deal larger than that of the conflict itself. As Odette confirms, you could stand in main-street Moscow and not know that anything was happening in Ukraine. A recent customer revealed: “We didn’t know about it until we got back”.
Even my contact inside Ukraine itself just gets up and goes to work, eats, sleeps; whatever. Business as usual.
The trip does place demands which fall outside a typical ‘holiday’ scenario though. A fact that can become an issue when Odette ultimately has to field emergency calls from the bewildered, mid-trip customer who really, really should have booked a sunny resort and a sun-lounger instead. Their nodding insistence in the face of Odette’s repeated cautions has lead them into a situation decidedly more real than they first envisaged, and now Odette has to sort it out. And she does; either after the fact, or even beforehand if she can.
“We had someone who did stay on the train for the whole two weeks and then complained that he was bored out of his mind,” says Odette, by way of anecdote. Well of course he was! It’s not a train in a theme park! Though two weeks of that would probably drive you insane. I digress.
In another instance: “A mother wanted to book a solid 6 night, 7 day train trip with a 5 year old child. I had to say to her that it would drive you mad, the child mad, and everyone else: mad”.
She continues: “The vast majority have no concept of what it means to traverse 8 time zones”. But why would they? Problems occur when the unprepared think that they do, and crucially, that it won’t be a problem.
“Expectation is the downfall of internet travel,” Odette concludes, and I soon learn that those expectations vary considerably across the wide customer base that she caters for. That’s a real minefield that I’ll blunder through next time.
[Photos by fmfm166]