Let’s look at a few ways to stretch your cash whilst in Russia, and have an experience that is more immersive at the same time, compared to remaining within your tourist-bubble and viewing your experience ‘through glass’, as it were.
Setting our stage
The first thing to point out is that we will be limiting the scope to major cities, predominantly Moscow and St.Petersburg. Emphatically, this is not a declaration that such places are “better” than the more remote regions, it’s just that a tourist’s life is a lot simpler and more convenient here. It’s not a bad philosophy to start with ‘easier’ first and progress to ‘more complex’’ later, right? Moscow is not Russia, any more than London is England (or the UK). In fact, the UK seems relatively homogeneous compared to the sheer diversity that Russia, including Siberia, has to offer.
Incidentally, whilst there may be no official separation between Russia and Siberia, the commonly accepted border-line is the Ural mountains, which may cause some friction in discussions with proud residents of Ekaterinburg, but that’s another tale.
Our cosmopolitan ease
The more cosmopolitan an area, the easier the ride for visiting foreigners, which stands to reason of course. You’ll meet people who are used to ‘aliens’ and who are also capable of speaking English to some (often impressive) degree. You will also meet others who are interested in neither of course, but the odds are favourable. Incidentally, you can expect something of an age divide when it comes to communication; those growing up after the Soviet collapse are more likely to have been schooled in English and other European languages than their elders. No surprises there.
On the subject of language, speaking some (any) Russian is probably the most direct and powerful way to build favourable bridges. Suddenly, you are making an effort and there’s a connection, even if it’s a faulty, inefficient, and tenuous one. Can you really visit a foreign country without learning “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, and “thank you” in their language? There is a wealth of information and resources out there to assist language practice, from traditional phrase books to phone apps and online courses. Prices start at £0, for a massive amount of information.
Our life underground
Language plays a crucial part in this, but if you have enough basic ability to make sense of Metro station names then a whole new tier of experience opens up, for very little cash. When travelling around St.Petersburg via Metro I performed some elementary maths and discovered that I was paying roughly 0.6 GBP (0.8 USD) per trip from anywhere to anywhere-else across the city!
Moreover, if you buy a multiple day/trip pass then the average price per journey drops from negligible to irrelevant. With the most economic use, you can easily halve that titanic 60p per trip penalty in real terms or force it down to even less. The Metro systems of St.Petersburg, and Moscow (particularly the latter) are attractions in their own right too of course.
The other good news is that if you have traversed the New York subway or the London Underground, then the Metro systems of Russia’s principal cities are a breeze by comparison. This should not be interpreted as licence to venture out into potentially dangerous outlying (or other) areas as “street smarts” still apply. Some interesting advice on Metro safety and some dangerous locales is readily available online.
More next time. Stay safe.