In this final part of Taking Care we look at a few precautions to take when in Russia. Much of this is common sense, but that’s never been a reason to avoid repeating it (unfortunately).
About those documents
Passports have been stolen from hotel rooms, and then ransomed back to their owners in a particularly profitable scam. So could you trust your document’s care to the hotel staff or even their safe? Perhaps you prefer to keep them with you at all times – carefully hidden in a deep inside pocket or belt pouch so that even you can’t access it immediately. To carry or not? It’s a matter for the individual to decide.
Wherever the originals are located, they all need to be copied. Consider making a few “sets” that can be located about your person and luggage, in case the worst happens. One of the best ideas I heard in this regard was to scan and email copies to yourself so that you can access facsimiles anywhere in the world via the internet. Incidentally, I when I went to scan my passport at the local library I was told in no uncertain terms making a colour copy of a passport is illegal!
The Russian police have the authority to stop you at any time and check your papers -including your immigration card (handed to you at Russian Passport Control) Frankly I would consider offering copies of my documents rather than physically handing over originals unless pressed. Here’s why – there have been cases of fake officials seeking to take financial advantage of tourists. There have also been cases of genuine police officers holding your passport to ransom over some “problem” with your documents. “Don’t worry we can sort it out here for cash…”. You get the idea.
Don’t drink the water
This is a general rule across Russia whether in the most tourist-friendly or remote areas. Whilst we are used to turning on a tap (or fawcett) and drinking our fill; Russians are equally used to stocking up with (clean) bottled water for daily use. It’s just “normal” and done without a second thought. The problem lies with industrial and biological contamination; a sadly neglected consideration in the effort to supply the masses.
Tap water is for external use only, and not even used as a rinse when cleaning teeth or washing salad. Some houses have expensive and effective filtration systems installed, thereby bypassing the issue (hopefully your chosen restaurant does too). Outside of these exceptions, you can expect to join the checkout line with the rest at the local Produkti or larger supermarket. It’s worth asking any establishment if the water is safe to drink or even if filtered water was used to prepare the food. Hopefully the answer is yes in both cases and hopefully they are telling the truth. I wouldn’t trust water that had only been boiled.
I remember eating at the ubiquitous Stolovaya No.1 (chain) and other places that seemed ‘clean enough’ to me, plus I bought the most expensive bottled water -which was still “cheap” by our standards. No problems to report and the food/drink was great.
Beware of cheap alcohol
To put things into perspective, we’ve also had this problem in the UK. “Bargain” vodka/other that has been produced illegally frequently contains harmful substances such as industrial/medical grade alcohol -and worse. Bottles of such chemical junk usually find their way into smaller, less scrupulous outlets and could easily cost you much more than their ultra-low retail price suggests. Blindness, poisoning, liver/kidney damage and even death are contained within.
Don’t exchange money with suspicious individuals in the street -why would you?! There’s little to no financial advantage in doing so these days, plus there’s a lot to lose. It’s illegal for starters and maybe the individual intends robbing you. There are licenced booths all over tourist Russia in any case. Unfortunately there are unlicensed ones too, so go by good recommendation; or change currency at the bank.
If you need to withdraw extra cash: the ATM’s inside banks are the safest (I have used them without issue), the ones on the street are the riskiest, and could be rigged to steal your card details.
Don’t flash your cash (or expensive belongings) – or carry large amounts, treat you cash like your passport and carry it close, hidden and secure. Beware of pickpockets, especially at popular tourist locations or on the Metro.
Backpacks that shout “I am a tourist carrying all my valuables in here” are a liability. Not only do they mark you out but their useful pockets could be casually opened behind you whilst you stand around gazing into the middle distance -or even whilst you stroll along, oblivious. I’ve seen film of these particular skills in action.
Take care when walking across the road – even at crossings. The ones in central St. Petersburg did offer visual countdowns though, which was useful. Generally you don’t have right of way, you could be blamed for stepping in front of the car that hit you and most of all: Russian traffic can be frankly, insane. I have the white knuckles to prove it. Further:
I’ve certainly no intention of driving in Russia right now; not only because of the wild ride, but also because such a choice would put me in the crosshairs of the Traffic Police: renowned for supplementing their salaries via whatever excuses that they can find to pull you over. These folks have a bad reputation even by the standards of the “regular” police -who are also treated very warily by the general population.