Excerpts from the Trip Info Pack:
Russian Immigration formalities & Immigration card.
The first thing that happens is PASSPORT CONTROL. It is worth getting off the plane quickly as you can stake your place in the long queue for Passport Control (especially if you are arriving at Moscow Sheremetyevo). They check your documents very thoroughly, spending about 1–2 minutes per person. YOU MUST COMPLETE THE RUSSIAN IMMIGRATION CARD & RETAIN THE RIGHT-HAND HALF UNTIL LEAVING THE COUNTRY. You’ve now successfully arrived in Russia – well done! Do not lose the immigration card. Without it, you will be unable to check into any hotel in Russia.
So how does the whole thing work then? I’m on a quest to find out about the nuts and bolts of the process that starts the journey from your front room, and ultimately deposits you in a hotel in Beijing.
From Simple Beginnings
“Usually all we hear is: ‘I’ve been on your website and we’re interested in trip number 3’, or something like that. We like to think that people have done some research and been on other travel companies’ sites as well as ours. We actually hope they’ve done that, because it gives them a chance to make comparisons. We also hope that once they’ve made those comparisons, there are compelling reasons for a percentage of people to come on the trip that we offer.
“We’re not the cheapest company around and we don’t try to be. We try to offer the most inclusive, ‘high-content’ trips available, without cutting corners. Any fool can sit on a train and look out of a window. That requires no skill whatsoever. We don’t talk up the train ride itself too much, because basically it’s just trundling along in a wagon, and everybody can imagine what that’s like. What we try and do is show you what’s worth seeing along the way, both alongside and at some distance from the railway – worth your time and your travel budget. The Trans-Siberian track, or rather the wagon roads that preceded it and which the rail tracks followed, really opened up Siberia, and so many of the noteworthy events in Siberia have happened along that track. It’s no coincidence. If you go, say, 500Km north of the track, you’ll find yourself in intractable forest where nothing has ever happened – apart from a few trappers catching squirrels. And that’s great too. It’s wonderful to see, that kind of wild forest which we don’t have in Europe any more. But for seeing interesting things and places that have featured in Russian history and culture, following the Trans-Siberian route isn’t a bad methodology.
“We’ve done considerably more on-site research into these destinations than most. We’ve been to all the destinations ourselves and ferreted out the rare and the obscure. We’ve then been copied by our competitors, of course. There’s nothing we can do about that. It’s not always known that we were the first to launch a Buriatia programme, or do some of the more obscure things in Mongolia. We’ve always tried to find what’s interesting, special and different.”
The conventional term is “Unique Selling point”: Iziumenka, or “the raisin”.
“It means some juicy little morsel that’s different, or different enough, to make you want to do something. ‘Unique’ things can often be horrible. You know, you can go to any number of Siberian cities with a main street, shops, a post office, a Mayor’s office, a statue of the man who founded the city in 1864. You can see that anywhere. It’s not very interesting. What we’ve tried to do is find Iziumenka, the raisin: the special little thing unique to that place, and not found anywhere else. So, for example, you’ve got one stop that’s all about the murder of the Romanov family, but then the next might be about natural history or some unusual animals you can see. Each place is different and the whole thing adds up to a nicely balanced trip.
“If you just go around European Russia, it very quickly becomes a tour of gold-domed churches. And these look lovely on the first day, and quite lovely on the second day, but by the third you’re beginning to have enough, and by the fourth day you don’t want to see another gold-domed church in your life!”
Excerpts from the Trip Info Pack:
Regular Phones (+ how to dial home).
And you thought no one used clunky old phones any more? The phone system in Russia (and Mongolia, where it was introduced by the Russians, so all the same things apply) is quite a museum-piece. They are still on pulse-dial, which means you have to dial slowly and wait for it to dial out. International phone calls are relatively expensive, but can be direct-dialled using the following formula (which applies to mobile phones too whilst roaming in Russia):
8 – <await new dial tone> – 10 – [country code] – [city code] – [number]
(The same dialling formula applies to mobile phones, except that you don’t need to await a new dial-tone…)
All About Choices
“We have trips covering that – a specific one about Dr Zhivago for instance. I particularly like that one because it’s the only trip we have which is about somebody who didn’t exist! So it’s automatically a very conceptual idea. The film wasn’t actually shot in Russia at all, so on the trip you see things which were never in the film but which are iconic elements of Russian society and culture. And it covers a number of different aspects of the book.
“By and large, we’ve tried to set these trips up so that the things along the way are interesting to the great majority of travellers. And by setting up all the various versions of each trip, people who aren’t interested in, say, some of the more active things, like rafting on a river or going down a cave, can skip them.”
“There’s one other sub-category of passenger. These are people who have come to us after seeing the brochures of our much more expensive competitors, the ones which offer the very luxurious trains that operate along the Trans-Siberian. These aren’t operated by the railways, they aren’t scheduled trains that you can buy tickets on. They’re special tour trains, like hotels on wheels. There are two of them: one which is a modern train, set up to do these kind of trips, and another one which was Stalin’s very own private train. Both of them present one major drawback to the potential customer: people look at the price and say, ‘Blimey that’s expensive!’ Then they look at our trips and see that the price is less than half, but that you get everything that’s on those more expensive trips, often in more detail and with more free time. The price becomes a very persuasive factor. So I think there’s some element of people who are trading down from a beautiful dream that ultimately they can’t justify. They go for what we offer instead.
“Just as a point of interest: this year we entered into an agreement whereby we would sell those expensive trips too, and we sell them for the same high price and make a small commission on selling them. It’s a way, first of all, of offering those trips if people want them, but secondly so that people coming to our site can make a comparison between those trips and the ones we run ourselves. The comparison is there, right before your eyes.”
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 2)
Zhooshed: Options for all, Buying The Dream: If the expectations are real… and then maybe, The Poolside Traveller: A choice for those choosing to opt out? It makes a kind of sense…