With summer fast approaching, thoughts will be turning to festival season and the array of activities and entertainment options it brings. For those looking to explore beyond the UK festival scene, Mongolia offers a range of must-visit festivals and celebrations. Naadam may be Mongolia’s most famous festival but it isn’t the only special holiday that makes Mongolia a great place to visit. These festivals and celebrations allow visitors to experience everything this beautiful country and its culture and people have to offer.

Read on to discover 5 must-see Mongolian festivals and become one step closer to booking an unforgettable trip to what’s considered by many as the last unexplored travel destination.

Tsagaan Sar

Like in Chinese culture, Mongolians celebrate two New Years. Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian Lunar New Year and sees native people come together to enjoy a great feast featuring all the local delicacies. You’ll find mutton, horse meat, rice with curds, fermented mare’s milk (known locally as airag) and buuz, a type of dumpling, on the menu. Much like our own New Year it’s a time of festivity, with a number of ceremonies and customs in traditional dress a part of proceedings.

Tsagaan Sar is celebrated towards the end of January to early February. Visiting Mongolia during this time is an excellent way to experience local customs and traditional games, particularly if you choose to stay and celebrate with a Mongolian family.

Khovsgol Ice Festival

The ultimate celebration of Mongolia’s harsh winter climate, the Khovsgol Ice Festival provides an authentic and exciting experience for first-time and returning travellers. The Khovsgol Ice Festival may be one of the country’s newest but as photographer Chiara Goia explains it’s one of Mongolia’s most epic and extreme annual celebrations:

The festival, first held 15 years ago, is held each March, when nighttime temperatures can reach below -20 Fahrenheit. Among the many activities staged on the meter-thick ice covering Mongolia’s largest lake (by volume) are tug-of-war matches and horse-drawn sleigh races, while spectators marvel at elaborate ice sculptures.

Thousand Camel Festival

From one extreme landscape to another, the Thousand Camel Festival takes place in the Gobi Desert to pay homage to one of the country’s most useful and treasured animals, the endangered Bactrian camel.

Here you can witness an array of camel based sports, including camel racing and polo competitions, as well as learn so much more about the lives of Mongolia’s nomadic communities. This festival takes place in early March with this year’s Thousand Camel Festival beginning on Wednesday 6th March 2019.

Nauryz

A celebration of new life and the official New Year of the Mongolian Kazakhs, Nauryz is a non-religious celebration that takes place on the day of the spring equinox. Locals believe that the more elaborate and exciting their Nauryz celebrations are, the happier and more fruitful the year ahead will be.

Golden Eagle Festivals

Another animal that’s well loved by the Mongolian people is the Golden Eagle. Eagles play a starring role in nomadic communities, with the ancient art of falconry practised for centuries throughout the country. Mongolia hosts not one but two Golden Eagle Festivals during September and October.

The festivals are designed to liven up the eagles in time for the winter season where the birds of prey do most of their hunting. Held in the beautiful Altai mountains, the Golden Eagle Festivals offer magnificent views.

Hurrah for Friday March the 8th, it was International Women’s Day. International Men’s day is on Tuesday 19th November, incidentally – so mark your calendars now. If you reside in England, the chances are that you carried on largely as normal last Friday however; catching an IWD sideline on the news or a mention on social media. Perhaps someone wished you a, “Happy Women’s Day” (more likely if you are female), but unless you sought out some specific activities it’s unlikely that you felt the whole proceedings impose.

The UK newspapers were torn between Brexit and knife crime. I looked out of my front door and nothing had changed. It was definitely there if you looked for it of course, but you may have had to look further afield than you initially planned.

Distant celebrations

It’s reminiscent of an interviewee I heard, commenting on her life in the flower-power heyday: “The swinging ‘60’s happened for 500 people in central London,” she said, “Everyone else just went to work.”

Located in the East Midlands, I would have had to travel 60 miles to reach the nearest event advertised on the International Women’s Day website and I suspect a similar situation to occur when we (the men) get our turn. That’s ok of course, I can live without either occasion.

The point of all this backstory is to highlight the colossal difference between our interpretation of IWD and the version that is experienced east of Europe. For starters; Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Mongolia all maintain International Women’s Day as a public holiday, China too; although the holiday only applies if you are female. So, the minute they plant their feet on the bedroom floor -over there- they know that something is different.

Stressful expectations

I heard from a frequent eye witness to the event in Moscow that the pre-gig warm-up on March 7th can be something of a trial in itself. He described urgent scenes of male consternation as boyfriends and husbands dash through town, flowers in hand, with eyes focused far away on today’s deadline and tomorrow’s inevitable judgement by their partners. Perhaps they needed to find those favourite chocolates or that extra-special cologne. Things had better be just so.

It’s not only partners that have to be catered for (often literally). “Women” unsurprisingly, includes mothers, grand-mothers, daughters, best female friends and perhaps others too -though the nature of their individual pay-off will depend upon the familial or emotional proximity to the man in question, in each case.

These are all symptoms of a shift in emphasis however, away from the original intent of the celebration. As with many things; it’s as if the ad-men won and love is expressed via commerce; a concept that we are all to familiar with in the UK of course. Originally it was dedicated to female equality and achievement -reminiscent of the western suffragette cause- today it’s more about being female, regardless. Tanya from Understanding Russia says of March 8th:

“(It’s)…a day, when every girl or woman is congratulated… on being a female. I personally find that extremely weird. I want to be praised for being an expert in marketing, a good skier, a good photographer or a good friend/spouse/daughter etc. Being born as a girl was not my personal achievement – it was just a 49% probability.”

Doing it properly

However you care to rationalise it, there are certain rituals and obligations that come with the territory; largely for the males to adhere to.

Flowers are a must; though not in even numbers and not yellow: both scream “Funeral” in Russia (I’m naturally assuming that you aren’t trying to say “funeral”).

Throwing compliments around (to women, that is) is also the norm, without exception or prejudice to age or status. It’s women’s day and that means all of them.

Gifts are a must – and not just the flowers, neither should they be handy things to help around the kitchen or to keep that troublesome bathroom clean. You will still find “traditional roles” encroaching in some Russian households -even in younger minds- but it’s best not to take the risk.

Having said that, I was directed to a Russian language site that did include “making your beloved happy” and “home appliances” in the same sentence. For those who aren’t yet set on a gifting a new hoover: perfumes, chocolates, jewelry, and accessories are closer to the mark.

In a bid to relieve women of their household chores (traditional roles, again) men would step in and do her work for the day. Today, this has morphed somewhat into booking a restaurant table, ordering food in, perhaps staying at a pleasant hotel or taking a day out somewhere -all as a variation on a straight swap that may or may not work in some progressive families.

Bring back tradition

One great trait of Russian celebrations is the wheeling-out of traditional food – at the drop of a hat. It seems that any celebration will do: out come the copious salads and rich classic dishes. There’s something wonderful about their fondness for the simple joys of the past -that are still as much fun today. So, you can also expect a nod (at least) to culinary delights held over from former times. I’m sure it’s not just about the taste, but also part of the familial and social ‘glue’.

Russia’s first International Women’s Day celebration was held in 1913, incidentally.

Like in the UK, Mongolia has four seasons, with each delivering its own unique beauty, activities and entertainment. From spring and summer to autumn and winter, Mongolia is a must-visit. Whether you are a first time traveller or have visited Mongolia before, choosing when to visit is just as important as devising the right itinerary for your interests. In this blog post, we take a closer look at what each season in Mongolia has to offer.

Spring

Running from March until mid-May, the spring season provides heaps to do and see. The unpredictable climate, however, can make packing for your trip to Mongolia a little more difficult. Depending on where you visit, you could be facing snowstorms one day and spells of sunshine the next. The varied climate has its plus-points though, allowing for a diverse selection of activities.

Spring also sees Mongolia play host to several national festivals and celebrations. The Khovsgol Ice Festival, Thousand Camel Festival and Nauryz all take place in March, each providing a bevy of opportunities to see Mongolian culture and customs first-hand. Nauryz, also known as the Spring/New Life Festival, is a particular highlight as Trip101 details:

“Nauryz literally means new days, and it symbolizes goodness, happiness, friendship, and love. This celebration fosters a deeper sense of community for the Kazakhs as they visit each other’s houses. Some even go to houses of those who that they don’t personally know. There are festivities in town such as folk concerts, parades, and wrestling. They believe that the more festive the celebration is that year, the happier they will be for the rest of the year.”

Summer

Early summer still sees periods of snowfall in the North. Elsewhere weather is generally warm, dry and pleasant from May to July. Naadam Festival takes place in July and sees the towns and cities of Mongolia come to life. Summer is peak tourist season for a reason but some regions (such as the Gobi Desert) tend to be difficult to visit. Throughout June, July and August temperatures can reach 40°C in the Gobi Desert, with the dry air and hot sand an uncomfortable combination.

Autumn

The autumn season tends to begin a little earlier in Mongolia, with August to October experiencing the autumn weather we know here in the UK. The heavy rainfall of autumn isn’t all bad news, through. Autumn is actually a great time to visit with the landscapes in northern and central regions lush and green thanks to the increased rainfall. Rivers also fill up to reveal picturesque views.

The cooler climate makes the Gobi Desert easier to explore with the occasional snowstorm providing great respite for travellers. The weather can be unpredictable during the autumn months so make sure you pack a mixture of light and heavier, warmer items.

Winter

It’s no secret that the winter weather is particularly harsh in Mongolia. Temperatures drop to a toe-curling -45°C in some parts of the country. Winter may be cold but it doesn’t hamper the country’s incredible beauty.

The vast landscapes of open countryside become covered with snow and remain relatively untouched as tourists tend to increase during the summer months. Despite the lack of visitors, there’s still so much to do and to see when visiting Mongolia in low season. Winter is also a great time to experience the real Mongolia. A stay in the ultimate winter holiday accommodation, a cosy Mongolian ger camp, for instance is highly recommended.

It finally seems like 2019 is shifting out of first gear. We’ve had the ice bathers of Epiphany and finally, Maslenitsa; the official end of winter, is currently in progress. Hopefully, the only way is up. Whilst we vaguely acknowledge Shrove Tuesday (pancake day); the Russian equivalent is spread across a whole week of themed days; each with their own activities and itinerary – for those who take such things seriously, of course. Realistically, there are enough days of celebration – with enough variation on offer- for all levels of interest to find something to partake of.

As with other significant “Christian” festivals; something a good deal more Pagan lies at the heart of Maslenitsa. We’ve touched on this before of course – and no doubt will again. It’s as if the incoming Christians knew that the population would never give up the ancient traditions, the sacred days and the magical sites of worship. No problem; just drape the old rituals and locales in new holy decor and carry on – with a few name and script changes, naturally.

It’s worth pointing out that Maslenitsa is painted here in broad strokes, with a view backwards to the days when tradition was upheld in ernest. As a Russian colleague confirmed: not everyone partakes of the festival to the greatest extent -though more do in rural communities.

Dangerous Embodiments

Not only was Maslenitsa the crucial transition between winter and spring, but it was also the living (albeit:supernatural) embodiment of the icy, dangerous and gloomy outgoing season itself. There are other ancient pagan connections too; bear worship – for we are at the time when bears were thought to awaken from hibernation.

Maslenitsa is also linked to Volos; Slavic pagan deity of earth, water and the underworld. The former two being inextricably linked to the yearly crop-cycle of course. All of these seemingly disparate elements symbolically coalesce into the form of a straw doll: “Lady Maslenitsa”, who is still assembled, paraded and ultimately destroyed over the celebratory week. Better a straw doll than the original choice: a human sacrifice that so appalled the early Christians. The victim was burnt, torn to pieces and then scattered to the fields in order to ensure a good return on the year’s harvest. Well, that was the theory. This ghastly practice survived until the 17th Century before being banned.

As winter figures in the proceedings; so does spring and the brightness of the sun. The numerous golden blini (pancakes) consumed during the week are miniature sun discs; to be shared, consumed and enjoyed by the participants. Yes, it’s pancake week, which unfolds something like this:

Monday: Welcoming

The start of Maslenitsa week sees the creation of the Lady Maslenitsa dolls and some initiation involving circle-dances: “khorovods” around the newly crafted effigy. When the dances are over the doll was /is then placed (traditionally) on a snowy hill whilst sledging takes places on the slopes. This is less likely to happen in the centre of Moscow, of course.

Tuesday: Playing

All manner of fun and games occur on Tuesday as more hill sledding takes place and pancake (blin) eating starts to get serious. Blini are shared with friends and strangers alike as community, family and neighbours come together. Mummers stage impromptu shows as they venture door to door, and men are permitted (still?) to kiss women in the street.

It’s also matchmaking day, when, historically: men would cruise around on sleighs looking for partners. Such match – making was instigated to encourage marriage on the first Sunday after Easter: “Krasnaya Gorka”, an especially favourable day for the occasion.

Wednesday: Regaling, Sweet Tooth Day

Mid-week was/is the time when young men met their mother-in-laws to sample her pancakes and general hospitality. Families usually had more than one son-in-law, plus the extended family and friends too. As such, the occasion could easily turn into a large and boisterous affair.

Thursday: Revelry

Traditionally work stopped here until Monday, and a long, pancake-fuelled weekend began. Typical pursuits included jumping over bonfires, magical practices, sledding competitions and organised fist-fights – to honour the tradition of the Russian military. Although supposedly carried out in good humour (believe it or not!); people have died as a result of pancake week violence (and that’s a sentence I never expected to write). Meanwhile, children parade Lady Maslenitsa through the streets, accosting house-holders for blinni and other treats, Halloween style.

Friday: Mother-in-law’s eve

In spite of the title, a good portion of this day was traditionally dedicated to recently married couples parading their status around the community and calling in those who had attended their wedding. Perhaps they would ride a ice-slope together on a sledge.

The second, (crucial) task was the responsibility of the son on law; to invite his Mother-in-law to a celebration in her honour. Following her acceptance, a delegation would be sent to escort her to the event. Family and friends would also attend -with pancakes for all.

Saturday: Sister-in-law’s Gathering

Now came the time to break some ice between the bride and her sister in law. There was a traditional animosity and suspicion from the groom’s sisters; directed towards the bride -as an outsider, or newcomer to the family. Quite simply; Saturday was traditionally a get-to-know-you day in order to allay fears and to win favour.

Sunday: Forgiveness day

This is the big finale; the last day of the big blow-out prior to solemn Lent. The effigy of Lady Maslenitsa would be finally be consumed by fire -along with (perhaps more significantly): the preceding year’s animosities and grudges too. It was a time to abandon the recent darkness of winter and of the soul, in a bid for purification and a clean start (again) for Lent. Leftover blinni and other food scraps were devoured, along with a pinch of salt and a slice of rye bread – as a nod towards the solemn season ahead.

When the blackened ashes of the fire-consumed doll were trampled by the sobering revellers: Maslenitsa was finally over.

Trans mongolian Rail

The Trans-Mongolian railway may be dwarfed by its famous cousin, the Trans-Siberian, but this fantastic route offers an eye-opening and captivating experience for first-time and returning travellers. Like the Trans-Siberian railway, the Trans-Mongolian takes you on an unforgettable journey by train travelling to and through a variety of destinations and the vast, seemingly unexplored landscapes of Mongolia.

You’ll be in awe of the Gobi Desert, the grassy steppes of the wild-horse-occupied plains and then Ulaanbaatar, the laid back capital of this nomadic nation. We reveal more about what you can expect from your Trans-Mongolian rail experience, giving you all the inspiration you need to extend your visit to the Trans-Siberian railway.

The trains

Living on a Trans-Siberian train is an experience in itself. The trains that run on the Trans-Mongolian route are considered to be better equipped than other public trains. Here you’ll find not just sleeping cars, dining facilities, western-style toilets and washrooms with sinks, but actual showers! The Trans-Mongolian Moscow to Beijing train is the only public train that has them, providing a home away from home for travellers looking for comfort and adventure.

In the dining car of Trans-Mongolian trains, you’ll also discover a long list of local delicacies. Rice and mutton are both staple dishes within nomadic and settled Mongolian communities, and you’ll get to taste both in the Mongolian Railways restaurant car.

The route

The Trans-Mongolian route is 4,735 miles long in comparison to the longest and least popular Moscow to Vladivostok route, which spans 6,152 miles and takes seven nights to complete. The Trans-Mongolian is also shorter than the Moscow to Beijing via Harbin route. Known as the Trans-Manchurian railroad route, it’s 5,623 miles long and the oldest of the two routes that journey to Beijing.

The Moscow to Beijing via Mongolia route may be the shortest but it is considered the most interesting of the three Trans-Siberian routes. The Trans-Mongolian railroad route takes just over five days to complete and offers varied scenery to ensure the perfect fit for travellers from all walks of life.

The sights

The Trans-Mongolian takes in a number of natural wonders, including the never-ending Gobi Desert, before crossing the Chinese border. There are many more must-sees for people travelling on the Trans-Mongolian railway as Culture Trip describes:

“Visiting Mongolia is very popular… because of its untouched nature, vast steppes, stunning deserts, livestock freely walking around, nomadic culture and hospitable people. A few must-visit spots in Mongolia include: the empty steppe of the Gobi Desert, the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s most important Buddhist monastery, the monument to Genghis Khan at the Sukhbaatar Square, and the Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.”

Book now

Booking your own Trans-Mongolian adventure is easy with a little help from our team. We deliver a selection of trips to ensure you can take in all that Inner and Outer Mongolia has to offer. Our Classic Trans-Mongolian Moscow to Beijing trip is a popular option. With a duration of nine days, it offers a whistle-stop tour of Mongolia, passing through the Gobi Desert and the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. Please note this package does not stop in Mongolia.

Travellers looking to stop off in Mongolia and stay a little longer will love our Classic Outer and Inner Mongolia Moscow to Beijing package. At 21 days long, you’ll have plenty of time to explore the land of Genghis Khan and visit the independent country of Outer Mongolia, one of the world’s least visited nations.

Don’t delay, start planning your itinerary for your very own Trans-Mongolian experience.

vaccination

Let’s begin with a disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional and am in no position to offer advice – except, “Consult your doctor sooner rather than later.” The tales here are my own experiences and unqualified opinions -plus a little extra online research. Get professional advice!

Into the Underworld

I was ill for over a week after receiving a cocktail of vaccinations for my trip to Russia – including a 3-day bedridden period spent aching and essentially immobile. The initial symptoms had hit me like a hammer less than 12 hours after the jabs, along with the surprise realisation of: “Hey, I’m actually getting ill,” as the shivers set in and my joints began to ache. Then the sharp descent began.

Perhaps it was bad luck, or perhaps it was a factor of the shortened course that consisted of only two potent doses, but either way; I was decidedly “out” for 72 hours as my body kicked against this invasion of modified alien cells. One month later I returned -with some trepidation- for the second jab and related my tale of woe. The nurse offered that I could have been incubating another ‘bug’ at the time, although that would have been quite a coincidence of course. She outranked me in the medical department but I still wasn’t convinced. It hadn’t seemed like a “normal” disease, having encroached so rapidly; casting me as a stone into a deep pit beneath my duvet before relenting in a exponential curve until I flopped to the surface again. From there, I staggered about my house, temporarily geriatric whilst my faculties gradually eased themselves into position once more.

Pushing luck

The catch-all “flu-like symptoms” may qualify here, but don’t so many diseases seem to start with in the same vague manner?. Fortunately, that second booster jab would spare me from a similar roller-coaster, whilst leaving me fortified against Typhoid, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B – not that I should seek to test myself against any of the above. Don’t push your luck -or your vaccines.

Vaccinations may stack the odds considerably in our favour, but a mutant strain or even a poor roll of the dice could still see us undone. In spite of falling off the planet temporarily, the consequences of not being vaccinated could have been considerably worse in every respect. I don’t regret my choice.

Time, prior to the trip is an important factor. I’d gone for my jabs 5 months before my departure date, thinking I had plenty of time -but I was wrong. The attending nurse informed me that 6 months between injections against Hep. A was the norm; therefore I had to receive the condensed program across 4 weeks. So had that exacerbated my sickness? Who knows?

Hidden Extras

Care was/is still needed though -amongst the confidently vaccinated, for as I write this: there is still no vaccine available for Hep.C, for instance: although it is in development. There are also variants: D, E and G to consider in worst-case scenarios, though these depend more upon niche circumstances (an existing Hep. infection or certain geographic locales etc) in order to be considered likely threats.

Hep.G”, is (disturbingly) a relatively new discovery whose threat potential has still yet to be ascertained. At any rate, only A and B vaccinations were offered against Hepatitis in the context of my Russian trip: A as standard and B on my request, as an option.

Choose carefully

Other standard vaccines for Russia are Tetanus (I was up to date) and Polio (I had been vaccinated at school, like most Brits). My “routine” vaccines were covered then, plus the recommended Russian additions and one of the optional choices. Others are available and  usually selected depending upon the likelihood of certain types of exposure. A working trip to the wilds of Siberia will call for specialist considerations that a hotel holiday in Moscow does not, for instance.

So the nurse and I went through the additional options -a chilling selection indeed: Rabies, Cholera, and tick-borne Encephalitis. Yes, Rabies is a consideration when in Russia and a vaccination at the time would have cost me approximately £180. My life is worth considerably more of course (to me at least).

No magic wand

I was somewhat disturbed to hear from my needle-wielding attendant that the vaccine on offer was not a one-shot fix, but would only buy me extra time (perhaps an additional day!) in order to get started on a program of treatment. This would be truncated due to the vaccination, but those essentially were the two benefits. Weighing up the pros and cons; not least cost versus efficacy -and considering that I would be city-based and avoiding animals: I declined.

A similar thought process occurred when considering cholera and tick-borne encephalitis. Ticks are major consideration when hiking through woodlands etc, but not so much on Nevsky Prospect! I would have assumed the same for mosquitoes; principal vectors for Japanese Encephalitis transmission, but it seems that these pests have been reported in urban “touristy” areas during warmer months. Apparently there is an option for Whooping Cough too but this is targeted at pregnant women and those over 50. Even the common ‘Flu gets a look-in on some sites. Find more information here and here -and have a good talk with your health professional ASAP.

Anyway, I survived (so far).

Although the street food scene is an exciting part of the culture and your holiday experience, trying Chinese street food comes with its own list of do’s and don’ts. The same caution should apply to drinking tap water while you travel in China, too. In this post, we reveal more about water safety so you can enjoy your trip to China at your healthiest and happiest.

Pollution affects China’s water quality too

It is no secret that China has a pollution problem. While this hasn’t deterred the millions of visitors that travel there every year, knowing how to handle the smog is vital. Without the right protection you can quickly fall victim to the troubling side effects of short term pollution exposure. Headaches and nasal irritation are common among travellers who don’t take the necessary precautions.

It is not just the quality of the air that is affected; pollution can make water just as dangerous as the air you breathe. Greenpeace research has revealed the extent of China’s water pollution problems. Half of the country has also failed to hit their water quality targets, with the water in most Chinese cities unsuitable for drinking.

Think twice before using water

Due to pollution issues, tap water is not safe to drink. You should instead drink bottled water, or use a kettle to boil water before drinking it. This also applies to the water you use for brushing your teeth. Those looking to cook a meal for themselves during their China trip should take care when preparing food. Fruits and vegetables washed in tap water should be peeled and even re-rinsed in bottled or boiled water for added safety.

The majority of hotels provide kettles in their rooms to make preparing safe water simple. Some hotels are even equipped with dispensers to provide both cold and hot potable water on demand.

Drinking water while out and about

It is not just when at your hotel that you should be on your guard if you are looking to enjoy a cool glass of water. Most travellers avoid ice cubes altogether, sticking to bottled or canned drinks. When enjoying bottled water, make sure the seal on the bottle isn’t broken before drinking. There have been instances where vendors have refilled bottles with tap water and sold them on, much to the dismay of the unsuspecting tourists buying them.

Whether you’re enjoying the best Chinese teas at a teahouse, or eating an evening meal at a restaurant, the water, served either hot or cold, is always boiled. There are alternatives though, as Trip Savvy details:

‘Most restaurants will have some bottled water on the menu. In some cases, it might be quite expensive such as Evian or San Pellegrino, and these types of imported mineral waters are considerably pricey even outside restaurants. There are a number of ways you can ask for free water from the establishment.’

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

Following last week’s excursion into Russian documentation (see: Visa Application Centres/Embassy and Russia Experience’s assistance) the other important issue concerns their protection.

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.

Cash matters

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.

Crash

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.

Previous post

Mong Kok

As Hong Kong’s most densely populated district, you’ll discover no shortage of things to do and see in Mong Kok. Situated in the centre of Kowloon, Mong Kok is the personification of hustle and bustle. In fact, the district’s name ‘Mong Kok’ literally means ‘a flourishing or busy corner’. Tourists and locals alike mingle here, enjoying the best shopping, food, and culture Hong Kong has to offer.

A mixture of old and new multi-storey buildings, Mong Kok can be a little overwhelming at first glance. That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate guide to one of the most animated districts in Hong Kong.

Shopping

Shopping the markets of Hong Kong is what a visit to Mong Kok is all about. The district is the beating heart of the city’s market scene, with almost every street being home to one market or another. You’ll find all sorts in the vibrant and crowded markets of Mong Kok, from knock-off goods in the Ladies’ Market (men are welcome too!) and brightly coloured fish at the aptly named Goldfish Market, to toy collectibles at In’s Point and trainers galore at the 200-yard long Sneaker Street. One market that is particularly active at this time of year is the Flower Market as Culture Trip describes:

‘The Flower Market is particularly bustling during the Chinese New Year, as local people come and buy varieties of flowers and greenery that they think will bring them luck. It is well worth a visit all year round, though. The majority of vendors here are friendly and hospitable, and they are willing to offer recommendations for customers.’

Culture

As well as shopping until you drop, many people travel to Mong Kok to enjoy its thriving street-art scene. The MK alleyway in particular offers a who’s who of street-art for diehard fans. Located between Argyle Street and Bute Street, this two-block stretch is the ultimate outdoor gallery.

From new to old, those interested in the art and culture of yesteryear will want to pay a visit to the Tung Wah Museum. More history can be enjoyed on Shanghai Street, with the architecture of the 1920s and 30s prevalent here.

Food

Central Hong Kong is full of great places to eat, and Mong Kok has its fair share of tasty eateries too. In Mong Kok you’ll discover bars and restaurants to satisfy all tastes.

Harry Potter fans will love the 9 ¾ Café on Yin Chong Street, just one of the many themed cafes in the city. Another concept that isn’t alien in Hong Kong is the cat café. In Mong Kok, you’ll find one of the best cat cafés in town. Café de Kitten on Sai Yeung Choi Street South has a great ambience thanks to its European vibe as well as delicious food. Visitors can come to Café de Kitten to enjoy the company of its resident cats, or indeed to bring their own furry friends along to socialise. You can also indulge your love of cheese with a variety of dishes, including cheese ice cream, at Cow Cow Café on Argyle Street.

Last week we looked briefly at the benefits of Russian language preparation for your forthcoming trip – and the payoff for putting the work in, beforehand. Consider it the best investment plan out there: even the most minimal commitment pays a handsome return. So, let’s look at a few precautions that should pay you back with bonuses later – in a “thank goodness I did that” kind of way.

World events

A port of call that you should definitely become familiar with is your government’s travel advice

page, the UK government’s version (for Russia) is here. The information conveyed is concise, to-the-point and designed to keep you out of harm’s way. At the time of writing; Chechnya, eastern border regions abutting Ukraine and other territories are considered especially dangerous due to the ongoing conflicts entrenched there. The page is updated regularly and as needed, so don’t find yourself in a war zone! The usual news outlets are worth monitoring also – especially in times of conflict.

Some paperwork

The document that everyone knows about is of course: the VISA. Did you know that you will also need an “invitation”/”VISA support letter” as part of your application? This will be from a Russian firm, individual, hotel, other – depending on your purpose within Russia and where you will be staying? You will need to submit your passport during the process – which must have at least 6 months of validity remaining subsequent to the date of your return. You will also need two passport photos signed on the back -one of which will end up on the completed VISA itself.

There are several types of VISA and you are likely looking for the “tourist” version, but it’s essential to be sure. In case you were wondering: the item itself is a laminated print that is stuck onto a blank passport page. It contains identifying information plus crucial entry and exit dates. Yes, it’s important to realise that your Russian VISA facilitates EXIT as well as ENTRY.

The other ingredient required is time. At least one month should be allowed for VISA processing, and for your passport to be returned to you. You will also have to factor in a visit to a Russian VISA application centre to present your documents/application and have the staff go through them with you. In the UK, these are located in London, Edinburgh, and Manchester. Be aware of opening times or the centre’s rules before setting off!

Ok, that’s not an exhaustive list, but condenses most main points and is correct at the time of writing. Rules do change and are generally inflexible, so you have to remain vigilant.

Not a nightmare, actually

Most people want to drive but nobody wants to take a driving test – that’s the analogy. Once you have the licence however, the angst of that final exercise is just a memory. The VISA application process is immediately similar in this regard (though not as bad) and daunting only because it’s new to you. The important considerations are that everything has to be accurate, complete and legible. The staff in the application centre are there to help, and to ensure that all the paperwork is in order, so that things run smoothly. It’s not an interrogation! I found the London office to be friendly, helpful and matter-of-fact without any problems.

The easiest way to navigate the procedure is to hand the reins over to a reputable travel company. In this regard Russia Experience will handle the machinations (and external documents) and simply tell you what you need to do step by step. You say “ok” and oblige as requested -then things are suddenly easy.

Unless…

The important thing to note is that Russian customs and immigration (and police) are renowned for their lack of humour. If you plan to “pull a fast one” or do certain silly things involving undocumented “medication”, then your game is likely over. They’ve seen it and heard it all before.

You will have to be aware of what you are allowed to take in -and out- of Russia. This includes medication, alcohol, anything classed as an “antiquity” (which may not be that old incidentally), expensive goods without receipt/documentation, large amounts of cash etc. Especially consider that your VISA entry and exit dates are etched in stone. They are inflexible outside of the most dire, genuine emergency – at which point (or preferably before) you will have to formally apply for an extension. Maybe you’ll get one.

Being caught in Russia outside your permitted travel window -even by crossing an additional calendar date is a sure way to invite bad things into your life: perhaps a fine of several hundred UK pounds and a temporary (or permanent) travel ban. Don’t be that person.

Next post | Previous post