Welcome all!

First I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, I hope you will enjoy reading it! Do not hesitate to follow me!

This blog has three main objects. First, it allows me to share my impressions and to provide useful informations to people who visit or leave in Moscow.

Than across this blog, I would like to exchange on Russia and more specifically on Moscow, to discuss everyone's outlook and eventually correct some stereotypes!

At last but not least, I would like to publish contributions of foreigners and Russians living in Moscow in order to have a multitude of glance on this wonderful city

I wish you all a good reading!! (There is also a French version of this blog: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/)

Friday, May 6, 2011

Russia through the eyes of a Latin-American

As promised in my blog introduction, I will publish outlook of other people about their life in Moscow, or in this case about their short stay here! A Colombian friend of a friend (and now friend of mine!) also an expat but in Mexico, came last month in Russia for 3 weeks and he stayed at our place for 10 days, I asked him if he could give me his thoughts about his stay in Moscow!

Here is the first “glance” from Carlos, Russia through the eyes of a Latin-American, enjoy!

“When I chose to visit Russia, the first reason was because it’s not a traditional touristic destination for Latin-Americans and because I knew it was going to be a quite challenging experience. First because of the language barrier (I don’t speak Russian), and of course because it’s cold (and it was)!! The language barrier makes it interesting because you have to improve your communication skills (or let’s say gestures skills, since you can’t use any words), you will have to deal with situations in a different way and being creative is a necessity.

This time I tried something different. I wanted to live and experience Russia as “local people” (meaning Russians and Expats living here) do and get to know them, in order to do that I didn't stay at any hotel. In Moscow I was hosted by two expats, a Mexican (Fernando) and a French (Laurent, the author of this blog). In St. Petersburg I was hosted by two Russian girls from Magadan (a port town on the Sea of Okhotsk and gateway to the Kolyma region). All of them were really nice to me and helpful.

I landed at Sheremetyevo airport and things looked very easy, I had no problem to reach Moscow in 40 minutes with the express train (it costs 320 rub on April 2011, around 11$). From the express train station you can take the Metro, Belorusskaya station (in the circle line or brown line). At the airport, almost everything is in English and Russian, but when you arrive inside the metro, you realise that everything is in Russian. It’s nice and scary at the same time to find out that you don’t understand anything of what the signs say and when someone asks you a question, you really don’t know what to say, and you wonder what he might have asked!

For a rookie tourist, at the very beginning, Moscow can be challenging if he/she is on its own, but after 2-3 days you get used to do the basic things. A “must do” when you arrive is to buy a cell phone chip, the rates are very cheap (compared to Mexico's and most of the countries in the world), and like that you will stay easily in touch with your new friends without paying expensive roaming. If you have a Smartphone you can also get Internet for less than 1$ a day on your phone and you can use it to get lots of information, believe me, this is going to help you a lot if you don’t speak Russian.

One thing I did in advance that I advise you to do is to connect with local people and read about where to go and how things work. For this, I would recommend you to use www.couchsurfing.org. If you are new to couchsurfing, I would describe it briefly as a social network focused in sharing experiences with local people when you are traveling abroad. There are a lot of specific groups, depends on what you are looking for (party, cultural exchange, activities, etc.). If you want to live the experience of Russia meeting local people you can ask for a couch to stay or just ask somebody to go for a walk or drink something. I was impressed by the amount of Russians that were open to show me the city and to exchange Spanish for Russian, mostly of them were girls. Visiting with Russians allows you to discover interesting places and stories that are difficult to know being a "traditional" tourist. I did a lot of good friends there and they helped me out in order to deal with Russia’s challenges.

I was really impressed by people in Russia! Every day that I met a new Russian, I remembered what I read once while doing a small research about doing business in Russia: "Westerners are like peaches; Russians are like oranges. In America, people smile and hold doors for each other. We stop and ask how things are going. But then we close our blinds, tint our windows and lock up our secrets. It is not polite to try and dive too deeply into someone's personal life in America. Americans (also applies to Latin Americans) are sweet to a point, but then you hit the pit of the peach. On the other hand, Russians, have a 'hard rind' like an orange. They are cold as the weather in public and with strangers. They like to cut to the point to avoid chit-chat. But once you break through that tough exterior, they are soft and sweet to the core like an orange". Russians were amazingly nice to me, helpful and worried about my health (I got a simple flu). The nice Russian hospitality should be part of the stereotype!! I would say that people are more straightforward than we are used to, and don't feel offended if  they don't hold the door or because of the physical contact in the Metro, it’s something normal and it’s not rude at all.

Before finishing this outlook on Russia, I want to talk about a last highlight of my trip, buying tickets to visit St. Petersburg (which is also a very nice city). I got there using the Sapsan train (fast train), it is very comfortable and you reach "Peter" in 4 hours spending 100 USD approximately for a single way ticket (You can also travel by night train which is way cheaper but takes 8 hours). I would recommend you to get some help from a local friend to buy the train ticket because it can be quite challenging if you just go alone to the train station!
You can buy the ticket in four ways:

Train station counters: be ready to queue for quite a long time, and arrive in front of a Russian women (usually) who speaks only Russian and who won’t do much to help you! Even with the help of Google translate, it’s quite hard. You need to give all your basic information in Cyrillic (name, last name …) so the people in the counters can complete the process. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to write my name in Cyrillic and it was written nowhere since as a Colombian I don’t need a visa to enter in Russia. It finally took me 2 hours to buy my tickets (I use the next option thanks to the help of other travelers that speak Russian), so trust me, go with some Russian speaking friends!

Train station machines: If you don’t want to queue at the counter, these machines are inside the train station and allow you to buy your train tickets as well. But they are only in Russian, so be prepared and be patient buying the tickets. They accept credit cards.

Internet: It is possible to buy tickets online, it’s all in Russian but you can try to use a translator or again get some help. I couldn’t use this because my credit card didn't work in Sapsan website so I needed to buy the tickets in the train station.

Travel Agency: In different places in the city you will also find agencies to buy train tickets, in some of them they will speak English!

To me Russia has been an amazing experience; I made very good friends and experienced Russia as a "local". It is still hard for me to get disconnected from Russia, I spend really good days there, enjoyed the architecture, the mystique that still prevails, its history, the uncommon places and improved my ability to communicate even if my counterpart does not speak any of the languages I speak. Traveling this way allowed me to create a bond with local people and it’s really hard to get over it. I already want to be here again and I will definitely come back to Russia.”

French version: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/2011/05/la-russie-travers-les-yeux-dun-latino.html