Russia has always been in the travel bucket list. Who doesn’t want to see the candy-colored onion domes of St. Basil’s? And as a landscape architect, I have been looking forward to the day I can step on their own version of Versailles.
Last year, we vowed not to travel until the wedding day is over. But our itchy feet took the best of us that we started checking out Salalah in Oman sometime in February. The wedding woes started pouring in until we had no time to book so we decided to let it go… until I found out that flights to Moscow are at 1100 AED! I felt ecstatic! The next thing I know, I was browsing accommodations and itineraries. In a jiffy, I shook off the previous reservations I had 4 years ago – that (1) the tourist visa application is a complicated process, (2) all signage are in Cyrillic and people don’t speak English, (3) Russians, in general, are cold and unfriendly, (4) safety, as we all know, is a big question mark, and last but definitely not the least, (5) Russia is an expensive country to visit.
So after a trip to Russia, are they all true? Here’s a roundup of our holiday – what we learned, experienced and the travel myths we debunked.
- Obtaining a Russian visa is a tedious job
The first time I’ve encountered a Russian tourist visa application form was in 2011. And boy was it too complicated and intimidating –
- You have to fill it out online
- The form expires
- There is an uber specific, nitty-gritty instruction about printing the form!
Although the procedure was just a little daunting than the other visa applications we’ve had before, we thought of getting FlyDubai’s service since we’re flying with them anyway. If we would not do it this way, then we have to search for someone who can give us a letter of invitation. While there are hotels in Russia that can do this for us (for a cost of course!), we find this step time-consuming. So, to save money and effort, we just got away with FlyDubai. We were a little shocked with the cost of the application, though – a whopping 850AED, that’s more than half of the price of the flight itself! The visa fee actually depends on your passport so if you’re a Filipino, then you have to shell out the said amount.
The requirements for a Russian tourist visa application are the following:
- Filled out and signed application form
- Original passport valid for 6 months and UAE residence visa valid for 3 months
- 2 recent colored photographs
- Original invitation/tourist voucher
- Flight and hotel bookings
- Medical insurance
- Visa fee
True enough, enlisting FlyDubai’s service is a good decision. Within four days, we received our passports back, stamped with a Russian visa. Getting rejected, as they say, is less. Should you want to do the applications on your own to save a buck or two, submit your requirements at the Russian Consulate in Umm Al Sheif, Jumeirah.
The Desert Life Hacks:
- Before your passport gets stamped on the immigration counter, you will be handed a small paper to sign. Keep it safe, as you will need it when a local authority asks for your papers on a random inspection and when flying out of the country.
- More than the entry requirements, you will also need to register your visa at the Department of the Federal Migration Service within 72 hours of first entry. This should be done if you are staying in the country for more than 7 days. Your hotel/apartment host can help you with this.
- Russia is a non-English speaking country
From the beginning, we knew that our Russian holiday will be a similar case of our Caucasus trip back in 2013. No one speaks English! And if there are a few ones who do, they make up, like, 3% of the entire population we happen to converse with through the entire trip! We thought Moscow and St. Petersburg are an exception since these are cosmopolitan cities that welcome a huge chunk of visitors everyday – but no!
I remember doing a transaction with an old lady in a metro in Moscow. We were telling her that we need 6 tickets. We said it in English, tried to do sign language… but na-da! Five minutes later, we finally got our tickets… but we only received three. -_-
Add to that, most of the signage are in Cyrillic – in the airport, metro stations (although there were a few with English translation), addresses and menus!
Of course, we did not come to the battle unprepared. Weeks before our trip, we did a crash course on reading the Russian alphabet. It turned out pretty easy to understand but words written in funky fonts gave us a hard time.
The Desert Life Hack:
- Learn basic Russian words both in spoken and written form. Few important words you need to know are the Russian terms for “cashier”, “exit” and “restaurant”. I tried to put in the actual words here but they’re going funky, so just research the translation for the above.
- Russians are not friendly
It’s true what they say – Russians don’t smile. They are pretty cold even when receiving customers. Some of them like to raise their voices, too. A lot also appeared to be always irritated and agitated. And they stare. Sharp. No matter how hard we tried to blend in, we cannot hide our being Asians. Our physical features are a giveaway, especially the way we dress (kids from the tropics wear layers on a 10-degree summer), thus, we received them all poker face, high-pitched tones and occasional sharp glances from the locals.
While they act strange like that, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are unfriendly. Smiling has a different meaning to Russians, especially towards strangers. In their culture, they see it as a sign of disrespect. It might be a shock for the first time visitor but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
- Russia is not a safe place to travel to
The media nowadays portrays Russians negatively and we can’t all help but think that there’s an underlying truth about it. More than this, the country has been in the news the past few decades – the political crisis, mafias, recent issues with its neighboring countries, you know, the works. This issue is at the top of my list of what’s holding me back from visiting Russia.
Well, truth is, Russia is relatively safe. The chance of getting in a worse situation is very low. I believe it’s just a matter of “being at the wrong place at the wrong time”. Petty crimes are ubiquitous especially in major cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. In fact, we were victims of theft. Our camera was stolen from our bag in broad daylight. It tarnished what could have been a memorable (in a good kind of way) trip. I will be blogging about this in full detail in the future.
The Desert Life Hacks:
- Avoid, if you can, crowded areas during rush hours.
- Be extra, extra cautious. Like multiply it by a hundred. These guys are masters of their craft.
- I can’t stress it enough but being paranoid will be a big help when taking care of your valuables.
- Russia is an expensive country to visit
After checking the availability of flights, I dove straight to reading about the country, checked the latest news and voila – Russian rubles are on the rocks! Indeed, it is an incredible time to travel to the country. True enough, we spent only half of our budget!
As usual, we stayed in el cheapo yet decent hotel and apartments. We shopped at supermarkets. We used the metro/train and we dined where the locals do. We took advantage of group tickets. In 5 days, we spent 3500+/-AED and that includes the 1100 airfare to and from Moscow and the hefty 850AED visa fee!
Looking back at item 4, one can say that we had a bad memory of our trip. But excluding that from the picture, we had a swell time! We’ve been to places we never thought we could actually see because of our reservations. It was freeing to break the misconceptions. Russia, despite its flaws, is a great country to visit and boy we were really glad to give it a shot. More posts coming up!
PS. Future Russia posts won’t be as photo-heavy as my previous travel posts. You know why!