Moscow - Volgograd Tour

Discussion in 'Travel' started by Arte_et_Marte, Nov 29, 2010.

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  1. Me and Mrs Arte am looking to do a military type tour of Moscow and Volgograd in Feb/Mar 2011.

    I am up to speed with the passport/visa stuff, and there is plenty of official gen on Google I know, costs, flights, places to see, guided tours etc, but not the nitty gritty which is what I am after.

    It should take about a week with a few days in Moscow and another couple in Volgograd with a train transfer between the two, and finally a flight back to Moscow

    So I have some questions.

    Will it be ball achingly freezing?

    What should I definitely not pack in order that my wifes blushes are spared should we be chucked in a gulag by a Customs Gorilla?

    Do the 'prozzies still hassle you at the Hotels after the Management have stolen all your money?

    Will I have to turn on all the taps and have my conversations with the Frau in the bathroom?

    A list of top tips would be good, advice from someone who has been lately would be excellent.

  2. Never been there, but one of our sales engineers went a few years ago - got out of the taxi with his luggage outside the hotel in Moscow, paid the taxi driver, turned back and his luggage had vanished!
  3. I've been in Russia on and off for fourteen years. Not there at the moment, but:

    1. Best to visit Russia in July/ August, when it can be nice and warm. If you are going this time of year, it'll be brass monkeys and covered in shitty grey ice and snow in most places. Moscow temperature can vary between +10oC (London-like winter) and about -35oC (e.g. last winter). Better to take one thick coat, rather than rely on layers, as the interior of buildings and public places like the Metro can be incredibly over-heated. Shoes need to have rubber or grippy soles, otherwise you may end up slithering down the entire length of Tverskaya Street (in 1996 a lawyer mate of mine came out of a bar and was challenged by the militsia for his documents. Unfortunately he was still wearing leather office shoes, and proceed to slide helplessly down the hill, with the cop shouting "stop!" and reaching for his gun... LOL)

    2. Try to travel light. Winter clothing will bulk you out, and it can be miserable struggling into and out of cramped minibuses and taxis if you have a huge suitcase. Border control is just like any other European country, slightly more slack on the security side. Passport control can be quick or involve queuing for hours if a jumbo has landed and the border guards only have one girl on. Top tip: get a seat as near to the front of the aircraft as possible, and leg it to passport control as fast as you possibly can. Border restrictions only really kick in if you're carrying c$10k worth of cash or goods. Normal tourist load-out is just fine.

    3. Most hotels are now mega-expensive, whether they are western brands or not. Generally, there is no "knock knock" from "room service" unless you are in a hotel well away from the centre. Most hotels have a clutch of "night butterflies" ensconced in the bar. If you are with the Mrs, you should have no hassle.

    4. Sadly, since about 2004, Russia has gone back towards the old KGB days, with increased surveillance of expats and other targets. You probably won't see or experience anything, and they probably won't take an interest. One way to gauge it is in how long the passport control takes to process your passport: 30 seconds or so and you're clear; interesting history, and the girls are on the computer for about 5 minutes (I get up to 10 minutes, and whispered conversations with the supervisor...);

    a. bank machines are everywhere and they take VISA, etc. You don't need to take much cash.

    b. crime against the person is very low in the most areas, but you do get confidence tricksters plying the tourist areas. Common one is where a bloke appears to drop a wallet or wad of cash in front of you before disappearing. Bloke #2 beside you picks it up and shows you that it full of cash, but has no id with which to trace the owner. He offers to split the money with you as good luck (hahahahahaha); if you take it, bloke#1 appears reappears and makes a big scene accusing you of nicking his wallet. Normal angle is to get you to open your wallet and identify his lost cash. Idea if to frighten you into compensating him with your cash to prevent him calling police. Spam tourists fall for this one all the time: an all-time classic was where a US woman wrote to the papers complaining she'd fallen for it three times in a row... Doh!

    c. Moscow is traffic gridlocked. You're best to go everywhere by Metro. You can buy multiple-use tickets at the ticket booths. Luckily, they've recently put up station names in better - billingual - signage. I used to spend days tracking down guests who'd got on the metro and got off somewhere without any idea of where they were...

    d. Most Moscow cafes have free wi-fi these days - mobile data is far better than UK. Mobile networks are very good - you can buy PAYG simms everywhere. MacDonalds is a fantastic to stop off if you're trudging around the streets: cheap, clean toilets, better quality food than in UK, separate "cafe" which is half the price of the other cafes, fast free wifi.

    e. spend a bit of time learning the cyrillic alphabet. Much of Russia's language is actually derived from European vocabulary, so you'll find it easy to read & understand quite a lot of words.

    f. museums still charge a "foreigner rate" in most places. Quite often your tour guide may tell you to stand away somewhere while she bluffs the granny in the kiosk to give local rates. ("two tickets please" "who is that?" "My brother". "Are you sure, he looks like a foreigner?" "Yes, he just a bit odd" "Why doesn't he buy the ticket himself?" "He's a bit retarded" "Why doesn't he say anything" "He's VERY retarded" (careful, you're actually my secretary - remember?!) "Oh, all right then. Actually we have a special rate for retarded people.".....)

    g. trains are quite good now - if you're going to Novgorod by sleeper. Compartments are two or four people, and you get lumped with whoever. Most of the sleepers are now new and very clean.

    h. blend in and have a great time.
  4. I can only support what 4(T) stated: excellent advice (I go to Russia almost every month). The trains are good and can be interesting. Internal flights now tend to be excellent with very modern planes. Only a couple of the smaller and more distant routes still use old Yaks.

    Hotels in Moscow are hideously expensive. If you are prepared to put up with the extra hassle, and depending on your timings, it may be an option to rent an apartment for a couple of nights. Hookers and crime are not really a problem in Moscow, and most of the other cities are also much safer than equivalent UK towns. Why? Because if a local criminal targets a foreigner then the police will get involved, and they don't like that. Once outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg forget any preconceptions you have about what hotels should be like: a load I end up staying in are owned as trophy houses by local mafia, regional governors, mayors, businessmen and their idea of what makes a good hotel is very different from mine. Much fun can be had though.

    When to go: avoid from now until April. Weather is really horrid and all the cities and towns are really depressing. Drivers don't give a toss for pedestrians and are happy spraying tons of slush on you.

  5. 4(T) & Dread.

    I am obliged to you.

    Now looking to go in May. We do not do freezing unless skiing, although I will probably buy one of those nice furry hats. (Had one once, where I swapped a couple of Zippos with a friendly border guard when I was attached to 247 RMP at Helmstedt. Since swapped/stolen/lost) I will look like a twat, so no change there then.

    I shouldn't think the KGB are interested in me I was only a Recy Mech.

    Thanks again. Just the info we were after.
  6. I would slip your trip until June at the earliest. Whilst Moscow can have temperate weather, and Volgograd is well to south near the Caspian, both can be stuck in the continental weather system. I've lived in Moscow and down in the Samara-Saratov area; in both regions I've seen snow as late as first days of June. Russia tends to have a "false summer" in May, then another bout of cold. It also has a corresponding indian summer in september-ish after a brief cold snap.

    If you go in the summer months, you'll have a much better experience. The summer is really quite hot. You need less clothes, they've cleared up all the winter rubbish that accumulates, and the girls are walking around wearing outrageous transparent dresses - or so I've been told (checks wife is in the kitchen. Phew, shes actually back home with ma-in-law in Russia...LOL). Everyone chills out in the parks, lots of ice-cream and shashlik (kebab) stalls set up, outdoor bars get set up, and you can go on quite nice river boat trips in Moscow and Volgograd. In both cities its really good to be able to spend all day outside walking.
  7. Thanks 4(T)

    The battle of Stalingrad was between 17th July '42 and Feb 2nd '43. How hard were those guys?

    I can see a spot of slippage taking place till July now.

    All good stuff, and not wishing to milk you, just a couple more questions.

    Are the Police OK? i.e. pro tourist.

    Should I book an organised tour or DIY it? I love the planning and logistics part of a holiday but, well, the stories that come out of the Motherland have put all our mates from going.

    My digital camera gear is 1/2 decent, will that be a worry at customs? Or should I take a cheapo?

    I am fairly well travelled and do not have many problems with street scams and thuggery, but I tend to get angry at pointless bureaucratic idiots who hold all the cards. I will hold my tongue in Russia though.

    Is local currency safe to use or does the US$ rule?

    Cheers again.
  8. 1. Police (in the cities) are just fine if you're a foreigner - and if you're not driving (otherwise prepare to receive..). You do have to carry your passport and immigrations card and hotel registration slip with you everywhere and show hem on demand to police (always a good idea to photocopy your passport and visa before setting out, so Embassy/ authorities can sort you out if you lose your passport). If any probs, just say "Turist. Hotel xxxx".

    2. Organised tour might be better, first time out there:

    (a) you'll really struggle with the language trying to book travel, etc - especially a sleeper train where there are cumpulsory advanced bookings (online now), are many options and three separate tickets to be obtained (train, berth, snack) .

    (b) tour guides can be quite good, especially at the historical sites;

    (c) a major hassle is "registration". They've re-introduced the Soviet system whereby you have to register your passport (and subsequently de-register it) if you stay somewhere for more than three days. You can't just back-pack around and sleep on people's sofas (for instance) - you must be legally registered to an address. On a tourist visa, you are not allowed to stay at a private home. Even for a veteran expat like me, staying in someone's apartment means paying a hundred quid or so to get a slightly iffy registration document. The easy way round this is to stay in hotels, where they do it automatically, and you have a proven address. A package tour sorts all this crap out, albeit at a cost.

    (d) if you're going away from Moscow, then you do really need to have someone to turn to if there is a problem.

    (e) although you pay a bit of a premium for an organised tours, some of them at least give you the option of having a few days to yourself for independent exploration.

    (f) hotels are extremely expensive, unless you get some sort of tour discount.

    3. These days there are so many billionaire Russians going on holiday in and out of the airports, that foreigners look like poor relations. Flashy kit is not going to be looked at, unless you've come from Dubai and still have the box. On the aircraft inbound, you'll be given an immigration card to fill in (Half is retained by immigration, half MUST stay in your passport. DO NOT lose it - they will need it to let you out again. I staple the thing in there next to the visa), and a customs declaration form. The customs form is still an old soviet-era document which asks you to list all your currency by denomination on one side, and on the other things like "communication devices", "motor transport", "works of art", etc. The form was drafted before mobile phones were around, but I list mine anyway. There is a normal "red" and "green" channel at customs. Unless you have $10k in cash or something really contentious, go through the green channel. The worst that happens is that they wave you over, check the declaration form and put you bag through an x-ray machine.
    Moscow and other cities are full of Media-Markt and other high tech outlets - cheaper than UK.

    4. By law ALL transactions are in roubles - you must not attempt to pass around dollars or anything else. There is no currency black market or anything like that - the rouble is a very firm currency for several years, and you just draw cash at a cashpoint or go to an exchange booth. They don't even charge the rip-off exchange commissions that they do here in UK. For belt and braces security, use a credit card rather than your UK Visa debit - just in case you get a cloning job. Never happened to me. On menus and price lists you often see a second price called "y.e." which looks very much like dollars. This is "currency equivalent unit" which used to be dollars but is now against a currency basket, and its just a type of proof of price (Russian menus have to list the weight of portions, and other old soviet era guarantees).

    Good place to start is a company I've used for all the time I've been in Russia: Scotts Tours Scott's Tours - Affordable tailor-made travel to Russia, India, China, and more just off Tottenham Court Road. They're British/Russian, know all about visas and custom tour planning (see their front page), and are very efficient.
  9. Cheers again.

    I will let you get off for a bevy now.

    With any luck my next post on the subject will include pics from the place.

    Obliged. Arte.