Lots of variety in terms of geography, people and cuisine
Chris Watkins, managing director and founder of Real Russia and its trade arm East West Link, helps to demystify the country in a Q&A at TTG Digital.
“People have always been fascinated by Russia, an exciting, intriguing mystery on the borders of Europe, but for many it is hard to shake the tired stereotypes of the Cold War, negative press, thoughts of endless winters and drab cities,” he says. “Nothing is further from the truth. Russia covers 11 time zones, from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic to the deserts of Asia.”
As many as 185 recognised national groups offer plenty in terms of geography, people and cuisine. Besides Moscow and St Petersburg, Watkins recommends the “glitz” of Sochi on the Black Sea coast, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, where millionaires gather for skiing and beach in one.
“Take a river cruise down the Volga to the hero city of Stalingrad, or a night train to Yekaterinburg on the Europe/Asia border in the Ural mountains,” he suggests. “In terms of nature, awe-inspiring Lake Baikal is a single body containing 20% of the world’s fresh water. The volcanoes and ice of Kamchatka or tiger spotting in Siberia offer exotic destinations. And, of course, most popular with our clients is the epic Trans-Siberian Railway […] a fascinating journey from Moscow to Beijing.”
East West Link also offers adventure tours including flights in a MIG military plane, or hiking and fishing in the Russian forests with a local professional guide.
Some clients are concerned about security with the events in Ukraine, Watkins concedes, but “it must be appreciated that this is a different country” thousands of kilometres away. European government have no special advice or cautions about travel to Russia.
Hotel standards vary, from the ordinary to “the best on the planet”. There is a lack of quality tourist-class three-star hotels in cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, with many in the late 1990s being redeveloped or new ones built to cater for the luxury and high-end market. But Moscow is looking to double the number of hotels by 2020 and cater better for the mid-range market – partly driven by the award of the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Restaurants range from simple, modestly priced cafés to “eye-wateringly expensive Michelin-starred restaurants”, Watkins says. “The food is generally tasty, healthy, freshly cooked and local, but don’t expect to find too many vegetarian options outside Orthodox fasting periods. The advice we give is to get off the main street just a little to find these regular places and experiment.”
[pictured: Lake Baikal]