Travelling to the former Soviet Union for the winter holidays, or considering a trip this summer? No need to limit yourself to Moscow and St. Petersburg. From Lviv to Lake Baikal, from Kislovodsk to Chisinau, the region has a great deal worth exploring – if you are willing to get off the beaten path.
When the top destinations in a region already sound fairly exotic to the average American, it can be difficult to convince yourself to go even further afield. However, if you try just one unconventional place on your next trip to the region, you’ll discover it is surprisingly easy. If you try one more, you will further find that the strategies for safe and interesting travels in one place apply to most other places. You’ll look at your wallet and be shocked you managed to experience so much for so little money. And you’ll be hooked on discovering Eurasia beyond the guidebooks, far beyond even Google.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1. Your first stop: buy a SIM card. Internet is extremely cheap and plentiful in the former Soviet Union. Unlimited internet for a month should cost you around $10, depending on the country. It takes about 10 minutes to get it set up, in one of the numerous kiosks in any major (or even minor) city. It works fairly well everywhere except perhaps the middle of the Russian taiga or on a remote Ukrainian farm. The security and relaxation that comes with knowing you can call your accommodations, find a good place to eat, and read the Wikipedia page of your country’s history will make those the best $10 you ever spent.
Plus, most public WiFi networks in the former Soviet Union have a very irritating quirk: you have to give them a phone number and enter an activation code they send to that phone number in order to get online. This is impossible if your strategy is to put your foreign phone number in airplane mode to avoid roaming fees. So, take the time to get a local number. Problem solved.
While you are dealing with your phone, go ahead and download Yandex Maps and Yandex Taxi. Google and Uber will work here, but in many post-Soviet countries, especially Russia, Yandex works better.
2. You will find a way to get there. Eurasia does not have a strong car culture, so most locals rely on trains and marshrutki (mini-buses) to get around. Trains, of course, are a fantastic way to see the landscape and get a feel for the culture; RZD’s website should be the first place you look for transportation options in Russia (Check out our tips for Russian train travel, which are largely applicable throughout the region).
Even if there are no trains, however, and Google draws a blank, do not despair. Whether you are trying to get to an out-of-the-way Stalinist labor camp in the Urals, or meet some friends of friends in a village in the Caucasus mountains, there is a marshrutka that will take you there. Visit the local bus station to get a sense for the schedules if you wish, but in many cases, marshrutki just leave when they are full. Even if you have missed the official ones, don’t panic: where there is demand, there is supply, and unofficial marshrutki will fill the gap. Find the avtovokzal (bus station), learn how to pronounce your destination, ask around; you will get where you need to go.
Alternatively, don’t hesitate to hire a taxi. Usually, they are quite reasonably priced, but do try to have a sense of what “reasonable” means, most likely by asking at your accommodations and adding a 30-50% foreigner tax (unless your language skills are incredible and you are strong negotiator), and agree to the price before you get in the car. Round-trip taxis are easy to arrange, if you want the driver to wait while you explore your destination before taking you back home. Recently, a four-person taxi across the entire country of Azerbaijan, from Baku to Sheki, only cost $20 per person. Not the cheapest option, but not outrageous, and sometimes it might make the most sense.
3. Make special requests of your accommodations. In larger cities like Yerevan and Vilnius you are likely to find great hostels and Airbnbs. In smaller towns, looking for cute guest houses on Booking.com often turns up excellent alternatives. Regardless of where you end up, your accommodations can be far more than your accommodations. Your flight arrives at 1:30 am? For $15, maybe your Airbnb host will give you a hassle-free ride from the airport. No good restaurants near your guest house? Ask the hostess if you can buy a homemade dinner. Want to see the northern lights in the Arctic? Ask your hostel if they offer tours to hunt them down. Eurasian accommodations tend to be accommodating.
4. Plan ahead for breakfast (and coffee). If you are the type of person who can be found at Starbucks at 6:30 am, prepare yourself for a shock: most Eurasian establishments, even coffee shops, crack their doors only at 9 or 10. This is true even in capital cities. In small towns, don’t even bother looking until noon. If you get headaches without pre-10 am caffeine or are ravenous when you wake up, plan ahead. Buy snacks, tea, and instant coffee at the grocery store. Your accommodations will almost certainly have a way to boil water.
5. BYOW – Bring Your Own Water. In general, but especially to restaurants. Tap water is often not safe to drink, and cafes have a habit of charging exorbitant prices for little glass bottles of fancy water. You are unlikely to get a dirty look if you put your own water bottle on the table, no matter how nice the restaurant is. Just remember to tip, about 10%!
6. Also, BYOTP: Bring Your Own Toilet Paper. This hardly needs explanation, but suffice it to say this writer has had this gambit pay off everywhere from the National Library of Moldova to the middle of the jungle on an island near Vladivostok.
7. Take the time to gulyat (go for a walk, without any particular destination in mind). This isn’t travel advice specific to Eastern Europe; it’s just general travel advice. But in the former Soviet Union, there are many delights to discover from a walk: a mishmash of architectural styles, parks, and so, so many quirky monuments and statues. (Here’s our article with just a few of them in Russia.) You might also stumble across interesting little museums, some of which may not have made it into guidebooks. When you do find such a museum, if you have the language skills, ask the elderly woman staff member (it is almost always an elderly woman) questions. She’ll be thrilled that someone took an interest, and you may hear some fascinating stories.
8. Souvenir shop at outdoor markets. Do you really want overpriced trinkets with the name of the town on them? Didn’t think so. Nearly every town in post-Soviet Eurasia has some sort of outdoor market full of handmade crafts and Soviet-era memorabilia. Seek out the market, and then take home treasures like original paintings from Odesa, Imperial-era books from Tbilisi, lace tablecloths from Chisinau, and handknit wool sweaters from the Northern Caucasus. Oh, and none should cost more than $20. Even if you aren’t looking to buy, it is still a worthwhile experience in and of itself. A free local art museum!
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