Russia is synonymous with mystery and mistrust intriguing the world and stirring fascination. It has a reputation of being dangerous so why would anyone chose to travel? It is an old country with colorful history, iconic architectures, celebrated arts and music, and natural wonders. It is more than the land of vodka, ballet, dolls, spies and controversies.
It’s not enough to see the popular cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Travel away from usual adventures and known destinations. It’s the world’s largest country so it’s not a surprise to experience a fusion of east meets west. Adventure is almost everywhere.
Here are some things you should not miss when visiting Russia.
1.Northern Lights / Aurora Borealis in Teriberka
Most of the time, people visit Scandinavia or Iceland to see the northern lights. Few people would dare to see it in the northernmost part of Russia. Not just because of misconceptions about visa and travel logistics but stereotypes on Russians created by mainstream media. It’s not at all scary or complicated to navigate Russian cities. Just ask around, most of them are willing to help a friendly traveller.
Teriberka is a remote village at the coast of the Arctic ocean and Barents sea. In winter, it looks like a dead village with empty buildings, old houses and impassable roads. You will likely catch the aurora during winter where the sky is darker and the weather is colder. It’s a natural phenomenon that illuminates the clear sky in green, pink and some other pastel colors.
The nearest airport is in Murmansk (largest city in the Arctic Circle and home of the northernmost McDonalds). From there, take a taxi (4,000 – 6,000 RUB) for 2 hours or a local bus (120 RUB) scheduled every other day for 4 hours. I recommend staying in Baza Otdykha 45-y Prichal hostel because the polar lights are just outside the house. You can stay inside the kitchen and wait for it to reveal itself. The rooms are not that good (under renovation last December) but the bathrooms/toilets are new and well maintained. It’s cheap at 12$ a night. By the way, you have to try tasting the famous king crab!
2. Polar Nights
Before, I only heard about dead polar nights in the Arctic. The sun is not visible and you can only see a fraction of daylight.I was genuinely delighted to find out how the other world lived while the tropics basked under the searing sun. Experiencing it for 3 days had me astonished and was curious to learn how the locals cope with it (3 months?). I found out half of them leave the area while the remaining thrive on tourism.
Kola Peninsula claims to be the Earth’s end. We waded through thick snow, frozen river, bitter winds and chilling temperatures (with liters of vodka). I guess the overarching snow-capped mountains that seem to sparkle around us made it bearable. The landscapes added allure to a seemingly depressing long nights.
3. Winter Wonderland in Listvyanka
At first, I thought you can only see snowflakes in glittering crystal shapes in movies or books. I had snow experiences in England, Scotland, Switzerland, Slovakia (yes, of all places), Czech, China, Mongolia and Japan in large or small quantities but I’ve never seen perfect, glassy and transparent ones before. Only in Listvyanka! Welcome to Siberia.
The place looks like a cutout from a Disney winter wonderland. The houses are made of christmassy woods; roofs are draped with white snows; and chimneys have smokes waiting for Santa Claus to descend at night. We had an idyllic cabin in the woods surrounded by gobs of snow and dreamlike spruce mountains. It is like a painting with a breathtaking background that easily captivates your wanderlust feelings. Beautiful and perfect.
I had a heart full of gratitude to our taxi driver who never left us when our hostel receptionist was not picking their phone, drove us back to the main road because there was no signal in the woods and let us stay on his car while he was out (freezing) knocking / calling on the perimeter’s gate and to Sasha who cooked a traditional Russian dinner for the five of us. This is adventure – more than the landscape or the beauty as far as the eye can see but about the kindness of strangers and the memories it bring.
4. Lake Baikal via Irkutsk
It would have been great to see a frozen Lake Baikal, still, you will never regret to see the deepest, oldest and largest freshwater lake in the world. There are many stories around this magnificent lake including the famous Kolchak’s gold during the last empire of the Romanovs and mysterious deaths on the sacred cliffs. This ancient lake is located in Siberia so low temperatures should not come as surprise to a prepared traveller.
The easiest way is through the city of Irkutsk. It’s part of the Trans-Siberian railway and has an international airport with direct flights from Asia (i.e. Thailand/China/Japan). Spend a day in Irkutsk because it is historically significant. This city has seen its fair share of bloody revolutions.
To get to Lake Baikal, take a 1-hour bus (70 RUB/1.2 USD) to Listvyanka then walk a kilometer to the shoreline. Don’t forget to have an offline map with you. There are only few people who can speak English.
5. St. Petersburg (the city center)
I am not much of an advocate of city travels but St. Petersburg has that old capital appeal. It is aesthetically European nicknamed Paris of the North – a glorious achievement of the Tsar whose name it proudly bears. Imagine iconic cathedrals, numerous embankments, massive public squares, dramatic arts and music, stunning buildings and imposing palaces. It has more than 300 bridges and endless canals cutting through the City into the Baltic in a Venice-like spectacle. The City speaks of all beauty and elegance. However, behind great cities are horrors of history. Its grandeur was built on slavery earning another nickname the City Built on Bones.
Walk around Nevsky Prospekt Avenue and you will see all the famous attractions – Cathedral of the Spilled Blood, Senate Square, Winter Palace, Hermitage museum, Faberge, Summer Garden, Peter and Paul fortress and others. I am impressed with the city’s urban design (even from centuries ago). All are just within walking distances.
6. Moscow’s Red Square
For me, Moscow is all about the Red Square (and the setting of one of my favorite novels Anna Karenina). Its urban architecture is miles away from St Petersburg but you have to discover why so many people are drawn to this City. The iconic Red Square is the heart of Russia and the home of Kremlin, the world’s oldest fortress. Your Russian experience will never be complete without strolling around this UNESCO heritage site. Its extensively and intricately link to the country’s history and politics.
Next to it is the world’s famous St Basil’s Cathedral. Legend says Czar Ivan The Terrible blinded the architect after its construction to prevent him from designing similar structures. Its striking colours, artistic shapes and intricate patterns will beautifully cap off your Russian adventure.
Russia is every bit magnificent as in movies, books and photos. So, take a trip to this amazing country without worrying much about budget. For six cities/areas (Irkutsk, Listvyanka, Teriberka, Murmansk, St Petersburg and Moscow), we spent a total of $1,270 for 9 days. Not bad.
Photos are mine except #3, 5, 12, 18 from Erick. (Thanks po Erick!) Follow him in instagram erickcamba for superb photo treats.