“Things in Russia that surprise first time travellers”? Is this objective?!
Of course not! These are the 7 things which I personally found awkward, strange, bad or funny during my first trip in Siberia and Russia! There are much more than just 7 to count at this gigantic country but, for me, for the one month I spent here, the major surprises were:
1. The trains run on Moscow Time
Russia has 9 different zone times!! And as if that wasn’t enough, the train websites/ tickets/ stations/ timetables etc. indicate only the Moscow time as the ”departure” and ”arrival” ones! Things can be very complicated if you are in Siberia and you are already 6 hours ahead of Moscow but you have to catch the Trans Siberian at Moscow time! And it can be totally insane when the dates are different as well, for example when it is after midnight for you (hence, a new day/date!) but you have to catch your train… yesterday because Moscow is still behind! Be very careful when calculating the correct time as there are uncountable foreigners who missed their trains because of that! Phew!
2. Limited English
I was prepared for lack of English in the countryside but I was surprised that even in Moscow, in touristic places, very basic English is spoken. We were lucky though as in Moscow our AirBnb host had been living in the Uk for 1 year so we could communicate extremely well and she helped us a lot regarding culture, local life, sexism and racism topics (questions that as a feminist, I always try to ask!) , family and personal development etc. We used the Google Translate app and more specifically, the offline Russian version that can scan a sign / menu/ place of interest and of course we learnt 10 basic words – either way our life became easier as locals (that we encountered with!) rarely speak any English.
3. Why almost everything is expired in the super markets?
That’s the funny one! As we stayed in Russia for a month, we shopped in super markets many times. The first days I got confused as in almost every single market I could find multiple items that seemed expired! In some cases nearly half of the products were «expired»!! After few days that we were not able to deal with the mystery (and we kept eating at restaurants!) we managed to ask a local who could communicate efficiently in English and suddenly…problem solved! The explanation was funny (for us) but admittedly decent: Some of the Russian companies (especially bakeries, dairy and chocolate products ones) print on the package only the production date and they add a text (in Russian!) that indicates for how long the product is safe to be consumed! Weird, right? However, we relaxed after that even if we had to use the before-mentioned app to «read» this damn text every single time!
4. Cafes = Restaurants
The easy to catch!! When you are hungry just head to the first café you will see, it is actually a local restaurant and serves proper food! We found some of the cheapest and most delicious foods in cafes around Irkutsk and Ulan- Ude, their prices can easily beat out Thai prices (not Filipino’s though) !
5. Second class citizens?
Ok, the negative thing of my list ? We were told by locals that Russians with Asian characteristics are often treated as second class citizens by the «European» Russians. This is an uncomfortable truth we could not have understood by ourselves as we are Europeans too (and anyway the communication with little English is not sufficient) but the interaction with the locals helped us realizing that. Very sad and unfair, as any kind of racism or discrimination of course! But it’s not only for some of ”white Russians” attitude… What if we , as non- Russians, consider our stereotypes regarding the same thing? The truth is that when we think about Russians we stereotype them as blonde/ white tall people and it is hard to picture them as Asians too. But Russian Federation has an Asian side (we all knew about it, right?) and actually, at least the 35% of the population has Asian roots and (unsurprisingly!) Asian characteristics! Impressive, right? So now… we know and we have no excuse anymore to exclude the Asian aspect of the country!
6. Right –hand side cars?
Russia drives on the right. As a result, the cars are built so that the driver sits on the left-hand side of the car. If so, what are all of these right-hand side cars, especially in Siberia?? This was a major confuse for me but , once more, a local helped us to untangle our mind! Many people buy cheaper second hand cars from Japan and… guess what? Japan drives on the left! That was easy!
7. Size matters
Being the largest country in the entire world , Russia has a landmass of 17.098.242 km² ! Just to make the comparison easier, Europe itself is «only» 10.180.000 km² ! No surprise that the longest railway in the world is here, the famous trans-Siberian/Mongolian! Throughout the month we spent in Russia, we covered massive distances by plane, train, vans and busses! Just to mention that a 6plus-hour flight from Moscow took us only up to the Lake Baikal… this is roughly in the mid of Siberia!!
At the end of my small list with the things I got impressed (negatively, positively or just neutral!) during my first trip in Russia / Siberia I want to clarify that these may be normal for other travellers, for example I have been told afterwards that the lack of expiration date exist in some Asian countries too! Few months after I came back, I found out about Russian cities that didn’t even exist on the map until 1993 that also fascinated me but I have yet to visit them! I would definitely come back in this huge country, but next time it will be in the summertime! Do you have any weird things from your tours in Russia to share? Please add them in the comments!