Ask the Expert: Pulling Back the Curtain on Russia

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Douglas Grimes

Nearly twice the size of the United States, Russia has become easier for travelers to explore since the Soviet Union dissolved more than 20 years ago. Douglas Grimes, founder of MIR Corporation, has been to the country more than 100 times after first traveling there in 1986 to participate in a Russian-American volleyball exchange as a part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, or “openness” policy.

“I wanted to play the best volleyball players in the world at the time, but I also fell in love with the country,” Grimes says. Intrigued by the country and with strong ties established by his visit, he started developing tour itineraries and has now been guiding travelers to this elusive region for over 25 years. Grimes shared his insider knowledge on what makes Russia unique compared to other regions of the world.

Prep & Planning:

Visiting Red Square – “The first day I arrive, no matter what, I take the Moscow Metro to Twima Station and walk Red Square at night. It’s the quintessential Russia lit up at night – it’s a great way to start a trip. I still do it every time I go.”

Suzdal

It’s a huge country – Ever since Russia opened up 20+ years ago, most people visit either Moscow or St. Petersburg. “They’re both fantastic and very different from each other. Moscow is business oriented like New York City, while St. Petersburg is more cultural and has a more European style.” If you just stick to these two cities, though, you’re missing the “heart and soul” of the country.

Exploring the Golden Ring – Branch out more into Russia’s western region and visit the ring of cities outside the Russian capital. Within a half day’s drive, you’ll experience small village life in places like Suzdal (pictured left) and Vladimir, which are preserving traditions and showcasing architecture from wood houses with shutters to onion-domed churches. “Villages like this are a huge part of Russia.”

Take the train to nature – To really get a feel for how big the country is book passage on the iconic Trans-Siberian Railway where natural wonders await. Among the stops are Lake Baikal, which contains roughly 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen surface fresh water, and is bordered by two national parks: Pribaikalsky and Zabaikalsky.

021413_Russia_LadiesGetting to know you – “Most visitors are surprised by Russia. There’s still a stigma about Russian people being tough and not friendly. It’s a surprise for some travelers how warm and hospitable the people are.” And, Russians are very intrigued with the United States. “They know a lot about the U.S. although most have not traveled here.” (But don’t talk politics – they say leave that to the politicians!)

Pack This:

Plan ahead – Don’t think you can pack and leave in a day. You still need a visa to visit Russia – things may have changed in 20+ years, but some things still stay the same.

Changeable weather – Always take a light raincoat no matter what – even in summer. You never know when an unexpected rain shower may hit.

Staying in touch – Bring a mobile phone that is “unlocked” and buy a local prepaid SIM card in-country and avoid costly roaming charges. “Pay a few cents versus $6-$7 a minute.”

021413_Russia_trainPack light – Skip the big bags and keep luggage light and to a minimum. “It’s easier to get around and you don’t want to get stuck with overweight charges.”

Be sure-footed – Bring sturdy shoes for walking and train travel. “Sidewalks are loose bricks and there’s rough terrain.”

Plugged in– Bring the smartphone, tablet or laptop. You can get an Internet connection most everywhere and it’s getting better all the time, just about anywhere. “I’ve even found Internet cafes in remote places.” Most airports and hotels offer free WiFi service, so ask when you’re booking.


Select photos courtesy of Mir Corporation

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