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6 Reasons Why The Thought Of Going To Russia Was Better Than Actually Going

(Church of Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg)

Dear Russia,

I really, really wanted to like you.  After all, I added you to my list of countries I wanted to go to this year.  And while I can see how the gorgeous canals in St. Petersburg earned you the nickname as “the Venice of the north”, and I can even appreciate Peter the Great’s attempt to model the city after Europe, after a while, all the impressive ornateness of the city just couldn’t make up for the overwhelmingly unimpressive impression I was left with after just three days.

To be fair, I’ve been trying to nail down the one thing that left me with a bad aftertaste, but that’s the problem – there wasn’t just one thing.  Here are the six that are top of mind:

1) Getting into the country is a pain in the you-know-what

You make visitors work to get an entry visa!  First, we have to be “invited” into the country (somewhat of a joke since we can just pay for an invitation).  Then, we fill out a lengthy visa application.  There are even rules for how early we are allowed to apply for the visa (45 days before departure date).  Finally, since you’ve decided to outsource your visa process, any errors on the visa require me to reapply (of course it’s not your fault if the visa dates don’t match my application– it makes complete sense that I pay the exorbitant fee and reapply!).  I’d be lying if I said that having a visa valid for only three days when I asked for six didn’t cause heartache — nor any anxiety ensuring I could depart St. Petersburg before my visa expiration.  I did my research and I didn’t want to endure the punishment awaiting me if my departing flight were moved out a day.

2) The people are cold to strangers

Even my Russian friends back me up on this!  Being from California, I’m so used to flashing a friendly smile, but when I did that in Russia, I got stares back!  I’m sure it’s just your culture (I’ve heard Russians really warm once they know you), but it sure didn’t make a visitor feel welcomed!  Perhaps it was naive of me to expect otherwise — as my friend, F, stated, “What did you expect from a country whose major export is sorrow?”  Ouch.

3) There’s so much red tape, you must have invented it

There is no such thing as customer service in Russia.  Nada.  Zilch. None.  I couldn’t customize any food orders; if the order was wrong through no fault of my own, I had to just suck it up since it wouldn’t be remade.  Your restaurant owners don’t even bat an eye before kicking out their patrons at closing time.  There’s also no concept of efficiency when it comes to standing in lines, and there are lines everywhere!  The train station, for instance, was filled with long lines at every one of your 30 ticket windows.  I wouldn’t mind the long lines, but it was really frustrating to stand in one for 20 minutes, get to the front of the line, and then find out that the ticket agent was off on his scheduled break (some warning here would be nice).

4) The credit card process is morally questionable

Three different vendors charged me for the wrong amount.  When I point this out, they said they couldn’t revise the charge!  The first time this happened, I just forgave them for the error.  The second time, I was annoyed.  The third time, I began to suspect that your country was out to scam me!  Thank goodness I left after that.  Lesson learned: If I ever go back, I’m paying with rubles!

5) Everything is in cyrillic

There’s no English anywhere.  Since I can’t read cyrillic, I had to pay expensive cab rides to get around. Or walk.  I did a ton of walking.  This was such a shame since the subways systems were extensive but pretty useless to a traveler who can’t read the signs.

6) It is expensive 

I know I went in high season, but charging $200 for a 3 star hotel that would already be a stretch at even $100 a night just seems like a rip off.  The 4-5 star hotels were going for $500+/night!

To be fair, all countries have some element of the above 6 things so the seasoned traveler in me really wanted to forgive you and like you anyway.  The problem, however, is that I’ve never encountered all six in a three day visit!  That’s a lot of let downs in three days!  🙁

So, while my overall experience left a lot to be desired, I’m trying to stay positive.  After all, I don’t regret going.  I wouldn’t have gotten decorating inspiration from here nor been mesmerized by the amount of fountains here. It was also a good opportunity for Kimmy and I to connect about everything girly!  I just wouldn’t recommend you to the inexperienced traveler.  It will take a brave and determined traveler to go through the hurdles to visit you and see beyond that harsh exterior – I just didn’t have the patience to deal with that in my short stay.

Here’s hoping you leave a better impression on your next visitor.


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Tiffany - September 17, 2012 - 4:44 pm

aww that’s too bad you didn’t have a good time! The architecture and palaces are beautiful though at least
I loved visiting Russia, but I went when I was 15 so I only remember the good stuff & didn’t have to take care of anything on my own. Hopefully when I go again I’ll still enjoy it!

Just Wanderlust - September 17, 2012 - 4:49 pm

Tiffany – You travel a lot so I’m sure it will be a good experience! 🙂 One lesson I learned was to pay for the “invitation” to go to Russia…. because when you pay for it, you can specify the dates you want to go (and then you can put in a wider date range than the dates you really expect to be in the country just in case you run into any flight delays, etc., that keep you stranded in the country). I think that would have helped me because I think they got confused by my visa app when I had multiple invitations (each hotel gave me its own invitation). Ugh. Lesson learned! The joys of traveling! 🙂

Sana - September 21, 2012 - 9:30 am

I loved my first trip to Russia…I went when I was 18 w/ a study abroad scholarship to study art. It was chaotic…and there was bad food. But, ultimately, it was so much fun. 🙂 I remember the bar tender spiked my drink w/ absinthe…the kind of absinthe that makes you hallucinate. So, it was chaotic w/ bad food and a lack of ethics. lol

Just Wanderlust - September 21, 2012 - 9:35 am

Sana – maybe if I frequented the bars more in St. P, I might have had a different impression… 🙂

Mark - October 3, 2012 - 1:36 pm

My friend Aggie directed me here to your Tahiti/moorea/bora posts..

Love this post. 🙂 I’m heading there in a month. good advice on getting some Rubles!

Just Wanderlust - October 3, 2012 - 11:58 pm

Mark – thanks for visiting! Seems like you travel a lot with the Japan and Russia trips so close together (but I guess I did the same thing since I did both countries a month apart too). What city are you going to? And yes, take out the rubles and pay attention to the prices when you buy stuff so you know if they are overcharging you. You’ll really enjoy French Polynesia – it’s the place that fantasies are made of, but make sure you invest in an underwater camera… that’s the one thing we wish we did!

Mark - October 4, 2012 - 10:00 am

Travel is my passion as well.. I can’t wait for Moorea/Bora Bora! 🙂 We have an dive casing for a camera (mainly b/c we dive quite a bit).. so that doubles as a snorkeling camera.. but yah worthwhile purchase.

Japan/Russia – all work trips.. Just Tokyo, Mumbai, Singapore, then, Beijing, Moscow, St petersburg, Shanghai.
Tough work but somebody’s gotta do it right? 😉
I’m a bit nervous about Russia but it’s good to know about the Ruble. I guess corruption is sorta prevalent in their society? 🙁

Just Wanderlust - October 4, 2012 - 8:41 pm

Mark – I loved all the fish I saw in Bora Bora. Make sure you do the private motu picnic! It was so worth it. That is quite a list for work; wish I got to travel to big cities like that all over the world on the company’s dime, too! 🙂 Don’t be nervous about St. P., Russia – the people leave you alone and the city is beautiful. They just have some weird thing about not being able to reverse credit card transactions, which really ticked me off. haha

Diana - August 27, 2015 - 11:10 pm

Hello Diana,
I am sure my comments is too late to your post. But anyway, I wanted to add something to it. I went to Russia in early Oct 2012 same year with you. I travelled by the transberian train from Beijing all the way to Irkutsk, Moscow and finally St petersburg.
To say Russians are cold to strangers is a bit of an understatement. My experience in 6 nights and 7 days spent in the train travelling involved meeting a few Russian soldiers- a captain and a very friendly one tried to communicate without a word of English using drawings on paper. They are perhaps curious to see 2 Asian older ladies on their own. Another day another Russian man came to chit chat but also could not speak a word of English, gave me an Russian/English dictionary to communicate with him. The bad encounter I had upon arriving in Moscow at 4 am was stopped by an immigration police who wanted to bribe us by saying my tourist visa is incomplete.
Other than that I had a happy journey, I got lost in the streets or took wrong train I asked around eventhough they do not speak English they tried to help us. One even accompanied us to a location and walk 15 minutes to show the way.
Anyway, I did my home work first, I took 2 months of learning basic Russian & learn all the cyrillic and a simple thank you in Russian to a local puts a wide grin in their faces.
Anyway, I live in Singapore where we are used to see sullen faces everyday. If I return to Russia someday, I love to visit St Petersburg again. It’s a beautiful city. 🙂

Ben - February 6, 2017 - 9:25 am

Some truth here but, regarding #1- do you have ANY idea how difficult it is for a Russian citizen to get a visa to visit the USA? Americans (and people from other western countries) complain about the cost and bureaucracy involved in getting a visa for Russia but never stop to consider how difficult their countries often make the visa process for tourists from Russia (and other non-western countries).

As for Cyrillic, it takes 2 hours max to learn the alphabet. As far as I know, there are no Cyrillic signs to help Russian tourists in the USA, so why would you expect the opposite to be true? Tourism is only a relatively insignificant part of the Russian economy after all.

JustWanderlust - February 9, 2017 - 10:09 am

Hi Ben – I’m aware the US makes it difficult for people to enter the country and especially now with Trump’s so-called “immigration ban”. I am not above following the rules to apply for a visa even if there a lot of rules/restrictions. What I didn’t like about the visa experience for Russia, however, was that they messed up on my visa but wouldn’t fix their own error. Instead, they said I had to re-apply. That makes no sense. Regarding Cyrillic, I don’t mind that there are no English signs, but it’s the combination of the other 5 things (on top of the difficult alphabet) that I experienced in Russia in just 3 short days that left me with a poor travel experience. If everything else was fine, I’d have dealt with the Cyrillic.

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