The Case for Russian Travel

Four reasons you didn't know you wanted to go

By / March 2015

Admit it. Whatever your misgivings about the Bear in the North, you’ve always been at least somewhat intrigued by Russia. Here are a few reasons to shelve your fear, apply for a visa, purchase tickets, and get on with visiting the largest country on earth.

1. Natural Diversity

Lake Baikal. Photograph by Katya Tyapkina

Red Square isn’t Russia’s only attraction. Take the ancient Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake on earth, twice the size of Lake Superior by volume of water, nearly a mile deep in places, and boasting its very own species of seal. Prefer deserts? No problem. You can ride a double-humped camel for days through the hot, white sands of the Kalmyk Desert, hobnobbing with Buddhist nomads along the way. You want mountains? The Caucasus range in the south of Russia dwarfs the Alps, with the mighty Elbrus, one of Europe’s highest peaks, rising to 18,510 ft. There aren’t many places on earth where, on the same day, you could suffer frostbite and heatstroke. But Russia’s Siberia and Sochi offer you just that.

 

2. Warm Hospitality

Contrary to popular perceptions, Russia turns out to be an exceptionally hospitable place, much more so, I would argue, than Europe or the Americas. It’s true that few individuals smile in public. Yet this is due not to hostility or cold personalities, but to a wider cultural conditioning concerning public deportment. Especially when you get out of the hustle and bustle of big city life, rural Russians are happy to spend hours conversing with you, over-feeding you, and offering free lodging. Hospitality is especially profuse in Siberia and among the many nations of the Caucasus where spontaneous guests are hosted with a sense of divine responsibility and an otherworldly gusto, often matched by unexpected food combinations like vodka and pickled herring or black bread and sliced pork fat. Russians will sincerely bless your children’s children and pledge eternal friendship with the same passion in which they curse your nation’s leaders. But if you can swallow your own taboos and let the political criticism roll off, you will likely gain a lifelong friend. Taking an unhurried train journey (and all train journeys in Russia are unhurried) is one of the best ways to test these assurances.

 

3. Cultural Multiplicity

Derbent. Photograph-by-Allie-Verbovetskaya1

Russians speak more than a hundred indigenous languages, mostly unknown to the West, some dating back to the Bronze Age. Russian history dawns at the Christian baptism of Prince Vladimir in the 10th Century. Russia’s former Silk Road city of Derbent, however, dates back some 5,000 years and was a center of Zoroastrianism and various forms of Shamanism. There are still remains of 4th century churches in the Caucasus. Jews arrived from Persia in the 6th century and have stayed until this day, still speaking their ancient Persian dialects as their mother tongue. Islam took root in the Dagestan region beginning in the 8th century. Isolated, old world villages climbing off the pages of a Tolstoy novel abound throughout Russia’s vast countryside. Russia is surely a land of extremes, that polar magnetism which both pushes and pulls.

 

4. Financial Opportunity

Russia’s never been considered a budget destination. Airfare to get there, along with hotels and restaurants remain woefully overpriced compared to other comparable destinations in the rest of the world. Which is why 2015 is the perfect time to visit. Due to the ruble’s recent tumble, the dollar is now worth twice what it was one year ago—and most prices are the same or only slightly higher. This year promises to be a golden window of opportunity for visiting Russia. Even when expensive, Russia remains an enviable, unmatched destination. How much more now at half-price?

 

Dave Hayton is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.

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