Friday, October 30, 2015

Real Russia Channel

If you are interested in ordinary life in Russia behind the scary recent headlines, have a look on for videos on the Real Russia channel. Produced and hosted by Sergey Baklykov, a young man who lives in the provincial city of Ufa, capital of the autonomous republic of Bashkortostan in the Urals, it offers insights into various aspects of Russian life.

There is now a total of 166 videos produced over the last three years, covering topics such as ordinary Russian apartments, dachas, stores, schools and health care, as well as more specialised ones revolving around motorcycle racing, restaurants and discos, and blogger forums. Most of the videos are filmed in Ufa, but there have also been examples from Moscow and Sochi.

The channel has more than 63 thousand subscribers, and its followers were sufficiently supportive to cough up money for the host to buy an expensive new camera when his original one was lost in a dispute with a former business partner.

It is difficult to get unbiased coverage of Russia now--perhaps it always has been. The government channel Russia Today is obviously biased, but many of the Western media reports also seem biased to me. Baklykov aspires to show us glimpses of Russia with, as he says, "No lies and no b.s." He doesn't discuss politics, at least in any of the videos I've watched, but the government was sufficiently impressed with his reporting to give him credentials to a meeting of the heads of the BRIC countries that took place in Ufa earlier this year.

I think he has a great idea in reporting on ordinary life in a country that is relatively unknown. I'm trying to think of a topic I could do here in North America that might attract viewers--maybe Real Montreal or Real Westmount?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

St. Petersburg for Visitors

Much as I like Moscow, I believe St. Petersburg is a more rewarding city for visitors to Russia. Its streets are filled with amazingly beautiful scenes like the one above of the Griboyedov Canal with the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in the distance. Wish I had taken it, but it is courtesy of Brian Stotler, one of my recent fellow travellers.

Petersburg is the kind of place where it is a pleasure just to walk around and admire the architecture. In the city centre most buildings are in Neoclassical or Art Nouveau style, and since Peter was the Imperial capital many of the homes are actually former palaces. Some of them fell into disrepair during the Soviet period, but most were restored to their former glory in time for a big celebration of the city's 300th anniversary in 2003.

I was lucky enough to spend two weeks living in an apartment in Peter in 2005, as a participant in Summer Literary Seminars ( My route to the meetings took me beside the above scene every day, and I never ceased to be overwhelmed. The church was built to commemorate the spot where Czar Alexander II was assasinated in 1881 and it is filled with intricate and colourful mosaics.

There are plenty of historic places worth visiting, starting with the Hermitage Museum (,) one of the world's great art repositories. Tickets are reasonably priced at about $10 for the entire complex, or $5 if you just want to explore one of the museum's branches. Admission is free the first Thursday of every month, but you need a ticket.

If you are looking for a quick snack or an elegant tea while you are strolling around, don't miss Eliseyevsky Gastronome on Nevsky Prospect near the Anichkov Bridge. This food emporium is decorated in over-the-top Art Nouveau style and worth a visit just to view the opulence of shopping in the Czarist era.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Cosmonaut Training Centre

In addition to visiting the Mission Control Centre in Korolev, visitors to Russia can see the place where Russian cosmonauts receive training for their travels into space. The Cosmonaut Training Centre is in Star City, another formerly closed city near Moscow. The statue above is of Yuri Gagarin, the first Soviet cosmonaut.

The centre has training models of the devices used by cosmonauts to reach the international space station. For anyone interested in space exploration it is a must, provided you have sufficient time for advance planning. In general, 45 days notice is required to book a tour, and tours are given in Russian so an interpreter will probably be needed.

On the tour you learn how cosmonauts deal with living in zero gravity for long periods and how they handle basic tasks of living such as eating, exercise and elimination. Seeing the tight quarters they live in gives you a new respect for the patience and forbearance the select few must exercise. They must have, as Tom Wolfe said, "The Right Stuff."

For a while it looked as if our group might not get in to the site for our scheduled tour, since we were held up for a long time at the gate. At last, though, our hosts managed to convince the guards that we were simple tourists, not spies for a foreign power. Speaking of foreign spies, I recently saw the film "Bridge of Spies" and thought it did a good job of conveying the tense atmosphere that existed between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War.

Friday, October 23, 2015

More on Russian and Georgian Food

The picture above is of the outside of a budget Russian restaurant chain called My-My (pronounced
moo moo) near the Tretyakov Gallery on the south side of the Moscow River. This place serves home-style Russian food in a cafeteria setting, and their restaurants sport the cow statue outside.

When I had lunch there last month, a salad, a beer and some bread came to only about $3. Everything was tasty, but the place was crowded and somewhat chaotic. Anyway, crowded in restaurants is usually a good sign, and I certainly ccouldn't complain about the price.

Russian food tends to be quite bland and it used to be that salt was the only spice you were likely to find. Now, however, I noticed a nefarious trend toward using quite a lot of garlic. Garlic is OK in small quantities, but overdone it can be overpowering.

Traditionally in Russia, perhaps because of the blandness of their own cuisine, Russians used to seek out the spicy cuisine of Georgia and the other Caucuses republics. Most of these places are independent now, but Georgian restaurants particularly continue to be very popular. They come in different price ranges, from budget to luxury.

In St. Petersburg I dined with a group at a restaurant on Zagorodny ulitsa called Gruzia, where a meal of the yummy Georgian cheese bread, shashlik, salad and wine came to just about $5 per person. We were there too early to catch the singer who was performing a little later.

At a more upscale Georgian restaurant in Korolev called something like "As at Home" a soulful singer was performing, and the food was similar but more sophisticated. A meal for two with cheese bread, salad, grilled shrimp and three glasses of wine cost about $45. Even the Russians in our group had to ask the name of the restaurant, since it was written in the Georgian language.

Perhaps the prevalence of his local cuisine is Stalin's revenge from beyond the grave? In any case, Georgian restaurants are usually a good choice in Russia.

Back in Peter, I ate at the restaurant of my hotel, the Kristoff. There a meal of beef stroganoff served with mashed potatoes, bread and a glass of wine cost about $10. I didn't get a chance to sample much street food on this trip, but before I have enjoyed the meat or cheese pies sold at outdoor stands, and always the ice cream which Russians consume year round. It's a good pick-me-up during a long day of touring, or sometimes a substitute lunch.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Beware the Barcode

According to a story on, the barcode on your flight boarding pass may contain too much information about you and your travel plans. That means that instead of just throwing it away once your trip is over, you should shred it.

I haven't been flying enough lately to be a regular on Flyertalk, but this article caught my eye. Apparently some airlines encode sensitive information into the barcode, and people with ill intentions can retrieve the used boarding pass, scan the barcode into a certain Website and thereby possibly gain access to your frequent flyer accounts and travel plans.

Flyertalk is mainly a good source for those who are true travel junkies, people who take long flights just to rack up frequent flyer miles. But it is also worth checking from time to time for those of us who don't travel so often, because of interesting tidbits like the above.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Russian Space Program

Space exploration and travel is one area where Russia and even the former Soviet Union have exhibited undisputed excellence. From Sputnik, the unmanned satellite launched in the 1950s which proved that the Soviet Union possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles, to the situation today when the U.S. has cut back its manned space program to the point where the only way U.S. astronauts can reach the International Space Station is via Russian Soyuz rockets launched from Kazakhstan, Russia defers to no one in this area. Pictured above is Mission Control in Korolev, a Moscow suburb, one of several places around the world which manage the International Space Station.

If you have any interest in space travel, a visit here is definitely worthwhile though difficult to arrange. You must go with a group, and applications normally must be made at least 45 days in advance. Explanations about the centre are given by a guide in Russian only, so you will probably need a translator. Some members of my group noted that it looked as if working here could be pretty boring most of the time, except in emergencies, and I suppose that is true. It may be similar to working in air traffic control.

We learned that the International Space Station orbits 400 km. above the earth, and the astronauts aboard work mainly on experiments commissioned by industry. The crew of the station varies, and now it includes three Russians, two Americans and one Japanese astronaut, with American Scott Kelly in command. Some astronauts have stayed in orbit a year and a half, but most only for a maximum of six months. The language aboard is mainly English with some Russian added.

It's a long time since I visited mission control in Cape Canaveral, Florida when I was a kid, and I've never seen the operation in Houston. So I was happy to get a view of how this international program is still operating well despite growing tensions between Russia and the West. We did learn that Russia is building its own launch facility in the Russian Far East to replace the Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Apparently they think the Kazaks are charging too much rent for it.

If you want to see this facility it may be possible to do so through a tour group without the 45 day advance notice--our group leader said he had seen an ad in Moscow for a day trip at a cost of about $260. I'm not sure who was running the tour, but Patriarshy Dom is one organisation that offers interesting though often pricey tours of unusual attractions around the Russian capital. You can check their schedule at, which is also a good source if you are seeking a place to live or a job in Moscow. I was amazed at the amount some private turoring jobs are paying--up to 1,000 British pounds a week or more. Shades of Czarist times, when noble families usually employed tutors from Western Europe and sometimes barely spoke Russian themselves.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Back to the USSR

If, like certain world leaders, you are nostalgic for the days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a good way in Moscow to get a feel for what things were like then is to visit the All Russian Exhibition Centre at the VDNKh Metro stop in the northern part of the city.

It was originally called the Exhibit of the Achievements of the People's Economy and is an enormous park with many interesting features such as a fountain with gilded statues of women representing all the former republics of the union. Its avenues are wide in typical Soviet fashion, and a statue of Lenin greets you on arrival. The entrance gate resembles a smaller version of one of Stalin's seven Gothic towers. In Soviet times, everything seemed to be designed to remind the individual that he was small and the state was all-important.

There are exhibit buildings named for each of the Republics and attractions that appeal to families, such as a large Ferris wheel and various games for kids. You can dine at a nice restaurant, or enjoy a meal or a drink at a beer garden near the Ferris wheel. Admission to the park is free, but there are small charges to ride the Ferris wheel and for certain exhibits.

On a day when the weather is pleasant and you want to enjoy some green space in this very busy city, the Centre could be a good outing with that "Back to the Future" feel. In the distance here is the exhibition hall named for the Karelian Republic, the region north of St. Petersburg that borders Finland. Sorry about the different size of the pictures--I'm not sure how to enlarge the photo above to give you a better idea of the overwhelming nature of the park's entrance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Ladies' Taxis

The idea of taxis for women only seems to be spreading around the world. I recently took a lady's taxi in Moscow, and had a good experience with it. The car was clean, the young driver was well-dressed and drove like a pro, and I got to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

A few years ago I had a different experience with this type of transportation, also in Moscow. I got to the airport with barely enough time to make the plane because the driver was late picking me up.

The idea of a taxi service just for women, run by women, seems to have originated in India but is now spreading around the world. You can find this kind of company in Prague, several cities in the Arab world, as well as in Russia. These companies even exist in the U.K. and in New York City.

Perhaps it is the increase in immigrants from Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent that is fuelling the rise of this kind of company in the West. In those societies, women are often separated from men on public transit.

I'm not sure how I feel about this development. Are women perhaps inadvertently creating their own ghetto? While it is good to create jobs for women and to see more women entrepreneurs, there may be an underside if women only feel safe riding with other women at the wheel.

However, when I think about my own group's recent experience in Russia, it was two women passengers who were ripped off by two male taxi drivers in St. Petersburg. That is not to say that all female drivers are completely honest either--my Russian host warned me  not to pay the driver until I had arrived at the airport.

In any case, if you want to try out a taxi for women only in Moscow, the Website is The site supposedly offers an English language option, but I couldn't get it to work. Pictured below is my wonderful Russian host. She and her family made my trip extra special, with their unstinting hospitality, her mother's great cooking and her husband's patient driving through some pretty horrendous traffic.

For women's taxis in other cities, do an internet search to see what is available.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Costs of Russian Trips

I was trying to add up the costs of my various trips to Russia, and am convinced that the country is now as cheap as it has ever been, at least for foreign tourists. Even with the cost (and annoyance) of visas and invitations, my latest trip came in at around $2700 U.S. for 14 days, or less than $200 per day.

That included interntional air fare, one fare on the high speed Sapsan train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, tours, accommodations, meals, taxi fares and a few small purchases. In the U.S. or Western Europe, it is easy to spend $200 just for a hotel room for one night.

My previous trip in 2011 was longer, three weeks, and included travel to Siberia. However, because it included two weeks or home hosting the cost was very reasonable also, in the range of $3300 or so, with $2,000 of that just for air fare.

In 2007 I travelled to Moscow for just over a week, and because costs were very high at that time spent about $160 per night for a hotel room quite far from the city centre. Another voyage in 2005 to St. Petersburg for about two weeks with an added few days in Finland cost well over $3000 because of the fee for a writing program in St. Petersburg.

Earlier trips included a press trip in 1991 at minimal cost to me, and a student tour back in the Brezhnev era. The student tour lasted just a week and included both St. Petersburg and Moscow and some cultural highlights--the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Red Army Chorus and a big, elegant New Year's dinner at the now defunct Roosiya Hotel, all for just $200, with air fare from Switzerland. If you factor in inflation, $200 then was probably equivalent to about $2000 now, so it wasn't the bargain it seemed at the time.

Below, some of the cascading fountains at Peterhof, Peter the Great's Palace on the Gulf of Finland.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Food in Russia

In Communist days, "food in Russia" could often be considered what mathematicians call an empty set, since even for tourists it was sometimes hard to get enough to eat. In the restaurants you didn't order what you wanted from the menu, you asked what was available, and usually it was just one item.
Fortunately, those days are long gone. Now virtually every kind of food is available, and often at reasonable prices at least for foreigners. Above in the shopping emporium GUM on Red Square, where I recently enjoyed a meal in the top floor eatery called Stolobaya (or cafeteria.) I had a large citrus cocktail, a plate of rice and chicken stew, bread and the Russian drink called "kvass" made from fermented bread for a mere 345 rubles, just over $5. I was pleased when the cashier spoke to me in Russian, and I suspect it was because I ordered kvass, which foreigners seldom drink. The downside to this very popular restaurant is that it is quite noisy.
 If you prefer to gather the makings of a picnic, you can easily do so in the extensive food halls on the ground floor of GUM. A cursory examination showed that they may rival those in Harrod's in London or KaDeWe in Berlin. A decent food court in central Moscow is the one at the underground shopping centre Okhotny Ryad nearby. Be careful with prices here, since the price advertised for dishes is often just for 100 grams, which is not very much. The McDonald's on Tverskaya is quite upscale and attracts a lot of young professionals.
One very interesting culinary experience on this trip was lunch at a vehicle museum in the Moscow suburbs. It was served by young people dressed as Soviet soldiers (the museum has a lot of old tanks and cars from that period,) and was typical Army chow--kasha mixed with some kind of meat, salo on black bread (salo is pork fat) and beer or kvass. It made you glad you didn't have to serve in the Red Army.
Keep reading for more about Russian food and restaurants in coming days.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Crime in Russia

Pictured above is the Lukyanka, headquarters of the Russian federal security services. It is known to readers of spy books as Moscow Centre.
 Crime is a fact of life everywhere, but seems to be on the rise in Russia. This is my conclusion based on a totally unscientific survey of my own experiences travelling with tour groups to Russia over a number of years.
On the most recent tour in September, two members of our group of 19 had items stolen, and two others were badly ripped off by taxi drivers in St. Petersburg. The trip before that, a child on the Moscow Metro tried without luck to pick the pocket of the one group member who was a former FBI agent.
This time, two women were overcharged when they took airport taxis without booking them first at the Pulkovo arrivals hall. There, you can book a taxi for your destination under a sign that says "Pulkovo Taxi." A trip to most central destinations costs about $16, around 1,000 rubles. However, if you get a taxi yourself outside the airport, you may pay as much as $100 for the same trip.
Also in Petersburg, a member of our group lost her purse when it was snatched right off the seat in our hotel dining room. She lost her passport, smart phone and tablet and a couple of credit cards. Luckily, she was able to get the passport replaced the next day at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but with considerable inconvenience. She was also able to cancel her credit cards and deactivate her smart phone.
Shortly after the theft, a plainchothes police officer arrived to take down the report in longhand. The theft had been captured on video, and I believe she eventually retrieved some of the lost items. However, I found the boldness of the crime surprising. Apparently the people who stole the purse had followed several of our group into the restaurant from the street. That is one of the downsides of group travel--a gaggle of people speaking a foreign language is more likely to attract potential thieves than a single individual or couple. Some other group members foiled attempts to pick their pockets on the Metro in Peter.
Later, near Moscow, another woman had a smartphone and tablet removed from her bag. So, more than a quarter of our 19 members suffered thefts, attempted thefts, or rip-offs. Most of the problems occurred in Petersburg which, as a major port for Baltic cruises, attracts more Western tourists than Moscow.
I have heard from reliable sources that street crime is a big problem in many cities of Western Europe too. Perhaps I live in a bubble in Montreal, but street crime is not something people here tend to worry about.
The rate of petty crime in Russia is certainly not a reason to forego a visit, but it is good to be aware of the possibility and take precautions. For instance, always carry photocopies of your passport and credit cards in your luggage. Leave them there or in a hotel safe when you sightsee. Also scatter cash in various locations, so if need be you will not be wiped out totally. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Russian Monasteries

The picture above shows one of my fellow travellers with a stray cat outside the Nikitsky monastery near Pereyaslavl Zalessky, a town north of Moscow.
Another monastery, this one called Gethsemany, near Sergiev Posad. With sturdy brick walls, it was a prison during Soviet times but is back in operation now as a seminary and monastery. Most of the attractions in the towns around Moscow known as the Golden Ring are church buildings of some kind. The Russian Orthodox Church was suppressed in the Soviet period, particularly in the early years when many priests and nuns were killed. However, it survived and is now quite popular--you see a lot of people wearing the Orthodox cross (with an extra crossbar) and some homes again have icons on the wall.
On this trip I happened to meet some young Russians who had recently visited the Kola Peninsula on the White Sea, and asked whether they had seen the film "Leviathan," which is set in that bleak and beautiful region and shows the Orthodox Church in quite an unfavourable light. They said they had not, and they did not think it had been shown anywhere in Russia. For more information on the Kola Peninsula, check the site, maintained by the same man who used to run a useful travel site called He is now living in the North.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Kremlin Comings and Goings

The Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin, Moscow. It is
also known, somewhat confusingly, as the Dormition Cathedral. It is where the Czars were crowned
and inside its walls are covered with rows of glorious gold icons, including a very famous one from Novgorod in the early 12th century of St. George and the Virgin (not the dragon.)
I didn't notice much new in the Kremlin this time, except for President Putin's helipad near the Moscow River. By using it on his fairly infrequent visits, we were told, he avoids the horrendous traffic and causing problems for other drivers. Most of the time he works in a suburb southeast of the city, or works out at his gym in Sochi.
I asked our guide about what is happening with the site of the former Roosiya Hotel, just across Red Square from the Kremlin. The Roosiya with some 6,000 rooms used to be the largest in the world, but was demolished a number of years ago and the site boarded up. Now the plan is to turn it into a park--a good idea since green space is scarce in central Moscow, but perhaps also a sign of the economic downturn the country is suffering at the moment. 
I always enjoy seeing the Kremlin again, and this time there were a lot fewer tourists around than I had seen in June, 2011. Most of the tourists seemed to be Asian or Russian, with westerners in short supply. I didn't get a chance to take a picture of it, but on the bridge just south of the Kremlin there is still a memorial of flowers marking the spot where opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down earlier this year.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Russia Trip

I got back two weeks ago from another trip to Russia, which was fascinating as usual. It's great to finally have my blog fixed so I can return to telling you about my travels. The statue above in in the Moscow Metro, Komsomolskaya Station. The Komsomol was the youth wing of the Communist Party.

The good news from Russia is that it is actually quite affordable now, for the first time in many years. A steep devaluation of the ruble means that for foreigners, prices are low. I stayed at a nice small hotel in St. Petersburg, the Kristoff, for $80 U.S. for a room including a generous and delicious breakfast buffet. The hotel is on Zagorodny Prospect, within walking distance of most of the city's attractions. Meals both in Petersburg and Moscow mostly came to $10 or less, which is cheaper than anything except the food courts and fast food places here in Montreal.

Once again, as in 2011, I travelled with Friendship Force International ( I stayed with a local host in a lovely home in a Moscow suburb for a week, enjoying some of the famous Russian hospitality and extensive sight-seeing, and met some very interesting fellow travellers from the U.S., the U.K., India and Japan. The local hosts were most accommodating, and the program included visits to two of the centres of the Russian space program. The suburb where we stayed was formerly a closed city, but now it is wide-open and seems to be thriving. Traffic was amazingly heavy, and within just a couple of blocks of my host's home, which was new and very comfortable, a series of five luxury hi-rise condo buildings is going up.

Keep reading in the next weeks for more information on my trip. It's nice to be back, but I miss Russia already.

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