10 ways to survive a Russian winter vacation

The phrase “Russian winter” may bring to mind images of tall fur hats, snowcovered gold church domes, and steaming bowls of borscht. It may also remind you that both the armies of Hitler and Napoleon were driven off by the cold winter of the north and that “Russian winter” is also an explanation why every invader has failed to conquer the country. Winter of 2010-2011 was forecast to be the worst in Russia (and Europe in general) since they began keeping weather records, but so far, it’s just been freezing (or below) as usual.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to visit the largest country in the world when it’s cold. The long lines to visit Moscow‘s Kremlin or St. Petersburg‘s Hermitage museum virtually disappear over the winter months, and hotel prices, which still high, dip to slightly more palatable levels. More than anything, winter is when you’ll find Russia at its most “Russian”: residents draped in fur, sipping vodka, or taking a steam at a banya bathhouse.

After a recent stint in Russia over the winter holidays, I put together a few ways to get through a week or two in subzero temperatures and even learn to love the cold.1. Find something warm to sip – Though Russia is famed for their vodka-drinking (more on that below), you’ll find coffee to be the most widely available beverage, with even the simplest cafes offering a full range coffee drinks from espresso to macchiato. You’ll find familiar brands like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, as well as Russian chains like Kofe Xaus (Coffee House) and Shokoladnitsa (Hot Chocolate) on nearly every street in major cities with every conceivable hot drink including tea (pronounced “chai” like in Turkish and many Balkan languages).
2. More warming beverages – You can’t talk about Russia without talking about vodka, the national spirit. Russians actually tend to drink more beer than vodka, though both are readily available most anywhere food and drinks are sold and both good for a warm-up. Cocktails are pricey anytime they involve imported alcohol, but a half-liter of local beer or a small glass of vodka (sipped, not drunk as a shot!) can warm you up for a just few bucks. While many bars and restaurants can serve alcohol 24 hours a day, a new law means you can’t buy strong alcohol (i.e. nothing stiffer than beer and wine) after 10pm so plan ahead if you want a late nightcap.
3. Eat filling food – Take a look at any Russian menu and you’ll see the food is made for cold months – hearty stews and soups, variations on meat-and-potatoes, and salads that rely heavily on mayonnaise and meat. If you are looking for lighter (and cheaper) but still substantial fare, seek out pelmeni dumplings, pierogi cheese or meat pies, and blini pancakes. Russian chain Теремок (pronounced Teremok) is all over Moscow and St. Petersburg and is a quick and reliable stop for a pancake with any conceivable filling from ham and cheese to red salmon caviar. They have both restaurant locations and street stands, with handy picture menus so you can point to your choice instead of struggling with Cyrillic. Street food gets classier when caviar is involved.
4. Tread carefully – An ice storm hit Moscow just after I arrived on Christmas, making the sidewalks slippery and treacherous. Many Russians took advantage and slid gleefully down the street and down hills. It may look fun, but you don’t want to spend your vacation in traction or even with a bruised tailbone. Take small and careful steps on icy streets; gravel is used to make it less slick but salt not as common. Ladies, you will see Russian women tottering along the street in 4-inch stiletto boots and think you too can do it. You cannot. It is in their DNA to walk gracefully in high heels on ice while we slip and slide in our most practical shoes. Speaking of shoes…
5. Wear boots – I admittedly mocked my husband for buying huge waterproof boots before our trip, as they won’t see much action in Istanbul where winter temperatures have barely dipped below 50 F, but he was warm as toast. I wore knee-high flat leather boots most days, and while they weren’t waterproof, they kept me relatively warm and dry (though warmer socks might have helped). On the days I wore shorter, slip-on shoes with long pants, I was miserable and ended up with wet pant cuffs and cold ankles. Embrace the equestrian look and tuck your pants into your boots for extra warmth (then again, men may just want to make sure their cuffs aren’t too long).
6. Dress in many thin layers – You may think Russia is the time for big bulky sweaters and coats, but you’ll find that thinner is better. Many museums require you to check your coat at the door and you won’t find them all to be well-heated, so better to have warm clothing underneath. Layers also give you options: I arrived in Moscow in a wool coat bought in Istanbul and left wearing a puffy down coat UNDER the wool, plus a few other layers. Let your wardrobe be flexible and able to add or subtract, it’s easier to pack as well. Check the Gadling cold weather gift guide for some good winter clothing ideas.
7. Bring a good hat – Walking the streets of Moscow, you’ll be sorely tempted to buy a beautiful fur hat like everyone else you see but think again. Is it really that cold where you live? Do you realize how expensive a fur hat is (think a few hundred dollars at minimum for a good one)? Also, a structured fur hat can’t be stuffed in a purse or a pocket on the metro and needs to be carried inside museums, it’s like having a pet to take care of! Suddenly a ski cap seems much more practical.
8. Find the shortcuts – Even in subzero temperature, walking is still the best way to explore Russia’s major cities, and streets are usually well-cleared. After you get your bearings, however, you may want to look for some indoor shortcuts: department stores and shopping centers that span a block, underground passages, and subway tunnels. Russia’s metros are not only beautiful (and heated), they often have multiple entrances that can put you blocks closer (or further) from your destination. Find your landmarks and figure out the Cyrillic so you can take a break from the outdoors for a few minutes.
9. Check your hotel amenities – After location and price, two key hotel features may be a bathtub and a coffee maker or tea kettle. After a day trudging around the city in snow, a hot bath and a cup of tea can be worth their weight in gold. My Moscow hotel room at the Mamaison Pokrovka, had a full-fledged espresso machine with every option for coffee and tea, greatly helping us to warm up each morning and night. Also, some mid- to high-level hotels offer a pool, sauna, and/or jacuzzi for guest use but check the fine print: many are only free for guests for limited hours in the morning.
10. Soak at a banya – Another Russian winter essential is the bathhouse where you can sit in blissfully hot steam for hours. You may want to skip the birch branch flogging but there’s a reason many brave souls dive into snow after a steam: the banya brings your body temperature way up and warms you inside out, while the snow seals your pores. Sound too extreme? Maybe skip the snow and go back to the beginning of the list for some borscht and beer. Na sdrovia!

Find other ways to keep warm in frigid temps? Have you found Russia worth braving the cold? Leave your suggestions and experiences below in the comments.

Photo of the Day (11.7.10)

I think this photo should be titled “The Million Mile Stare.” What is it about bodies of water that inspires such deep contemplation? Their size? The view? It’s hard to say, but Flickr user jrodmanjr has managed to capture one of these “introspective moments” during a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. The image is a beautiful blend of colors and textures. I love the hue of the bright yellow buildings and bridge in the distance, their lights smudged by soft focus. Above them is a steely-blue sky, smeared with dark patches of clouds. Below, an inky-black river glittering with light. I can understand why the woman in the foreground needs a minute to take this whole scene in. Wow.

Have any photos you’d like to share from your travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flckr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Gadlinks for Tuesday 8.18.09

Hello and welcome to this Tuesday’s edition of Gadlinks. How does it work? The wise and ever-watchful writers of Gadling scour the best of the day’s travel news from around the Internet, summarizing it in one easy to read post. What caught our eye today? Read on below:

  • Frenchman Alexis de Toqueville might have been the first foreign visitor to write about his experiences in America, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Jaunted’s Brit “londontown” is on a cross country road trip from Los Angeles to New York. See what road trip tips he’s learned on his way. [Via Jaunted]
  • Heading to Amsterdam? Why not make your way over to the Herenstraat and Prinsenstraat corridor, two parallel streets that have filled in recent years with hopping bars, restaurants and quirky stores. [Via The New York Times]
  • Stephanie Carrie went to Saint Petersburg to brush up on her Russian language skills. All was going well until her encounter with the barrel of a police machine gun. What happened? Read the full story here. [Via World Hum]
  • Tired of seeing the same old elephants and zebras at the zoo? If you’re in search of something more exotic, head to these zoos which feature some downright bizarre looking creatures. How about some proboscis monkeys and mustached tamarins? [Via MSNBC]

More Gadlinks HERE.

St. Petersburg photos offer glimpse of a “hidden” past

Any visitor to Saint Petersburg will quickly understand the city’s reputation as the “crown jewel” of Russia. Built by Russian monarch Peter the Great to compete with the great capitals of Europe, Saint Petersburg’s architecture is characterized by ornate European-style buildings and colorful onion dome cathedrals set along a series of grand canals.

Yet the startling beauty of this former Russian capital city does not immediately reveal the harsh secrets beneath the beautiful facades. During World War II, when city had been renamed as Leningrad by the Soviets, it was the site of a brutal siege by an invading Nazi army. Website English Russia is featuring a series of images taken by photographer Sergei Larenkov, who has superimposed photos taken during the World War II siege with the same locations today.

The siege was a horrible time for the town’s residents. Not only was the city was assaulted by an invading army – they were forced to also endure a brutal winter and dwindling food supplies, leading many to resort to eating their shoes and stray rats (if they were lucky). Meanwhile dead bodies lay decomposing in the streets and machine gun nests staked claim to once busy intersections. Larenkov’s photos effectively connects the viewer these horrific scenes, juxtaposing idyllic 21st Century street shots with stark black and white snapshots of a time of war.

Needless to say, the siege was a horrible moment – but the Germans were eventually beaten back and life slowly returned to normal. Nearly 65 years later, the city is as pretty as ever. Yet as any visitor walks the streets of St. Petersburg circa 2009, lined with gorgeous architecture, chic cafes and trendy boutiques, it’s interesting to think of how far Russia has come from those days of the past – and just how close it came to the brink of disaster.

[Via Environmental Graffiti]

Bolshoi in Russia: Train to St. Petersburg and other excuses for obscene vodka-drinking

Greetings from Moscow! Bolshoi in Russia is my variation on Big in Japan. (Bolshoi means “Big” in Russian. Get it?) Stay tuned for my live dispatches from Russia.

There are two ways to travel between Moscow and St. Petersburg and they cost about the same. Either you fly–and you have to be prepared to fly Aeroflot or worse–or you take the train. They cost is about the same: $100 one-way. It was a no-brainer for me. I boarded the fast train to St. Petersburg this weekend hoping to catch a glimpse of rural Russia along the way. I don’t think we quite pulled out of the Leningradskaya train station when the first vodka came out.

Train experience

I had no complaints about this train. It is a pleasant, 5-and-a-half-hour ride through flat, yet picturesque countryside. You can still see signs from the communist times on abandoned buildings by the train station: “Power to the workers” and stuff like that. The farther away from Moscow you get, the nicer the landscape is. We were thankful we took the fast train. There is also a slower, overnight train, that takes about 8 hours, but I honestly can’t imagine doing vodka shots one minute longer than we did. The overnight train costs the same as the fast one. The advantage, I guess, is that it save you one night’s hotel. (Big savings in this expensive piece of the planet). There is also the new super-fast train that makes the trip in some 4 hours, but it’s still very new…hence totally overpriced.

The neither-super-fast-nor-totally-slow train we chose was new and comfortable. They even had waiters on the train and should you wish to order vodka right as you leave the station, you made do so. It costs about $30 for about 8 ounces of it (which is about 5 times as much as you would pay for it if you bought it in the store before boarding), but they do bring it to you in a flask, with crystal shot glasses. When was the last time New Jersey Transit did that for you, ah?

You get assigned seats and maybe you-like us-will be fortunate enough to sit next to a couple of drunk newlyweds. I am told this is not how the “typical” train ride from Moscow to St. Pete’s goes. Usually, this train ride is really sophisticated, packed with business commuters from the two cities. The three of us were lucky (or extremely unlucky, depending on your point of view) to get seated next to the newlyweds, who brought lots of homemade food and wine on board with them. Frankly, we were all about joining their wedding party. I even got to sing a Russian war song I first learned at school at the age of eight. I was proud I still knew the lyrics.

Train wedding and other excuses for daytime drinking

I have seen a lot of odd wedding parties in my life (including one in which the couple chose Kanye Wests’s “Gold Digger” as their wedding song). However, I can’t say that I had ever experienced a wedding celebration on a commuter train before. The newlyweds were a couple of kids-20, maybe 25 years old artistic types (see picture). They even brought their book of published poems, and played music they’d recorded. They were still in their wedding outfits because they literally just got married in Moscow and were traveling to spend their honeymoon in St. Petersburg.

Here is the thing about traveling in Russia. It is pretty hard to meet locals, unless you are willing to drink with them. Drinking is bonding. I mean, really, can you refuse to drink vodka (and eat sandwiches filled with God-knows-what) with newlyweds sitting next to you on a train of all places? You can’t. That’s exactly my point. It is virtually not possible to avoid drinking alcohol in Russia, even in the oddest circumstances, such as being on a commuter train from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

The excuses to drink any time of day in Moscow are endless. I could see that developing an alcohol problem would be really easy here. As I overheard yesterday: people drink vodka because “it makes life go by faster.” Often, that could be a good thing here: spend a cold, rainy day or two in Moscow, trust me. There is nothing enticing about it. Vodka: you can always count on it.

Finally, St. Petersburg!

We pulled into the Moskovskaya train station in St. Petersburg around 10 pm. Russian train stations are always named after the destination they service. The train station from which you go to Moscow is called Moskovskaya, the train station from which trains go to Kiev is Kievskaya, etc. Needless to say, there are a lot of little train stations everywhere and they all service only that one general route.

Here is the thing that was strange. It was 10 pm and we were a little tipsy. That’s not the strange part. The weird thing was that it was broad daylight outside. I forgot how far north St. Petersburg was. They actually get white nights here in June. Even at the end of May, it was getting dark between 11pm and midnight and it was daylight again at 4am. I noticed the extra hours of daylight gave me extra energy. You need all the extra energy you can get in St. Petersburg. You want to see as much of it as possible. It is a stunning city! More on that later.

From Russia, with love.