Trains, Planes, and Automobiles (well, mostly trains): Traveling in Russia

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One of the most common questions I’ve been asked about studying abroad is if, once I’m in Russia, I’m going to travel the rest of Europe as well. My answer is no for several reasons. The first and most technical is that until several weeks ago, we only had single-entry visas, which meant that once we were here, we could not leave until our program ended. While we received multi-entry visas when they were renewed, my desire to spend my weekends traveling Europe is fairly small, given that I have the largest country in the world at my fingertips. Sure, I could spend my weekends jetting off to the Baltics, Kiev, or Germany and Poland, but why should I when I can soak up culture in St. Petersburg, visit beautiful churches in Vladimir, and tourist the way Russians do in Kazan or Sochi? Of course, I have not spent every weekend traveling. In fact, thus far I’ve only been to two places other than Moscow, with plans in the works to go to two more, but I’ve gotten to know the city I live in. This semester, I’ve used most of my weekends as a chance to get acquainted with Moscow, since I’m too busy studying during the week to feel like being a tourist once classes end at 4. And when I do travel, I enthusiastically jump on a train and head for another part of Russia on the exceedingly efficient rail system.

St. Petersburg and the overnight train

About a month ago, our group took a trip to St. Petersburg on an overnight train. On Russian trains, there are three types of accommodation: Kupe, Platscart, and sidyachi. Kupe, the most expensive, is a private compartment with four beds that provides a quiet, if stuffy, place to sleep on overnight trains. Platscart is cheaper than purchasing a kupe and provides you with one bed in a train car lined with two levels of bunks. It can be crowded, smelly, and noisy, but is most certainly an experience to remember and the bunks, though small, are fairly comfortable. The cheapest ticket one can buy on a train is for sidyachi, which is simply a seat like we have on American trains. No lying down, no personal space, but certainly a money-saver. On our trip to St. Petersburg, my friend and I purchased spaces in platscart, while four other girls from the group chose to share a kupe. It wasn’t a bad time, and while we arrived exhausted in St. Pete at 5:30 am, I would (and will) do it again.
Our time in St. Petersburg was filled with beautiful architecture, walks along the Neva River, and a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest collections of Western Art. It was a beautiful city that brought images of Paris and Stockholm swimming to mind. I’m glad I spent a weekend there, but I’m even more glad that I chose to study abroad in Moscow, where waiters speak in Russian, menus don’t always come in English, and instead of trying to accommodate our limited language skills, people simply tolerate us and communicate as best as possible sans English.

The Winter Palace or Hermitage, home of one of the largest collections of European art in the world

The Winter Palace or Hermitage, home of one of the largest collections of European art in the world

Boring or Beautiful? The provincial city of Vladimir

The second trip of the semester was this past weekend. My friends and I met bright and early at 6:30 am on Saturday to catch the first electric train out of Moscow to Vladimir, a provincial city about two and a half hours away where ACTR, my program, has another site. We met up with the student studying there this semester and he gave us the tour. Vladimir is relatively small—around 345,000 people—and was quite a departure from the hustle and bustle of Moscow’s 11.5 million residents. I was told over and over again that there was nothing to do in Vladimir, and while it’s definitely not as cosmopolitan as Moscow, I did not find that to be true. Beautiful cathedrals stand on scenic overlooks, delicious food is available for a fraction of the cost of Moscow, and a quick 45-minute bus ride away is the quaint, picturesque town of Suzdal, famous for its wooden architecture and kremlin. We spent part of the afternoon in Suzdal, but unfortunately our time there was fairly limited since we had to make it back for our return train by 7.

One of the many beautiful churches in Vladimir

One of the many beautiful churches in Vladimir

 

A perfect example of Suzdal's quaint, wooden architecture

A perfect example of Suzdal’s quaint, wooden architecture

What’s next?

The day, though hectic, was a success and we returned to Moscow exhausted but satisfied with our adventure. Our program is shockingly close to its end, and there are still so many more places I want to see across the country. My dream is to one day return and ride the trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, stopping along the way to get to know Russia outside of Moscow’s urban sprawl. I have plans to visit Nizhniy Novgorod and Kazan in a few weekends, and hopefully Sochi at the beginning of May, although we have to fly there due to the border conflict. As our official, program-sponsored week of travel, we will all be going to Volgograd and Saratov at the end of the April, and I can’t wait.

Although for many, part of the appeal of studying abroad is the opportunity to backpack through Europe, I’m perfectly content to hold off on Athens and put Prague on pause. I’d love to get there someday, but for now, I’m having a great time exploring the magnificent and vast nation that is Russia. It’s a beautiful, diverse, and underrated nation that encompasses a more varied scope of culture, lifestyles, and people than anywhere else I can think of. Why would I want to miss that?

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