Welcome all!

First I would like to thank you for visiting my blog, I hope you will enjoy reading it! Do not hesitate to follow me!

This blog has three main objects. First, it allows me to share my impressions and to provide useful informations to people who visit or leave in Moscow.

Than across this blog, I would like to exchange on Russia and more specifically on Moscow, to discuss everyone's outlook and eventually correct some stereotypes!

At last but not least, I would like to publish contributions of foreigners and Russians living in Moscow in order to have a multitude of glance on this wonderful city

I wish you all a good reading!! (There is also a French version of this blog: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Swimming in Moscow on weekends


With summer arriving and the room-temperature increasing in Moscow, you will soon want to take your swimsuit out of the cupboard and take the plunge! As foreigners, we don’t necessarily know the best spots to freshen up, and often we don’t even know that some of them are reachable with public transportation.

Serebriany Bor is one of this few spots attainable by metro and then by bus. You have different ways to reach this place, but the easiest and fastest solution is to get on the trolleybus 20, 21, 65 or 86 at the metro Polezhaevskaya (You can take these trolleybuses at other metro stations including Belorusskaya, sokol or Begovaya but it will be longer). They stop at the entrance of the park’s territory so you’ll need to walk a bit to reach beaches 2 and 3. If you don’t want to walk, you can get on “marshrutka” 190 (small bus) from metro Polezhaevskaya.


 

If you look on the map, you will see a sign next to which is written “КПП”, it depicts the entrance of Serebriany Bor’s protected zone. Trolleybuses will stop at this point and you’ll have to walk further. It’s fairly quick if you go at one of the first beaches, but if you want to reach the beach n°3 (the best equipped with sport fields and the most popular), it will be better to take the marshrutka 190 as explained before. Access is free, except for “VIP” spots. The main territory is open from 9am till 9pm except for special events.


 

If you want to gather with friends and do a barbecue (notably with alcohol, theoretically forbidden inside the protected area), I advise you to take the path on the left of the road just after the bridge (stop at the next to last bus stop just after the bridge) and before the park’s entrance. You will find barbecues available for everyone to use (20 of them approximately, purple color on the map), it’s a 10-15 minutes walk from the bus stop. This part of the territory is not in the protected area so it never closes! Swimming is not legally authorized as it’s unsupervised in this area but water is rather clean and reaches 25°c in summer!!  

If you forgot your swimsuit, you still can go swim and relax on the beach reserved for nudists that is located between the beach n°3 and the pink zone drawn on the map!

For more information, you can always have a look on their official website (in Russian) http://www.s-bor.ru.

If you know any other good place near Moscow where it’s possible to swim and enjoy a barbecue, do not hesitate to share in the comments. 

Happy swimming!! 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Travelling in a suburban train in Russia


Hello my dear readers, Happy New Year and my best wishes for 2012!

If you ever had to go to a small city around Moscow, you most probably took a suburban train, known in Russia as elektrichka (электричка). You probably were very surprised the first time as it’s different from our suburban trains! If you never took it, let me explain why it’s different and what you should expect!

The train itself is a normal suburban train with wooden bench seats (or plastic for the new trains), consisting of 6 to 14 cars. Most of them are electric. If you need to go to the restrooms, you will find that not every car is equipped with toilets and quite often there are only two (in the oldest ones), one on each end of the train. So far it’s almost the same as our suburban trains, more old fashioned but nothing special about it!

It’s important to know that the so-called suburban trains can link cities far from each other by more than one hundred fifty kilometers! You can even go from Moscow to St-Petersburg using only elektrichka; you’ll need to take five of them with stops at Tver, Bologoe, Okulovka and Malaya Vishera! On each popular route you’ll have some express trains, they are usually high-speed and have few stops but can be more expensive (although still very cheap), and other trains that will stop everywhere. For the example, if you take an elektrichka between Moscow and the city of Solnetchnogorsk (45 km from Moscow), it can take you between 54 minutes and 1h29 depending on the trains!

In Russia, you will have some stops in cities and villages like in all countries, but since it can be quite a long distance between two villages and that some people have a “datcha” (country house) in the middle of nowhere, they created some stops between villages or cities. You’ll have a platform with a name like “km 52” or “km 108”, and you can go out in the forest for example! It’s very popular stops for mushroom gatherers. Some of these stations won’t even have a ticket office, so you’ll have to buy your ticket directly on the train, without paying an extra fee.

This is still not very surprising, maybe a bit curious but no more! What really made the first trip interesting for me was the continuous passing of vendors and people escaping the ticket collector! It’s really funny to see these vendors selling various things to the passengers in the train. It can be toys, gadgets (useless most of the time), beauty product, products that will cure all your diseases (theoretically at least!), magazines… . Each of them enter the car, explain what the properties of their products are and then go along and wait for people to buy things. I noticed that passengers buy quite often the products that are sold, which surprised me. Some of them even have a microphone so everyone hears what they have to say.

I also mentioned people passing in the car to escape the ticket collector; this can be quite funny to watch. Lots of people using elektrichka are quite poor and some of them don’t buy tickets. If you get caught with no tickets, you just have to pay 50 Rubles (1, 25€) and you can continue your trip. The ticket collector will give you in exchange of the 50 Rubles a ticket, valid for a certain number of stops after that. You can pay 50 Rubles several times if the ticket they gave you is not valid anymore at the moment they control you again, but the total of the fines will still be less expensive than the price of the full-fare ticket. For the ones that try to avoid paying both the fine and the ticket, they move to the next car when the ticket collectors comes and when they arrive to a stop, they run to the next door where the ticket collectors already checked the tickets! The thing is that stops can be really short in time and that each car is pretty long, so they need to run fast in order to not “miss the train”, that’s why it’s for young people especially!

If you live in Russia and that you told your colleagues (Muscovite) that you took an elektrichka, they might be quite surprised as foreigners usually don’t take them. But it’s safe and usually the fastest way to reach a suburban city. You could take a bus or your car if you have one, but the risks of being stuck in traffic jam are really high, especially if you leave Moscow on Friday evening and you come back on Sunday. For example, I went at my friends’ place in their country house by elektrichka last summer, I left Moscow at 19h and arrived at 22h, at the same time as them, although they left the city centre by car at 15h! So if you don’t need a car where you go and are not too packed, prefer the train.

What else can I say about the elektrichka, maybe that it’s a way to meet modest and middle class Russians, it can change you from the image of Russian people you have living in the centre of Moscow. It’s also a good way to see the Russian countryside as it passes by traditional houses, fields, forests and agricultural lands. After that I let you “experience” it yourself!

If you have any cool anecdotes or comments, do not hesitate to share!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Interview for Expat Arrivals

Hello everyone,

I recently gave an interview to Stephanie Katz, the editor of the website Expat Arrivals.

Expat Arrivals is a website that offers on one side travel guides (not free) for various destinations, but moreover it provides lots of useful information and stories for free. You can find info about accommodation, visas, banking, money and taxes, education and schools ... . 

I invite you to have a look at their website and to read my interview! If you are interested, you can also contribute to develop Expat Arrivals website by participating actively on the forum or by providing useful contents.

http://www.expatarrivals.com/article/interview-with-laurent-fontaine-a-french-expat-living-in-moscow

I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


French version: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/2011/12/interview-pour-expat-arrivals.html 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Travelling in Russian trains : which ticket to buy


Hello everyone!

Now that you know how and where to buy train tickets, I will explain you which category of tickets to buy. First I will talk about the long distance train (sleeping car) and than about the Sapsan (Russians fast trains).


You can find 3 categories in these trains: плацкарт (“platzkart”), купе (“coupé”) and люкс (first class).

In platzkart, the all coach is open and can contain up to 54 beds; you don’t have a physical separation (a door) between the kinds of compartments. There is a long corridor, on one side you have 2 seats (that turns into two beds + two beds on top of them) and on the opposite side you have 1 seat (as a bed, which turns into two chairs and a table when you fold it + 1 bed on top of it). This is the 3rd class, beds are quite small, people can be noisy and you might have trouble to sleep there. However it’s very friendly, people usually share their drinks and food, they will talk to you very easily and there is more fresh air. If you are young, that you sleep well and are travelling for more than 12 hours, I strongly advise you platzkart. It’s usually fun and you will meet new people, especially as a foreigner. And of course it’s cheap! A personal advice: try to take the bottom seats if available (the same for “coupé”) as you can put all your personal belongings under the seat. If someone would like to steal them while you are sleeping, he would have to pull up your bed (with you on it) without you noticing it!! Generally speaking, travelling by train is safe and I’ve never heard of any story of people getting robbed in Russian trains. However, it’s always better to be careful, especially as a foreigner.

“Coupé” is the 2nd class; in each couch there are 9 closed compartments of 4 persons (36 passengers) with 2 seats down and 2 beds up. The sits can turn into bed whenever you want. It’s quite comfortable with longer beds and it’s quieter (if all your neighbors don’t snore!). It can be very friendly as well but usually it’s more families and older people, drinking beer at 2 in the morning might not happen there!! If you only want to sleep or if you like when it’s very quiet it’s a good option. As well if your travel is not too long, and you are just looking for comfort, than you should take it! Many Russians will tell you that Platzkart is awful and full of smelly people, it’s not really true. Of course if you take the train in summer when it’s +40°c outside, you might consider “coupé”, on a normal basis, it’s fairly good. If you are on a tight budget, know that it’s usually from 2 to 3 times more expensive and if you don’t speak any Russian, the chances that your neighbors only speak Russian are quite high.

Люкс” is the 1st class; it’s quite similar to “coupé” but with only 2 persons in each compartment (a maximum of 16 to 18 passengers in each couch). In some trains you can have additional services such as drinks and food, a radio and even a TV. This is usually on special trains. You can even get some compartments for 1 person with its toilet and shower, but it’s quite rare. There is also an air conditioning system that can be very appreciated in summer time (I’m only guessing tough, since I never traveled in “люкс”!). The price difference between “coupé” and 1st class is between one and a half and two. It also depends on the services, and if you are alone or with someone else it the compartment.

To summarize, the Russian railways system offers a wide offer in the level of services as well as on the price. You can choose cheap and eventually noisy, not so comfortable (still quite good) and on my own experience very friendly and even fun. You can have a better comfort for a still affordable price, but it won’t be such a Russian experience! And you have the last option, it’s comfortable and quite expensive, but other than that I can’t really tell more since I never used it. The level of comfort will also depend a lot on the trains! It’s like in France where you can travel in a TGV in first class and you won’t even have a plug while in another train you had plugs even in 2nd class. If someone knows which trains you should try to choose first and which one to avoid (if possible), it’s with great pleasure that I will accept your comments!


In some of the long-distance trains that run during the day, you can find a 4th class where you are seated, usually for travels not exceeding 8 hours. Since December 17th 2009, you can take a high speed train, the Sapsan (witch means Peregrine Falcon in Russian), between St-Petersburg and Moscow (3h45-4h15) and between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod (3h50-3h55). The train capacity is 604 passengers, all seated, you have business and economic class and both are very comfortable. In first class you have complimentary drinks and snacks included in the price, a screen with movies and games (like in planes), a plug (for your computer for example) as well as newspapers in Russian and in English. 1st class is almost twice as expensive as 2nd class.

The Sapsan from Moscow to Saint-Petersburg can stop as well in 5 different cities (depending on the trains) and there is a total of seven trains a day. The stops are: Тверь, Бологое, Вышний Волочек, Чудово and Окуловка. For the details of the schedule, I advise you to check directly the official site: http://sapsan.su/schedule.htm. Unfortunately it’s in Russian but here you have the direct link to the schedule so even in Russian it’s easy to check all the information!

The Sapsan from Moscow to Nizhniy-Novgorod can stop in 2 cities (also depending on the trains) and there are two trains every day. Both stop at Владимир, and one train only stops at Дзержинск, the morning one.

I hope that you now have all the necessary information to choose your train ticket category, if you have any cool anecdotes or any advises to give, please do not hesitate to leave comments! The next article will be on travels in suburban train (электричка)!


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Buying train tickets in Russia!


 
Hello dear readers and fans!! Excuse me for not writing for such a long time, I had to take all the existing trains throughout Russia in order to write this article!!

Well as you guess this is only partly truth, but I still took a lot of trains in Russia this last weeks!!

This article is the first one of a trilogy, I will explain here how to buy train tickets in Russia; in the next one I’ll talk about the unique experience you get traveling in trains (long distance) in Russia and in the third one I’ll describe a travel in a suburban train (электричка), there is much to say!!

In one of the previous posts, (http://glance-on-russia.blogspot.com/2011/05/russia-through-eyes-of-latin-american.html) my South American friend already explained the different ways to buy tickets, with his own experience. Here I will give a slightly different version, more complete; I hope both are interesting so I invite you to read the other article as well!

So let’s see how to buy ticket in Russia, especially as a foreigner:

The first and easiest way is usually through Internet: it’s quick, you have the best fare (special offers), it’s easy and you don’t have to queue! However you need two things, a credit card that works on the website (usually only Russian credit cards) and to speak Russian (or to have someone who does right next to you!). It’s possible to buy tickets on-line on the site http://rzd.ru/, you can also look on http://www.tutu.ru/poezda/ but I think they take a commission. However Tutu’s website is great to look at the trains, suburban trains and planes schedule as their website is quite well done! Once you found your route, you can go on the RZD’s website to buy the tickets directly. If you know any other good websites (especially in English), please put it down in the commentaries.

For the express trains to the airport, the Aeroexpress, you can also buy your tickets on-line in advance on the site https://www.aeroexpress.ru/en. The good news here is that you have an English version that works perfectly (it's the proof that nothing is impossible in Russia)!

For the high speed trains Moscow - St-Petersburg and Moscow – Nizhny-Novgorod you can buy the tickets on the website http://sapsan.su/. Unfortunately it’s only in Russian so far.

If you don’t speak Russian, there is an English version of the Russian Rail Roads (RZD) website, http://eng.rzd.ru/, but for the moment it’s only corporate site, not commercial. You need to switch to the Russian version to buy the tickets! Let’s hope it will change in a near future, especially due to the upcoming events such as the winter Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014. If you want to look for train schedules in English, here is a pretty good website with useful information on how to travel by train in Russia, http://www.seat61.com/Russia-trains.htm


The second option (the old classic one!) would be to buy your tickets at the Train station counters: If you speak Russian, it should be okay, but in that case, buy online! If you don’t and that no one can help, I advise you to go first at the train station machines (some of them have an English version) and check which train you want to take, and then queue to buy your ticket. If you do that, make sure to write down the number of the train, the seat number you want (I advise you to always take the down seats) and to look for the price. Than as the operators usually don’t speak English, give them the paper, your passport or photocopy (it is advisable) and the necessary amount of money! You can also give the copy of your passport to someone else for him to buy your tickets; you don’t have to go yourself. In some train stations in Moscow and I guess St-Petersburg, they have special counters for foreigners where they speak English!

When queuing, you must be very careful at the schedule of the desk where you are staying. Each desk successively has a technical break, usually 15 minutes, and a lunch break of half an hour or one hour! 

If you want to take a suburban train, you will have to buy your tickets directly at the counter; try to be at the train station at least 25 minutes before your train’s departure as they might be lots of people queuing. The tickets are very cheap, for example if you are going 120 km away from Moscow, you will pay around 200 rubles so 5€!! Do not expect the employees to speak English (although a miracle can still happen!), so make sure to know your final destination, look at the price written on the notice board near the counter and just say the station name (or write it down) and give the money! You don’t need your passport or other documents.
If you don’t know any Russian, I advise you to come 30-40 minutes before the train’s departure to avoid any problem. In some train stations you will have different counters for suburban trains depending on your destination, so it’s easy to get lost. If you have any problem, try to ask a Russian girl (age 18-30) to help you, by experience it’s the category that is the most likely to speak English. I say a girl because in Russia (and probably in many countries), I found that girls often mastered more languages than guys.


Previously I talked about the Train station machines: If you don’t want to queue at the counter, these machines are inside the train station and allow you to buy your train tickets as well. They accept credit cards but once again, not all of them. You can check your train number and price on the machine and than buy your ticket directly at the counter. And as it would be too easy, most of them are in Russian, meaning few of them are also in English!


The last solution and maybe the easiest one, if you don't speak any Russian, is to buy your tickets through specialized Travel Agencies (ЖД и авиа билеты, meaning train and plane tickets). They will take a commission depending on your ticket’s price but there is usually no queuing, and in most of them in Moscow they will have someone who does speak English! Otherwise you can go to any other “normal” travel agency to buy your tickets.

Oh! I forget to tell you that if you have to cancel your trip, you can be reimbursed. If you ask the pay back more than 8 hours before departure, you have a fixed commission, between 8 hours and 2 hours, the commission is 50% of the cheapest fare (Platzkart) and between 2 hours before and 12 hours after departure, it’s 100% of the cheapest fare.

A last advice, be very careful to the name of your train station, some of them are quite far from each other and you don’t want to go in the wrong one. In Moscow there are more than six big train stations and dozens of small ones, so make sure to double check it!

I hope that now you have all the keys to buy train tickets in Russia! If you have any questions or advices, do not hesitate to comment on this article, thank you!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What you should do… or not do while invited by a Russian!


As we can’t deny Russian hospitality, we can say that it’s very common to be invited by Russians in their home! As a foreigner, it’s not always easy to know what you should do and what might offend your host. Of course because you are a foreigner they will be much more understandable towards your inappropriate behaviour when the case! But if you get to respect the local traditions and habits, it’s way better. In order to do that, I did my best to list a maximum of rules and traditions it’s good to apply when you are invited as well as when you invite Russians.

I’ll try to list everything in a logical order, from your arrival to your departure! First of all and like in many countries, it’s better to bring a gift (flowers, wine, chocolate …). Once you arrived at the door, you knock of course, but then you must be careful to not shake hands in the doorway, you must first enter and only then you can kiss or shake hands with your host. When you invite Russians it’s the same, invite them to enter before saying hello. And in most cases, you will have to take off your shoes, don’t make them ask you!

Once inside, you will be offered to sit in the dining room (or often in the living room or the kitchen since most of the flats/houses are not big enough to have a dining room) if you come for lunch or dinner, otherwise in most cases you will be offered a cup of tea. It’s not very polite to refuse the drink, but you can ask for something else. Especially in Moscow, you can ask for a coffee as it’s becoming very popular, if you really don’t like coffee and tea you still can ask for a juice. But keep in mind that drinking tea in Russia is a “must do” (unfortunately for me)! And you never drink tea alone, there are always small cakes or candies to go with it, if you have guests, buy some (and don’t forget like me!). 

If you come for a meal, you’ll realize that all the “закуски” are already set on the table. It’s all kind of appetizers and cold dishes such as ham, sausage, salads, caviar (red) … . If you have Russian guests home it’s good to do the same, bring every cold dishes at once. Warm dishes will come one after another (soup, fish or meat). Concerning cheese (I’m French!), it will always come as an appetizer, never like in France between the main dish and the desert. If you need bread to go with your cheese, you should cut it facing you, if you cut it the other way, you will make wealth go away! (I’m not sure it’s like that everywhere in Russia but it does exist).   

During the meal, you’ll realize soon enough that drinking alcohol can be a big part of it, even if habits already tend to change, drinking vodka during the whole dinner is still very common. And for foreigners very hard!! Wine is becoming popular but it’s more expensive and not always of quality so vodka is still N°1. The first rule to fulfil when you are with Russians is that someone has to give a toast each time the group drinks. And when we say drink, for vodka, it means to clean your glass!! The toast must be for something (French-Russian friendship for example) or someone and the third one is always for all the women that are around the table. The tradition also wants that when someone’s late, he has to drink a “penalty drink”, usually a full shot of vodka, to keep up with the others! Each time there is a toast, you “need” to drink your glass, it can’t be one time you drink and the next time not anymore. If you don’t want to drink alcohol it’s possible, but it should be from the beginning to the end. If you drink only for part of the toasts, there is a great risk that you will hurt the persons who did a toast where you didn’t drink.

Some other rules to respect are that when a bottle is empty you should take it off the table and of course replace it with a new one! As well, you should never pour alcohol in your own glass, someone has to do it for you. Finally, when you pour a drink you should always do it your hand turned inward, to do it with your hand turned outward is like a gesture of denial discordant with the symbolical gesture of pouring a glass.

Regarding other Russian traditions, we can mention the fact that you shouldn’t whistle inside a house, otherwise there won’t be any money ; you shouldn’t open your umbrella inside the house and you should never wish in advance someone’s birthday or any other celebration, it brings bad luck. So for example, if it’s your friend’s birthday tomorrow and that you have to leave somewhere today for several days, don’t call him to wish him a happy birthday one day before. Finally I identified two more traditions, less applied but interesting to know. When some guests or family members leave for a long trip, everyone seats two-three minutes in front of the door, inside, chat and say goodbye in order to bring luck for the trip. At last, when you go out and you come back immediately inside the house because you forgot something, you have to look in the mirror.

I almost forgot one of the most important traditions in Russia, gallantry. It’s very common to see a man open the door for a woman, offer his seat in the metro and hold the door, or to greet a woman by kissing her hand. And without speaking about offering flowers!! (Always an impair number).

I guess there are many other traditions in Russia, I shared the one I know regarding the house and the meal. If you know any other habits and traditions do not hesitate to share them in the comments!! And if you like my papers, do not hesitate to click on the Google+1 button and to share them, thanks!



Friday, June 3, 2011

Euro-Ruble, Ruble-Euro, How to change your money in Russia


With the instigation of Euro, interrogations on change rates, bank commission and how much money to withdraw to go abroad… are not anymore necessary in a large part of Europe! But if you need to go to Russia it’s not as easy.

The launch of Euro still made things lots easier, I remember the first time I came in Russia, I was 13, and I (my parents!) had to go to my bank to change francs into Dollars, since in Russia you couldn’t change directly your francs. Now with Euro it’s not a problem anymore, we can change it into Rubles or every other money in the world! But the question that raises when you go in Russia is where and how to convert your Euros (or Dollars)?  

In Moscow it’s very easy, there are lots of currency exchange offices everywhere in the city and you can pay in most shops with your credit card (which wasn’t true 5 years ago). Cash withdrawal machine are also at your disposal, it allows you to withdraw rubles of course (!) and in some Dollars and Euros as well. It can be interesting to do so in order to avoid change commission that your bank might charge, they differ slightly from one bank to another, so you should check before leaving. The change rate is also (according to my personal experience) more interesting in a “good” currency exchange office than the one applied by banks. When you withdraw money remember that there are bank commissions, it’s usually less expensive to withdraw a big amount once than several times small ones. Indeed there is in most cases a percentage fee + a commission each time you withdraw money.

If you don’t want to use your credit card, you can still come with cash, but you can do so only as a tourist! For expats, you need to find a bank with an international option (few or no commission) or you can open an account in Russia.

Previously talking about currency exchange offices, I said it was very easy, it’s true but you need to watch out for rip off! There are high variations between change rates offered, here are my advices to get the “right” price.

First of all avoid all currency exchange that take a percentage fee, even if they offer the best change rate, it will cost you more than in other offices. Mostly banks and hotels do that, and few other places. For security reasons avoid as well all currency exchange that is open on the street, even tough Moscow is quite safe on this matter.

Then I consider that there are three categories of currency exchange offices. A first one, the more common and the one I use the most, where the change rate difference is 30 or 40 kopecks between selling and buying Rubles. For example if you change Euros for Rubles, you’ll have a rate of 40.10 Rubles for one Euro, and if you sell Rubles to buy Euros, the rate will be 40.40 for one Euro. 

A second category, without percentage fee but to absolutely ban is when there are different rates depending on the amount of money you want to change, more or less than 10 000… Euros of course, not Rubles! If you want to change more than 10 000 Euros, in that case feel free to go there, but I don’t do that often! In these places the variation between selling and buying is usually between one and two Rubles. With the previous example, it would be respectively 39.10 and 41.40 (at the airport notably).

The last category is the hardest to classify, it pertains currency exchange where the change rate difference when selling and buying is only 5 kopecks, for example respectively 40.15 and 40.20. They are not that frequent but they are the most favourable, if you are careful. Indeed some offices are reliable and in that case you should convert your money there. But other places make profit only by ripping off people since you can’t really make money with a 5 kopeck difference. I have no idea of all the ways they might use but I can describe at least one of them! The most common is that there is a slit that you can’t see in the part where you put you bills. The person behind the counter recounts the money in front of you and then gives it to you, but when you take it one or two bills disappeared! It’s hard to prove especially if you don’t check straight away. This is usually done with big amounts, so if you want to change 100 Euros it’s quite safe! For fake bills, I don’t think there are many risks in Russia.

Concerning other places in Russia, in big cities it’s still easy to find a place to change money, but as soon as you are in small places, you need to have Rubles with you.

If you have anecdotes or advices, do not hesitate to share them in the comments!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Do you have your “Propusk”?


In Russia, you need a specific document to enter many places. If you go to the university or to your office for example, you have to show, most of the time, a paper named Propusk that allows you to get in. This is quite normal, even if it’s a bit more extended than in France.

What is more unusual for me is that you need this document to enter the city centre of Moscow! Of course not all the time but during the celebrations in May, I couldn’t access the streets I wanted to go to, lacking this precious paper! For the rehearsals of the 9th May’s parade many streets were closed during five half-days!! 4 half days for the rehearsals of the parade and the last one for the parade itself. The Red Square was closed almost all the time from the 1st till the 9th of May. So to get in the city centre, you needed a special “propusk”!
  
I think most of the newcomers in Moscow are surprised that a whole part of the city can be closed so often and so easily. In France when a road is closed, there are secondary itinerary planned for cars and usually pedestrians can always go through. In Moscow (and I guess in Russia) there are no such plans. It’s closed, that’s it! You have to find another way yourself (also for pedestrians) and sometimes you simply can’t reach the place you want to go, you have to wait till they reopen the road. This fact is very representative of the Russian administration mentality, they do what they have to do and they don’t take into consideration the consequences for their fellow citizens! It looks quite rude for non-Russian and it’s one of the things that you might hate about living in Moscow.

Even tough it was my second 9th of May celebrations, I wasn’t very careful to the fact some parts of the city were closed and I got tricked two times. The first time, the 5th of May, I had to meet with some friends in Mayakovskaya, I was a little early so I decided to go by foot part of the way. I stopped at Kitai-gorod and from there I was told that I couldn’t get anyway near Mayakovskaya by foot, and that I had to take the metro again. Cost of the operation a metro ticket and half an hour, the time to try to find another way that doesn’t exist!!

The second time I got tricked, this time with friends, was on the 9th of May, we wanted to go see the fireworks from “Vorobiovie gori”, one of the best view points of Moscow. We had the choice to stop at the metro station “Vorobiovie gori” or “Universitet”. Despite the advices of a Russian friend who told us to stop at “Universitet” because the first one was crowded, we chose the other option. The fact that there are a lot of people doesn’t bother me! But what I must have understood was that because it was crowded, it was impossible to get to the view point directly and that policemen would make us take another path. We reached the wanted place in 40 minutes instead of 15 (using the direct way) and almost missed the beginning of the fireworks!

You get used to it of course, but here are some tips to (try to) avoid getting tricked. Look on Internet first for information and try to go to the closest metro station of the place you want to go. If you hesitate between two, ask your Russian friends for advises, they are already used to it! And remember, sometimes you just can’t go to the wanted place of the city…

Friday, May 6, 2011

Russia through the eyes of a Latin-American


As promised in my blog introduction, I will publish outlook of other people about their life in Moscow, or in this case about their short stay here! A Colombian friend of a friend (and now friend of mine!) also an expat but in Mexico, came last month in Russia for 3 weeks and he stayed at our place for 10 days, I asked him if he could give me his thoughts about his stay in Moscow!

Here is the first “glance” from Carlos, Russia through the eyes of a Latin-American, enjoy!

“When I chose to visit Russia, the first reason was because it’s not a traditional touristic destination for Latin-Americans and because I knew it was going to be a quite challenging experience. First because of the language barrier (I don’t speak Russian), and of course because it’s cold (and it was)!! The language barrier makes it interesting because you have to improve your communication skills (or let’s say gestures skills, since you can’t use any words), you will have to deal with situations in a different way and being creative is a necessity.

This time I tried something different. I wanted to live and experience Russia as “local people” (meaning Russians and Expats living here) do and get to know them, in order to do that I didn't stay at any hotel. In Moscow I was hosted by two expats, a Mexican (Fernando) and a French (Laurent, the author of this blog). In St. Petersburg I was hosted by two Russian girls from Magadan (a port town on the Sea of Okhotsk and gateway to the Kolyma region). All of them were really nice to me and helpful.

I landed at Sheremetyevo airport and things looked very easy, I had no problem to reach Moscow in 40 minutes with the express train (it costs 320 rub on April 2011, around 11$). From the express train station you can take the Metro, Belorusskaya station (in the circle line or brown line). At the airport, almost everything is in English and Russian, but when you arrive inside the metro, you realise that everything is in Russian. It’s nice and scary at the same time to find out that you don’t understand anything of what the signs say and when someone asks you a question, you really don’t know what to say, and you wonder what he might have asked!

For a rookie tourist, at the very beginning, Moscow can be challenging if he/she is on its own, but after 2-3 days you get used to do the basic things. A “must do” when you arrive is to buy a cell phone chip, the rates are very cheap (compared to Mexico's and most of the countries in the world), and like that you will stay easily in touch with your new friends without paying expensive roaming. If you have a Smartphone you can also get Internet for less than 1$ a day on your phone and you can use it to get lots of information, believe me, this is going to help you a lot if you don’t speak Russian.

One thing I did in advance that I advise you to do is to connect with local people and read about where to go and how things work. For this, I would recommend you to use www.couchsurfing.org. If you are new to couchsurfing, I would describe it briefly as a social network focused in sharing experiences with local people when you are traveling abroad. There are a lot of specific groups, depends on what you are looking for (party, cultural exchange, activities, etc.). If you want to live the experience of Russia meeting local people you can ask for a couch to stay or just ask somebody to go for a walk or drink something. I was impressed by the amount of Russians that were open to show me the city and to exchange Spanish for Russian, mostly of them were girls. Visiting with Russians allows you to discover interesting places and stories that are difficult to know being a "traditional" tourist. I did a lot of good friends there and they helped me out in order to deal with Russia’s challenges.

I was really impressed by people in Russia! Every day that I met a new Russian, I remembered what I read once while doing a small research about doing business in Russia: "Westerners are like peaches; Russians are like oranges. In America, people smile and hold doors for each other. We stop and ask how things are going. But then we close our blinds, tint our windows and lock up our secrets. It is not polite to try and dive too deeply into someone's personal life in America. Americans (also applies to Latin Americans) are sweet to a point, but then you hit the pit of the peach. On the other hand, Russians, have a 'hard rind' like an orange. They are cold as the weather in public and with strangers. They like to cut to the point to avoid chit-chat. But once you break through that tough exterior, they are soft and sweet to the core like an orange". Russians were amazingly nice to me, helpful and worried about my health (I got a simple flu). The nice Russian hospitality should be part of the stereotype!! I would say that people are more straightforward than we are used to, and don't feel offended if  they don't hold the door or because of the physical contact in the Metro, it’s something normal and it’s not rude at all.

Before finishing this outlook on Russia, I want to talk about a last highlight of my trip, buying tickets to visit St. Petersburg (which is also a very nice city). I got there using the Sapsan train (fast train), it is very comfortable and you reach "Peter" in 4 hours spending 100 USD approximately for a single way ticket (You can also travel by night train which is way cheaper but takes 8 hours). I would recommend you to get some help from a local friend to buy the train ticket because it can be quite challenging if you just go alone to the train station!
You can buy the ticket in four ways:

Train station counters: be ready to queue for quite a long time, and arrive in front of a Russian women (usually) who speaks only Russian and who won’t do much to help you! Even with the help of Google translate, it’s quite hard. You need to give all your basic information in Cyrillic (name, last name …) so the people in the counters can complete the process. Unfortunately I didn’t know how to write my name in Cyrillic and it was written nowhere since as a Colombian I don’t need a visa to enter in Russia. It finally took me 2 hours to buy my tickets (I use the next option thanks to the help of other travelers that speak Russian), so trust me, go with some Russian speaking friends!

Train station machines: If you don’t want to queue at the counter, these machines are inside the train station and allow you to buy your train tickets as well. But they are only in Russian, so be prepared and be patient buying the tickets. They accept credit cards.

Internet: It is possible to buy tickets online, it’s all in Russian but you can try to use a translator or again get some help. I couldn’t use this because my credit card didn't work in Sapsan website so I needed to buy the tickets in the train station.

Travel Agency: In different places in the city you will also find agencies to buy train tickets, in some of them they will speak English!

To me Russia has been an amazing experience; I made very good friends and experienced Russia as a "local". It is still hard for me to get disconnected from Russia, I spend really good days there, enjoyed the architecture, the mystique that still prevails, its history, the uncommon places and improved my ability to communicate even if my counterpart does not speak any of the languages I speak. Traveling this way allowed me to create a bond with local people and it’s really hard to get over it. I already want to be here again and I will definitely come back to Russia.”

French version: http://regards-sur-la-russie.blogspot.com/2011/05/la-russie-travers-les-yeux-dun-latino.html

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Expat Forums, Interesting blogs and communities for expatriates

When I landed in Moscow one month and a half ago, I wasn't part of any expatiate forums, I had never looked for blogs talking about Russia and I wasn't a member of any community for expatriates.

The first day I arrived, I had to search for a flat and I started looking around on the net for advices, helpful websites, ... . Across my researches I found some interesting blogs, forums and websites to look for informations. During these last weeks I also came across several communities for expatriates, some of them well-developed worldwide and in Russia, some of them only in Russia and others well-developed worldwide but not so much in Russia.

There are also many groups of interests on every social networks concerning Russia or more specifically Moscow (Facebook, LinkedIn, ...).

Through this article I want to share with you the websites or groups that I consider interesting. I invite you to share your "good" links as well in the comments. This list is of course non exhaustive and some people might disagree with the choice of some websites, but I'll let you judge by yourself !!

First an overview of the different websites aiming to promote blogs written by expats or expats communities:

http://www.blogexpat.com/ : blog portal for expatriates and people living abroad. Anyone can register its blog and share it on this website, you can search by country or city.

Blog Expat is only for blogs but it's linked to the site http://www.easyexpat.com/ that is more a "guide for expatriates", you can become a member and post in the forum, you'll also find some useful informations about each country.

A similar site to Easy Expat is http://www.expat-blog.com : "the living abroad participative website, by expatriates".

For the French speaking people there is also http://www.expatunited.com/ It's another website that aims to gather expatriates together, with the slogan "be expat, be united"!

There is also http://expat.ru/ The virtual community for English-speaking expats and Russians, I already talked about it if you need to look for a flatmate or to rent a flat. While I'm on the flat sharing topic, I found two more websites that can help, http://moscow.craigslist.org/ and http://www.easyroommate.ru/.

Another great site according to me is http://www.internations.org: "expatriate community from expats for expats". There are regular events where you can meet other expatriates or Russians, I was at their last event on Thursday (14th April) and there was more than 200 persons, it was very nice! I really recommend you to become a member wherever you are, since it's a worldwide community!

InterNations is for people from all around the world, but you can also find specific organizations for each community. For example http://www.ufe.org/ for the French community, I didn't look for other countries but it should be easy to find.

I'm sure you can find other interesting websites, but it's all for today! I will of course share any new "discovery"!

I just want to add a few words on hubs and groups that you can find on Facebook or LinkedIn. In some cases when you join, you will have to wait for an agreement, it's usually to prevent the "pollution" of the group by robots or users that have nothing to do with it. But within 24 hours you usually get accepted (so far so good!!).

I'm gonna share here some of the groups I belong to on LinkedIn and Facebook, up to you to join!

LinkedIn:


I'm sure there are other interesting groups on these social networks but I don't know all of them!! So it's now up to you to share your favorite groups or websites!!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why do I like Moscow!

I'm writing this blog about Russia, but so far I didn't explain why I'm here, why I chose to be here, and what I like or dislike in Moscow and Russia in general, let me change that!

During my fourth year of university in France (2008-2009), I had the opportunity to go abroad as an exchange student for one year, I chose Moscow State University, Faculty of Public Administration! I started to learn Russian in 7th grade and continued to study it at the university, so Russia was the natural choice for me. I enjoyed a lot my year as a student in Moscow and after my graduation in September 2010 I decided to look for a job in Moscow.

After three months I found a job in a French company, LIPPI (http://www.lippi.fr/UK/index.php), which designs and manufactures fencing systems for the safety of people, property and infrastructures. I'm responsible for the company's business development in Russia. I started to work in Moscow the 1st of March for at least 18 months!

Since I arrived, almost every Russian I knew asked me "Why the hell did you chose Moscow?", and most of them want to leave Russia to work abroad! They told me, why do you come here, the climate is awful (true!), people in the street in Moscow are not nice (true!), the city is really too big with traffic jams and pollution (true again!), and many other defaults (corruption, lack of political competition ...).

What they say is true, everything is not great in Russia, far from it. There are of course some things I don't like about Moscow, like the weather (it was snowing this weekend and today we can see some snowflakes from time to time), the pollution and the traffic jams or the fact that the metro is crowded and that people don't pay attention when they bump into you. But it's the same in a lot of big cities and for me it's far from being a big matter. This is of course a very personal opinion and I understand pretty well that some people don't like this city!

But I have good reasons to come. First I didn't want to lose my Russian, and the only way for that was to go live in a Russian speaking country and in that case the easiest place to find a work was Moscow! The second reason is that while living abroad when I was young, I got severely addicted to traveling and after lots of years in France, I "needed" to go abroad. Working in Moscow is also a great opportunity in terms of responsibilities, I couldn't have such a job in France with my age and experience. I also knew that very good friends were waiting for me in Moscow, so I didn't have to start a new social life, just to extend it! And this is very important.

And last but not least, I like Moscow as a city! There are great places to go out (day and night!), lots of exhibitions, forums, concerts, theater plays or operas! You can find great restaurants that are not so expensive (10-20€), and very cool bars and night clubs. In Paris, most shops and places are open a maximum of 12 hours a day, 6 days out of 7, while in Moscow it's 24 hours a day and 7 days a week!! I talked about people not being very friendly in the street, it's really true, but once you know them, Russians are great people, very sympathetic and they would try to help you as much as they can. I didn't talk about women yet, but it's true that a lot of them are very pretty and charming, it's another good part of Russia, but not why I came here!!

It's now your turn to tell me why you like or dislike Moscow! You can comment this article or contact me if you want me to publish an article with your testimonial.


Thursday, March 31, 2011

142.9 million, 1.6 percent, 2.2 million!

Looking at this title you might ask yourself "what the hell"! these figures represent the last statistics on Russian population. There are 142.9 million inhabitants in Russia, down 1.6 percent, or 2.2 million, from 2002 (145.1 million).

Russia's population is shrinking and women still outnumber men by millions. The male population is 66.2 million, or 46.3 percent, while female is 76.7 million, or 53.7 percent. It shows that there are 10.5 million more women than men. But if you look closer to the figures, before 35 years old there are more men then women, after that it changes due to a lower life expectancy of Russian men.

The report also shows that the urbanization trend persisted, with 73.7 percent of the population concentrated in cities and towns, marking an increase of 0.4 percent since 2002.

In Moscow, the population grew 10.9 percent, bringing the number of officially counted Muscovites to 11.5 million. It's important to point out that the real population in Moscow is closer to 14.5 million inhabitants if you take into account everyone who has temporary residency (like me!) or the ones that are not properly registered. The local authorities have the right to not register some persons (delivery or non delivery of a paper you must be able to show whenever asked by authorities), after which they are theoretically not allowed to live in Moscow, and they are not shown in statistics. Indeed, the official population of Moscow is taken from those holding "permanent residency".

This report points up the still very high mortality rate in Russia, especially for men as their life expectancy is 61 years and 73 years for women. As a comparison the life expectancy at birth in France is 78.1 year for men and 84.8 for women!! We won't discuss the reasons why, but alcohol consumption is most certainly part of it, especially for men.

Furthermore Russia's population would be much lower without a massive immigration from ex-Soviet republics. Indeed the fertility rate is only 1.54 (2009) so it's far away from 2.1 children per woman (the approximate minimum required to ensure population replacement). We can observe that for already several years the Russian government adopted a pro-birth policy that starts to pay off. Indeed, the fertility rate is regularly increasing and it's already much higher than in 1999 when it was only 1.16!

The new demographic policy for 2011-2015 has an objective of maintaining Russia's population at 142 million inhabitants and to increase average life expectancy to 70 years old.

A 2009 report done jointly by the United Nations and Moscow's Higher School of Economics predicted that Russia's population would keep falling, reaching 116 million people by 2050.

Will it come true...

Monday, March 28, 2011

Winter time VS summer time!

In a lot of countries, each year it's the same speech, should we continue setting our clocks one hour forward or backward. There are pros and cons, and each year we can hear the same arguments. Each year you said? Not anymore in Russia as a decree from President Dmitri Medvedev stated that Russia is permanently on daylight-saving time!

It means that from October, 30th 2011 till March, 25th 2012 the time difference between Moscow and Greenwich time will be of 4 hours instead of 3 previously. So if it's 2PM in London, it will be 6PM in Moscow, and 3PM in Paris.

You might ask yourself why Russia took that decision, here are some explanations:

First a quote from the Moscow Times: "Medvedev, who has already tinkered with time by reducing the number of the country's time zones to nine from 11, has said switching clocks back and forth is bad for health. Scientific studies also show more suicides and heart attacks occur immediately after a shift to daylight-saving time, and that switching clocks back and forth causes more pollution."

Some experts also stated that depending on the region, the change would increase the amount of perceived daylight by 7 to 17 percent. However Russia's abolition of wintertime will boost annual electricity consumption by 1 billion kilowatts per hour, or 0.01 percent of total usage, since mornings will be darker and people will need to use more energy.

In ending the practice, Russia joins Japan, China, South Korea and the former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Georgia in not changing clocks seasonally