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Just Returned from Russia: Dress, Food, General Info and More

Just Returned from Russia: Dress, Food, General Info and More

Old Sep 17th, 2007, 06:43 AM
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Just Returned from Russia: Dress, Food, General Info and More

Hello all,
I returned yesterday from a trip to Moscow, Minsk and St. Petersburg. Since I dont have time to post a single large trip report, I will be writing in segments. Hopefully, they can provide you all with some helpful information.

General Trip Info
My wife was born in Minsk and left when she was a child, right when the USSR was beggining to crumble. She had never been back so we decided to go and recuited her parents and sister to come along. Her family still speak and read fluent Russian and I speak a little, making things much easier (more on this and the general lack of english later) and in some cases cheaper.

We flew from SFO into Moscow, took a sleeper train to Minsk, another to St. Pete and flew back to SF from there. Trip length was two weeks.

Subjects likely covered in the future, in no particular order: Dress and Culture, Language, Why everyone should take trains, Banyas, Food and more.

Enjoy and feel free to ask questions. I can't guarantee how often I will be able to update, but hopefully not more than every few days.
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:07 AM
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Bookmarking for me, who has Russia near the top of the Travel List. I am interested in hearing it all.
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:13 AM
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me too!
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:49 AM
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1. Dress
I constantly saw questions posted on this and other forums asking about how to dress so as to not stand out in a foriegn country, expecially in Russia. Whether through luck or good planning, I was very happy with how I packed and blended in quite well. My wife and I were actually asked for directions a couple of times by natives. I will start from the bottom up.

Shoes - If you want to be immediately identified as American, wear slacks with cross-trainer type athletic shoes. Shoes are regarded with great inportance. Women wear highed-heeled shoes almost exclusively, irrespectful of how far they will be walking. In Moscow, we actually tried to see if any women wearing flat shoes were speaking Russian and could find none. Boots are expecially popular. Tennis shoes are not. Men wear very fashionable shoes, especially leather dress shoes. I brought two pairs of shoes: some brown dress loafers for nights out and a pair of nice LeCoste lace ups for everyday walking and was very happy with my choices.

Pants and Shorts - I never saw shorts on anything but a few foreigners. I wore some nicer cargo pants and fit in alright though I didnt really see anyone else wearing them. Fashionable jeans are the norm on both men and women although nicer pants and skirts would never be out of place.

Shirts and Jackets - Pretty standard stuff here. Nice button up shirts and fashion t-shirts were the norm. Lots of jean jackets, motorcycle-style jackets and the "members-only" style jackets too. Casual sport coats were pretty common too.

Hats/Scarves - Scarves are very common and although it wasnt really cold enough for hats, I saw a few berets. No baseball caps though.

I think that's it for my first installment!
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:53 AM
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Quick disclaimer: the dress segment applies to Moscow and (mostly) to St. Pete. Minsk is much less formal although people do still try to dress well.
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 08:35 AM
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Thanks for this post ksose! Yes, the Russians sure do doll up when walking out of the house. They all look impeccable.

Moscow and St. Petes are beautiful cities, and I hope to go back one day soon. In the meantime, I look forward to your post on culture and food!
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 11:35 AM
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2. Trains (and why you should take one if you visit)

Trains are undoubtedly an integral part of Russian culture. Tracks criss-cross the whole country and provide a regular, reliable and affordable means of travel. We took two overnight train rides: from Moscow to Minsk and Minsk to St. Petersburg. I advocate them for a variety of reasons. First, taking a train is far less of a hassle and expense than air flight. Any of you who have been to Russian airports will also know that they do not provide a similar level of hospitality services compared to those in Europe or the US. You also avoid paying for lodging for the night since you sleep on the train. And in my case, I slept well. We were in the expensive cars, four people to a cabin about two meters cubed. I was sleeping in a box that was 6'3" (1.9m) long--I know that because I am 6'3". Still, all of the shaking and rumbling (they were louder and rough riding than the Amtrack trains I have experienced in California) hid background noises and put me right to sleep. More importantly, riding the train is just an old fashioned human cultural experience--one of those things you have to do in life. You watch people say goodbye before you board, just like in the movies. Drink your tea from the special train glasses and watch the countryside pass by. It's a fantastic opportunity to take life slow and enjoy it without sacrificing precious vacation time.

Word to the Wise: I highly reccomend bringing a comfy set of earplugs. Snoring neighbors are par for the course. Also, dont expect the use the bathroom at or even near a stop because the stewards lock them when you get close. I had a wonderous conversation in Russian with Olga the Stewardess on the Minsk line at about 3am where she elucidated on this fact for me. The pedal on the floor near the toilette doesnt flush it, it just opens the bottom like a trap door. Make sense?

Fringe Benefit: we avoided Belarussian border crossing by taking the train. As it turns out, Belarus does not have continuous enforcement of the borders with Russia. We had the proper visa's and I would never advocate skirting proper entry pocedures, especially in Belarus. Still, avoiding the hassle was nice.
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:10 PM
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I'm enjoying your report...
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 07:38 PM
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ksose,
this is wonderful. Maybe I do not check it enough but I tend not to stumble on Russia reports as often so this is a real service to those planning a trip.
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Old Sep 17th, 2007, 09:37 PM
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Excellent report ksose. Thank you for taking the time to write. Russia is on my list because I've been everywhere else.
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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 07:59 AM
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3. The Banya

The Banya is in many ways like the Train in its relationship to Russia: a truly integral cultural experience and an insight into old fashioned life. If you don’t know what a Banya is, the simple description is “A Sauna on Steroids”. Whereas most Sauna’s in the gyms and health clubs here in the US keep the temperature at around 140 F (don’t quote me) the thermometer in the banya I went to pointed to 95C (~200F). You didn’t read that wrong, nearly hot enough to boil water (as a side note, I am an engineer and hence a skeptic of everything and I am still having trouble believing that figure). In reality, it is much more complicated than that. Russians regard it as key ingredient to maintaining good health and despite my coming in as a skeptic of that (see above) I have to agree. The first taste was not so sweet though.

My banya experience may differ from the standard. Since we were on a family vacation, we rented a private banya. Instead of being surrounded by naked men, it was friends and family, modestly covered in bathing suits. Along with the actual hot room, we also had sole use of a small pool, showers and changing room as well as something we called “the bucket” (more on that later). I had prepared myself for the unexpected but nothing could have prepared me for the heat. I took one step into the room and felt like I had walked into an oven on Broil. I have played soccer in 110F, been in Sauna’s and hot tubs, but this is on another level. I literally thought “there is no way I can spend more than 30 seconds in there without dying”. Eventually, I was coaxed back and after the inevitable “it’s like a sauna in here!” jokes, my entire body was sweating. Then Pavel came in, a man who looked like a body builder and would be the one to apply the birch branch treatment. You lay down on a board and he scrubs the living you-know-what out of your whole body with some birch leaves, with the coup de gras being a mild whipping. Did I mention that Pavel was wearing a white loin cloth? He was. As awkward, strange and torturous as the whole process sounds, it felt pretty good. After you could take no more of the heat, you go outside to face the bucket. Stand underneath, pull the chain, and like TV game shows of old, cold water comes spilling down, shocking you like ice down your pants. Again, for unexplainable reasons, it actually feels pretty good. Jump in the pool to complete the cool down, then head back to the heat. This whole process continues for about an hour and a half, when you become physically exhausted and can take no more.

Afterwards, your skin feels great, joints loose, sinuses clear and throat dry. Plus, you form a special bond with people when you sit in a 200F heat with them for prolonged periods. All in all it was a fantastic, memorable experience and one that I wholeheartedly recommend.
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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 08:56 AM
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<i>you form a special bond with people when you sit in a 200F heat with them for prolonged periods.</i>

No special bond with the body builder in a loin cloth whipping you??

Enjoying the report - looking forward to more.
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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 09:17 AM
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Thanks for the report ksose.

I am just now starting to consider a trip to the Baltic region that would include a side trip to St Petersburg so I am very interested in your experience there.

I can't quite yet decide whether your banya experience was a fun insight into Russian culture and lifestyle, or a horrifying interlude of burns and whipping. Guess I will have to try it for myself

I tried a much milder naked version of the hot/cold cycle at the Friedrichsbad Roman/Irish baths in Baden-Baden, but they included a massage instead of a whipping and I was cocooned in warm blankies for a nap when I was done.
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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 03:28 PM
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Love it! Bookmarking!

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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 04:15 PM
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A banya report! That's probably a first for Fodors Very interesting reading; looking forward to reading the rest.
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Old Sep 18th, 2007, 04:38 PM
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Very interesting, thanks! One of my DD's friends leaves for Russia tomorrow for exchange for a year. So this is timely for us to read what it is like there. Thanks!
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Old Sep 19th, 2007, 03:12 PM
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4. Food

Note: after some consideration , I have decided to make drinks and drinking a separate post. Too much to talk about here.

I had some idea what to expect from a dining perspective in Russia and Belarus. Countless family dinners and parties with my wife’s family prepared me for the onslaught of fish, fish related products, beets, cheese, fish, pickles, rye bread, potatoes and fish. We did manage to experience a broad cross section of dining experiences from the venerable Pushkin Caf&eacute; in Moscow to Moo Moo Cafe (good Russian Food, good prices, completely recommend) to fresh pirogi from the farmer’s market in Minsk to home-made BBQ at a dacha outside of Minsk. We also went to grocery stores to get food for breakfasts and snacks as well as drinking water. Since it’s difficult to write cohesively about such an extensive and important topic, I will use bullet points in no particular order.
- If you don’t like to see dead fish with their heads and tails on, don’t go to Russia, you wont like it
- ‘Sala’ is a traditional Russian food that is best described as thick sliced bacon which is 90% fat. Essentially, giant chunks of pork fat. People love it for some reason, especially on rye bread as a chaser for vodka.
- Pickles are very common both on their own and in salads.
- Rye bread is common and excellent
- The food and service at Pushkin Caf&eacute; in Moscow was universally excellent, but we all found it to be not worth the high price. However, if you like fine, fine dining and don’t mind spending to get it, you will like this place.
- Herring is a very popular fish. You can find it most commonly in oil (salotka) in mayonnaise with chopped beet topping (paschuba) or with the head on in the market. My wife loves it. I find it all revolting.
- Caviar (eekra) is popular but usually as the more cost-effective red variety.
- I don’t remember the names of many restaurants, usually because I was too forcibly drunk by the end of dinner to care, but the Moo-Moo caf&eacute; chain in Moscow is one that I recommend. Very popular with Russians too.
- Perogi/Peroshki are very common as a fast food. Essentially pastry dough stuffed with filling, you can find them containing pretty much anything. I loved the breakfast ones with fruit.
- Almost universally, you will be handed the bill only when you ask for it.
- Most major restaurants will have English menus and waiters that speak some but there are no guarantees. I am slightly deficient on this knowledge due to the fluency of my traveling companions and my pigeon Russian.
- BBQ grilled meat (shishleek) is very tasty, especially from Georgian (or other southern republic) restaurants. Lamb, chicken and beef are the most common types.
- McDonalds is everywhere and very popular amongst the natives. The food is basically the same as in the states. If you need to go to the bathroom, want it to be clean and don’t want to pay for it, seek out golden arches. Strange side note: in Russia, McDonalds’ storefront signs are Cyrillic, in Belarus (where English is less prevalent), they are in English.
- Ice cream is of high quality and cheap in the markets. It can also be bought on pretty much any street corner for 30-40 rubles. I ate a lot of it.
- Dairy products are very tasty, very plentiful and typically higher in fat than in the US. Yogurts, cheeses, sour cream, buttermilk and products that fall somewhere in between can be found in any market.

I really enjoyed the food on the trip and I am usually a pretty unadventurous eater. I am leaving out a lot information, but this is only meant to be a cross-section since I could go on forever. Ask questions if you want to know specifics.
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Old Sep 19th, 2007, 03:28 PM
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I tend to think of salo as more of a Ukrainian thing- I didn't ever see it until I lived in Kharkiv. It was widely loved though- I'm just lucky that as a vegetarian, I had an easy excuse to turn that little treat down.

(Has anyone seen &quot;Everything is Illuminated&quot;? The vegetarian scene is hilarious- I show it to my students every year.)

Thanks for the MY-MY recommendation. I like it there- I like Yolki Palki too.

We leave for Russia next Friday! Will definitely have to remind kids about the fish.

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Old Sep 19th, 2007, 04:44 PM
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Saving this to read later... just got our adoption travel dates today. We are going to Russia to meet our baby boy.
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Old Sep 19th, 2007, 05:08 PM
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topping for future use! thanks
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