Travel tips for backpacking Russia – when you don’t speak a word of Russian

First-time in Russia? Travel survival tips for backpackers and travellers in Russia

I have to admit to being a little apprehensive about travelling in Russia, despite having been to over seventy countries now. I did a lot more research than I would normally do, although admittedly most of that was about the weather and exactly how cold it would be in February!

Tor at snowy station platform on Yekaterinburg train station
About to board Train 70 to Irkutsk

I’m now halfway through a trip across Russia on the Trans-Mongolia train route, with several overnight stops in cities along the way and I’m wondering what I was concerned about. Travelling is Russia is easy and really enjoyable!

Some preliminary planning definitely helped though – here’s my Top Travelling Russia Travel Tips so far…

Download a translation app

You’ll feel silly the first time you get your phone out, tap into it ‘one black tea please’ and show it to the waitress but it gets easier with time. We found that most people are patient and are really happy when they work out what we want and are able to help us.

I’ve been using Google Translate. I downloaded it as an app, then downloaded the Russian language file. It then works offline. It even has a cool camera function. You simply hold the lens over the Russian text and on your screen it changes the words to English.

Well, kind of! It doesn’t work perfectly but it’s enough to give you some context. Useful if you’re wondering what that scary looking sign in the toilet on the train means (it meant ‘do not flush when red light shows. Large penalty fine’).

But fear not, because many restaurants and cafes have English menus anyway or when you walk in the one English speaking server gets pushed towards your table.

I found a a website where I could type using the Cyrillic alphabet then cut and paste the word into my translation app. This was really helpful, especially on the train when I was bored and decided to translate random words that the camera wouldn’t pick up.

Buy a Russian sim card

I bought a MegaFon (МегаФон) Sim card having read that it has the most coverage across Russia. I found a fourteen day travellers SIM on their website for 750 roubles (about £9), with unlimited data. However when I went into the shop, the assistant gave me a different SIM card, still with unlimited data, for 300 Roubles. It was an introductory offer for fourteen days before you need to top up the credit.

I wanted the SIM so I could easily check information during the day when sightseeing. It really was invaluable being able to check what that weird looking cat monument is or what time the museum of Soviet Life closes.

I’d also read that the WiFi in cafes and bars often requires you to have a Russian mobile number and enter an SMS code to go online. That proved to be the case only in one or two places – usually the WiFi just connected automatically.

However having internet access all the time definitely helps, especially on the long train journeys when I could do some research for the next stop. Bear in mind though there’s long distances between cities on the trains when there is no reception.

Exchanging money in Russia – how to get Roubles

ATMs are everywhere but many only offer a small per transaction withdrawal limit (around £70) and you likely don’t want to get hit with a withdraw fee each time.

Credit cards can be used nearly everywhere and this is the option I chose, as I have a card that doesn’t charge me to use it overseas.

However you’ll still some roubles for day to day transactions.  It’s far better to take dollars or euros (there are ATMs dispensing these at all UK airports) and change them into roubles at a currency exchange office once in Russia. Dollars or euros are the best currency to exchange in Russia and are more likely to be accepted than Pounds.

I changed a chunk of money at an exchange in London, then brought another chunk of Euros to exchange in Russia. The exchange rate was similar in both countries.

Simply look out for currency exchange offices when sightseeing. I used the Russian Agricultural Bank (Россельхозбанк), distinguished by its green facade and the exchange rate outside. In Russia you’ll nearly always take a number from a machine when queuing. Just inside the bank is an ATM looking machine, with choices of services on it.

I just Google translated ‘currency exchange’ on my app, then compared the words, pressed that option and got a ticket with my number. Watch the overhead monitors for your number to appear then find the relevant counter. I didn’t need to show ID to change money.

Eat at traditional Russian canteens with the locals

There are many national or city-wide chains of canteens. In St Petersburg a good one is Stolovaya #1 – Stolovaya translates as canteen.  Many are even 24-hour! There are also independent versions in every city. We even found a great vegetarian version in Moscow called Jagannath.

Once inside just queue up with everyone else, grab a tray and cutlery and quickly decide what you want. I say quickly because the line moves fast and you do not want to be the one umming and ahhing, holding up hungry Russian customers!

There are servers behind the counter and you just point at what you like. Usually there’s a salad and soup section, various hot vegetables then meat and fish. Just before the cashier there’ll be a tea and coffee machine and a juice dispenser.

Don’t be afraid to try other independent cafes or restaurants in Russia. I love looking up ‘top lunch cafes in Kazan’ then going off exploring. If the menu isn’t in English (although it often has some sort of translation) I just use the translation app.

So far, we’ve tried several different canteens, including the fantastic vegetarian canteen in Moscow, a dumpling chain, a cute vegan cafe in Kazan and a Russian restaurant in Yekaterinburg.

Use the Metro to get around Russian cities

Whatever city, whichever country you’re in, subways or metros are always a simple way to use public transport. My top tip is to book accommodation near to a metro station if you’re not staying in the centre.

If you’ve used the subway anywhere else you’ll easily work out the Russian version. If not, here’s a few tips.

Download the metro map to your phone so you can study it at your leisure. To find the subway entrance from the street, remember it might be in a beautifully ornate building or simply down some steps. In Moscow the entrances are marked with a large red M, in St Petersburg it’s a small curved blue M, in Kazan the M was green.

All lines are colour coded so look for directional signs in the tunnels of the colour line you want. In St Petersburg and Moscow the station names are in the Latin alphabet as well as Cyrillic. If not, you’ll have to try and quickly compare the names with the map to work out your direction of travel. Use your downloaded map to count how many stops you need.

Changing lines is very easy. Just look for the colour of the new line and follow the flow of people.

Use Uber-Russia, Yandex or another Russian taxi app

The metro is great but potentially you don’t want to use it with your luggage when you arrive in a city. Sometimes our trains arrived or departed at rush hour and believe me, the Russian metro at rush hour is not a place you want to be with a massive suitcase!

It’s best not to take a street taxi, although they’ll be plenty of drivers holding up Taxi signs outside stations. Uber and Yandex (a large Russian online platform) merged in 2019, so it doesn’t matter which one you use. I downloaded Uber-Russia, only available inside Russia, which is in English so easy enough to understand.

Journeys are cheap and the drivers we had were reliable and friendly. I always paid cash at the end of the trip rather than enter my credit card details.

Public toilets in Russia

There’s always a public toilet close by in Russia, although you may have to pay for the privilege. Thirty roubles is about average (40 pence). They always have toilet paper inside and were generally quite clean.  Just remember to throw the toilet paper in the bin.

If it’s not obvious which is male and which is female, look for м for men and ж for women. The Russian for toilet is туалет and sometimes WC is used.

Have a go at learning the Russian alphabet

It can make it easier to decode signs, etc, once you know the Russian alphabet. I did read some blogs about how to learn the alphabet in four hours (apparently it can be done!) but I mainly just picked it up as I went along.

You see certain words all the time. For example туалет, which is toilet and would be written in the Latin alphabet in Russian as tualet. So it’s pretty simple to then work out that when you see a л it’s actually an L. The same goes for a C, which is actually pronounced as an S in Russian. I saw it everywhere in Saint Petersburg, which is written as Санкт-Петербург in Cyrillic.

So once you have a few words on your head it’s easy enough to apply the same logic in deciphering other words.

Print out your hotel booking reservations in Russian

As I’ve said before in my blogs, I use booking.com as my accommodation platform purely because I’m used to it. Have a look at ‘Planning a Trans-Mongolia journey Independently’ to see how I decided what accommodation to book on this trip. A great feature on booking.com is that you can choose to print out your booking confirmation in Russian.

I did this for all our pre-booked accommodation for three reasons. The first was to show the Receptionist on arrival, in case of any language issue. The second was to have a record of everywhere we’d stayed to show immigration guards when we cross to Mongolia. It likely won’t be necessary but I felt it was a good idea. Then the third was to show taxi drivers in case we got completely lost!

So far the Receptionists have only needed our passports to find our bookings. I’ve never had to show the confirmation. However having the hotel name printed in Russian has proved invaluable to identifying our hotel from the outside.

Many ‘hotels’ are based on a couple of levels of a large building, also home to several other companies. You need to look for the street number and a tiny sign or plaque might also identify the hotel. Then you enter the lobby, find the elevator and have the joy of working out what level the hotel reception is on.

Bizarrely this is never identified in their address. этаж means floor or level in Russian. Often there’ll be a sign somewhere by the entrance to help you work out the floor but not always (handy tip – show your printed Russian confirmation to someone rushing through the lobby). And for British People – the ground floor in Russia is level one!

Screenshot from Google Translate app
Have a go at speaking Russian!

Learn hello, please and thank you in Russian

The few times I used a Russian word people were so pleased. Just saying thank you raised smiles of appreciation.

I even managed to ask for a cup of black tea without my phone app eventually!

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