Russia Travel Guide – Travel Information for Your Road Trip

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Notes: 

  • This travel guide covers our journey in the east, from Vladivostok to Ulan Ude, so don’t read this as a report on the whole of Russia.
  • I wrote a separate blog post about organizing your visa for Russia (Tourist & Business visa).

Index for our Russia Travel Guide

  1. Why Eastern Russia
  2. Our Traveled Route in Russia
  3. Russian Language
  4. Who is Yuri?
  5. Shipping (Ferry Crossing from South Korea) & Car Paperwork
  6. Vehicle Insurance
  7. Mobile Service / Sim Card / WiFi
  8. Roads in Eastern Russia
  9. Traffic Rules, Border Areas, and Police Checks
  10. Road Maps & (Guide) books about Russia
  11. A Word on Ticks
  12. Additional Travel Information Sources

At the bottom of the page you’ll find a link to our Russia Budget Report, which shares everything related to budget and other money matters.

Read More: Stories about Russia


1. Why Eastern Russia?

Because:

  • Eastern Russia consists of a mind-blowing wilderness. Our #1 and #2 regions were the coast south of Vladivostok and the east shore of Lake Baikal.
  • It is super easy to leave the asphalt and hit narrow, unpaved country roads.
  • The combination of the wide landscapes with interesting sights to visit in cities, in particular the downtown areas of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk.
  • We found it easy to meet local people and received much hospitality.

Read More: Where Are We – Lake Baikal

About the weather in spring:

  • We arrived in Vladivostok on March 19. It was still cold, with a large part of the bays being frozen over. We camped at Lake Baikal on May 15 and even then there were sheets of ice along the shore. This is just to say: summers are short in the east of Russia so prepare accordingly.
  • Related to climate: when arriving in spring, check whether you can get to Yarkutsk or not. Around April/May there is about a month that you can’t drive on the Lena River anymore yet there is still too much ice for the ferry to ply. As a result, Yakutsk is closed off from the east for a couple of weeks.

Read More: Sightseeing in Vladivostok

Hard core: SUP when the waters are still partly frozen!


2. Traveled Route in Russia

 

  • Total days traveled in Russia: 95
  • When: October 2017 (5 days) / March – June 2018 (90 days).
  • Average distance covered: 79 kms/day.


3. Russian Language

Russia uses the Cyrillic script which isn’t hard to learn for those who are used to the Latin script. Only a few characters differ. When reading text out loud, you sometimes recognize words, e.g. видео may look complicated but when you read the characters, you realize this is exactly as ‘our’ word for video.

Google Translate has an offline version of its app, be sure to download the Russian offline package. We can hold our smartphone in front of a Russian text and it will translate on the spot. When connected to the Internet via WiFi or Data, you can use the instant voice translation in a two-way setup, which works wonderfully.

We have an Insight Guides Phrasebook, which comes with an app for on your smartphone. We practiced online using e.g. Russian for Free, or on apps such as Duolingo and Memrise.

We did a 20-hour private course in Vladivostok to cover some basics. I’m afraid that while it did get us started, we’re still hopeless at speaking Russian and I’m quite frustrated by it.

Our next attempt will be Michel Thomas’ method. We used it in South America to learn Spanish and it worked great and I just found out his method is available in a number of languages, among which Russian.

Find them here: Start Russian / Perfect Russian / Total Russian.

4. Who is Yuri?

With Yuri and Svetlana

When you start your Russia journey in Vladivostok, the name of Yuri inevitably comes up. He is the guy who:

  • Will get your vehicle off the ferry/container/RoRo and through customs.
  • Can help you get your vehicle insurance.
  • Will help you buy your first sim card in Russia.

We enjoyed working with him. He answered his emails quickly, all paperwork was ready when we arrived in Vladivostok. We paid  $150 for Yuri’s service, which we thought was value for money. Be sure to get in touch with him well before your vehicle arrives.

Yuri Melnikov

 

5. Ferry Crossing & Customs Clearance (Temporary Import Document)

We took the DSB ferry from Donghae (South Korea) to Vladivostok. I wrote a separate blog post about all the steps and paperwork involved.

Read More: The Ferry Crossing from South Korea to Russia

 

6. Vehicle Insurance

A vehicle insurance is mandatory in Russia. You may have Russia included on your European Green Card, so check that.

We got our insurance with the help of Yuri (see #4). Getting one may take some time, so plan ahead. At the time of writing, Yuri said it was especially a pain in the ass to get insurance for foreign motorcycles so plan even more ahead.

We paid $215 for a one-year insurance (RUB 13500). Yuri paid for us and we paid him back in cash. You can get insurance for a shorter period of time but this is relatively more expensive (quote via Yuri: around $175 for 3 months).


7. Mobile Service / Sim Card / WiFi

Yuri (see #4) helped us buying a sim card for our phone. We have an MTS subscription for which we pay 390 RUB per month (pay more to get more) for 15 gb, 400 SMS and 400 minutes.

We can charge monthly (or for a longer period of time) by using dedicated machines or by going to one of their offices, or even with a credit card in the MTS app (that is, if you are fluent in Russian).

WiFi, on the other hand, isn’t evident to find, not even in cafés – even though there may be stickers on the door saying they have WiFi. In that respect it has been very useful to have had a sim card.

8. Roads in Eastern Russia

The main road connecting Vladivostok via Khabarovsk and Chita with Ulan Ude is asphalted, is in a reasonable to good state, and has no toll roads.

Read More: Windshield Views from the Far East

Traffic in Vladivostok can be chaos.

Lots of forest fires along the Amur Highway.

But no worries, off-roading opportunities abound.

Of note:

1. The coast south and east of Vladivostok.

This region is known for its beauty and you’ll understand why most cars here are 4x4s, even the smaller cars have four-wheel traction.

Read More: How to Start an Off-Road Adventure in Russia

South of Vladivostok.
South of Vladivostok

2. The east side of Lake Baikal.

Part of the road is asphalted but farther north, into the Barguzin Valley, the road becomes unpaved and some of the bridges are broken. Sometimes they have built a way around the bridge; sometimes you need to turn back.

At other places you can cross the river, but note that the sand in Barguzin Valley is very soft. We got stuck with our heavy rig and needed to be pulled out by a tractor.

See Here: Stuck in a River in Barguzin Valley

Sidetrack of the Amur Highway.
Barguzin Valley

 

9. Traffic  Rules, Border Areas, and Police Checks

 

Important Traffic Rules:

  • Crossing a straight line, e.g. to overtake another vehicle, is a severe offense and may cost you your drivers’ license for three years.
  • It’s mandatory to always drive with your lights on.
  • You’ll find pedestrian crossings all over the place. When somebody is approaching a pedestrian crossing – so even when not on it yet – you are required to stop. Russians take this very seriously (which is great when you are the pedestrian, of course).
To spare the regular headlights, we used these LEDs, like many locals do.

Border areas

Border areas are prohibited. The problem is that you don’t know exactly where this runs. In the south of Vladivostok, where they took us off the road because of this offense, the officials said the border area was 5 kilometers wide, everywhere. However, in Ulan Ude we learned that the border area north of Mongolia is much wider. So ask before you go.

They take this ridiculously serious. On our road in the far south was a road sign saying (in English) that you need to carry an ID or permit. We had our passports but this turned out to be inadequate. We should have bought a permit as well.

The sign was incorrect, the officials agreed when we protested, but no that did not matter at all. We sat in their office for 4 hours, giving and writing statements including about twenty signatures each and paying a 1000 rubles fine at a bank.

The road sign.

Police checks

We got 1 or 2 police checks that consisted of a short chat and nothing more.

10. Roadmaps & (Guide) books about Russia

Electronic Roadmaps

MapsMe, 2Gis, and Galileo are our choice for offline navigating our way around.

MapsMe

  • In the latest version of MapsMe, it is a delight to see that the Beta option of Latin translation works for the Russian language (contrary to Korean or Japanese).
  • However, the huge expanse of the country makes it a bit difficult to find stuff when zooming out with details disappearing too quickly. So in bigger cities we like the routing option of MapsMe.

2Gis

  • This is a Russian application which has detailed, offline maps of all the big cities in Russia as well as a few big cities abroad (e.g. where Russians likely to go vacationing).
  • Although the app is in Russian, you will understand what the idea is and icons go a long way. A benefit is that if local people want to help you out, they can search and address or location in Russian in this app (note, it is handy to have Russian Keyboard on your smartphone installed).
  • What we liked is the super handy, actual-traffic density option that shows traffic jams and slower-moving traffic by coloring the streets and indicating the overall traffic congestion with a large number in the upper right-hand corner (note, you have to be online for the traffic feature). MapsMe is trying something similar, but probably because not many people are using it here, this isn’t working at all in Russia.

Galileo

  • Galileo had disappeared from our phone since we first started experimenting and beta testing it in 2012. It appeared on our radar recently when they too offered offline routing. But that is not its greatest feature.
  • The gem is the fact that you can add your own offline maps. Although it is not easy to accomplish that, it is by no means impossible. We have Russian Military maps installed and are testing with some contour, hill-shaded sat maps. So far it has not resulted in the optimal solution, which would be vector-based maps with contours and maybe hill-shading. If you know where to access them, please let us know.
  • Apart from that, the base-installed OSM vector map shows nice detail when zoomed out (this is where it outshines MapsMe) and instead of routing there is the option of showing a bearing line that indicates the general direction to travel instead of a turn-by-turn navigation where you lose any sense of control. This way it is more like our first old-school Garmin-eTreks (read about it here) with just a line on a very detailed terrain. You are free to choose which roads or direction you want to travel.

Paper Roadmaps for Russia

We have used Reise Know-How Roadmaps, which has a number of them for Russia. Thus far we’ve used the Russia East and Lake Baikal maps.

Guidebooks

We’ve been pleased with our guidebooks on Russia:

  • Insight Guides Russia, which is attractive with all its photos and has maps with numbers corresponding with the sights. This makes it easy to find information.
  • The Lonely Planet Russia, which has a lot of info we don’t use (e.g. where to sleep and public transport), but which has a wealth of information about Russia in general and great tips on sightseeing.

Read More: Books about Russia (including Non-Fiction, Fiction, (Travel) Memoirs, Classics, and a few books in Dutch)


11. A Word on Ticks

Tick in Russian = клещ (pronunciation: kleshch)

Ticks are a problem in Russia, in particular in the east.  They may carry Lyme or Encephalitis. We both got bitten by one when camping near Lake Baikal. I am no medic, and please do your own research on the subject, but to give you an idea, this is what they told us about tick bites here:

  • When the tick has just bitten, it may have transmitted Encephalitis. You can get vaccinated for this before your trip, or when bitten, you can get pills over the counter in a pharmacy. About 500 roubles.
  • It’s unlikely it has transmitted Lyme unless the tick has been on your body for at least 24 hours. Watch out for a red ring on your skin, which appears in the days/weeks after the bite. It is an indication you may have Lyme and you need to visit a doctor asap.
  • If you get the tick off your body, keep it in a ziplock (preferably on a wet cotton swab to keep it alive). Take it to a lab yourself or, in our case, the doctor in Ush Barguzin (near Lake Baikal) took care of that.
  • If you need help to get the tick off, go to a doctor/hospital. It’s important to take it off in one piece.

 

12. Additional Travel Information Sources

  • The forum on Horizons Unlimited has been a longstanding source of information especially for motorcycle tourers but has a growing wealth for four-wheeled travelers as well.
  • WikiOverland, help expand the special Wiki Overland pages.
  • iOverlander is the place where overlanders share GPS waypoints on many things, among which camping spots.
  • Overlanding Facebook groups among which Overland to Asia.
  • About Russia: Facebook groups such as Russia Beyond and Discover Russia.
Yeah, we’re in Russia!

Don’t forget to check out our Russia Budget Report as well with lots of additional information.

We hope you find this Russia Travel Guide useful. Is there anything you missed? Feel free to leave a comment or question in the comment section below and we’ll answer it asap!

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