From the stunning white nights overlooking the many canals in Saint Petersburg to the architecturally and historically significant 188 metro stops of Moscow, from the bone-chilling cold of Siberian winters to the diversity of the Caucasus, Russia completely encompasses all the magic that truly pulls heart strings and propels a continuous desire to visit.
Russia & Its Many Time Zones
Russia is one of the largest countries in the world, bordered by the Arctic Sea in the north, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and China in the south, Finland, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, and the Black Sea in the west, and the Caucasus Mountains as well as Caspian Sea in the southwest. The Ural Mountain range stands as the dividing line of the nation, essentially separating Siberia and “European Russia”. Its expansiveness covers nine time zones, reduced from the original 11 when they eliminated the use of daylight savings time, which was a mostly political decision to supposedly ease the vast mess that occurs twice a year.
1. SIBERIA - The land of the “almost” North Pole (minus the polar bears)
Siberian Russia is home to Lake Baikal, the most voluminous freshwater lake in the world and also one of the world’s most ancient lakes. Lake Baikal’s natural environment is also home to much unique wildlife and vegetation, including a freshwater seal, the Baikal oil fish, and the tasty Baikal salmon. Wildlife is prevalent throughout the remainder of Siberian Russia, including the endangered Amur Leopard and Siberian Tiger.
The closest city to Lake Baikal is Irkutsk, situated approximately 72 kilometers (45 miles) from Lake Baikal and a popular haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers. The area also attracts many international students and travelers looking to experience Siberian culture and get away from the foreign-populated “capitals” of Saint Petersburg and Moscow. Although Siberia can sometimes see winter temperatures under -50 degrees Celsius (-58 F), and in summer barely reaches 17 C (63 F), it is still home to a large population of Russians, who main inhabit the city of Novosibirsk. With a population of around 1.5 million, Novosibirsk ranks as Russia’s third largest city after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In addition to Novosibirsk and the city of Irkutsk, as well as many other smaller cities, Siberia continues to house many indigenous populations, some of which speak languages only known by their own small communities and many of which are threatened daily by extinction.
2. WEST OF THE URALS
While Siberian Russia may dominate Russia’s wildlife and nature, western Russia still stands its own ground. The southern city of Astrakhan sits on the tributaries of the Caspian Sea and is only a night bus ride from the Caucasus Mountains (be aware that the Caucasus region is still vulnerable and travel warnings are often legitimized; thus, it is advised that if the Caucasus is your destination of choice then extra research should be done, especially into the safety and travel flexibility of the particular region). Following the mountains northward is the small town of Sochi, which will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. In the northern part of Russia is Saint Petersburg, which overlooks the Gulf of Finland. From Saint Petersburg, there is easy boat access to Finland, as well as train and bus rides to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The more adventurous may dare to travel even farther into northern Russia to Arkhangelsk on the White Sea.
Unique to western Russia are a few predominate culturally diverse cities. Situated between Astrakhan and the Caucasus mountains is the small city Elista – a Buddhist habitat – unique amongst a country dominated by Russian Orthodoxy; Elista also maintains fame for its chess education and tournaments.
Just west of the Ural Mountains, you can find Ufa, the capital of the republic of Bashkortostan. Ethnically, while still dominated by Russians, the republic boasts a large composition of Tatar and Bashkir minorities. In response to its Asiatic history, they have many museums regarding the Bashkir people, while the food also represents that of its Turkic ancestors. In addition, there is a Bashkir theater and ethnic dance schools. Bashkortostan remains one of the few Islamic republics of Russia. Similar to Ufa, is Kazan, located on the Volga River and situated in the republic of Tatarstan. Kazan’s most popular feature is its Kremlin (citadel), in which is situated a Russian Orthodox cathedral as well as a Mosque. In Tatarstan, the Tatar language, also a Turkic language, is predominantly spoken; Tatarstan is also home to a large Islamic population.
3. THE CAPITAL
Moscow, Russia’s capital is a hot spot for foreigners and Russians alike. With over ten million citizens, Moscow attracts Russians from other cities in hopes of pursuing new careers or academic advancements. Furthermore, as one of the wealthiest cities in the world, many people flock to Moscow with the hopes of jump-starting their business prospects. Politically and economically, Moscow reigns; however, culturally, the northern city of Saint Petersburg takes precedence. Rich in the arts, St. Petersburg attracts emerging artists and culture lovers and is most well known for its historic theaters and stunning architecture.
It is advised, no matter what, to travel a lot while in Russia. There are a plethora of things to do and see everywhere, and although Russia’s geography is quite complex, it doesn’t hinder travel.