The hosting of the Winter Olympics (www.sochi2014.com) in the seaside city of Sochi and nearby Caucasus Mountains has been controversial, but there’s no doubt it has focused attention on the travel potential of the world’s largest country.
I’ve been a regular visitor to Russia for 20 years, during which time I’ve been robbed, attacked by vicious dogs and arrested as a spy. Even so, I keep going back because of its cultural delights, spectacular natural attractions, thrilling adventures and, believe it or not, welcoming and soulful locals. Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 Russian travel experiences.
Relax in a banya
There are few better ways to connect with Russians than getting naked with them in a steam bath. Sweating it out in a public banya is a regular ritual for many locals and if I had to recommend just one it would be Moscow's luxurious Sandunovskiye Banya (www.sanduny.ru). The changing rooms, with their vaulted mahogany ceilings, leather upholstered banquettes, and turquoise and gold, fleur-de-lis patterned walls are a prelude to the steam room where the swimming pool is a Grecian fantasy of columns, statues and mosaic floor.
Sail across Lake Baikal
Another memorable, more rustic banya experience was in the natural hot spring turbaza (holiday camp) of Khakusy on the shores of Lake Baikal. Dawn warmed the beautiful lake’s placid sapphire surface as I sailed there on a boat from Severobaikalsk. First stop was the Bay of Ayaya, where reindeer padded down the pine-fringed beach. Recrossing the lake from Khakusy, I alighted at Baikalskoe, an absurdly pretty fishing village of gingerbread cottages with bright blue shutters and neat flower gardens. Similar cruises can be arranged via Rashit Yakhin/BAM Tour (www.gobaikal.com).
House hunt in Tomsk
It was a thrill to visit the old Siberian town of Tomsk, not least because during the Soviet years it was off limits to foreigners because of its sensitive nuclear and military industries. Today, the Oxford of Siberia is a hip, friendly hangout where one in five residents is a student and the central streets are lined with superb examples of 'wooden lace' architecture with delicately carved windows and tracery on their facades. Prime ones include the Peacock House (so-called because its gables are decorated with the silhouettes of birds), the Dragon House, and the elaborately restored Russian-German House.
Sleep on a Trans-Siberian train
I’ve lost count of the number of nights I’ve been lulled to sleep in the bunk of a sleeper compartment on a Russian train. The classic sleepover, of course, is the six-day, 9289km epic from Moscow to Vladivostok aboard the Trans-Siberian train – the longest single-service rail journey in the world. Outside panoramic vistas unfurl as the tracks span mighty rivers and murky swamps and run through mountains, dense forests and vast steppes. Yet it's what goes on inside the train - the people you meet, the long conversations that ensue, the friendships that are forged - that really make a Trans-Siberian trip special.
Ride a funicular
Given a major overhaul for 2012’s Asian Pacific Economic Conference, much has improved in Vladivostok since I first visited in 1997 and the local newspaper headline read 'Mob boss slain outside hotel'. One thing that remains unchanged is the spectacular far eastern location of Russia’s San Francisco – to take in the beguiling panorama of Golden Horn Bay, ride the funicular (vladivostok-city.com/places) to the lookout atop Orlinaya Sopka. One of only two such contraptions in Russia, a ticket for the 1962 vintage funicular is also a bargain at R6 (less than US$0.20).
Attend a performance at the Mariinsky
Russians cherish the performing arts and most major cities and towns boast glorious theatres. Moscow's Bolshoi (www.bolshoi.ru) is a romantic highlight but, to my mind, St Petersburg's Mariinsky (www.mariinsky.ru) is the one not to miss. I first sat on a gilded chair in the stalls of this dazzling jewel box back in 1994, entranced by a performance of Tchiakovsky's Eugene Onegin. On every visit to the city since I've returned and have never tired of the theatre’s glamour and the democratic inclusiveness of an audience spanning ages and social classes.
Slip back in time in Suzdal
In Suzdal’s Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, I listened transfixed as a choir of monks performed a heavenly a cappella concert in a brilliantly frescoed chapel, followed by a symphony of chimes from the bell tower. I had to pinch myself to be reminded that I had not slipped through a wormhole back to the glories of 16th-century Russia in this enchanting Golden Ring town with its profusion of old monasteries, convents, onion-domed churches and intricately decorated wooden cottages.
Climb an active volcano
Kamchatka is almost as far as you can go in Russia before banging up against Alaska. It’s an incredible adventure travel destination offering pristine wilderness country, lakes and rivers teeming with fish, and snow-capped volcanoes which could erupt at a moment's notice. The highlights of my journey to this amazing land of fire and ice were choppering into a remote camp and hiking to the yellow and green sulphur-stained caldera of Mt Mutnosvskaya (2322m) with its boiling mud pools and ice crevices. Tours here can be arranged with Lost World (www.travelkamchatka.com) and Kamchatintour (www.kamchatintour.ru).
Discover new art
The world-class art collections of St Petersburg’s Hermitage (www.hermitagemuseum.org) and Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery (www.tretyakovgallery.ru) speak for themselves. If you’re looking for the shock of the new, though, I’d highly recommend Russia’s vibrant contemporary arts scene, which is best experienced at shows curated by the Garage Centre for Contemporary Art (garageccc.com) in Moscow’s Gorky Park and the various galleries occupying the red-brick buildings of the Red October Factory, a former chocolate manufacturer across from the Kremlin.
Conquer a Kremlin
Two centuries older than Moscow’s central fortress, the red-brick Kremlin of Veliky Novgorod (visitnovgorod.com/sights/kremlin.html) is the impressive nucleus of one of Russia’s most attractive and tourist-friendly towns. Climbing its Kokui Tower will give you a view over the complex that includes the 11th-century Cathedral of St Sophia and the Millennium of Russia Monument, a 300-tonne sculpture that’s a who’s who of Russian history over its first 1000 years.