For centuries the world has wondered what to believe about Russia. The country has been reported variously as a land of unbelievable riches and indescribable poverty, cruel tyrants and great minds, generous hospitality and meddlesome bureaucracy, beautiful ballets and industrial monstrosities, pious faith and unbridled hedonism. These eternal Russian truths coexist in equally diverse landscapes of icy tundra and sun-kissed beaches, dense silver birch and fir forests and deep and mysterious lakes, snow-capped mountains and swaying grasslands – those famous steppes. Factor in ancient fortresses, luxurious palaces, swirly spired churches and lost-in-time wooden villages and you’ll begin to see why Russia is simply amazing.
To get the most from Russia, head way off the beaten track. After taking in old favourites such as dynamic Moscow, historic St Petersburg and beautiful Lake Baikal, dive further and deeper into the largest country in the world. Visit the soft, golden sands of the old Prussian resort of Kranz, now known as Zelenogradsk in the far western Kaliningrad Region; the charming Volga river village of Gorodets, home to folk artists and honey-cake bakers; fascinating Elista, Europe’s sole Buddhist enclave and location of the wacky Chess City; the 400-year-old mausoleums of Dargavs, a North Ossetian ‘city of the dead’; or the hot springs of Kamchatka’s Nalychevo Valley in the Russian Far East.
Russia’s vast geographical distances and cultural differences mean you don’t tick off its highlights in the way you might those of a smaller country; the Russian Far East, for example, is the size of Europe. A more sensible approach is to view Russia as a collection of countries, each one deserving exploration. Rather than transiting via Moscow, consider flying direct to a regional centre such as Irkutsk to have an Eastern Siberian vacation, or to Yekaterinburg to explore the Urals mountain range.
If cultural and architectural highlights are what you’re after, stick to European Russia, which is all of the country west of the Urals. If you don’t mind occasionally roughing it and are in search of Russia’s great outdoors, train your eye on the vast spaces of Siberia and the Far East. Alternatively, boost your adrenaline on the country’s top ski resorts and raft-friendly rivers. You can also get a bird’s eye view of it all from the cockpit of a MiG-25 or even from outer space, as well as unique experiences such as getting a beating in a banya (traditional steam bath).
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It seemed like a lark.