Russia offers a thrilling and irresistible range of terrain for outdoor adventures. There are majestic mountains to climb and ski down, national parks and wilderness areas to hike through, and fast-flowing rivers for rafting and canoeing. Piloting a supersonic MiG fighter jet or training as a cosmonaut are also possible!
Adventures in Space
Once a highly classified community of cosmonauts and scientists, Zvezdny Gorodok (Star City), around 50km drive northeast of Moscow, is where those looking to blast off into outer space train for the experience. Since 2001 Space Adventures, a US-based company, has arranged for several billionaire civilians to achieve their dream of space flight by training here also.
While you don't need to be filthy rich to sign up for the programmes offered by Space Adventures, they are far from your everyday travel adventure, both in terms of cost and the amount of serious physical and mental commitment required. Cosmonaut training (US$89,500), for example, takes a week and includes a spacewalk mission simulation in a neutral buoyancy tank. The least costly deal is to train for a spacewalk (US$7650), which still includes visiting Star City, trying on an Orlan spacesuit, meeting with cosmonauts and chowing down at Star City’s cafeteria.
Moscow-based Space Tourism Ltd can arrange similar tours to Star City, including zero-gravity flights from €5000. If you just want to visit Star City and have a look around, this is also possible. Tours of the technical area and museum can be arranged through GCTC.
While most specialist operators are professional, this is Russia, so be flexible, patient and prepared for things not to go as smoothly as you may hope. There will often also be a group of enthusiasts more than happy to share their knowledge and even equipment with a visitor; you might also be able to locate guides for trekking and other activities where detailed local knowledge is essential. Provide as much advance warning as possible; even if you can’t hammer out all the details, give operators an idea of your interests.
Always check the safety equipment before you set out and make sure you know what’s included in the quoted price. Also, make sure you have adequate insurance – many travel insurance policies have exclusions for risky activities, including skiing, diving and even trekking.
Boating, Canoeing & Rafting
Although the pollution of many rivers discourages numerous travellers from even getting near the water, the coasts offer many canoeing and kayaking possibilities. The Altai region’s pristine rivers are best for full-blown expedition-grade rafting, as well as easy, fun splashes possible on a ‘turn up’ basis. Kamchatka’s Bystraya River is also recommended.
The Solovetsky Islands in Northern European Russia are an example of the remote and fascinating places that can be toured by boat during the summer.
The Volga Delta, with its fascinating flora and fauna, below Astrakhan, is an amazing place to explore by boat. In towns and parks with clean lakes, there are usually rowing boats available for rent during the warmer months. Moscow and St Petersburg have active yacht clubs. You can also arrange white-water rafting trips in Arkhyz and other locations in the central Caucasus.
California-based agency Raft Siberia arranges rafting trips on the Katun, Chuya, Sayan Oka and Chatkal Rivers in Siberia. One of its founders, Vladimir Gavrilov, is the author of Rivers of an Unknown Land: A Whitewater Guide to the Former Soviet Union, the only English-language guidebook to include detailed information about rafting rivers in Russia.
Russia’s traffic-clogged cities are far from a cyclist’s nirvana, but off-road cyclists will find plenty of challenging terrain. Rural Russians are quite fascinated with and friendly towards long-distance riders. Just make certain you have a bike designed for the harshest conditions and carry plenty of spare parts.
Bike rentals are available in Moscow, St Petersburg, Suzdal and Svetlogorsk among other locations.
For more online about cycling, see Towns.ru (www.towns.ru) which has reviews and pictures of charming off-the-beaten-path locations, many of which could be visited on a cycling tour. See also the website www.crazyguyonabike.com. The Moscow-based, non-profit social club Russian Cycle Touring Club runs tours each summer around the Golden Ring or between Moscow and St Petersburg.
Those with the constitution of a walrus may fancy braving the frigid waters of Lake Baikal, the Baltic Sea to go diving – or even the Arctic Circle. A warmer alternative would be search out possibilities at the Black Sea coastal resorts.
Serious anglers drool at the opportunity to fish the rivers, lakes and lagoons of the Kaliningrad Region, Northern European Russia, the Russian Far East and Siberia. Kamchatka is a particular draw, with steelhead fishing in the peninsula reckoned to be the best in the world.
Start saving up, though: organised fishing trips in Russia can be heart-stoppingly expensive. While it’s possible to go it alone and just head off with rod and tackle, most regions have restrictions on fishing, so you’d be wise to at least check these out before departure. An interesting alternative is ice fishing for Lake Baikal’s unique omul (a cousin of salmon).
Hooked: Fly Fishing Through Russia (titled Reeling in Russia in the US) by Fen Montaigne charts the former Moscow-based correspondent as he spends a revealing three months casting his rod in the country’s largely polluted lakes and rivers.
Flying, Skydiving & Paragliding
Several tour operators can arrange passenger flights in the supersonic MiG-29s that fly out of Nizhny Novgorod’s Sokol Airbase to the edge of space, where you can view the curvature of the globe. Incredible Adventures, a US-based operator, can also arrange flights in the L39 Albatross out of Vyazma Air Base, three hours south-west of Moscow. London-based SkyandSpaceTravel.com and Moscow-based Space Tourism Ltd, both authorised MiG agents, also organise trips to see the launch of the manned Soyuz spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and a range of activities at Star City.
Helicopter sightseeing flights over St Petersburg can be arranged with Baltic Airlines.
Tandem jumps and skydiving courses can be arranged at Aerograd Kolomna, Russia's largest skydiving centre, 100km south of Moscow.
Paragliding is also popular in the Chegem Valley of the central Caucasus. Contact Elbrus Elevation in Nalchik, or Pyatigorsk-based Russian Mountain Holidays (https://russianmountainholidays.com) for details.
Hiking, Mountaineering & Rock Climbing
Serious hikers and climbers will have the Caucasus mountains topping their wish list, particularly the areas around Mt Elbrus, Dombay, Krasnaya Polyana and Mt Fisht. The Agura Valley is a prime location for rock climbing.
For any trekking in the Caucasus, check on the current situation and arrange any necessary permits at least three months in advance; this is best done through local agencies.
In the southern Ural Mountains, Zyuratkul National Park and Taganay National Park are beautiful places to hike. Siberia also harbours many equally fantastic hiking and mountaineering locations, principally the Altai region (again, you will need permits for most climbs in this area, including Mt Belukha) and around Lake Baikal, where you’ll find the Great Baikal Trail.
Kamchatka also has plentiful hiking and mountaineering possibilities, including the chance to climb active volcanoes, but you will need to hire guides to avoid danger.
Elsewhere, multiple national parks and state nature reserves exist, but don’t expect them to have especially good facilities or even well-marked trails. For this reason, it’s especially important to seek out local advice, information and even guides before setting off.
Safe Hiking Guidelines
Before embarking on a hike, consider the following:
- Be sure you’re healthy and feel comfortable about hiking for a sustained period. The nearest village in Russia can be vastly further away than it would be in other countries.
- Get the best information you can about the physical and environmental conditions along your intended route. Russian ‘trails’ are generally nominal ideas rather than marked footpaths, so employing a guide is very wise.
- Walk only in regions, and on trails, within your realm of experience.
- Be prepared for severe and sudden changes in the weather and terrain; always take wet-weather gear.
- Pack essential survival gear, including emergency food rations and a leak-proof water bottle.
- If you can, find a hiking companion. At the very least, tell someone where you’re going and refer to your compass frequently so you can find your way back.
- Unless you’re planning a camping trip, start early so you can make it home before dark.
- Allow plenty of time.
- For longer routes, consider renting, or even buying (then later reselling) a packhorse.
Caucasus Mountains Agencies
Ural Mountains Agencies
Agencies in Other Regions
Many of the same areas that offer good hiking and mountaineering also offer horse-riding treks. Try Arkhyz, Dombay and Elbrus in the Caucasus, the Altai region, or around Lake Baikal and Kamchatka. There's also the famous Georgenburg Stud Farm in Chernyakhovsk, where children can go horse riding.
Skiing & Winter Sports
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and Krasnaya Polyana put Russia on the radar of winter sports enthusiasts across the world.
Downhill ski slopes are scattered throughout the country, with the best ones in the Caucasus and mountainous areas of Siberia such as the Altai. You'll also find a couple in the Urals such as Abzakovo (www.abzakovo.com) and Magnitogorsk (www.ski-bannoe.ru).
Cross-country skiing is more common, attracting legions of enthusiasts during the long winters. Easily accessible for this type of skiing are the resorts Krasnoe Ozero and Tuutari Park, both near St Petersburg. Given the wealth of open space, you won’t have a problem finding a place to hit the trail elsewhere. For off-piste adventures, try heli-skiing and back-country skiing in the Caucasus and Kamchatka.
For further details, go to World Snowboardguide.com (www.worldsnowboardguide.com/resorts/russia) or Onboard.ru (https://onboard.ru).
Snowmobile safaris and activities such as cruises are also possible in the Russian Arctic.
Driving the Trans-Siberian Hwy
For intrepid souls, the challenge of driving across the vast expanse of Russia is irresistible. This is your chance to traverse some incredible landscapes (but also many, many kilometres of bland and boring views) and to come into contact with a wide range of locals.
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman wrote about their Russian road adventures in Long Way Round (www.longwayround.com); their round-the-world route took them from Volgograd all the way to Yakutsk and Magadan via Kazakhstan and Mongolia. The celebrity bikers had a camera crew and support team following them. For a more accurate view of what to expect, read The Linger Longer by brothers Chris and Simon Raven, who somehow coaxed a rusty Ford Sierra from the UK to Vladivostok; One Steppe Beyond by Thom Wheeler, which covers a similar journey in a VW camper van; Travels in Siberia by the humourist Ian Frazier, who was accompanied by two Russian guides on his 2001 drive from St Petersburg to Vladivostok in a Renault van; and White Fever by Jacek Hugo-Bader, who drives from Moscow to Vladivostok in the middle of winter.
Whatever your mode of transport, driving the 11,000km from St Petersburg to Vladivostok has become a more feasible proposition since the full black-top completion of the 2100km Amur Hwy, between Chita and Khabarovsk (previously the rockiest section of the road). Even so, it’s worth heeding the words of President Vladimir Putin, who, in August 2011, drove a 350km stretch of the Amur Hwy in a bright-yellow Lada Kalina Sport, afterwards commenting: ‘It is a dependable, modern farm road, but not the Autobahn.’
For more insight, read a feature by Tim McCready (www.timmccready.nz/travel) about his 14,000km road trip across Russia in 2015.