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Town and country

Russia is known to business travellers for its vibrant cities, but Catherine Quinn discovers why the surrounding countryside is also prime location for incentive trips and breathtaking escapes


Russia is an enormous land of breathtaking scenery, bustling metropolises and warm Slavic hospitality. With such a vast area within her borders, this fascinating country could take an entire lifetime to explore, and most business travellers rarely make it outside the boundaries of Moscow or St Petersburg.

It’s certainly true to say that the capital city and former capital are rich in history, culture, museums, art galleries and theatre, and are where the majority of Russians make their homes. And with only eight hours train journey between the two it’s quite possible to see both in one trip, although either has plenty to offer as a sole destination.

Those visiting for work purposes are becoming increasingly adventurous in their exploration of this mighty landmass, and more and more are choosing to venture further afield into Russia’s largely untapped wilderness. What many discover is that while Moscow offers a commercial hub and St Petersburg cosmopolitan glamour, away from the urban centres is quite unlike any other destination on earth. With the rolling steppe landscape, volcanoes, beautiful lakes and icy mountains, capped with a decided lack of development or even people, this is the place to escape from it all. And for those looking for incentive trips with a difference, heli-skiing, motor-biking across frozen lakes and bathing in deserted bubbling mud pools are just part of the rich complement of activities with a difference.

If you’re in Moscow on business it can seem daunting at first, with Cyrillic street signs (or no street signs) and English not commonly spoken. In fact the city is almost a perfect circle, bordered by the city ring road. It’s a fairly easy layout to get to grips with, mainly because the shape of the various areas are so obviously connected with the city’s ancient past. The historic core of the Kremlin sits perfectly in the centre, with districts of varying age knotted around the 11th century hub. Moscow’s layers correspond in age with their distance from the centre, as this ancient city slowly issued out from the Kremlin. First came the market district of Kitay Gorod which arcs around the centre. From here the more commercial Belig Gorod area forms a horseshoe shape north of the Moscow River. Next Zenlyanog Gorad forms an outer suburban layer, and from here the city layout becomes more fragmented.

The Kremlin
Most visitors to the city head straight for the Kremlin and surrounding buildings – and with good reason. This fascinating and well-preserved district is one of the most ancient cities in Europe, surviving through surprisingly few invasions.

The area forms a fortress (which was, of course, its original purpose) enclosing a breathtaking collection of some of Moscow’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. The State Kremlin Palace is the modern addition to this ancient seat of power, and is itself an attractive concrete and glass monolith – a legacy of communist rule. Nowadays the enormous 6,000 seat auditorium is used to host shows by the Russian State Ballet and other venerated performers.

The Senate building is the official residence of the Russian president, and is a neo-classical structure commissioned by Catherine the Great. When this mini-city was built, it would have been unthinkable to house state buildings without at least a few good-sized cathedrals to keep God on side. So the Kremlin area boasts not one but four impressive cathedrals, with the modest Church of the Deposition of the Robe thrown-in for good measure. Of the cathedrals, the Assumption Cathedral is the largest, oldest and most important, while the Cathedral of the Annunciation is the most striking: a lovely example of the classic gold domed architecture commonly associated with Russian buildings. The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael is a Renaissance Italian style cathedral, and the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles and the Patriarch’s Palace now serves as a museum for 17th century art.

Kitay Gorod and The Red Square
The next layer of the city fans out in a horseshoe shape from the Kremlin area. Kitay Gorod comprised the merchant quarter of the city from the late 1500s. At the heart of this part of Moscow is the famous Red Square, once an enormous market area for medieval traders. Bordering the Kremlin wall, this amazing tribute to Moscow’s historic greatness is a key attraction to modern day Russia. The square still acts as a gathering place for important events and is characterised by Russia’s most famous landmark – St Basil’s Cathedral. This soaring, brightly coloured, bulb-towered edifice is the most commonly used image of Russia, and up close it is every bit as spectacular as its portraits suggest.

Kitay Gorod is also home to the famous GUM department store – once the scene of bread-lines and mournful queues of Russians in line for the most basic goods. Revamped for millennial Russia, GUM has taken on a new lease of life, with modern shops and department stores as well as a few more traditional Russian stores on the third floor.

Belig Gorod – The White Town
Bordering Kitay Gorod to the north of the river is Belig Gorod, or the ‘white town.’ Forming a broad arc around the more historic areas of Moscow, this part of the city is home to the more contemporary cultural manifestations of modern Russia. It is here visitors will find the Bolshoi Theatre, the Pushkin Fine Art Museum, the Opera House, the city library and the University of Moscow – the latter housed in an elegant yellow neoclassical building. Belig Gorod also boasts The Arbat – a legendary bohemian cobbled street jam-packed with buskers, peddlers and street stalls.

St Petersburg
While Moscow might form the weighty centre of Red Square and most commercial dealings, the glamorous St Petersburg also vies for business visits and is within easy reach of the capital by air, rail or road. With five million people to Moscow’s 15 million, St Petersburg is the second largest city in Russia, and like the gentle artistic younger sister to Moscow’s brash exuberance. Although cultural differences are not so apparent to outsiders, there are those from St Petersburg (and Moscow) who swear an entirely different attitude prevails among the population of their own city.

Whether or not this is actually the case is academic, but as far as the facts are concerned, St Petersburg is certainly a city which likes to celebrate its history of arts and culture. Dostoevsky, Trotsky and ballerina Anna Pavlova were all from St Petersburg, and the modern day literary and performing arts scenes are a vibrant reminder of these famous residents.

The architecture of the city also plays a vital part in its claim to wager a little more sophistication than roguish Moscow. History has given the buildings a decidedly feminine feel, with the majority of architectural commissions taking place during matriarchal rule. However, the city itself is very much a male orchestrated affair, taking its name from Tsar Peter who ordered the construction of St Petersburg in 1703. The 18th century construction makes this a staggeringly young city – particularly considering that Moscow dates back to the 1100s. With a neo-classical design built more or less from scratch, planners were free to construct their own ideal of a waterfront conurbation, giving St Petersburg a new city status all of its own.

St Petersburg is a city roughly split into five parts, with an intriguing history behind the current layout. Petrogradskaya was the area which Tsar Peter initially built as the city-proper. The idea was to construct a proper harbour town that would strengthen Russia’s non-existent navy defences, and provide a training ground for military fleets. In honour of this vision a massive fort was built which still provides a key focus for visitors today. The Peter and Paul Fortress is an impressive hexagonal construction on the banks of the Moscow River. This is the true historic quarter of the city, and contains some of St Petersburg’s key attractions.

For a lovely view out onto the river and across the entire city, the TV tower is well worth a look. Built in 1962, the 310m high lattice steel construction was the first TV tower in the Soviet Union. Nowadays it is still used for FM and TV broadcasting and features an observation platform at a height of 191m. Located at 3 Ulitsa Akademika Pavlova, the nearest metro station is Petrogradskaya. The same station is also within walking distance of the Museum of Russian History, a fascinating tribute to political Russia in general.

Gostiny Dvor
For many residents of St Petersburg, this is the city, for all its historic adjuncts and hangers-on. The success of the area is a simple matter of geography, as residents of the city realised it was the least susceptible to flooding and other environmental mishaps. For sheer size there’s no escaping that this is where the bulk of the city residents spend their time and wages.

As the commercial hub, Gostiny Dvor is home to the famous Nevskiy Prospect. This is St Petersburg’s answer to the Champ Elysees in Paris, and in terms of size and popularity probably excels it. Other sites of interest include The Church of Spilled Blood, (with onion dome towers reminiscent of St Basil’s Cathedral), and the Pushkin House Museum.

The Hermitage
The Palace Embankment is home to the world famous Hermitage – an art gallery which could easily deserve the attention of this entire magazine. Initially the impressive collection of Tsarina Catherine, the artworks contained here simply grew until they became of mammoth proportions. To give some idea of scale, there are three million artefacts here – merely to glance at each one would take an estimated nine years. The works comprise some 12,000 sculptures, 16,000 paintings, 600,000 drawings and prints, 700,000 archaeological exhibits, and one million coins and medals.

Into the wilderness
If Russia’s cities offer cosmopolitan glamour and modern entertainments, there are still vast swaths of this enormous country given fully to the old ways of life. With much of Russia’s vast bulk stretching endlessly east in climatic conditions which barely allow life to exist, those in search of wilderness will hardly be disappointed. And despite Russia’s reputation as exhibiting a rather despotic attitude towards nature and the environment, several of the world’s preserved natural wonders tell a different story.

Lake Baikal
Perhaps the most revered is the incredible Lake Baikal, a favourite stop on the Trans Siberian Express route, and a destination in its own right. This mighty expanse is the largest reserve of fresh water on the planet, and contains more water than all five of America’s Great Lakes put together. At 360 miles across and some 1,600m deep, it could more reasonably be described as an ocean than a lake, and in typical Russian style remains mercifully untouched by a combination of design and logistics.

Huge swaths of the lake have been declared protected areas by environmentalists, and although a debate still rages around the building of a paper mill and various other pollutants, it is for the most part now under the jurisdiction of Unesco. The other reason for this region being as yet untroubled by hordes of tour agencies and lakeside resorts is a combination of inhumanly cold temperatures (minus forty and below in winter) and lack of easy access. For reasons which are inexplicable outside Russia, Lake Baikal is bereft of a circular road, meaning those arriving from the north are stranded from the southern areas of the lake. There is a hydrafoil which joins north to south, but not east to west, meaning that the shortest crossing is unavailable. However, during the winter months when the lake freezes two metres deep, trucks, cars and all manner of other conveyances take to the Baikal as a useful frozen highway.

For a glimpse of Russia’s untamed wilderness, however, this all counts in favour of this spectacular sight. With thousands of metres of freshwater, the lake houses its own eco-system of seaweed and plankton, all of which works tirelessly to provide a uniquely efficient cleaning system. For this reason around 80 percent of the water is pure enough to drink, and the purity also lends itself to crystal clear views to the depths, even when deeply frozen.
Those brave enough to get out here will find plenty of unusual activities; the region lends itself to the ‘things to do before you die’ style of pursuit. Travellers looking for an incentive trip with a difference could hardly find a place better than this, although managing a voyage would certainly take some arranging with local tour operators.

Typical entertainments include husky rides across the ice, stopping to enjoy a lakeside meal of barbecued fish and the inevitable vodka toasts. Taking a hovercraft across the frozen lake is also a popular and safe way to skid over the depths at speed, but for true adventurers, taking to the ice on a motorbike is undoubtedly the most
adrenaline fuelled way to enjoy the sights.

More sedate activities which are favoured by locals as a form of industry include ice-fishing, using either a rod or a net. Unsurprisingly, the latter is the most common way to draw out bucket-loads of the resident olma – a kind of salmon – from a chain-sawed hole. Rod fishing is preferred by traditionalists, and is popular among tourists looking to enjoy the old-fashioned style.

Whatever the activity undertaken in this remote wilderness, visitors should expect that more than the occasional vodka bottle will be plunged into the snowy verge, only to be unearthed minutes later and its chilled contents liberally dispensed. In this part of the world, warming one’s bones from the inside out is a way of life, so vodka glasses are commonly and amiably handed around at noon or earlier. Somehow though, neat alcohol served near frozen by an iced-over lake seems closer to the liquor’s etymology (it is thought to come from ‘aqua vitae’ – the water of life) than anywhere else.

Fire and ice
Snowy tracts of steppe might characterise huge areas of Russia, but a lesser known attraction is the country’s very own little Iceland – a volcanic region decked in ice and littered with boiling mud pools. The Kamchatka area is less frequently visited by tourists, not least because it is quite literally the end of the road. To get deeper into this region will require the assistance of a dedicated guide and at the most basic end a heavy duty 4×4 vehicle. More commonly, however, those with deep enough pockets trying to get to the more breath-taking spots are choosing to make the trip into the volcanoes by helicopter.

For the well-travelled this could well be the ultimate adventure trip. There’s no doubt that few other explorers have penetrated the region, and real-life danger still abounds in the form of brown bears and unpredictable weather. Known even to the locals as the ‘Lost World,’ this region could reasonably lay claim to more Jules Verne style attractions than any other part of the planet. The area is made temperamental by earthquakes and bubbling geysers, and ominous rumbles in the distance or from directly below are a likely part of any trip.

A favourite for those braving this true back-of-beyond is a helicopter flight into the Paratunka hot springs, where the quintessential bath in warm waters as the snow falls around makes for a mesmerising experience of natural beauty. Several mountains are also surmountable, although many comprise challenging adventures even for very experienced climbers. More accessible is Mutnovsky mountain, which also houses a bubbling cluster of mud pools perfect for plunging cold feet into. Ice crevasses offer more advanced climbing routes but the mountain can also be negotiated on foot with an experienced guide.

Another reason to get out on a trail is that Kamchatka is a well known spot for brown bears. These native residents are positively out in force here, which gives all the more reason for travellers to tread very carefully. This said, the very real possibility of sighting a bear in the wild is yet another reason why Kamchatka is a paradise for adventurous travellers.

For yet more adrenaline packed incentive trips, heli-skiing is currently increasing in popularity. The uncharted nature of these mountains means that being dropped straight onto the slopes from a helicopter is fast becoming the way for thrill-seekers who have done everything to try something new.

The Volga Delta
Of course, not all visitors to Russia will have the time or inclination to get so far out into the wilderness. And while many of the country’s most stunning and uncharted attractions lay further out, natural wonders are also housed nearer to the big cities.

For the scenic getaway that local Russians clamour to escape to, the lovely Volga Delta showcases a rather more temperate and forgiving aspect of the nation’s vast geography. The lazy river area comes alive in the summer months, where many natives rent or own holiday homes on the shores of the winding river. Birds and wildlife are popular attractions, and a large area has been archived for the Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve.

This region is a meeting of the large saline Lake Baskunchak and lofty Mount Bolshoye, which breaks the barren rolling steppe characterising the rest of the region. This sudden influx of nature brings with it a wealth of birdlife – the main protected element of the diverse fauna – but it’s also known as a migratory area for saiga antelope, which tramp through in search of food at certain times of the year.

The river itself also holds a secret sandy spit of land in the wider expanse of water, which is mostly comprised of pure white sand. In the summer months when the sun is shining and the water is at its bluest, visitors who have rowed out to this tiny island could almost mistake themselves for being on a deserted Polynesian atoll.

So while Russia’s cities will undoubtedly form part – if not all – of the itinerary for first time visitors, those with a thirst for adventure should take advantage of the more natural attractions. Not only are there some truly unique experiences to be had outside the urban centres, but it’s only a matter of time before these become better known and more frequented. For that once-in-a-lifetime sighting of true wilderness, now is the time to travel and enjoy Russia’s sizeable hidden charms in addition to her tried and tested impressive cityscapes.

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