How I learned to read Russian on my first river cruise

  • Travel
  • Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

Home for 11 days and 10 nights on the Volga river in Russia. Photos: The Star/Melody L. Goh

The first time I ... went on a river cruise

After spending 11 days travelling in Russia, I can now read Russian.

I can’t speak the language or write it, or even understand what I’m reading, but I know that the Roman letter “H” is actually “N” in Cyrillic and that “Mockba” is Moscow.

This is all thanks to the informal classes on board the MS Victoria, the ship I was on for my recent work trip with Sedunia Travel cruising through the Volga river. It was my first time on a river cruise, and I was with a group of Malaysians, all eager to discover more about the country.

We travelled from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, making five stops at small towns and villages in between. However, the distance between some of the ports took more than a day’s journey so we had a lot of time to kill on the ship.

Thankfully, the ship’s tour coordinators had prepared numerous activities for guests to participate in each day. The coodinator for our group was named Alfia, and she was attentive to our needs.

It was Alfia who taught us how to read and speak basic Russian words and sentences like “Good Morning”, “How are you?”, “Where is the toilet?” and “Putin”. Alfia is a kindergarten teacher by profession, but like many young Russians, she does part-time jobs during the summer break.

To help us remember our Russian language lessons, the tour coordinators organised a couple of singing classes. We sang Kalinka, a popular 19th century folk song, and Antoshka, a children’s song about a lazy boy who does not want to help his friends.

Then there’s the nursery rhyme about how a grandfather and his family members try to dig a gigantic turnip out of the ground ... This cute story was later performed on stage during “concert night” by some of the ship’s guests, including three from the Malaysian group!

The concert night was a fun affair. Each tour group on the ship – there were three international groups and one local – had to perform well, something, for the MS Victoria crew as a way of thanking them for their hard work.

The Malaysians sang Rasa Sayang (a sole Indonesian traveller was also on the ship so he joined our group throughout the tour) since we kind of forgot all about the show and had to perform something we all knew, in a flash.

We were a hit. And nobody realised, or cared, that we had made a few mistakes in the song.

Rabbit stew with buckwheat. Grains like buckwheat and millet are common in Russian cuisine.

Apart from that, we also tried our hand at painting our own Russian souvenir. I thought mine was good enough but the art “teacher” was not too impressed by it and made some improvements.

Mealtimes on the ship were ... adventurous. Breakfast was buffet style and I thought that the daily spread was nice. Not everyone shared the same opinion though.

I really loved the millet porridge, a typical Russian breakfast meal, the preserves and cheeses.

The menu changes each day for lunch and dinner, and we had to choose our options the night before. I guess I am a lot more adventurous with my food than many of my travel companions – I loved most of the items I chose every day but the others weren’t always too happy with theirs.

There was no curfew or “lights out” on the ship at night but then again, apart from going to the bars (there were two on board), there’s nothing much to do. There was a library with books you could borrow, a spa and two lounge areas with free coffee, tea and cookies.

A lock is a water navigation system that either raises or lowers a ship to move it from one waterway to another.

There was also a little gym that was open for 24 hours. On one particular night, I found myself walking on the treadmill at 11.30pm because I was too restless and couldn’t sleep.

Since it was late September, the weather was already cold so if you wanted to hang out on the sun deck or your room balcony, you’d better have a thick jacket on. I had mistakenly left mine at home so I could only stand outside for a few minutes to check out the locks at some of the canals.

A lock is basically an elevator for ships, either raising or lowering them. It is a fascinating thing to see and a big part of the river cruise experience. On our trip, we went through eight locks; six of them were at the Moscow Canal.

A river cruise allows you to take things at a slower pace, which is what you want on a holiday. Navigating through the Volga – the longest river in Europe – I managed to see a charming, less rigid Russia and discovered so much more about the Russian culture than I thought I would.

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