Travel

Foreign Correspondence: Find adventure from the steppes to Siberia

The famed “Bronze Horseman” statue honoring Peter the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia: It’s a very tourism-friendly city with a lot of hotel choices and restaurants, according to Doug Grimes.
The famed “Bronze Horseman” statue honoring Peter the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia: It’s a very tourism-friendly city with a lot of hotel choices and restaurants, according to Doug Grimes. AP

Seattle native Doug Grimes, 54, founded MIR in 1987. The tour and travel services company operates in 35 countries in the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Iran.

Q. How many times have you been there? When was the last time?

A. To Russia and the other countries, around 100 times. MIR Corp. has affiliated local offices in the Ukraine, Russia and Uzbekistan. I was in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, early this spring for four days of a guide-training program and am scheduled to go to Russia and Georgia in the next 30 days.

Q. Russia and Ukraine began fighting in 2014. Has this affected your business?

A. It hasn’t affected how we plan things, but it affected us as a business. Russia in past years has been our biggest destination, though in the last two years Central Asia and Iran have been growing rapidly. The outlook for this year isn’t very good. Our Siberia trips will do OK – we do a lot of Trans-Siberian Railway. But trips to St. Petersburg and Moscow are not selling well at all.

Q. What’s the best time to travel?

A. The season is very important. The travel season is quite short in Siberia; May as well as September are best for Central Asia. We try to schedule in spring and fall. Summers are too hot: 110 degrees in July in Uzbekistan. But some want to go in winter, even to Siberia: That’s a whole different kind of thing; in winter you go to experience the snow and the troika rides.

Q. How complicated is it to run tours in Eastern Europe and Central Asia?

A. It depends on which country. Visas are still an issue: Many countries still require them, and that’s cumbersome. We try to make that smooth, but at the same time it’s still a barrier. The toughest include Turkmenistan and Iran. Russia is still fairly difficult. Russia has an online visa form now, but it’s super-lengthy. Over there, they always say, “This is what the U.S. makes us do if we want to go to America.”

Q. Which country over there is your personal favorite?

A. My favorite is Georgia. It has everything: a unique culture, good food, a tradition of wine making, the Black Sea and the mountains. The people are fantastic.

Q. The easiest place to get around?

A. St. Petersburg is way up there. It’s a very tourism-friendly city with a lot of hotel choices and restaurants. They have little city maps, so people can do things on their own, like visit museums and palaces. Many cruise ships stop there, and an infrastructure has been developed for that.

Q. What destinations do you recommend for a first-timer?

A. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or a combination of those. They’re European and a bit more familiar but still with the legacy of the old Eastern bloc. You can get a taste and understanding of all that. Then jump to western Russia: St. Petersburg, Moscow and the “Golden Ring.”

Q. “Golden Ring?”

A. Just to the north and northeast of Moscow. It’s a series of small towns that form a ring road. There’s a lot of history there – monasteries, churches and cathedrals. It’s also known for handicrafts; the tradition of matryoshka nesting dolls comes from there.

It’s a lot like old Russia; houses are built from logs. Modern Moscow, with its fancy hotels and bad traffic, is a two-hour drive away. To do the whole “Golden Ring” would take five days.

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