Before leaving home, I got warned by several people that Russia is not the most vegan-friendly country to travel in.
It's funny how people who are not even vegan and probably never have been to Russia become experts on unknown territory.
I must admit that I am happily surprised about the veggie-situation in this gigantic country.
I have committed myself to not pay for any sleep, so CouchSurfing is just the perfect deal for me. It is the cheapest way of accommodation and also allows you to have a good contact with locals and their habits.
Since I do not speak the language, and therefore cannot read any labels, I have carefully selected my hosts as followed: I simply searched for a host filtered by the keyword “vegan”. In this way your search is immediately limited to like-minded people who will be delighted to show you around in their daily vegan way of living.
My first stop was Moscow and here I stayed with a young vegan drummer named Anna. She took me to the supermarket and explained me that Russian bio-shops are a unnecessary luxury.
Good news: the veggies are real! They are ugly, very tasteful and come straight from the countryside. Sounds like heaven, right? And I hadn't even seen any meat-soup thrown at my head yet. Unbelievable!
Bigger supermarkets have next to their great variety of choice also a counter with freshly made salads which are delicious and pretty cheap too. I frequently filled up some containers with divine combinations for only 1,50 Euro.
The price-quality of the food made it taste even better.
Surfing couches and thus having a whole kitchen to use allows you to cook as if you would do at home.
Basically, Russia is a children’s game for vegans.
In the supermarket - without a guide - it is important to keep your eyes open and look very carefully at the pictures on the jarred food. Back home I would read any label in order to avoid having dangerous E-numbers spoiling the goodness of nature in my dishes.
Unfortunately, I had no knowledge about the Russian language at all, so sometimes I needed to buy stuff in the dark.
CouchSurfing with vegans has been a great help for getting started with my travels throughout this country. In case of doubt I have sent pictures of the labels to Russian friends, so they could translate the ingredients. You got to love technology sometimes.
I started out using my vegan passport, but soon it was clear that a lot of people cannot read – or just pretended they were reading.
In restaurants you can always make a combo with side-dishes; assisted by your vegan passport and a Russian sentence of what you cannot have, you will be surprised of the quality of food you will get in front of your nose for less than 5 Euro.
It can come in handy to learn the words “yaytso” (egg), “syr” (cheese), “maslo” (butter) and “vegetarianets” before departing. In this case you can order food saying: “vegetarianski? Net yaytso, syr, maslo – allergiya”.
Lying about having an allergy for those ingredients can help to ensure they do not secretly try to feed it to you anyway ;).
Western Russia has been very easy as a vegan traveller, but the more I was heading East, the more difficult it got. West from Lake Baikal it's all about the fish and in the East, you will feel you are getting closer to Mongolia.
I recommend you to stock up on food (what I did not do) before travelling around Baikal. I ended up eating mostly bread with oil, pepper and salt; and salads of cucumber and tomato.
In Ulan Ude (East-side) you will see that the choices are getting more limited than before. The city is directly connected with the capital of Mongolia which translates itself in counters filled with meat and cheese instead of the fresh salads in the West.
Russian winters are hardcore, so there is only a short supply of fruits and vegetables. The small section in the supermarket will be poor and pretty expensive. Travelling low budget has forced me to get frozen vegetables and processed jarred food, which I spiced up with fresh parsley or dill to get my greens.
Because, never ever let go of your greens.
The longer I was travelling, the more I got organized and understood how to travel in Russia without starving to death. Out of uncertainty I ‘happy cow-ed’ my way through the listed vegan restaurants and added some discoveries myself as well, but on long-term vegan travel this can get very expensive.
Even though I am convinced that a good vegan dish prepared by others is a treat you should give yourself once in a while, I got more and more confident on what to get in the supermarkets and cook for myself. Especially when you hit the countryside.
I had enough of meaningless buildings and noisy cars, so I traded the city for woods and mountains.
I have lived for one month on a Siberian farm called Red Bench, which I found via Workaway.
It was very easy to live a vegan lifestyle here, although my diet consisted mostly out of cabbage and potato. In addition to this, I have been taking some supplements to compensate the lack of greens in my diet.
In the mountains of Altai there are little shops, but the choice is very poor and pretty expensive. Better to stock up on your favourite Russian delights in this case as well.
With my food containers filled with joy, I am ready for the next challenge. I like to make it myself difficult, so packed with rice, buckwheat, pasta, jarred food and spices I am crossing the border to Mongolia, the land of meat and cheese.