I recently read a post on Traveldudes called Hostels 101 – What Makes Hostels Tick, What to Do and What Not to Do. As I scanned through the post, much of it seemed unfamiliar to me, despite the fact that I have been staying in hostels for much of the last eight months – 18 different hostels in the former Soviet Union, to be exact.
The post spoke of hostels with bars, pool tables, outdoor patios and even swimming pools. It raved about all of the activities hostels arrange, like city tours, pub crawls, themed dinner nights and open mic nights. And it warned of college dormitory-style bathrooms with multiple shower stalls and stalled toilets.
The majority of the post sounded very foreign to me.
It did not mesh with my experience at all. The more I poked around, the more I realized that hostels in the former Soviet Union tend to be a little bit different from what you find elsewhere. And as I read reviews of the hostels I visited, I realized that some of the things people often complained about were really universal in the region rather than specific to any hostel.
So what exactly can you expect when you’re staying at a hostel in a country like Russia or Ukraine?
Hostels are often simply converted apartments.
While the hostels I stayed at in Helsinki, Tallinn and Vilnius occupied their own buildings and had multiple floors, all of the hostels I visited in Russia, Ukraine, Latvia and Moldova were basically apartments converted into hostels. More often than not, they were located in Soviet-era apartment buildings on high floors with no elevators. As such, they tended to be pretty small, accommodating a maximum of perhaps 15-20 guests, sometimes less.
They can be hard to find.
Because they are simply apartments, these hostels also lack a lot of signage, if any. Add in the fact that the numbering of buildings in the former USSR can be confusing and you have a lot of hostels that are very difficult to locate. Paying very close attention (and printing out) directions to the hostel provided on their website or your booking engine of choice is crucial – especially if it includes needing a code to get in a gate or door (which is very likely).
When I arrived at my hostel in Kazan, Russia, I found a door code was needed to enter the building, but the hostel hadn’t provided it anywhere. I ended up buzzing random units until someone answered and let me in. Luckily, they knew about the hostel and pointed me in the right direction.
They may not be staffed 24/7.
Again, because they may just be small apartments, the owner may not live on-site and may not maintain any other staff. That means it can be necessary to let the owner know ahead of time exactly when you will be arriving so someone can let you in. When I arrived in Yekaterinburg, Russia by train at 5:45 a.m., I had to hang out at the train station for 2 hours because the owner of my hostel couldn’t meet me until 8:00. I almost didn’t get into my hostel in Odessa, Ukraine at all because the owner didn’t get my e-mail informing him of my arrival.
Once you are checked in, you will likely be given a key so you can come and go as you please during your stay – but that also means you need to arrange your departure time with the owner so you can return the key.
The bathroom situation may be tough.
It’s not that the bathrooms may not be nice – some of the hostels I stayed at were newly renovated with very nice bathroom facilities. But, they may be limited. It isn’t uncommon for hostels in the former Soviet Union to have just one or two bathrooms, typically with the toilet and shower in the same room While you avoid the college dorm-style shower stalls mentioned above, you may also be in for a lot of waiting when the hostel is crowded in the high season.
Leave your shoes at the door.
As is the case in Eastern European homes, most hostels will expect you to leave your shoes at the door and wear some kind of slippers, flip-flops or Crocs when you’re hanging around the hostel. One place I stayed even required that you buy slippers from them if you didn’t have your own.
Washing machines are common, but dryers are unheard of.
Like elsewhere in Europe, dryers are extremely rare in the former USSR. The good news is that at least washing machines seem to be the norm and many places have drying racks in the hallways or porches so you don’t have to leave your clothing to dry all over your dorm room (or in the summer months, you simply hang it all outside). Added bonus: the majority of places I stayed not only didn’t charge to use the washing machine, they even provided the laundry detergent for free!
Common areas may be small or non-existent.
While large common areas, even outdoor spaces and bars, seem to be the norm in Western Europe and elsewhere, they are extremely rare in the former USSR. Once again, it is a space issue. The converted apartments just don’t have the extra room for a large common area. In those that do have common spaces, they tend to be right next to the dorm rooms, meaning it can be very hard to get a decent night’s sleep if anyone is hanging out late.
Bedding and other bits.
My biggest beef (and a small one at that) at most of my hostels was with the bedding – none of them used fitted sheets, so I was left with a flat sheet that I had to continuously tuck and re-tuck over my mattress (this was true with my homestays as well). They are also really big on comforters and duvet covers – rather than getting a second flat sheet or a blanket, you simply get a duvet cover to slide over the comforter on your bed. Even after nearly 20 attempts, I was never able to master this.
On the plus side, every hostel I stayed at in the former Soviet Union offered filtered water, free tea and coffee and free wi-fi. About 75% gave me a city map when I arrived and a handful were able to book activities or arrange transportation for me – that definitely wasn’t the norm.
Have you stayed at a hostel in the former Soviet Union? What has your experience been like?
All photos courtesy of the Apple Hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia.