My husband and I took a Russian river cruise on the MS Zosima Shashkov from St. Petersburg to Moscow through Gate1 Travel in May 2016 and wanted to share our experiences with other travelers interested in taking a cruise on this particular ship.
The MS Zosima Shashkov is owned and operated by a Russian river cruise company called “Vodohov”. It is an older ship, certainly not opulent, but very clean, follows International safety standards, and serves its purpose well.
Gate1 American customers will need to obtain a Russian Visa for your passport and part of the application for the Visa and a “Visa Support Letter (VSL)”. Gate1 will provide a VSL to you 90 days before the cruise begins but it is actually issued by Vodohov.
Gate1 Travel reserves a block of cabins on the ship and has their cruise managers onboard separately from the Vodohov cruise managers. Gate1 customers were the majority of the guests on board and were mostly Americans with a handful of Canadians. The other Vodohov guests were Italian, French, Swedish and Australian customers for other European travel agencies.
Gate1 assigns their customers to one of 4 different color groups (blue, green, red or yellow) with a young Russian excursion tour guide for each group and their own tables in the dining room. The green and red groups were assigned to one Gate1 cruise manager, and the blue and yellow groups were assigned to another Gate1 cruise manager.
Tanya, an English speaking professor at a Russian university, was our Gate1 cruise manager and she was excellent at prepping our half of the Gate1 customers for upcoming excursions, protocol and disembarkation procedures. I rarely saw the other Gate1 cruise manager and have no feedback to give about him.
The other non-Gate1 customers also have their own tour guides, dining room tables and bus excursion groups separately. Yet the Gate1 and Vodohov customers had no problem interacting with each other in the various combined activities such as an onboard treasure hunt, talent show and nightly evening dancing.
The ship had a wonderful Russian Folklore Music trio (accordion player, balalaika lute player and singer) onboard who played for us quite often, Russian language classes, Russian song classes and Russian themed movie times.
As soon as we boarded the ship we were given one old-fashioned room key for the two of us, and a credit card for each of us to use as an onboard ship account for charging drinks at the bar, extra drinks in the dining room, and excursions to.
Russian food was served and we found it to be quite good, especially the chicken dishes. Breakfast was a buffet of hot foods (egg-based dishes, oatmeal/porridge, sausages) and cold foods (cereals, meat and cheese slices, breads, dried and fresh fruits) with free coffee, tea and juice. We could sit at any Gate1 table in the dining room.
Lunch was a 4-course meal of salad, soup, entree and dessert with a free bottle of water to drink. Dinner was a 3-course meal of salad, entree and dessert, with a choice of one free glass of wine, beer, soft drink or bottle of water. Entree choices were fish, vegetarian or other meat (chicken/beef/pork). We could purchase more drinks at lunch or dinner.
Tap water in Russia is not potable for Americans so bottled water is a must. Beer, wine, soft drinks and ice on the ship are also safe to drink, but do not drink the water from the cabin’s bathroom faucet. The bathroom water is only good for washing or brushing your teeth. Bring an anti-diarrhea medicine like Pepto-bismal in case you accidentally ingest tainted water somewhere along the trip.
Gate1 customers are given a choice of tables in the dining room the first two nights, then were expected to sit at the same table at lunch and dinner for the rest of the tour. We had to fill out a form of our desired lunch and dinner selections the day beforehand and the day’s dinner drinks order each morning. This was so the young Vodohov crew who spoke very little English could wait on us effectively.
The cabin is narrow with twin sized beds on each side near the window and a large clothes wardrobe near the cabin door. One of the beds has shelves above it and lifts up so you can store two medium sized suitcases under it. The other bed has a small shelf with two life jackets in it so you can only store two small suitcases in it. The window opens up by pulling it down. Each floor has a wrap-around public deck circling it so there are no cabins with their own balcony.
We spent very little time in the cabin (sleeping, showering, getting dressed) and got used to its size by the second day of the cruise. The Vodohov housekeeping crew cleaned the cabin every morning, left a chocolate for each of us, and changed the bath towel and sheets every two days or so.
There is one socket in the cabin’s bathroom for electric razors only and two sockets above the small refrigerator in the cabin. There is also a dorm-sized refrigerator in the room that takes up one socket, so be sure to bring a typical European power convertor with one or more 2 prong adaptors like you would use for Germany plus a long extension cord to use for charging your American based mobile phone, curling iron, white noise machine, clock (there is no clock in the room), etc.
The clothes wardrobe is roomy with a full sized mirror mounted on the wall next to it, but there is no safe in the room to lock up your valuables so bring suitcase padlocks to keep any valuables secure in your luggage. The ship will keep everybody’s passports locked up for most of the cruise except the last couple of nights.
We found the bathroom small and unusual but very functional. It has only a sink on one side and toilet on the other. Taking a shower involves standing at the sink, pulling the shower curtain around you to protect the toilet and door from getting wet, turning on the sink hot/cold faucets, then pulling out a knob at the base of the sink faucet to force the water to come through a long, flexible hose with shower head mounted by a bracket above the sink. You can either leave the shower head mounted above and move it sideways over your head to use like a typical shower, or you can take the shower head off its bracket and use it to rinse off a part of your your body at any angle.
Shampoo, conditioner, lotion, mouthwash, shower cap, sewing kit or shoe polish are not provided so you will need to bring your own. You will be provided with two bars of basic generic soap that last the whole cruise, but if you like using perfumed or moisturizing soap you will need to bring your own. The front desk sells shampoo, razors, etc. and has a few hair dryers to loan out but you will need to bring your own curling or straightening iron.
We and other people on the cruise that we talked to were quite impressed with the quality and knowledge of the local guides for both the free excursions and the optional excursions that we took. My husband and I would have liked to have a little more free time on each excursion because the lines at the women’s bathrooms typically ate away at much of our free time. All of the excursions were good but our favorite was the optional Kremlin Armory tour.
Gate1 customers are expected to tip both the driver and the local guide for each excursion in American dollars, euros or rubles. In the last 3 days of the cruise, Gate1 customers are expected to tip the Vodohov dining and housekeeping crew in rubles by inserting the money into a wooden box outside of the dining room or at the reception desk. And on the last night or final morning of the cruise, Gate1 customers are expected to tip the Gate1 cruise managers in rubles in person. You can ask for envelopes at the front desk to put your tips in if you so desire. Note that tips cannot be charged to your onboard ship account.
There is no wi-fi signal in the cabins or anywhere on the ship else except one of the bars. It was slow during the day due to volume but much faster at night. My mobile phone showed two or more bars for much of the cruise so I used it for limited data access. Be sure to contact your provider to find out how to obtain and set up the least expensive voice and data roaming package on your phone.
My husband and I were hoping for an affordable cruise with a heavy Russian influence and this Gate1 tour experience far exceeded our expectations. If you are expecting a luxurious Russian cruise with large rooms and private balconies, or if you need a ship with handicapped accessibility, you would be better off finding a different cruise more suited to your taste. But for everyone else, I highly recommend this cruise!