Russia

Capital: Moscow
Population: 143,657,134 (ranked 9th)
Size: 6,592,800 sq mi (ranked 1st)
Language: Russian
Money: Ruble (RUB)

Hopping on the Trans Siberian Railroad, I rode the rails almost the entire length of Russia. I quickly became sucked into the romance of railway travel. With my head against the window, the smooth sway of the train and clacking of the wheels on the tracks was meditating as I watched the Russian frontier pass by. The size and scope of Russia offered up a diversity of biomes and geography. From the endless forest taiga and blue waters of Lake Baikal in Siberia to the onion domed skylines of its cities and towns, Russia was a feast for any photographers lens. The welcomeness of the people I met and the countless possibilities for exploration endeared me towards Russia, making it a place I’d gladly return to.

That Time In Russia When No One Scammed Me

“Twenty thousand togrogs.” the Mongolian cabbie said reaching his open palm back over his shoulder without as much as a glance in my direction.

I gaped forward in flabbergasted awe, knowing full well I heard him correctly. His price was comically inflated, almost 300% more than the normal price for the short taxi ride.

“Why so much?” I asked putting as much stern tone into my Mongolian as I could muster.

He finally looked back at me, sizing me up with a stony glare. “Because you’re a foreigner.” he scoffed shaking his empty hand in front of me. “You’re different.”

With one hand on the door handle I slapped down the bill closest to what I thought was a fair price, staring down my dishonest cabbie as I did so, swinging open the door and slamming it behind me, moving quickly away from the car into the Ulaanbaatar night.

Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Downtown Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Two years of living and moving abroad will teach you that not every national is welcome and open to you exploring their country. Some seek out your bright eyed optimism for a new place and a new culture, they take advantage of your open mind and unfamiliarity with the host country to get into your head and ultimately your wallet.

Hundreds of miles and a summer later, me and a travel companion, Jessica stood staring at a poster in a Beijing hostel. “Watch Out For These Scams” the poster toted. Everything from brazen pickpocketing to elaborate schemes were highlighted. One of the more convoluted being where mock college students approach you inviting you to practice English with them. They take you to a local tea house, rack up an enormous tab, you’re forced to pay the bill, leaving you broke and confused while the would be students and tea house owner cackle in the back room, divvying up your cash.

Later, not five blocks from our hostel we stood alone at a street corner waiting for the crosswalk to blink green.

“Hey there!”

We spun around to meet our greeters. A young Chinese couple had materialized right behind us.

“Where are you guys from?” the hip girl, in her denim skirt and slouched hat asked.

“America.” We both answered slowly.

“That’s cool.” The boy said with a smirk, his tone precise and practiced. He covered this up by burying his hands deep into his cargo short pockets and relaxing his posture. His laid back attitude suggesting he used the slang “cool” all the time.

“We study at university.” the girl chimed in, hoisting her purse up on her shoulder. “We would really like to improve our English.”

The boy nodded in agreement. “If you’re not busy would you come have a conversation with us?” He took his hands from his pockets and pointed across the street. “We could go have a cup of tea and just chat.”

Now it was mine and Jessica’s turn to smirk. AH HA! I wanted to scream, we’re on to you sneaky kids! Instead we politely declined and thankfully removed ourselves from the conversation as the light finally changed. Still, I felt as though I had just thwarted a world class high stakes heist.

Hours later, we stopped for a bite to eat at a street side restaurant. As we dug into our meat and rice Jessica let out a laugh and pointed out the window with a chopstick. “Look!” she said with a chuckle. Sure enough, there was our hip college couple, working a corner, hurriedly following every non-ethnic Chinese person down the sidewalk in hopes of “practicing” their English.

The streets of Beijing, China.
The streets of Beijing, China.

Hundreds of more miles and that same summer me and Jessica stood on Olkhon Island in the middle of Lake Baikal in the far east of Russia. As we exited the mess hall after a dinner of fish and borsht we were cut off by two youths.

“Excuse me.” A tall dark haired boy said. “My name’s Peter, do you two speak English?”

We both admitted that we did.

“I help at a summer camp on the island. Students come to learn foreign languages.” His smaller brown haired and blue eyed companion just nodded, letting his older friend do the talking.

“Our assignment is to find foreigners to come and speak with us.”

Me and Jessica exchanged skeptical glances.

“If you aren’t busy could you meet with us later and help us practice our English?” He looked at us expectantly, his shorter friend just smiling up and listening.

Put on the spot I stumbled around in my head trying to think of an excuse why we couldn’t comply with the seemingly innocent request. As I struggled to think of a way out I eyed up Peter and his side kick. He brushed his black hair back with his hand, nervously waiting for us to answer. They seemed different. Innocent. Genuine. I glanced sidelong at my companion, pleading with my eyes for a valid excuse. She just shrugged at me.

“I guess we could go to your class.” I answered, defeated.

Peter’s face lit up and his short companion finally broke his silence with a smile, “Thank you very much!”

“Please meet us here at 8 o’clock.” Peter added, then with a wave they both trudged off down the path.

 

Guest House on Olkhon Island
Guest House on Olkhon Island

Between dinner and our 8 o’clock appointment me and Jessica wrestled with actually showing up. Was it all an elaborate ruse? We’d seen and heard of a lot of travel scams, were we about to fall prey to one? It all smelled too familiar, could it be a twist on the trick we averted in China? In the end we remained true to our word and showed up at 8 o’clock in front of the mess hall. Peter was there, nervously combing back his hair with his hand. When he saw us a smile cracked across his lips.

“Thank you for coming.” he said, relaxing his hand from his jet black hair. “Please follow me.”

I looked around. “Where are your students?” I asked warily.

“Hmmm” he put his finger to his lips, considering, choosing words. “We will go to them.” He nodded assuringly, “They are waiting.” He gestured forward with his hand, suggesting we begin walking.

Olkhon, Russia
Olkhon, Russia

Nervously I fell into step behind Peter, shooting Jessica a guarded look. We moved away from the guest house. Passed the outdoor gazebos and hangouts of the other visiting tourists. We weaved through the tiny wooden housed town of Olkhon. Finally, we funneled between derelict fences that separated the local people’s small yards. Onto a wooden foot path so narrow we were almost walking heel to toe. As Peter moved farther ahead I became more nervous. In the tight space between the fences I felt vulnerable. My imagination went wild, a trap door suddenly opening beneath us, swallowing us into the realm of “Two Missing American Tourists”. An enormous burly Russian man suddenly blocking my path, picking me up and shaking me by the ankles until all my Russian rubles, American check cards, and photo IDs came tumbling from my pockets.

Right when I was about to object to walking further we stepped out of the corridor into open ground. Along the cliff shores of Lake Baikal blankets were laid out upon the wild grass. Children of all ages crowded around the blue cloth, their eyes wide with curiosity as we approached.

The shore of Lake Baikal
The shore of Lake Baikal

As we knelt on the blankets the kids erupted with questions and chatter. “I’m Katya.” A little girl with long blond hair said. “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Justin.” I introduced myself.

“What’s your favorite animal?” she asked, ruffling her checkered dress with her hands as she spoke.

“Hmmm..” I tapped my lips pretending to consider. “I like penguins.” I answered.

“Penguins!?!” she exclaimed with a laugh.

“Do you like action movies?” A little boy asked. Sitting cross legged in black parachute pants, his clothing rustled as he shifted on the blanket.

Trying to think of a likely movie we’d both seen I nodded. “I like the Lord of the Rings movies.”

His face lit up and he sprang from his sitting position into a crouched squat, his swishing pants announcing the theatrics.

“Precious! My precious!” he growled, holding up an unseen treasure. His Golum impression was startlingly convincing.

As the sun set behind us over the glassy sheen of Lake Baikal and into the eastern mountains of Siberia we talked with the students. Laughing, sharing interests and disinterests, talking about life in America and life in Russia, where we’ve traveled and where we want to travel. As darkness threatened, the children reluctantly said goodbye and crowded around us for a photo. Peter crouched with the camera, lining up the shot and brushing back his hair before snapping the picture.

Sunset, Lake Baikal
Sunset, Lake Baikal

The lesson all this has taught me is to have some faith in people while traveling. Negative experiences with no-do-gooders can drive us into paranoid reclusion. We end up trusting no one and labeling some of the most spectacular corners of our planet unsafe and unwelcoming for the foreign traveler. By no means am I saying to meander about throwing caution to the wind and jaunting across countries care free. Absolutely stay vigilant and be aware of what to look out for.

Traveling is inherently risky, it’s part of what makes it so liberating and fulfilling. Trusting only in yourself or your TripAdvisor approved tour guide could lead you to miss out on some of the most precious and rewarding experiences of exploring the world. Give people a chance to prove that they can be as genuine and hospitable as you want them to be. The small connections you make in this way could end up being the most memorable moments of your whole trip.

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Categories: Russia, Travel Insight, Travel Tips | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Detained: Travel Misfortunes Make the Best Stories

Zabaykalsk, Russia
Chinese-Russian Border

“We’re going to need you to gather your things and step off the train.”

It was the last thing we wanted to hear.

“You’ll have to come with us.” the Russian border guard added as I hastily began stuffing belongings into my backpack.

Three of them stood at the entrance to our berth. Arms crossed, glaring down the brims of their oversized hats. One officer clutched our passports to his chest. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the little booklet as I slung my pack onto my shoulders. I wondered what it would take for it to be handed back over into my possession.

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As we stepped into the hall one of the guards pushed passed us. Overturning mattresses, flipping open cabinet doors, scanning under the table. Looking for contraband that wasn’t there.

Our translating border guard led us down the hall. As we stepped off the train and onto the platform our carriage’s provinista, no nonsense car manager gave us a shaming look. She whispered something to the border guard as we passed.

“She says you must come retrieve your tickets from her if you aren’t getting back on the train.” I didn’t have time to contemplate this being a good or bad sign. We were ushered forward across the platform. Guards patrolled the border perimeter. Army fatigues, slung rifles, leashed dogs. Me and Jessica exchanged worried glances. They brought us into the border office. A concrete giant of Russian bureaucracy. We moved through metal detectors into a large holding room. “Sit” our translating guard said, with a wave of her arm at a row of chairs. “You will stay here until a decision is made.”

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“Are we really being detained?” Jessica whispered as we slumped into our seats.

“Looks like it.” I answered, I felt helpless.

“We’re so stupid.” said Jessica, voicing what I was thinking. “So damn stupid.”

“There can’t be a worse country to have this happen in.” I added.

In the corner of the room a little brown cocker spaniel whimpered as it pulled on the chain that tethered it to a far chair. We both stared at it and Jessica let out a defeated laugh “Oh God, this is too much.”

It was almost comical. Two Americans and a sad cocker spaniel bound by the same predicament. I turned and sat on the hard plastic chair and put my face in my hands, trying to run through the series of events that had culminated just right to land us in this situation.

It was entirely our fault. Having booked our tickets in advance while living in developing Mongolia we had only one option; to pick them up in Beijing months later. We didn’t discover until then that we were taking the longer Trans Manchurian route up into Russia instead of back through Mongolia as we had anticipated. This was a giant red flag that we failed to notice until it was too late.

About an hour before we were escorted off the train, we had arrived at the Russian-Chinese border. Before exiting China border guards assessed each passenger’s passport and cleared them to leave the country. In the early morning a banging on our compartment’s door startled me awake and sent me jumping down from my top bunk. A Chinese guard took our passports and eyed each page over carefully.

“Do you know your Russian visas are not good until tomorrow?” Jessica and I looked at each other, wide eyed. “Your Chinese visas are also expired.” she shut both of the passports. “You cannot stay in China.” With that she handed them back to us and shut the door moving on swiftly to the next compartment.

The red flags were waving clear in front of our faces now. Our misjudgment of which train route we would ultimately be on had screwed up the whole timetable of our visas. Instead of the day spent traveling through Mongolia we were now arriving early in Russia and leaving China too late. Our blunder was beyond fixing. As the train crawled across the border our fate would soon be left to be decided by the Russians.

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“Come with me please.” I was stirred from my thoughts by the guard standing over me.

I stood up and followed her into a small office. An officer sat at a cluttered desk looking down, not gazing up from his task as I entered. I took the seat across from him and soon noticed he was thumbing furiously through my passport. Finally he looked up and eyed me sternly. He began firing off questions in Russian. The translating guard positioned herself at a post next to his desk listening intently. Why were you in China? Why are you coming to Russia? What do your parents do for a living? What is this organization? He stabbed a finger down onto the cover of my passport which displayed a United States Peace Corps sticker. I answered all the questions as confidently as I could under his scrutiny. Have you ever been in the military? Why not? He scoffed at my answer. How do you feel about the United States foreign policy? What don’t you like about it?

I was becoming more and more uncomfortable by his prying questioning. I answered as simply and cleanly as I could, careful not to take an aggressive stance. Finally he either became satisfied or bored with my answers and waved his hand towards the door, signaling me to leave.

I was escorted back out into the holding room and made to sit back down. Before I could say a word to Jessica she was told to follow the guard into the same interrogation room. She shot me a nervous look as she passed. It’s fine I told myself, we have nothing to hide. The worst they could do is hold us here until our visas are good or deport us and make us go home.

Finally after what seemed an eternity Jessica came out. She was followed shortly after by a tall woman in a smart uniform. She whispered to our translator and began rustling through a stack of papers before producing our passports. She smiled down at us.

“You have been given permission to enter the Russian Federation.”

Our nervous laughter and joyous relief must have been infectious. Our translator smiled and let out a small laugh when she saw our swift change in mood. The tall uniformed woman smiled and handed us our passports with an approving nod. I could of hugged all of them, even the surly interrogator. Our misfortune and mistakes had left us with nothing but an excellent story to tell.

If only we could have taken the cocker spaniel.

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Zabaykalsk station. We were held in the middle building with the pink roof. In the far left background the tall gate monument marks the border between Russia and China.

Categories: Russia | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

What To Expect When Visiting Deceased Communist Leaders: Vladimir Lenin

Moscow, Russia
Red Square

We didn’t come early, but evidently right when we were supposed to. The post lunch line to see the long dead founder of Bolshevism was just beginning to form as we procured a position in it. Skirting around the State Historical Museum we had blundered back and forth confused to where the line to view the infamous leader actually started. Finally depositing our belongings in a small room on the side of the museum we stepped into the queue and began slowly moving forward.

Lenin's Mausoleum

Lenin’s Mausoleum

Like viewing Mao Zedong some 3,500 miles southeast of where I currently stood, the privilege to gaze upon the preserved remains of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a strict business. No cameras, phones, food, drinks or baggage were allowed into the mausoleum. As we inched along under the shadow of the Kremlin walls I took in the sight of the famous square before me. Far removed from the textbook pictures I grew up with, there were no goosestepping soldiers or trucks loaded with ICBM’s. Nor was the pavement blanketed with freshly fallen snow, complete with fur coat clad Muscovites frigidly trudging towards the towering silhouette of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

State Historical Museum

State Historical Museum

Instead I was surrounded by an architectural feast for the eyes. To my left loomed the baroque style State History Museum, and just beyond the arched façade of the GUM department store stretched almost the length of the square. To my right rose the towers of the Kremlin, the stars that capped each crown gleamed red in the sun. In the distance the colorful St. Basil’s dominated the skyline in all its onion domed glory.

The line suddenly began moving in earnest. Stepping through the metal detector, the stern guard briefly waved a wand over my person before permitting me entry. The mausoleum itself was small in comparison to Mao’s, which controlled the southern end to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. What Lenin’s mausoleum lacked in size it made up for with aesthetics. The smooth polished marble and granite gave off a sheen clear enough to see your reflection in. Under the watchful glare of the guard at the door I passed beneath the doorway and underneath Lenin’s suriname embossed in Cyrillic.

"LENIN"

“LENIN”

My eyes adjusting to the dark room, the line moved around a semi circular pit. In the center encased under glass lay the interred remains of Vladimir Lenin. As my eyes focused into the dim I was again amazed by the powers of preservation. The deceased communist leader looked as though he had passed yesterday, rather than eighty nine years prior in 1924. Even the man’s signature goatee and mustache were intact. More impressive still was the knowledge of the dramatic events that had unfolded to keep the Soviet leader looking as well as he did. Despite his request to be buried in St. Petersburg, Lenin’s remains were hurriedly embalmed and displayed in Red Square under the leadership of Josef Stalin. In 1941the future of the Soviet state looked grim as the Nazi war machine drove headlong for the Russian capital. As the German army drew closer to Moscow, the Soviet government evacuated Lenin’s body by rail, moving him almost nine hundred miles east to the city of Tyumen in the far reaches of Siberia. There, in a small apartment Lenin rode out the war, being kept properly embalmed and cosmetically altered under the supervision of a small team of scientists.

Ushered out the far end of the room in the same quick anticlimactic matter as I had experienced in Beijing I was suddenly back out into the sunlit Red Square. Moving along the backside of the mausoleum I passed by the markers and sculptured busts of other notable Soviets. The figures of Stalin and Brezhnev stared back at me with stern hard eyes. Their bodies buried and laid to rest within the walls of the Kremlin itself. Briefly reading their Cyrillic inscriptions I moved away from the mausoleum.

Moving north along the Kremlin walls me and my travel companion exchanged chatter about what we had just seen and how it compared to viewing Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Beijing. As we turned a corner behind the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier we decided it was time to get something to eat. Keeping an eye out for the closest eatery our eyes quickly came upon a familiar sight. The golden arches of a nearby McDonalds came into view. The irony not escaping us, we laughed, the American fast food restaurant barely a three minute walk from where we had just come.

Lenin and his contemporaries were surely turning in their graves.

Red Square

Red Square

Categories: Russia | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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