Have you been to Russia? Would you like to go? Have you planned for it? I have a friend who stayed in Moscow for 5 years for her studies. She invited me over a couple of times but I couldn’t make it. I missed the opportunity of going over and doing slow travel while living with her but I will go there someday for sure. But for now I have this heart-felt experiential story that will not only make you curious about Russia but will also remind you of your first solo trip, the first few friends that you made in another country and the overall joy that comes with travelling. In the post below, Bipin Sonkar reminisces some of his moments from his Russian sojourn. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I bet you will too. Hope we all get to travel to Russia when everything becomes better in future.
“Do you seriously want to go alone to Russia? It is not safe and you will get bored” screamed my brother, sentiment quietly echoed by my mother as well when I told them about my plan to travel solo to Russia. Though I had already traveled in India and abroad with my friends, this was my first solo experience and honestly – I was a bit nervous before the beginning of the trip. Traveling to Russia was not easy. Navigating in Russia without knowing Russian, extremely cold weather, and the perception of Russians being serious & unsmiling were some of the challenges. I had never met a Russian and only one of my friends had traveled to Russia to share his experience. But, the incredibly diverse landscape, the blue expanse of the largest freshwater lake in the world Baikal, and the longest railway line Trans-Siberian Railways were enough reasons for me to travel to Russia.
This is how it began….
My first experience in Russia was at the immigration counter. I looked different in my passport due to my handlebar mustache. The immigration officer stared at me several times carefully. Eventually, he put a stamp on my Visa and I took a sigh of relief. I said spacibo (thanks in Russian). A cold and chilly afternoon welcomed me in Moscow. Once I stepped out of the terminal, I was surrounded by cab drivers. They were tall and muscular. I looked like a young boy in front of them (that’s why I kept a mustache to look older). They were all speaking in Russian. Unable to understand anything, I politely said net (no in Russian). The first task on my hand was to find an ATM, withdraw money, and buy a Russian SIM card. At that moment I realized how disabled I was without the internet. Once I got the Sim card with unlimited 4G internet, I felt comfortable and relaxed. Now I was ready to roll and walked towards the bus stop thanks to Google Maps. I was all excited for my Russian sojourn.
For the initial few days, I was polite yet cautious. After roaming in Moscow for a couple of days, meeting a few locals, learning a bit of Russian I loosened up a bit. For the first time, I used Couchsurfing (CS) application to meet locals. I met a young, independent, and ambitious Russian in Yaroslavl. Then, I was invited by a freelancing photographer into his beautiful home on the banks of the river Volga in the small town of Tutayev.
From a quaint tiny town to the historic city of Saint Petersburg – scenes changed completely. In this bustling metropolis, unanticipated I met an Indian and a Russian. We walked on the streets the entire night to explore the beautiful city.
Trans-Siberian Railways Thrill!
My stay in Kazan, Ekaterinburg, and Irkutsk were brief. And finally, I reached Baykalsk, a small town at the southern tip of Lake Baikal after traveling for 74 hours in Trans-Siberian Railways. I got celebrity treatment from fellow passengers since I was the only non-Russian on the train. They clicked a picture with me, shared food & drinks, and also invited me to their homes.
In Baykalsk, a geographer hosted me along with two other travelers. I was amazed by his warmth to host travelers in his tiny home which could barely accommodate us. He took time out of his busy schedule to take us on a trek on a picturesque trail near Baikal. My Russian sojourn ended here.
This trip changed my perception of Russians completely. They are actually warm-hearted, open, good-humored, and welcoming, once you get to know them. I made a lasting relationship with several. I also discovered various facets of my personality. From being a cautious & skeptical tourist I became a confident traveler. I broke my identity of being serious-minded about life. I did what I liked without the fear of being judged. My experience of CS opened a new dimension of traveling which I had never explored before. Meeting locals and seeing their town, culture, food from their perspective was completely a new experience. This trip taught me that people are mostly kind & accommodating if you reciprocate similarly. I learned to trust people more rather than being too circumspect. During the journey, I met so many strangers and created many memories for a lifetime, in that sense, as a solo traveler I was never really alone. This trip allowed me to travel at my own pace, reflect upon my journey, and in a way, I began to relish my own company. As I took the flight back home after spending 17 days in 8 different cities, crossing four time zones, 6 train rides, I knew Russia will never be the same for me again, and I will never be the same person again.
About Bipin Sonkar
Saint Augustine once said- “The world is a book and those who do not travel only read one page”. This quote motivated me to travel across our amazingly beautiful planet Mother Earth to experience and capture life as much as possible. I’ve backpacked in 11 European countries, Japan, Nepal, Thailand, and Russia. Also, I have explored India reasonably. Trekking to the base of the tallest mountain of the world Everest is one of the most memorable trips of mine.