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Experiences interacting with locals

Don’t let a fear of not speaking the language keep you from traveling.

Jessica from How Dare She is a ‘country collector’, completing trips in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania; totaling over 50 countries so far. Through travel she wants to explore the cultures and peoples of the world, and change those, “I could never” moments into, “I can’t wait!“ moments. Writing exclusively for Real Russia, Jessica tells us all about her experience interacting with locals along the length and breadth of the Trans-Siberian railway.
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I don’t speak Russian. I don’t speak Mongolian. I don’t read Cyrillic. I don’t speak Mandarin and reading the characters is Chinese to me. With that in mind, one might think it would be difficult to interact with locals in China, Mongolia and Russia. Well, one would be wrong.

China – Flexing my muscles with an old lady in an alley

In China, interacting with locals can be extremely tough – the toughest I’ve found in my travels in fact. But once you break the ice, you’re in. Like anywhere else in the world, a smile goes a long way. I was walking in the hutongs of Beijing (small alley neighbourhoods) and wearing a tank top because I was fortunate to get a few rare sunny, blue sky days. An older woman was sitting in one of the alleys and she pointed at me, and then at her shoulders. Clearly commenting on my tank top. I pointed to the sky and flexed my biceps, laughing, and wondering how, “sun’s out, guns out” translates in China.

I don’t think the phrase translated, but it didn’t stop her from laughing. I wonder what she thinks I was trying to say? It doesn’t matter. For the rest of the week, every time I walked down the hutong, there she was, in her chair. And whether I was in a tank top or covered up, each time I passed, her face lit up, she started laughing and tossed her flexed biceps in the air. Sometimes you don’t even need to speak a word to create a memory.

Mongolia – An offer for marriage, and baby goats

You would have to work extremely hard to get a cold reception in Mongolia. Everyone is smiling and everyone is happy to welcome you, especially into their gers (mobile homes, like a yurt). When looking for a place to stay in the desert, you don’t call ahead. You just turn up to a ger, if you can find one, and knock on the door. Mongolian culture values guests, and you will be taken in. But it doesn’t stop there – you’ll first be greeted with camel milk tea and a type of fried sweet cookie. I was with a group and every family that we stayed with was beyond generous, sharing their homes, food and spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen people smile so consistently, and for so long.

One Mongolian in particular, smiled just a little extra as I cuddled one of his baby goats. The family had never hosted foreigners, so I’m sure they were amused at our fascination with the animals that surround them every day. He laughed at me with our guide. She told him how much I liked the goats and sheep and he perked up, quickly chatting to the guide. “If she likes the animals, she can have some! I have a son her age. She can move to Mongolia and she’ll get the animals AND a husband!”

Both the family and the group burst into laughter and I told him that I had to think about it. It’s not what I’m looking for, but aside from how tempting the landscapes and animals of Mongolia are, people who are as happy as Mongolians are the kind of people I want in my life.

Russia – Playing stupid


                                                                                  Relaxing on a stationary train

On the train from Novosibirsk to Omsk it became clear to me quite quickly that I was the only English speaker in the car. And over the course of the first few hours, it became clear that everyone else noticed too. If I’d bump someone while walking to the bathroom, an instinctual, “excuse me” gave me away. By the next few hours, people were eyeing my every move. The looks on their faces said, “who is this girl and why is she here??” The stone-cold facial expressions hid whether this was curiosity or irritation.

Then, one passenger came over and sat across from me. “Hello, where are you from?” he asked, with a very focused effort on his English. I looked up and smiled and greeted him back, and told him that I’m from the United States. The rest of the car perked up like prairie dogs. He asked where I was going. When I answered his second question, six other passengers rushed over.

                                                           Third class on the Novosibirsk-Omsk train

Apparently, they all wanted to practice their English and to chat, but they were just afraid to try.They saw that I had a deck of cards and asked if I knew how to play, “the Russian game.” I did not. The remainder of our ride together was consumed by playing this game. While it isn’t ideal to learn a card game without being able to explain the rules, I eventually got it. Then I realized I was wrong. Then I got it.  We laughed and spent the next four hours playing and working through what English they knew and what Russian I did. Most of them were in the army, going home from an assignment. They talked about their jobs, their friends and their families.

The icing on the cake? I asked the name of the game. “It’s called Stupid, because if you lose, you are the stupid one.” Can’t argue with that logic. I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to be the stupid one in the group.
                                                   Restaurant carriage on the Novosibirsk-Omsk train
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Thanks Jessica, for your insights into your experiences with locals across the Trans-Siberian railway. Make sure to follow her inspiring global adventures on her travel blog How Dare She, her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram jess_ismore. Click here to read more of her blogs on the Trans-Siberian!
And if you want to follow in Jess’s footsteps, Real Russia offer a comprehensive range of tours, taking in the three different ‘Trans-Siberian’ routes, between Moscow and Vladivostok, and Moscow and Beijing.

Click here to take a look and book now!
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