Real Russia Blog

Experiences interacting with locals
7
November
2017

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!

Real Russia Blog

Experiences traveling by train
31
October
2017

Experiences traveling by train

So, what did Jessica think of the most famous rail journey of them all?

Jessica, the ‘country collector’ of travel blog How Dare She has set herself the goal of travelling to every country, and Real Russia were lucky to work with her to help achieve that goal!

How did Real Russia help? By offering Trans-Siberian expertise of course. After all, one cannot simply travel the world and not hop on-board the Trans-Siberian railways.

So, what did Jessica think of the most famous rail journey of them all? Let’s find out!

An American abroad

An American traveling by train is a bit like a fish out of water. Unfortunately, and a bit embarrassingly, the United States severely lacks a sophisticated rail network. So, while I’d heard of the iconic Trans-Siberian railway, I couldn’t quite relate to the notion of traveling an entire country by rail. Thankfully that changed, all starting in Beijing.

Since I didn’t know what to expect, I decided that I would be sure to experience each seating travel class throughout the journey, splitting it into several legs, so I’d have a true understanding of the different ways to travel by train. Would third class be so bad? Would first be that good? Time would have to tell.

I got my visa, started studying Russian, and booked the tickets. Though that wasn’t as easy as you might think. Especially starting in Beijing. I was glad to be working with a third party to purchase the tickets, because while I tried to buy them in person, I spent hours going from place to place in the city to end the day still without a ticket. China tends to be difficult for English speakers, and leaving is no exception.

Provisioning

I loaded up on snacks and drinks for the ride, not knowing what would be available on the train. In the US, everything is more expensive on planes and trains, so to avoid extra costs, I was stocked up. But I gave the dining car a chance and was pleasantly surprised. Appropriately from Beijing to Ulan Bator, the car served Chinese food, which switched at the border to a Mongolian car, and at the Russian border, to Russian food. All reasonably priced, and more importantly, a great representation of the local cuisine.

While I had a hard time shaking the urge to bring my own provisions for the ride, I can’t say it’s necessary.

Staying charged and staying connected

Wi-Fi isn’t an option, but most countries have sim cards for great prices. In each country, I picked up a low-price tourist sim so I could stay connected on the long journeys. Power management is key – I charged up everything before each leg, including a back-up plan (power bank). Each train had power outlets, but often I found myself fighting for a charge. So, you’ll be able to charge, but be sure to share.

Pro-tip: even with a sim card, you will struggle to get connection when the train is far from cities, which drains batteries. If you do have a sim card, make sure to put it in airplane mode when you aren’t actively trying to use the connection to save the battery. If in doubt, bring a book.

Beauty rest



With the train journeys being as long as some of them are, and my travel experience being limited to ever-shrinking plane and bus seats, I was worried about the space and getting proper rest. The cabins ranged from 2 beds to 36+, but the bunks themselves all seemed the same, regardless of which class of train. Upon boarding each leg, you receive fresh linens and make your own bed.

The beds surely aren’t 5-star resort quality, but certainly comfortable enough. If you don’t do well with climbing up and down, be sure to request a lower bunk. Bonus, the motion of the train is like being rocked to sleep.

Making friends




The most important, and probably easiest, part of the journey was making friends. The beauty of the train is that you’re in it with a whole cabin, car and train full of people. On the trains from Beijing to Mongolia, and Mongolia into Russia, I found that most passengers were other travellers. In Russia, I met mostly commuters. The biggest difference between the two groups was the language barrier. But otherwise, everyone seemed up for a chat.

The restaurant car is of course a great place to meet other travelers over a coffee or a beer. Our car from Beijing to Ulan Bator had so much fun that we ran them out of beer! But on another leg, I was in third class with all commuters and no English. After a few hours and trying to speak to my bunkmate in French (it was certainly better than my Russian) and sharing chocolates and snacks, half of the car came over and we chatted in broken English and broken Russian. They even taught me their ‘national’ card game (a frustrating endeavor without full use of a language).

Bring something to share, bring cards and bring a good attitude and you’re going to have fun with new friends.

The verdict is in

I am officially a fan of rail travel. I write this while on a train. Way less security, train stations are closer to everything than airports, no mucking around with bags, people are friendly, food is good and you can sleep. I’m not sure what more one could want in their mode of transportation.
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Thanks, Jessica for sharing your experiences onboard the world famous Trans-Siberian railway.

To keep up with Jessica’s globe-trotting exploits, head over to her travel blog How Dare She, her Twitter, Facebook and Instagram jess_ismore.

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!

Real Russia Blog

Perceptions of Russia
24
October
2017

Perceptions of Russia

Why was Russia the biggest surprise of 95 countries Jessica has visited.

It is very easy to get a distorted view of a country, or people, from watching Hollywood movies and following social media. The easiest (if not the cheapest) remedy to this, is to travel and see the world for yourself. Continuing her series of blogs written exclusively for Real Russia, Jessica, creator of travel blog How Dare She, shares with us how her perceptions of Russia and her people changed when she had the opportunity to visit the country herself.
I didn’t know what to expect of Russia. Of Russians. Of Russian food. And out of the 95 countries I’ve been to, I’d have to say that Russia was the biggest surprise of them all. Where I expected ice and snow, I found rolling greens and lakes. When the stereotypes told me to expect Bond villains, I got boisterous, affable friends.

Russia is huge

If you look at a map, this should be quite obvious, but Russia really is huge. It doesn’t sink in fully until you’re planning stops on the train journey. There are so many options, how to choose? I was surprised when I talked with other passengers on the way from Mongolia into Irkutsk – most were stopping in Irkutsk and then going the long haul to Moscow with no stops in between. While the East and West of the country are quite different, surely there were cities in between worth visiting. At least that’s what I figured … I was right.

I stopped in Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Each unique, but with common themes. Tall, beautiful, friendly people, delicious food and interesting architecture.

In Irkutsk you are a few quick hours from the stunning Lake Baikal. I did not give myself enough time there. I wish I had known on the front end that it was so ecologically diverse (known as Russia’s Galapagos) and so massive (it contains 20% of the entire world’s freshwater supply). I also wish I liked fish because everyone seemed to be enjoying it.


Lake Baikal

On to Novosibirsk, where I went to the famous opera house to see my first opera, in the first row, for $4, and the next day went to the zoo and saw my first liger. A lot of firsts in Novosibirsk.

Next up was Omsk, where the Soviet architecture stood out. It’s a big city and I just enjoyed walking around, or riding the (very cheap) busses around when my feet got tired.


Novosibirsk Opera House

Both Perm and Yekaterinburg were great to explore by foot, helped by tourist paths painted on the sidewalk so you don’t miss anything.

Moscow is the main event. So big that it’s almost overwhelming, but with such a great transit system, it’s as if the city shrinks – pro-tip, get the multi-day transit pass, it’s unlimited and cheap. Red Square and the surrounding area is beautiful by day, but even more charming by night. St. Basil’s Cathedral is popular for a reason and an absolute must – not just for its beauty, but listening to a chorus sung in the cathedral gave me chills. Oh, yeah, and the city has a Vodka Museum. So, it’s a winner for me. I could definitely live there.


Inside St.Basil's Cathedral


Red Square

St. Petersburg honestly wasn’t on my radar, but I was going to be going onward to Finland, so it just made sense logistically. I strolled the city, taking in another different, but still clearly Soviet, style of architecture. I ended up on a canal cruise, which was in Russian, but I didn’t mind. I was less interested in the buildings’ history and more interested in a relaxing time seeing the city from the water. By canal or by foot, the city was way more than just a logistical stop. I finished my time in Russia with a local folk show, and it was a fantastic evening to wrap up the experience.

Savior on the Spilled Blood Church, St. Petersburg​

Russia experiences summer

That Russia does experience summer, is another point that might seem quite obvious. But as someone who doesn’t care for snow, all I was worried about was not putting myself in a blizzard. And on the Eastern shores of Lake Baikal I got scared. Snow. And lots of it. Then we rounded the lake and entered into summer. June and July in Russia are delightful. Blue skies, warmth from the sun during the day and enough of a chill at night to cool back off.

This was probably best exemplified walking around the parks of any of the cities, which were filled with families enjoying the weather, eating ice cream and ambling around on rollerblades. Squares across the country had mini-electric cars that kids could take for a spin or animals to pet. Did I mention the ice cream?

Russians are so Russian

Everyone is so ‘Russian’,” I thought to myself as I got to Moscow. Even upon reflection, I can’t come up with a better way to describe the style. It’s as varied as it is bold and confident. Someone decked out in traditional Eastern Orthodox clothing wouldn’t look out of place sitting next to a woman dressed to perfection for a business meeting, or teens with hair from any color on the spectrum.

By this point, I also knew that being so Russian meant that while someone may not be smiling, it didn’t mean that they weren’t friendly. Whether meeting on a train or in a pub, I found the people to be incredibly warm and genuinely curious.

“What do Americans think of Russia?” A question that I would be asked over and over, and which I would learn my answer for was totally incomplete. They were so curious about what we thought, as if I represented the whole of the USA.

I don’t know what Americans think of Russia, but I certainly know what I’ll be reporting back. Must visit, and I’m sure planning to make use of that three-year visa.
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Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your experience travelling across Russia, the largest, and possible most enigmatic, country in the world. Be sure to check out her other, equally fantastic, blogs.
And don’t forget to follow her inspiring travel adventures on her blog, How Dare She, her Facebook, Twitter and her Instagram jess_ismore.

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!

Real Russia Blog

Perceptions on Mongolia
17
October
2017

Perceptions on Mongolia

In this first blog, Jessica shares her opinion on Mongolia and its incredibly friendly people.

Last summer, Real Russia were lucky enough to work with Jessica, an American travel writer that has visited more than 95 countries in the last few years, sharing her experiences with the world through her blog How Dare She, her Facebook and her Instagram page jess_ismore.
Alongside writing two fantastic, and informative, guides about planning a Trans-Siberian adventure (Travelling solo as a female on the Trans-Siberian and Making the most of the Trans-Siberian), she has put together a few blogs exclusively for Real Russia, going into more depth about her incredible experiences travelling the most famous railway in the world.
In this first blog, Jessica shares her opinion on Mongolia and its incredibly friendly people.
Take it away Jessica!

On the road to Mongolia

When I thought of the Trans-Siberian railway, I honestly never thought of Mongolia. I thought of cold days in Russia huddled around a bottle of vodka. More on that in my upcoming blog about Russia. But as I started to investigate the Trans-Siberian journey, I was excited to find out it could be started from Beijing. Which meant that the previously mysterious Mongolia would be on my route.
On the train from Beijing, you know you’ve arrived in Mongolia when the cars start clanging around. At the border, the wheels are changed for the different tracks and I should have had a few more beers from the dining car if I wanted to sleep through it.

Bogie changing at the Chinese-Mongolian border

Despite the somewhat restless night, I woke up at about 5:30 as the sun started to rise. Taking advantage of a train full of snoozing passengers, I grabbed my camera and searched for the best spot to see the sunrise. Soon, light was pouring over the landscape of the Gobi and I knew I was going to get what I came for.


Sunrise over the Gobi desert

Before I knew it, we were arriving in Ulan Bator, as was a snow storm. In May. But I guess they don’t call it the coldest capital in the world for nothing. Luckily, I just had one night in the cold capital before heading back out to the desert to see the real and raw Mongolia that had been so hyped. Off to 8 days in the desert.

Smiles, landscapes, animals and meat

So, what was Mongolia like? Four words: smiles, landscapes, animals and meat.

Smiles. Mongolians are known for their hospitality, and for good reason. We went ger (pronounced like ‘gear’) hunting to find a place to stay at night, and it was expected that you could show up to any ger, unannounced, and be taken in. Every family greeted the group with warm smiles and tea. At one home, the father of the family even hinted he had a son for me if I liked Mongolia and wanted to stay.

Landscapes. Going around the country was a constant battle of charging my camera because I just couldn’t put it down. The variety is wide – from ice gorges to sand dunes, lakes to sparse deserts – but absolutely stunning all the same. The summer made for long days and incredible, late, sunsets.


The Flaming Cliffs

Animals. The nomadic culture of Mongolia stems from the need to make sure the animals are fed. If you don’t like cuddling baby goats, then maybe Mongolia isn’t for you (then again if you don’t like cuddling baby goats, you may need to re-evaluate life). Don’t try to cuddle the baby camels though, mom doesn’t like it and she’ll be sure to let you know. The cows are fuzzy and the horses majestic. And you’ll see more than just livestock – mountain goats and rare birds take as much advantage of the landscapes as humans do.

​ The smiling goat

Meat. While I’m no vegetarian, I am not a big meat eater. Which was a challenge in Mongolia. Mutton, horse and camel are common staples of the Mongolian diet. Don’t cringe away just at the sound of it though. It is worth a try, and some like it more than others. But it can be hard to think about it when you’re having dinner in a ger surrounded by the family’s livestock. We even got the chance to see a camel slaughter, which is so rare to get a peek into that our guide had never seen one in her whole life living in Mongolia. Two families came together to take on the huge task, which was completed far from the other camels who are smart enough to get a sense of what’s going on.

Food in a Ger Camp

Back to city life

Back from the desert, I had one more day in Ulan-Bator before hopping back on the train to Russia. While I waited for the laundromat to wash the entire Gobi out of all my clothes, I wanted to check out the bustling capital, and couldn’t help but notice the stark contrast between the traditional and humble (and massive) black market, with the shiny tall buildings housing the country’s business side, all with towering mountains in the background. How could a country be so modern, and just kilometres away, so authentic to their origins? It’s truly impressive.
Luckily, the train from Ulan-Bator to Russia offered the same views and time to reflect on the previous week.
I expected to like Mongolia, but I didn’t expect for the warmth of the people to so wash over the cold of the landscapes. I expected beautiful sites, but I didn’t expect for the vastness and diversity of the countryside to keep my jaw perpetually dropped.

Happy camels in the desert
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Thanks Jessica, for sharing your experiences in the incredible Mongolia. Be sure to come back soon to read more about Jess’s adventures along the Trans-Siberian railway, and make sure to follow her inspiring global adventures on her travel blog How Dare She, Facebook, Twitter and her Instagram jess_ismore.

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!

Real Russia Blog

An interview with a globetrotter and travel writer Jessica
10
October
2017

An interview with a globetrotter and travel writer Jessica

Jessica from How Dare She shares her travel experience and inspirations

Late last summer Real Russia had the pleasure of working with travel writer Jessica, Collector of Countries (over 50 so far!), of the website How Dare She, as she embarked on the greatest rail journey in the world, the Trans-Siberian railway; well, technically a bit each of the Trans-Mongolian and the Trans-Siberian!

While taking in a hundred new experiences, she found the time to write a few new guides for Real Russia; guides that should hopefully help you, “make the most of the Trans-Siberian railway”, and most importantly, give confidence to solo female travellers that the Trans-Siberian is eminently doable while flying solo.

In addition to this, Jessica has written four blogs exclusively for Real Russia, taking in topics such as what it is like to mingle with the locals, and what it is like on-board the Trans-Siberians famous trains! These will be posted over the coming weeks, so keep your eyes peeled to our social media channels.

For now, we thought we would ask Jessica a few questions, to get a better idea of why she travels, and what inspires her.

The interview

1. What is it about travel that inspires you?

I love learning and creating the opportunity for every day to be different.

2. What is it about rail travel that intrigues you?

In the United States, we don’t travel much by train; so it has always seemed like a fancy mode of transportation from the past, but I know it’s very modern and common today.

3. What do you aim to achieve from your travel blog and Instagram, and what inspired you to start them?

I share my travels because I want people along with me, and I want them to see that the world isn’t so scary. That people are as kind as you let them be. And this is best told through stories.


​ A view of Nevsky Prospect and famous Zinger House in St.Petersburg, Russia. Photo by Jessica.

4. What advice would you give to people who would like to become travel writers themselves?

I have a degree in journalism, so I felt confident as a writer, I just needed to add in the travel. But the advice I give to anyone who wants to write – whatever the topic – is to read more. Read veraciously and you will find the styles you like and don’t like, and it will help you find your voice.

5. What was your favourite travel experience, and what makes it different from the rest?

I ended up going to a Kazakh wedding because I was eating mashed potatoes with my toothbrush. I was on a train in Kazakhstan and had made a cup of mashed potatoes (like a cup of noodles, where you just add hot water), when I realized I didn’t have a spoon. The closest I had was my toothbrush, so I used the handle to stir and started eating. One of my cabin mates was laughing watching me do this and offered a spoon. That started a conversation that lasted the rest of the train ride, and weekend, ending in me going with him and his friends to their high school friend’s wedding because they thought it would be a neat thing for me to experience. It was!

6. What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway?

The first morning on an overnight train, I was up before the sun. I walked from car to car as the sun rose and delighted in the beautiful sunrise that I had all to myself. A few legs later, I was in third class and ended up playing a Russian card game with my new friends for hours. On another leg, I had the cabin to myself and enjoyed the ride to myself, staring out the window and reading.

7. What was the first experience you had that made you realise your passion for travelling?

The first that I remember is that when I was little, my dad travelled a lot for work. He would come back from cities I’d never heard of, usually with a small toy for me. I didn’t care about the work stuff, but I always thought it was so cool that he went so many places (plus the gifts didn’t hurt).

8. Based on your experiences, what do you get from rail travel that you can’t experience with other mode of transportation?

I think that rail travel is the most social form of transportation. Because you have space to get up and around, and a dining car with beer, there’s no reason not to chat with the people traveling with you.

9. What is the one place you haven’t travelled but would like to go?

Very high on my list is Antarctica. When I get back to South America, I’ll have to go.

10. What is the best piece of travel advice you have ever been given?

Always bring a scarf!



11. For someone who has never travelled the Trans-Siberian, what would you say to them about the experience and the adventure?

It’s infamous for a reason. Several days by train, several countries; there’s nothing in my travel past that I can compare it to. But to best experience it, be sure to stop along the way. I met too many travellers who were stopping in Irkutsk and Moscow only, but there is a huge country between those two cities!

Thank you

Thanks Jessica for your fantastic answers.

Don’t forget to check out her guides to making the most of the Trans-Siberian, and travelling solo on the Trans-Siberian, and come back soon to read her exclusive blog about her incredible adventure!

Oh, and remember, if you want to keep up with Jessica’s ongoing travels, head over to her website, How Dare She, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at jess_ismore.