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Trans Siberian: What's it like being a Solo Female Traveller





The first time I learned about the Trans-Siberian railway was back in 2012, when I was about to graduate from University. I wanted to take a month off before starting to work, and I set myself a budget of $3,000 USD to go from Singapore to Moscow. I didn’t have a lot of travel experience at that time, and although I had the map all planned out, and surprisingly even my ever so Asian parents were willing to fund me of that trip, it didn’t end up happening.

Fast forward 4 years, 2016: I’ve added around 10 countries under my belt and had some experiences travelling alone. However, most of these countries are in Asia and relatively easier for me to navigate. I never had any language barrier issues with any of the places I travelled to. Originally the Trans-Siberian trip surfaced back to my consciousness around December 2015, and I decided to reopen the case, and investigate into the ins and outs. I was also supposed to be travelling with a partner however it fell through just around 45 days before the trip. 45 is an important number for the Trans-Siberian: that is the day when tickets are released for sale. I went into a 72 hour panic, called up 2 of my friends who had completed it for help, and raided through online forums to read about safety in Russia and Mongolia.

What if I get cornered and people steal all my tickets and cash?

What if while taking a photo my phone gets snatched out of my hands?

What if someone tries to rob and/or rape me?

What if I get completely lost and miss my train?

What if I get stuck in a cabin full of guys and I was the only girl?

What if ….

In the last 24hours of panic, I reached out to everyone I can think of that would be up for this crazy last minute trip. I had missed the boat the first time in 2012, when is the next time I’ll be able to do this? Plus, two weeks’ vacation in a non retarded time of the year is hard to get, e.g. dead middle of summer or winter where Mongolia is 40C with unairconditioned trains and Siberia is -50 with toilets that get frozen. I looked up Trans-Siberian photos on Pinterest to get myself excited, and I booked the tickets.

The following 6 weeks, I was doing homework like the Tony Stark learning Thermonuclear Astrophysics overnight. To ensure I minimize the possibility of anything threatening my life and safety, I took a lot of precautionary measures. Most hotels chosen were within close walking distance from the station (other than Irkutsk, there just aren't many hotels near the station). I brought a bike lock, because god forbid that’s going to save my backpack from being kidnapped. I bought 2 body pouches, not sure what to call them, but the kind you wear underneath your clothes around your neck or waist where the passport and cash goes. I made sure I had 2 ATM cards but with daily withdraw limits so someone couldn’t just steal all my money away. I had paper copies of everything in case I lose or break my phone to ensure I can find my way back. And above all, I was determined to protect my train tickets with my life, because that is the one thing that will get me home safe and sound. I thought through literally every scenario that could go wrong and how to implement disaster recovery and redundancy.

And then I f*cked up with picking up the train tickets.

At 9pm Hong Kong time on a Friday, I was on the Airport express on my way to the airport. I got a call from my ticketing agent from Real Russia informing me that their office will close in 1 hour but I haven’t picked up my tickets and their office is closed on weekends. My first train departs on Sunday. The emotions that flowed through my brain was a violent combination of panic, anger (at myself), and desperation. I couldn’t make international calls, but thank god my Skype was loaded with $5 credit. I made a call and told them I will pay the agent money to take a taxi and drop it off at my hotel. The next 20 minutes was antagonizing. My head was all over the place. Should I board this plane? What if I board the plane and I’m stuck in Moscow with no tickets? Do I buy all the tickets again? Finally I got a call back, and they arranged a person to deliver it Saturday 3pm to my hotel, at the cost of 1,000 rub. Still, my heart was racing and I wasn’t going to feel comfortable until I have my tickets in my hand. 


The 9 + 5 hour flight to Moscow via Doha went by quickly. I was well rested and everything was going according to plan. I got my Trans-Siberian tickets with no problem, the journey begins. If I were to explain the whole experience, this blog would be as long as a book. Let me link the blog posts so you can go read that another time. And if my writing bores you, you can also watch my YouTube vlogs. The whole series of 12 episodes is about an hour long!

So finally to the topic of this blog, what is it really like travelling as a female and alone through Russia and Mongolia? To sum it up in one sentence: I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable for a second.

Unlike in the media, especially in movies where Russians are usually portrayed as cold, military like, and ruthless (example reference: Marvel’s Iron Man 2 and Captain America Civil War) Russians are actually really friendly, pretty jolly for the most part, and very polite. Let me give you an example:

The first leg of my journey was an overnight train from Moscow to Kazan. I was in 2nd class with this Russian man around his 30s. He didn’t speak much English, and was going to Kazan on a business trip. That was my very first ride, and already I’m stuck in a room with a Russian man. He probably sensed that I was uncomfortable, so we started communicating via Google Translate. First he started by helping me translate everything the Provodnista was saying, and also helped me order my meal for dinner that day. He then explained where the toilet was and the hot water boiler was. The most surprising thing happened next, he said “If you need to change into more comfortable clothes, I will step out of the room and you can close the door to change. Just let me know when you are done.” He was very thoughtful and considerate, I could’ve just changed in the toilet. But I was observing and he left the lights on and door opened so we weren’t locked into a room with just the two of us. He fell asleep pretty quickly after that with the lights still on and door still opened. This is the kind of respect and consideration I will now expect from all men travelling on public transport.

Throughout this journey, I’ve encountered many friendly and welcoming Russians. Almost always they greet me with a big smile but at the same time with politeness. There were kids on the trains, there were the elderly on the train, and soldiers as well. Despite the language barriers, people helped out when they could and pointed directions for me. I shared this overnight train with a mother with 2 really young kids age 4 or 9, they were the most well behaved kids ever. They whispered quietly after boarding the train at around midnight, and fell asleep quickly. Before I woke up they were still whispering, only until I was awake for about half an hour did they start talking in normal volumes but still no screaming, shouting, whining, or anything like that.

I was often in my carriage room alone, but I usually leave my backpack unattended. There was never a problem with that as long as I closed the door. And I was pretty weary at first with pulling out my phone or camera in public as I had some pretty dodgy experiences in Paris and Barcelona, but at the end, Russia is much safer. People don’t even stare at me if I’m filming with my DSLR. In fact the Russians themselves use newer iPhones than me and some asked for selfies. Others asked me to help them take a photo for them. People were honest and wouldn’t cheat you on money. What I mean by this is usually in some countries, the taxi drivers or people in the travel industry will try to charge you an insane amount or have some hidden extra costs. I did not encounter that at all. When boarding trams, it’s usually 15rub. Everyone holds out a palm full of change and the tram conductor will just pick out the exact amount. 


I also spent a couple of hours in the middle of the night transferring at Taiga because that’s the only way to reach the city of Tomsk which isn’t on the Trans-Siberian mainline. There were students waiting there, some people were sleeping comfortably, people would leave their bags on the benches and walk around. The feeling of safety comes from the amount of cameras in public, and also they have a lot of police patrolling around stations. Some major metro stations will occasionally have groups of police with police dogs. They never checked my papers for no reason or question me for anything either. I did stand out a lot though. After leaving Moscow, everywhere I go I only see Caucasians. Some might be Russian, some might be other travelers, and then there’s me, this tiny blond Asian girl running around with camera gear. 



Another one of my concerns was getting on the wrong train, getting off at the wrong station, or oversleeping and missing my station. Although I always set alarms for when I’d be getting off, usually the Provodnista will knock on the door and wake me up well in advance (30 minutes) beforehand so I can start putting my winter wear back on and stuffing everything back in my backpack. Before boarding, they also always check your passport and ticket. If you’re not sure which side of the platform is your train, just go up to anyone and show them your ticket. They’ll point to your train for you and won’t let you go somewhere you’re not supposed to go to, like North Korea for example.

Tip – The Providnista collects everyone’s tickets so she knows who’s on board and when they are getting off. Sometimes she might not give it back to you. If you want it for keepsake, before getting off just ask her for the билет (Bilyet - ticket).


In conclusion about Russia: there is really nothing to worry about. I’m only 156cm tall, I’m a foreigner that doesn’t speak Russian and people can easily take me down. But I was never in that situation and felt really safe. No one tried to take advantage of me in anyway and they were all extremely helpful. 


My friends kept joking I might be kidnapped and sold, so I held up the daily newspaper from the train.

Safety in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

2 words: tourist scams

Before I even got to Ulaanbaatar, at the border check of Sukhbaatar, a man with a big stack of Mongolia Tugrik cash came onto the train. I had a currency exchange rate app on my phone and it was updated before crossing borders on the day of. I was exchanging Russian Rubles to Mongolian Tugrik and had an exact amount in my head. The exchange rate was 1:30, but initially he was giving me 1:20, which is ridiculous. I managed to get it up to 1:27, but when he gave me the extra he still tried to cheat me by 1,000 Tugrik even though we had agreed on something.

Mongolia felt a tiny bit more unsafe than Russia. The reason being the infrastructure is quite run down and there’s many alleys with broken concrete and just didn’t give off a good vibe. I didn’t have any problems with having my phone or camera out. However the tourist scam feel is very strong there. The Taxis will cheat you on the money if you don’t negotiate before getting in. The museums, monastery, and other public places ask you for extra money to take photos inside (even with a phone or non-professional camera) and it’s often more expensive than the entry cost which is pretty ridiculous. There’s also other tourist scams around the cities. One example is near the Gadan Monastery. The road up to the Monastery is very long and has a lot of pigeons because people are feeding them. One lady ran up to me, shoved a bag of bird food in my hand, told me the pigeons are hungry and asked me for money. I just put the bag down on the bench and walked away. This really made me feel uncomfortable and I’ve lost trust since that incident.

Overall, there is very low risk for any kind of crime, but it’s just the scams you have to watch out for. It is a pity really, because Mongolia itself is beautiful. It’s just now tinted with a bitter taste from all the petty and annoying Tourist Scams people try to carry out.


Safety in Beijing
Beijing was a pleasant surprise. Since I was born in Taiwan and am currently living in Hong Kong, I get fed very negative and skewed views about the Chinese and about China in general. Obviously all of the most obscured things that happen get to the news, like a lady bathing naked in a public fountain. But those are extreme examples and often come from uneducated people of the suburbs.

What I really liked about Beijing is that they are constantly reminding and educating the general public to abide by the rules, to be orderly and civilized. But not in a communist like demeanor, but it’s a very respectful way of communicating with the people. Riding the subway was a much better experience in Beijing than in Hong Kong. People didn’t shove or push, they were very respectful of the elderly and young kids. If I happen to be standing near the door and someone wants to get off, they would ask me politely “Are you getting off?” (me: no) “Do you mind if we switch places?” In Hong Kong they would just shove right past you.

I was also weary of pick-pocketing in Beijing. It’s crowded, it’s the capital with people coming from all sorts provinces, however I never had anyone try to pickpocket me or do something shady. In fact I think it’s extremely safe on the train. Before entering any station in Beijing, they have metal detectors and people line up orderly to get their bags checked.

Also, in Beijing no one tried to scam me or sell me something I don’t want. They weren’t really pushy in the touristy areas. Also the Taxi drivers were amazing. They were really chatty and helpful, gave me all these tips for places to go to, things to watch out, and patiently answered all of the political questions I had (sorry, I was just too curious). They were welcoming, and they were happy people. I’m really impressed by how China can lead 1.3 billion people and continue to move forward. 


I hope this wasn’t too much babble and it was actually helpful for you. Feel free to comment below if you have more questions or concerns. It’s natural to be scared or worried about the unknown, and I’m happy to provide more insight on how you can prepare for a Solo trip through Siberia.


Day 16, Hong Kong, (10,265km)
Home at last, this marks the end of the Trans-Siberian journey. I've learned so much during this trip and I can proudly say that I, an Asian girl towering at 5 foot 2, have crossed Russia/Siberia, Mongolia and China alone. I made many friends and saw the breadth of nature and beauty of cultures I encountered.

1. Russia isn't as dangerous as they rumor it in movies and on TV.
2. Humans are nice at heart, and would lend a helping hand to a solo traveler.
3. Traveling by train is the best way to see our planet. And by foot, the best way to see a town.
4. If you haven't been on the Trans-Siberian, go now. It is truly the journey of a lifetime. Train all the way, get off at small Russian towns, learn their language, and don't be scared, you will only complete the trip feeling fulfilled; with memories to keep and endless stories to share.

I did it, and you can too!




Follow my instagram @ariel.land for more Trans Siberian journey photos

www.instagram.com/ariel.land


1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I am planning one in 2018 too :) wish me luck!

    ReplyDelete