There are some things you don’t tell people you’re doing until it’s done. I discovered traveling to Russia was one of those things. And actually, now that I’m back safe and sound, it actually freaks me out a little bit. I went to freakin’ Russia. Alone.
I didn’t tell too many people about this little excursion because everybody and their mama — none of whom have been to Russia, by the way — kept giving me a million reasons why they heard I shouldn’t go. It was fear. Some justified, most not. But rampant and contagious fear which I definitely caught at some point. I almost didn’t go because the internet, the news and everyone with an opinion had me thinking I would get killed, assaulted or taken. Anyone got Liam Neeson’s number?
The truth once I got there: it was fine.
You know the tagline for this blog is”less traveled places”, right? I don’t know, there’s just something about going to a place no one really goes that gets me inspired. It’s why I went to Iceland before it was popular. Why I went to Cuba before the masses started catching on. And it’s why I became interested in Russia. I wanted to go last year but the time fell through. This year, I was determined to make it happen. And once I got notice that I’d be spending some time in Germany, I knew now would be the perfect time. It’d be a cheaper, shorter flight. And I wanted to hurry up before the political climate changed too drastically and while the Russian ruble is still weak in my favor.
Plus, Moscow and St. Petersburg are just architecturally beautiful. St. Pete more-so than Moscow, though my first plan was to go to Moscow because of St. Basil’s Cathedral. After research, I ended up in St. Petersburg (more on that later).
What about the racism? What about danger in general? Isn’t Russia scary?
This was my biggest concern. I’m black. Maybe you knew that. And Russia is not known for being warm and fuzzy. Especially, to foreigners of African and Asian descent. Russia seems to be known for skinheads, assaults against people of color, general mistreatment of humankind, danger after dark and corrupt police. None of which is particularly inviting to a black American traveling solo. I don’t want to die or be hurt, obviously. And frankly, I don’t even want to feel bad because of how I look. Because why? I can just NOT go to a place where that’s going to happen, right? It’s a choice.
So what I did to research and then prepare for this possible issue:
- Comb through my travel group contacts and find actual humans living in Russia. One guy I spoke to is a black man and currently living in Moscow, working for the US Embassy.
- Connect with actual humans that have traveled to Russia within the last year. I corresponded with them by email and asked every question I could think to ask.
- Contact tour companies in Moscow to assess the current climate. Inquire about all-inclusive tours where I would be picked up from the airport and escorted the entire weekend.
- Contact the US Embassy in Moscow. Again, assess the climate, asking direct questions about safety in general and also safety as a black person.
- Study St. Petersburg vs. Moscow. I always register my intended countries with the Dept. of State Safe Traveller Program. That way, I get the latest notices about that country directly to my email immediately. The day I received a notice from the STEP service that there had been 20 some odd bomb threats in Moscow that week was the day I bought my flight for St Petersburg.
What you won’t see on my list is “consult the internet”. I completely just stopped reading the internet because most stories were horror stories. Do you know how many horror stories could be written about the US? What if people formed their entire opinion of a place or group of people based on stereotypes and the worst case scenarios? Oh wait, people do that all the time. *cough cough racism cough*
So, what’s Russia like?
Well after the first day, here’s what I can tell you about St. Petersburg so far:
Not only had I not experienced danger or racism (at least, none that I can tell), people were actually nice to me. This was one of the reasons I chose St. Petersburg also. It’s called the Window to the West and it’s a city that’s more European than “just Russian”. Foreigners visit more often because it’s a port/cruise destination and many of the signs (metro, airport, etc.) are even also in English. Though, I did teach myself to read the Russian alphabet, which I’m proud of. Once you can sound out the words, many Russian words and English words are pronounced the same. I’m actually low key interested in learning Russian now. I’m sure that’s a marketable skill.
I’ll admit, I do try to mitigate some of the potential prejudice I may receive by being as cute as possible. I recommend that. I mean really, who’s mean to pretty girls? I don’t care how that sounds either. I’m trying to survive in these streets. If a light beat will help me make it through the day in a possibly sketchy locale, well dernit I’m showing up at the airport at 6am camera ready. Beauty usually transcends race. And if nothing else, looking good helps you FEEL good. And that confidence does affect how you carry yourself (and it turn, how people treat you back).
Irina (a girl who happened to sit in the middle seat on my row of the flight) told me places to eat and things to do. Then ’bout laid in my lap trying to get a pic of the frozen river (me: window seat). Elena (my LingoTaxo driver from the airport) and I talked the whole 40 min ride into the city. She said people want Americans to be afraid of Russia. But also that Moscow is very different from St. Petersburg. Even she doesn’t prefer Moscow. According to her, the people there are colder and always in a hurry. She said no one in St. Petersburg really cares about skin color and to just avoid the police at night. Pretty much don’t be out late anyway (side bar: since I’m posting this delayed, I can tell you I passed plenty of police and was out until about 10pm one night. No problems whatsoever).
This is a huge, bustling city. It’s hectic, it’s fast. The city center is always PACKED with pedestrians. The metro is insane. I don’t think I was prepared for how big and busy St. Petersburg was. And I’ve been to some of the largest cities in the world. I don’t know what I was expecting. But out of all those people, on Day 1, I saw no other brown people. None. So that can be unnerving. Sometimes people looked at me. But very briefly. If I did catch their gaze, they looked away. Only a couple times did anyone actually stared at me longer than 3 seconds once I looked back at them. I figured if I could survive the horrible HORRIBLE ogling, poking, spitting at me (yes SPITTING), unsolicited photos, following and getting in my face that China had to offer, surely, I could handle Russia. I experienced nothing even close to that in Russia. No one cared that I was there. In a good way.
Arrival Day in a nutshell:
- Catch a 3-hour flight here from Zurich, Switzerland. BEAT DOWN THE BUTTERFLIES because I was on edge off and on all week. All month really. Just not knowing what to expect.
- Arrive in St. Petersburg. The customs lady must have looked back and forth at me and then my visa 100 times. It’s me, lady. Let me in this country. (Side bar: If I thought getting in was something, getting out of Russia was almost a nightmare. More on that in a later post).
- Meet Elena, my LingoTaxi driver and have a lovely 40-min convo about the city and the food and race and America and just life. Highly recommend LingoTaxi, BTW.
- Check in at the Hotel Indigo which is a 5 star IHG property (platinum elite status, baby) and three blocks from the US Consulate. I say that only to point out that I chose to not stay in a hostel there. I frequent hostels but I was afraid to do one in Russia. I think a hostel would have been fine but it’s cool because I got upgraded and I could use a plush hotel stay anyway.
- Locate the consulate (3 blocks away). Then explore a little, including a sushi dinner at a spot recommended by Elena. HEAVEN.
- Beast the metro. There is no other word for navigating the Russian metro. And I don’t even mean the here-to-there navigation. I mean figuring out how to buy the fare and actually get on the metro LOL. Alone. IN RUSH HOUR. The utter chaos.
That was really it for the first day. Next up would be the major tourism stuff (including tickets I scored last minute to the Russian Ballet. Because how can you not?)
Thanks for those who always pray for my safety. When I tell you I swung between being super excited and then imagining the worst (being chased, assaulted on the metro, forbidden to enter businesses 1960s lunch-counter style, dragged off by the police, Russian thugs bribing the hotel staff to get into my room and take me in my sleep, Russian thugs bombarding my tour bus to drag me off, the craziest things), my emotions have run the full gambit. So I’m happy to report that Russia was a positive experience for me.
Here’s a few pics of my just-getting-settled-in first day in Russia…
UP NEXT: Sightseeing Saturday…
And here are some random video clips. Just because I have random video clips…