Finding Friendship in Solo Travel to Russia
My Russian affair began with author Mikhail Bulgakov and his novel, Heart of a Dog. To me, Russia was shrouded in a lacy curtain of mystery. I knew vague details of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and the battles of World War II, but I didn’t know what Russia was.
In undergrad, due to a scheduling mishap, I took three Russian studies courses in addition to my microbiology coursework. Each class opened to me a new area of Russian culture I wanted to know more about. Russia seemed like a large oxymoron: Eastern vs. Western culture, dealing with the aftermath and glory of the Soviet Union, and trying to fit itself onto a new political world stage.
But I kept hitting a very big wall when trying to learn about Russia, as I spoke absolutely no Russian. I gave myself the task of becoming mildly comfortable with the language during one winter break, and I managed to learn the Cyrillic alphabet and how to ask for a hot bowl of borscht.
It wasn’t possible to learn Russian in just a few weeks, so I figured if I went directly to the source, Mother Russia herself, maybe I’d understand more. One complicated visa application later, I booked flights to Moscow.
The square was completely packed with Stalin and Lenin impersonators trying to make a quick ruble off unsuspecting tourists (me), Japanese couples getting married, and the general chaos of a tourist square.
Stepping off the plane and into the airport was surreal. I was starry eyed as I tumbled into my taxi and, like a three-year-old, I read the words I recognized out loud on the way to Moscow Central. First, I sought out food. I was ravenous, but not totally adventurous at this point, so I settled into an Indian restaurant across from my hotel. Eating alone in a restaurant is a vulnerable experience. Restaurants, especially sit-down ones, are places to share intimate moments over a hot meal. Eating quickly, I didn’t want to take the time for myself, as I was too worried about what strangers would think of me. I slinked back to my hotel room, a little more unsettled than I was before, but at least I wasn’t hungry anymore.
Solo adventures never stay that way for too long. I have an uncanny ability to get lost, and my first morning out I stumbled into a free walking tour. The tour snaked its way through Moscow Central, starting with the ancient Orthodox cathedrals lining Vavarka Street. The churches culminate in St. Basil’s Cathedral, which hugs the corner of Red Square and the Kremlin.
I told these almost-strangers things I’d never mention to anyone back home. Although we’d be strung together via Facebook forever, there was safety in knowing I would never be in face-to-face contact with these people again.
Out of nowhere, the sunny day turned into a torrential downpour. I inserted myself underneath any umbrella I could find. Our group took partial cover beneath Zhukov’s statue near Resurrection Gate. Just as quickly as the rain had come, it went away, and we were left with soaked body parts that couldn’t find shelter below Zhukov or flimsy umbrellas. People started drifting apart and I noticed some 20-somethings standing around. We all simultaneously realized that we shared the same stories: alone, lost, and somehow on a tour. There was a collective nod and a silent agreement that we’d now be friends.
The newly formed group consisted of an engineer, a business student, an artist, a girl learning English, and a medical student, and were from all over the world. We walked into the large GUM department store, and coalesced around a Russian-era cafeteria serving barley, borscht, and beef stroganoff. Suddenly, I had five other friends who wanted to explore this unknown world.
I hoped we would show up at the same place in the morning. Being without cellular service or reliable Wi-Fi took me back to the ’90s. Luckily, our hodgepodge group found each other again the next day in Red Square. Today, the square was completely packed with Stalin and Lenin impersonators trying to make a quick ruble off unsuspecting tourists (me), Japanese couples getting married, and the general chaos of a tourist square.
Each of us in the group took on distinct roles. With my limited Russian I would order food and ask for the Wi-Fi passwords. Two of the other girls mostly giggled to each other. The business student found local attractions. Mid-afternoon, we sprawled out in Gorky Central Park, laying on one another, talking about everything and anything.
Sitting on the high-speed Russian train, the fear of loneliness bubbled up through my chamomile tea. I swallowed them down, determined to have fun by myself.
It’s amazing how quickly friendships grow abroad – probably out of necessity and curiosity. I told these almost-strangers things I’d never mention to anyone back home. Although we’d be strung together via Facebook forever, there was safety in knowing I would never be in face-to-face contact with these people again. We rode the famous Muscovite subway lines to different cafes across the city, and stayed up talking all night at an American-themed Rock ‘n’ Roll bar, welcoming the sun at 3 A.M. We didn’t want to say goodbye just yet.
The intense moments quickly became part of a memory; our group splintered off piece by piece as people went back home, somewhere else or, like me, took the train to St. Petersburg. Sitting on the high-speed Russian train, the fear of loneliness bubbled up through my chamomile tea. I swallowed them down, determined to have fun by myself.
St. Petersburg is a mix of Venice, with canals linking the city together, and a totally modern metropolis growing around the traditional castles and cathedrals. I had much less time there and hurriedly walked along the bridges to beautiful landmarks in the city. I stopped at the Peter and Paul Fortress, a cohesive conglomeration of exhibits about Soviet prisons, space, and medieval architecture. I marveled at the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood while sipping Starbucks, ever grateful for familiarity. Walking back safely under the bright sun at 10PM, I did my tourist duty, and stopped at a stall to buy the Russian stacking dolls – matryoshka dolls. When I sunk into bed sighing in relief. I wasn’t much closer to understanding what Russia was about, but I was having fun on my own.
I marveled at the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood while sipping Starbucks, ever grateful for familiarity.
The next day, I hopped up early and rushed over to the granddaddy of all museums, the answer to all things Russian, the Hermitage. Waiting in line, I spun around to catch panoramas of the outside of the Winter Palace. Coincidentally, I heard my name being called, but since I didn’t know anyone in Russia, I didn’t pay attention.
“AANIKA!” The voice came right by my ears, from someone who probably thought I was deaf.
Twirling around, I saw my Russian professor hovering right behind me.
“Ohmygosh, Priviet!” My face was frozen in surprise and embarrassment.
“It’s nice to see you too. What are you doing here?” She laughed. I was about to ask her the same thing; hadn’t she been here a thousand times already? We caught up while the line moved ahead. Whether it was just a coincidence that we ran into each other, we ended up spending the day together walking through and admiring the Russian history and art, and taking selfies of the golden peacock clock while the tour guide yelled at us to put the selfie stick away. I was back in ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, the reign of Catherine the Great, analyzing the ornaments and motionless instants from a time long past.
The information was overwhelming. An entire day is not nearly enough to take in the Hermitage. Legs tired, heads full, and stomachs empty, my professor and I walked over to the most famous restaurant in St. Petersburg: Dostoevsky’s the Idiot. We laughed into the night, actually getting to know each other, and buzzing with the free vodka provided. I floated back to my hotel, snuggled under the covers, and packed away the memories of Russia.