It has been more than a year since I first set foot in Russia. Twenty months since I first arrived in the country that inspired my whole trip in the first place. Eighty-three weeks since I pulled up outside a ramshackle home on the outskirts of St. Petersburg to begin my three month adventure in a country that had intrigued me since I was 14 years old.
To say I had high hopes would be an understatement. I had been waiting twenty years to visit Russia, but I had no expectations. Really. I had no idea what to expect. I had spent years learning about the history and the politics of the country, but I had no clue what I would get with the people. I had no notion of how it would be to actually spend three whole months in this enormous country.
It could not have started any worse. My volunteer homestay in St. Petersburg turned out to be in a rural suburb, at least an hour and a half from the city center. The modern home that was shown to me in pictures was nowhere to be found, instead replaced by this rundown home with no heat, no real bed and an outhouse in the backyard. The worst part? The family to whom I was supposed to teach English every evening barely acknowledged my presence.
I considered calling it quits, but I didn’t. I pressed on and made the most of it. I spent as much time in the center of St. Petersburg as I could, taking Russian classes and seeing as much of the city as possible. I also took advantage of an opportunity to sit in on English classes in the neighborhood school near my homestay. And then I changed up my schedule and stayed in St. Pete for an extra week after my homestay ended, cutting short my time in Moscow. As I look back, those first two weeks in Russia were probably the most miserable of my entire trip. While I had other days where I struggled, I got the worst out of the way early.
And as bad as my living situation was, I fell in love with the city of St. Petersburg itself. I grew comfortable there and it was hard to move on.
By the time I arrived in Moscow, it didn’t stand a chance. I arrived with a horrible cold, the weather was getting chillier and Moscow just felt gray to me. A big city, with big buildings, big crowds and big attitude. I did another homestay, again teaching English to my hosts – this time, an unmarried couple younger than me. They at least wanted to learn and made an effort to show me around. But I found the guy to be opinionated and condescending and the girl seemed slightly bothered by my presence. I was relieved when my homestay ended, only to find myself in a hostel with staff and guests so rude, it drove me to tears.
I wasn’t ready to give up on Russia. I wasn’t ready to admit – to myself or anyone else – that this country that occupied the top spot on my bucket list for so long was a disappointment.
So I flew from Moscow to Vladivostok, about as far east in Russia as you can go. Vladivostok was chaotic and crowded, but the people were friendly and the skies were sunny. I hopped on the train to Ulan Ude and spent much of the time practicing my Russian with the first person I met in two months who actually had the patience to converse with me. I hung out with two fellow long-term travelers at my hostel in Ulan Ude and found a wonderful guide to accompany me to the Buddhist temple complex far out of town . I was smiling for the first time in weeks.
Arriving in Irkutsk, I was supposed to volunteer with an environmental organization there, but I quickly learned they didn’t really have anything for me to do. I was horribly disappointed and found myself stuck there for two weeks since I had already booked my onward train tickets. The organization still let me stay at a discounted rate at the hostel they operated, but the other guests ignored me and rebuffed my attempts to converse. I sort of felt like I was back on the outskirts of St. Petersburg – unwelcome and alone.
The rest of my journey continued like a rollercoaster. I had a great time exploring Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal; then I lost my ATM card again in Krasnoyarsk. I nearly froze my butt off hiking in the Stolby Nature Reserve; then I met the wonderfully helpful owner of my hostel in Yekaterinburg. I had a great conversation with a guy on the train to Kazan; then I had one last sleepless night in Moscow that left me crying once again.
By the time I boarded my overnight train to Riga, Latvia at the beginning of December, I couldn’t have been more ready to leave Russia.
But now that I have been gone more than a year, I kind of want to go back.
While I didn’t click with Moscow, St. Petersburg stole my heart. And spending a month traveling the length of the country showed me how many different sides of Russia exist. From the Asian flair of Vladivostok to the Buddhist influence in Ulan Ude to the Tatar heritage in Kazan, every city and every region seemed to speak for itself.
Just as someone visiting New York, Chicago and Los Angeles in the United States has barely scratched the surface, visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg and a handful of cities across Siberia doesn’t even come close to providing a complete picture of Russia.
So in retrospect, I can’t really say Russia lived up to my expectations because I didn’t really have any. But I also can’t say it disappointed me because so many of the negatives were a result of specific circumstances and not emblematic of the entire country. Even after three months in Russia, I can’t say I feel like I know it as a whole – there is simply too much to know.
For now, I’ll simply look back and know that I laughed and I cried; I struggled and I grew. And someday, I hope I’ll return and do it all again.