The following interview on solo female travel in Russia comes from Katie Aune.
Originally from Minnesota, I practiced law for six years before switching to a career in fundraising. I took a 13-month career break in 2011-12 to travel through all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union, a journey that included riding the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, volunteering in Armenia, teaching English in Tajikistan, running a marathon in Estonia, camping in the desert in Turkmenistan and doing my best to speak Russian on a daily basis.
Since I returned to working full-time, I continue to travel as much as possible, usually to off the beaten path destinations like Mali, Burkina Faso, Bulgaria and Kosovo. Most recently, I relocated from Chicago to Washington, D.C. to start a new job in fundraising for the National Geographic Society.
Why did you decide to travel to Russia by yourself?
I majored in Russian & East European Studies in college and have pretty much been obsessed with Russian history since I was in high school. I always wanted to travel there, but felt like I needed to go for more than just 2 weeks that I could do as a vacation. So when I decided to take a year-long career break, Russia was central to my plans. I ended up spending 3 months there!
Did you have any trouble traveling solo there?
I didn’t. I had heard that I would need to be really careful in Moscow, looking out for pickpockets on the subway, etc. but I never had any issues. I am sure it helped that I blended in well while I was there – because I arrived as seasons were changing, I bought most of my outerwear in St Petersburg, as well as a new shoulder bag, so I looked like a local! I also speak some Russian so that helped too.
Did you ever feel unsafe?
Tell us about one of your favorite experiences from traveling solo in Russia.
I took the Trans-Siberian Railway all the way across the country from Vladivostok to Moscow and I had some great experiences along the way. In one instance, I shared a train compartment with a Russian teacher who helped me practice my Russian, even helping to translate my horoscope for me! Another time, I shared a compartment with a man who was trying to learn English – he was so excited to practice with me and used my Russian-English dictionary to ask me questions.
Were there any special precautions you took to feel safer while traveling solo?
It wasn’t really on purpose to feel safe, but as I mentioned above, I think it helped that I was wearing the same clothing as the locals and didn’t stand out as a tourist. And of course speaking the language helps a lot. I also just used common sense, not wandering around by myself late at night and not drinking a lot – I always knew where I was and what I was doing.
Did you meet any other solo female travelers while you were there?
I can remember meeting one in St Petersburg. Otherwise, I met several couples, pairs of friends or solo males.
What luggage did you bring with you to Russia?
I carried an Eagle Creek backpack (I think 55L), a North Face daypack and a shoulder bag that I bought in St Petersburg after my original one broke. When traveling by train in Russia, backpacks are a lot more practical as you can easily fit them in luggage bins under the bunks – suitcases likely wouldn’t fit.
Were there any items you were glad you brought with you or that you wished you had brought?
I was very glad to have my Russian phrasebook and an unlocked cell phone (to get a local SIM card). Anything else I needed, I could find there.
What’s your number 1 tip for females traveling solo to Russia?
Learn to read the Cyrillic alphabet and learn at least a few basic phrases in Russian. It will make getting around so much easier and outside of Moscow and St Petersburg, there isn’t much English spoken, so knowing at least a little Russian will help a lot.
About the Author: Katie Aune is a thirty-something Minnesota native, long time Chicago resident & recent transplant to Washington, DC. She took a career break in 2011-12 to travel and volunteer throughout the former Soviet Union and, since returning to work full-time, continues to travel as much as possible, as far off the beaten path as possible. You can follow her adventures on katieaune.com, or by following @katieaune on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.