Should we go to Russia or not? It was a dream of ours to ride on the Trans-Siberian and it was something we had always planned to do on our trip. However, we were hesitant when the time came to apply for our visas. Tensions in Ukraine were intensifying in early spring and we were unsure how safe Russia would be by the time we arrived in July.

We asked our Russian travel agency for advice. They had no negative reports from clients in Russia at the time, and told us to keep in mind that the closest we would be to the area of Crimea was 850 miles from Moscow, a rather far distance. We took their word for it, and with fingers crossed that we’d be safe, we applied for our visa and booked the train tickets. What we didn’t expect was feeling tensions, especially toward America, all the way in eastern Russia.

Just three days after entering Russia we were in the remote Olkhon Island town of Khuzhir when a news report came on TV. Images of a crashed airplane appeared on the screen as Russian reporters conveyed the story. We couldn’t understand the news, but our instincts told us something terribly bad had happened.

Russian News of Malaysian Airline

With no internet to look further into it, we put the news aside and continued our stay on the island for two more days before heading to Irkutsk to board the Trans-Siberian. Along with a young French couple, we waited for a mini-bus (more like a mini-van) to pick us up. As it pulled up, a large group of teenagers suddenly appeared from the building behind us. So many that there was no way we could all fit onto the bus.

The rough-looking bus driver refused to talk to us as we tried to explain that we already purchased tickets, instead he only spoke to one of the Russian teenage boys. They conversed with each other in Russian for quite some time with fingers pointing at the group, and sometimes at us and the French couple.

We finally were welcomed to get on the mini-bus, and only the Russian teen who spoke with the bus driver boarded with us. As we started to take off, the young man sat directly in front of us, smelling strongly of Vodka, and obviously having a rough morning after his night of partying.

Soon after sitting down he looked up at us and said, “The bus driver loves Putin and hates Obama. Obama makes the rubles weak.” A timid sorry was all we could muster.

He continued, “The bus driver would kill you if he knew you were Americans.”

We stared at him. Did he really just say that?

He went on to reassure us, “But he won’t…I told him you were Italians.” We expressed thanks as our concern for our safety just multiplied.

Khuzhir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal, Travel, Backpacking, Russia, Trans Mongolian Railway, Irkutsk, Epiphany Cathedral, Church, Beach, Shaman Rock,

The eight-hour bus journey was a long one as we sat silently, not completely sure what to make of our situation. Luckily, we made it to Irkutsk with no incident and boarded the train that evening to Yekaterinburg. Two compartments from us on the train was a young Danish couple who knew English and Russian. We decided to ask them what was going on about the airplane crash we had seen on TV. They asked us to close their compartment door before they started telling us what they knew.

The plane had been shot down, they said. “Who shot it down?” we asked. They explained that the Russians were blaming the Americans. They claimed it was American espionage that shot it down in order to make the Russians look bad. It was as if our luck was getting worse by the hour. Now was not the right time to be an American in this country, and we had just arrived. If we were going to last for 20 days in Russia we had to be smart about it.

When we made it to Yekaterinburg, the Danish couple kindly translated to a cab driver and arranged a taxi for us. When we parted ways, I climbed in the back of the taxi while Mark sat in front. Immediately, the driver turned to Mark and pointed to himself saying, “Russia” to indicate that he was Russian. He then pointed to Mark with a questioning look.

Taking a cue from our previous order of events, Mark pointed to himself and proudly said, “Canada!”

The cab driver grinned agreeably, and stepped on the gas as he took us away from the train station to our hostel. This is how we survived Russia.

About The Author

Britnee traveled around the world with her husband on a shoestring budget for a year. A few of her favorite destinations include Scotland's Isle of Skye, Chile's Torres del Paine, Bolivia's Salt Flats and Nepal's Annapurna Circuit.

2 Responses

  1. Joe

    Interesting story! I really enjoyed reading of your guys first time to Russia. I never been there but hopefully soon. Wherever I go I never say I am American. So it was interesting but smart to pick another country in this case. To me I feel like in many countries they will come at you begging to give money or buy something inexpensive for a way expensive price. Or in this case a country where people don’t really like Americans that much.

    • Britnee Johnston

      Thanks for reading, Joe! Yeah, we found that we just had to feel it out as we went along. Russia was the only place where we felt awkward being Americans. There were many other places in the world where we felt welcomed though. For instance, when we were staying in a teahouse in a small village in Nepal, our host kindly said “God bless the USA!” as we left to continue our trek. It was so sweet and genuine when he said it. There are definitely other people out there who are kind to Americans.