See what is there, rather than what you want to see


It’d been a lifelong dream of mine to travel across Russia by train, and when I did, it wasn’t what I expected.

I had envisaged vodka fueled benders on board, performing glorious renditions of ‘Rasputin’ in karaoke bars, snow over Red Square and exciting misadventures running from and with gruff Russians.

In truth, the ‘Baikal’ vodka bottle at the bottom of my bag went almost untouched, they wouldn’t play Rasputin after I requested it, it didn’t snow in Moscow and the locals were far kinder than I had imagined. 

We choose to go somewhere based on what we have read, heard and seen. It is impossible not to have some sort of expectation of what a travel experience will be like, as we wouldn’t go there in the first place otherwise.  

I didn’t know anyone that had done the Trans-Siberian but I had read online about the sort of wild adventures that take place. For five or six years I was waiting for the chance to create my own extraordinary adventure along these lines. This proved enough of time to create in my mind the exact version of the trip I would have.

My bubble was burst slightly when on the first leg of the train, I was told by Anna, a 22 year old Russian mathematics student, that there had been a big crackdown on alcohol drinking due to violence in previous years, and that she’d be surprised to see any sort of alcohol on the train.

“Too many violences,” she said. “No more alcohols now”.

I found the Russians to be immediately exceptionally kind and curious, sharing food and helping me create the perfect living space for the long journeys. This might sound nice but it soon became clear that the out of control adventure I had envisaged was taking a much different form. Where were the hostile Russians? And what of their famously difficult barriers that I was supposed to break down en route to friendship? This was initially a fantastic disappointment to me.

At one of my stops I met a guy from New York, who had been travelling non-stop for 16 months. I was only with him  short period, during which he mentioned how he had expected a number of places on his trip to be vastly different, and that he had learned to let go of expectations for each location that he visited.

Appreciating each day as it were, and not trying to fully curate each experience became my motto. Once I left the bubble of expectation, I saw the way in which the trip was becoming memorable. Like a weight lifted off me, I became tight knit with my Russian friends on the train, cherishing 30 hour conversations via Google Translate, and non-vodka related activities like chess and sharing pictures of each other’s families.

When we expect certain things from travel, it is unlikely that we will enjoy it to the maximum extent possible. We see what we hope to see, rather than what is really there.

It is difficult sometimes to know in this day and age whether we want to visit a place because it is beautiful and interesting, or because it would look beautiful in an Instagram post. If this is something you feel, do not be alarmed; a study has shown that 86% of people became interested in a specific location after seeing user-generated content. It is important that people are aware of the full story when they see this content, and it’s up to all of us in this respect.  

What you can do is tell the full story when you go on holiday. If there is a beautiful photo to be taken, let everyone know that you had to queue 30 minutes just for that one shot. Travel photographers should consider taking photos of the litter that surrounds hotspots, as well as the one action shot that will get them their paycheck. Travel writers too, must tell things as they are as much as they can, rather than adapting the story to editor’s needs. It might pay less, but at least you aren’t contributing to a world that doesn’t exist.

In essence, my journey across Russia was nothing like anticipated. It was a mild adventure that involved a lot of waiting around, a missed train, some of the most genuine and rewarding conversation I’ve ever had, a lot of vodka in the cities, some spectacular and unspectacular scenery and more games of chess than you can poke a stick at. And I’ll be back.

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