Traveling alone in Russia as an East Asian?
July 13, 2010 11:48 PM   Subscribe

Safety in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Irkutsk, as an Asian-American?

I'm finally doing the Trans-Mongolian, from St. Petersburg to Korea! My friends' schedules fell through, so I'm doing it alone, starting this weekend, taking a train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, Irkutsk, Ulan-Bator, Beijing, Qingdao, and ending in Incheon.

I'm eager to meet people and to talk on the train, but I'm a little apprehensive about traveling in Russia alone. One factor is that I'm a Korean-American, and so am a little worried about any racism against non-Russians that I might encounter in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I live in a okay-but-not-always-so-safe part of Brooklyn, NYC, so I'm used to city life and flow and know how to be aware of my surroundings, but one thing about NYC is that it's endlessly diverse and actually pretty safe, and so I rarely encounter any difficulties.

I've got a contact in St. Petersburg who could show me around, but nobody in Moscow and Irkutsk. I'm thinking of couchsurfing in all three cities and wandering around by myself or with people I meet, trying not to stay out alone when it's dark.

Is this a bad idea? I've read this AskMe and it makes me a little edgy, and I know it's only been a few months after the Moscow metro attacks, so I'm not sure how Moscow will be exactly. Will I be safe/fine if I wander out alone, try not to act stupid and wear a huge backpack/open maps in public/dangle a camera around my neck/walk around late at night? Everything I read says "Try not to stick out as a foreigner", but, er, that would be somewhat hard for me if I immediately look like I'm from China/Japan/Korea. I'm fine with casual coldness, but not so much outright hostility..

Thanks in advance!
posted by suedehead to Travel & Transportation around Russian Federation (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: P.S. I know AskMe's not really for this, but if you know anybody in these cities, a contact would be very very much appreciated.
posted by suedehead at 11:48 PM on July 13, 2010

Best answer: I've never been to Siberia, but I am Russian and I am currently in Moscow. If you're concerned about your safety purely based on your ethnicity, I don't think you should be worried: the thing to remember is that Russia has been a multi-ethnic country for hundreds of years and people from other ethnicities are a very normal sight. (Koreans specifically don't stick out very much, since Russia actually has a fairly substantial Korean population.) Of course, there are a lot of skinhead assholes, but I haven't heard much about them targeting Asians; typically they go after people from the Caucasus, especially Azerbaijanis. Exercise common sense and trust your instincts, and you should be fine.
posted by nasreddin at 2:34 AM on July 14, 2010

Also, the Moscow metro attacks have had no effect on anyone, as far as I can tell--maybe the police are a little more on edge, but that's about it. Russians are pretty apathetic about that kind of thing.

By the way: when I wrote that response you linked to, I hadn't been back in a long time, and I have to say people are a lot more laid-back now. I don't think you'll be in any danger even if you act like a totally stereotypical tourist, though of course you should watch out for scammers and pickpockets.
posted by nasreddin at 2:46 AM on July 14, 2010

Best answer: Are you male or female?

I (white female) was in Russia 8 years ago, so my advice may be outdated. That said, if you are female, you're likely to be just fine. If you are male, however, you are likely be asked pretty routinely by the police, frequently in metro stations, to show your documents (passport, visa, etc.). They do this mainly to men who look non-Russian (officially, they are looking for Chechens, etc.). They'll even target white men with darker coloured hair. The point is mainly to harass you and hopefully find that you are missing a document that you need so that they can get a bribe from you. And, unfortunately, I found it to be worse in Moscow than St. Petersburg. My advice would be to always, always have your documents with you and always, always have some cash for bribes - just in case. It's unpleasant, but you may need the money to get out of a sticky situation. They used to want money in American dollars (don't know if that's still the case), but will take roubles if that's all you have. Also, learn to say "I'm American" in Russian. You want them to know that you're not from, say, Kazakhstan, for instance.

I don't know for certain, but I really can't see you being bothered by the general population. Seeing Asian people will not be strange to most of them. They may assume first-off that you are from somewhere in Siberia. I actually lived briefly with a girl who had a Korean mother and Russian father - she was a Russian citizen. As far as I know, she had no problems except for interest in her as an "exotic." And I studied English with plenty of Asian foreign students, from all over. I don't know of them encountering serious problems. These police are more like petty thieves than people who will cause you real danger or harm.

I hope this helps you. Good luck.
posted by kitcat at 2:47 AM on July 14, 2010

Best answer: I'm an Asian-American male of Chinese descent. I haven't done the Trans-Siberian, but I have wandered all over Moscow, alone, sometimes while it was getting dark, without much of a problem. Nobody -- really, nobody at all -- looked at me twice. This was last summer. I'd simply use the same caution I'd use in any other major world metropolis.

Moscow is multi-ethnic, though not necessarily in the New York sense. You'll see more than a few people who look more Asian than European, but they tend to look more Central Asian, Mongolian, etc., than they do Han Chinese or Korean.

As far as the Trans-Siberian goes, I know other Asian-American (Chinese-American) males that have done the route. I've never asked them about this issue specifically, but as far as I know, they never had any major issues with regard to their appearance. I'm sure it'd be a point of discussion on the train, but it'd hardly be a safety issue.
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:13 AM on July 14, 2010

Oh, and, I walked by a lot of cops, and they never looked at me twice, either. Though I was a little wary of them at first, I ended up asking some security personnel for directions. I didn't flout the rules, of course; cross busy streets using the pedestrian underpasses in Moscow, for example.
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:16 AM on July 14, 2010

Sorry, one more point. (I'm kind of loopy from the painkillers after getting my wisdom teeth out Monday.)

No, you're probably not going to meet outright hostility. Most people are going to be quite civil, if not friendly. The babushkas at the ticket counters and toilets are naturally a bit stern, but they're not hostile. I was never met with even "casual coldness."
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:25 AM on July 14, 2010

Best answer: (Sorry, loopy.) I should emphasize that I'm not recommending you walk the streets of some random industrial city in central Russia at night, or that you go up and chat with the police. I'm just saying that it's not that dangerous when you're in a cosmopolitan place like Moscow (or St. Petersburg, I'd imagine), and the fact that you look Asian isn't a huge factor in your dealings with people there. It's Russia, after all; exercise some caution.
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:44 AM on July 14, 2010

Your clothes, shoes, and backpack are pretty much going to ID you as an American tourist.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:05 AM on July 14, 2010

I (Canadian female) was in Moscow and St. Petersburg about two years ago. St. Petersburg is very, very touristy - if anything, just watch out for pickpockets as in any western European travel destination.

Moscow is less touristy and I did certainly meet with "casual coldness" although this wasn't unbearable or anything. Like others have said it is cosmopolitan, but not in the New York sense.

In both places, going out to bars/clubs at nights, being "American" is considered interesting (I'm guessing the visa situation and lack of North American tourists has something to do with this).
posted by scribbler at 8:48 AM on July 14, 2010

I was in Moscow and St. Petersburrg in 2005 visiting a Pakastani-American friend who was transferred to Moscow for work. He never mentioned people being harassed because of his ethnicity. On the other hand, he was harassed while living in London.

That being said, I didn't find the residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg especially friendly to tourists. They seemed rather cold. There was also a noticeable element of people who I believe would not hesitate to rob me if given the chance. At a couple of points, police asked for bribes. Our driver showed them his old KGB id and we were let go without further harassment.

I would recommend finding a trustworthy guide or driver if possible. Whenever we needed help, the driver stepped in and people who were being unfriendly, instantly became friendly towards us.

I tend to be a more anxious person than most though. Whenever male friends visited my friend in Moscow, they always went wherever they wanted to, without the driver and felt fine. My friend didn't think it would be safe for an American woman, speaking no Russian, to go aruond on her own though.
posted by parakeetdog at 1:18 PM on July 14, 2010

I want to clarify a few things in my response because, in retrospect, it sounds kind of overdramatic.

Ultimately, I do think you'll be just fine. I was there for six months studying Russian and, because of the number of 'harassment' stories I heard from fellow students over such a long span of time, it may seem to me that it happened more often than it did. And the fact that this was four months after September 11th may have played a role too. On the other hand, I hung out in Moscow with a male friend and more than once, specifically when I wasn't walking right next to him, the police pulled the documents routine on him. I made it a point to stick closer. It should really be no big deal, though, if you have your documents in order. And really, I would give this advice to any male traveling in Russia, no matter what they looked like.

As for what I said about most Russians being used to seeing Asian people around, I agree with people above: for the vast majority this will be routine. But I do wonder about at least some of the places on your route. I met a couple of 16 year olds from Perm (with a population just under a million) who wanted to know if we had "Afro-Americantsi" in Canada, and confessed that they had never seen one (of course, their questioning and curiosity was not in itself racist).
posted by kitcat at 4:47 PM on July 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. I've read all your responses and they've been super super helpful; I marked as 'best answer' the responses that had more specifically to do with looking East-Asian. Thanks thanks thanks again for making such a trip a bit more lighthearted, and a bit less worrisome; although I'll be cautious, of course, there will be a bit more spring in my step thanks to you guys!
posted by suedehead at 11:45 PM on July 14, 2010

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