Bucket List: Russia, China and Hong Kong in One Fell Swoop
Couple plans epic trip to Hong Kong, China and Russia on a whim—thanks to a scratch-off map and a bottle of wine
It didn’t take much convincing for Ashley Moradipour and girlfriend Alicia Beekman to plan a multi-destination trip of their dreams. In fact, the wild idea to travel to Hong Kong, China and Russia in one short trip came about the same way that all great ideas do—booze.
What inspired you to travel to Hong Kong, China and Russia all at once?
The reason for planning this trip is a little ridiculous. Alicia and I both love to travel, so for a belated anniversary present, I bought us each a scratch-off map (a poster of a world map where you scratch off each country you’ve traveled to). One night, we were drinking, sitting on the couch staring at our maps. We thought that for all the traveling we do, our maps looked really pathetic. Then we pointed out how big Russia is and how satisfying it would be to scratch that off, and then we looked at China and thought the same thing. We then came to the (then joking) conclusion that we should book a trip where we go to both. Mind you, we had been drinking and had no real intention of doing this so spur of the moment.
After that discussion, I secretly researched things to do in Russia and China and fantasized about the trip, but it seemed so ridiculous that I never thought we would go through with it. When I approached Alicia to talk about it a couple days later, she goes, “I’ve been looking into this trip for days, and I want to do it.” Next thing we know, we’re booking flights and filling out visa forms!
Did you have any concerns about visiting Russia as an American? Were the locals welcoming?
I was expecting Russia to be mean, cold and really communist, but wow I was mistaken. One of the main highlights for us was the people we met. Most Russians do fit the stereotype of not being overly friendly, but they’re not unfriendly either. I think it’s just that they’re not fake nice, which was honestly a breath of fresh air.
We met an amazing couple in our hostel in St. Petersburg and spoke with them about politics and life in Russia. They were self-proclaimed anarchists, so naturally they had an interesting perspective, and we learned a lot from them. They were from Moscow, so when we made our way to Moscow on our last stop of the trip, we met up with them and they gave us a personalized tour of the city.
As a lesbian couple, were you concerned about Russia’s anti-gay sentiments?
We were told by friends and family to be careful, not hold hands and not tell anyone in Russia that we’re gay, so of course I was nervous going into a country where I could be arrested for simply being who I am.
My perspective totally changed when we found gay bars in St. Petersburg, however. Alicia found a place called Central Station online, and we decided to go check it out during the day at first. We were expecting some underground, hidden speakeasy situation, but when we got to the front door, we noticed their sign was brightly colored and patterned with gender signs, so they definitely were not hiding. We walked up to the door, where a small group of eclectically dressed people stood staring at us. We asked if it was open, and they blankly stared again. One of them said, “You know this is a gay bar, right?” We said yes we know, and they told us to come back that evening and they’ll be open. We went back that night, and to our surprise, there were gay men, lesbian women, drag queen performances and everything in between.
We spoke with some fellow lessies, and they said that in this space, they can be who they are, but on the streets they can’t hold hands or be affectionate. While it’s disappointing that the amazing people we met that night can’t be out and proud every moment of their lives, I think it’s awesome that they have a safe place and a supportive community among themselves. This moment was definitely a highlight in Russia.
Can you get by as an English speaker in Moscow and St. Petersburg?
There were a lot of English speakers in St. Petersburg, but the language barrier was definitely a challenge in Moscow. One thing that proved to be helpful and fun was learning the Russian alphabet before we went. A lot of the letters are similar to the letters in the English and Greek alphabets, and being that we are American and both had stints in sororities, we were fairly familiar with most letters already. It was fun to be able to walk through the city and sound words out—and it came in handy when my Google Maps was showing me a street name in English letters but the names on the street were in Russian letters.
Is it difficult for English-speakers to effectively communicate in China?
Yes—our biggest struggle in China was probably the language barrier. Luckily, we had a friend in Beijing who helped translate for us, but it was surprisingly difficult to get around Shanghai speaking just English. We made sure to print out important addresses (our hotel, points of interest, etc.) in Mandarin before we went, and we would have been lost without those. So if you’re traveling to China and don’t have a data plan to Google Translate on your phone, I suggest the print-out method.
A multi-country trip isn’t inexpensive. How did you budget for it?
Honestly, the flights for this trip were not that expensive. That’s the whole reason this trip became a reality for us. Another thing to note is that Alicia and I don’t spend money on anything aside from travel. I can’t remember the last time either of us went shopping. We splurge on a date night every now and then, but for the most part, we cook eggs or Pasta Roni at home. We both pick up night or weekend babysitting jobs when possible, and we save every penny possible for weekend trips and international travel.
How much did you spend on airfare and where did you find deals?
I think our flight from Moscow to LA was $250, and the flight to China was around $300. I recommend using SkyScanner or the Hopper app for cheap flight options. SkyScanner is good because you can narrow your search by the cheapest month to travel to a specific destination, and Hopper is good because once you know the dates you want to travel, you can have the app track prices for you and it will notify you when the flight is at its cheapest. The unexpected expenses (which ended up being almost as much as our flights) were visa costs.
What’s the deal with Russia and China's visas?
It is a pain in the ass to get a Russian visa. Lots of forms, lots of money and a very confusing process. I would set aside about $300 for a Russia visa, and I believe the China visa was $180. The China visa was a piece of cake, and you can go into the consulate like you’d go into a DMV. For the Russian visa, however, you have to mail your passport out to San Francisco and the process takes many weeks. So make sure you check if the countries you’re traveling to require visas and that you allocate enough time to get the visas before your trip.
What are some ways you cut costs while traveling?
We tend to take advantage of any connections we might have to the place we’re traveling. Locals make the best free tour guides, so post a Facebook status update before you go and see if you have any connections to the place or start a Couchsurfing account and meet up with people in the city. A Couchsurfing account is a great free way to maximize your experience. We also tend to eat very inexpensively such as making pasta in the hostel, eating street food or dining at hole-in-the-wall restaurants often. We also both have travel credit cards (I use the United MileagePlus Explorer card, and Alicia has a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card). So when we purchase things, we don't have to worry about foreign transaction fees and we rack up cash back points and miles for any purchases.
This all being said, we’re also very pro-splurging when we can. For example, in Hong Kong, we spent an extra $10 for the glass-bottomed cable car ride to Big Buddha on Lantau Island instead of the standard one (totally worth it). And we splurged on hiring a driver for our day at the Great Wall so we could get back to Beijing as soon as possible to maximize our time in the city.
What did you enjoy most about Hong Kong?
My favorite aspect of this city are the outdoor escalators. Hong Kong island is basically built on a mountain, so walking through the city is more like going on a high-intensity hike. A lot of expats live on the top of the mountain but work on the bottom, and for their commute (and for various convenience reasons), the city is connected by escalators. In the morning hours, the escalator runs from top to bottom, In the afternoon, it switches to run from bottom to top. I was obsessed with the escalator system and think it’s a brilliant idea for a city built on such an intense incline.
A food highlight in Hong Kong were the egg tarts from Tai Cheong Bakery. SO. GOOD.
What were some highlights of Shanghai and Beijing?
In Shanghai, I loved the Shanghai First Foodhall on Nanjing Rd (try the soup dumplings) and going to the top of the Shanghai World Financial Tower for a view of the skyline (including the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower). We found endless good options for Peking duck in Beijing, and of course we loved the exploring the Great Wall.
We went to Jinshanling to see the Great Wall, which is a bit less-restored (and also less-touristy). There were stretches where we were the only people in sight—which was a pleasant surprise. I highly recommend traveling the extra hour or so to go to a less-restored section of the Wall like Jinshanling or Simatai. I’ve heard stories and seen photos of people packed like sardines on the Wall, which sounds like my personal nightmare.
What were some stand-out experiences in St. Petersburg that you recommend for first-time visitors?
Be sure to take advantage of the free walking tour of the city that meets in Palace Square every morning at 10:45 a.m. It’s a great excursion for your first day in St. Petersburg (so you have a better idea of how to spend the rest of your trip).
We stayed in the BEST hostel in St. Petersburg—Soul Kitchen—which we booked through hostelworld.com. Honestly, even if you have no desire to go to Russia, I recommend taking a trip to St. Petersburg just to experience this hostel. The location was perfect, the staff was so friendly and accommodating, and the amenities were unreal. Just imagine the most positive aspect of every hostel you’ve ever stayed in, put them all together, and you’ve got Soul Kitchen.
Ashley is a documentary filmmaker who recently moved to New York. Follow her on Instagram (ashleymo_rad) as she discovers her new favorite spots to eat, drink and be merry in the Big Apple. While you're at it, check out Alicia's IG feed (@aliciabeekman) where she shares some of her favorite things from ballet and street art to epic nights out (which sometimes includes Medieval Times!).