A Solo Female Traveller’s Journey Of The Trans-Siberian Route Through Photographs

A Solo Female Traveller’s Journey Of The Trans-Siberian Route Through Photographs
(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

Lavanya Ullas has quite the story. Back in 2011, she quit her job and travelled for a year in the middle east and south east Asia. Even though she started working again as an Associate Director in a HR executive firm, the itch sprung up. So sometime last year she decided to take an indefinite sabbatical to travel and pursue photography. Only this time, it was the Trans-Siberian Railway network, the longest railway line in the world. Here is her story.

Take us through your entire journey.

Travelling the Trans-Siberian route was a bucket-list item for me for a long time. The train line is known for being the longest rail journey in the world. After researching the route, I took the one that connects via China, going through Mongolia and then into Russia, as covering the two countries in addition to Russia appealed more to me than just going east to west of Russia. (This line is called the Transmongolian, vs the Transiberian which is entirely in Russia)
For me personally knowing that I had a considerable amount of time on my hands, and yet a lot of the places would be fairly out of the tourist trail in terms of tourist infrastructure, easy access to transport and also frequency of transport- I knew I’d need more research beforehand on how to get there than just winging it as you could do in other countries for example. Knowing where I wanted to go, check places of interest, read up on interesting history / background and know which ones appealed to me from a travelling as well as photography perspective. Reading through travel blogs helped immensely. This is how I knew that access of transport within Mongolia isn’t that easy to come by, especially for the places further away. I contacted a hostel in Ulaanbaatar and told them about the places I was interested in seeing and also sought their advice. They helped chalk out a 25 day itinerary for me along with a driver, van and guide to cover the country. They also checked with other travellers who might be interested in this route and clubbed me with two other Swiss backpackers who were keen and had similar dates. They were my travel companions for the next 25 days we spent on the road.
It was also through the travel blogs that I reached out to another female solo traveller who spent considerable amount of time in Russia by herself to get a sense of how it was to travel through the Russian countryside etc as a solo Asian female. As I had been getting mixed reviews about the safety aspect about travelling solo, surprisingly from my European friends. (spoiler alert - my experience in Russia was nothing short of amazing! People were extremely friendly, helpful and kind. Especially in the countryside, villages and trains where a lot of the people I met didn’t speak any English but were hospitable and curious and always willing to help. I can’t speak for anyone else who’s been to the country but I never once had a single negative experience during my travels in Russia). I read through umpteen travel blogs and stories of individuals and their experiences and photos. I stayed away from the big travel sites / magazines and their recommendations as from experience they leave plenty wanting. I’ve found actual personal account and experiences much more useful and containing practical information found in individual travel blogs. For example it was on a travel blog that I heard about a group of people called the Old Believers who lived in a village outskirts of a town, Ulan Ude in Russia where my train would be stopping by just after the border crossing with Mongolia. In many ways, including religiously, culturally, the type of food and music they were different from the rest of Russia. Looking at some of the photos of their dances, the colourful clothing, reading up on their history piqued my interest. And I knew I wanted to go there to spend a day visiting this village. They were unfortunately closed to visitors during my time there but a serendipitous meeting with a young Russian girl in a cafe led to me sharing my disappointment about not being to visit this village led to her telling me she knew the director of the local museum who might be able to help! Voila, next thing I knew, the director was so pleased to hear that an Indian tourist not only had heard about the Old Believers but also came specifically to Ulan Ude to visit them. He called the administrative office in the village, arranged for a visit with a show, dance, performance , and personally drove me the next day there and gave me a background and context to the place and its people that I would’ve never other gotten just on a visit by myself.
Similarly it was during my research on Mongolia where I knew I wanted to spend as much time as my visa would allow me but had no clue where to start, I came across a piece on the Tsaatan people. The tribe that live solely of reindeers. Reindeers? In Asia? I knew I had to travel there, and then chalked the rest of my itinerary for Mongolia around it.

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

How and why did you narrow down on the destinations?

Mongolia fascinated me through all the pictures I came across, the landscapes, sheer scarcity of people, being in the middle of nowhere with hardly any people or other tourists around, staying in a ger tent (yurt), interestingly hearing that a lot of the places wouldn’t have network also appealed to me as there are only few places left where you could truly disconnect.

What are your recommended travelling essentials for a photographer?

Actually I’d say the lighter you can travel the better. In fact after some deliberation I decided make the tough choice to leave my DSLR behind, and take only a small fixed lens camera (the Fuji X100S) with me. There are several reasons for it, I wanted to be able to travel light, shoot scenes around in in fairly close quarters be it on the streets, in the train or inside the ger tents. Pulling out a large camera always brings attention to yourself, usually the unnecessary kind. This way I could also have the camera on me, no matter where, when and thus be reassured I would be able to capture something I see than have the -oh if only I had the camera withme- moment which happens. Safety was another aspect, travelling alone as a solo woman I wanted to keep the attention to myself to a minimum as well as the number of expensive gadgets. If I wasn’t able to carry them on my person or in my small handbag, they didn’t come with me - that included the laptop too which I left behind. Though I never once faced any issues with safety I didn’t want to risk it. Lastly, shooting the entire trip with only one camera and a fixed lens, as a lot of photographers will tell you, really challenged me and I would say helped hone my photography skills as well. without the innumerable options of focal lengths, you’re forced to move on your feet more and focus on composition vs taking an easy way out.

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

What are the challenges you faced as a photographer? What was the most challenging moment?

As mentioned above the decision to travel with just one camera was a challenge. For example I wasn’t able to take as many portrait shots as I would’ve liked to of the people I met along the way especially of the different nomadic tribes in Mongolia, given the constraints of the camera I had taken with me (lack of zoom). On the other hand I’m glad I didn’t either. During street and even travel photography you want to be as inconspicuous as possible I was able to whip out my camera on trains with people right in front of me, in tents while chatting with the nomad families and on the metro in Russia without people around me feeling conscious or at times even realising I was shooting them. Another reason is that while travelling in Mongolia, the further away you go from the towns, you’re often without electricity for days. Luckily this was something I planned for as well. And maybe answers your question earlier about what to carry. While I carried a light camera, I carried the biggest battery pack I could find online, and bought an extra charger for my camera which worked through a USB vs an electric charging point. This helped me tremendously during the days we were disconnected completely. Extra batteries as well was something I purchased. I cant think of a specific challenging moment though, Mongolia especially offers you ample opportunities to captures amazing scenic landscapes. you only have to venture a little away from the city.
Though what I would mention though is travelling in Mongolia isn’t for the faint-hearted, or for creatures of comfort. The amenities outside the capital Ulaanbaatar are basic! While staying at the nomad camps, the toilets for example are beyond basic. You have to understand that these camps are seasonal and therefore temporary. The families move the camps 3 to 4 times a year. So the amenities are also built in accordance with that. If you’re familiar with ‘dry toilets’ from any treks that you’ve done, ýou’ll be familiar with what im talking about. They’re essentially large holes dug into the ground and at times just 4 short wooden walls covering you and most times - just 3 walls :) a little distance away from the main camp. You learn to adapt pretty soon and abide by the golden rule of travel - always carry plenty of toilet paper! The food is another adjustment as well. Vegetarians would find it a challenge, though it isn’t impossible. So I’d recommend a lot of research about travelling in Mongolia before packing off your bags to take off.

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

Must visits in Russia and Mongolia? Why?

In Russia the place that left a mark was definitely Olkhon Island. It’s the island on Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s quite a special place, the landscapes and just sheer raw nature is quite unlike any other- mountains, beaches, steppe, taiga forests and even a small desert all on one island. The island is an epicentre for buddhism and shamanism interestingly and a place of spiritual significance for a lot of Russians. This is evident in a number of prayer flags you see tied to poles and rocks around the island. There was a certain sense of calm and peace around there which is hard to explain and also none like id experienced elsewhere.
During my stay there, I spent an entire day hiking around the island, by myself and for the entire hike didn’t meet a single other person around. Which was strangely calming and gave me a sense of courage as I cant imagine doing that anywhere else. I’ve been asked since then every time I talk about this to friends if that it a good idea or would I encourage that? It’s hard to say as while I didn’t feel unsafe at any point of time, I’d be hesitant to encourage another female traveller to do the same. Go with your instinct I guess. In Mongolia, outside of the Tsaatan tribe in the Taiga forests, I’d say Khusgul lake is a must visit! and this is an easier place to visit as there are better amenities, actual bathrooms, electricity and even some smaller hotels offering Ger style accommodation.

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

5 Dos and 5 Don’ts for an amateur travel photographer?

Travel light. Often the big zoom lenses can be a bit intimidating not to mention intrusive when pulled out in small spaces like homes, places of worship or trains. Engage with people around you while shooting them. Even if you don’t speak the same language, a smile wave and a point to the camera to indicate that you’d like to take their picture goes a long way. And when the situation calls for it, be ready to put your camera away and enjoy the moment or be respectful.

What was your biggest takeaway from the trip?

There are the types of solo trips that you do moving from hostel to hostel where you’re never truly alone because you’re always meeting other travellers like yourself and I’d say allows for a more social experience. Travelling in Mongolia and parts of Russia however, is quite the opposite. Here you truly are alone and have to be in a state of mind where you’re comfortable with spending considerable amounts of time with and by yourself. While I’d always enjoyed solo travel before, I was lucky enough in the past to have some great travel partners among my close friends and exes whose travel style matched mine and we’ve shared some incredible trips together. Though while planning this trip, I’d reached a stage where I wanted to do this entirely on my own. I had a couple of offers from close friends to join for me for part of the journey, and I found myself secretly hoping that wouldn’t be able to make it :) Having this time to myself felt like something I had earned and I was looking forward to spending that time with myself. I suppose the biggest take away for me personally was being pleased that I had reached this stage of confidence, comfort with myself to want to do this. I wanted to do the hikes alone, the travel around the country, the train journey that took days between stops, catch the ferries, buses, taxis all alone and I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s hard to explain though, I had several friends ask me - but why alone? and what will you do most of the days in Mongolia without other people for company?
The other take away was, and while I had always known this, I was able to view this firsthand - you have way more interesting experiences when you’re travelling by yourself. If I had been part of a group of friends or even a couple, I wouldn’t have had the same conversations with the locals on the train. Wouldn’t have had the need to bridge that gap, pull out the google translate app and try and communicate with my fellow passengers for the next 3 days while we share a train compartment. While sharing any travel experience with someone close to you is special as well, you do end up closing off several others just by the fact you have company with you. How often do you turn to the person next to you and ask them where they’re headed or where they’re from f you were already travelling with friends? You’re less curious about the people/situations around you and they’re in a way often less curious about you as well.
Having said all of that, one of my favourite memories from the trip was having one of my closest friends fly down to St.Petersburg for a couple of days from Dubai where she lives and celebrate my birthday with me. It was the end of my train journey and after 3 months on the road solo, it was fantastic to see a familiar face and party away with her.

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

Tell us about some of your favourite and most interesting memories of the trip.

One of favourite and most memorable experiences was on the train travelling from Irkutsk to Moscow. It was a 4 day nonstop journey, and I was a bit apprehensive on the journey, who my co-passengers would be and how it would all go. I chose to travel in the second class of the train, (first class would be an entirely private cabin sort of arrangement, which wasn’t my idea of fun for 4 days straight to be in an 8’ by 10’ train compartment alone) and the second class was a 4 berth compartment with a sliding door. Once I boarded my train I soon discovered all 3 of my co-passengers in the compartment were men. Having grown up in india you learn to keep to yourself and away from strange men especially on public transport, it’s a nobrainer. Here is why travel just helps you constantly challenge your own conceptions. I’d boarded the train in the middle of the night and soon fell asleep. I woke up to 3 rather curious pair of eyes looking at me trying to figure who, what and where I’m from. It wasn’t long before they all took out their phones, downloaded Google translate and we soon proceeded to have a conversation that covered everything from our hometowns, the places I’ve been to, how I enjoy living in Singapore, where they each live and work. 2 of them were from rural Russia working in a factory in west Russia and the third guy worked in the army. The bond we formed over the next 3 days went beyond polite chit chat. The 3 of them, proceeded to ‘adopt’ me as their sister in a way, feeding me throughout the journey. Again, using the app we were spending hours conversing with each other. It didn’t take them long to understand what a gluten intolerance was, and they proceeded to bring me fruits, snacks and treats from the restaurant car, share their own food and after a few hours it took on a relaxed vibe between us where we were laid back, showing each other photos of our families and friends on the phone and even proceeded to watch an English movie, dubbed in Russian language, with english subtitles! (It was a Jean Claude flick, don’t ask me which one, don’t they all look the same?). At the stations where the train would stop for a longer while and we got off to stretch our legs, they refused to let me disembark without piling on the jackets on top of me, even more than I needed.In their minds, an Indian girl has no idea about the Russian temperature and simply wasn’t built for this weather. They kept an eye on me while any stranger approached me to chat (I soon found out I was the only foreigner in the entire train from what I could see during the train stops) and I truly felt like I had made friends who has my back in this train trip. All of them who spoke no English, were middle aged fairly burly tall Russian men. Their curiosity and interest in me was purely innocent (As an Indian woman we hone our radars for creepy men pretty well I’ll tell you that) and was more avuncular if not brotherly. By day two we had an odd routine fixed between the 4 of us, they’d wake up earlier than me, they’d speak in hush tones until I’m up and had a cup of hot tea ready for me. Round two of tea by noon was my turn to bring the tea(There was a samovar at both ends of each carriage with hot water for tea/coffee). They were always polite to leave the compartment for me in the evenings when I needed to change, left me alone when I wanted to read, and generally were polite, non-intrusive, amiable and hospitable all at the same time.
The two men had a stop prior to Moscow, and on the 4th day just before they left I saw them chatting away to the side, reading something from their phone taking quick peeks at me. As the train pulled into the station they both turned to me and in unison recited in English, “Lavanya, we wish you a pleasant journey forward and all the best for the future”. Now if that doesn’t melt your heart, I don’t know what will :)

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

Which is your favourite photograph from this trip and why?

It’s always hard to choose. But I think this photo sums up Mongolia for me in a nutshell, the landscape in the background with the ger tents scattered around, the wild horses everywhere, the old car driving off road through the stream of water with a smiling Mongolian woman peeping from the backseat. It was only day 3 of my trip there and we had to stop our van, when we came to this stream to let each car drive by in turns. Funny thing is, it wasn’t an unusual sight for anyone but me, we were driving through similar streams and landscapes for nearly each day of the month I was in the country. After a couple of weeks in, I even stopped taking pictures of it, you can get used to anything! (cover image)

What are some common myths/misconceptions with respect to travel photography?

I’m not sure how to answer this. Perhaps the belief that you need the best equipment to take good pictures. Another favourite picture of mine from the trip was taken only on my phone.

One most important thing to keep in mind for an amateur travel photographer?

I think its the same thing I’d say to anyone interested in travelling long term, photographer or not,
Research as much as you can about the place, travel slower and stay longer in places to get a feel for things and travel light!

(Photo Credit : Lavanya Ullas)

You can find more photos from Lavanya on her Instagram.

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