We were stopped at the border of Mongolia and Russia, going through the 11-hour bureaucratic delay it takes to transition from one country to another via train, and I was reading book 3 of Game of Thrones. I looked up to see a woman standing in the corridor with her phone held up and looking back and forth from it to me.
Strange, but certainly not the strangest thing I’ve experienced on this overland trip from Thailand to Portugal.
She then said, “are you Betsy Talbot?
(Okay, now we’re getting into strange.)
The two women sharing our compartment also looked up, wondering how this stranger knew me. She didn’t look familiar at all, though she certainly appeared friendly. Good to know when you realize you are on a train together for the next 24 hours.
She told me she had just logged on to Facebook and saw that a friend of hers had “liked” my picture and status about leaving on the train to Russia, and she worked out we must be on the same one. So she decided to go looking for me.
We were just 3 doors down from each other.
Our mutual friend is a woman named Michelle, and she and her husband Russ have been traveling for about a year. We “met” them online via email when Russ found our website and wrote to ask some questions about long-term travel. Warren took the time to respond in detail, remembering how we felt as we were giving up our jobs and regular lives to take to the open road near mid life.
Many months later, we all happened to be in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We got together for a drink and really hit it off – so much so they booked a room at our guesthouse for a month. We became fast friends, enjoying many evenings on the rooftop of our guesthouse drinking boxed wine and talking books, music, travel, and life.
Fast forward to the present, and I’m looking up at this woman on the train who has identified me from a Facebook photo. I smile and ask her to come in, and we begin talking about our connection to Michelle and travels. She is an English woman who has led quite an interesting life, and we discovered we were on the same train schedule all the way through Moscow.
An early test of friendship
We parted ways at the train station at Irkutsk but met up again at Lake Baikal the next day. By this time, Warren and I had run into a serious problem – no cash. You see, the tiny tourist town we were visiting had no bank. We didn’t even have enough rubles to pay for our room at the homestay, much less get back to Irkutsk and possibly eat.
We met up with our new English friend along Lake Baikal as we were walking to the only bank machine in town at a hotel 4 km away. If it didn’t work, we had enough rubles for one of us to go to Irkutsk and get money and then come back. We told her of our problem and how dumb we felt for not getting cash in Irkutsk, and she pulled out her wallet and gave us 5000 rubles. Just like that.
“You can pay me back on the train.”
We gratefully accepted her loan but decided to try to get to the ATM at the hotel anyway, and we made plans to meet up with her for lunch and report our progress. After several wrong turns, we finally made it to the hotel only to find out it didn’t work. We trudged back to the restaurant and thanked her profusely over a lunch of savory piroshky.
This is when she told us she had forgotten to change her Chinese yuan when crossing the Mongolian border, and we indicated there was a Chinese-owned hotel on our street (it pays to learn your flags, kids!) and we’d gladly see if we could exchange it for her. It was the very least we could do.
At this point she had given us 5000 rubles plus all her Chinese money, the equivalent of about $430 US.
When was the last time you trusted someone you just met with $430? Or even someone you’ve known for a long time?
Returning the favor
We left our room later that afternoon to exchange the Chinese money down the street. Before we got there, however, we were greeted by some Russians who were celebrating the arrival of a friend and asked us to join them.
Actually, the red-headed woman hosting the party repeatedly said: “Sit Down. Please. Thank You” in a strong tone that really didn’t allow for argument. And they had food and drink, so who were we to say no? We spent the next several hours speaking in a combination of broken English and Russian about family, travel, and work as we sipped whisky and vodka and munched on watermelon. As we were talking, a Norwegian man and his Russian bride stopped by and joined us. She spoke 4 languages and he spoke English, so the conversation really became lively then.
By 8 p.m. the Russians had drunk themselves into an early bedtime (they don’t sip like we do), so we made our exit and went the Chinese hotel. While we were getting the money exchanged, we began talking in the courtyard with Jin-Chywan, a scientist from Taiwan who was researching fish DNA at Lake Baikal. As we chatted, he revealed he had gotten his Ph.D. in the US at a school in Texas. Warren perked up: “What school in Texas?”
It turns out they both graduated from Texas A&M. Siberia is probably the most remote place we’ve ever met another Aggie. After secret handshakes and reminiscing about the local college hangouts, we finally called it a night.
Our 15-minute trip to exchange money took 5 hours.
We went back to Irkutsk the next day, relieved to get rubles from the ATM and be able to pay our new friend back and continue our journey.
How this applies to you
Taking the time to connect with a stranger via email led to opportunities and relationships we could have never imagined, and this scenario continues to play out in our lives on a regular basis. (Click here if you don’t see the video below, which details yet another chance meeting that turned into something else.)
Had we never responded to Russ’s email, we would have never befriended him and his wife Michelle in Thailand, leading to all the other adventures we had in Siberia.
Saying yes to new people and experiences will open up opportunities in your life you cannot even imagine with your current world view.
I’m not asking you to be nice to people; you’re already doing that. What I’m asking you to do is add some action to your smile, inviting new people into your life without expectation and saying yes to new relationships.
- Talk to strangers.
- Ask questions…and listen to the responses.
- Introduce new people to your current friends.
- Invite new acquaintances to parties, events, movies, and clubs.
- Be generous with your knowledge and connections wherever possible.
You can say these kinds of connections happen to us because of the website and travel, but we both know that’s bullshit. These kinds of things happened to us before we left and I have no doubt they will continue happening no matter where we live or how much we travel. It is a way of interacting with other people that enriches your life regardless of your location, relationship status, or income level.
If it can happen for us in Siberia, imagine what saying yes to new relationships can do in your own backyard.
We begin the European leg of our 18,000-km overland trip this week, so be sure to subscribe to stay up-to-date on the adventure and the lessons we learn. Interested in the specifics of the journey? Click here to find out why we’re doing it and here to view the details on a map with photos.