My Worst Experiences Abroad: Part 2, Creepy Characters

Note: This is part 2 of a series on my travel “Horror Stories”– the most painful, creepy and uncomfortable experiences that I’ve had while outside of the United States. The point of me sharing these experiences is to encourage everyone to embrace the good and the bad when it comes to traveling, and find ways to grow from negative experiences. (Fortunately, I’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced anything seriously life threatening while traveling.)

Some of these stories can be pretty comical now that they are over and done with. Others are just scary, no matter how you look at them. Either way, I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences!

Part 2: Creepy Characters

St. Petersburg, Russia: August 2016

While staying at a hostel in St. Petersburg, Mariia and I were frequent visitors to a nearby Starbucks inside of a large shopping mall. We visited this Starbucks at least once a day to rest and refuel in between shopping and sightseeing.


Inside a Russian Starbucks. (Not my image. Image source:

One day while we were sitting at a table in the Starbucks drinking coffee and talking (in English) we noticed that something was off with the young man and woman sitting a few tables away. Even though I don’t speak Russian, it was easy for me to see that something was wrong—the conversation was pretty much one-sided, with the man doing all the talking in a hostile tone and the woman sitting completely still, staring back at the man with wide eyes.

Mariia began to listen in on the conversation to see if she could figure out what was going on, and she translated a few bits of the conversation for me:


Woman: “I’m just not comfortable talking to a stranger whom I just met on the street.”

Man: “This is not the street, this is a very nice coffee shop.”


Man: “Well, if you’re not interested, I can find one hundred women who are better than you.”


At that moment we realized that the woman was being harassed by a man she didn’t know. Unsure what to do, we decided that we should at least stay at the Starbucks until one of them left or the conversation ended somehow. We continued to discuss the situation quietly, until suddenly we heard the man’s voice directed towards us in loud, aggressive English):

“Hey, how do you like Russia?” he asked in the most intimidating way possible.

Mariia and I both stared straight ahead at each other, pretending not to hear him.

“Hey, I’m talking to you!” the man said, pushing the row of furniture in between where he was sitting and where we were so that the empty table next to us bumped ours and wobbled our empty drink cups. When the table hit ours we both automatically turned to face him, but we still didn’t say a word.

With that, the man mumbled something (Mariia told me after that he had said in Russian “I knew you could understand me”) then got up and walked away.

Mariia spoke to the woman in Russian for a few moments, asking if she was okay and if she needed someone to stay with her for a while.

The woman explained that she had never met the man before in her life, and that he had started talking to her on the street and followed her into the Starbucks when she tried to ignore him. Then the woman said the she was going to meet her friend in the mall, dialed a number on her phone and left in the opposite direction that the man had. We never saw either of them again.

I remember clearly the wave of terror that hit me when the man pushed the furniture at us, but I felt even more frightened for the Russian woman who had been confronted. I felt a strange sense of unfortunate solidarity with her, because witnessing this incident reaffirmed for me the fact that women all over the world experience confrontations like this at some point in their lives.


Beijing, China: August 2016

Side note: This event occurred right before the 19 floors incident, which you can read about here.

One late night in Beijing, Mariia and I were returning from a night out to her friend’s apartment where we were staying. Since it was so late at night we decided to take a taxi. Once we reached a street nearby the friend’s apartment complex Mariia told the taxi driver he could stop and we would walk from there.

Mariia took some money out of her wallet to pay the driver, but when she handed the bills to him he glanced at them and then shoved them back at her, yelling something angrily in Chinese.

“He says the money is fake and he won’t accept it, but that is impossible,” she told me.

An assortment of Chinese bills. (Not my image. Image source:


Being the slightly naïve American that I am, I started taking out my wallet to see if he would accept my cash instead, but Mariia cautioned me to stop. The taxi driver took out some of his own money and thrust it towards Mariia, but she put her hands behind her back and refused to touch it. The two of them continued to talk back and forth for a few minutes until Mariia told me to get out of the car.

Mariia and I both exited the taxi and so did the driver. Mariia filled me in on their exchange outside of the car afterwards:


“So you’re not going to pay me?!” the taxi driver yelled


“We are trying to pay you but you won’t accept our money!” Mariia said back. She then started waving and yelling to passing cars, trying to get their attention in attempt to show the taxi driver that there were witnesses around.

We quickly turned and started walking to the friend’s apartment, glancing back at the taxi every so often. The driver stood outside of the car for a few minutes before getting back in and driving away. Mariia explained to me that when the driver was pushing his money at her, he was trying to get her to “feel the difference” between his money and hers to somehow prove that her money was fake. She told me that one of her friends had a similar experience with a taxi driver in Beijing…. when the friend reached out to touch the driver’s money he took the money from her hands and put his money into hers, then blamed her for trying to pay with the fake bills that were originally his.

So, thanks to Mariia’s memory and quick thinking, we avoided a potentially worse situation.

M&M: 1

Taxi Driver: 0


Beijing — 19 Floors

I’ve been busy with graduate school and I have found it to be very tedious trying to remember and recount everything that I did on every specific day of my big trip, so I’m going to try a new strategy. Instead of creating day-by-day posts that form a timeline of my trip, I am going to write up the best stories from the trip and post them, in no particular order, interspersed with pictures of Mariia and I having fun and visiting all the tourist sites. Let me know what you guys think of this technique!

So here is the first of several stories from my time in Beijing with Mariia…

At the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Photo credit: Mariia

Mariia’s friend Ana lives in a high-rise apartment complex with about 25 floors and hundreds of units. The main entrance to the apartment can be opened with an electronic keycard, and the elevator can only be operated with the same keycard. If you are a visitor, you can use an electronic keypad at the front door to call whomever you are visiting and they can unlock the door for you remotely.

From the day I arrived, we had been following random residents into the front door of the apartment and onto the elevator, then using the “traditional” (not sure how to say it was just a normal key, not electronic) key Ana gave us to unlock the door to the apartment (when Ana wasn’t there herself to let us in). One night we arrived at the apartment complex around 2am, after a prolonged and scary interaction with a taxi driver. As one might guess, no one else was arriving home at 2am in the middle of the week.

So, we started debating what we should do. And eventually we decided to start calling random apartments. We used the rows of numbered mailboxes in front of us to randomly pick our first victim.

No answer.

I remember suggesting that the next number we call should include “lucky number seven”…I’m pretty sure we called 407. Funny, considering that 7 is not a lucky number in China in the same way as it is in the US, and 4 is actually an unlucky number in China (and Korea as well). Foreigner’s luck?

Me at the Lama temple in Beijing. Photo credit: Mariia

After a couple of rings, a sleepy sounding Chinese woman answered our call. Mariia told her in Chinese that we were very sorry, but we forgot our key to the front door and to please let us in. The woman opened the door remotely for us and then hung up without saying a word.

We tried the elevator a couple of times, just to see if our luck would carry. The doors would open, but the numbered buttons to the upper floors were useless without an electronic key.

So, we climbed 19 floors worth of stairs at 2 in the morning. We had to keep encouraging each other to keep going…

“Halfway there!” “Almost there!” “Is that the elevator??”

A couple of times we thought we heard the elevator and tried to catch it, but it was always a false alarm.

The next day Mariia went out early to run some errands while I slept in. I woke up to the sound of voices speaking Chinese outside of the door, Maria and a woman. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word that they were saying.

As it turns out, this woman was the lucky winner of our door buzzer lottery!

She was very upset about being woken up at 2 in the morning. Though Mariia’s Chinese language skills are essentially flawless, she somehow knew that the two foreigners the culprits. She followed Mariia all the way to Ana’s apartment to make it clear that this behavior was not acceptable, and she wanted to speak to Ana, who was not home. Mariia assured her that it would never happen again and that we were leaving Beijing soon anyways. In the end the woman finished scolded Mariia and returned to her unit.

But not without informing us that there is back door to the apartment complex that is propped wide open, 24 hours a day.

Mariia at the temple of heaven in Beijing. Photo credit: Myself

I love you, my friend. 🙂

P.S. To the woman at the apartment complex, I’m so sorry!

Big City Beijing (Day One)

The first stop on my big trip (not counting a layover in San Francisco) was Beijing.

I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport at 4:30am. Yep, that’s not a mistake. 4:30AM. Just in time to see the sun rise from the tarmac.

Also, before I left, Calum told me half-jokingly that I was forbidden to ride on escalators during my time in China (due to a series of accidents on escalators there last year). We joked that if the first thing I had to do when I stepped off the plane was take an escalator, I would just turn around and ask to go back.

Sure enough, the first thing that I saw when I stepped off the airplane was an escalator. BUT I GOT ON!

Anyways, Mariia was waiting for me on the other side of customs/immigration. The feeling of seeing a friend again after a long time is amazing…but I’ve found that after ten minutes it is like we never were apart, which is even more amazing. What I mean is that we start talking and sharing updates on our lives as if we are just catching up after a busy week, rather than a very busy year.

We took a 45 minute taxi ride from the airport to Mariia’s friend’s apartment where we would be staying. The first two things I noticed about Beijing were the humidity and the pollution. The morning I arrived the sky was gray and there was visible brown haze on the horizon…I’m told this is normal for Beijing, and this day was nowhere near some of the worst they’ve seen.

30 degrees Celsius = 86 degrees Fahrenheit ( Chart credit:


Don’t worry, it was nothing like the picture on the right. (Photo credit:


When we arrived at the apartment, Mariia’s friend Ana (This is her English/Russian name, she is Chinese) welcomed us and made us noodles for breakfast before we left to start our day.

First stop: Starbucks, of course.

Seasonal frappuccinos offered at Chinese Starbucks during my stay (Photo credit: me)

The rest of the day was dedicated to relaxation and a little bit of exploring. Mariia showed me around her school, Beijing Foreign Studies University, and I took a picture at the university entrance. We stopped by one of the small grocery stores on the edge of campus and the employees remembered Mariia from her frequent visits. We then headed to Mariia’s favorite nail shop near the campus and got mani-pedis, as we discussed before I came. 🙂

Me, in front of Mariia’s university (Photo credit: Mariia)

The next highlight of the day was getting a traditional Chinese massage. I honestly think this massage is what enabled me to keep pushing through the next few days despite some Jet Lag and muscle stiffness from the long plane ride. This type of massage involves every part of your body, even your hands and fingers.

By the time we got back to Ana’s apartment that day though, I was completely exhausted and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

More highlights from China coming soon!