vrbo.com (vacation rental by owner)
I think one of the first things that halts people in their tracks when envisioning a long trip is the idea of booking hotels for the entire time they are away. You have to have someplace to sleep, right? And, especially with kids, you can’t just leave it to chance.
It took us months into our RTW trip to let go of this attitude and ease into a more relaxed mindset. Today, with google and the whole internet you are never, ever without a place to stay. If you happen to be somewhere so remote you cannot look up a website that means you just need to stroll down the street and see what is available. In an entire year there was only one time where it was slightly questionable if we were going to find a place to sleep and that was because all the planes in Borneo had been benched for “safety inspections” at the same time thus throwing us in with every connecting flight who had never intended to spend three whole days in a town with two tiny hotels. However, even then, we managed to find a place.
Although we did sleep overnight on trains and boats and buses in Asia and South America, we never strayed that much off the tried and true shelter options. Sometimes we slept a bit rough while on a long trek but in the main it was guest houses and hotels. This time however, we were a whole month into our journey from Estonia to Mongolia before we spent one night in a hotel and that was only because of an emergency.
Just as we boarded our longest train journey into deepest Siberia, a minor jaunt between Yekaterinburg and Irkurst, I noticed an email on my iphone from the apartment we had booked for our arrival. Alarmingly, it started with four capitalized “WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!” notices and then went on to state that due to city construction all water in the building, both hot and cold, had been turned off and accordingly our reservation was now canceled. Or more accurately, “To avoid not comfortable stay we cancel your reservation, and ask you select a possible hotel, as a solution to this problem does not depend on us!”. As I processed this, our train rolled out of the station and all internet and cell phone capability went dead. There is no wifi on these trains and Siberian cell phone towers outside of towns are few and far between. Accordingly, when we finally arrived three days later at the train station in Irkurst, I booked the first hotel that answered my now active phone.
But other than this one night stay, we completely avoided hotels in Russia, mostly by finding rental apartments in the big cities and couch surfing in the small ones. Of course, several nights were spent sleeping (very comfortably) on the trans Siberian trains themsleves. This post will just cover the apartments, the next one will deal with couch surfing.
There are plenty of reasons to choose vacation apartments over hotels - kitchens with stoves and refrigerators, available washing machines and the ability to invite friends over for a meal. There is always more room for kids to mess around. But the primary reason, no question, is that they are one third to half of the price of a regular hotel room in Moscow or St. Petersburg. All the apartments we found were easy walking distance from the major tourist sights. To get an equivalent hotel price we would have had to stay waaaay away from the center of town. Who knows how much money we saved on taxis for whiny, pooped out kids!
We found a wide variety in both comfort and support among the apartments we stayed in. In retrospect, the best stay on this trip was our very first stop in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Here we found a two bedroom apartment right in the heart of the UNESCO Old Town, an adorably quaint maze of cobblestone streets and centuries old churches. Ironically, given that we had come to visit an Estonian friend, this was the place with most amount of support. There was both an on site receptionist who gave us maps and information about directions and a hot breakfast provided everyday. Contrast this with the apartment in Moscow, a notoriously user unfriendly town which had nobody to greet us, let alone fix a broken light in the bedroom or the defunct washing machine. Most of the places fell in between. They are usually happy to arrange a taxi to and from the train station or airport but it is up to you to sort out the neighborhood.
In Russia, we gave up fancy lobbies and bell hops for dingy stairwells and a complete absence of elevators. I have read soviet era novels but this was literally stepping inside one. On the other side of the door however, times had changed and instead of a shared cold water flat we had two bedrooms, a living room and a fully equipped kitchen all to ourselves. Vive la capitalism! One of the nicest things about an apartment versus a hotel is that it forces you to be independent. You figure out how to work the three types of door keys and randomly press buttons on the washing machine until it turns on and suddenly you learn more about what it truly feels like to live in Russia then a dozen visits to the Hermitage.
The need to find milk and cereal for breakfast or a sim card for your phone forces you to live like a local and you find yourself wandering, lost, down tiny little streets you never would have chanced upon if you were not in need of laundry detergent (yes, I have 4 kids, laundry figures prominently in our travels).
Personally, I love wandering into local grocery stores and markets and seeing what is on offer. We have found everything from instant mashed potato dispensed like slushies in Singapore to taffy pullers stretching soft candy in the aisles in China. The first thing I look for is the local flavor of potato chips - in Russia they seem especially fond of bacon flavor chips, though crab is popular as well. Our apartment in St. Petersburg was just a couple of blocks away from a really nice market with local produce and it soon became a habit to drop in daily to pick up a cabbage salad or pickled chicken for lunch. We bought honey for our tea from a lady who got it from bees in “the mountains” where ever that was. Who could resist the babushkas selling their handpicked mushrooms or berries from the forest. This is where we tasted fresh cloud berries for the first time.
One of the most elegant grocery stores we stepped into was the "Eliseevsky" on Tverskaya St. in Moscow. Opened only 16 years before the revolution, it retains its Tsarist gold sconces, crystal chandeliers and hand carved wooden counters. Yet, the prices were no more than any other store. This could not be said for its sister pastry shop in St. Petersburg whose ornately decorated eclairs and light as air cupcakes commanded appropriately exorbitant prices but really, how often so you find chandeliers hanging from a larger than life palm tree in the middle of a bakery?
Being tucked into a “normal” residential area rather than tourist central gave us access to quirky bits and pieces of daily life. Not being able to speak the language or read the signs is a little bit like being deaf - you move in a self contained bubble. As a tourist, it is all too easy to move seamlessly from hotel to taxi to museum or restaurant and back again. Being in an apartment flat, you see kids fly up the stair after school while their parents trudge up heavy laden with groceries. You may or may not be struck by the elaborate braids wound around the little girls heads or the sky high heels worn by their mothers as I was but there will be some other little insight into the culture that you may remember long after the waxen face of Lenin has faded into the dim mist.
The websites to check for short term apartment rentals are - flipkey.com,
vrbo.com (vacation rental by owner)
Tallinn is the capital of Estonia and it also happens to be a Unesco World Monument. At least the Old town is - one of the best examples of a Medieval fortified town to be found in Europe. Still bounded by its original city walls, this section has been given over completely to history with maidens dressed in 11th century garb selling you drinks or souvenirs.
All of which is wonderful if you happen to have a history buff on your hands who will appreciate the original pulleys on the front of houses used to winch up items for storage. Or maybe a teenager who would like to visit the House of Blackheads (an unfortunately named medieval guild for bachelor and/or visiting craftsmen).
Speaking of names, it takes an older child to grasp the absurd title of one of the town's oldest medieval towers - Kiek in de Kok. One would think that a translation would confer dignity but it seems to be old German for "Peeking in the Windows" since bored soldiers could amuse themselves by looking into the town houses below them. I'm sure the neighboring maidens appreciated that.
However, Tallinn offers much more than pretty houses and cobblestone streets for kids. It is a small and very doable town where even the smallest legs can walk from site to site. Here are 10 tips to make it even easier.
1. Rent an apartment instead of a hotel - you have a kitchen so you can make breakfast at 4 am if that is when jet lag wakes you up. You have your own coffee pot so you can down as many cups of coffee as it takes to get you out of the house or deal with a toddler who does not understand the concept of sleeping according to the clock outside his own body. You also have a washing machine, ‘nough said. We rented one of the Romeo Family apartments right in Old Town so we could walk to everything and it was a great decision. Bring some eye masks though to deal with the late summer sun which hardly sets at all.
2. Get dinner in the supermarket - Its not just a way of saving money but you can see how Estonians eat at home by shopping where they shop. There is a lot of liverwurst! There is also a spice they sprinkle on their potatoes that is quite simply addicting. Conveniently for you, this country is famous for it’s delicious savory pastries. These light and flakey concoctions can be cheesy, stippled with bacon or filled with vegetables but they all make a perfect light dinner or quick snack in the middle of the night when you are still turned around time wise.
3. Get outside the Old Town and see some green at Kadriorg Park. You could spend a whole day at this lovely, large green park. It is an easy 10 minute ride on Tram #1 or 3, both of which can be found right at the edge of the Old Town. Once there, you can visit the sumptuous Kadriorg Palace, the humble cottage of Peter the Great or, if ambitious, meander through the modern art museum smack in the middle of the park.
But you don’t even have to go into any of the attractions to make a trip here worth while. There are trees to climb, grass to picnic on, a maze to race through and rose gardens to smell. It is ideal for a small child. since there is an interactive Kids Museum complete with swinging hammocks right next to an playground filled with sand and seesaws. If you forgot to pack a lunch and are visiting after June 26 you can have lunch in a cafe next to the elegant lake.
4. Museums - For a small town, Tallinn has a huge number of museums. I was amazed at how many my kids (10 yrs old) and our friend’s son (4 yrs old) willingly entered into. However if you want to keep it short and sweet, the two best for kids are the Museum of Occupation and the Maritime Museum. Best to explain before hand that “occupation” in this case means invasion not jobs. Otherwise your child will be as confused as mine was. The big draw is the recreation of shelters used by the “Forest Brothers”, Estonia’s resistance fighters during WWII. There is one water pail hanging on a hook riddled with bullet holes, particularly tragic given than not one of these soldiers survived the Germans and then the Soviets.
5. The Maritime Museum is simpler - just the tools of the trade for a country living on the edge of the Baltic Sea. Bryan particularly enjoyed the chance to sit and draw at a table set up for kids. We went to the old Maritime Museum right at Fat Margaret Tower (seriously, who comes up with these names!?). There is apparently another, more modern Maritime museum down at the coast which we would definitely check out next time.
6. The Open Air Museum - The best thing about this “museum” is that is all outdoors. This is a giant park where they have brought together a bunch of houses, barns and other kinds of shelters to demonstrate the various forms of habitations found throughout Estonian history. There are people dressed in traditional clothes scattered throughout, generally engaged in some kind of traditional handicraft like embroidering cloth shoes or tatting lace. They don’t speak much English though so don’t expect them to explain much.
As the area is quite large, it is a really good idea to rent the bikes available (5 euros for 2 hours) and use them to get around. They have kid size as well as adults. No child seats but kids too small for their own bikes can sit on the back and hold on to mom or dad. Bring a picnic and make a day of it. There is a cafe on hand serving traditional Estonian fare. Also horse drawn carriage rides.
7. Visit the Zoo - If you have the energy you can combine a visit to the Open air Museum with a trip to the Tallinn Zoo or if you have time you could split it into two days. It is a short (15 min) walk from one to the other. This zoo is clearly trying hard to improve the grounds for their animals. There are signs saying the large animals will be moved out of their cramped, concrete enclosures soon. They have updated the enclosures for the smaller animals however and it is amazing how close kids can get to the monkeys! The highlight was by far the tiny marmosets, zinging from branch to branch.
8. One of the BEST things to do with kids in Tallinn is teach them how to make Marzipan figures. It is just like molding playdough, but with sugar, how much more kid friendly can one get than that? A sweet little marzipan shop at 40 Pikk Street is set up with kid size tables set out with dough, edible paint and already made examples for kids to follow. For 3.50 euros a teacher will guide them (and you) through the process. Our four year old made a lovely frog and the girls made a lady bug and a lion. All of which apparently now have to make it through another 2 months of hard travel without getting squished since they are too beautiful to eat.
9. Take a toy train ride. What little kid can resist this bright blue little train that winds around the Old Town? What parent can resist the temptation to sit down while still seeing the sights? Perfect combination.
10. Last but not least - if you have had enough of culture then its time to feed the ducks. There is a little park right across the road from the train station that happens to have adorable baby ducks right now, but probably always has a fairly stable population of the water birds. Another advantage of this park is the wonderful statue of a giant sinking into the earth for a nap.
Strangely enough, one of the things I love about travel is jet lag. As anybody who knows me can attest, I am not a morning person. So waking up at 5 am is generally a very, VERY painful proposition. But put me on a plane and skip across 3 or 4 time zones and suddenly I am an entirely new person. It is the only chance I have to experience that cool, still calm of the very early day. Frankly, if not for jet lag I would probably never have seen a sunrise.
Unfortunately to get a pretty photo of said sunrise I have to shoot around the scaffolding wrapping the building we are staying in here in Tallinn. When I opened the window to try and get a clearer shot I was surprised to see throngs of people wandering the streets at 4 am. They seem young so either other disoriented backpackers or returning from various nightlife jaunts. Oddly, some are dressed in Roman togas. Who knows. We are far enough north that the sun never fully sets during the summertime so going to sleep entails drawing the curtain on a full sun still blazing in the sky. Even at midnight it is still perfectly easy to make your way around in the soft grey twilight. Black out curtains or eye masks are a must for sleeping.
Anyway, to backtrack, we had a perfectly lovely departure. No matter how well you prepare. as you are driving to the airport there is always the niggling feeling you have forgotten something vitally important but so far we haven’t noticed anything missing (touch wood). The SAS flight was fine and the girls got about four hours sleep each (out of a 7 hr flight). Unfortunately I fell asleep as soon as we took off which meant I was woken up by the dinner service an hour in and then couldn’t get back to sleep... Ah well, I can never really sleep sitting up anyway and I did love the feeling of both girls’ heads slumped together snoozing in my lap - right away we are more connected than when we are all zinging off on our separate ways in “normal” life.
We touched down in Sweden for an hour to change planes and the girls instantly picked up on the famous Nordic design aesthetic. The clean and sleek Oslo airport breathes calm chicness. All the radiantly blond people don’t hurt either. We actually ended up at a japanese kiosk with a moving sushi track for breakfast. The girls loved it but, ouch, $30 for 3 tiny dishes of sushi! This trip is not going to be the $50 a day wonder of last year!
Flying from Sweden to Estonia took only an hour and returned us to the days before jumbo jets. There is something that always returns me to my childhood when I have to board a plane from stairs wheeled up to the plane door rather than simply trudging along one of those metal passenger tubes to the same place. It is so much more of a movie moment when you look up and see the giant plane from the tarmac.
As soon as we landed, our friend Hegne and her adorable son Bryan were there to meet us. One emergency cup of coffee later and we were off to find our digs. Everyone was surprised to see it wrapped up like a Christo offering, which is a shame because normally the views would be right out onto the Old Town of Tallinn which is universally regarded as one of the prettiest town centers in all of Eastern Europe. But the inside is lovely. We are going to be staying more in apartments and houses on this trip, rather than hotels. This is because, a) hotels cost the earth and b) we get triple the amount of room not to mention a kitchen and a washing machine for our clothes. Besides, it’s like staying at your distant aunt’s house instead of a corporation. This place, Romeo Family Apartment, is owned by a lovely couple who include a daily breakfast and it is smack dab in the middle of the Old Town. Not that we have had a chance to look around yet, today has been mostly about the same basic chores that need doing no matter where you find yourself - getting a sim card for the telephone, driving to a gigantic supermarket to stock up on supplies, checking in with people at home, having bathes and then basically falling into bed.
So, the plan for today is just to wander about and explore. Since the primary reason we are here is to be with Hegne and Bryan, we feel like we can just relax and enjoy being together rather than running around checking off must see sights. A very calm way to ease into a long trip, I rather think!
We are ready to leave. Really ready. In just a little over a week we will be on the plane to Estonia, our first plane trip in over 10 months. Its like a heroin addict jonesing for a fix. Mind you, I have to acknowledge that we are a lot softer this time out. Soft beds, hot showers and walk in closets have made this past year very comfortable. I really appreciate the eight pillows on my bed! We are also not going to be eating as well as last year - Russian food doesn’t have a patch on Asian street noodles and let’s not even start on the Mongolian diet. So I am trying to temper the wild “let’s go!” with a dose of “it’s not all going to be glorious.”
On the other hand, we are traveling with carry on bags as opposed to the full sized rollies we left with last year. In fact, the girls’ bags are technically backpacks for school but the kind with wheels. So we should be much lighter and nimbler. The emails we are getting from guides in Mongolia recommending bringing sleeping bags and foam pads are not even being considered - either they provide what is needed or we just pick them up there (we will be bringing one blow up pillow each, we are not animals).
Russia’s itinerary is pretty much set, Mongolia’s not at all, China has been chopped off to only 4 days so basically down to eating peking duck and seeing the Great Wall. Our first stop is Estonia and I haven’t planned anything for that since we are going to be with a great friend who, we assume, knows her way around her native country. Our last stops are England and Ireland and between family and well loved museums, we generally know our way around what we want to do in each place. I am trying to ignore the fact that I will not be able to either speak or read the language in 4 out of the 6 countries we visit. Not to mention that neither Russia nor China has much of a reputation for being particularly welcoming to the independent tourist and while Mongolians are apparently supremely friendly, they have practically no travel infrastructure at all. It will be fine!
One brand new twist to this trip will be couch surfing. Russia is eye bleedingly expensive, especially compared to all the super cheapie places we were going through last year. On the advice of another traveler I looked into this system whereby you stay at locals’ own apartments for free. The general idea is: you are staying with people who for one reason or other hope to one day be in a position to ask you to host them so it is one large round of pay it forward. Primarily inhabited by very enthusiastic 20 somethings, they seem to be people willing to share their spaces with complete strangers just for the fun of it and there is nothing they like more than meeting people from out of town. While Leontine’s reaction to this philosophy was to remind me how I told her not to speak to strangers on the internet, there is a lot of communication and feedback among the various hosts so I feel fairly confident with the ones I’ve picked, or rather asked, to stay with. I do think it is funny that I am doing this first before my 19 year old daughter who prefers the hostel route.
She, btw, is traveling on her first solo trip this summer. She is going to spend one month in Italy, basing her itinerary primarily on the foods she wants to taste. Basically, she is sourcing her grocery list with the odd stop in a church or museum. I am so proud of her and absolutely confident she will find her way around and keep us enraptured with her travel stories. But I will miss her travel companionship.
So, onward and upwards.
We have tickets, we are going! Three huge countries - Russia, Mongolia and China. If only. Naturally, it has gotten a tad more complicated (spiraled out of control). First, we have a friend from Estonia, a good friend, She happens to be going back to her home country to show off her new baby. Her home town, Tallinn, is only four hours by train from St. Petersburg. It's right next door! So, why not? How could we pass up this opportunity to be shown around Estonia by a proud native?
Just as I was about to click on the buy button for tickets, my hubby casually mentions, oh by the way, the Dixon family reunion is happening in Ireland just after we arrive back in the states. Ah, ok, let's think about this. Back to Kayak.com and rework the multicity tickets. It is absolutely ridiculous to fly back from Asia to USA and then turn around and leave for Europe so....we are now going straight from Beijing to London. There we will spend some time with my family before jetting off to Ireland to meet up with the giant Dixon clan.
So, in a nutshell, here is the plan - Estonia, Russia (including Siberia), Mongolia, China, England and Ireland in just over two months. How did this happen? Emmm, what happened to one month, one country? It's just that that they are each right next to each other, how can we not keep going in a single straight line from Eastern Europe to Asia? Yes, I realize the England/Ireland bit is at the end instead of in the beginning, but doesn't it make a beautiful (almost) straight line? Completely logical, no?
Ah, it will not be so bad, since we will basically be following the tried and true Trans Mongolian route, jumping on and off the train as we see fit. The train routes are so extensive and omnipresent that even though it will be high season I don't think we will have any trouble getting tickets. All the Moscow-Beijing tickets will be sold out but the little hops in between on the less fancy trains will still be available.
And that, my friends, might fall under the heading of "wishful thinking". We will find out!