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)
vrbo.com (vacation rental by owner)