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)
One of the great things about traveling with kids is that you quite often get to see local attractions that most tourists don’t bother with. When we were in Russia, we spent one whole day visiting the Divo Ostrov amusement park just outside of St. Petersburg. While bumper cars may not be as “must see” on the guidebook trail as, say, the Hermitage, from my ten year old daughters’ point of view there was no comparison.
Besides just having a fun day, we also learned a bit about the local culture. I had been marveling at Russian women’s ability to stride along in 4 inch heels but was really amazed when I saw they don't even take them off when chasing their toddlers through the park. That is serious commitment to fashion. Clearly my trekking sandals were completely declasse. Mostly though I was just grateful that my girls had each other so I was exempt from the truly scary rides like the mile high swings. To the complete despair of my kids I now find even Ferris wheels too edgy. Fortunately, they are in that sweet spot where they are old enough to go on the rides themselves but young enough to still want me to watch them.
So after that Best Day Ever at Divo Ostrov it was a complete no brainer to add the Ulan Baatar amusement park to our international list. Taking a leisurely walk from our hotel down to the edge of town we passed by acres of the scruffy, unmowed and neglected “Children’s Park” where clearly no children had frolicked in many a year. Despite the entrance sign saying the park opened at 10 am, there were no signs of movement at noon. However we and about two other families were free to wander about while they leisurely started winding up the rides. If this was what it was like in high season, how many tickets could they be selling during the subzero winter season?
Have you ever been in an amusement park while they are still testing out the equipment? It is a fifty/fifty whether you are more relieved they are actually checking them or horrified that they are clearly held together with duct tape and sealing wax. Fortunately for my peace of mind, both the big, big roller coaster and the giant Ferris wheel seemed to be permanently out of commission. That left only about 3 or 4 creaky rides that were above toddler age. Even that was confusing because - at one ticket per ride - we had to figure out which ride we wanted to go on, return to the central ticket kiosk and ascertain from the long list of mongolian script which ride we were buying a ticket for. Each ride had a different price and there were no helpful pictures to tell which was which! We finally just decided to point to the more expensive tickets and hope for the best which seemed to work.
Wandering around the nearly empty park with weeds pushing up between the cracks with the occasional ride whining in the background was an eerie experience. I’m not sure not having to wait in line was compensation enough. Though it was bright daylight, it still had the spooky feel of a soon to be horror movie.
All became sunshine and light though when we got to the artificial lake with the huge swan boats. Naturally, every amusement park, even nearly defunct ones in Outer Mongolia, needs to come equipped with a Disney castle.
We made it to Mongolia despite almost being left behind by our train at the border. Our one train car with the dozen or so foreign travelers crossing the border was unclipped from the rest of the train and left waiting for four hours before it was finally pulled across the track into Mongolia.
Since Russian officials only spent about ten minutes scouring the compartments for contraband, presumably the other three hours and fifty minutes were spent perusing our passports. Who knows? It certainly was a throwback to arcane, ask no questions soviet type officialdom.
Once we arrived at the new station, we jumped off to scavenge for a cold drink. As soon as we reached the platform, however, a new train pulled in cutting us off from ours. As we stood watching we could just see the top our train pulling away behind the new one. Needless to say, the girls were ever so slightly frantic. I was just relieved that a) I had my wallet with me (though no passports) and b) at the last second Leontine had decided to hop off with us. I could handle all of us being stranded in Mongolia together but not having to chase down one distraught daughter. Happily the train was just chugging off to latch onto a bunch of new compartments and after a tension filled half hour came surging back into view again. We never did find any snacks worth being marooned for (nor a single English speaking person). Safely back on the train we enjoyed our last night of rockaby baby sleep before pulling into Ulan Baatar at 6 am.
Now we had to wait for Vincent and David Evan to join us. My son had insisted on his annual month at camp, this being non-negotiable. My husband was juggling back to back photo shoots in India, Connecticut and England whilst we were traversing Russia. He had laid down the law with his agents and forbade any bookings for August, so now we just had to wait for him to return from Europe, pick up David Evan and fly to meet us.
In the meantime, we prepped for our trek across the Mongolian countryside. We had stumbled across one of the only three laundries available in UB and so for $8 we washed every article of clothing in our bags. Then we hunted for various essential elements like sleeping mats, wet wipes and tissue packs. We still had the precious jar of peanut butter we had picked up in Russia but we stopped at a supermarket and added Nutella, crackers, cookies and various snacks. The night before we left we would return for bags of Asian pears, plums and oranges; precious fruit that we would not see again till we returned to UB.
While we waited for the boys, the girls and I pretty much sussed out everything there was to do in the Capital of Mongolia. UB is a fairly small town by international standards but it does contain half the entire population of Mongolia who still tend to live in Gers so it spreads outwards for miles as hundreds of small, round tentlike buildings sprawl over the surrounding hills. Most of the tourist stuff, with a few exceptions, is contained within a fairly compact circle around Sukabatar square.
The National History museum with its dinosaurs caught by a sandstorm and thus frozen forever in the midst of fighting, was unfortunately closed for renovation. Fortunately there was a temporary exhibit right in the middle of Sukabatar Square displaying a gigantic Tyrannosaur Bataar, cousin to the T-Rex. This particular skeleton had been dug up in the Gobi Desert and by some nefarious means transported to the USA where it was subsequently put up for auction. The Mongolian government caught wind and launched a full scale effort to have the dinosaur returned. The exhibit lovingly details the entire lawsuit which marks the first time Mongolia managed to repatriate stolen fossils.
The National Museum in UB is an excellent museum with a fascinating collection of traditional dress. Did you know that highborn Mongolian women always had a cluster of beautifully shaped silver instruments hanging from their belts? Far from simply decorative, this kept their tongue scraper, ear cleaner, tweezers and other toiletry items close at hand. The museum also has a very clear and helpful map showing how the Mongol empire stretched from Poland to Korea and down through China to the bottom of Vietnam, encompassing the whole of the Middle East up to Turkey. The thing we Westerners never learned in school was that while the Golden Horde may have sacked Rome and left no grand monuments behind, for virtually the entire Middle Ages the path of commerce and trade was maintained and safeguarded by the khan's troops. Not only were merchants freely able to travel the entire span of East to West but all religions were protected. Though they themselves believed in Shamanism, the Mongol rulers allowed Christianity, Buddhism and Islam to flourish where they wished. So, aside from all the sacking and pillaging, the mongols were one of the most tolerant and progressive world regimes ever, something not generally hinted at in the history books! It also changes something when you realize one of the most flourishing Chinese dynasties was actually the one established by Kublai Khan, Ghengis Kahn’s grandson - who was the first to establish Beijing as his capital. In fact of all the Chinese dynasties, only one - the Ming - were ethnically Han Chinese rulers. Most of the rest of China’s long and dramatic history, they were ruled by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchurians.
At the other extreme, the tiny, ramshackle museum of Political Persecution may be small but it is very moving. This was the actual home of P. Genden - the prime minister of Mongolia during Josef Stalin’s time of terror. Mongolia was the second country after Russia to declare itself communist and was closely allied to that country but largely left to its own devices till the 1930s when Japan began menacing Russia by marching up though Manchuria. Stalin became convinced Mongolian elements were helping them and demanded a purge of all intellectuals, religious leaders and any other “counter-revolutionaries”. When Genden refused, he was brought to Moscow and executed, while a more pliable candidate took his place. Genden's daughter, who was only a toddler when her father was taken away, turned their house into a museum honoring the 27,000 people who were subsequently killed despite her father’s brave attempt to stop the bloodbath. In her father’s office you can see happy family photos of him posing with her and her mother before he was taken away and executed.
Stalin wiped out nearly the entire cast of lamas and monks existing in Mongolia and destroyed virtually all the monasteries across the country. Dozens of skulls with bullet holes in them are gathered together in grim remembrance of this crime. Besides museums, however, we mostly explored UB's restaurants, trying to decide where we would take the boys to celebrate their arrival. Since we knew that once we left UB we would be entirely reliant on the national mania for mutton we tried as many other cuisines as we could including vegetarian, Korean, Japanese and French options, stuffing as much salad as we possibly could into ourselves. The Huns may have conquered the known world but they didn't do it on a balanced diet. They believe in meat with a side of meat. Mongolia is so awash in beef, mutton, goat and horse meat that even chicken is not considered worth eating, making it the one country we have ever been in that you could not find a reliable fried chicken dish.
The one Mongolian restaurant we did go to was an all you can eat BBQ. This proved to be rather like a night at Hibachi where you pass the bowl of ingredients you have collected to a chef who dumps them on a giant grill with great flourishes and twirls of his three feet long turning tongs. We finally decided on Veranda, an Italian restaurant with scrumptious pasta and comfy couches overlooking the gently curving roofs of an ancient monastery.
The best thing we did while waiting was to see the Tumen Ehk cultural show. Maybe because it is a bit off the beaten path, in a neglected and overgrown park, the show had only a dozen or so visitors. But the performers, who outnumbered the audience three to one, never faltered in their enthusiasm or professionalism. There was Tsam Mask dancing, traditional singing, dancing and instruments, all very exotic and colorful. And how many “Cultural” shows do you know that include contortionists?
We liked it so much that when the boys finally arrived we took them to a similar show by the Moon Song troupe on Seoul Avenue. The costumes were better at Tumen Ehk but the Moon Song show had a psychedelic modern take on a traditional shamanist dance that was definitely worth seeing. Either show however is a great way to see the traditional Mongolian throat singing which allows them to sing two different notes at the same time. To me this sounds more like a low thrumming noise while an insect chirps but it is impressive. They can apparently inhabit both deep, deep bass and high, only dogs can hear falsetto in the space of a breath. Personally I prefer this to the high keening of Chinese opera but it is an acquired taste.
After three days though, rested, washed and well fed, we were looking forward to the boys' arrival so we could set off on our big adventure - trekking around the Mongolian countryside, sleeping with nomads and riding camels!
Well, we can now say we have DONE the Hermitage and, I have to say, it wasn’t half bad. That is - the lines, the crowds, the waits were not near as bad as I had dreaded given that we are visiting smack in the middle of the summer high season with cruise ships funneling platoon boats worth of tourists into pre-booked tours. The art, of course, was glorious.
Everyone and every guide book stresses the importance of getting there early, preferably, if you could manage it, with a private guide who can sneak you in before the museum actually opens to the hoi polloi. But since I had no concierge to organize a secrete tour I decided to take the opposite tack. After all, if everybody was listening to that advice there would be a huge bottle neck when the museum opened and just a little trickle at the entrance later on, right? This would also allow us to fuel up with a picnic right before going in (hugely important - one might also need to top up with chocolate cake after leaving the museum).
Unfortunately when we strolled up at 1 pm there was still a gigantic line at the door. It would be at least an hour or more’s wait. Which is when I discovered something very strange. I had noticed something that looked like a ticket kiosk just behind the loooong line of people waiting to buy tickets at the door. I went over to check and indeed it was a place to buy tickets and appeared to be completely functional but nobody was using it. Eh, what the heck. I put in my money and out popped a ticket! I took the girls hands and resolutely walked to the head of the loooong line and handed my ticket to the guard who glanced at it and nodded me through the door. What was wrong with those other people!? Had that kiosk just popped into place behind them without their noticing? I had even bought the voucher that allowed taking photos! Something which, by the way, is completely unnecessary since Leontine, Miriam and I were all snapping away like insane turtles and nobody ever asked to check our permit (do make sure you turn off the flash however or you will get a right bollocking).
It was so easy that when we found out that Catherine the Great’s amazing mechanical peacock is wound up and fans out its tail once a week on a Wednesday at 7 pm the girls actually agreed to go again. And this is when we discovered the real trick - go on Wednesdays! The museum is open until 9 pm and this time when we arrived at 4 there was literally nobody at the entrance. So we bought our tickets at the regular cash desk, this time getting the required tickets for the girls. Kids under 17 are free but supposedly need their own paper tickets for the turnstiles to scan, not that it mattered yesterday when we all squeezed through on my one ticket (though “maybe” the guard was distracted while talking to a friend?).
The worst time to go is between 12 -2 pm which is when the museum guides lead their huge caravans of people, the Russian tourists crashing into the english tourists, crashing into the Japanese ones, etc. We just caught the end of this period and it was amazing how much the museum cleared out afterwards. I was not impressed by the bits I overheard either, though I was by some of the private guides so that probably is worth doing if you are truly interested in learning about art history. There is a new thing where each person is given individual ear pieces and the guide speaks into a headpiece to everybody via wireless (I think? non techno geek here). On the one hand this means the guide no longer has to shout and each person can hear her lecture perfectly (I assume since we never joined any of the groups). On the other hand it means even more crowds can jostle up against each other since they don't have to worry about shouting.
It is enough just to absorb the spectacular art and be amazed. I insisted on taking photos of the girls in front of the Leonardo, the Rembrandt, the Greco, the Picasso and the Matisse because when they are studying these exact paintings in college (and I know they will!) they will be able to prove to their teacher that they did in fact see them in the flesh.
And, really, two days was plenty of time. The first day we stayed almost 4 hours and saw most of the art highlights - from the Italian renaissance to the French impressionists via the Dutch and Flemish masters. The next day we were there roughly 3 hours and this time saw the palace rooms. We also had time to go back and visit with the big guns like Michelangelo and Raphael, this time with nobody else in the room but us.
At 6:30 we moved into the Peacock Pavillion and found a spot. Good thing too because by 7 pm every other person in the building had come to see the show. This Peacock automaton was made by t the Englishman James Cox, the most celebrated Clock maker of all time. And furthermore it is the only large 18th century mechanism to have survived unaltered and in a functioning condition. One reason it is only wound up once a week is to spare its two hundred year old gears. As I said to the girls, imagine being the person winding that clock and hearing a “clunk!”. Fortunately, it went off without a hitch - the peacock spread its tail, the owl turned in its cage, the rooster crowed his heart out and the crowd oohed and aahed.
Well, having done the Hermitage (twice!), it was time for BUMPER CARS!
The girls definitely deserved some kid time so we spent one entire day at the Divo Ostrov Amusement Park. I do believe they have covered that day in their blogs. Personally I just like any amusement park - with roller coasters - that you can reach via a metro.
Can I just say, I truly admire the Russian women's ability to maneuver on 6 inch heels and I have seen them do so on cobblestones, metro escalators, in grocery stores and museums and more without tottering or limping. But really, is there no place to draw the line? Are these really the shoes you choose for day at an amusement park!?
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.
There comes a time in every trip prep where you are just done with the planning. Especially with a convoluted trip like this with multiple countries over two months. There is, necessarily, at least one intensive stage where you have to lock down the logistics of coming and going (and who is coming and going - still not entirely settled...). By now, I have booked (and paid!) for flights over to Europe and back from Asia and the train segments leading from Estonia to China. But, in order to do that I have spent weeks pouring over guide books to figure out potential routes and exactly how many days to spend in each town and city we were potentially passing through. I do hate that we are booking the train tickets in advance but given it is high season and the must popular route through Russia, we really don't have a choice. And I want to know if I really want to spend 7 days in St. Petersburg and 4 in Moscow or vice versa. It is like a puzzle where we have to fit all the places we want to visit into the time frame we have and not feel squished. I can look on line and I can read blogs but there is nothing like a guidebook with their "top ten highlights" and "4 day Itineraries" and handy maps to really give you the lowdown on what there is to do and see in each city. And since, of course, we can't see everything, it is the quickest way of slicing and dicing our itinerary. Sometimes we make decisions based on those lovely words "most tourists don't stop here". We are taking the southern loop of the Trans Siberian railway instead of the northern one for just that reason. And because it means we can stop at Kazan - the capital of Tatarshan, a sovereign republic in the Russian Federation. Love the idea of visiting a "Stan" while not even leaving Russia.
But, I now have "guidebook enteritis". I've read so much about where we are going I no longer want to go there. I feel like I've already been there! Too much information. My husband never reads guidebooks until he has left the place they are covering. He says he can't understand them until he has seen what they are talking about. I'm not quite at the point of throwing away all guidebooks but I am going to take a rest for a while and enjoy living in the present instead of planning for the future. Spring has just arrived in our neck of the woods and it is pretty glorious indeed. I could imagine lots of people wanting to come visit here and take a break just admiring these kinds of spring blossoms.
Now that we have plane tickets, the second step is visas. One of the true joys of being an American is that we generally breeze through this process. If we want to visit Paris or London or Dublin we just show up at the airport and they happily wave us through. Other places like Argentina or Cambodia ask us to pay a fee, fill out some forms and then wave us through. But a few, a select few, do make life difficult. Not as difficult as the American government does to other nationals trying to get to Disney Land, mind you. While we have to fill out some forms and glue on an itty bitty, inevitably unflattering photo, people applying for a visa to come here have to provide affidavits from their local police department and medical records as well as proof of employment and bank records. So I am not complaining. I had a friend from Indonesia who tried many times to get a visa. He was at that awkward stage between being a student and owning his own business or having inherited/earned enough money to own land or buildings. Not having a wife or children to leave behind as collateral, the US officials simply assumed he would never return home and denied him a visa. This is more generally the case than not.
However, of all the countries in the world besides ours, the two most intimidating are Russia and China. First of all, they keep changing the rules. This is the third time I have applied for a Chinese visa and I still don't have it down yet. Now, apparently, we need a letter of invitation to enter the country. Or is just presenting an actual flight ticket in and out of the country enough? Do we need a complete itinerary or not?
I'll get to that later because I can't apply for my Chinese visa until I get my passport back from the Russian consulate who are presently perusing it. I will break the actual steps needed to get a Russian visa down later but for now, let me just say, it is an exercise in cultural communication. Without even stepping one foot into the country I feel I have already glimpsed how my three weeks there will go. One the one hand, they are the most nitpicky, persnickety officials I have ever had to deal with. On the other hand, there is no official obstacle that cannot be cleverly circumnavigated .
The first thing that flummoxes most travelers to Russia is the need for an official "Letter of Invitation", hereafter known as an LOI. If you aren't presently being invited to Russia by either a person or a business, never fear. There are hundreds of organizations in Russia that are more than willing to invite you. Twenty dollars and twenty minutes will get you a legitimate "Visa Support document". If you've booked a hotel they can send you one, if you've booked a tour or ticket in Russia, that agency can invite you. Or you can just go to one of the many, many websites specifically set up to help you like Real Russia or GotoRussia.
Once you have your LOI, you are set to apply. The first thing you need to know is the Russian consulate no longer actually handles the application. Yes, that's right, they have farmed it out to a visa application business who will take your form, check it over and when everything is in order, send it to the consulate to be stamped. For this service they of course need to be paid, so you will have to add on, at minimum, an extra $30 to the standard $140 (for Americans) visa fee. If you want to do it by mail or faster than the standard 10 business days then, of course, the fee will be much, possibly much, much higher.
Now mark my words, no matter how precisely you fill out the application, they will find something wrong with it; a spelling error, wrong punctuation, something. Mine was rejected because I had not realized my LOI had written (in cyrillic) the names of the hotels I was supposedly staying at during my three weeks in Russia. I had, myself, picked various hotels randomly out of a guidebook and put them down (in english) on my application. Now the agent looking over my papers was not at all bothered that the facts were blatantly false (as in I clearly was not going to be staying at hotels I didn't know about). All she cared was that the forms did not match. But, for $25, she could retype my entire application replacing my hotels with the cyrillic ones mentioned on the LOI. Note, this was $25 per visa per family member since they ALL had to match, not a one time thing. I still don't know the names of the hotels we and the kids are supposedly staying at.
So, nitpicking, yet surprisingly flexible. As in, everybody knows this is a complete scam but if you do not dot the i's and cross the t's we are going to pretend this is a very big deal. Until it's not, because with a little extra money, it can all go away. Or as the website for the agency that now handles all things Russian visa says - "it has become a very comfortable and pleasant procedure." Trust the system, you will get a visa. Eventually.
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!
You know when I found out that I was going to have twins, instead of being overwhelmed, I just thought "well, I've had a girl and I've had a boy. What else is there to do but have twins." I never like to do the same thing twice. If I know how to do something then I have to up the ante.
So, having spent a little over a year traveling around Asia and South America, what to do, where to go next? Of course! The one country that still legally requires an invitation to enter, is millions of miles wide and we can't even read the signs. I am speaking of course, of Russia.
But if we are going to Russia, why not do the whole Transiberian thing and train down through Mongolia to China? I mean, it's right there! And its not like any more people speak english in those countries! So it is set. We are going to spend mid June to mid August meandering from Russia to Mongolia to China.
I am not completely phased by the complete inability to communicate, let alone but, ok, yes, it is a little daunting not to be able to translate a menus or a street sign. So when I saw our local mainline school night was offering a beginning Russian class I signed up hoping I could teach myself to decipher the cyrillic code. This should help not only in Russia but also in Mongolia which uses the same alphabet. Mandarin? Forget about it. I'm just assuming that since we will be mostly in or near Beijing, we will find enough english speakers to give us a break.
So now to the planning stages. I've bought the guidebooks and have roughed out the direction we want to go - from west to east. We want to end up in China because then, maybe, my son will deign to join us after he has had his mandatory, not to be tampered with stint in his beloved summer camp. This means I will be traveling through Russia and Mongolia with just the girls. Possibly just the youngest since my oldest daughter may be holding down a summer job. My only chance of convincing the dear boy to travel with us is to tempt him with Chinese food which he loves. Russian borscht would definitely not do the trick. Anyway it will be nice to end with a bang on the Great Wall.
OK, baby steps, have to start researching plane tickets, visa requirements for Russia and China and maybe, try to find someone out there who has had a good experience buying train tickets on the ground as they went around instead of in advance. All aboard!