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!
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!
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!
While preparing the last post I found myself making lists as I remembered things. So just for fun - here they are.
Our Travel modes
Plane (from jumbo jets to 6 passenger props)
Train (the regular type as well as the bamboo norrie)
Bus (but no overnight sleepers)
Automobile (including but not confined to trucks, jeeps, taxis, tuk tuks & songthaews)
Boat (speed boat, ferry, house boat, longtail, canoe, row boat and rafts)
Cable Cars (the Chinese love these)
Rickshaw (the bike kind)
Ainlay - Broken wrist (Thailand) and bleeding blisters on three day hike in Myanmar which actually hurt way worse.
Leontine - Fainting spell (India)
David Evan - Altitude sickness on Tiger Leaping Gorge (China), bitten by orangutang (just bruised)
Miriam - Pitched off a bike into a gorse brush (Myanmar)
Vincent & Ming - nothing, nada, niente.
Ming - lost passport (twice)
Vincent - lost (very expensive) camera, Iphone (mine) & various other odds and ends, including the bottom half of his zip off pants.
Ainlay - Camera on the fritz throughout Bolivia.
Ride - horses, donkeys, elephants, camels and yaks
Swim with - sea turtles, sea lions and penquins
Feed baby elephants
Snorkel with sharks
Hold a stingless jellyfish
Release baby turtles into the sea
Study the same finches that inspired Darwin
Hold a female orangutang’s hand and run from a charging male one
Cuddle baby tigers, pet fully grown ones
Scoop panda poop and feed them panda cakes
Pose inside a giant turtle shell
Race dolphins on a speed boat
Be bitten by a dung beetle
Floating down the river in Borneo surrounded by thousands of fireflies
Finding a mashed potato soft serve dispenser in a 7/11 convenience store in Singapore.
Sleeping on soft bedding on a sand dune under millions of stars in the Thar desert, India.
All those delicious noodle dishes that cost about $1 a bowl throughout Asia.
Meeting the newlywed King and Queen of Bhutan and discussing Glee.
Stepping back into the 14th century at Tibetan monasteries
Racing with penguins or swimming with naughty sea lions in the Galapagos
Eating fresh cocao beans, rambutans and mangosteens
Spotting a wild tiger in India (after three days of tracking)
Eating seafood literally moments after it is caught in Borneo, India and Myanmar.
All 5 of us huddling together under 8 blankets in the early Myanmar dawn
Pushing back a greedy elephant while preparing her food
Making crazy perspective photos on the Salt Flats of Bolivia
There are more, so many more, but that’s enough for now.
The one question absolutely guaranteed to be be asked when you say you are traveling around the world with your kids is “what about school?”.
You know what I discovered about homeschooling for a year? There is no better way to teach your teenage son to joyfully embrace academics then force him to be be with his parents 24/7. These days, he literally leaps out of bed to catch the school bus carrying him off to his personal sanctuary. I am also personally grateful that we took this trip last year since I am discovering 4th grade math might be above my grade level. I could handle multiplication and division but start to throw in ratios and I lose interest fast.
But in all seriousness, homeschooling in the states is a breeze. Many parents do not even have this option. If you live in Germany, Greece or Sweden, it is illegal to take your child out of school for a year. In Bulgaria you can homeschool only if you have a special needs child, in Ireland only if the parent is a certified teacher. So count your blessings. The United States allows homeschooling in whatever state you live in and 2.5 million people do it everyday. Find out what your state requirements are and know that your kid can fulfill them with one hand tied behind his or her back. Of course your child is not going to be doing exactly the same curriculum as their classmates but then why would you be doing this if you didn’t want something different?
Now, we were only gone for a year. If you are considering a full time travel lifestyle then obviously you will have to consider other options like “unschooling”, online curriculums or stints in local schools. But for one year? Don’t sweat it. What they were seeing and experiencing each day was worth its weight in theoretical academics.
Instead of working on computers we decided to bring along actual grammar and math workbooks. This worked because my oldest daughter went back and forth to the states and so could schlep books as required. It was nice to have something tangible to give the kids wherein they could see their progress but I can imagine an online course working as well - so long as you have access to internet or can download it when you do.
The best thing we did was insist the kids keep a blog. They could write about whatever they wanted to, completely uncensored, but they did have to write. By the end of the year all three had not only become fluent in typing, uploading, photo editing and sharing, they were much better writers and could churn out copy on demand. I highly recommend this.
The one thing that surprised me was having to schedule reading. Since my oldest two are voracious readers I had expected this to be a no brainer, loading our kindles with novels relating to the countries we were visiting. But the youngest ones preferred to watch episodes of Glee and Friends on their Itouches, who would have thunk it? Finally I had to tell them their school had told me reading 25 books was a requirement for entering 4th grade. (Ok, not a requirement but a suggestion, never underestimate the value of lying to your children). They got it done. In all honesty, I didn’t get as much fiction reading done as I had expected either, what with the need to be constantly reading guidebooks and planning our next steps via the internet.
Whatever approach you take, just make sure it doesn’t interfere with your overall enjoyment of the trip. After all, you didn’t decide to spend your money and interrupt your career to nag junior to write an essay. Later when their 10th grade teacher brings up the Vietnam war they can remember handling unexploded ordinance dug out of farmers’ field in Laos or how it felt to float up through the jungle on the winding Mekong river. The maxim is, keep up with the math and everything else is enrichment.
Since we were moving from New York to Pennsylvania we had to follow PA’s homeschooling criteria. It turns out that New York is more stringent than PA, requiring quarterly updates from parents to the school district supervisor so this turned out to be an unexpected perk. PA only required us to draw up and register a study plan at the beginning of the school year and then in June send in a portfolio of work showing that we completed it. For our portfolio we copied some pages from their math, grammar and map reading books, a list of books read, some samples of their writing and it worked out fine. But what did they really do?
Road School Curriculum
Find a 3 million year old fossil, walk in TRex tracks
Taste insects, shoot blowdarts, cut down sugarcane with a machete
Forage in the jungle for wild pepper, cardamon and tea
Learn to knit and weave cloth on a loom
Make silver jewelry, dye batik, carve wooden geckos and make flowers out of watermelon
Wash clothes in a river, shower in a waterfall
Cook dinner in 10 world cuisines
Leap off a cliff on a Tarzan swing
Pray in a mosque, wat, temple and church
Balance eggs on a nail at the equator
Crawl through mine shafts
Scramble across church roofs
Tube down an ice mountain
Zorb in a department store basement
Play touch football on sand dunes in the desert
Zipline across a rain forest
Catch a fish with an empty water bottle and twine
Learn to scuba dive
Float between clouds of fireflies
Sleep in storage sheds, farmhouse barns, boats, trains, and under the desert stars
Hold sticks of dynamite, newborn turtles hatching from their eggs and real dinosaur bones
Meet a re-incarnated Llama
See the sun rise over the Golden Rock
See the sun set over Angkor Wat
My new year’s resolution was to, finally, post a RTW round up - a summary of the countries we visited from August 2011 to August 2012. So January is behind us but yesterday was the first day of Chinese New Year so GONG HAY FAT CHOY! Happy New Year’s and welcome to the post!
Here, in the order that we visited, are the countries and our suggestions of what was the best part and worst part of visiting them. 16 countries in 13 months (17 if you separate Tibet from China) meant an average of one month per country with shorter stays in Singapore, Uruguay, Bhutan and Costa Rica.
Best for - Interactive nature! Walking hand in hand with Orangoutangs through Camp Leaky, having baby sea turtles hatch in our hands, pushing through clouds of stingless jellyfish; Indonesian Borneo is a place of wonder.
Worst for - Transportation. We got stuck for three days due to an unexplained countrywide airplane “maintenance review.” It took us three days, two planes, a ferry and a speed boat to get from the Malaysian side to the Indonesian. But it was worth it.
Best for - Science museums and zoos. Its not everyday you get the chance to sit in the middle of a tesla coil while electricity shoots around you. Moreover, just outside the museum is an indoor snow park where you can tube down an ice mountain while the weather outside is 90 degrees (maybe sparking a chat about global warming?).
Worst for - Cost. First world entertainment takes first world money.
Overall best for - Food. Even when we had no way of communicating whatever was brought to us was delicious. If only we could figure out how to say, “not spicy”. Ah well, it toughened us up for India.
Specifically best for Pandas - don’t miss the chance to be a panda keeper while in Chengdu.
Worst for - Communication. With so many billions of Chinese speaking tourists you can quite understand why tourist or transportation centers would not feel the need to hire english speakers but still it does make life difficult.
Best for - The people with their deep commitment to Buddhism. The reason we are considering this a separate country from China is because they do.
Worst for - Chinese soldiers on every corner.
Best for - White water rafting and general availability of snickers chocolate bars.
Worst for - Urban squalor. There does not seem to be any aesthetic appreciation when religious temples are covered in trash and relics from the 9th century are used as dumps. It may be that since there is some thousand year old building on every block it is simply too common to appreciate.
Best for - Most Romantic Couple (the King and Queen) and happiest subjects.
Worst for - Cooked meat. But since the country is 99% vegetarian buddhists it is really not their fault and tourists should just concentrate on the delicious cauliflower and potato dishes.
Best for - Camels. Between the Pushkar Camel Fair and the camel safari we took through the Thar desert we learned to know and love camels. We especially loved the ones that wore Kohl make up for the beauty contest!
Worst for - Food. Thal and Dhal got old fast. Much faster than our two month stay. It will be a long while before we can face an Indian restaurant again. Oh, and while the English may have left a superb legal system, they apparently were never able to institute the concept of “queuing”.
Best for - Malls. These are perhaps more impressive to us having come from a non mall culture in general (NYC) and having spent 8 months in Asian street markets, but any building with an Aquarium in the basement, an outdoor film screen and nightly free concerts is worth shopping at. Or just go for the food courts. Just kidding (hmm?), it is best for the elephant camp in Kanchanaburi where we learned one should never, ever ride in a howdah.
Worst for - Nothing really. Thailand is one of the easiest countries to get around in the world with great food, smooth transportation, polite people and plenty to see. But it is not really an “adventure.”
Best for - The Battambang Bamboo Railroad! One of our most fun days. We also loved Cambodian cuisine so much that we took not one one but two classes to learn how to recreate it back home. Would have loved to have had more time there and the first place I would like to return to.
Worst for - Over expectations. Everybody goes for Angkor Wat, which is nice but just another big temple framed by a sunset. The smaller temples, markets and Pub street in Siem Reap are plenty reason enough to visit.
Best for - Least Westernized Country. A true taste of the exotic, makes you appreciate how people lived hundreds of years ago.
Worst for - Least Westernized country. Villages have no running water, sanitation or medical facility. Makes you appreciate how difficult it was to live hundreds of years ago.
Best for - Scenery. Whether biking through Luang Prabang or gliding through ten thousand lakes Laos is uniformly pretty, serene and calm.
Worst for - Vang Vieng, a sad blight of pot smoking drunkenness imposed a beautiful culture. While we were there CNN ran a pretty accurate story asking “Vang Vieng: Backpacker Heaven or Hell?” saying “You are more likely to see topless tourists vomiting than you are local culture” and more seriously that “in 2011 up to 22 people were reported to have died on it’s river”
Best for - Aesthetics. Pretty much any art class is available - dance, sculpture, music, painting, weaving. The Balinese have beauty woven into the very fiber of their being and everything they do from how they wrap a sarong to how they offer a gift is infused with a delicate grace.
Worst for - Kuta beach. The amazing sunsets and awesome surf breaks have been lost to a sad mess of bracelet sellers and braid makers aggressively pestering drunken tourists.
Best for - Tango and streak. Here is where you get your meat fest on.
Worst for - Reverse culture shock. If you’ve lived in New York, Paris or Madrid, this is no different. But if you appreciate good restaurants, charming architecture, first class art work, it is not a bad thing.
Best for - Mate. A country of obsessed mate drinkers. English and Chinese tea drinkers are punters compared to them.
Worst for - Vegetables. If it can’t be grilled or put on top of pizza than it apparently doesn’t exist.
Best for - Swimming with the sea lions. Flora and Fauna in general. There is no comparison to the Galapagos Islands anywhere. We are ruined for zoos forever.
Worst for - Sigh, cost. Two weeks in the Galapagos equals two months in South East Asia. The rest of Ecuador, however, is quite reasonable.
Best for - Getting off the beaten track, walking in the steps of dinosaurs, otherwordly landscapes, $3 hand knit alpaca wool hats.
Worst for - Acknowledging Western tourists’ predilection for heat and running water - if it’s cold, just put on another shawl! At some point somebody told them tourists like pizza and to this day, outside of the major cities, it is almost impossible to find any other food source.
Best for - A paradise of active travel - zip lining, rafting, horseback riding, volcano trekking, rain forest hiking, there is every possible mode of getting from point A to point B, including driving your own minivan.
Worst for - Retired Americans in every nook and cranny. It is like Florida in the rain forest. Give up all hope of learning Spanish here since everyone who interacts with you will speak English.
Everyone always asks which was our favorite and the short answer is - they all were. There is not one country we are not glad we visited. But hoping to be helpful, we have broken them down a little bit more.
Best for Kids
Costa Rica and Bali - This is Disney land with ziplines and arial obstacle courses in lieu of roller coasters. Parents can stagger the adventures with a steady round of field trips to learn how chocolate, tea, coffee, rice and spices are traditionally (organically!) grown and processed.
Best for Teenagers
Nepal - If you want adventure, this is the place. They are the perfect age to trek up the Himalayas, raft down white water rivers or take to the skies on a paraglide. Moreover, they will find the filth and congestion of Kathmandu well worth the endless supply of mac and cheese or chocolate unknown anywhere else in Asia. Do not bother going down to the malaria riddled south since the Chitwan area has been throughly stripped of wildlife and the exploitation of elephants for tourists is pure and simple animal cruelty.
Borneo - Last chance for unfiltered interaction with Orangoutangs before their habitant is destroyed. Not only is it ultimately cool to be able to walk with and observe orangoutangs in the wild, older children will learn how fragile and interconnected all the world is as they see how the demand for teak furniture and cheap palm oil affects these great creatures.
Recommended only if you have done your research first
Myanmar - 60 years of repression and human rights abuse are not wiped out by one visit from our state department.
Laos and Cambodia - be prepared to answer questions about why we (Americans) indiscriminately bombed and killed people we were not at war with and still refuse to sign a ban on land mines which would entail helping to clean up the live explosives still in their fields and school yards.
This is not to say don’t visit! Tourism dollars and awareness help with all these issues. Just don’t let the beauty of the countryside and the people blind you to some serious problems.
Best all round
Ecuador - Like Costa Rica, it has beaches, mountains, rain forests and sophisticated cities in a manageably small country. Unlike Costa Rica, it is not overrun by American expats and retirees quite yet. Although, between its restaurants, knitting stores and ease of transportation, I could quite see the appeal of retiring here myself!
Bhutan - A fairytale of a place I can’t quite believe actually exists. I don’t think I ever want to go back just in case it is not as romantic and perfect as I remember.