Today is our first official day of Trekking and it is not going well. Once Tuya and the driver finally show up after a bit of a delay, the first thing she says is “You have too much luggage. Can you leave some of it behind”? With a lot of last second decisions we jettison two full suitcases. But even so, the van is already stuffed to the gills.
At least we don’t have to worry about the kids having no seat belts - they are safe as eggs in a baskets snuggled in between all the pillows and blankets. When they tell us that we need to stop at a market to pick up supplies I seriously wonder where they could fit but the driver assures us we will be able to tie things onto the roof once we leave the city.
The market is a higgidly piggidly mess of recycled bits and bobs twirling away over mud soaked paths. It reminds me strongly of the black market scene of the Hunger Games with the same grey, drizzly atmosphere. After an eternity of discussion over of the merits of one rain tarp versus another, purchases are made and we are on the road.However, we then need to go to another market to load up on water. And then to another stop for fuel. And so on.
It is at this point, 5 hours past the point of our supposed departure time, that I wonder aloud if some of the supplies might have been gotten earlier, say, yesterday perhaps, and Tuya takes offence. It does not look good. What was I thinking? We will be squished together for the next 21 days! To make up the lost time, we drive and drive and drive till well after sunset. Our first night of camping means figuring out how to unpack, set up our tents and cook dinner in complete darkness before we can collapse into sleep. All of us are hungry, cranky and tired. Not to mention cold.
BUT, it gets better. We get better and better at packing till we not only have only leg room but all the essential bits right at hand while everything else is neatly stacked on top of the car. We so good at setting up tents it only takes 6 minutes from stopping to sleep ready. And most importantly we do all get along. Tuya learns that we do NOT want 8 hour drives and the driver gets used to Vincent taping him on the shoulder to stop every 20 minutes so he can line up a photo. We learn all about them and their families. We camp in amazing spots - on the endless steppes but also besides lakes and perched on the edge of cliffs, and we discover we like camping. Especially waking up in the morning to yaks and camels and cows milling about our tents. Not to mention goats.
After the nightmarish hassle of getting here. We decided Vincent and David Evan needed an extra day in UB to recuperate. Though mostly spent catching up on sleep, we did take them to a brief visit the last Bogd Kahn’s Winter Palace. Ironically, though Mongolia has spent the twentieth century tossed between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China - two governments dedicated to abolishing both religion and monarchies - its first independent leader was a revered Buddhist king. Kublai Khan decreed in the 11th century that his people would follow Tibetan Buddhism, and ever since then its ruler, like the Dalai Lama, was considered one of the three Living Buddhas. Little known fact - it was a Mongol Khan who bestowed upon a Tibetan monk in the 16th century the title of Dalai Lama thus creating the line which has continued to today's 14th Dalai Lama.
Sadly he may be the last of all three lines. When the Bogd Khan died in 1924 the, by now sovietized government declared an end to Mahayana Buddhism and refused to allow another Priest King, so the line died out. Technically there is a Panchen Lama of China but since he was selected not by religious leaders but rather by government officials his legitimacy is in doubt. Which leaves only the Dali Lama, now in exile from Tibet as the last recognized reincarnation of Buddha. Sadly, the atheist government of Mongolia went on to destroy all but a handful of the once 750 monasteries and killed 18,000 lamas. Today the Khan's once magnificent Winter Palace stands forlornly at the edge of town, overgrown with weeds and looking a bit woebegone.
Among the exhibits of his (and his wife's) throne and bedchamber are historical bits like Mongolia's Declaration of Independence from China in 1911. One rather surprising discovery was an entire room filled with stuffed wild animals. Some of them came from his personal zoo, others were gifts. I don't know why but I found this somewhat unexpected, not to say, disconcerting for a Holy Being, and a Buddhist to boot.
The second day we met up with our guide, Tuya, who was going to be taking us around the country. She is a charming, ambitious young woman who, along with her husband moved from working as a translator in a mining company to starting her own business as a tour guide. She will prove to be endlessly patient with us, responding to almost every request with a firm “possible, yes, is possible.” Since we have a spare day, as a special treat she offers to teach us Mongolian archery.
Each year in July, Mongolia holds its national competition of Nadaam, showcasing the three “Manly Sports” of horse racing, wrestling and archery. A mongolian foltktale tells of a woman who once slipped into the wrestling competition and humiliated the men by beating them all roundly. After that they changed the wrestling outfit to an openfronted vest (basically just two sleeves held together in the back) in order to ensure THAT wouldn’t happen again. Women are allowed to compete in archery however and the horses are ridden by children as young as five. Teenagers are considered too big and bulky for these open field, long distance races.
So, wrong sex for wrestling, too old for racing we found archery to be just right. We took a bus to the actual field used for Naadam where, despite the drizzle, we are kitted out with bows and arrows and speed coached through the complex Mongolian scoring system. I don’t pay much attention to this part since anything beyond “aim for the target” is clearly not going to be important for me.
I can barely pull the string on the normal, non competition bow - no high tech carbon steel or super light weight frames here. I can’t begin to imagine how they did it, shooting while at a full gallop, but this was the weapon the nomads used to conquer two thirds of the known world. Besides the usual, they liked to shoot flaming ones and, for fun, arrows that whistled and howled, just to terrify their enemies.
Considering the bow is bigger than they are, the girls do quite well. David Evan is the one who turns out to be a natural and Tuya quickly graduates him to a much heavier bow like the ones used in competition. I prefer to think that he is a gifted athlete but his pose and costume sure look a lot like the hit man in the TV show Arrow.
Vincent is a photographer and he travels a lot. He has been to India, South Africa, Prague, Argentina and Europe too many times to count for shoots. He is also Irish and thus endowed with a god given ability to charm the pants off people. Ergo, when he shows up to catch a plane he is almost always upgraded to business class or at the very least allowed to fly with three times the luggage limit. His biggest coup was flying to France despite showing up at the airport without his passport. Even pre 9/11, that required smooth talking.
So it was with a certain amount of shock to find out that my husband and son had been turned away at the airport when they tried to join us in Mongolia. Apparently Irish people require a visa - moreover, it is something the country is strict about. Worse, in order to get a visa, someone in Mongolia has to actually invite you to visit. Who knew!?
I could say, maybe someone who traveled as much as he did would google Mongolian visa requirements more than ten minutes before arriving at the airport. He could say, you organized the Chinese and Russian visas, why didn’t you get the Mongolian ones? Well, I would answer, Americans don’t need visas to enter that country and after 15 years of marriage I forgot he wasn’t American. Mind you, never once in all the countries we visited last year did we come across one that had separate visa requirements for each of us. Sometimes the fees were different, but there were no countries that required a visa for him and not for me or vice versa.
In any event, the question now became - how MUCH did he want to fly to Mongolia? He was just coming off of four transatlantic flights for work, not to mention driving 4 hours in each direction to pick up David Evan from camp. One would think he would jump at the chance to skip a 14 hour flight and go home for a well deserved nap. David Evan certainly wouldn’t mind an extra day of being reunited with his beloved electronics. But no, he immediately decided he could reschedule their flights to the next day thinking he could quickly pick up the missing visa and still make the flight out that evening.
He had only about 12 hours to get together all his documents before the embassy opened in the morning. Mongolia, naturally, asks the standard requirements - passport, greencard, photos, proof of onward travel and cash for the visa fee so Vincent needed to get an official photo taken and stop at the bank for a certified check before the embassy opened at 9 am. But Mongolia also has a couple extra requirements, namely a letter of invitation or “LOI”, plus a letter from your employer stating what you are doing while in that country and finally a detailed description of where you will be while in said country. The guide organizing our trek across the Gobi sent over a day by day itinerary and his agent wrote up an employment letter which left only the LOI. Fortunately with the time difference, Mongolia was just waking up while NY was going to sleep so the kids and I headed out.
We had met a Danish couple on the train into Mongolia who had mentioned their hostel had helped them secure their visas so we decided to start there. We rustled the manager out of breakfast and explained our predicament. Normally, he told us, they only write up letters for people staying with them but never underestimate the power of a ten year old. One look at the girls’ woebegone faces and he whipped up an extremely official looking document complete with stamps and signatures. So, armed with letters, documents, photos and fees, Vincent showed up at the embassy only to find - nothing. The consulate official responsible for visas was away until Aug 1. All the papers for visas were locked in his safe so even if anyone wanted to, it was impossible to hand out a visa in his absence.
It was at this point that I suggested to Vincent that he just pack it in and take the three days to rest up from his non stop traveling before embarking on a month long trek around the Mongolian countryside. But no, by the time I said this he was already in a taxi heading for Laquardia to catch a flight to the embassy located in Washington DC. Once there he jumped into a taxi and raced like the wind only to arrive and twiddle his thumbs waiting for someone, anyone, to return from lunch. Ten minutes after they officially opened, he had his visa and was back in a taxi on the way to Dulles airport. But, as he was looking up flights, he realized he had missed his return flight to NYC and the only other option was to fly out of Regan airport, ironically only ten minutes from the embassy but now thirty minutes in the opposite direction. He just made the plane and then had to sit fuming while it was delayed at the gate.
In the mean time, he had left frantic directions for my oldest daughter to look after David Evan who was at the hotel, without a phone, completely oblivious to his father's whirling dervish imitation. She however was deep in the basement at work digging through old records, cut off from all comunication. Fortunately, she returned to her desk and phone in time to drop everything, pick up David Evan and head to the airport.
Arriving on Laquardia, Vincent tore thru the airport and swept past the sixty people standing at the taxi stand shouting "my son is all alone at JFK!" And arrived, by dint of his Bagladeshi driver swerving madly through rush hour, at JFK, swooped up David Evan and made it to the checkin counter exactly two minutes before they closed the flight at 6 pm. They made it through check in, security and reached the plane just as they called for final boarding.
Which meant that after a simple 8 hour flight to Moscow, an 8 hour layover there and a final 4 hour flight to Ulan Baatar, they arrived. And were much appreciated.
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.
Waiting for the Boys in Ulan Baatar
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!
Hints on the Hermitage
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!?
Estonia - Tallinn for Kids
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.
Back in the Saddle
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!
If you are wondering what is the one single best thing you can do to prepare for a long trip this is it: pretend you are leaving one week before your departure date.
But seriously, you have to convince yourself. This is like setting the clock ten minutes fast so you arrive on time. There are ALWAYS going to be things that you have left to the last minute or problems that just pop up; you will have forgotten to tell your bank you will be using your debit card overseas, you might not have to thought to make a photocopy of everything in your wallet in case it gets stolen, you may have meant to line up somebody to take care of your daughter's hamster but not have followed through yet. This way, with this one little trick, you have a whole extra week to straighten out each snafu - during business hours, calmly, with no panic.
This is especially important if you are bringing more than one person. Because, for example, if you are traveling with a 14 year old boy the packing scenario will go something like this:
6 weeks ahead. Me: "You sure you have everything you need for the trip?"
4 weeks ahead. Me: "Have you made sure you have enough clothes that still fit for the trip? You've grown about a foot recently."
2 weeks ahead. Me: "I'm taking the girls to get some shorts and bathing suits for the trip, do you need to get anything?"
Day before Departure: Son: "Mom! all of my pants are too small, the one bathing suit that still fits has a giant rip in it and I lost my sandals!"
Last year the last two days before departure were a blur of frantic packing and last minute details. Now, I have zipped every suitcase, printed out each hotel & flight reservation, spent hours on the phone successfully straightening out wire transfers and credit card upgrades. I even made sure my miles were credited to a frequent flyer program (that is a first). I even have time to take my girls to one last mani/pedi before leaving for the airport on Monday. Of course, if we had actually had to leave a week ago I'm sure we would have physically made it onto the plane. But there would have been tears and probably much more shouting.
One week to GO
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.