Monday, February 29, 2016

Trans-Mongolian Train

I have had my first real shower and my first real cup of coffee in a week, and now I'm ready to relate the recap of our last day in Moscow and our Trans-Mongolian train journey.

On our last day in Moscow, we had to be out of our apartment by noon, but our train didn't leave until nearly midnight. While pondering this ahead of time, we knew we didn't want to be carrying our packs around the city in the freezing weather, and we knew we wanted the kids to have an opportunity to burn some energy and have some fun before facing so many days of being cooped up. A little online research produced a perfect plan: an indoor water park, complete with storage lockers. We spent the whole afternoon there and had a blast. Then, we bought a few groceries for the train and spent a couple of silly hours at TGI Fridays (of all places!) in the train station waiting for our time to board.

The train was old-fashioned and not at all fancy, even in first class. There were community toilets (two in each car), which left much to be desired (including toilet paper, at times), and cold water "showers" (a sprayer attached to the sink and a drain in the floor) in the washrooms, shared between every two rooms. And, there was a layer of soot over everything, from the coal used to heat each car's samovar (water boiler). Each of our three compartments consisted of a set of super-hard bunk beds, a small table, and a chair. I say all that only to let you know that it wasn't glamorous (because I think sometimes people have the mistaken impression that traveling around the world is always glamorous and fancy and a sort of lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous lifestyle, which it isn't. At least not the way we do it). But, we had an absolute blast! It was such a grand adventure, and we made some excellent memories!

The first five days of our journey took us through Russia (because Russia is huge), including part of Siberia, which was just as cold and white and vast as we imagined it would be. But, it was beautiful. (And, we were nice and warm in our train as we passed through. In fact, it was warm enough on the train that most of us wore shorts and flip-flops for most of the journey.) We enjoyed getting off the train at some of the stations to buy snacks from the little vendors (though we certainly put our warm woolies on then), and we were amused to see so many ice fishermen out and about along the way. We ate in the Russian dining car a couple of times and spent the rest of our time reading, napping, chatting with each other and our car neighbors, playing games, watching movies, talking about plans for the future, snacking, and watching the world go by. On our last day in Russia, we passed by Lake Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake in Europe and Asia and the deepest in the world. It was frozen over, of course, and packed with ice fishermen. It was also surrounded by some lovely low mountains. In my opinion, that area provided the most beautiful scenery of the whole trip.

We stopped at the Russian/Mongolian border for passport checks, cabin searches, and a change in the dining car. I don't care who you are or how much you've traveled, you always get a bit of a knot in your stomach when some official someone you can't really communicate with takes your passport out of your possession for any length of time. That's especially true when you're in Siberia, in the winter. There was nothing difficult or concerning about the process, though, so after only a minor inconvenience and a few hours, we were on our way again.

It was late at night before we set off into Mongolia, and what a surprise to wake up the next morning to a completely changed landscape. The white snow and mountains had given way to the brown, flat, dry, Gobi desert, where we got to see herds of camels and saiga antelope, as well as yurt dwelling ranchers and their many sheep, horses, and cows. At one of the stations, there is a statue of Mongolia's only cosmonaut, which Jeff and Clay dashed out to see. Coming from the barren landscape of Mongolia, space probably didn't seem too odd to that man. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal in the fancy Mongolian dining car, but we found it funny that they presented us with a very extensive menu and then proceeded to tell us that there were really only two choices--the beef dish or the beef and egg dish.

At the Mongolian/Chinese border, we repeated the passport checks and a change in dining car, but we had the added bonus of getting the bogies changed on our train, because the gauge of the rail changes once you enter China. This truly was an interesting process, and we all enjoyed watching from the window. What happens is the train is brought into a shed and the cars are separated from one another, which is done with much thumping and bumping and lurching, which little boys absolutely love! (That, and being able to see the track while flushing the toilet.) Then, each car is lifted into the air with a hydraulic lift (while the passengers remain on board), and the old bogies (wheels) are rolled out from under it, and new bogies are put in place. Then the cars are reattached to each other, with more thumping and bumping and lurching, and the train goes on it's merry way, just as if it had always been a size smaller than it started out.

Western China provided some lovely vistas of mountains and half-frozen rivers and lakes. We did not really love the food in the Chinese dining car, where they offered no menu and only one choice, but we did love the experience of eating there. Because of our early arrival time, lunch had to be eaten between 9:00 and 10:00 am, which we all thought was quite funny. We also got a kick out of watching Clay and Max try to master chopsticks.

We arrived in the crowded Beijing station, right on schedule, tired and ready to stretch our bodies, but happy. The kids were actually a little sad to see our train journey come to an end, and some of them wished out loud that the trip could have lasted a few more days. They all behaved themselves fantastically, and, contrary to my fears, never became bored or restless during the whole trip. (And, neither did I, for that matter!) We had such a great time and are so thankful we had the opportunity to do something so unique! We will never forget it!

I didn't intend to chatter on so long. I guess I just needed to share the whole experience. Thanks for indulging me. Since I have so many words, I will save the pictures for a separate post.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Iconic Moscow

Today, we braved the snow--because that's pretty much what you have to do when you have decided to visit Russia in February and you only have three days to see everything--and headed over to The Kremlin and Red Square. The buildings are really gorgeous, and it was such an interesting experience. Plus, it provided a wonderful opportunity for some great conversations with the kids. After we got back to the apartment, our train tickets were delivered, so we are all set to hop on the Trans-Mongolian Train tomorrow around midnight and head to Asia. Just so you know, we will likely be incommunicado for the next week or so, but I'm sure we'll have tales to tell when we come back online, so stay tuned.

State Historical Museum

St. Basil's Cathedral

We couldn't resist a selfie with this iconic building!

The Senate Building and Lenin's Tomb

All bundled up against the Russian winter

Tsar Cannon

Tsar Bell is the largest bell in the world and weighs over 200 tons

The Kremlin

The Armory Chamber Museum
We couldn't take pictures inside, but it was really impressive to see
all the tsars' wealth on display. 

Max and Clay couldn't resist the Russian nesting dolls
and have been having a ball with them all afternoon.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Munching in Moscow

Today was mostly all about food. We all woke up very late, because of our long travel day yesterday and our late night last night. So, our first act of the day was to walk over to a cafe we had carefully selected weeks beforehand, a type of Russian Luby's, where we would be able to see and point to our choices, instead of ordering blindly off a menu. When we got to where we thought it should be, we couldn't find it, so Jeff asked a security guard in the metro station where it was, and he pointed to the parking lot next door, where the restaurant used to be. So, we decided to go with Plan B: the very next restaurant over from the newly paved parking lot. It wasn't very Russian and even had English menus, but it did provide us with sustenance. However, the portion sizes were fairly small, and our group was still a little peckish after that meal, so we walked across the street to another cafe for "second breakfast," which was happening well past lunch time. We lingered for quite a while over our food and drinks, enjoying each other's company and observing the locals. Eventually, it was time for our cooking class with Taste of Russia, which we had set up a couple of weeks ago. We met our facilitator at a shopping mall and then headed over to the local market, where we picked up all the super-fresh ingredients for our dinner, which we were to prepare in the class. The market was amazing, and we had the best time looking at all the wonderful fresh foods and tasting samples the Russian vendors happily handed out in abundance to our "very large family." From the market, we headed over to the cooking school, where we spent several hours preparing and enjoying three incredible Russian dishes. It was such a great day, and we had the best time!

Russian pancakes for breakfast or lunch or whatever

The domed roof of the shopping mall was beautiful!

Fish Face

Moscow Market

You are not supposed to take photos inside the market,
so I really felt like I was living on the edge when I took this photo
with my cell phone, while discreetly holding the phone at my hip.

Ready to start our Russian cooking class

Kneading the dough for our Siberian Dumplings

The boys (big and small) were really interested in grinding our own meat.
(Meanwhile, Ruth was working on the strawberry sauce for our dessert.)

Rolling out the dumpling dough

1st Course: Solyanka
Broth-based soup with sausage, pork, potatoes, carrots, onions, salted pickles,
olives, and fresh dill, chives, and parsley

2nd Course: Siberian Pelmeni
Dumplings filled with a mixture of pork, beef, onion, and salted pickles,
topped with cream and fresh herbs

3rd Course: Syrniki
Little pancakes made with cottage cheese, sugar, eggs and flour,
fried in oil and topped with cream and homemade strawberry jam

True to form, we got every dish in the kitchen dirty while cooking.
But, we got to have all the fun of cooking, without having the burden of cleaning up!

We all successfully graduated from the class and had a great time doing it!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Made it to Moscow

We said "good-bye" to our (second) faithful Eurocar (Percy) this morning and then made our way to the extremely chaotic and crowded Geneva airport. As luck would have it, we arrived an hour earlier than we had expected, and thank goodness we did, because we just barely made it to our plane on time. Air travel is always the hardest, in terms of what it takes to actually get you moving towards your destination. Of course, we also chose to spend some time shopping for a new cell phone for me, since I learned the hard way that cell phones can truly die dead, in less than thirty seconds, when submersed in toilet water. It is just not a good idea to carry your cell phone in your back pocket, especially when you are distracted and aren't thinking about it, and more especially when the material of the pants is a little slick to begin with. You may consider that your public service announcement. You're welcome.

Once on the plane, we were finally able to relax, which was easy since it was such a nice environment. Swiss Air gets a thumbs up from our well-traveled group. The Moscow airport was quiet and clean, and filled with nice people, like the stranger who bought dinner for the kids and me, when I had a problem with my credit card while Jeff was gone to the ATM to get some rubles. (Honestly, though, it wasn't so much a credit card problem as a communication problem.) I offered to pay him back when Jeff returned, but he wouldn't hear of it. Don't tell me the world isn't filled with good people!

After a fairly long taxi ride, we finally made it to our apartment, which is lovely and has excellent Internet. (Woohoo!) What we could see of the darkened city from the taxi also looked lovely. I never thought I would visit Russia, and it's exciting to be here. We are looking forward to exploring Moscow and having some fun during the next few days.

Friday, February 19, 2016

A week in the Alps

We had plenty of snow this last week, but not so much Internet. So here's the report-in-brief. After a half-day of fairly unpleasant skiing in blizzard-like conditions, with several days of that remaining in the forecast, two-thirds of our group said, "No thanks!" and turned in our skis. Jeff and Weston were the only ones brave, or crazy, enough to continue, and were rewarded later in the week with lovely, though not warm, ski weather. The rest of us spent countless hours huddled in our warm little chalet, sitting around in our pjs, watching French cartoons, drinking hot chocolate, reading, working Sudoku puzzles, playing games, and snacking. But, we weren't just complete slugs. We also took advantage of some of the other fun activities in the little resort town, like swimming in the huge indoor pool, ice skating at the indoor rink, visiting some of the cafes and shops, and, when the weather was nice, sledding, building snowmen, throwing snow bombs, and playing on the playground. One evening, we were all able to attend an ice skating show, which was a lot of fun. Now, we are in a little town near the French/Swiss border, preparing to catch a plane to Moscow in the morning. It's so hard to believe that our time in Europe is coming to an end! But, we are looking forward to new adventures in Asia and beyond!

The place where we rented our skis said we were the first
Americans they have ever rented skis to.
I guess the town was so excited, they hung a banner out for us!

The view from our chalet on various days


Good thing I was quick with my camera!
I didn't have much time to capture everyone on their skis.

Snow Fun

It's never too cold for ice cream!

The finale at the skating show

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A whole bunch of not much

After all our sightseeing and subway riding on Sunday, we were pretty pooped, so we did what any true-blue, red-blooded American football lovers would do: We had a very brief rest and then stayed up all night to watch the Super Bowl, because the game started at midnight, and we didn't have the ability to record it for later. Not everyone watched the whole game, but everyone definitely needed a day of recovery. So, we just spent Monday around the house, which was fine, because it turned out to be a cold, wet day. Then, yesterday, which was also cold and wet, Ruth was not feeling well, so we had another slow day, though we did go out to a fun little French cafe at lunchtime and consume enough delicious French food to get us through the rest of the day. After all that down time, we needed a playground day in the worst way, so when we saw the sun peeking out this morning, we made a beeline for the nearest playground and spent several fun hours climbing, running, jumping, picnicking, and soaking up some Vitamin D. Now, it's time to pack up so we can move on down the road tomorrow, to the south of France, where we will be skiing during the next week.

We found these cute bears at a shopping
mall near the cafe where we had lunch.

Loving the French food!
Here you can see a shrimp and guacamole crepe, escargot,
creme brulee, chocolate mousse ball, and, of course, French fries.
Not pictured are some other wonderful French specialties we've tried:
French onion soup, chicken and mushroom quiche, coq au vin,
macarons, and an assortment of delicious breads and pastries. 

Sometimes you just need a day at the park!

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Free Sunday

The first Sunday of the month is "free Sunday" in Paris, and many of the museums, including The Louvre, offer free admission. We felt like it could be a risk to plan our visit for this day, but we decided to get there just as soon as the museum opened and take our chances. Once again, the crowd was surprisingly thin, and our gamble paid off. We got in very quickly and went straight to see our girl Mona Lisa. The kids have been enamored with the painting for years and have been looking forward to seeing it forever. This was the one thing we were determined to see, and we decided upfront that anything else would be icing. But, because there wasn't a huge crowd, we not only got to see Mona Lisa and snap a few pics of and with her, we also got to enjoy much of the rest of the museum at our leisure. It was a wonderful experience!

After that, we walked over to Luxembourg Gardens, where we enjoyed a lovely picnic and hours of fun at the "most awesome playground in the world." There is a small admittance fee for the playground, which was well worth it, but that was the only place we paid to enter all day! As we were leaving the park, we caught up with another lady we have long admired: The Statue of Liberty. The one that sits in the park is a replica of the model used by Fredric Bartholdi for the larger version which was gifted to the U.S. from France around 1880. The boys have not yet seen the Statue of Liberty in New York, but they were a bit disappointed that this one was so small.

Our last stop of the day was The Pantheon, which is a the final resting place of many of France's most important poets, writers, and scientists, including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Marie Curie (and her hubby, Pierre), and Louis Braille. It is patterned off of The Pantheon in Rome, which also lends it its name. The building is beautiful and the crypts were fascinating to explore.

The iconic pyramid entrance to The Louvre

Photo bombed by "Mo Leese"

The Louvre is a statue-lover's paradise!
Clay tried to imitate the look of each statue and so refused to have his picture made with
any nude statues, after I told him he had to keep his clothes on.
Another funny statue story is that Max wanted to know why "The Tiber"
(in the upper right) was holding a cricket bat and leaning on an ice cream cone.
It seems like a fair question!

We exited at The Louvre at the inverted pyramid

On our way to the park, we passed one of the "love lock" bridges.
The idea is that lovers write their names on a lock, attach it to the bridge,
and throw the key into the Seine, symbolizing an unbreakable bond.

Picnic at the Palace in Luxembourg Gardens

The most awesome playground in the world

Lady Liberty and her man Clay

The Pantheon 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Two Days in Paris

I'm behind on my blogging, which is no good, because much has happened in the last few days! We left England on Thursday and finally got to go on the Chunnel train, which was a unique experience. We arrived at our home outside of Paris in the evening of that day and have spent the last two days exploring the city.

I must admit that I have been pleasantly surprised with a couple of things here. First of all, I have always heard that the Parisians can be quite rude, which has not been the case for us at all. People have been friendly and helpful and polite in every possible instance. Not one person has been rude to us, and, in fact, several people have gone out of their way to be extra nice to us. Secondly, our expectations were set for crazy crowds, which, so far, we haven't seen anywhere. We had already told the kids that it was unlikely that we would be able to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, because we had heard that it was almost impossible to get up there without buying tickets way in advance, and their website was showing they were booked up solid until February 20. As it turned out, waited about ten minutes (without advance tickets) and got to explore the entire tower, have lunch and snacks, and take all the pictures we wanted without being jostled or crowded in any way. It was awesome! We have also been using the hop-on, hop-off bus, and have been the only people or almost the only people aboard most of the time. Additionally, we did a Seine River cruise last night, which was was very sparsely populated. It's been amazing!

So, yesterday, we visited the Eiffel Tower, did two different bus routes, and took the evening cruise on the Seine. Then, we stopped at an all-crepe restaurant for dinner, which was a fun end to the day. Today, we saw Notre Dame up close and tracked down the museum displaying the statue of The Thinker. We also visited a neat chocolate museum, where we learned a great deal about chocolate's history, watched a cool chocolate-making demonstration, and tasted many wonderful things.

We have been looking forward to visiting the
Eiffel Tower since we first started planning our trip.

One of the many amazing views from the top of the Eiffel Tower

There are many "Places to Kiss" marked off in the tower.
We tried to hit them all!

This is how the kids measure up to the tower

Braving the glass floor in the tower

Clay was "actually being the tower."

We love the hop-on, hop-off bus!

Moulin Rouge

The Louvre

Napoleon's Triumphal Arch

The French were so pleased that the U.S. won
the Revolutionary War, they erected a statue
of George Washington to celebrate.

All lit up

The end of our first day in Paris

Notre Dame

We just read about Charlemagne in History,
so everyone was excited to see him outside of Notre Dame,
though none more so than Clay!

We tracked down the museum where "The Thinker" sits thinking big thoughts.
We loved that we could see him without having to pay for the privilege.

Later, we came across a replica of The Thinker in a subway station.

Not a bad place for a picnic!

Fun at the chocolate museum

A tasty treat at the chocolate museum