The end of 2017: Europe

Our last post took us through the Baltic states up to November 3rd and the six month mark of our trip. Now, I’ll run down how we spent the rest of 2017 traveling through Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. I promise I’m working to getting the blog more current for our last couple months in South America!

Leaving Lithuania we took an overnight bus to the port town of Gdańsk to begin twelve days traveling in Poland. As the starting point of World War II and, in many ways, the epicenter of the Holocaust, much of our time in Poland focused on these subjects. That being said, we also experienced a lot that modern Poland has to offer. In Gdańsk, Ryan and I participated in a half marathon and 5k run that let us see a non-touristy side to the city. Our kebab obsession also began here. What more could a budget conscience traveler want than this filling and cheap meal? Behind the train station we found a great viewpoint from atop some old WWII bunkers; now a park and museum called Krzyż Milenijny.

At the finish line

Finish line at Gdańsk half marathon and 5k.

Kebab. Drool.

All across Poland we found incredibly modern and well done museums and Gdańsk was no exception. Here we spent two afternoons at the Museum of the Second World War and the European Solidarity Centre. In Europe we also began seeking out the free days and hours offered by many museums so we could visit them and stay in budget. We also took a daytrip to Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in 1406. Malbork is the largest castle in the world by land area and the museum entry included a really great audio guide!

From Gdańsk we continued on to Warsaw. We toured more immersive museums like the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Museum of the History of Polish Jews. The Warsaw city center was quite imposing with its Soviet architecture, but our AirBnB was near the bike and walking path along the Vistula River that was quite nice.

Wawel Cathedral in Krakow.

Our last destination in Poland was Krakow. Atop the hill in the center of town is the Wawel Castle and Cathedral where many Kings of Poland are buried. We spent a day walking around the Old Town and Kazimierz, the Jewish Quarter. From here we also took a day trip to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp. While difficult, it was a very meaningful trip and I strongly believe in the mission of the museum to keep this history in our collective memory.

The infamous “Work Sets You Free” sign in Auschwitz.

The end of the rail line that transported cattle cars full of people to the gas chambers.

On a lighter note, we also found the Krakow Pinball Museum. For a few bucks we drank beers and played unlimited games on over 100 pinball machines from across the decades. The last highlight of Krakow for me was seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine painting on display at the National Museum of Krakow.

Next we continued by overnight train to Ukraine and the city of Lviv. Lviv is a totally cute city in western Ukraine close to the Polish border. It was full of these really innovative and fun themed restaurants created by a local company called !Fest. We went to an underground partisan bunker themed bar called Kryivka off the main square. To enter you had to knock on an unmarked door in the back of an alley and proclaim “Slava Ukraine” to gain entrance. After making sure we weren’t Russian spies, the doorman handed over a shot of honey vodka and then let us in. It was totally kitschy but still a lot of fun. There were also a lot of breweries and beer joints here that we enjoyed.

Lviv Beer Museum and pub.

Inside the partisan bunker bar in Lviv.

Next we headed over to Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv. There was really so much to do here and its a very lively city. From our hostel we walked all over town. There are a LOT of churches in Kyiv. We went to a few but spent the most time at the Pechersk Lavra, or cave monastery. This Russian Orthodox Church and Monastery was built atop catacombs filled with the bodies of saints and underground chapels. We saw a lot of little old ladies praying and even a few mummy looking saints in their final resting places. We were in Kyiv over Thanksgiving and celebrated the day by gorging ourselves on Georgian food (see my last post) and going to the ballet to see The Snow Queen at the National Opera of Ukraine.

Sunset and the Motherland Monument in Kyiv.

Typical cafeteria food in Eastern Europe.

The main feature of our time in Kyiv was our day tour to Chernobyl. This is just one of those subjects that is endlessly fascinating and had been on our “must do” list since we started planning this around the world trip. Not the most likely tourist destination, there are now a number of tour companies that offer a day trip to Chernobyl’s exclusion zone to see the sight of one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in human history.

The sarcophagus covering Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl.

Ryan and I both have a passing interest in urban exploration, one of our first dates was wandering around the abandoned Fulton Gas Works plant in Richmond before a round of frisbee golf, so visiting Chernobyl checked a lot of boxes for us. While the villages and towns inside the exclusion zone have now been abandoned, I was really surprised to see how many people are still working and living (at least part-time) here. We toured through Pripyat, the town where power plant workers and their families lived, and saw how the forest has begun to retake the area. We were able to go quite close to the reactor now covered by a brand new “sarcophagus” where the cleanup effort will continue for decades. While very safe to visit for the day, we did see a few radiation hot spots on our tour that sent the Geiger counters wailing.

The original sign entering Chernobyl town.

Abandoned fair grounds in Pripyat inside the exclusion zone.

Stained glass from the port of Pripyat town.

Getting a radiation check before we can leave the exclusion zone.

Lastly in Ukraine we visited the Black Sea town of Odessa. We saw some famous sites around town like the Opera House and the Potemkin Steps. I know its supposed to be really nice here in the summer but the weather was a bit dreary in November. That being said, we did have some excellent food and drink and the highlight of our stay was a private tour inside the Odessa Catacombs. Not real catacombs, these tunnels were originally limestone mines used to build the city of Odessa that have been repurposed and reused over the last century for everything from a Soviet fallout shelter to a gangster hideaway.

Inside our tour of the Odessa Catacombs. Thank goodness for our guide; we didn’t want to get lost down there!

Ok, I’ve only got four (or five depending on how you count…) countries to get us to the end of 2017. Thanks for sticking with me through this marathon blog post!

From Ukraine we took the bus to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau (pronounced kish-ih-now). Moldova is actually a big wine producer and so we took a day trip to the Cricova wine caves. Like in Odessa, there are old limestone mine tunnels here that are now used for wine storage and production. The constant temperature underground makes it an ideal spot. The Cricova tour was super professional. Our group was driven around the tunnels on a little tram making stops to see different parts of wine production before going to our tasting. One of my favorite parts was stopping at the small theater to watch Cricova’s promotional video. Its super cheesy and I am obsessed with it. Watch it here.

The other big thing we did in Moldova was take a day trip to the breakaway region of Transnistria. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this Russian-speaking region opposed the potential merging of Moldova and Romania and an armed conflict broke out as they declared independence from Moldova. Now a “frozen conflict,” Transnistria isn’t a recognized country, but is essentially operating as such. To visit we took a shared van from the capital and had to go through an immigration checkpoint to get our day pass. Walking around the main city, Tiraspol, was like stepping back in time. They have their own currency (including some funny looking plastic coins) and all around are remnants from the Soviet Union that are still standing, while in the rest of the former bloc most of these things have been destroyed or moved. It made for a really interesting day.

Religious building and military monument in Tiraspol.

Visiting Transinistria can feel like a step back in time.

Next up: Romania! Here we really started to get into the Christmas spirit. It snowed a bit while we were in Brasov and we saw our first big Christmas tree and market in the main square in the Old Town. From Brasov we went to tour Bran Castle. Bran was not home to Vlad the Impaler (the real-life Dracula) but it did inspire Bram Stoker’s descriptions of Dracula’s Castle. Built in the 1300s to defend Transylvania, the castle is now a museum donated by Romania’s former royal family. It was really foggy when we visited. The spooky weather was great for a Dracula sighting but not so great for photos! Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Also in Bucharest we went to the Christmas Market a couple of times and enjoyed mulled wine and a tasty grilled Chimney Cake called Kürtoskalàcs. On our last afternoon we visited the Muzeul Antipa, or Romania’s Natural History Museum. The museum was founded in 1834 and is full of floor-to-ceiling dioramas of stuffed animals and habitats from around the globe. We went thinking it would be a bit kitschy, but the museum ended up being really enjoyable.

At this point we’re now into December and we flew from Bucharest to Athens to meet up with my parents and travel around Greece with them for fourteen days. We took an epic road trip around the Peloponnese peninsula spending two nights in the seaside town of Nafplio and visiting the ancient ruins of Mycenae, Epidaurious and Olympia. After stopping at ancient Olympia, we continued on away from the Peloponnese to spend two nights in Meteora. Meteora is known for Greek monasteries dating back to the 1300s that were built high into the rock formations. You can hike between the seven main monasteries on a mix of trails and road for amazing views of the area.

Can you spot five of the Meteora monasteries?

Obligatory family photo at the Parthenon.

After a marathon 4 day road trip, we drove back to Athens for a few more days to take in the city. Since we got into Europe, we’ve been stying in more AirBnBs, which has given this part of our trip a residential feel and the ability to cook more. Our location in Athens was perfect. We were literally steps from the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. We were also staying right next to Filopappou Hill, which was a park full of walking trails and the city’s best overlook with a full view of the Acropolis.

I can’t recommend visiting Greece in the winter enough. The museums and archeological sights are all half price during the off season and the weather was still stunning. While not warm enough for a swim or anything it was more than pleasant to spend our days sightseeing.

Enjoying the Greek sunshine in Santorini.

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Island hopping on the Blue Star Ferries.

Lastly, we had to visit a couple Greek Islands to complete our tour of Greece. We stayed in an amazing historic cave house in the village of Oia on the island of Santorini and had the perfect postcard-worthy view of the white village and caldera from our patio. I drank too much wine and Ryan got to do a trail run from one end of the island to the the other. Happy times. We spent three relaxing days here before moving on, via ferry, to Naxos. Naxos was a much more down-to-earth island with even fewer tourists and a quaint port. Naxos was the kind of town where our waitress at dinner always came by with a complimentary carafe of wine. Needless to say we come back the next night.

After island hopping, our group traveled on to Italy, parting ways for a few days before reuniting in Rome for Christmas. And I am almost done with this epically long blog post. Ryan and I went down to Sorrento for a few days so we could hike the Sentiero degli Dei or “Path of the Gods” above the Amalfi Coast. We did this amazing walk as an out-and-back hike from Positano so we could make it a little longer and take in all the views. We also did another day hike directly from Sorrento to the town of Massa Lubrense following a trail of painted tile markers that I found utterly charming.

Hiking between villages on the Amalfi Coast.

Then, we headed to Rome for the holidays. On Christmas Day we were joined by Ryan’s brother and sister-in-law. The next day my parents continued on their Italian adventure without us and we traveled with Matthew and Nikki in Italy for the next week in Rome, Florence and Milan. We took in all the quintessential sights from the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Vatican in Rome to the Duomo in Florence. We had some of our best food in Florence and Matthew and Nikki introduced us to the Rick Steve’s Europe audio guide app. Wish we’d known about these free walking tours sooner! In Milan we went to the famous Stadio San Siro to see an Inter Milan football game and ring in the New Year together!

Even the rainiest day in Rome didn’t stop us!

Crostini Misti.

Finally, we made it through 2017. On New Year’s Day we separated from Matthew and Nikki. They continued on to Venice for a few days before returning home and Ryan and I went to stay in Perugia for the week. I studied abroad in Perugia in 2007, so visiting my Italian home away from home brought back a lot of fond memories. This medieval hilltop town has both changed and stayed exactly the same in so many ways. Staying in one place for a week also gave us a much needed break to be lazy and plan the final four months of our trip. From here we were able to plan out our treks in Patagonia and flesh out our time in South America.

And finally on January 10th we left Italy and flew to Marrakech, Morocco. We weren’t totally done with Europe yet as we also visited Spain, but I’ll leave Morocco and Spain for another post!

2017 in review: Our first six months

2017 is over. It’s easy to say we’ve had a truly amazing year. To commemorate, we’re looking back on the highlights of our trip so far and starting with the first six months from May 3 – Nov 3. We’ve created a list of our favorite foods, drinks, museums, activities, etc. We got three picks apiece plus an honorable mention for each category. It was really fun to relive some of our best moments as we put together and we can’t wait to share details about the last couple months as well. But, for now, our answers draw on our experiences from Bermuda through the Baltic countries.

Favorite Museum
Ryan’s Picks
1. Hong Kong Museum of History. This free museum provided an overview of history of Hong Kong through beautifully designed exhibits. Amazing value.
2. Lennusadam Seaplane Harbour and Maritime Museum in Tallinn, Estonia. Brand new museum with many interactive exhibits built inside a huge, fortified seaplane hanger. Highlights were getting to tour a 100+ year old Russian icebreaker and World War II era submarine.

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Inside the giant airplane hanger that now houses the Tallinn Maritime Museum

3. International Mountain Museum in Pokhara, Nepal. This museum covered geology, worldwide mountain cultures, and mountaineering. It was interesting to see how climbing equipment has evolved. My favorite exhibit explored the search for the Yeti.
Honorable Mention: Kunming Railway Museum. This museum provided an overview of railroad development in Western China with colorful English translations. Whoever created the signage was not a fan of the “stupid and feckless Qing Dynasty.”

Sarah’s Picks
1. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Created in 1764 by Catherine the Great. One of the greatest art collections in the world. Need I say more?
2. Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. Showcase of architecture, calligraphy and artifacts from the Islamic world. The building’s own architecture is a work of art.
3. Baba & Nyonya Heritage Museum in Melaka. This museum is an entertaining tour of the private home of a wealthy Pernakan family from the 1900s.
Honorable Mention: Kunming Railway Museum. This little off-the-beaten path museum at Kunming South Railway station wins a place in our hearts for the best Chinese to English signage translations.

Favorite Place We’ve Stayed
Ryan’s Picks
1. Mama Leauh’s in Don Det. Super relaxing stay in a bungalow along the Mekong River. The food was so good that we ate all our meals here during the 4 days we spend on Don Det. Loved the complementary Lau Lau with caramel shots served with meals.
2. The Golden Gecko in Siem Reap. Incredibly friendly owner and staff have created an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap. So nice to have a pool to escape the brutal Cambodian heat.
3. Mama Naxi’s Guesthouse in Lijiang. We stayed here before and after our Tiger Leaper Gorge Trek. Very friendly staff and amazing home cooked, family style, dinner.
Honorable Mention: Chengdu Lazybones Poshpacker Hostel. They had kittens.

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View from the restaurant at Mama Leuah’s. Not pictured: Chaise lounges and hammocks

Sarah’s Picks
1. Lazybones Poshpacker Hostel in Chengdu. Best name. The hostel had a very hip vibe, great restaurant and an enthusiastic staff that planned events and helped with excursions.
2. Mama Leauh’s in Don Det, Laos. Our room was a private, primitive bungalow on stilts jutting out over the Mekong River. We spent four relaxing days at this popular guesthouse swinging lazily in our hammocks and eating every meal at the delicious restaurant. German-born Lutz and his wife Peng (Mama Leauh’s daughter) run an incredible place.
3. Gorkhi Terelj National Park, Mongolia. One of our “must dos” in Mongolia was to spend the night in a Ger (or Mongolian yurt) and we had the chance at the Terelj Lodge. This tourist camp came recommended by our host, Oyuna and the ger was surprisingly toasty!
Honorable Mention: Hotel Mount Kailash in Upper Pisang, Nepal. Some of our best views on the Annapurna Circuit trek. There’s nothing quite like drinking a cup of tea in a wooden dining hall staring directly at the peak of Annapurna II.

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Fall foliage surrounding our camp in Terelj National Park

Favorite Activity
Ryan’s Picks
1. The Annapurna Circuit. I had been wanting to hike in Nepal ever since I had gotten interested in backpacking and the Annapurna Circuit did not disappoint. Such a great mix of epic mountain scenery and interesting villages.
2. The Trans-Mongolian Railway. I’ve become addicted to rail travel over the course of our trip. The 5,000+ mile journey for Beijing to Moscow has been our most epic rail journey. It was amazing to see the changes in the landscapes and cultures along the way, as well as spend time in Mongolia and Lake Baikal.

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Getting ready to start our TransMongolian journey in Beijing

3. Phare Ponleu Selpak; Battambang Circus. Cirque du Solei style performance put on by students in school run by a non-profit. Amazing performance that far exceeded our expectations.

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Incredible acrobatics on display at the Battambang Circus

Honorable Mention: Tiger Leaping Gorge Hike. 3 days of trekking was a nice break from 5 weeks of touring mega-cities in Vietnam and China.

Sarah’s Picks
1. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. My lifelong obsession is well documented. It was a joy to spend the day walking around the best zoo in the world. All pandas, all day long.

2. The Bolevan Plateau motorbike loop. I loved the freedom of riding scooters around rural Laos. The Bolevan Plateau is known for its coffee growing and waterfalls. While we got rained out of most of the waterfalls these three days were so memorable. I especially loved the big family dinner at the Palamei Guesthouse in Tad Lo village.

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Screenshot from a GoPro video of our Bolaven Plateau motorbike loop

3. Finnish Sauna at Löyly in Helsinki. Löyly is a relatively new sauna experience catering to both Finns and tourists. The staff were extremely kind and I’ll never forget our dips into the freezing Baltic Sea.
Honorable Mention: The Annapurna Circuit. This was a once in a lifetime experience. We spent nearly three weeks trekking from one mountain village to another. I have countless priceless memories from the trek. One of the best will be going to the “cinema” in Manang village to watch Seven Years in Tibet.


Favorite Historical Sight

Sarah’s Picks
1. Plain of Jars. I wrote about these ancient and giant stone jars in our Laos post, but they were so randomly incredible they top my list. We lucked into a great tour group for the day led by our wonderful guide Mr. Vang.

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Jar site No. 2 in Phonsavan

2. Angkor Wat. This is one of those places that is impossible to overhype and is WAY bigger than one expects. I really liked the Bayon with its thousands of faces looking every direction.
3. Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Like everything on this list, it’s really difficult to convey the scale of the Terracotta Warrior pits through either words or even pictures. Just imagine a giant ongoing archeological dig covered by a giant airplane hanger and multiply.

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Terracotta Chariot on display in Xi’an

Honorable Mention: Great Wall of China. It feels silly to give the Great Wall of China an honorable mention. We’re so fortunate to have seen all these incredible sights.

Ryan’s Picks
1. S21 and the Killing Fields. Very sad but interesting overview of recent Cambodian history. The audio guides were incredibly well done and included personal accounts the helped visitors understand the history.
2. Plain of Jars. Fields full of 2000+ year old giant stone jars near Phonsavan, Laos, Not something that I was aware of prior to our trip. Very interesting to see as part of a group day tour.
3. Angkor Wat. Churches and temples are usually not my favorite attractions but this was an exception. The scale and variety of the temple complexes is truly impressive.

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Viewing the main Angkor Wat temple complex from the reflecting pool

Honorable Mention: KGB Prison in Riga. Great guided tour. Provided a very interesting overview of the hardships faced by the people of Latvia during soviet occupation.

Favorite Transportation Experience
Sarah’s Picks
1. Flagging down songtheaws in Luang Prabang. A songtheaw is a kind of taxi in parts of SE Asia. Its a covered pickup truck bed with benches. While not the most comfortable ride, we honed our bargaining skills while arranging a ride to the Kung Si Waterfall.
2. Trans-Mongolian Railway. See Ryan’s favorite activity pick No. 2.
3. Longtail boat ride in Thailand. Its like a ride to get you in the mood for “the beach” but it’s real life.
Honorable Mention: Getting to the start of the Annapurna Circuit. The “local bus” in Nepal felt like a backpacker’s baptism. Our trip to the start of our trek involved crowds, motion sickness and a lot of laughs and side eyes between Ryan and I.

Ryan’s Picks
1. Don Det to Phnom Penh. Our most epic day of travel thus far. ~15 hours on a boat, 3 separate vans, and a bus. Prior to this trip I was not aware that 25 people could fit in a van.
2. Long distance local busses in Nepal. We used local buses for 2 of 3 long distance trips in Nepal. Aggressively cruising through the mountains on a 30 year old bus on the verge of falling apart is an experience not to be missed.
3. Moscow metro. The best urban transit system I’ve ever experienced. Beautiful platforms. $0.50 to go anywhere in the city. Trains every 90 seconds at peak times.
Honorable Mention: “King of Bus” I just like the name of the bus company. Used for an overnight trip in Laos from Vientiane to Pakse.

Favorite Dining Experience
Sarah’s Picks
1. Eating with the Tran family in Vietnam. Travel is always best with local friends. We were so delighted to spend time with our friends from Maryland and their family in Ho Chi Minh City and to eat so much delicious food with them!
2. Sichuan Hot Pot in Chengdu. The spices in Sichuan food are legendary and this meal was even more memorable because it was so interactive!
3. Georgian Food. If I could go back in time and replan our trip we would be going to Georgia. We got hooked on the cuisine in Moscow (thanks Nick!) and have been seeking it out all over Eastern Europe. Pkhali, Khachapuri, Khinkali and more! The bread, the cheese, the use of pomegranate and garlic and spices… I could go one. We love it!
Honorable Mention: Cooking class in Chiang Mai. Our instructor helped us control the spice level of our dishes by asking us how “sexy” we felt. They made everything easy, entertaining and, most importantly, delicious.

Ryan’s Picks
1. Chendol. Who knew that a mix of coconut syrup, rice flour, red beans, and shaved ice could taste so good. I ate this every chance I had in SE Asia.

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Chendol. A strangely addictive dessert.

2. Dim Sum in Guangzhou. It was great getting to sample the wide variety of dishes during single meal. Navigating the challenges of ordering after 3 months of English-friendly travel in SE Asia was an added bonus.
3. Hawker Center Experience in Singapore and Malaysia. Hawker centers are giant food courts that are ubiquitous throughout Singapore and Malaysia. They are very affordable and allow you to sample different styles of cuisines during a single meal.
Honorable Mention: Georgian Food. Amazing soup dumplings, cheese breads, and eggplant rolls. We’ve been seeking this out since we first discovered it in Irkutsk.

Favorite Drink
Sarah’s Picks
1. Cá phê dá. Vietnamese iced coffee. Its so special and delicious and, luckily, ubiquitous. Its both strong and refreshing. Get it sua da (with sweet, condensed milk) for a sugar rush too.
2. Seabuckthorn Juice. We first encountered this drink in Nepal and were delighted to find it again in Mongolia. This orange berry is found in semi-dessert areas of Eurasia and is a great source of Vitamin C. Best of all its delicious both hot and cold. Thanks to Oyuna, our host in Mongolia, we stocked up on the concentrate version in Ulaanbaatar.
3. Hõõgvein. Literally “hot wine” in Estonia, mulled wine began popping up once we hit October in the Baltics. I love a good and cozy cup of warm wine spiced with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and orange.
Honorable Mention: Tiger Brewery Tour. Our most affordable drink in Singapore! 🍻 😂

Ryan’s Picks
1. Rum Swizzle. The Swizzle Inn lived up to it’s “Swizzle Inn, Stagger Out” moniker the day after Steve and Lisa’s wedding. Enough said 😜.

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This photo was taken after a few too many swizzles!

2. Vietnamese Coffee. The best coffee I’ve had on the trip so far. I especially like it iced with condensed milk.
3. Beers at Pasteur Street Brewing Company. American style micro brewery with locations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Ming City. It was was nice to get a break from macro lagers. I especially enjoyed their coffee porter.
Honorable Mention: Seabuckthorn Juice. Discovered this orange, berry juice while we were hiking in Nepal. Made for an amazing pick-me-up during hiking breaks.

While coming up with this list was a ton of fun, it was actually hard to narrow down our selections! We’ll surely have to do another post about our favorite outdoor adventures from the year, including some amazing national parks and protected areas around the world.

Stay tuned for a run down of November & December soon!

Hacking Russian Travel

We’ve just passed our 6 month travelversary! I can’t believe it. Ryan and I are already halfway through this crazy year.

In mid-October we completed the Trans-Mongolian Railway and arrived in Moscow. In one of our upcoming posts I will write about that epic train journey. But, for now, here’s a bit about our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Moscow. Moscow really kicked off the “European” part of our world tour. The mix of Soviet and baroque orthodox architecture across the city really stood out. The metro stations around the city are amazing. Each one was designed by a different Russian architect during the Soviet era.

We spent our first full day wandering around the city center, taking in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and beautiful views while walking along the Moskva River. Along the Moskva, we walked through the Muzeon Park of Arts next to the Tretyakov Modern Art Gallery. The park is now home to many Soviet-era statues featuring Stalin, Lenin and other figures.

We also went to GARAGE Modern Art Museum while in Gorky Park, like Moscow’s Central Park, to view an exhibit of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. After the park we made our way over to the Музей советских игровых автоматов or the Museum of Soviet Arcade Games where for only $7.50 you can step back in time and play some whacky 80s games.

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Cathedral of the Annunciation inside the Moscow Kremlin

Of course we went to the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square. I found the collection of the Armory Chamber inside the Kremlin Museum to be particularly interesting.

Cosmonaut Monument

Tsiolkovsky Monument

One of the best parts of our time in Russia was visiting with my buddy Nick, an old friend from DC who now lives and works in Moscow. Thank you for hanging out with us and taking us to eat delicious Georgian food!

On our last day in Moscow, I spent the day recuperating from a nasty cold and Ryan headed off to the Cosmonaut Museum. In his words: “The best part was the dogs. The remains of the first two space dogs have been stuffed and mounted. I learned that the Soviet Union had a shuttle program.”

 

St. Petersburg. After spending literally weeks on trains across two continents, it felt incredibly luxurious to catch the high speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Only a few hours later and we were at our destination.

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The Peter and Paul Cathedral inside the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. The imperial tombs at the cathedral house the remains of almost all the Russian emperors and empresses from Peter the Great to Nicholas II.

A highlight of St. Petersburg for me was visiting the Fabregè Museum. For some reason, my mom and I are both pretty obsessed with the imperial Fabregè eggs. It probably started when I was a kid and we visited the Hillwood Estate in Washington, DC, which has two of the eggs in its collection. Between 1885 and 1917, the House of Fabregè manufactured 50 imperial Easter eggs for the royal Romanov tsars and family. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond also has the largest collection of eggs, five in total, outside of Russia and Ryan and I used to live across the street from the museum. After our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg I can happily say I’ve now seen 25 of the 43 eggs still around.

St. Petersburg is obviously known for The State Hermitage Museum, the largest art museum in the world. Ryan and I wandered around the Hermitage for over 5 hours and still didn’t get to see the whole thing. Its an incredible collection and enjoyable peek into the opulent imperial palace. I also found the information on how the museum protected its collection both during the revolution and WWII of great interest.

Hong Kong to Helsinki by train 🚂

Who has two thumbs and is abysmal at keeping the travel blog up to date? 🙋🏻 This girl! Sorry! Here begins my attempt to get caught up…

Last week, Ryan and I completed nearly two months of travel from Hong Kong to Helsinki all by train. Through China, Mongolia, Russia & Finland, traveling by train was an amazing way to see these countries and experience the epic Trans-Siberian railway.

By the numbers, we spent 12 night sleeping on overnight trains. Our longest single journey between Irkutsk, Siberia and Moscow was 75 hours long over 3 nights. From Hong Kong to Helsinki we covered at least 13,600 km or around 8500 miles. That’s just a rough estimate, so its likely more than that. That is the equivalent to driving cross-country in the US three times.

As I try to catch up the blog, I’m going to start backwards with our last 3 days in Finland.

HELSINKI, FINLAND This was an exciting stop because Ryan’s great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Finland. A couple times someone even noticed his Finnish last name and commented approvingly. We only spent three nights here and while it cold and rainy we still had a great time.

The Finnish sauna at Löyly was probably the highlight. Sauna seems to be a way of life in Finland. Many Finns have a sauna in their homes & summer cottages. We chose Löyly because it had two unisex public sauna rooms and was right on the Baltic Sea. Normally a public sauna is divided in male and female rooms.

The building’s architecture was absolutely gorgeous. And the experience of running from the hot sauna into the freezing cold Baltic Sea was oddly addicting.

Despite rainy & cold weather, we also went sightseeing around Helsinki. We walked around the downtown landmarks like Senate Square, we visited the National Museum of Finland and the Sibelius Monument. Ryan made a pilgrimage to see the statue of Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. And we ate delicious Korvapuusti, the Finnish version of a cinnamon bun with cardamom.

Next up, I’ll be posting about our time in Russia!

Bowling through Laos

There are a lot of reasons not to travel in Laos during the rainy season. The best laid plans can be derailed by a monsoon. The roads can get really muddy. Its shockingly humid. But, in my humble opinion, the beauty outweighs these obstacles. It’s cheaper and less crowded. And I’ve never in my life seen a green so vibrant as the rice fields after a rain shower. Our twenty days in Laos were magical and I hope to return.

Rice field in Xiang Khouang province

Luang Prabang. We flew from Chiang Mai, Thailand. While we’re doing a lot of our travels by ground transport, the convenience of a one hour flight won out over a 24 hour bus over mountain roads. The old town of Luang Prabang is an UNESCO site filled to the brim with temples, bakeries, restaurants and shops. The French influence is really felt here. This was our first stop in Indochina and has been interesting to see the French food/architecture throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The town is situated on a peninsula between the mighty Mekong and smaller Nam Khan rivers. Its a real treat to wander through LP and our inexpensive guesthouse had a lot of perks: excellent banana pancakes, a fresh fruit drink each afternoon and two adorable puppies who patrolled the patio. Across the street was Manda de Laos, an upscale Lao restaurant where food is served next to a beautiful Lotus pond. Thanks to a generous send-off gift from my former DC co-workers, we had a wonderful date night here. On the opposite end of the food spectrum we also went to an all-you-can-eat $2 buffet in an alleyway.

We took a songthaew (benches in the bed of a pickup truck) to Kuang Si waterfall. The waterfall is known for bright blue pools of water because of mineral deposits. Because we’d had a big rain the day before the water was moving too fast to have the turquoise color, but the falls were impressive nonetheless. We also spent an afternoon bowling at one of only 3 or 4 bowling alleys in the entire country. It had been years since either of us had gone bowling and a great way to escape the afternoon heat!

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Kuang Si Falls

Phonsavan. From Luang Prabang we took a bus to the town of Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang province. This area, known as the Plain of Jars, has thousands of megalithic stone jars scattered in dozens of sights around the region. Xieng Khouang is also known as one of the most heavily bombed areas by the United States during the Vietnam War. We visited sites of the “Secret War” with our guide, Mr. Vang. The legacy of the war is still visible today in bomb craters across the landscape and thousands of unexploded ordinance that continue to injure and kill in the community to this day.

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Vientiane. The capital of Laos. Unlike other big cities in the region, Vientiane doesn’t have a ton going on. For me, that’s kind of the charm of Laos. There’s a nice night market and strip of restaurants along the Mekong. We found some really good and cheap ex-pat food. The “sights” like the historic Sisaket Temple and Patuxay Monument can all be seen in about half a day. At this point in the trip we needed a place to spend a day with good internet to plan out the next couple months and Vientiane was a great location. We also knew there was another bowling alley here! We can now proudly say we have bowled in at least half of the alleys in Laos.

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Wat Si Muang

Pakse and the Bolevan Plateau. From Vientiane we took the “King of Bus” (see on our instagram!) overnight to the town of Pakse and launched into a 3-day motorbike loop around the Bolevan Plateau. This is a popular backpacker loop and the Bolevan Plateau is known for beautiful scenery, waterfalls and coffee. The Plateau is also a higher elevation and so was an escape from the heat and humidity. We visited the ancient city of Champasak and Wat Phou. This Wat (temple) is from the Angkor period and was actually built before Angkor Wat. Our first full day on the loop we drove through rain and fog, obscuring the waterfalls. However, it felt great to be off the tourist path and we found a small guesthouse in the tiny town of Paksong. The next day the weather cleared and we were treated with spectacular views of rice paddies and coffee fields. We stopped at a homestay in an ethnic minority village for a cup of coffee (hand round in mortar & pestle and served in a bamboo stalk pour over) and stayed the night by the Tad Lo waterfall.

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Wat Phou, Champasak

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On the road on Bolevan Plateau

Si Phan Don. Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands, is an archipelago in southern Laos along the Mekong River. A French couple we met in Tad Lo had just come from here and recommended the guesthouse Mama Leauh on the island Don Det. In all our travels so far, I have never heard people recommend a place more vehemently than this couple so we knew we had to stay here. It did not disappoint. We stayed in a charming riverside bungalow and just relaxed and explored the islands for five days. The food was phenomenal. Not all traditionally Lao (their specialty was Schnitzel!) but super scrumptious. Despite the humidity, Ryan was able to get some runs in around the island and I rented a bicycle with no brakes for $1 to explore.

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Sunset on the Mekong

Northern Thailand

In the back half of our stay in Thailand we headed north to Chiang Mai and Pai. We had a lot of firsts in Northern Thailand. Ryan had his first experience on a sleeper train as we took an overnight ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I had my first taste of Khao Soi, which became my favorite Thai dish. And we both rode motorbikes for the first time!

Chiang Mai is an incredibly charming city. The Old City, where we stayed, is one square mile surrounded by ancient walls and packed to the brim with temples. Its also incredibly walkable compared to the much larger Bangkok. Because the canal and square city walls were flanked by wide sidewalks it also made a great running loop (something that can be hard to come by in hectic Asian cities). Northern Thailand is also generally less expensive than the coast or Bangkok.

We spent the better part of our first day just wandering around the Old City. There are literally hundreds of temples in this small geographic area. We visited:

  • Wat Chedi Luang. Temple complex includes ruins of a chedi from the old city.
  • Wat Phan Tao. The teak temple. Smaller temple made from beautiful teak wood.
  • Phra Singh Temple. Biggest temple (I think) in Chiang Mai. Several buildings on the complex, including gold covered stupa with elephants.
  • Wat Srisuphan. The silver temple. A one of a kind temple that is made from silver. Apparently the area it is located (just south of the Old City) was known for silver smiths. Gorgeous outside, but the inside is off limit to women.

There are a couple small museums in the city center. We spent about an hour looking through the Chiang Mai Historical Center. The museum goes through the history of the region chronologically and was a nice way to get out of the afternoon heat.

One of the most quintessential things to do in Chiang Mai is to take a Thai cooking class. We took the full day course with the Asia Scenic Cooking School. We made Pad See Ew and Pad Thai, papaya salad and spicy chicken salad, fried bananas and mango sticky rice, ground red and green curry paste, and rolled and fried our own spring rolls. I’m probably forgetting something but we left the day completely stuffed and satisfied.


Chiang Mai was also our jumping off point for a full day excursion to Doi Inthanon National Park with a trip to an elephant park. When you book these tours usually you expect to be accompanied by a van full of other people, but we lucked into getting the tour all to ourselves this time! I think it is a perk of traveling in the low season is that that is more likely. We went on a nature walk in the national park with our guide Nop and and then spent the afternoon feeding and bathing a group of elephants. I have some mixed feelings about the exploitation of animals, but we went to a park where they explicitly don’t let guests ride the elephants and they seemed to have a lot of land to roam. In any case, it was absolutely incredible to get up close with the animals and play with them in the stream.

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The other thing I have to mention about Chiang Mai is the Sunday Night Market. Night markets in general have been one of our favorite things in Asia. The Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai is one of the biggest night markets I’ve seen yet. It sprawls through the old city and there are so many items for sale. In addition to a lot of food there were clothes and lots of knick knacks and souvenirs for sale. It was quite an experience and I think not to be missed on a trip to Chiang Mai.

After 5 nights in Chiang Mai we ventured further north to the town of Pai. What to say about Pai. Its a really, really popular backpacker destination. That means the town and surrounding area is very touristy and there are a lot of hippies. The countryside is beautiful. Once you get a bit outside of town, everywhere you look you can see lush green rice fields and rolling hills.

Our first day in Pai we decided to hike to the Mae Yen waterfall. Out of the several waterfalls around Pai, this is the only one you have to hike to get to. The hike to the waterfall took about three hours and we had to wade across a river to get to the trailhead.

The trail follows a river upstream and criss crosses the stream throughout the whole hike. I bet we spent 50% of the time wading across the stream vs. walking on land. The last bit involved a pretty steep and slippery uphill climb but in the end, we made it!

The other amazing activity we did in Pai was learn to ride motorbikes. We rented scooters for the day from Vespai (the businesses in town are really great at making Pai puns) and paid a little extra to get a proper lesson. 30 minutes on the side road in front of our guesthouse and we were ready to go! There is a loop around Pai that hits up some of the super kitschy tourist attractions that line the highways around Pai. The loop takes only 45 minutes, so its a great place for beginners. We stopped at “Coffee in Love” (one of the uber kitschy roadside stops) and Pai Canyon before looping back around to the main town. We also biked up to a sunset overlook but only had an overcast view of the valley below.

In the end, I have really fond feelings about our short stay in Pai. Its probably less because of the town itself and more because of the motorbikes. There was also a really good burger place.

The Beach and Bangkok

Ok, we've been in Laos for ten days and I am finally getting around to posting about our time in Thailand! Here's a bit about the first half of our 20 day trip…

After a quick overnight stop in Krabi Town, we set off for a relaxing few days on the Andaman Sea. Though not an island, Railay Beach is still only accessible by boat. The iconic karst cliffs that cut off Railay from the mainland are formed through the erosion of limestone and can be found throughout the region. We waited around the dock until another backpacker joined us to share a longtail boat to Railay.

We came just after the high season, so while we had more rainy afternoons, there were also smaller crowds and cheaper accommodations. The coast was probably the most expensive part of our Thailand trip. We splurged and stayed at the Avatar Railay Resort. A splurge for our budget was $45/night. In real vacation terms it was a total steal and the pool alone was well worth it. Railay is tiny (the walk from East Railay to West took 4 minutes) but there is still a lot to do. Beside relaxing by the pool or on the beach we rented kayaks and spent two nights hanging out at Kamar Bar where the wildly entertaining owner Ning had us laughing all night.


On our last full day, we went on a Phi Phi Islands Tour. We snorkeled, swam in an absolutely stunning lagoon and stopped for a photo op at Maya Bay where the movie The Beach was filmed.

From the beach we took a night bus from Krabi to Bangkok. On our first day we hit up some of the quintessential sightseeing spots like the famous temples Wat Pho and Wat Arun. These temples are across the river from one another so there is a ferry that runs between them every couple of minutes.

Our first night in Bangkok we walked around the famous backpacker area Khoasan Road. Right next to Khoasan Road is the street Soi Rambuttri. Soi Rambuttri is basically a older, tamer version of Khoasan Road. For example, Khoasan Road is where you go to see young drunk people get stupid tattoos on the street. On Soi Rambuttri, the 30s crowd is still knocking back Chang beers, but they at least get their tattoos inside actual parlors.

We also explored several Bangkok markets and night markets, visited the Jim Thompson house, and even went to a free Sunday taping of Muy Thai boxing at the Chanel 7 Stadium. My favorite meal in Bangkok was seafood barbecue at the Ratchada Night Market. It was basically a Thai-style Louisiana boil. They dumped a pile of saucey seafood on our table and handed us each a pair of plastic gloves. No utensils required.

Next up… we take a Thai cooking class, play with elephants and learn to ride motorbikes in Northern Thailand! Stay tuned…