Saturday, October 17, 2009

Touch a Truck Day

What a fun and low-cost way to entertain a lot of kids. Get all the public services and some private companies to loan the use of their vehicle for four hours. Put them all in a parking lot and let little kids get up close to the machinery that fascinates them. For even more effect, have the drivers there in uniform and allow the kids to honk the horn or speak into the police speaker. The handouts of coloring books, crayons, stickers and plastic firefighter or hard hats were a bonus.

We spent $3.50 on a pretzel, but could have gone without spending anything. Our little guy got to sit in a tractor, walk through the back of an ambulance, activate the siren on a police car, see how high a fire ladder or a tree trimmer ladder can extend. I climbed into some machinery with him that I don’t even know what it is called.

At only 22 months old, our son was clearly excited to drive a tractor. I look forward to future years, when he can scamper a bit more onto the vehicles that interest him most. Thanks to the sponsors of this event – it’s a great idea.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The mysterious chocolate shop

The other day I was driving along a route I don’t usually take, running a bit late to see a friend, when I saw a hand-painted yellow and purple sign on the side of the road, directing me to a chocolate factory outlet. I’m always one to stop for chocolate, especially if it’s discounted. But I didn’t really need chocolate in the morning, and of course, I was running late.

Then came another sign – Chocolate covered blueberries. And other – On sale. Open now. This way.

I conceded and followed the arrows, turning off the road and into a small industrial park. I continued following the areas to the end of the park, where the outlet was located in a non-descript office. I give them credit for the good marketing, because not many people would make it to that place without the helpful arrows.

Inside I could see a wheel spinning and dripping with chocolate. A friendly employee offered me a sample of non-pareils, which were good.

The David Bradley chocolatier outlet looked like a standard chocolate store, though it had some unusual selections, such as chocolate covered potato chips, blueberries and marshmallows. Most items ran $15-16 per pound. The 5 oz rocky road I purchased, a bottlecap-shaped chocolate topped with peanuts and marshmallows, was delicious. An unexpected morning surprise.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Things to pack for Iceland

If you are planning a trip to Iceland, here at a couple of items you might want to have on hand: Conditioner. If you are planning a visit to the Blue Lagoon, the minerals really do a number on your hair. The best prevention is to tie back long hair or even use a swim cap. A heavy-duty conditioner used in the following days should help at least get a comb through it. A set of utensils and a Tupperware container or two. Iceland is big on picnics and facilitates them by placing a picnic table in virtually every beautiful place. That, plus the high cost of eating out and the fact that there may not be many choices when traveling in remote areas means it can be helpful to have some food ready. Binoculars. To spot birds, puffins, whales, porpoises, seals, etc. Layers. It can be hard to imagine 55 degrees in summer when you are sweltering somewhere else. But it is chilly and you’ll probably wear 2-3 layers a day. Long sleeved shirts are a good base, followed by either a lightweight or heavy sweater, then a windproof jacket or shell. A wool cap. This can be easily purchased in Iceland. A towel. Some hotels provide towels that aren’t large enough to wrap around your leg. Others are worn and scratchy. At pools, you have to pay to rent a towel. It’s easiest and cheapest to have your own. A credit card. Everything can be purchased with a credit card, from a soda to a taxi ride. Preferably a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees (Capital One is one option). A small computer. If you’ll want access to email on the road, you’ll have an easier time picking up wi-fi with your own computer than you will finding a computer to use.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The best museums in Iceland

While I didn’t make it to nearly all the museums in Iceland, I did visit quite a few. Here are the ones that stood out:

The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik is centered around the remains of a Viking longhouse, dating from 871 plus or minus two years that was located in what is now the city center. It has been artfully preserved and shown, visible from the street through a glass cover. The museum uses multimedia technology to help visitors see what the house was like back in the 800s and how the first settlers in Iceland may have lived.

The Einar Jonsson Museum in Reykjavik is small but really packs a punch. The sculptures are full of emotion and feeling. You can walk amidst his great works, then take a peek upstairs at a few of the rooms from his house.

The National Museum is well worth a visit. It outlines in a clear and interesting fashion the original settlement of Iceland. Just when you get tired of reading, the hands-on exhibits appear, which are fun for kids and adults. Try on clothes from different periods in Icelandic history, or lift the metal of a jacket of armor. You may feel like a relic in the second floor modern history display upon seeing an Atari or a photo machine on display. The museum has a good gift shop, free lockers in the basement and a café.

Folk Museum in Skogar. A top-notch folk museum that allows you to crawl through sod houses, a schoolhouse, church and other village buildings, as well as tour an extensive collection of the implements used in daily life. The adjacent transportation museum (included with admission) shows the early heavy-duty cars to reach Iceland, the appearance of modern appliances and the advent of radio.

The Bustarfell museum is a turf-covered house that was lived in until 1966 and that belonged to the same family for over 400 years. It's an extensive and elaborate layout and very well-maintained. The museum is well-worth a visit, but even better is visiting the attached Croft Café for fresh-baked country cakes and breads.

Petra's Stone Collection (Sunnuhlio; 755 Stodvarfjordur; Tel: 475-8834;;) is one of those things you don't expect to like, but it may impress you more than you think. Some may dismiss the vast collection, one of the largest rock collections in the world, arrayed through the home and extensive gardens, as kitsch. Others will appreciate the effect that Petra, now in her 80s, put into assembling one of the world's greatest private rock collection. Either way, it's unlike anything you'll see elsewhere in Iceland and worth a stop if you can make it. There is a picnic table in the garden and comfortable chairs in the sitting room, where you can enjoy tea or coffee.

If you’ve read anything by Icelandic literary superstar Halldor Laxness, it’s fun to visit his home and workplace to see where his creations originated. Admission comes with an audio tour.

Two places I didn’t make it to that are worth mentioning are:

The Witchcraft and Sorcery Museum in Holmavik. Our tour guide recommended this highly. We were sorry to not have time to make it up there.

The Settlement Centre in Borgarnes. We arrived just before closing, so didn’t manage to see it, but it looked like it would be worth a trip.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The festival I must go to someday

We’ve spent the past few days in the Westman Islands – or island, since only one of the 15 is habited. This little place has a lot of interesting sites – puffins, great hiking and the ability to see the effects of a major volcanic eruption that took place only 36 years ago, in 1973.

But the event that has brought people to the Westman Islands for decades is the music festival held every year during the first week of August. We tried to attend, but not only was all the accommodation booked (though camping was available), but all the ferries and planes were full.

It’s a four-day event, which includes one day where people hook up with another partner, one day of bonfire, one day of firecrackers and one day in which a local leader who served time in jail for corruption led everyone in song. For all four days, bands take the stage day and night.

Friends say it can get wild and is primarily for the young. But one middle-aged woman I spoke with on the island said that everyone attends. “It’s good for the parents to be here too and keeping an eye on their kids,” she said.

This year, over 14,000 people attend, increasing the usual population of 4,100 multiple times during a week of festivities. We visited the site of the festival, right next to a beautiful 18-hole golf course (the world’s only golf course on a crater) and it was remarkably clean just one week after the party.

I’d still like to attend. But next time, I’ll book accommodations well in advance, and perhaps I’ll wait until my son is old enough to enjoy it, so that I can join the Icelandic parents keeping an eye on their kids.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Favorite food in Iceland

Due to the high prices in Iceland, I subsisted on groceries more often than usual while traveling. However, I tried to get in at least one local meal per day. Here is where I found the most delicious food:

Vogafjos Café, near Lake Myvatn – The grilled trout portion was large and perfectly seasoned. A sampler meal allows you to taste a variety of smoked meats and fishes with complementary sauces. For a real treat, try the geyser bread, baked in the ground or the creamy, homemade ice cream. Enjoy all this with a view of farmland and the lake and a shed full of cows next door. Open from May to October.

Ensku Husin, just outside Borganes. An 1800s English fishing lodge, restored to its original character in 2007. Each evening, from 7 p.m. to 8:30, the restaurant serves a prix fixe menu. On the night I visited, it included mushroom soup, grilled salmon with potatoes, tomato salad and mashed sweet potato, chocolate cake with ice cream and coffee or tea. The fish was superb and the variety of vegetables in the side dishes unique for Iceland. Exceptionally friendly service and the unique 1800s décor with a view of the river make this a place to experience.

Cakes at Conte’s Café at the Bustarfell turf farm museum – Country cake (made with oats), rhubarb cake, chocolate cake. All are fresh, warm and topped with a mound of whipped cream. This is the place to relax with a hot drink and one of the best desserts you’ll try in Iceland.

FossHotel Baron in Reykjavik. Perhaps the pricey Reyjavik hotels do better, but hands-down, this was the best breakfast I had in Iceland. The waffle iron gets big points, as does the wide selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, breads, cookies, cereals, skyr and toppings.

The Seafood Cellar serves food in its most exquisite form in Reykjavik's oldest stone cellar. Everything is a symphony of flavors, mixed creatively, blended perfectly. It's worth it to cut back for a few days in order to afford the tasting menu. It will be the best meal you eat in Iceland, and perhaps anywhere. Reservations suggested. Open only for dinner.

For a treat from the supermarket, try the marshmallow filling dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut. Light , fluffy and full of calories, this is an Icelandic treat to take home to the kids.

Soft serve ice cream cones available from gas stations are rich, creamy, delicious and cheap. Skyr can be purchased in single-serve or larger containers from the grocery store.

Whipped cream – Icelanders love their whipped cream and no waffle or dessert is complete without it.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Favorite accommodations in Iceland

In the time I was in Iceland, I tried out several different types of accommodations, in many different locations. The best, of course, was the time we spent in a private home. But for those looking to book a room, I’ll share my favorites among the places we stayed.

Sydri-Vik (690 Vopnafirdi; Tel: 473-1199; Fax: 473-1449), a member of Icelandic Farm Holidays, has beautiful and quaint red summer cottages, with extra large windows offering amazing views of the nature and the bay. The cottages are cozy and comfortable, with everything a traveler could need - bath, microwave, fridge, kitchen, TV, dining area, sofa and three bedrooms. A patio outside has chairs and a grill and the cottages are just steps from a river. From Egilsstadir, take road 1 for 85 km. Turn right on road 85. God 50 km. Turn right on rd. 917. It's 3 km on the right. If you decide to travel on rd. 917 from rd., be forewarned that there is a large single-laned mountain crossing that would be very difficult in wet or cold weather. The views on this route, however, are stunning.

Hotel Framtid in Djupivogur is a warm, welcoming place at a reasonable price. It offers beautiful harbor views – a perfect Icelandic hotel.

The Fosshotel Baron (Baronsstigur 2; Tel: 562-3204) is a short walk from the center of town and attractively perched on the harbor. Rooms are comfortable and quiet but the real attractions are the location, the easy FlyBus dropoff and pickup and the delicious breakfast buffet, the best I had in Iceland.

Blue Lagoon Clinic. Wow, this is perhaps my favorite hotel of all time. Where else can you stay in a room with a view of lava fields? A wonderful, luxurious way to experience the magic of the lava fields and the blue lagoon without the hordes of tourists. The pricetag is steep, but it includes entrance to the Blue Lagoon (for two days, if desired) and a wonderful breakfast with fresh-baked breads. Best of all, guests receive access to a private lagoon from 8-10 a.m. and 8-10 p.m. that is even better than the lagoon itself. This magnificent hideaway is well worth the money. There is a footpath directly from the clinic to the blue lagoon that takes 5-10 minutes to walk.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sleeping bag accommodation

When I travel overseas, I enjoy finding unique hotel arrangements that make the lodging arrangement more convenient for the traveler and still profitable for the innkeeper. One of my favorites is the 24 hour stay in parts of Eastern Europe and Russia, where for the price of one night’s lodging, a guest is allowed to stay for 24 hours from the time they check in. I think the hotel industry in the United States could do a lot to break out of the standard mold and offer services that are more valuable to travelers.

I came across another good idea here in Iceland. It’s called sleeping bag accommodation. When you book a room, you ask for either a prepared bed or sleeping bag accommodation. A prepared bed is what you get in a standard hotel room. In sleeping bed accommodation, the room is the same as usual, but without bed-linens. The guest is expected to bring their own sleeping bag. As a result of not having to clean and replace the linens, the innkeeper charges the guest less.

Sleeping bag accommodations can come in two types – either a dorm room shared with other guests, or standard singles and doubles, identical to typical hotel stays but without linens.

We booked our first sleeping bag accommodation last night at the Hotel Framtid in Djupivogur. We had the option of a prepared room for 10,100 kroners, or a two-person sleeping bag accommodation for 6,800 kroners. Both had shared bath. For the 3,300kr savings (about $28), we were ready to ditch the sheets. We ended up with a cozy room with a nice heater and a view of the harbor. I’m a new fan of Icelandic sleeping bag accommodation.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Real Icelandic Weather

Before coming to Iceland, I read that I should be prepared to protect myself from the rains – a windjacket and rain pants were on the packing list. Until today, we had only occasional light showers. We experienced bouts of cold and some light wind, but nothing like what hit us today – almost an entire day of downpours and screeching, powerful winds.

In this kind of weather, in which you are wet and feel almost powerless against the strength of the wind, the temperature doesn’t matter too much. It’s cold no matter what.

As a result, we spent much of the day driving. At times, the wind was so strong we could barely keep our little Suzuki on the road. Our back window vibrated so hard I worried it would implode. Giant mountain ranges disappeared under a layer of fog.

We were lucky to have a clear patch for long enough to take a one hour hike in Skaftafell National Park. We ventured out for a short walk across moss covered lava blobs in a drizzle and I wished for mittens, my wool hat and long underwear when we went out on an amphibious boat to see icebergs fallen from a glacier. Most of the time we just drove, happy to have a warm vehicle to shelter us, even as we lamented the views we missed due to the obstructed scenery.

Worst off were the poor bikers. Just yesterday, I envied the cyclists I saw traveling the Ring Road. It’s a beautiful road for biking, flat, endless scenery, not too much traffic, easy to follow, plenty of space to camp. It reminded me of the wonderful experience of cycling Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan and I wished I could join them. However, today I saw the downside – bikers hiding between rocks to seek shelter from the wind, bikers pedaling slowly, or walking their bikes in winds so fierce they could barely stand up, bikers soaked to the skin, with no signs of civilization for miles and miles in either direction. For anyone thinking of biking the Ring Road, you should know that it offers great possibilities. However, when the weather gets bad, it’s really, really bad and changes occur quickly. I’d advise bikers to either have some kind of back-up plan or be prepared to endure potentially miserable conditions for many hours.

In the evening, we reached the pretty and welcoming harbor village of Djupivogur. The Framtid hotel is warm and inviting, with beautiful views of the harbor and it has a nice restaurant. There, we were told that with the exception of a break in the weather yesterday, it has been raining for the last week. Rain is forecast here for the next nine days.

Due to how quickly the weather patterns change, it’s hard to make plans based upon the weather. We had been hoping to go horseback riding tomorrow, perhaps a boat trip, perhaps some hiking. Now we’ve learned to play it by ear. At the very least, we are experiencing real, Icelandic weather.

The video is from a roadside stop. The mangled metal is a former bridge that was ruined by the weather.

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Faces of Icelanders

I have a deep respect for people who live their lives in Iceland. This respect is ever greater for those who lived in decades and centuries past.

We’re enjoying our visit to Iceland very much and I’m spoiled daily by so many striking sites and interesting things to learn about. However, Iceland is one of those places that is great to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here. Why? It’s cold. Even now, at the height of summer, with beautiful sunny days and little rain, I dress in three layers and carry around a wool hat. Also, the winters are dark. And the land is far from other places.

Reading books, such as the recent novel, The Tricking of Freya, and the opus by Nobel Prize winning Icelandic author Haldor Laxness, Independent People, gives me further understanding of what life was life in earlier decades and centuries. They had to contend with volcanic eruptions, with limited diets and high infant mortality.

Those who endured the hardships to build their life and their families here strike me as noble and courageous. Today I visited the Skogar Folk Museum, where I was able to take a closer look at how life was lived. This is a top-notch folk museum, with extensive collections of implements and excellent creations of dwellings and other buildings, including sod houses. For those who visit the southeastern part of Iceland, this is well-worth seeing. A bonus is that it’s located right next to a stunning waterfall.

More than anything else, the faces that peered out from the old photographs struck me. Here are a few of them, faces of Icelanders:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle refers to the circle that takes in the three highlights near Reykjavik – Thingvellir – the site of the world’s first Parlimanet, the magnificent Gulfoss waterfall, comparable to Niagara, and the Geysir geyser.

We took the Golden Circle classic tour offered by Iceland Excursions. This tour stopped first at the geothermal power station. I had expected that we’d go into the power station and see how it worked. Instead, it was just a view from afar. But it was still worth seeing. The surrounding landscape was stunning and filled with hiking trails. The sight of steam rising up from amidst mountains and the long tube that follows the road, carrying warm water to the city, is worth seeing.

The tour included only transportation and the guide in the 60 euro charge. There were plenty of opportunities to buy food along the way. I think if I had it to do over again, I would have brought a picnic and eaten besides the Gulfoss waterfall. The best food was at the cafeteria on the site of the Catholic church headquarters. The final stop, supposedly a religion museum but really just a big gift shop, is best used to try the creamy Icelandic soft serve, at a very reasonable 100 kroners per cone.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Initial Impressions of Iceland

I’ve been in Iceland for two days now and like it a lot so far. There is much to explore and our days are full. Some of my first impressions are:

  • It’s cold. Even in late July, one can wear a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater and a jacket. The temperature varies throughout the day, so layering is a must.

  • It’s cheaper than it used to be, but still expensive. Many of the prices, especially for tourist-related services, have been raised accordingly to pre-devaluation of the kroner levels. Nevertheless, it’s still cheaper for tourists than it was a year or two ago and will probably remain that way for a while

  • It’s spacious. The land is vast and the population small.

  • I like the people. Not only are they beautiful, they are proud, individualistic and quite egalitarian. Sixty percent of Parliamentarians are female and they have the world’s first openly gay prime minister.

  • Reykjavik is a very walkable city. I’m putting on well over 10,000 steps per day without a problem.

  • Reykjavik is surprisingly loud. Frequent airplanes plus traffic, harbor noises, skateboarders and blaring music make one suspect that there aren’t many noise ordinances here.

  • It’s light in summer. It’s hard to feel as though as it’s late at 10 p.m. when the sky is still fully light. This takes some adjustment.

Climbing Mount Esja

If you are looking to get out into nature, get a bit of exercise, and not spend a lot of money, climbing Mount Esja, just outside of Reykjavik is a good option.

It’s an easy drive from the capital. Or you can go by bus, taking bus 15 from the main bus station and transferring to bus 57. Check the schedule ahead of time though because there can be a delay of an hour or two between buses.

The trail goes up from the parking lot where the bus drops you off. It’s at a consistent incline. Dress in layers and bring water, a snack and a hat. Walking sticks are helpful if you have them.

The trail is well-mapped and there are six points along the trail, followed by a rocky peak that is a difficult climb. Each point offers increasingly wide views over the capital, the water and the harbors.

Enjoy the panaromic views, the sound of mountain waters rushing down the rocks, the various wildflowers growing amidst the rocks and the long-haired sheep grazing nearby.

At the base of the mountain, a small café offers delicious health shakes, as well as snacks and modern toilets. There are port-o-pottys in the parking lot. When waiting for the bus, stand out at the road so that the bus driver can see to make a stop. She will then pull into the stop in the parking lot.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Local Minnesota

If you happen to be in the Twin Cities and want to experience some real Minnesota culture, Captain Black’s Bar and Grill, in the southern bounds of the metropolitan area, is a place where you are unlikely to see a tourist, or non-local, in sight. If you like cars, you can take in a race at the Elko Speedway (9660 Main Street in Elko, Tel: 952-461-3090) while you are there. Or, you could just stop by for the buck burgers (yep, $1 a piece) on Thursday nights.

Service is excellent, despite the bar atmosphere, it’s very kid friendly, and the menu (most of which is fried) has almost nothing over $5.

Fancy, no. But a good deal? You betcha.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A trip to Wilmington, Delaware

A couple of weeks ago, we took a trip to the Wilmington, Delaware area.

The highlight of our trip, and the place we spend a good part of one day, was the Hagley Museum. This is the site of the gunpowder factory owned by E.I. du Pont. A relative on my husband’s side spent a long career at Dupont, so we felt a bit of a personal connection in learning how this ancestor’s employer built his fortune.

The site, in a forested area located along the rushing Brandywine river, is gorgeous. It’s worth a visit if only to stroll along the beautiful river. But when you see the remnants of this site, you’ll want to learn more.

Luckily, the museum makes that easy. After an indoor exhibit, you are allowed to explore the grounds at your leisure. Through a combination of signs, self-guided maps, and guides who describe various buildings and operations, one comes away with a good sense of the dangerous and dirty life it must have been for the workers 200 years ago.

To see the owner’s house, which was also not free of the dangers of explosion, you take a free bus to the house entrance, where you must join a guided tour.

Plan to spend at least half a day here. There is a restaurant on-site.

Another fun find was the Delaware Art Museum, which is not only free on Sundays (bonus) but had surprisingly light traffic. Don’t come here for lunch, as the options at the on-site café are sparse and mostly pre-packaged. But the art collection is nice to see and the outdoor sculpture garden makes for a pleasant stroll.

If you are visiting with children, definitely leave time to enjoy the kid’s room – a beautiful space downstairs designed with the budding young artist in mind. Kids can create murals with shapes on the wall, can read a variety of children’s art related books while they lounge in a comfortable chair, or can explore some of the other fun activities available.

And finally, for a great food find in the area, try the Six Paupers Tavern. This place is packed with locals in the know in the evenings. Everything we tried was amazing, from the seared tuna to the scallops to the burgers.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bucks County camping

I’ve been meaning to get out camping for a while and this weekend, we finally made it happen. We made reservation at the Beaver Valley Family campground in Ottsville, Pennsylvania.

This is a convenience campground, rather than a wilderness spot. We had neighbors within a few feet of us on either side. It’s also primarily an RV spot, with a high RV to tent ratio.

Even as one of few campers without a lot of fancy amenities, I really enjoyed my stay. It’s in the midst of a dense forest of maple, walnut and ash trees, tall, brilliantly green, and providing abundant shade in hot weather. Deer came within a few feet of our site and I saw a toad and heard many birds.

The needed amenities are here – clean restrooms and showers with hot water, washing machines, a shop with the needed essentials that is open until 10 p.m. The owners are friendly and willing to provide advice on what to see and do. And the place is busy. Almost every spot was filled and I was told that people make reservations weeks in advance. It attracts a lot of families and retired people and the visitors seemed to be pretty well behaved.

It’s also a nice spot for children. There is a playground with equipment appropriate for both toddlers and older children as well as a swimming pool and a wading pool. A stream nearby is far enough away that a young child couldn’t wander off there. But it’s close enough for an enjoyable walk and once there, you suddenly feel far removed from all the RVs Weekend events are frequently organized, such as 50 cent hayrides or BBQ potlucks (which we would have liked to have gone to, but I had no idea how I was supposed to prepare a BBQ meat dish to serve 5-6, plus a dessert, over a campfire. So we skipped it).

A couple spots are on ledges that overlook forest views and those are especially nice.

As for what we discovered to do in the area:

First we took a bike ride, to Lake Nockamixon state park. The beautiful lake is a great place for a picnic or to feed the ducks. If you want to rent a canoe or kayak, it looks like a beautiful place to paddle.

We found an amazing ice cream shop – Owowcow. The ice cream is made on premises, in small batches, using local ingredients when possible. I tried three kinds, including tiramisu and they were all amazing. Definitely a special find.

In the tiny town of Ottsville, just three miles from the campsite, is a pleasant little coffeeshop, Brig O’Doon, with both indoor and outdoor seating. They have a good selection of quality beverages, as well as fresh bagels and gluten-free treats. Attached is the Kimberton whole foods store, which has an excellent selection of organic and natural food, especially for a small town, as well as a lot of cool toys and gifts. I tend to associate camping with junk food. But here, you can pick up all-natural chicken, grass-fed ground beef, local cheeses and quality pork chops. Don’t forget to bring something to grill with on the fire pit, unless you are using sticks. Unfortunately, the camp sites don’t come with grills to place over the flames.

Biking here allows for the discovery of some great local places, and many of the roads are narrow, green ad lightly trafficked. However, there are some very significant hills. Unless you are a very strong biker, you’ll probably spend some timing pushing your bike uphill.

This is an area where people have businesses making chapels and weatherwaves, repairing screens, operating a law firm next to a personal effects storage facility. It’s a place where the post office worker drives a car with a US MAIL sign atop and drives from the passenger side so as not to have to get out of the car to put the mail in the mailbox. There are a lot of trucks, horses, and recreational vehicles, and the flea market around the diner draws a large crowd on the weekend. But scattered amidst this fairly rural atmosphere are some specialty shops, like Owowcow and Brig O’Doons coffee, that bring a taste of sophistication. The people are friendly and unpretentious. It’s the kind of place that gives one a good feeling, and makes me glad to spend time here.

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Every time I come through Chita (this is at least my fourth time) I try to give it another chance. I hoped that this time would be different, that the wealth from the last six years would result in changes to the city and to people’s attitudes. Unfortunately, the city has remained locked in time. I still don’t like it.

A nice American acquaintance (who has lived here an unbelievable 13 years) met me at the airport and after getting me settled at a nice and reasonably priced hotel, dropped me off at the central market. This used to be my favorite place, where Central Asian traders smiled over stacks of bright fruit and vegetables. The market had changed, with booths for clothing and goods replacing much of the vast open market space. The Central Asians were still there, although in smaller numbers, and they were still the most friendly.

Only at the central market in Chita can someone ask me, “Are you from the Ukraine? Mongolia?” and expect an affirmative reply.

I hoped to walk through town, back towards my hotel, while picking up some groceries, getting something to eat, and seeing how the city has changed.

Instead, what I found is that, with the exception of a few new buildings – a hotel, a couple of apartment blocks, a couple of shopping centers - the city has remained frozen in time. The exact same restaurants and shops stood in the exact same places and in the exact same condition, plus six years of wear. There was very little in the way of renovation, improvement, the flourishing of new businesses. The highlight of the town is the ice palace and slide, located in front of the giant Lenin statue (still standing) and built annually by the Chinese.

Shortly after leaving the market, I realized I’d forgotten my mittens. I wrapped my hands in my scarf and continued on. I was quickly reminded of the power of the Siberian cold. First, the nose hairs stand to attention as they begin to freeze. The hands become uncomfortable cold, and with time, become stiff and lose dexterity. The nose begins to drip and that, plus the frozen nose hairs makes for a cold mess. Then the face begins to stiffen from the cold, making it difficult to speak. The cold seems in through the jeans into the legs and through the collar into the upper chest. The cold air enters the esophagus and the lungs like a thick, chilled drink. I looked for the buses I was told go to the hotel, but couldn’t find nay of them. Nor did I find an easy taxi. So I kept walking.

I moved from the main street, Babushkina, down Chkalova, through the center of town, and up Lenin Street, the main throughway. I hoped that I’d find the buses there, and if nothing else, I could find a café where I could stop to warm up and have something warm to eat. No luck on any counts. I saw one café, Vesta, that I recognized from before. When I went in, I found the tables in disarray, soggy pirozhki in the front case, and no service staff. A few blocks later, I passed Tsyplata Tabaka, a café I remembered that serves nothing but chicken, but the chicken is really good. With some excitement, I approached the front door. But it was locked and there were no hours posted.

I was so cold at this point I could barely move. I went into a shop to warm up and asked the saleswomen where I could find something to eat. This was the main street in the center of town. They named the two places I’d just tried and couldn’t come up with any others.

Finally, near my hotel, I found a little stand selling grilled chicken and shaurma (made with tiny chunks of chicken and lots of mayonnaise and cabbage in a flour wrap). That was enough exploring for the day. I happily entered my warm hotel, made two cups of hot tea and luxuriated in a steaming shower.

In the evening, I visited Lukas and his family. When I told him and his wife Natalia about my difficulties finding anything to eat and my surprise at the lack of cafes or restaurants, Natalia, a Chitan said, “We have a Subway. And a Baskin Robbins!” They mentioned two other cafes, but they are hidden away. Lukas said that one positive change has been that many of the roads have been repaved, saving drivers the cost of replacing their shock absorbers each year. However, even he is considering sending his son to study overseas in order to expose him to a greater variety of people and professions. He said here, the youth want only to study business and law. They don’t see a way to make a living in any other profession.

I’m enjoying the hot water, since I don’t know whether or not I’ll have any in Aginsk. But I’m not at all disappointed to be leaving Chita tomorrow.

Friday, February 20, 2009

getting from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo to Domodedovo airport

If you are flying into Moscow and want to avoid spending time in the capitol city, you may be able to transfer to Domodedovo and catch a flight to your destination the same day. You have three ways of doing this.

1. Take a taxi from one airport to the other. This is likely to cost you several hundred dollars and the traffic can be brutal.

2. Travel by train, which requires three connections – first to Rechnoi Vokzal metro, then Rechnoi Vokzal to Paveletsky, and Paveletsky to Domodedovo. This is the cheapest option, but you’ll need to lug your bags around (and probably can’t avoid stairs entirely). It also takes several hours.

3. Take a taxi to Paveletsky, then take the train to Domodedovo. The taxi to Paveletsky costs 1600 rubles now if you call a taxi to meet you at the airport. This is a good option if you’d have to wait a while at Sheremetyevo for the first train.

At Paveletsky station, for about 300 rubles you can check in for your flight and check in your luggage, allowing you to travel baggage-free to the airport or to spend some time around town.

A few tips to make the transfer easier are:

  • Choose a flight that arrives in Moscow in the morning to maximize your time.
  • The taxis at the airport are great extortionists. To receive a normal price, call a taxi (232 company (telephone 7 495 232 1111 is reputable) and have it meet you outside customs.
  • Pack in a way that allows you to carry your luggage easily.

Arrival at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport

Upon arrival at Sheremetyevo, you’ll go through immigration, pick up your baggage, then pass through customs. There is an area for people to meet you upon exiting customs. If you order a taxi in advance, this is where you will find the driver.

There are two places to change money in the airport, as well as an ATM machine. The first is just to the right of customs, beyond a door that says Crew Check in. The other is all the way down the hall to the right, just past the bright yellow Evrosite telephone kiosk. The exchange rate is reasonable, currently 34 point something to the dollar, compared to 35 point something you’ll get in the city.

You can buy a local SIM card for your cell phone, or purchase a phone at the bright yellow Evrosite booth. The staff will ask where you plan to call and recommend the cheapest option.

There is a café and several newsstands in the airport.

To get to the city, you can:
1. Take the train.
2. If your luggage is light, you can take a marshrutka (mini-van bus) to Planernaya or Rechnoi Vokzal Metro stations. This the cheapest option. Go out to where the taxis are. Just beyond the taxis, in the third lane from the exit door, the marshrutkas wait.
3. Call a taxi ahead of time, or from the airport, to come meet you. It’s significantly cheaper to do this than to use the airport taxis. One reliable company is 232 (Telephone: 7 495 232 1111).
4. Take a licensed airport taxi. Be prepared to pay a lot.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Things I'm Learning About Planning a Trip to Russia

I’m off to Russia next week. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the process of planning for my trip.

· It is no easier to get a visa to Russia than it was when I last visited several years ago. If anything, it’s more expensive and complicated. Russia has not yet shown signs of wanting to encourage tourism.

· The cheapest tourist visa for Americans will cost you $181 (for two week processing and an invitation).

· The Way to Russia boards have the most comprehensive and helpful information on visa registration I’ve found. Having been through the process of registration in the Russian hinterlands before, I wonder if they are overly optimistic in their thoughts that local landlords can help register you. My guess is that this would take a substantial amount of time on the part of the landlord and probably some type of bribe. If you are going to ask a landlord to do this, make sure you are paying them enough to compensate them adequately for the hassle.

· For invitation processing, I used a company called Russian American Consulting, which is staffed by former employees of the Russian Foreign Service. What I like about this company is that you send your passport directly to them and they handle all interactions with the embassy. No need for contact with the Russian embassy on your part. They also followed through with what they promised and were professional and courteous. If you will be staying primarily in the Moscow area, they can register the visa for you for 1500 rubles. Otherwise, you have to register with the local authorities, which is a whole adventure in itself. Another, slightly cheaper, option that people recommended to me is Way to Russia.

· The tourist visa application, apparently modeled after the application the U.S. embassy makes Russians fill out, asks questions I’ve never seen on another visa application – such as all the countries you have visited in the last ten years and the dates of visit, full information on your last two places of work, including your supervisor, all educational institutions ever attended after high school, and all professional, civil and charitable organizations you have ever been a member of, contributed to or worked with. I understand they want to make a point that the U.S. visa procedures are cumbersome, expensive and condescending. However, I think they need to keep in mind the numbers of Americans (very few, I imagine) who stay illegally to live and work in Russia. Conversely, the number of Russians who stay in the U.S. illegally is significant and there is a whole network set up to assist them in New York.

· S7 airlines, now the largest domestic airline in Russia, sells tickets online. The customer service is excellent. But watch out for your bank charging you a foreign transaction fee of 2% or more. I was surprised when my debit card, issued by ING Direct (a bank I loved until that moment) added another 2% to my already expensive Moscow to Siberia flight. Capital One credit card doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees. Also, if you purchase your domestic flight separately from your international flight, you’ll be subject to the 20 kilo free luggage limit.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Magic of Mullica Hill

I’ve been exploring tearooms around New Jersey lately. This weekend, I stopped by one in Mullica Hill, Amelia’s Tea and Holly. It was wonderful – Victorian décor, relaxing classical music, friendly service and delicious food, homemade on the premises. It felt like walking into a home, where I could sit for hours (unfortunately, I had only an hour) and take my time, sipping on my oolong and enjoying dainty bites from my three tiers of scone, quiche, sandwiches, fresh fruit and desserts. This is a place I would definitely visit again.

Another highlight in town was the Amish market, where we stocked up cheeses, hormone-free milk, canned peaches and three-bean salad and deli meats. Unlike our usual Amish market, this one had a doughnut counter, where you can see the dough being cut, and a counter selling kettle soups with delicate scents. The prepared food section is excellent, with pretzel dogs, roasted duck, fresh fries, sweet potatoes with marshmallows and many other items glistening in the case.
I came across this helpful blog post, which describes the culinary highlights of Mullica Hill and suggests it as an alternate to food courts when traveling between DC and New York. After visiting the above two places, I’d say that’s a very good idea.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Super Russian film

In preparation for my trip to Russia, just over two weeks from now, I’m burning through all the Russian-language films at my local library, trying to get my mind back into Russian mode. Some have been mediocre, others unimpressive. Today I was lucky enough to find a gem.

Ostrov (The Island) is about a man who commits a terrible sin during the war, then spends the rest of his life in guilt. He lives in a monastic community on a remote island. While I’ve never been to Solovetsky Islands, the movie brought to mind all I’d imagined of this remote northern spiritual community.

The cinematography is stunning, with widescreen panoramas of snow, water and remote isolation captured with a deep sense of beauty. The acting is good, the topic of guilt and repentance thought provoking and the story line unique. An all around excellent film, worth the time spent watching it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Good info on airline food

Want a preview of what you might be served onboard (if you get anything at all) so you know how many snacks to pack? If so, take a look at, where you can scroll through photos and reviews of meals served on all your favorite airlines. Better yet, contribute your own photos and reviews. There is nothing like making the photos public to put a little pressure on the airlines to ramp up standards a bit.

If you are in the mood for a great example of customer feedback to an airline regarding food, take a look at this humorous letter, written by an anonymous passenger of Virgin Atlantic.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Learning about Kyrgyzstan

Planning a trip to Kyrgyzstan and you’d like to know more about the country and the culture. Here are some suggestions:

Non-fiction books
Kyrgyzstan: central asia’s island of democracy? By John Anderson is overdue for an updated edition, covering the period only up to 1997. Despite this, it provides a very useful and readable overview of Kyrgyz history, political and economic development and security issues within a compact 100 pages. Filled with lots of useful facts, it’s a good primer for visitors who want to understand the country context.

Kyrgyzstan (Lerner Geography Dept., 1993) This book is intended for middle-school readers, but it's a useful introduction to anyone looking for a short overview to the people, land and industry of Kyrgyzstan. Chapters include The Land and People of Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzstan's Story, Making a Living in Kyrgyzstan and What's Next for Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan by Claudia Antipina, Temirbek Musakeev and Roland Paivo presents a nice collection of photographs, focusing on Kyrgyz textiles and costumes.

The Tulip Revolution: Kyrgyzstan One Year After by Erica Marat presents, in the form of a timeline, a chronology of the 2005-2006 events in Kyrgyzstan and an analysis of the country one year after President Akayev’s ouster. This book offers a useful opportunity to understand recent Kyrgyz history.

Kyrgyz Leadership and Ethnopolitics: Before and After the Tulip Revolution: The Changed Position of Ethnic Russians and Uzbeks by Munara Omuralieva. I haven’t had a chance to take a look at this new book yet, but some Russians and Uzbeks found the Kyrgyz nationalism associated with the tulip revolution to be threatened. It would be interesting to read this analysis.

Shadow of the Silk Road by Colin Thubron takes readers on a modern day trip through the Silk Road territories.

Over the Edge: A True Story of Kidnap and Escape in the Mountains of Central Asia by Greg Child tells the story of four American rock climbers kidnapped near the border with Afghanistan.

Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia by Nancy Lubin is a bit outdated, but still useful as an introduction to some of the social, political and economic issues of the south of Kyrgyzstan.

So Many Enemies, So Little Time: An American Woman in All the Wrong Places by Elinor Burkett is a memoir of an American woman’s time teaching at a university in Bishkek.

Better a Hundred Friends than a Hundred Rubles? Social Networks in Transition – The Kyrgyz Republic, a World Bank Working Paper by Kathleen Kuehnast and Nora Dudwick provides insight into local culture and relations.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron recounts a journey to Central Asia in the early 1990s.

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia by Peter Hopkirk is a highly engaging account of the battle between the great powers for the territory of Central Asia.

Turkestan Solo by Ella Maillart is the travel journal of an adventurous female traveler in the 1930s, who crossed Kyrgyzstan and explored many of the major Central Asian cities.

Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track is my book, based on research from the 2.5 years I lived there.

Kyrgyz Republic by Rowan Stewart has beautiful pictures and top-notch narrative information about Kyrgyzstan.

Lonely Planet Central Asia has a short section on Kyrgyzstan but includes the necessary basics. This book is most useful for those planning to visit several countries in the region.

Kyrgyzstan (The Bradt Guide) is one of the newer additions to the guidebook collection.

Community Based Tourism has published a guidebook to CBT services. The guide to Bishkek in the appendix is especially useful. Buy a copy for 170 som at CBT offices or download a draft of the 2006 version at:

Maps available in the West include Kyrgyzstan: A Climber’s Map and Guide by Garth Willis and Martin Gamache and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Map by GiziMap.

Fiction books
Any novels by Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, Chingis Aitmatov, will provide a good sense of the local culture and life. Those available in English translation include: The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years, Jamilia, The Place of the Skull, Cranes Fly Early and Short Novels.

This is Not Civilization by Robert Rosenberg is a novel set largely in Kyrgyzstan, written by a former Peace Corps volunteer.

Beshkempir: The Adopted Son tells the story of a young boy growing up in the typical local manner, until his best friend, in a burst of anger, reveals that Beshkempir is adopted. The film progresses with little dialogue, moving viewers through the days and weeks of typical village life. Most of the movie is in black and white, with occasional vibrant bursts of color. The relations between individuals, the land and animals are wonderfully conveyed, as is the typical life and cultural practices of Kyrgyz villagers. The movie frankly portrays issues such as early sexual exploration and spousal abuse.

Wedding Chest (Tsunduk Predkov) is about a couple, a French woman and a Kyrgyz man, coming back from Paris to Krygyzstan in order to announce their marriage. Some of the scenes are overdone but the scenery is excellent, some cultural traditions and beliefs are illuminated and the reaction of the parents to the foreign bride is indicative of Kyrgyz desire for children to marry within their ethnicity.

Birds of Paradise (Zumak kystary): This Kyrgyz-Kazhak film by Kyrgyz filmmaker Talgat Asyrankulov is about a young, female journalism student who goes to the border to document the issues there and falls in with a comic gang of smugglers. The film feels roughly strung together and the acting is sometimes weak. But the highlight is the famous ostrich farm, located just outside Bishkek, featured in the film.

The PBS documentary on bride stealing by Petr Lom shows three bride kidnappings as they happen. It is a moving and important documentation of this ancient practice that still claims many victims. Watch it online at:

Other movies filmed in Kyrgyzstan, many of them shorts, include:
Pure Coolness (Boz Salkyn) (2007)
Lullaby (2006)
Down from the Seventh Floor (2005) – About the Tulip Revolution.
Saratan (2005)
Altyn Kyrghol (2001)
The Fly Up (Ergii) (2001)
The Chimp (Maimil) (2001)
Sanzhyra (2001)
The White Pony (1999)
Hassan Hussen (1997)
Bus Stop (Beket) (1995)
Taranci (1995)
Jamila (1994) – Based on the Chingis Aitmatov novel.
Sel’kincek (1993)
Where’s Your Home, Snail? (Gde tvoy dom, ulitka?) (1992)

If you know of other resources on Kyrgyzstan, please post them in the comments.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Exploring tearooms

While most Americans drink coffee, I have avoided ever having a cup. Instead, I’m a tea fan, taught during my student years while living with an English host family. I start off every morning with a cup of black tea, and wind down in the evenings with a soothing herbal.

I enjoyed high tea in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, as well as in the tea mecca of London. However, I never realized that New Jersey is full of tearooms, as are many other states in the U.S.

I’m now exploring some of these tea oases in my background. The first one I tried was the Harmony tearoom in Westwood, New Jersey. It’s a small, intimate and welcoming place, with soups, salads and scones that are to die for. It’s such a treat to tuck into a warm and relaxing environment, with no corporate logo and no hurry to move. It’s a lot of fun to try different teas, such a rooibos with an almond flavor, a fruity pear black tea or a lightly sweet chamomile. It’s a chance to step back from the hectic world and take a breather.

To find tearooms in your neighborhood, look at

Monday, January 12, 2009

Some more good foreign films

When I’m not able to be on the road, I like to watch foreign films to get a glimpse of faraway places. I try to note the worthwhile ones I come across here. Below are two more to add to the list.

Since Otar Left is a film from contemporary Georgia. It does a great job of portraying the details of daily life in a post-Communist society – so much so that I missed the minivan buses, the thick doors with peeling paint, even the electrical and water outages. Three generations of women live together in a Tbilisi apartment, awaiting letters and phone calls from Otar, their son/brother/uncle, who has gone to France to work illegally in construction. When something happens to Otar, the younger two women decide to lie to Otar’s mother.

I think it’s most worth watching for the images of Georgia and for the insight it provides into a family dependent on foreign remittances and longing for better opportunities. Esther Gorintin’s performance as Otar’s mother is also amazing for a 90-year-old actress (who was a former dental assistant). I’ve been seeing some inspiring examples of older actresses lately. One is 81-year-old Estelle Parsons, starring as an evil matriach in Broadway’s August: Osage County. Another is Gorintin.

A Soldier’s Ballad is a 1959 movie from the Soviet Union. This might make you expect patriotic fervor and a chaste, lovely view of life. Surprisingly, that’s not what you’ll find at all and it makes this film unique.

The main character is allowed a six-day leaving from fighting at the front after he (somewhat unrealistically) destroys two tanks. He has two days to travel home, two days to fix his mother’s leaking roof, and two days to return. The trip home ends up taking longer than two days though, as he travels across Russia and meets up with people affected in various ways by the war. I watched it twice, once with the English subtitles and once without. It’s a rare film I enjoy repeating, but this one is touching and very nicely done.

The interview that accompanies the DVD is not as well done, but is interesting only to hear the nationalist jingoism in the exchange, especially from the American side.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Best travel gadgets of 2008

I’m blogging over at Matador Travel today on the best travel gadgets of 2008.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Kyrgyzstan makes list of top 10 countries to visit

Kyrgyzstan is number six on Lonely Planet’s list of the top 10 countries to visit in 2009. I couldn’t agree more that Kyrgyzstan is one of the best undiscovered destinations. For the full scoop on what to see and do, take a look at my newly published guidebook: Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track. And enjoy the beautiful country and friendly people!