I’ve been complaining that my wandering feet are getting itchy. Due to the pandemic, I haven’t traveled anywhere outside of Hanoi (let alone outside the country) since last year, and barely left my house during the Lunar New Year break. Luckily, after the break, the number of cases in our country started to go down again, so one weekend, my sister and I decided to take a quick day trip to Duong Lam, an ancient village (or, rather, a collection of 9 hamlets) just outside of Hanoi. My sister and I share a love for historical houses, so this village, with its 300-year-old houses (still inhabited!), quiet alleyways, and somber temples under the branches of ancient trees, is right up our alley.
We had a great time just wandering down the alleys, dropping into old houses that caught our attention (most of them are open to visitors and the owners are more than happy to tell you about their history; you just have to pay a general entrance fee at the village gate.) We brought my niece, nephew, and their cousins along as well, and although there isn’t much for kids in the village, they, too, had fun running around the fields and being in the countryside.
All in all, it was a good trip and helped to quench my wanderlust a little bit. With vaccination underway, hopefully there will be more and longer trips to come this year!
Usually, around this time of the year, I would be preparing for my annual trip, but obviously, it’s not happening this year. In fact, I don’t know when I’m going to be able to travel again – even traveling inside Vietnam has become riskier and riskier. So, to quench my wanderlust, I’m looking back at my past travels and seeing what I miss most about traveling. I’m not talking about the obvious such as discovering new sights and new cultures, and meeting new people, though I do miss those too. Rather, I’m thinking things that you experience with every trip but rarely think about… until you can’t travel anymore. Things like…
– Before the trip: The excitement (and even the stress) of planning for the trip – researching the destination, coming up with an itinerary, booking tickets and accommodations, and packing. I’m very much a planner, so I love all of it. And of course, there is the feeling of anticipation as you sit at the airport (or the train station), waiting for the adventure to begin.
– During the trip: Getting to know a new place with all of its everyday details. Where is the nearest grocery store/supermarket/cafe? Where is the nearest bus/train station? Even the novelty of your hotel room/AirBnB never wears off either, no matter how long you’ve been traveling. I’m terrible with directions, so I especially love it when I can remember the way back to the hotel/AirBnB without having to rely on maps.me. It feels like I’m finally coming “home”.
And despite my love for planning, I always leave room for some flexibility during the trip. No matter how well you plan, something always goes wrong, but sometimes, these unplanned moments can result in the best memories!
– After the trip: The sadness that the trip is over, mixed with the relief that you’ll get to sleep in your own bed again. And the fun of sorting through all your photos and reliving the trip all over.
So yes, I miss traveling. But at the same time, I feel incredibly lucky that I got to travel to so many amazing places over the last few years – Iceland, Cuba, Iran, and Russia are definitely the highlights. Fingers crossed that I’ll get to travel again soon!
The packing of Russia deserves its own post because this was the first time I traveled to a climate so different from what I’m used to (before this, the coldest places I’ve been to is Iceland in the summer and Iran, both of which are downright balmy compared to this.)
As I’ve said in my other Russia posts, this past winter was the warmest in Russia since 1886, but with temperatures down to -25 degrees Celsius (in Murmansk), it still presented a big challenge for us. Adding to that, the Russians like to keep the inside of their buildings super toasty, and it’s all central heating so you can’t adjust it, so you don’t want to dress too warm or you’ll end up overheated when you step inside.
The answer is, of course, layers (actually, I’ve found the answer to all travel clothes is to layer.) Almost everywhere has a cloakroom, so you can just take off the layers inside. Here is an example of how I usually layered during my time in Russia:
Thermal shirt + Sweater + Down parka on top, Wool tights + Fleeced-line pants/jeans on bottom, then another pair of socks and boots, then of course a scarf, hat, and gloves or mittens (mittens are warmer, but gloves are more practical for photo-taking.) If it was particularly cold, like in Murmansk, I would add a turtleneck top and a pair of ski pants (this may sound a bit extreme, but they really saved me during those cold, long nights on the Aurora hunt.)
And here’s a sample packing list for a 12-day trip (we did laundry a few times):
– Top: 4 thermal top, 1 turtleneck top
– Bottom: 3 wool tights, 3 fleece-lined pants/jeans (I could’ve gotten away with just 2 pairs, but I like some varieties), 1 pair of ski pants, 1 skirt
– Shoes: 1 pair of snow boots, 1 pair of leather boots, 1 pair of flats (the flats and skirt were just for the ballet. I didn’t need to dress up – there was everything from jeans to cocktail dresses at the theater – but I wanted to.)
– Outerwear: 2 sweaters, 1 fleece jacket, 1 down parka
– Accessories: 1 beanie, 2 scarves (though the other scarf sheds like crazy so I ended up wearing my red wool circle scarf most of the time), 1 pair of gloves, 1 pair of mittens, 1 neck buff (which can serve as a scarf or a beanie if necessaries, I mostly used it to cover my face.)
This served me quite well, at least on top. My feet were OK too, though sometimes I had to stick some packets of chemical hand warmers in my boots. The two bits that were constantly cold, though, were my hands and legs. If I ever travel to such a cold climate again, I would get a pair of warm glove liners to wear under my mittens and a more fashionable pair of ski pants (I bought my ski pants simply because they were on sale) to wear over my jeans, because even with wool tights and fleece-lined jeans, my legs were still like icicles. But hey, it’s part of the experience, right?
Our last full day in Moscow was a day of museums. We started the day at the State Historical Building (the red wedding cake-looking building on the other end of Red Square), which displays artifacts of Russian history from pre-historic times up to the end of the Russian Empire. Definitely get the audio guide (for 400RUB extra), because all the displays are in Russian, which I think is stupid, but what can you do? I was particularly taken with all the displays of the development of Russian culture from the 13th to the 16th century – after that, it became too European for me (though still interesting.)
Then, after lunch, it was off to the Kremlin. Here you have the choice of two tickets – one for the Cathedral Square (for 700RUB) and one for the Armory, which houses the treasures of the Russian Empire (for 1000RUB; you have to buy your ticket for a specific time like 10:30, 12, and so on). However, after the State Historical Museum, we decided to forgo the Armory and just checked out the Cathedral Square, which contains five 15th-century cathedrals built back when the entire city of Moscow was inside the Kremlin (“kremlin” in Russia means “fortress”, so there are many different Kremlins all over the country.)
The cathedrals are all impressive, though not as splendidly and lavishly decorated as the ones in Saint Petersburg. The ones in Saint Petersburg had all been restored, while these are left more or less untouched (though some are under renovation), so they look less polished but more authentic.
Later, we went to the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics. It was fun and educational, though I was annoyed with having to pay extra for my camera (taking pictures with your phone is free), and the heat was making us sleepy (the Russians like to keep their buildings super toasty), so after poking about for a bit, we headed back.
If it wasn’t so freezing, I would’ve liked to check out the nearby VDNKh Park – a series of buildings intended to display the Soviet’s agricultural, industrial, and technological prowess – but we had one more place to visit, and it was my favorite, the Tretyakov Gallery.
This was near our apartment, and it was open late on Friday, which was why we saved it for last. Finally, I was in my element. Not that I wasn’t in my element at the other museums, but this was where I could solely concentrate on the artworks and not get distracted by the interior (like at the Hermitage.)
We had half a day left in Moscow, and it was time for some souvenir shopping. Having done my research and with tips from our walking tour guide, we headed to the Izmailovsky Market on the outskirt of Moscow (you can take the Metro there, but remember to get off at Partizanskaya Station, not Izmailovskaya Station. Confusing, I know.)
Here you can find the same souvenirs – Russian dolls, fur hats, amber jewelry, etc. – for a fraction of the prices of the shop in the city center. On the weekends, there is also a flea market selling everything from old clothes and toys to books, records, and silverware (I got two beautiful old pewter mugs from one of these sellers.) Bring cash and prepare to bargain – the sellers agreed to our prices so readily that we suspected we could have gone even lower. If we hadn’t run out of cash and time (and luggage space), we would’ve stayed for much longer.
Finally, after a frenzy of packing and 1.5 hours sitting in Moscow traffic (we had a lot of luggage so we had to take a taxi to the airport instead of the much-quicker Aeroexpress train), we were on our way home. Goodbye, Russia. It was a whirlwind of a trip, and I was exhausted – exhausted by all the traveling, by the extremes of weather, and by all the beauty – but left wanting for more. I still haven’t fulfilled my Trans-Siberia dream yet, so I’ll definitely return one day!
And on that note, I’m going to end the post with this video of a musician at the Metro – you don’t get much more Russian than this:
Saying goodbye to Murmansk, we returned to city life with our last destination – Moscow. Although we were tired after an early morning flight, the sun was shining, so we took advantage of it by walking to Red Square. You don’t know how much you’d miss the sun until you don’t see it for days on end – in Saint Petersburg we only had 6 hours of daylight each day (and it was barely light, as the sky was overcast most days), and in Murmansk even less, while in Moscow we actually had nearly 9 hours of daylight. What luxury!
Anyway, my first impression of Moscow is that it is a livelier and more urban city than Saint Petersburg – as fitting its status as the capital – despite being nearly 600 years older. Also, it feels more Russian than Saint Petersburg, which has more of a European feel. This is probably because Moscow’s architecture is more traditional Russian, especially around Red Square. As it was a bit late to go into the Kremlin, we just strolled around looking at all the colorful buildings and popped into GUM Department Store to warm up and try its delicious ice cream (made with the same recipe since Soviet time!)
I highly recommend visiting the Red Square at night as well – it got all lit up and was exceedingly pretty.
The next day, we went on another walking tour. Though we’d walked around ourselves the day before, it was still fun to learn more about the city from a local guide. For example, he advised us to lower our expectations for the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral – because it’s a series of chapels built next to each other, it won’t be the large, grandiose church inside. For that, he recommended the Church of the Savior, which is free to enter (we ended up going to neither, since we’d had our full shares of churches in Saint Petersburg.) We also got to see the Changing of the Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which was great fun (though I felt sorry for the guards, having to stand there in the cold for an hour each day.)
Murmansk’s “Hero City” plaque and one of the Kremlin’s towers
After lunch, it started snowing quite heavily, so we took refuge in the famous Metro stations of Moscow. Armed with a map, we simply traveled around the circle line (which has the most beautiful stations) and stopped at whichever station that caught our eyes. A ticket costs only 40RUB and you can change lines as much as you want (as long as you don’t exit the station), so this may be the best and cheapest thing to do in Moscow. I was blown away by the level of workmanship and artistry at each station. Each is truly like a mini palace. We didn’t get to see them all, but we did get a good glimpse of them before the rush hours started and we had to head home.
Stay tuned for the last installment!