Konnichiwa From Japan!

We flew out of Hong Kong headed for Tokyo. We arrived around 2:00 PM and were quickly through customs with our bags. We took the express train to Nippori Station and then the subway to Shinjuku. The express train was very nice and clean, and we were thoroughly impressed at the way all of the seats were rotated to face forward.

Thank God for luggage carts!

Clean train

It was about a fifteen minute walk from Shinjuku Station to the hotel. We opted to stay at the Hilton Tokyo, which wasn't our favorite hotel, but we couldn't complain since it was a comfortable place to stay. We decided to stay close to the hotel on the first night since we were exhausted from the flight. We wandered around a bit and had some great sushi at a little restaurant across the street that was recommended to us by the concierge. One of the first things we noticed when we got to Japan was the respect and politeness of the people. It was also one of the cleanest places we'd been to on our entire trip.

The sushi chefs

Enjoying some Japanese beer

Sporting the robes in our hotel room

On our second day in Tokyo, we decided to do something a little out of the ordinary for most, but something awesome for us! Since we had already made the effort to see Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Hong Kong, there was no way we could be in Tokyo without going to the only Disney park in the world that we had yet to see. So we strapped on our Disney shirts, like the Disney dorks we are, and headed out to face the crowds!

Scott stoked for another Disney day

Having just been at the park in Hong Kong, it was fun comparing the differences between the parks. Out of all of the Disney parks we've been to, one thing is for sure, the Japanese take the prize for wearing the most crazy Disney hats. There were hats everywhere! We are also happy to report that there were no fish balls and we were super excited to find churros! They even had pumpkin churros since it was the beginning of Halloween month at the park.

So many hats

The Mr. Potato Head was the best

We were excited to see cowboy boots for sale inside Disneyland

Disney chopsticks

We opted not to get soaked on Splash Mountain

The next day turned out to be one of the most fun days we had in Tokyo. After breakfast we decided to hop on the metro and head down to the Takeshita Dori, which is filled with fun, crazy shops featuring all kinds of cosplay outfits and Scott's new favorite shop, Candy A-Go-Go. He hadn''t been able to find any gummy candies for a while, so he was in heaven with the selection they had.

Got some money to spend

From Takeshita Dori we walked further down to a cool hipsterish neighborhood in Harajuku that was filled with lots of thrift shops featuring American brands. We also stumbled upon a little chic restaurant that was the best meal we ate in Japan.

Such a fun funky area

Me showing Scotty how it's done with chopsticks

Scott waiting for his noodles to cool off

After our late lunch, we headed to the Tokyo Dome. The first night when we got to the hotel, with the help of Ken (the awesome guy at the concierge), Scott was able to score us some tickets behind home plate for the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Yakult Swallows. We purposely got to the dome early so we could check out all of the team shops and buy some hats for the game. Unfortunately, we had to go back and fourth between three different shops to find the hat that Scotty wanted (he's rather particular about his hats).

We grabbed a couple hot dogs on the way to our seats. The game was slow starting out, but turned out to be really exciting at the end, with the Giants taking the win! The crowds were very reserved compared to MLB games in the states, and they also had designated chants for each player. We chanted along, pretending to know what we were saying, even though we had absolutely no clue.

We got some new hats

Beer girls dishing out suds from pony keg backpacks

The following day we spent checking out the chic Roppongi Hills area, with lots of fancy shops and restaurants. We had a sushi lunch at a conveyor belt sushi place. It was delicious!

The sky was so blue and the clouds were moving so fast

Ladies planting flowers

All you can drink green tea

In the evening we wandered the vibrant streets of Shibuya. When the sun went down the buildings and signs lit up like a smaller version of Times Square.

We found a store with all New Mexico stuff

On our last day in Tokyo, we tried to get out early and down to the Tsukiji Fish Market. We didn't get to see much of the action, but we still walked around a bit, and also checked out all of the little sushi shops featuring fresh fish from that morning.

After the market we went to the Yoyogi Park, which was beautiful. We walked to the Meiji Shrine that's in the park. When we got there, a traditional Japanese wedding was just finishing. It was really neat to see the procession. We also wrote on a prayer tablet that we hung with all of the others.

Washing up on the way to the shrine

Japanese wedding

Painted saki barrels in the park

Our prayer tablet

We headed to the airport soon after our visit to the park. We loved Japan and wished we had more time to spend there. We will definitely be going back at some point, but until then Sayonara!

Maybe we'll return in 2020...or sooner


Movin’ On Up: Shanghai and Hong Kong

We arrived in Shanghai by train early in the morning. Shanghai was already looking like a much nicer city than Beijing or Xi'an.

We took a cab to the hotel to drop off our bags. We figured since it was so early in the morning our room would not be ready. However, when we got to the hotel, not only was our room ready, but breakfast had been arranged for us in our room. It was fabulous and the Waldorf was beautiful! Our room overlooked the Bund with a perfect view of the Pearl Tower and all of the other high rise buildings on the other side of the river.

Our beautiful room at the Waldorf Shanghai

Breakfast when we arrived

Shanghai was a big city, but easy to get around by taxi, and the taxis were very cheap.

Random squatting lady

The first night we walked the main pedestrian shopping street Nanjing, which was very crowded and alive with the upcoming China Day celebrations. We also got some great pictures of the skyline at night.

Nanjing Street

Motorbikes everywhere

We also had arranged to do a cooking class while in Shanghai. There were four of us in the class, including us, a girl from Germany, and a girl from France. We had a blast. We first got a tour of a local market, which was a little smelly, to learn about the ingredients we'd be using in the class. After the market we headed to a small apartment nearby where the class would be taught. We made three different recipes (sweet and sour pork, Kung pao chicken, and spicy beef) which all turned out delicious. The only downside was the chef didn't speak any English so all questions and answers had to be interpreted, and the cooking area was rather small for four people.

Chicken feet...yum

Sweet and sour pork finished product

We also took in an acrobatic show, which was a little hokey, but still very impressive.

Going to the acrobat show

The streets of Shanghai were packed on China Day which made getting around a little more difficult, but we still managed to make it to an antique market, Xintiandi Area with lots of shops and restaurants, and squeezed our way through the over crowded Yu Yuan Garden and Bazar.

The Care Bear stare!

Two little boys playing in the street at the antique market

A woman selling flags for China Day

Battling the China Day crowds

The busy street near our hotel on China Day

One afternoon we went across the other side of the river by the underground sightseeing tunnel, which was super hokey, but fun. We wandered around two of the very large shopping malls where we stumbled across a Morton's Steakhouse where we had half price Martinis and free steak sandwiches for happy hour. It was an excellent break from all of the Chinese food we had been eating.

Nothing like a martini and steak sandwich

After four days in Shanghai, we packed up and headed to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was much more comfortable for us in the fact that most people spoke English and it was much cleaner. We checked into the Conrad, dropped off our bags and hopped on the next boat to Macau to check out the casinos for the evening. The boat ride was about an hour each way, which wasn't too bad on the way there, but the water was really choppy on the way back (which didn't go too well with my motion sick tendencies).

We decided to go to the Venetian since we had heard it was supposed to be bigger and better than the one in Vegas. We also went to a couple other casinos close by. Scotty hit up some of the black jack tables, but we weren't very lucky. It was worth the trip just to see the lights at night.

Somebody sitting in front of us smelled really bad

The next morning I woke up feeling under the weather, and being the hypochondriac I am (I blame Google and Web MD), I was sure I must have caught the bird flu. Scott was sure I didn't have the bird flu, it turns out I'm still alive so I'm assuming he was right. We spent an entire day in the hotel room since I felt so bad.

After some sleep and some cold medicine, I was feeling much better by that evening so we decided to check out the one place that I was definitely willing to crawl out of bed for…Disneyland Hong Kong! They sell night passes that get you into the park from 6pm on for half the price of a regular ticket. We had a blast at the park, minus the fish balls that were sold on every corner. We'd prefer churros and corn dogs, which were nowhere to be found.

The next day we wandered around the city and through a couple markets on the Kowloon side. The city was great and we would definitely come back. Even though we didn't get to do much in Hong Kong, it was nice to have some downtime and recharge from the previous weeks of going nonstop.

The beard is getting long


Peking Into Chinese Culture

When we got to Beijing we were so happy to be off the train and ready to start our Asian adventure. We walked out of the train station got some cash and got in the taxi line. While waiting in line for a taxi, one thing became very apparent to us. Chinese like to spit…a lot…wherever they are! One other thing also became very apparent, people love taking pictures of Scott. Apparently they don't see a whole lot of red heads. Several times people asked to take a picture of or with him and many times we caught people trying to discretely take his picture.

One of Scott's many fans

We got into a cab and showed the cab driver our hotel address in Chinese that the hotel had sent us. The cab driver didn't speak a lick of English and our Mandarin consists of three words. So we hoped he knew where he was going. We knew the hotel was only supposed to be a short drive so when we'd been in the cab for over twenty minutes we knew it wasn't right. Scott pulled out his Google Maps on his phone and sure enough we were headed in the wrong direction. He tried to show the cab driver the directions on the phone and after several u-turns and failed attempts at communicating we signaled to the driver to let us off at the nearest hotel we saw. Luckily the bell boy spoke enough English to point us in the right direction, so we walked a few blocks carrying all our stuff and finally made it to the Hilton Wangfujing.

The hotel was really nice! I'm sure we stood out like sore thumbs having just come off the seven day train ride, but the staff treated us like royalty nonetheless. We even got upgraded to a large suite and had delicious chocolates and baked treats waiting for us when we got to our room. We took the most glorious showers of our lives!

That evening we decided to go out and explore the night markets that happened to be right near our hotel. The snack street was bustling with locals and tourist loading up on a wide range of snacks including fried star fish on a stick, tarantulas and scorpions on a stick, and you guessed it…animal testicles! We also wandered down to another little night market close by, but didn't stay long as the smell there was unbearable and we also saw a few people rummaging and eating out of the dumpsters. It was a little scary and very sad.

The next day we spent most of the day visiting the Summer Palace and gardens. We walked for hours and still didn't get to see the whole thing, but it was still a really fun day.

Old man telling fortunes

We climbed so many stairs

The following day was a our three year wedding anniversary so we planned out a full day of sight seeing and a nice dinner. We booked a guided tour that included Tianeman Square, the Forbidden City, a jade and silk factory, and the Great Wall. Our tour guide's name was Shine and he was great! We had three other people that were on the tour with us and it was quite comical. There was an older couple from Slovak Republic and a man from Saudi Arabia. While At the Forbidden City, Shine was explaining to us how the emperors had many wives and concubines, the Saudi guy on our tour commented that he was only allowed to have four wives! Scott thought this was hysterical.

Our awesome tour guide, Shine

Tiananmen Square

Forbidden City

Scott carrying the tour guides flag

We took turns carrying Shine's flag

Standing in front of the love tree on our three year wedding anniversary

At the silk factory

Silk worms

Women stretching silk threads

Man carving jade

The Great Wall

What does this even mean?

That night we had reservations for a Peking duck restaurant that a friend recommended, Da Dong. The ducks were roasted in a huge oven where we could watch and then carved right at our table. It was delicious!

Showing off my purchase from the silk factory

Spicy shrimp appetizer

After dinner snack

The next morning we headed to the zoo to see the giant pandas before we had to go to the train station. We weren't that impressed with the conditions that the animals were kept in, but it was still neat to see the animals.

We headed to the extremely crowded train station to catch an overnight train to Xi'an. The train station was chaotic. People were sprawled out everywhere, some with no shirts or shoes. We boarded the train reluctantly as our last train experience wasn't exactly the best. To our surprise, this train was actually pretty comfortable and a thousand times cleaner than the last…and we had our own toilet.

Bought some Chinese beer for the ride

Also bought some of these things. Verdict?

Not so good:(

When we got to Xi'an in the morning we took a cab to the hotel to drop off our bags and headed straight out on another day tour. We opted to do a private tour with a guide this time. We went out to see the amazing tarracotta soldiers. We were amazed at how every soldier had a different face and were also surprised to find out that the soldiers were actually colorfully painted, but the colors quickly faded away once they were unearthed.

After the soldiers, we headed to the city wall where we walked along the wall for a while.

Our last stop was at the Musslim street. The street was lined with food vendors and lots of people buying things. We also had another odd/disgusting experience. Since we had gotten to China we had noticed a few toddlers that had splits in the back of their pants. At first we thought maybe they had torn them squatting down or something and we just laughed it off. Then we realized none of these kids had diapers underneath. So we figured maybe this made taking a kid to the restroom easier when they neede to go…well our guess was close, but not quite the right answer. While walking down Musslim street we saw another split pants kid walking on the sidewalk with her mom. Then all of a sudden the mother squats down scooping up the kid from under the knees and the child began to use the restroom right on the sidewalk…right next to all of the food vendors! We kept walking in shock, wondering if maybe parents were required to clean up after their children similar to some laws in the states require dog owners to clean up when their dog does his business on the sidewalk. Well our question was answered when we had to walk back that direction when we were leaving and the pile still remained right where they left it! This would not be the last split pants kid we would see doing this either.

The next day we would be heading to Shanghai. Overall, we had a blast in Beijing and really enjoyed seeing the tarracotta soldiers in Xi'an, but ultimately preferred Beijing over Xi'an. We felt that a day and a half in Xi'an was definitely enough time.

On the way to the train station



The Trans-Siberian Adventure!

We made our way to the Moscow train station in the early evening just as the sun was going down. Big clouds were looming over us as they had been for the last few days. We made our way into a smoke filled diner (the only place to sit near our train track) just seconds before the biggest downpour we'd seen yet began. The crowd at the train station seemed to be a little bit of a seedier crowd, and not an English speaker in sight. We started to get a little nervous wondering what our fellow train passengers might be like on the seven day journey.

On our way to the train station with all our stuff in tote

After sitting for a few minutes, we realized that we forgot to stop by an ATM to get cash for the trip. We figured we might not have an opportunity at any of the stops to find an ATM and it was highly unlikely the babushkas would be excepting Visa. So I waited in the diner while Scott ran out in the rain to go find an ATM. While waiting for Scott to come back, I was awkwardly stared at by two old Russian men drinking beer, watched a belligerently drunk guy almost fall over trying to find a table to sit at, and watched a young fellow eat two entire cans of some sort of weird meat out of a can that he'd pulled out of his backpack. What did we get ourselves into?

Scott finally made it back after what felt like an eternity. The rain stopped just a few minutes before our train arrived. We decided to head outside to wait by the track just to make sure we wouldn't miss the train. We looked around and realized that sure enough, there were lots of English speakers and a few other backpackers waiting outside by the track. We figured out that most of the people in the diner had been waiting for a different train. We were a little relieved. As we stood there waiting with our overstuffed packs, day bags, and two huge tote bags full of bottled water, ramen noodles, and other snacks, we looked over and saw a young couple that looked like they were toting the exact same stuff. We introduced ourselves as we all walked towards our train cars. It turns out our new friends Rachelle and Blair were from Canada, and had a similar travel route planned out for Asia after the train ride.

The train we were on turned out to be Chinese train #4, which we were a little disappointed about since we had read so much on other travel blogs about the Russian trains. Having a Chinese train also meant that we had Chinese male attendants instead of the providnitsas (Russian women attendants). However, when we boarded the train our carriage attendant was really nice and brought us the sheets for our beds right away.

We are sad to report that the accommodations on this train were much, much worse than the very comfortable sleeper train we had taken from St, Petersburg to Moscow. The walls in our compartment were covered with a faux wood paneling strait out of a seventies horror film. The barely there seat cushions (which would also be our beds for the next six nights) had tattered seat covers. But it gets much worse! The private bathroom we were promised with our “first class” ticket was nothing more than a sink (that looked like it hadn't been cleaned since it was installed) with a retractable sprayer. The water that came out of the sprayer was suspicious looking and frigid. There was a drain on the floor which more than likely drained straight onto the train tracks. We also had to share our washroom with another cabin. But far worse than the non-existent mattresses and failure of a shower, was the fact that we were in the last compartment on our carriage…next to the one toilet that would be shared with our entire car! Not to mention that when you flush the toilet you can literally see the waste falling onto the train track! We would definitely not recommend living near a train track in Russia. Also, the train was B.Y.O.T.P. We had read on some blogs that this was the case, so luckily we had stocked up ahead of time. The smell wafting from the tiolet combined with burning coal and second hand cigarette smoke from the chain smoking German guy two compartments down was almost unbearable.

The train cars being loaded up with new coal

After a couple days on the train we decided to try showering by filling up our tea kettle with boiling water from the samovar. After letting it cool enough to not scald ourselves, we poured it over our heads, washing our hair and essential body parts. However this was also a not so fun experience since we had to let the water cool off between rinses. I'm not so sure all of the shampoo was washed out of my hair, but at least it smelled good.

So it wasn't the Orient Express, but we luckily had a fan that we could turn on to minimize the toxic smells and it was nonetheless another adventure.

On a new adventure

We spent the next few days watching the scenes outside our compartment window change drastically from mostly burch trees to little wooden shack villages, from shack villages to a mountainous region, to beautiful Lake Baikal, from a beautiful lake to more little shacks.

We would hop off the train when it made stops to stretch our legs and sometimes buy snacks. Sometimes the train only stopped for five minutes in what seemed to be ghost towns and sometimes it stopped for half an hour in villages where the tracks were bustling with Russian women selling home cooked goodies (a.k.a. Babushkas). Scott bought some snacks from the babushkas, but I was hesitant to try the home made meat filled pies since we had heard rumors that they could possibly be filled with unknown animal meat products of animals we consider “man's best friend”.

Train stop itinerary

Getting off to stretch our legs

Scott coming back with snacks

We trekked across the length of the train to check out the Russian dining car. The dining car was small, and like the rest of the train, looked like it had seen better days…including the old, limping man running the car. The food was actually pretty terrible, but it was nice to escape the confines of our room for a while and chat with other travelers. We met an older English couple while we were in the dining car that were a blast to talk to. The guy named Ian had been drug on the train by his eager to travel wife (who had ended up getting food poisoning). It was blatantly obvious that the guy was miserable, but his whittiness and sense of humor was the perfect combination for his pessimistic attitude toward their adventure.

Food from the Russian dining car

Eggs served to us floating in a pond of grease

Because of the few dining options in the dining car, our diet for the rest of the week mainly consisted of ramen noodles, hot tea, and whatever kind of cookies we could buy at the stops. We were so sick of ramen by the end of the trip!

Drinking more tea

We spent a lot of time on the train playing cards, doing crossword puzzles, and catching up on our favorite tv episodes we had downloaded to our iPads before we left Moscow. Having iPads and an electrical outlet to charge them was the only thing maintaining our sanity when there was nothing to look at outside our window. Come to find out, our friends from Canada's electrical outlet didn't work the entire train causing them not to be able to use their iPad. They had just assumed the whole train was in the same circumstance so they didn't mention it to us until the last day. Had we known we would have offered for them to use our outlet to charge up.

How I felt by day two of the train ride

At the end of the second day on the train, Scott came down with a cold, which was a total bummer. He had a stuffy nose, cough and felt just plain crumby. It was probably the most uncomfortable circumstance to be in when you don't feel good. But on a positive note, at least it wasn't food poisoning or a stomach bug!

Our first long stop was when we arrived at the Mongolian border. The train stopped for a few hours to allow immigration and customs checks to occur. Russian immigration agents came onto the train, they gathered everyone in our cars passports and got back off the train. We were required to stay on the train until they came back with our passports a couple hours later. It was a very uncomfortable situation to be sitting on a train in the middle of nowhere Russia with our passports out of our hands for that long. When they finally brought back our passports, the customs agents boarded and did a one by one cabin search. It was a tedious process, but thank God for word puzzles (we must have finished at least thirty by the end of the trip). Once the process of leaving Russia was complete, the train moved for about twenty minutes and stopped for the whole process to be repeated by the Mongolian border agents.

When we woke up the second morning of being in Mongolia, the scenery outside had completely changed once again. We had entered the Gobi Dessert. Off in the distance we could see the little white tent like structures (ger) that some Mongolians call home. We also saw some livestock, and even a few camels.

Along with the scenery change outside the train we also had a nice change of scenery on the train as well. When we crossed into Mongolia our train left behind the horrible Russian dining car and picked up a Mongolian dining car. This time the dining car was attached to our end of the train which was nice not having to trek through a billion moving train doors to get to. The car was much more interesting to look at, and the one meal we ate there was actually pretty good.

Inside the Mongolian dining car

It didn't take too long to get through Mongolia before we were at the Chinese border. This required another really long stop. Once again agents took passports and rooms were searched. However the process to cross into China is even longer due to the fact that Russian and Mongolian railroads require a different size wheel than any other country. So, one by one the individual train cars were jacked up and the bogies were swapped out. We stayed on the train while this process took place. It was actually kind of fun to watch out the window.

Changing out the bogies

Once we got into China the dining car changed again to a Chinese dining car. We were all given vouchers for free lunch for the last morning of the train ride. As you can imagine, the dining car was packed. Luckily we got seated at the same table as the English couple that we had met in the Russian dining car. The free meal consisted of some sticky rice, some slimy vegetables, and some sort of really squishy meatball. Not so good, but it at least served as some entertainment to watch Ian's reaction to the food.

Pulling into Beijing

Not too long after our last meal (if you could call it that) we arrived at our trains final destination, Beijing.

Finally made it to Beijing

The trek across Siberia was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The scenes we saw outside the windows were at times amazing and at other times depressing. However, if we were to do this ride again we would probably do it a little differently. We would definitely arrange our schedule to be on the Rossiya train #1 (a much nicer train) from Moscow to Irkutsk (Lake Baikal), where we would spend a couple days and then board the Baikal train #10 to Ulan Bator. From there to Beijing is only a one day train ride, so any train would probably be ok for that period of time.

We would also recommend the following items to anyone planning on making the journey:

  • Toilet paper and wipies
  • Paper towels
  • iPads
  • Playing cards
  • Dry shampoo
  • Bath towel
  • Mugs to make noodles and tea in
  • Travel cutlery and a Swiss Army knife
  • Lots of food that either requires no preparation or just add hot water
  • A first aid kit including cold medicine
  • Hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes
  • Lots of bottled water


A Cyrillic Experience: Russia!

Looking out the window of the plane as we flew into St. Petersburg, the buildings somewhat resembled Legos. Block like structures all similar in color creating a monochromatic feel against the backdrop of the gray sky. There we were…in Russia.

Landing in St. Petersburg

Even though Russia no longer considers itself a communist state, the impression that its communist past has left on not only the architecture but also its people is still very evident.

Remnants of the G20 Summit

We spent four days in St. Petersburg and four days in Moscow before embarking on our week long rail journey across Siberia.

Our hotel had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport in St. Petersburg, which we very grateful that we wouldn't be braving a Russian bus or Cyrillic laden metro toting all of our bags. We stayed at the Rennaisance Hotel which was in a great location and had a very stern yet helpful staff. I initially interpreted their sternness as not being very friendly. Scott assured me that they were indeed friendly and that the sternness was just part of the culture. It turns out he was right. Most of the people we met while in Russia turned out to be very friendly.

Cheers to our first night in Russia

Anyhow, we spent most of our time in St.Petersburg exploring on foot. We walked a huge length of Nevsky Prospect, the main drag containing lots of shops and restaurants.

We were so excited to find a Starbucks!

Inside of a fancy shop on Nevsky

We spent almost an entire day walking through the Hermitage museum. We took a walking tour of the city and made some new friends Vanessa and Ellena. We also walked by the Church on Spilt Blood, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and even through a small market.

In front of the Hermitage Museum

Inside the Hermitage

Scott resting while listening to an audio guide

If your coin lands on this rabbit post it means good luck

At the Fortress

Random balloons floating into the sky

Some sort of military band was playing near our hotel

We also experienced some of the local cuisine including beef stroganoff, borsch, and piroshkis. Borsch was not exactly our cup of tea, but the stroganoff and piroshkis were delicious!

A cozy little restaurant we found near our hotel

A selection of sweet and savory piroshkis

At the end of our time in St. Petersburg we boarded an overnight train to Moscow. Our train compartment was extremely comfortable (we were hoping this would be similar to the train we'd be on for six nights…you'll have to read our next blog to find out).

The crowded train station

Map of the Russian railway system

At the train station waiting to board to Moscow

When we arrived at the train station in Moscow, we planned on walking to our hotel hoping we wouldn't get lost. However, when we got off the train we could see our hotel towering over all of the other buildings. We would be staying at the Hilton Leningradskia which was one of the seven sky scrapers that was built under the rule of Stalin.

The view of our hotel from the train station

The Hilton at night

The view from our room

We spent our first day wandering around taking in the sights of the Red Square, St. Basils Cathedral, and the Gum which is a huge shopping mall with a historical background. It used to be the store where people would stand in line for hours to buy all government produced goods during the communist days. Now it houses mainly high end designer stores.

Inside the GUM

It was interesting seeing the extremely different Russian viewpoint on international affairs

The next day we spent the entire day doing a walking tour of the city, a tour of the Kremlin, and a tour of the Moscow metro.

Mosaics of past communist dictators even reside in the metro

Everyone pets this dog statue in the metro for good luck!

Scott loving hoodie weather

Entrance bridge to the Kremlin

It was very clear that they had no English brochures at the Kremlin

Picture with Paul our tour guide

Another day of overcast skies

Could possibly be the best purchases on our journey yet!

Scott captured me wearing my new hat while relaxing in my bath robe

The next two days in Moscow were cold and rainy. We still managed to do another tour all about the communist history. Our guide was awesome and really nice. After the tour she even took us to a local restaurant that was delicious.

The day before we left on the Trans-Siberian we ventured out to a really cool grocery store to stock up on snacks for our train ride. The grocery store had guilded ceilings and even a painted portrait of the store founder hanging on the wall. The store was actually reasonably priced considering how fancy it appears to be.

That evening we attended a ballet. The ballet was amazing, however Scott claims that it was the soft music that lulled him to sleep.

Bundled up to head to the ballet

After the ballet we took some pictures of the Red Square, which is beautiful all lit up at night.

On our last morning in Moscow we walked the length of Old Arbott Street and had lunch at a My My (pronounced moo moo), which is an old fashioned Soviet cafe.

That night we headed to the train station to board the train that would end in a completely different world…China.

Waiting to board the Trans-Siberian train


Amsterdam and Brussels

Our stops in Amsterdam and Brussels were only a couple days long, but both cities were enjoyable and easily walkable. Amsterdam is also bike-able if you are willing to brave the other crazy cyclists…lots of them. In Amsterdam we stayed at the Movenpick near the city center, which was an easy walk to the main train station. The hotel also offered a free shuttle to the center of town and also had a tram stop across the street which made getting around super easy.

We spent three nights in Amsterdam, which was plenty of time to stroll the canals, visit a piece of history, and also explore the unique yet controversial night life.

The daytime strolls along the canals were quite enjoyable and picturesque. This is a place we would love to come back to in the winter months when people ice skate on the frozen canals.

We spent one morning visiting the Anne Frank house, which was really interesting to see. We walked through the hidden apartment that the Frank family took refuge in for two years during WWII. The line to get in was long, and unfortunately we hadn't bought our tickets online ahead of time, so we patiently waited and had a nice conversation with a cute American elderly couple that were next to us in line. Out of respect, no photos were allowed inside, so I only got one photo of the monument that sits outside in a nearby park.

At night, the city transforms from quiet canals to something rather different. The smell of pot wafts out of the coffee shops, the red light windows light up, and a completely different crowd seems to emerge as the sun goes down. One of the wonderful things of Amsterdam that highlights the night are all of the little food carts and shops that are open for late night munching.

The train ride from Amsterdam to Brussels was short and easy, and the walk to our hotel was only ten minutes and a straight shot from the train station.

Brussels is known for their fries, waffles, chocolate, and Belgian beer. We lucked out with the last of these items because unbeknownst to us, the Brussels beer festival was just starting when we arrived. Although a little crowded, the streets were lively and entertaining to walk through.

We did a three hour walking tour of the city which was a great way to see the main sights and also counter act the damage to our waistlines we would be doing with the food items discussed above. On the tour we got to see the famous Mannequin Pis, some beautiful architecture, and learn about Belgian beer and cuisine.

We also had an interesting experience in the breakfast room at our hotel. As we were serving ourselves at the breakfast buffet, an older woman tripped and fell directly into a small Asian lady taking them both down in the middle of the breakfast room. They both hit pretty hard and were knocked out cold. They were immediately swarmed with other guests checking to see if they were ok. Fortunately after about half an hour of shenanigans, the older woman walked away with a very large bump on her forehead and the Asian lady with a make shift ice pack on her head. Somehow in all of the chaos we also lost our table to an old man wearing a safari like vest that just strolled right into the restaurant past the hostess and made himself comfortable at our table while we were getting our breakfast. He also refused to move when asked, so we ended up having to move all of our stuff and eat on the other side of the restaurant.

These two cities were both a fun and relaxing way to prepare ourselves for our next bucket list destination…Russia!


Berlin: Beyond the Wall

The train ride from Krakow to Berlin was long, cramped, and extremely too warm, so you can imagine how relieved we were to get to Berlin. The Wombats hostel we stayed in was in a great location, not to mention our private double room was actually really comfortable. The area was a fun neighborhood with a young, hipster-ish vibe with lots of quirky little shops and a wide range of restaurants.

We packed a lot of activities into the time we were in Berlin, and we had a fabulous time. Berlin is a city that is so packed full of history, and endless things to see and do.

We opted to do a free walking tour that is offered by a company called Sandemans (they are offered in most large European cities and have all been great). The tour covered some of the key historical sites in the center of the city starting at Brandenburg Gate. We walked by Checkpoint Charlie, a segment of the Berlin Wall, the Jewish memorial, and we also saw where the book burnings took place during the Nazi influence at Humboldt University.

Aside from the tour, we walked through The Topography of Terror museum and also the Wall on Wall exhibit at another section of the Berlin Wall that has murals on one side and images of walls that still exist around the world on the other side

We spent one morning strolling through a huge flea market. We had a great time looking at all of the interesting things and eating at some of the booths. We also came to the conclusion that it doesn't matter where you are in the world, people collect a lot of junk!

One evening we walked down to the Sony center, and stumbled upon a red carpet premiere of the movie “White House Down,” and yes both Channing Tatum and Jamie Fox were there to promote their new film. We didn't get to meet the celebrities, but it was still kind of fun to see nonetheless.

We enjoyed trying the Berlin favorite, curry wurst. We also enjoyed the impressive chocolate displays and a delicious treat at Fasbenser & Rausch chocolate shop.

Our last night in Berlin we discovered a delicious little Korean restaurant just a couple blocks from the hostel and enjoyed a spicy dinner.


The City of Music, the City of Bridges, and the Eastern European Gem

From Munich we hopped on the train headed into Austria. We decided to stay a couple days in the city of music, Wien (Vienna). Vienna was beautiful in it's own way, however still crowded with tourists. We spent an afternoon walking the streets of the city center taking in all of the talented buskers playing classical music and singing opera. We also took the opportunity to enjoy the quintessential Viennese schnitzel.

Our second day in Vienna we visited the Schonbrunn palace gardens, not quite as elaborate of those in Versailles, but nonetheless a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. We also visited the zoo that is on the palace grounds. The only downfall was we did get rained on, but not too bad.

Later that evening we took in a classical symphony/opera that mostly played music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Musik Verein concert hall was beautiful.

The next morning we were up bright and early and headed on our way to Praha (Prague).

We arrived in Prague at a decent hour and checked into the Hilton. We spent the next couple of days wandering the charming streets of the old world city, with its elaborate bridges (specifically Charles Bridge) and interesting blend of European culture.

We spent an afternoon at the Prague Castle and walked the Golden Lane.

We definitely did our fare share of walking, lots and lots of walking. We even walked for over forty minutes opposite the city center to get a glorious apple strudel from a hole in the wall shop that we watched on a Samantha brown episode…and it was totally worth it.

From Prague we took the train into Poland. On our way to Krakow we had to change trains in a town called Katowice. We got off the train and nobody spoke english and insisted that we needed to get onto a very shady bus. Thankfully we figured out our way and got on the right train, although it wasn't in any better condition than the bus.

Since we are both big WWII history buffs, we had planned on passing through most of Poland and making our main stop in Krakow, where we would do a guided day tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. However, when we arrived in Krakow, we realized that the small city was super charming, lively, and really a little European gem!

As expected, our day trip out to the camps was a sobering experience. Having a tour guide made for a much more informative and personal experience. Our guide was an English speaking young Polish woman, who gave a lot of insight from a Polish perspective.

We had the rest of the evening to spend wandering around the small Eastern European city. The streets were lively with food vendors and sidewalk cafes. We took the opportunity to feast on one of my all time favorite dishes…pierogis! We had to leave Poland early the next morning to catch a train to Berlin, but Krakow is definitely a place we would recommend stopping if you are ever in the area.


Beer, Brats, and the Bavarian Scowl!

Our first stop in Germany was the quintessential Bavarian city of Munich. The city is lively with tourists and locals alike enjoying the traditional Bavarian fare and soaking up the summer sun in the many bier gartens that are sprinkled throughout.

We spent a total of five days in the not too large city, which we probably would have been better off only spending three days. Our first day was a rainy one, so we used it as an opportunity to take in some of the museums which were surprisingly much less crowded than all of the other cities we'd been to thus far. We walked the corridors of the Residenz (palace) which was partially ornate and mostly bland due to the majority of the reconstruction that took place after WWII. We also walked through the Munich City Museum.

We spent an entire afternoon walking around the beautiful English Garden/park that is in the middle of Munich. We ate a couple of our meals at the Viktualienmarkt, a great outdoor market that was a block off of Marienplatz. We had fresh baked pretzels one day and bratwurst on a bun another day. Delicious!

We visited the Hofbrauhaus a couple times to test out the retention of our drinking capacity that had been built up during our college years. Unfortunately, we found that the lack of practice left our bladders in a state that wouldn't allow it. One night at the Hofbrauhaus we were joined by a guy we met that was from Northern Germany and a girl from Canada who was also traveling around for a couple months. It made for some interesting conversations, and our butchered German speaking was kindly corrected by our new friend.

We also tried out the Augustiner, which is another famous brauhaus. The food there was pretty tasty and served by an older, stout woman in full lederhosen with the typical Bavarian scowl on her face, who actually turned out to be really sweet. We found that majority of the locals in Munich wear the scowl on their faces and look a little mean, but were usually really nice once we talked with them.

One thing that is for sure, the city of Munich and the surrounding areas are steeped in history. Unfortunately, most of the history is dark and at times eerie.

I found it a little hard not to think of some of the dark history while trying to enjoy the sights in Munich, especially after seeing some of the images at the museums of Hitler giving speeches in the Hofbrauhaus and images of SS troops gathered in formations on Marienplatz with Nazi banners hanging from the Glockenspiel behind them.

We spent one day paying our respects to those who were the unfortunate victims of the dark times in Germany. We took the train out to Dachau and visited the site of the concentration camp that once existed. Now there is an extensive museum in one of the old buildings that was part of the old camp, remnants of the barracks that the victims were housed in, the crematorium and gas chambers that are still standing, and the beautiful memorials that were erected after the war to honor those that were not spared. A heavy day, but important to remember nonetheless.

On a lighter note, we spent our last day by taking a little day trip to visit the Neuschwanstein Castle. the weather was beautiful and perfect for the hike required to get up to the castle. The views were amazing. It was a great way to end our time in Munich.

Overall, our time in Munich was a little longer than planned, but we left a little fuller figured than we arrived and learned a lot about the city.


Switzerland: Is this real life?

The train into Switzerland was a beautiful ride. The further into Switzerland we got the more beautiful it was. We arrived in Interlaken in the late evening. We had about a fifteen minute walk from the train station to the hostel, Balmers Herberge. The town was peaceful and quiet and the cool, fresh air was such a relief from the previous weeks of heat on the Mediterranean.

We checked into our eight bed hostel dorm, which was actually pretty comfortable, and luckily our roommates were friendly. Balmers seemed to be a decent hostel, but definitely had a younger “party” crowd, which made it quite noisy at night.

The next morning we took the local train up the mountain to the village of Grindewald. We walked through the village and then took a gondola further up the mountain to First. We had planned on doing a hike down to a little lake, which should have only been a less than two hour round trip hike on a fairly easy trail. It took us about an hour to get to the lake which was about what we expected. Once we got there, we looked at our map and saw that there was another route that would take us to a different stop on the gondola that was only about half an hour longer of a hike, so we decided to be adventurous and give it a go! So, about four hours into the hike, we realized we had gone down the wrong path, which was a much longer and much more difficult hike than we had planned, but the views we got were amazing! We walked alongside some herds of cows, with their chiming bells. We came across some mountain goats munching on some flowers, and crossed some beautiful little streams on rickety, wooden bridges. About halfway down, we arrived at a beautiful little cafe up in the mountains, which seemed to be the hikers hangout. We shared a sandwich and some water, and then hit the trail again. Once again, we chose the more intense path. Instead of taking the smooth trail that went around the side of the mountain we ended up on a path that basically went straight down the side of the mountain. At the end of the day every inch of our bodies were sore, but we enjoyed a cold beer and felt that we had earned it.

The next day we had planned on going up to Jungfraujoch, but the train tickets had sold out the night before. Instead, we spent the morning doing laundry and getting our bags reorganized. While we were waiting for our laundry we met a really nice guy from Seattle who was traveling by himself. We ended up talking with him for the two hours it took to do laundry. By the time our laundry was done it was lunch time, so we ended up walking to town and having lunch with our new friend. After lunch he was catching a train to his next travel destination. Although it was a short amount of time, it is always nice to meet other travelers that are on a similar yet completely different journey than ourselves.

We spent the rest of the day walking around town, looking in shops, and planning what we were going to do for the next few days.

The events that happened later that night changed my entire outlook on what I thought was a great hostel. We were getting ready for bed, I had just climbed up on my top bunk when I noticed something climbing up the wall directly next to my face…instinct set in…smack…splat! It was the dreaded hostel nightmare…a bed bug!!! I grabbed my flashlight and shined it in the cracks of the paneling on the wall and sure enough there were several more. In disgust I jumped off of the bed and was grateful we had put our bags in lockers that were outside versus having them be infested with bugs in the room. Scott went down to the front desk and explained to them what happened and what we saw. The guy quickly apologized and offered to move us to a private room on a different floor at the other end of the building. He told Scott that they would be removing the beds that we had been in and would be spraying the room to take care of the problem.. Originally we considered leaving the hostel and trying to stay somewhere else, but being the small town that it is, basically every hostel and hotel in Interlaken were booked for the night. When we got to our new room I spent an hour doing a thorough inspection of every inch of the room with my flashlight to ensure there were no bugs that would be feasting on us. I hardly slept all night thinking bugs were crawling on me.

Early the next morning on our way down from our room Scott poked his head in the infested room to see if they had moved the beds out like they had told us they would do. We were in shock to see that there were already two new people sleeping in those beds!!! We asked the girl at the front desk about it when we got downstairs and all she told us was “It's Saturday. We get anyone to come spray for bugs on a Saturday and the beds in the entire hostel are booked.” It is understandable that bed bugs can happen, but it is unbelievable that they didn't do anything about it and would allow two unsuspecting victims to check into a room when they knew there was a problem. It was sickening! We asked for a refund for our last night since we had originally planned on staying one more night, and then we booked a room at the Renaissance in Zurich, where we would be going after our day at Jungfrau. There is a definite point where we draw the line on budget traveling.

After we checked out of the hostel, we hopped on a train up to Jungfraujoch since we hadn't gone the day before. The train ride to the “top of Europe” was extremely pleasant and the views were breathtaking. Once we got all the way up to the top we sat and had lunch to allow ourselves a little time to adjust to the elevation. We went all the way up to the Sphinx viewing platform, which is at 11,716ft above sea level. We wandered through the alpine exhibit and the Eispalast (ice palace), which was formed in the inside of a glacier. After the exhibits, we went out and walked around in the snow and got some great pictures.

We rode the train back down the mountain, which took almost two hours. Once we got back down to Interlaken we grabbed our bags and headed to the train station. We got to Zurich around 6:30 pm, checked into the Renaissance, ordered some room service, and had the best nights sleep we'd had in days. Next stop…Munich!