Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Second itinerary in...

Last night I received the skeletal itinerary from the "other" travel specialists for Russia. The specialist warned me that my budget (which is hefty) may not be hefty enough for their line of travel. She "downgraded" the hotels to still pretty expensive options, only gave me 4 days of private guide and driver and didn't include airfare, visa or insurance costs, and still came in about $2000 over my budget. Sheesh!

The more I mull over my first option, which provides private guide and driver every day, covers exactly the sites I want, and puts me up in more reasonably priced but still centrally located hotels, the more I like it. I'm still awaiting Olga's revision to get me an extra day in Moscow. Once I receive that, I'm pouncing on it.

It is sort of depressing thought that this trip would be about 7 1/2 months away! A whole spring and summer away!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Revising itinerary

Today saw some action. Olga is revising my itinerary not only to add a day in Moscow to accommodate the Tretyakov and the Pushkin Museums but also get me a guide for them. Man, this is service. I also heard from the more expensive agency which is going to put a less detailed proposal together for me as a courtesy before I decide whether I want to work with them or not. Both are due back to me early next week.

I'm reading Fodor's Moscow and St. Petersburg and actually figuring out the Cyrillic alphabet a bit (B is R, P is B, etc.) and am getting really latched on to this whole idea. My Amazon Wish List also erupted with a whole list of required reading; good thing I have 8 months to get through it!

And this is my new desktop. Sigh.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

First Itinerary in...

Today I received the first customized itinerary. I have to say I'm impressed. It covers just about everything I want and for about $600 less than I'd estimated. What surprises me is that they have me in St. Petersburg first, which I sort of always expected to be where the trip would end, but in reality I'll be flying home from Moscow. I don't know if that should matter to me or not. I have heard St.P is "my kind of city" and Moscow not so much.

The other thing that is interesting is I only have 2 full days in Moscow. I am going to ask and see if I can get one more, since the Pushkin Museum and Tretyakov Museum, both "must sees" in my mind, have not been included and there is no "free" time in Moscow. Hmmmm. I suspect that is because hotels are dirt cheap in Moscow on weekends, and this itinerary has me landing in Moscow, not surprisingly on Friday night and departing Monday morning. I think I can squeak one more day out of this.

I also asked for a proposed itinerary from another Russian travel company, just for the purposes of comparison shopping. This one though is looking for $220 just to put the proposal together, and their chosen hotels are the Ritz or Savoy. Methinks that's an indication that they're just a smidge out of my league. We'll see...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Wheels to Russia in motion

So I took the leap. Yesterday while working at home, I took a break and called a travel agency that specializes in travel to Russia. I spoke with Olga, a very nice agent from St. Petersburg who asked me the length of my trip, when I want to go, what I want to see, what kind of accommodations I want, how long in each city and how independent I feel. We agreed that I'd go with a partially guided / partially independent trip. She's putting a customized itinerary together now, including flights and visas. I anxiously await both the itinerary and the bottom line. Fingers crossed that Olga pulls something together that I'll just love!

Friday, January 1, 2010

I promised myself Russia

With the new year comes the threat of another birthday, and this year it just so happens to be a milestone birthday, and one I promised myself to mark in style and with something I'd put off for a while. Although it's seemed far off for some time, I just realized the one trip I'd been promising myself to mark the occasion has risen to the top of the agenda. This trip is to Russia and I've taken the week between Christmas and New Year's to jump start the trip planning because I don't think this is one of those "get up and just go" types of trips.

I've long been fascinated with Russia. My earliest memories of it just so happen to have occurred in the same year. Way back when, my fifth grade teacher used to warn us of the impending doom that the Russians were surely to bring upon the USA. Now, I'm sure in that day and age, it seemed possible, although maybe he was just a bit of a war-monger or maybe just shit-stirrer. But damn, you don't say those sorts of things to impressionable 10 year olds! I can actually remember asking my grandfather if what my teacher said was true, and was relieved that Gramp didn't think the Russians were going to wipe us off the map. I knew that Gramp knew better than any half-baked elementary school teacher, for sure. Also in that same year, the US Olympic hockey team wiped up Lake Placid with the Russian team and it's probably one of the earliest news-worthy memories I have. That whole US vs. Russia mentality, the busting of the evil empire, all that big baddie versus little old goodies like these baby faced hockey players from our very own hometowns. It was bigger and better in our minds than Luke vs. Darth. It was one for the history books for sure, but it sparked an interest in Russia for me that never really subsided.

I was riveted to the news of the break-up for the USSR into the nation states in the late 80s and 90s and how they continue to morph over time. And as a competitive figure skating aficionado, I fully appreciate that the Russians are, and always have been, and probably will forever be, better skaters than just about everybody. Doe-eyed Canadians included (man, I have NOT recovered from that Olympic "scandal"!)

So here I sit with a few different options in hand, a guidebook on Moscow and St. Petersburg and a hand-penned list of must-sees. Deciding how to do it is the issue. I can either go on a fully guided (sigh...probably with 15 geriatrics), partially guided (with some free-time to myself) or totally on my own.

Here's what I'm thinking. Totally on my own is out of the equation. Ordinarily I go anywhere on my own without a second thought. In Russia though, the tourist infrastructure is not as well-developed as everywhere else I've been. From what I have read so far, it is difficult, if not impossible to get into some of the places I want to see without a local guide. There is also the mental hurdle of being in a country where, not only do I not speak the language, I can't even read the alphabet. I'm blessed to read and speak three languages other than English. Russian is not one of them. At least in the Czech Republic I could read the letters and pretend that a Spanish/French transliteration of what the word looked like would do. And sometimes that worked perfectly. I could of course, and probably will, attempt to learn both the alphabet and at least a basic knowledge of Russian before I go. But for now it's a mental hurdle I'm struggling with. One that could land me on a Moscow Metro ride to no Charlie on the MTA.

But part of why I travel is to learn about the culture and immerse myself in the surroundings. Schlepping on and off a bus and in and out of sights with a group of English speaking Americans doesn't really do it for me in that regard. I'd want to cut loose and spend some time seeing things that maybe the group doesn't and seeing how I'd do there on my own. So the allure of a partially guided trip is calling to me.

And still, at the back of my mind there is that elementary school teacher's voice warning me that I could go missing for some perceived infraction and end up in a gulag in Siberia forever more. So for that reason alone, no matter how unrealistic it is, I'd kind of like someone on the ground there to at least know where I am and where I'm supposed to be some of the time.

This trip won't be cheap, but it's meant to be a trip of a lifetime. I'll probably not do many/any other big trips this year and just save up for the September/October timeframe. But in the meantime it gives me something to ruminate on during the cold winter months and gives me a reason to go to work (if for no other reason that to accrue vacation time!) So for now I'll keep reading and talking to tour providers. I have some time to decide and plenty to keep me busy thinking. I just can't believe it's here!

S Novym Godom!