Let’s play Travel ABC’s

Hey fellow travel enthusiasts!

I’m currently doing a fun travel game over on my travel Instagram, @mirvaonthemove. (FYI: I also have an IG account just for Guadeloupe photos, which is @guadeloupeguide. So if you like palm tree photos, head over to that one!).

This Insta game that I invented is called the “Travel ABC’s” and the goal is to post a photo every day of a country/state/city you have been to, in an alphabetical order. I just started a few days ago together with a few other IG users, so it’s still easy to join.

If you want to take part, just use the hashtag #travelabcs and tag me @mirvaonthemove. You’d have to post four photos to catch up: places starting with an A, a B, a C and a D. It might be best if you could post a few photos per day so that you can quickly catch up with the rest of us. 🙂 Tomorrow is letter E.

Here’s what I’ve posted so far.

There are also a few more rules:

  1. When you post a photo, you should tell a little story of the place/country where the photo was taken. (Don’t forget to use the hashtag #travelabcs and tag me at @mirvaonthemove).
  2. You can post about a country, a state or a city that starts with that letter.
  3. If you can’t think of any place starting with a particular letter that you would have been to, you need to reach out to another IG user (maybe a friend of yours, or a new contact) and ask them to loan a photo to you from that place. Then post that photo to your IG. In the status you can say that while you haven’t been to a place starting with letter X, another IG user has in fact been there. And then tell what the IG user had to say about it. And make sure to tag them in the photo to give them credit! (PS. If you need a photo from someplace, feel free to ask me! I’ve been almost everywhere…haha!)

That’s it! See you on Instagram, over at #travelabcs!

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World’s Longest Train Rides: Trans Siberian vs. Indian Pacific

In case you were wondering whether the earth swallowed me last fall due to the radio silence on the blog, it kind of did: I spent much of September and October on the train crossing Russia, Mongolia and China. (See, I do get away from beach destinations sometimes!)

I had been planning on riding the Trans-Siberian railroad for years, as I’m a big fan of long train journeys. Yet for some reason I never got around to it before 2012. But it’s good that I didn’t – now I was able do the trip with my dad, who retired from the Finnish army a couple of years ago at the age of 50, and thus is a young senior citizen with plenty of free time. What better place to head for a family trip than Siberia!?

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So after I spent a fun summer in Finland, my dad and I set off for the 3.5-week train journey into dark Siberia (which, funnily enough, ended up being bright and sunny the whole time). And just FYI: Most of this time was spent seeing sights and visiting towns along the way, not just sitting on the train. The actual travel time from Helsinki to Beijing was about a week.

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After successfully completing the famous ride, I wrote an article for the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, comparing the Trans-Siberian with another long train trip I’ve got under my belt, the Indian Pacific of Australia. (And yes, I know that by veering off to Mongolia after Ulan-Ude we actually took the Trans-Mongolian route for half of the trip, but for the purposes of the article, I focused on the Trans-Siberian part of the journey.)

The article turned out to be quite popular based on the feedback I heard, so I thought I’d do an English translation of it for you. So here we go:

The World’s Longest Train Rides

Which marathon train trip suits you better, the tundra-crossing Trans-Siberian or the Indian Pacific zooming by the desert? HS put the trips to the test.

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The Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Vladivostok is 9, 259 kilometers long. The trip takes about 150 hours, or more than six days.

History: Building a railroad crossing Russia took 25 years. The constructions were completed in 1904, and involved 90 000 people. The majority were inmates and soldiers sentenced into manual labor.

The main attractions: The city of Nizhny Novgorod that was closed off from foreigners during the Soviet era, where the Volga River can be crossed with a cable car, the Perm region with its 10,000-year-old permafrost ice caves, the world’s deepest lake Baikal, Irkutsk with its wooden mansions and the Buryatian Republic‘s capital city Ulan-Ude.

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DSC05918 (480x640)The atmosphere: The train rattles steadily along the tracks. The tobacco smoke floating into the carriage adds to the sleepy atmosphere. A young man pours hot water into his ready-made mashed potatoes, a grandpa takes secret sips from his spiced-up Sprite bottle in between card games. In roadside towns, older grannies with headscarves sell greasy pelmenis. The nights go by while listening to the snores of your carriage mates, and wondering what the sudden stops are all about.

Scenery: The landscape consists of Siberian birch forests, low hills, pine trees of the taiga and snow-capped mountains in the East. Pastel-colored houses and slowly crumbling old villages dot the way.

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Travel companions: Despite the Trans-Siberian’s great international popularity, the majority of the passengers are Russians: retired couples, families returning from visiting relatives, army boys and sports teams on trips. Every now and then you can hear some conversations in the Buryat language, spoken by the Buryat people who are descendants of Mongolians. Of the foreigners, most are Chinese and European.

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Price: For the 54-bed open carriage (platskarny), a one-way ticket costs about 200 euros. First and second class four-person cabins cost 400-1,000 euro per person, depending on the train. Tickets can be bought either in Finland or for slightly cheaper in the Russian railway stations.

Facilities: The first-class cabins have showers, other passengers have to make do with shared toilets. The dining car’s golden décor reminds you of the grandeur of days gone by with its silk table cloths and curtains. Beer and vodka flow freely, and chatter is accompanied by borscht soup.

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Please note: The term “Trans-Siberian” refers to the train track crossing Russia, not to any particular “Trans-Siberian train.” Rossija and Baikal are some of the better-quality trains that serve the route, as well as the new British luxury train Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian Express. There are also local trains traveling between different Siberian towns. One option is to get off the train in the morning in a town of your choosing and to continue the journey in the evening with another train. In doing so, the tickets need to be bought separately for each leg of the journey. Pay attention to the departure times: Russian railways always operate in Moscow-time, no matter what the local time in your Siberian destination may be.

The Indian-Pacific travels from Sydney to Perth. The 4 352-kilometer train journey takes 65 hours, or three days.

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History: The railroad that crosses Australia, connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, was opened in 1970. It includes the world’s longest straight piece of track, the 478-kilometer Nullarbor Plain.

The main attractions: Australia’s oldest mining town Broken Hill, the city of 700 churches known as Adelaide, Kalgoorlie with 100 years’ worth of gold fever history, Nullarbor Plain, the ghost village of Cook with its four residents and millions of flies, the beaches of Perth.

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Atmosphere: The 700-meter row of metal wagons rummages through the desert, past the occasional kangaroo, emu, herds of camels and two-meter wedge-tailed eagles. Happy chatter fills the restaurant car as the chicken curry dishes are scarfed down from the tables seating four people. The atmosphere is communal. The vast emptiness behind the windows is highlighted as the radio blasts bits of Slim Dusty’s perky song every couple of hours: “The Indian Pacific spans the land!” One can’t help but join in on the tune. A train trip doesn’t get more Australian than this.

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Scenery: The majority of the three-day trip is characterized by typical Australian landscape – red sandy desert, scrubs, bright orange sunsets and sunrises. Upon leaving Sydney you’ll see the bluish spruce-covered Blue Mountains, after Adelaide the shallow reddish mountains and on arrival to Perth, the lush Avon Valley.

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Travel companions: Adventure-loving Australian retirees, locals moving across the country, European and North American backpackers and train travel enthusiasts.

Price: In the Gold Kangaroo section, a one-way trip in a luxury cabin with full board costs about 1,760 euro and in the Red Kangaroo section the same goes for 1,200 euros. Occasionally there will be platinum-level suites with a double bed on offer, costing 5,000 per person. Budget travelers have to settle for a reclining seat, best accessed by accruing a Rail Explorer pass. For about 360 euro you can ride Australian trains for three months.

Facilities: The Gold Kangaroo cabins feature bunk beds, combined toilet-shower stalls and large windows, and some come with a TV and minibar. Once the train has left the station, the Rail Explorer pass holders have the opportunity to purchase a Red Kangaroo cabin for 120 euro, provided there is enough room. Different travel classes have their own restaurant and lounge cars.

Please note: The stopovers are a few hours long. Guided city tours are sold for about 20 euro.

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So that’s it! Have any of you taken the Trans-Siberian and/or the Indian Pacific? Any thoughts on which one is the best marathon train journey? 🙂 

Five reasons to skip Christmas (every now and then)

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and whatnot last month! However it was you spent those leisurely days between Dec. 24 and New Year’s Eve, I trust you had a jolly time.

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Though I’m in the habit of celebrating Christmas, as is typical in my native Finland, this was my “skip-year,” so I did not do much. Instead of being huddled over a mountain of presents or munching on delicious holiday food, I chilled out in New York and spent those December days much like any others in the city: working, catching up with friends, eating in Thai restaurants, going to the gym, etc.

This might sound sad to you if you are a Christmas fanatic, but don’t worry. For me it’s not at all. You see, over the past decade I’ve crafted my own tradition of forgoing traditional family Christmas celebrations every second year for practical reasons (mostly for saving money and time).

Sure, I do miss my family and it would be great to spend time with them during the holidays, but aside from that, skipping the hustle and bustle of Christmas is really not all that bad. In fact, it’s kind of refreshing.

Some of my skip-year Christmases have been quite memorable, like  2008 when I flew to Cancun, Mexico and danced around the bar with a group of Mexican holidaymakers singing “Feliz Navidad.” Or 2006, when my friends and I toured the vineyards around the Margaret River region of Western Australia. (A white Christmas has a strong contender in my mind – a sunny one! Aussies may be onto something…)

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Being someone who loves change and variety, it’s nice for me to spice things up every other year and do something different from the usual “family dinner – Christmas sauna – presents – church” –routine, as warm and comforting as that can be. This year I attended a Panamanian Christmas fiesta in Brooklyn, where we danced Bachata and Merengue until midnight.

So believe it or not, there are plenty of good reasons to follow my lead on this tradition of skipping the holidays every other year (or at least celebrating them super low-key), many of them travel-related.

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Here are some of the biggest benefits:

1) Avoiding expensive flights

Flying to most places in the world between Dec. 18 and early January is prohibitively expensive. A round-trip ticket from the US to Europe or vice versa can easily set you back $1,000-1,300 this time of the year, when you can find flights in non-peak months for $500-700. So why not postpone that trip home by a couple of weeks and save a small fortune in the process? As most festive dates are artificial anyway, who is to say you cannot celebrate Christmas in January, should you feel like it? Or even in the summer! (Well hey, some scientists say Jesus was born on June 17.)

2) Scoring cheap flights

While prices for flights are generally sky-high in the end of December, there are two dates when you might score a deal: Dec. 25 and Dec. 31. Yep, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. That’s because most people wouldn’t dream of flying anywhere on these days, preferring to celebrate on the ground. But during my skip-years, I am more than happy to fly whenever, if it saves me hundreds of dollars. This New Year’s Eve I flew from New York to Costa Rica for a mere $195 with Spirit (and still made it to San Jose in time for the party!), while the fare was $100-300 more on the days preceding Dec. 31. You can’t beat that!

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(Our NYE party crew in San Jose – matching checkered shirts provided by our friendly host Luis, second from the right.)

3) No presents – no holiday stress

We all know the feeling: the holidays are just around the corner and we have yet to buy a single present, clean the house from top to bottom, bake cookies and plan a fancy dinner for family and friends. And why is it that the days leading up to Dec. 24 always zoom by so quick?! Streeeessssss!!!

– Well, not for me this year! I didn’t need to care how fast Christmas was approaching as I didn’t have a single thing to prepare (aside from picking up a bottle of wine for the Panamanian fiesta). I didn’t buy any presents and I told my family not to get me anything either. I didn’t even send out a single Christmas card. I did put up a holiday greeting on Facebook, but that’s about it. 😉 While everyone else was freaking out about getting things done on time, I couldn’t have been more relaxed the closer we got THE day. Plus I was able to use my Christmas-time savings towards that Central American holiday (I’m typing this on the beach as we speak… yes, I have a beach problem)!

4) Avoiding holiday weight-gain

I know how some of you are feeling right about now – looking at the newly-formed flab on your belly, you’re thinking “did I have to eat that extra box of chocolates during Christmas?” Well, don’t feel bad – you had to. That’s the spirit of Christmas. I’ve been there a million times too, but luckily I’m not there this year. By skipping Xmas I not only steered clear from fattening traditional foods and goodies, I was also able to spend some extra time working out (plus the gym was nice and empty during the holidays)! So now I’m having a much better time touring Central America without extra pounds holding me down. 🙂

5) Bringing that special holiday feeling back

Remember the days when Christmas was something you looked forward to with joy, not dread? Back when you felt like the holidays couldn’t get here fast enough? Yeah, for most people this excitement has been long ago replaced by feelings of panic as December seems to roll around quicker each year (wasn’t in just Christmas 2011?). Thus my solution is the best: when you skip the festivities every other year, Christmas retrieves its role as a truly special occasion – one that only takes place every 24 months, just often enough for you to start missing it. And during your skip-years you can spend the time and money to travel to that dream destination of yours!

What do you think about my “skip-year” habit? Have any of your tried skipping Christmas  or embraced a low-key version of the holiday? Why or why not?

Addicted to the Beach

A few months ago I realized something very profound about myself. It happened as I was swimming at a deserted paradise beach in the village of Diembering, in the Casamance region of Senegal. Jumping over big waves and body-surfing on top of the blue water, I was feeling overly happy – like a kid on a sugar high.

That’s when I realized that I have a problem – a beach problem. In fact, it’s a real addiction.

Since 1999, only one year has passed without me spending weeks or months in the vicinity of amazingly beautiful tropical beaches. That year was 2005, when the shore line of New York (which is actually not too shabby!) had to suffice.

But in 2006 I more than made up for the lost beach time by spending eight months in Australia, the country of pristine waters and white sands and mind-boggling snorkeling opportunities. My favorite memory from that year is swimming alongside a giant turtle at Lady Musgrave Island. 🙂

Since those sunny days Down Under I’ve also discovered playas in Latin America (Colombia! Cuba! Panama!), South and South East Asia, the Caribbean and most recently West Africa. In fact, looking at my travel routes over the years, my paths have almost always followed the coast lines of continents. Coincidence? I think not.

So yeah, I like beaches. A lot. But so do many other people. Why would that be a problem, you may ask…?

Well, not that it’s a problem per se, but my love of beach bumming has definitely had a profound impact on who I am, my career choices and the type of life I lead nowadays. Sometimes I have to wonder what kind of a person I’d be, had I never been enchanted by gently-swaying palm trees and the refreshing taste of fresh coconut water – to the point that being near them is almost an unhealthy obsession. You wouldn’t believe the arrangements and compromises I’ve made in order to stay near the ocean swells.

You see, it was the proximity to Pacific and Atlantic beaches that prompted me to pursue journalism studies in California and Florida, and even got me considering Hawaii for my master’s degree. Eventually New York won, but only barely.

Yes, my addiction is that bad! The thought of living inland has always felt suffocating. Even my occasional inland travels, such as the February yoga retreat in the Sahara, make me feel a bit uneasy. Generally a week is the max I can spend away from the coast without getting jittery.

So in early 2000s I studied for two years at Palomar College near the famous surfer city of San Diego, California. I then transferred schools and two years later got my bachelor’s degree from Flagler College in the tiny coastal town of St. Augustine, Florida. Since Flagler didn’t offer a degree in journalism, I had to settle for studying communication. But at least I was able to spend my days off rollerblading to the beautiful nearby beach! Now that would not have been possible at the Missouri School of Journalism, probably the most famous J-school in the US.

So basically I had to make the choice between a quality education and a quality beach – and I chose the latter. Was it the smartest thing to do career-wise? Maybe not, though the classes at Flagler were definitely good too and I learned a lot. Did I love my life in California and Florida to the fullest? You bet.

And I won’t lie – it was the images of eye-achingly white stretches of sand and unreal turquoise waters that got me thinking that the Maldives would be an amazing place to teach journalism in 2010 with the help of the Davis Projects for Peace grant. That, and the fact that the country had just gotten freedom of speech in 2008 and the residents were in dire need of media education. Lucky me, my proposal got selected for the grant as one of 11 out of 50 applications.

So for two months I taught workshops in this tropical island nation together with my super talented photographer-videographer friend Mariana Keller. The experience was truly unique: I loved being able to share my knowledge with the local journalists and to train them in our common craft. But yet somehow what I remember the best from those months is the amazing scenery that words cannot describe:

Ahhh. Pure bliss.

It may come as no surprise that it was this trip to the Maldives that solidified my decision to continue on the freelancing path. Sure, it may not be the best paid job out there or one that is for the faint of heart due to its irregularity. But then what other job would allow me adequate beach time whenever I felt a pressing need to hug a palm tree? If you hear of one, please let me know. Until then, you’ll likely find me typing away on some tropical beach.

So who else wants to confess to being a full-blown beachoholic?? (Yes! There’s even a song for us!) What kinds of sacrifices have you made in your life in order to keep your feet in the sand as often as possible?