Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Vietnamese Oriental Beauty from Ha Giang province

I exchanged some teas awhile back with an online friend in Vietnam (or contact; whichever concept you would use), Huyen Dinh.  I did finally get around to sending her back some tea but I won't go into what: just some of what was around. 

It's a little unconventional reviewing the teas she sent because I don't know specific sources, who produced it.  That's true if you buy a tea from a typical online producer too; they would sell it as this post is labeled--with type and area--but the origin wouldn't be more specific.  Any potential marketing angle drops out since she's not selling this tea, she's just another tea enthusiast.  In a way that almost seems better.

Here is a map reference of where that tea is from, Ha Giang, right beside China, a reference from Hatvala (one of my favorite Vietnamese tea vendors).  They sell an amazing Oriental Beauty version, which I reviewed here, that is quite type-typical compared to Taiwanese versions, only exceptional for being an above average quality example.  This will prove to be a bit different, not necessarily related to being inferior, but different in character.


My first impression is that it doesn't look exactly like a Taiwanese OB, which are often more brown and white, with multi-colored shades related to those.  This has more of a black and white appearance, more similar to a moonlight white or a bit like the Vietnamese snow teas.  It's quite well twisted, so compact that I overshot the quantity a little and ended up with a gaiwan mostly full of brewing leaves once it infused.  That doesn't throw off the brewing effect, in most cases, it just requires using really short infusions.

It's quite heavily oxidized, really a black tea in an Oriental Beauty style.  OB's are a very oxidized version of oolong (70% gets mentioned sometimes, but it's hard to be sure of what that means, or if it doesn't consistently mean any one thing).  It's not so unusual for some versions to seem to blur the line, to be that little bit more oxidized and to seem like a novel black tea instead of a well oxidized oolong.  How well the aspects and overall effect work out are more important, although I guess someone else might value a tea matching an expectation of a type more than I do.

trying it out brewed a bit heavier

The brewed tea flavors include some earthiness typical of black tea, that malt and mineral range, and also plenty of fruit.  Mineral is pronounced but I'll skip guessing out what rock it tastes like ("warm" will do; not like limestone).  That fruit range isn't the typical light and bright OB flavors (citrus, muscatel, spice), but instead deeper fruit flavors, black grape, raisin, currant / elderberry, and some limited brighter range towards mango or pineapple.  The overall effect is unique, a mix of other types and styles.

It does transition through infusions, with some of the heavy mineral and maltiness giving way to even more dried fruit.  The fruit effect brightens; the black grape and currant seems more like blueberry as it keeps going.  It's a very cool aspect range and overall effect, especially that transition cycle.  But also the balance the aspects strike too, the way it comes together.  The flavors range is very complex and clean, and the feel is nice and full, with no notable flaws.

well-oxidized small leaves


It reminds me a little of an OB version from Yunnan, from Farmerleaf (which I reviewed here; they take down their own site pages once a tea is out of stock, so there isn't one).  Looking back the flavors range was a bit different, with that warmer and slightly earthier, mixing in cinnamon, pastry, and heavier fruit (raisin and cooked yam, a bit in between fruit and a sweet vegetable range).  Both are unconventional in appearance and character.  Both are relatively more oxidized and off-typical-region versions of Oriental Beauty.  With Farmerleaf teas coming from Yunnan (and that tea from Jing Mai, within Yunnan) these aren't produced that far from each other.  I could speculate about similarities related to local climate or plant types used but I really have no idea, it's just interesting to consider.

I really liked this tea.  It wasn't as light and bright as some Oriental Beauty versions are, but for more typical examples you have to get a really good version for the bright, intense flavors to be really complex and not exhibit any musty earthiness, or to not transition in a way that's completely positive.  I'm not claiming that medium quality OB versions tend to taste like cardboard, the point is that only better examples show off that intense fruit range in a really clean and bright way that holds up through an infusion cycle, typically transitioning some in nature as you brew them.  This fruit and general character is different, more of a black tea, with some heavier fruit and some nice berry aspects, but it paralleled how it works out for quite nice more-typical OB versions in that range. 

You can usually adjust parameters and get some variation in aspects from an OB, with them performing well across a range of preparation approaches, and I'd assume that's true of this tea too.  I don't have lots of it but enough to make it again, at least once or maybe twice more, so I can check on that.  For some that would lead to the challenge of optimizing the brewed tea character, dialing it in, and for others messing around and exploring changes would be more the point, but it works out well either way.

Many thanks to Huyen again for providing interesting, unique, and pleasant Vietnamese teas to try.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Trying Moychay black teas from Georgia (teas bought in Russia)

These two teas I bought in Russia, in Moscow, in a Moychay shop there.  They're from Georgia instead of Russia, which is still trying something new to me, so just what I was looking for.  I'll post some pictures of tea shops but this post is really about reviewing the teas.

I just did post a long travel-blog theme review of visiting Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Murmansk (seeing Northern Lights) but I'll steer clear of most of that scope too.

one of the Moychay shops in Moscow, where I bought these

Yesterday (at time of making notes, at least) I met Sasha Abramovich (FB contact here), a local guy who I've talked to online about tea and we first tried this version.  He's local in the same sense I'm local in Bangkok, not from here but living here.  He just toured the tea producing areas of Darjeeling and Assam so that made for plenty related to tea to talk about.  He translated the package description, which is in Russian, and compared his impression to other Georgian teas he's tried.  I won't really be doing justice to talking about Sasha or the teas' background, since this a review runs long enough as it is.

I might at least mention that we tried two other very nice teas yesterday, a Castleton Moonlight white, and a Thurbo Darjeeling.  Both tasted like good first flush Darjeeling, bright and fresh, sweet and fruity, complex and not overly astringent.  I just had a similar experience trying a Makaibari first flush version I had left over from samples shared by the Lochans (a good source of various Darjeelings, and a producer of their own Doke location products).  It seems odd circling back to focus on Darjeeling first flush well into winter (in a post about Georgian black tea) but I think I might say more about that last tea later in another post.

So many tangents, so little patience to write pages about them.  I was planning on cutting short tasting notes and reviews this year.  All the comparisons and long tasting sessions last year started to extend into two page tea write-ups, going a bit far.  In the past I've researched new locations or tea types when writing about them, and there would be plenty to say about teas from Georgia, but I won't, at least not in this.  I talked to a half dozen people about those Georgian teas and everyone said different things, all quite interesting and worth hearing but difficult to summarize.  Most of those people read the Russian descriptions (I've been talking to a good number of Russians about tea lately), and a few others had substantial background with Georgian tea sources, one essentially a tea producer there.  For now I'll leave off at mentioning a Georgia-local Facebook tea group, which is more accessible using English than one would expect.

Related to the two specific teas, this initial label content was completely in Cyrillic, not an easy starting point.

The pricing I can decode on my own; around 60 rubles equates to one US dollar, so those two versions are around $8 per 100 grams and more like $20 for the other.  For Thais it works to divide rubles by two to estimate baht, so 245 baht (give or take) per 100 grams and then also 630.  With one tea costing 2 1/2 times the other one might expect it to be much better (or at least I would), but things aren't always that simple, the supply and demand factors, and personal preference can muddle what is "best."

The full description is on an English language Moychay website, with the container lid on the right in the image as this tea (I think):

friendly Moychay shop staff

"Organic Red Tea" is made of spring shoots of wild tea bushes (harvest May 2017) grown in Guria County.  In appearance: tiny, lengthwise twisted leaves of dark purple-brown color. The liquor is transparent, chestnut color.  The brewed tea has warm, refined, fruity-biscuit bouquet with berry, herbal and citrus hints. The taste is refined, silky, sweetish, with berry acidity, transforming into refreshing finish.

That's pretty much what Sasha said, and the price matches up, give or take some conversion fluctuation.  I didn't see a listing for the second.

I'll refer to them here as "the first and second," not much of a place-holder for specifics, but that's how I wrote the initial draft, and going with "wild and not-wild" instead isn't handier.

More back-story, in pictures

Even though I'm not really saying more about Sasha, Moychay, or Georgian tea in this post I can pass on some pictures.

visiting with Sasha Abramovich (contact and photo credit here)

a nice Gongfu brewing area in that shop

looking ahead; something different from that shop

Moychay staff in St. Petersburg (a different subject)

I'd mentioned in the last post that I found two shops at the same time in Moscow, also the Perlov tea shop (quite near this Moychay branch), which I'll get around to saying more about along with a tea review.  The exterior and interior of that shop was beautiful, but I was slightly disappointed to find the selection as commercial boxed teas or one regional version per type jar tea, without much for local or regional products.  Both presentations can still be fantastic tea but based on prior expectations it's not exactly what I was looking for.  I bought a Russian green tea there, one of only two Russian teas I found, and an "Ivan chai," or willow herb tisane, which I'll review later.

Picture references related to that:

Perlov tea shop

these could be good, just not what I was looking for


the previously referenced wild organic tea from Guria County

It can be tricky keeping track of labeling when you can't read it, but these prior two pictures do match, that's the Russian description of that tea I tried with Sasha, matching the website description.

the other tea, as of yet not really well defined (by me at least)

I'm writing these initial notes related to a first round, and I think brewing it a little stronger the next time and being a second infusion will tell more of the story.

The first tea that I'd already tried yesterday is nice, more or less matching the description for it.  When I first tried it the tea seemed a little disappointing, I think related to build-up, carrying around teas for awhile like that, and trying tea from a new country.  The parameters were probably just a little off too, since it was much better today.

The package description said it tastes like bread or pastry, with some fruit aspect, and a bit of citrus.  We had tasted it using relatively standard parameters for Western style brewing and I'm shifting that towards a hybrid of Gongfu instead, which to some people might just be considered a low proportion and longer time frame version of Gongfu brewing.  Or others would see it as tea brewing practice abomination, I guess, to adjust parameters to whatever you like versus following some convention.  I've brewed a lot of black teas a lot of different ways so how variations shift results is familiar, it just varies for different teas.

The tea is like that description, which works as a starting point.  The bread or pastry like element gives it a rich body and nice flavor base, not unlike that found in some Taiwanese black teas.  That fruit and citrus comes across as a tartness that reminds me of a Dan Cong black tea I've reviewed.  Tart black tea isn't unheard of but it's not really typical of most types.  The complexity is ok, and it's not really off or flawed in any way.  I suppose it might trace over into balsa wood or cardboard flavor a little, not exactly off or flawed, but not ideal related to that aspect range either.

Up until that cardboard part it sounded pretty good, didn't it?  Tartness isn't a favorite aspect for me in black teas, and I don't love it when it's dominant in oolong oxidation level Dan Cong, the more normal version for teas from there, but I could imagine others relating to it differently.  I do love orange citrus in black teas, in wild Lapsang Souchong I've tried, or variations in Oriental Beauty, but I'm picking up more cranberry than "warmer" citrus in this.

The second tea--I think sold as an inferior grade of tea, or at least at a lower cost--looks the part of a superior tea, whole leaf instead of broken.  At first I was considering if I mightn't have that switched.  After thinking it through the tartness in that "first" version (listed as berry and citrus in their description) seems to more or less guarantee that the shop staff didn't accidentally switch those labels.  The "second version" leaves are long, twisted, and whole versus being quite broken for the other tea.  They're medium brown in appearance versus a darker black too.

The taste of the second version is fine, maybe just a little thinner.  It comes across as warmer, with less fruit, and not tart.  Toffee or caramel is more pronounced, extending a little towards a spice aspect, not cinnamon but towards that.  Again there is a woodiness that starts to remind me a little of cardboard.  That's really not that uncommon in Taiwanese black teas, per my past experience (which this aspects set reminds me of).  Shifting brewing aspects can minimize it, and bring out the flavors more beyond that trace of mustiness, but it's part of some teas that is more or less something to work around.

first version ("wild") left, other right

Second infusion:

The first tea version (the "wild" leaf tea) is similar to how the first infusion had been when brewed a bit stronger in this second round, but now fully "opened up," as much as that relates to black teas at all.  I am liking this tea quite a bit more than when I had it with Sasha that first day.  He and I both enjoyed it but it seems to do better with a bit more infusion strength, or maybe the higher proportion and shorter time somehow works better.

For some teas it doesn't really matter, and they work really well made lots of different ways, just coming across differently.  Two of my favorites work out like that:  Oriental Beauty (Taiwanese more-oxidized bug-bitten oolongs) and Dian Hong (Yunnan black teas, which actually vary quite a bit to be generalizing like that).  Sheng pu'er often really needs to be enjoyed brewed in a way that suits a particular version best, often better brewed very light, on the other side of the scale, although those vary a lot in character too.

elderberries (photo credit)

There is plenty of fruit, coupled nicely with a pastry-like complexity.  It reminds me of cranberry because of the tartness but really the fruit range goes beyond that, a bit into dark cherry instead, or maybe closer to elderberry.  Elderberry pie is fantastic, by the way, one of my best childhood memories.  They're tiny, sweet, distinctive flavored fruit that takes lots of work to pick, and we'd collect them up for my mother and get a pie in return for our trouble.

Elderberries taste like a blueberry but heavier on earthiness or mineral, probably as close to how ink smells as anything else, but they definitely don't taste like ink.  If I just loved tartness more in tea this would seem exceptional; as it is it's still interesting and positive.

The other tea is a contradiction for tasting rich and full, sweet and complex, clean-flavored and positive, and also slightly thin in a sense that's hard to pin down.  The style is enigmatic too.  It seems closest to Taiwanese black to me (honey black from a Jin Xuan cultivar, to be more specific).  There's an intriguing rich aspect layered in that is really interesting and positive (maybe like hazelnut?), and again a slight woody mustiness that's less so.  It's a little towards spice range as found in root beer or sasparilla.  For having that slight bit of wood tone the flavor is really clean.  With this being so inexpensive it's a great buy given the novelty and complexity, even if it has limits related to range and overall effect.  I really should have bought 100 grams of it, but I expected to pick up loads of tea in different places later, which really didn't work out.

a lot of color difference beyond the leaf wholeness differing

Third infusion / conclusions:

Both teas seem like decent teas related to overall impression, to flavor, and also thickness of the tea and complexity in terms of aftertaste.   They don't seem like really exceptional tea versions related to those last ranges of aspects, but then a lot of that scope applies more to other types; oolongs, pu'er, or even white teas can express more depth in those directions.

The first tea is thinning a bit faster than the second.  The leaves being more broken might have something to do with that, or maybe not.  I suppose it's conceivable that the results might have been better for a using less broken leaves related to other aspect range too.  While the first is just fading the second is just as complex and interesting as it had been, still subtle but with nice intensity.

I do like these teas.  I wouldn't mind having more of both to drink more of, to mess around with parameters and such, or just to enjoy experiencing.  Based on the tasting yesterday I was a bit on the fence of whether or not to even write about them, which would have been a shame, exploring a new country source and finding teas in Moscow, and then not going into details due to not really being into them.  Both teas have limitations or aspects that aren't personal favorites but both compare reasonably well to two very interesting and desirable ranges of teas I've tried, to black teas from Taiwan and in China where Dan Cong is from (outlying Chaozhou city in the North Eastern Guangdong province).  Related to value these compare well to other online sourced teas and for tea-shop versions (where overhead usually adds a bit to expense) the value is quite good, especially for the relatively inexpensive version.  It's hard to find black tea that good in that price range, of any type.

I've also tried that Moychay Nan Nuo in-house production sheng a couple of times and that will be a different kind of story; I liked these black teas but really loved that tea.  The brightness, freshness, and fruit flavor range was so intense it extended beyond what I normally experience in sheng.  Floral aspects are normal for lots of sheng, but bright plum / white grape fruit is something else. There's always room for more mouth-feel or aftertaste improvement, especially given that some people associate those a lot more with that tea type, or even value them more than flavors, but regardless of all that it was pretty good tea in a deeper sense, and quite novel.

Post-script; a few more images on the Russian travel theme

Kalani showing off a Russian doll souvenir haul

selfie with a cool mural in a St. Petersburg metro station (subway)

that full mural, with Kalani for scale

I would assume that image is Peter the Great

amazing decoration themes in the metros (this one in St. Petersburg)

Friday, January 12, 2018

Travel in Russia, to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Murmansk

This post shares experiences traveling in Russia, to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Murmansk (within the Arctic Circle).  It's not about tea, although I will write about what turned up related to that separately.   I did attend a tea tasting in Moscow, with two of the Russians involved with making Laos Tea, and found some interesting shops and teas.

Russia was amazing, on a few different levels, so there was lots to cover.  I had made notes on the trip, explaining the shifts in time-frame in this.  There was a challenge related to covering so much range of experience in a moderate length summary.  The solution:  let it run long.

I completely get why a typical reader attention span is under 1000 words, and this is quite a bit  longer than that.  Make of it what you will, and feel free to share feedback or discuss parts with me in comments here, or in the FB page for this blog.

not in Kansas anymore

the recurring Christmas theme was nice

Moscow based intro

Why Russia, one might wonder.  The short version:  to see snow and Northern Lights.  Thais love the idea of cold weather, even though it takes work to prepare for it, and then the actual experience is a bit mixed.  We visited the US last year around the holidays so my family knew what was coming, except for the experience of the Arctic cold.  It was a separate goal to experience a little of Russian culture (especially tea, but not mostly that).

I might start by saying that I do like Russia and Russians.  They're a bit somber, and wear so much black and grey that along with their reserved demeanor and the industrial looking buildings things seemed a bit dystopian.  People having that limited clothing color option--or they could also wear maroon--and the ever-present security staff intensified that impression.

hotel room view in Moscow

But they really do seem very nice, once you talk to people.  What about the Thai stereotype that a lot of Russians are gangsters?  We went three for four in getting scammed by airport shuttle van services, and our SIM card data credit level wasn't as-sold, so there's that.  In general we aren't experiencing much related to crime or petty scams though, or even people being unpleasant.  When seeing guys in track suits I might think "they're mafia!," but that could just be a fashion choice.

Architecture is cool here, and the subway system is magnificently decorated and fixtured.  Red Square and the Kremlin is something to see (although we skipped most of the touring options there), and lots of other infrastructure is very impressive.  It's the opposite of China, where it's all obviously brand new, even far-removed from lots of Bangkok being modern, with other parts a bit more dated than here.  The industrial look in Moscow reminded me of my past in the American Rust Belt, of being from near Pittsburgh.

typical nicer hotel in Moscow

The trip itself, air travel on the way to Russia, was interesting for being awful.  My wife mentioned a long layover, and I basically just said "yeah, whatever," but we ended up spending a night in the Hanoi airport.  I've traveled a lot but never actually experienced that.  On the one hand it was really not restful, and uncomfortable, and on the other cool, related to the novelty.  We camped out in a baby nursing room, that extra bit removed from blaring announcements about departing flights, which seemed to let up around 2 AM.  In a special violation of Thai culture I used my boot wrapped in a newspaper as a pillow.  It all worked out.

Hanoi airport at 3 AM

Moscow is really something.  I'd already mentioned that it looks a bit bleak and industrial but there is a style and beauty to it as well.  That one cathedral beside the Kremlin is every bit as cool as it looks in the pictures, or maybe just a little more, so unique looking that it doesn't seem real.  Christmas is ramped up to several times over Bangkok's observation of it.  That's a bit odd given that Bangkok seems more modern in lots of ways, quite Western in a few senses, but Russia has much deeper ties to the West, and they're not Buddhist.

at Gorky Park; not that cold, but still too cold for good packing snow

A Russian contact mentioned language would be difficult and it was.  We more or less knew exactly what we wanted for metro (subway) access and it still took 15 minutes and the help of a couple of bystanders who spoke some English to set it up in Moscow.  The sales staff could use the minimum amount:  the words "no English."  It was odd noticing that some metro station signs are only in Cyrillc lettering.  One guide later clarified that both Roman lettering and that system were based on an earlier Greek alphabet, which explains why there is limited commonality and also so much difference.

Long after we sorted out work-arounds I realized the best fix would be to hold onto two sets of subway maps, in English and also Russian, and transliterate on your own.  I guess next generation app support would involve character recognition software and automatic translation, or a Jarvis-like AI personality just translating for you, which is almost as practical.  On one frantic solo Christmas shopping outing I realized the only Roman lettering in that station was posted inside the train cars, giving me around 30 seconds to determine if the car was the right one or not reading from the platform to the top of the opposing inside car door.  I found out that I wasn't standing on the right side of the platform but it worked; I just crossed over.

Moscow metro decoration theme:  classic

more of the Metro system

long metro escalators (St. Petersburg's version, which was just as cool)

St. Petersburg metro, equally stunning, with cool murals

Christmas was the first full day in Murmansk, posing a special problem.  We had nothing for either child, and my wife's stance was that since she's Thai they didn't need to receive anything.  Even for me putting it very explicitly she wasn't getting it:  not everything is about her.  The munchkins picked out Legos they wanted but I snagged a Snow White Barbie and Russian fighter jet model and that was going to have to do.  Santa would come through in a pinch, barely, and on the parents side they got an IOU, along with a lame story about us not wanting to carry toys through two travel legs.

It turned out that excuse worked in their favor when two more days of toy shopping in St. Petersburg netted a much nicer haul.  In the world of Legos there is one clear goal:  the "big set."  The one Keo finally did get only cost us around $120, versus $200 or so in the states, and $300 in Bangkok, where toy import taxes are crazy.

I kind of liked the military models myself

It won't really work to convey my impression of Red Square, or seeing Lenin (who looked great, all things considered), or the impressive subway system, or Gorky Park.  Gorky Park was cool, especially the idea of being there, but instead of ice skating we caught the afternoon one-hour ice maintenance break.  That park staff was rude about not being able to use English, unhappy about working through bystanders as translators, noteworthy mostly because almost every other Russian was patient and kind about that.

One favorite destination of the kids was Detskiy Mir, or a children's world mall, a large building full of shops just for kids.  They were taken with the idea of experiencing a "Dino World" play area, which in a way made no sense since it was just like a few others in Bangkok, with slides and trampolines and such.  The several hours that took freed up time to find the only tea I had so far, outside of that Laos Tea tasting outing.

GUM mall near Red Square (Gosudarstvennyi Universalnyi Magazin)

Children's World mall, Detskiy Mir

view of Moscow from Children's World observation deck

Kalani and Sputnik

A second favorite was a space museum.  Per my take and both kids' opinion it was definitely on-par with the Air and Space museum in the Smithstonian, which is no small achievement.  I knew Russians initiated the space race (about Sputnik, and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space), but I learned a lot there.  Much to their credit that museum covered the American moon landings too, and included the actual space suit worn by that third guy on the Apollo 11 mission.

There seemed to be no crime, nothing really in general to worry about, although I guess pickpockets could be anywhere.  We had our pictures taken with people dressed as characters beside Red Square and they wanted to charge $80 instead of accepting a tip after, but of course we just said no.  That actually turned into an amusing version of a scam since the one guy kept claiming they were performing actors, and that our tip offer of $8 was "piss."  He kept miming himself pissing, funny enough that if I'd acted faster video of it would've been worth a second $8 tip.

with a troupe of Russian actors

That certainly doesn't exhaust what we experienced in Moscow but I'll switch it over to Murmansk.

Visiting Murmansk, the largest city within the Arctic Circle

We saw the aurora borealis, or northern lights, on the very first evening, two hours in, which was very cool.   Keo saw one from the plane, and I did beside him, a green arcing cloud in the sky, a good omen.  It was cold that first evening, around -27 C at the lookout area, down to around -16 F.  If it hadn't been so breezy undershooting clothing required for that temperature wouldn't have mattered, but as it was the experience was intense.  Given how hazy timelines became I could've sworn I picked up a touch of frostbite in Moscow instead, although it would make more sense that the blister at the end of one fingertip came from that first night.  I would take off my gloves to take pictures (not often in that initial cold outing), and if the kids needed help with gear I'd do so for that.

It's impossible to describe the Northern Lights.  So I'll not even try, except to say they're amazing, and to note that camera images don't see them in the same way as your eyes.  The green and other colors are there but not as pronounced as in photos, which can adjust exposure time.  The way they move is hard to describe, hard to even take in really, and different in different forms of them.

this wasn't even one of the more interesting variations of them

again impressive, with a cool pose, but nothing like the shifting forms version

In Murmansk it was only starting early dawn at 10 AM.  The days are four hours long, so fully light at 10:30, and back to dusk at 2:30, completely dark at 3.  The funny part about that near-complete darkness is how barely light it does ever get, straight from a grey dawn to a grey dusk.  As I first wrote these notes in a tour bus (on one of the two-a-day outings) the two elves with me are passed out beside me, the little one snoring, just like her mother.

1:30 or 2 PM, getting on towards dusk

everything was frosted in a way that wasn't familiar

On the first day we went for a snowmobile sled ride, on the second to see husky sled dogs and reindeer.  We went out both evenings to see auroras, lucky the first night but not the second.  There were glitches but all told all went well.  One mitten seemed to have been a casualty, no small loss when there's more - 20 C / -10 F weather to deal with.  We got by on spares, backed up with hand warmer packs.  The stress of losing that mitten took a year off the end of my wife's life, and made for a season's low point for our guide hearing about that, but the mitten did make it back, only stuck between the seats in a tour van.  Keoni explained that in Thai culture if you lose something small it's bad luck related to potential for losing something important.  I can't help but wonder if my wife losing her father to cancer as a child didn't tie back to her obsession over things like puzzle pieces and mittens.

My wife picked up her own case of frostbite from dipping her hand in the Bearing Sea to see if it really was cold (unless I've got the body of water name wrong: I'm not going to Google search everything).  It probably wasn't that cold but it was not at all warm out (maybe -12 C / 10 F).  Coupling that with taking pictures without gloves on with a wet hand gave her a much nastier case of frostbite than mine across her knuckles, dark patches of dead skin that would be healing for the rest of the trip.

Eye put her hand in this water

a real reindeer drawn sleigh at one outing

tea break in a lodge

The rest wasn't exactly what I expected; the town is quite developed.  Except for the bitter cold it could be a small resort town anywhere, and because of the Gulf Stream it's not as cold as it really should be for being that far North.  I suppose it would look a bit more dated and industrial to me if we hadn't just been in Moscow.  The terrain does look a bit strange and eerie, with sparkly powdery snow clinging to everything, so I guess that matches arctic expectations.  That first night as temperatures plummeted every trace of moisture fell out of the air, not as a fog as it would at other times, but as a fine frozen dust in the air that really looked unique.

plaza beside the hotel in Murmansk

The foreigness, rugged beauty, and presence of the cold makes for a cool environment.  As much as visiting the tropics for the first time overwhelms you this does.  But the tropics are almost too well suited for life, with strange versions of plants and insects all around, and this is the opposite.  Back in the mountains in Colorado it was always strange to me being outside below zero (F; more like -15 C), feeling that you would only need to stop and sit for awhile and the cold might take your life, even if well dressed.  Of course gear comes in degrees; I would still go out snowboarding at -10 F, almost as cold as it was outside here.

with Ivan, our Murmansk guide

I had tea with breakfast when I wrote this (Dian Hong I brought) but I'm not focusing much on that subject here, or food.  I tasted vodka once, from the guide, and I could see how that seems to warm you based only on a sip.  That guide, Ivan, was an interesting sort, a basic, good-natured, simple sort of guy who my wife really didn't click with.  I kept translating them to each other even though both really were speaking versions of English, which seemed just a little absurd.

I liked Ivan, and felt bad for him that most jokes fell flat, and foreign tourists just stared at him dumbly while he worked on stirring up enthusiasm.  The Arctic takes one out of their comfort zone, in a wonderful way that relates to experiencing completely novel things, and also in a potentially uncomfortable way, related to not really feeling at home with whatever might come next.

I focused on the kids more than the rest; that never changes.  I mentioned in an Instagram post that my kids are my favorite thing wherever we travel and that really is true.  That focus didn't extend to pulling off Christmas, which we nearly skipped.  The kids took that part really well, that Santa did find them, and that we owed them gifts coming later from where shopping made more sense.  In an interesting twist the Russian Christmas is really celebrated on January 7th, related to that Gregorian calendar adjustment way back when, so in a sense it really wasn't Christmas yet for the whole trip, which did cover New Years, and the typical build-up kept on building.

gingerbread houses (back at the hotel in Moscow)

hair frosted from breathing; it was a bit cool out

definitely wearing some layers

It can be hard to appreciate how special moments like lots of these are for being caught up in details.  Of course that applies almost as well to daily life, without visiting foreign lands or the Arctic.  I see those two grow up every day and I want to save up the time with them.  Even I had trouble completely taking in just how novel things were, but they really seemed to get it, in their own more cheerful way.  Dressing them was a bit of a headache, and being in charge of all the cold weather gear for three people (five, really, but I only actually dressed three, counting myself).  But beyond a couple of slips that part worked out well.  I just kept bringing extra gear along.

We visited a reindeer ranch and husky racing camp, two really cool experiences.  They had a reindeer (Carribou) sled for visitors to ride, and an even more exciting snowmobile version.  The one large-moustached, traditionally dressed snowmobile driver had the rubber-raft-like sled whipping around a football field sized track at near highway speeds.  The dogs were also great, excited to have visitors, and all very friendly.  One of them at the reindeer stop stole Kalani's mitten (the back-up; her better version was still hanging out between the seats of the other suburban).  That dog never would give back a hand-warmer pouch tucked inside to make up for the lighter glove type not being suitable for that intense cold.  I told her he probably thought she was an elf, there to give him a Christmas present, and her interpretation of the event warmed up a little.

caught in the act of stealing a mitten

A second husky racing camp was just as amazing.  I had no idea that Alaskan huskies are the real performance racing northern breed and working dog.  Siberian huskies have evolved to endure cold, and have a much cooler look, but can't handle workload or endurance like their North American cousins.  A friend had several Siberian huskies back in Colorado and they are a really intelligent breed.  One of them was always suspicious of me initially, slow to accept me as an acceptable regular visitor.  We had a nice bonding moment in running a 5k dog and human race together once, putting in a terrible final time because we stopped for 15 minutes in the middle for a water-hose cool-down break.

rides on a dog sled at 5 or 6 PM, in the early Arctic night

We had tea in a samovar on a nice break at that dog camp.  But I missed the guide's explanation of how a samovar works for walking around trying to get Mama Nid out of the van to join that break.  That was probably tea-blog gold he presented in that description; oh well.  The short version, for people who don't know, is that Russian tea is typically either black tea alone (mostly Ceylon, it seems), or that mixed with herbs (as it was that day), brewed very strong by a long infusion process, later diluted to taste.

Murmansk in review

In this round of notes I'm waiting in an airport again to leave Murmansk to go to St. Petersburg.  It's funny how travel alternates being busy and rushed and wait periods.  I'm feeling a bit spent, also normal for the context.  We finally had a few hours of free time the last day in the form of not booking a morning tour and I used the time to sleep in.  That worked out well, coupled with staying up late to pack and prepare.

I keep asking the kids what their favorite parts were, to hear their take and also to help them process it all.  I think a small sled riding slope outside the hotel would rank pretty high.  Keoni made Russian friends; funny how kids don't need shared language to share experiences.  Keo liked a snowmobile ride quite a bit and Kalani loved the reindeer.  I think of the two only Keoni really got what the aurora borealis was.

The Northern Lights were absolutely amazing that first night, at first just a whitish streaky cloud across a lot of the sky that the camera saw as green instead.  Later the colors emerged, and movement, with thinner streaks that seemed thinner shifting and twisting, but I was focusing more on how Kalani was doing in a very, very cold wind chill.  On the third day again a large distant cloud of stationary aurora started things off, transitioning to flowing bands of greenish-white energy patterns, all looking like nothing I'd ever seen or imagined (except maybe two days before).  It looked like something out of the original Star Trek series graphics, but it was real.

the shifting form of aurora was amazing (credit Aurora tours, Dmitry Tokarchuk)

newly built Greek Orthodox church in Murmansk

We did a city tour the last day, and it was really as interesting to question the guide (Roman) about cultural issues as hearing Murmansk history, although that was also interesting.  Of course it's all way too much to summarize, both sets of ideas.  I could sample something interesting from both though.

Murmansk is 101 years old, established right at the end of the Romanov rule in 1916, a year prior to the Communist revolution.  The current population is around 300,000.  That explains why it seemed a lot less like a tiny, remote port city than I expected.  On culture and perspective, he said that a lot of Russians blame Gorbachev for the end of the Soviet Union.  I suppose he played a part but my take was that it couldn't have been saved, and that at most economic reform speeded up what was coming anyway, partly from political causes and economic ones.  I also thought Russian national leadership played a role in insisting on independence to solidify and expand the power they already had.  But what do I know.

Roman mentioned that religious observation is increasing in Russia; the opposite of in the West.  They were in the process of building a large Christian Church, the kind of thing that probably rarely happens now in the US.  The Greek Orthodox version of Christianity seems to focus on icons, saints, and rituals, not completely unlike Catholicism, but in a different form.

I guess my favorite trip experience up to that point would be seeing northern lights, after seeing my kids love all the experiences.  Really they do love local travel in Thailand too, just getting out a little, but in visiting the Arctic you can't miss that the experience is really unique.  This set of travel notes ends here but there was one more city to go, St. Petersburg.  I'll mention a bit about cold weather gear first.

Dressing for the Arctic

In a Trip Advisor forum discussion about visiting Russia in the winter someone mentioned "there is no cold weather, only cold clothes."  After years of living in a ski resort town in Colorado I knew exactly what we might be in for, and made sure we were over-prepared, even prepared for what we couldn't expect.  But how does one dress for -27 C / -16 F temperatures?

The obvious solution is to buy good technical gear, functional heavy parkas, good boots and gloves, heavy hats, snow pants, with insulated underwear and fleece layers for fill.  In short, spend your way towards a complete solution.  We didn't do that.  An alternate path is to use more layers, to skimp on technical gear by gaining the same function through layering equivalent clothing.  We filled some gaps with used clothing; I wore used boots and a used down jacket as an inner layer, the only "new" clothes I bought for the trip.  Keo wore two decent winter coats to make up one very heavy one, both light and easy to stash, a more functional set-up than most of us wore.  Kalani we just layered, using insulated underwear, multiple fleeces, a synthetic-fill vest and jacket, and an outer light shell to make up for no one layer really doing the job.  The approach works but it's awkward.

wearing just the inner layer

Eye also bought a used down jacket that would've made gearing up easy for her, but gave it to her mother since she packed light, not taking my advice to bring multiple jacket layers since her heaviest one would only be fine for the current Moscow-level cold.  I brought two extra jackets I couldn't possibly need and one of those made up that gap for Eye.

Neck gators made a difference; an exposed neck and face at below -20 C / -10 F is a critical gap.  Layering the light stretchy gloves Americans tend to use on grocery store outings under a winter mitten simulated better technical-wear gloves.  All the layering up got old, to be sure, as did trying not to lose parts of a pile / backpack full of gear on warm-up breaks, but it was functional.  One key to success any winter sport participant knows:  no cotton.  We had spent a month visiting most of the Decathalon sporting goods stores in Bangkok and the main issue was gauging just how many layers to use on a given day and outing.  The same would be true in St. Petersburg, but the clothing count would become practical again there.

St. Petersburg

It was going to be nice to ease up that guided tour pace adhered to in Murmansk, to get back to walking around when it worked out.  Of course that would come with a down-side:  covering less ground.

St. Petersburg was spectacular.  Where Moscow was a bit bleak, overbuilt in large-scale dramatic style, St. Petersburg was just awe inspiring.  Whole parts of the city seemed to look like palaces, with lighting fit for Christmas celebration anywhere further accenting what was already impressive.  Barely below zero (C) temperatures felt balmy after the Arctic, and although juggling an extra layer or two and hats and gloves was still a challenge, just a far easier one.

An overall trip highlight came in the form of a circus outing.  Limited availability had us buy more expensive ring-side seats, bumping up an intense experience to the next level.  Keoni shouted laughter in response to a talented circus clown performance, and animal and dancing acts drew vigorous applause from Kalani.  Towards the end two acrobatic segments were so enthralling we have almost no pictures of those, with us setting aside the role of documenting events and just enjoyed them instead.

Oddly the circus being narrated in Russian didn't detract much.  There was a story line about a princess being captured by an evil dark queen that we missed most of, but with dances informing a lot of the content of that story instead of speech the archetypes and standard plot elements came across.

An outing to a ballet the next night was also really a unique experience, masterfully performed, but not enjoyed by all on that level of the circus.  It was a limited scale production, an exhibition of dance sequences from various famous ballets, so not as extravagant as seeing the Nutcracker would have been, but it was probably better for us to catch a lower profile show anyway.

Mama Nid and I watched impressed and interested, fascinated by that high level of grace and athleticism, while Keoni fidgeted, and Eye and Kalani slept through parts.  After a long week of tracking technical gear for myself and the two kids, and double-checking Eye and her mother's preparations, I let up on the attention to attire so much that I accidentally wore a t-shirt to that relatively informal ballet event, a clear faux pas.  It was under a down-jacket layer that couldn't pass for appropriate indoor clothing, so I borrowed a vest from Eye more to cover a warming function and went along with looking out of place.

the wait before the ballet

Walking around St. Petersburg the pace kept seeming to slow, until eventually it seemed like it might just stop, with us frozen in place on a sidewalk.  At the very end in yet another miscommunication a hotel concierge directed us to a shopping complex that was essentially just a small grocery store.  It was probably not that much more than a mile's walk away, a half an hour walk to get there and 45 minutes on the way back.

In Bangkok you can wave your hand at a passing taxi anywhere, any time, but as with some other cities in St. Petersburg you either use the metro, figure out the bus system, or call a taxi.  Or Uber, of course, but we never did make it back to re-upping that SIM credit after that first glitch, dropping Google Maps support along with the rest.  Yandex maps works better in Russia, but the equivalent to that blue dot in Maps, where you are located, wasn't working in the off-line mode.

There are always glitches in traveling but most of the trip details did come together.  By chance we were having a late dinner and experienced a New Year's countdown of sorts before paying out just after midnight at a local cafe.  The toy shopping went well, at a cost of spending a full day of limited time in a mall near our hotel (the Galleria; not really an ideal place for Bangkok locals to spend a day in St. Petersburg given the number of malls where we live).  I bought a second nice pu'er cake in St. Petersburg at a second Moychay branch, which I'll cover more about in a later tea-theme post.

Galleria mall in St. Petersburg

a break from sightseeing to make a snowman

We visited two palaces with garden grounds as a central attraction, mostly a waste of time given how those looked in the frozen winter (Peterhoff and Catherine's palace).  At least seeing different parts of town outside the central city was nice.  We walked straight by two Christmas theme events, one of which I ventured into alone, but we really weren't missing much.  Dozens of restaurants, bars, and cafes looked nice, but we didn't get far with exploring local foods.

Keo at an outbuilding in the Peterhoff palace complex

In one last highlight an overnight first class sleeper train from St. Petersburg back to Moscow made for a great experience.  We've been on some interesting trains in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, and China but that was the first including private rooms, breakfast service, and a private shower in the two small cabins.  Kalani was so excited that she kept swapping top and bottom bunk locations, but I missed all that for crashing in the other room instead.  I was curious about the television and radio features in the room devices but not curious enough to pass on sleeping through it all.

on the train; Asians really do make that V sign a lot

with tons of luggage, the usual challenge

Back to Moscow

We felt like like Russia travel veterans returning to Moscow, but we still hadn't cracked van shuttle services yet.  After getting scammed that first time, paying just over double a standard rate, we were skimmed for an extra $20 on a shuttle set up by the hotel the second round, on the way to St. Petersburg, on the premise of us running late.

Our driver tried it again in St. Petersburg, squeezing us for whatever extra token amount it was, for an under-one-mile, clearly defined arrangement from the hotel to a train station a ten minute walk away.  But the concierge helping us there really wasn't into it.  Instead of that driver locking us in the car and demanding more for extra baggage cost--a standard ploy--she initiated a stand-off at the hotel.  The standing threat of a move to plan B led him to fold.  It was probably more out of spite than leverage but I took pictures of the cab service logo, the license plate, and him before we even got to that step.

back at Red Square

I'm now a fan of Russia and Russians.  Moscow's residents are on the gloomy side related to sharing commuting space with them but Russians are truly bright souls once you actually do interact with any.  Even that shuttle driver exception was like that mitten going missing for a day and a half; tragic, related to that feeling impossible to overcome (although we had spare gloves), but in the end not meaningful.

Christmas being held on the 7th of January instead meant that we never would see that holiday end, leaving on the 3rd as we did.  Our final night on the 2nd saw really intense crowds pouring into Red Square and that amazing looking mall beside it (GUM), the one with the hot air balloons inside, so we bailed to Arbat street for tourist shopping and a little local food instead.

lots of variations of Russian dolls

We had already snapped up a Russian doll for Kalani in passing (the kind where each fits as an outer shell for the smaller inner ones), but Mama Nid bought ten more in the perfect sort of tourist shop there in those closing hours, bargaining to a good deal as Thais love to.  Or probably from high retail down to medium level retail, really, but generally lower costs than in Thailand made the whole trip feel like a great value.

That part is a long story, about levels of goods and services varying in cost.  A bowl of noodles in a local Bangkok shop costs around $1, and a plate of spaghetti more or less covered in ketchup is more like $8, but Russians seem to have access to a wide range of much better Western foods and other goods at quite fair prices.

borscht!  we went light on the foodie theme though


Random Russians got us out of a jam over and over helping with details, at times fixing problems we had directly caused through lack of planning, and I'd like to add extra thanks to a few people here.

helpful Russian woman, breaking form and smiling in the metro

Werabhat Komrat is a local Thai guide to Russia my wife knows, who really made the trip possible in the form we experienced it.  It's easy to see how to manage details of visiting anywhere, once you do the trip, but prior to that very difficult to know about specific problems and issues you need to settle in advance.

Werabhat (Pound), meeting us as our paths crossed in St. Petersburg

One local Moscow guide in particular, Keira Kasmimova, completely sorted out hiring two taxis from the train station to our hotel on short order for local rates, just to be nice.  Her positive karma is strong, for her to be able to snap that shuttle scam streak as easily as she did.  Just using Uber might have resolved the problem before it started, but often things aren't that simple and there can be exceptions.  The problem we kept running into related to carrying a mountain of luggage, in addition to travelling with five people.

Keira calling a taxi; you don't really need a guide but problems can come up

Thanks to Oleg of Visit Murmansk for everything (aka Aurora tours, FB contact and website).  In retrospect Murmansk is a lot easier to get around than we expected, so it's not as if someone is isolated in a remote shipping port village up there, but renting a car and visiting local places on your own is probably not really workable.  Tours help with just getting outside of the town to see auroras, since light pollution from the city blocks that.

A random Russian guy who spoke perfect English talked me through a good bit of the tea in one shop, in the Perlov Tea house, and a bit on Russian tea habits in general.  I think Eye also told his wife an hour's worth of our story in that 15 minutes, losing track of asking for help and information and just appreciating making a local friend.

a friendly Russian guy, and tea shop theme teaser

Roman, the other local guide (photo credit)

Roman Muravitskiy, a guide assigned by Oleg to our city tour, explained local history, the sights, and lots of Russian history and culture.  The aurora outings and seeing a reindeer farm and husky camp were more can't-miss but I learned more about the general Russian perspective from him in a couple hours than I did in the rest of the two weeks.

That'll do it for travel blog summary.  I'll check back in about tea in Russia in another post, since I did pick up some versions, and barely mentioned that tasting event with some interesting tea makers there.