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March 30, 2010

Taking the Kids

Despite daunting inconveniences, such as winter temperatures of 13 degrees below zero, Steven Lee Myers finds that his daughters made the most of their travels in Russia.

The road to Lake Baikal cuts through the Siberian steppe and forests, leaving behind the gritty industrialization of Irkutsk and, consequently, the meager cre­ature comforts that Russia's underdeveloped tourism industry provides. When my wife and I de­­cided to visit the lake last year with our two daughters, we hired an old Volga River gunboat so we could cruise around its unpopulated shores, something that relatively few get to experience. Baikal is arguably the most extraordinary place in Russia, a vast, nearly unspoiled lake that holds one fifth of the world's freshwater. And yet I worry that the indelible memory for my daughters will be a roadside outhouse on the drive from Irkutsk. The eldest, Emma, illustrated the experience in copious detail in her scrapbook, complete with her own Outhouse Rules: "No. 1: Always check for insects and other scary things."

Traveling in Russia—with its language barriers, harsh weather, and foreign customs—can be taxing for anyone. For kids, even adventurous ones (which mine are not), it can be overwhelming. When we first arrived in Mos­cow, I took my daughters on the bustling, beautiful Metro. As I swiped our ticket, the youngest, Maddie, then only four, nervously followed too closely behind Emma and was jostled in the shutters meant to deter turnstile jumping. She broke into tears and came away with a deeply rooted fear of the "snappers," which she still calls them to this day.

The girls, now 13 and 9, are seasoned world travelers, though privileged enough not to know—or to easily tolerate—inconvenience. And inconvenience in Russia is abundant. So, too, with a lit­tle parental patience, are the country's re­­wards. We once visited Kazan', the capital of Tatarstan, homeland of the Golden Horde that sacked Moscow, during the weekend marking Defenders of the Fatherland Day. This holiday is in February, and an icy north wind drove the temperature down to minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit as my wife and I cajoled the girls to explore the kremlin in Kazan', which rivals Moscow's more famous landmark. I had my frigid moments of doubt over the wisdom of the trip, but Emma and Maddie were en­­chanted, if that's the right word, by the legend of the leaning Söyembikä Tower. It is named after the princess who agreed to marry Ivan the Terrible if he could build a tower higher than any mosque in the city. When he did, she leaped from the top.

Russian cuisine poses its own challenges, especially to little American tastes, which rebel at the baseball-size dumplings that S­­i­­berians consider a delicacy. (I thought they were tasty enough, although heavy as lead.) Hotels are generally either dodgy Soviet relics or exceedingly expensive, neither par­tic­ularly desirable with children in tow. We made the most of alternatives that suited kids better, including the private boat on Baikal. In St. Petersburg we stayed in renovated apartments spacious enough for the girls to spill out books and toys, which they preferred to trudging through the Hermitage. In the Golden Ring area, northeast of Moscow, we rented a wooden cabin inside the Pokrovsky Monastery in Suzdal, an ancient town of white walls and bell towers and glittering onion domes. Friends with kids roughly the same ages as ours accompanied us. They all romped for hours in thigh-deep snow, oblivious to the cold and the Church of the In­­ter­cession—built nearly 500 years ago—that made me think of the Russia of lore. In the end both adults and children found what they wanted.

I've wondered how much their young minds have absorbed of the experiences in Rus­sia. It's unfair to expect children to re­­act to, or even remember, the things adults do, to share their interests in, say, architecture, art, and history. With some prodding, though, their memories flowed out, more than I expected. From our journey on Bai­kal, there is the outhouse, of course, but also the small pyramid of stones that Emma built on Olkhon Island—according to tradition—as a temple for the lake's spirits; the trees festooned with ribbons, a Buddhist custom; their first time in a Russian banya, cooling off in the lake's icy waters; fishing on the Burmeister, the boat that was our home for a week. On the Ushkaniy Islands, we crawled along a dirt path to see the nerpa, a rare freshwater seal, approaching them from behind blinds so as not to trigger a startled scramble back into the lake. We had a campfire the night we moored on the deserted western shore, miles from any other people.

I recently asked Maddie what she re­­mem­bered about Lake Baikal. She brought me a piece of paper on which she had written, with imperfect grammar and spelling, the last word. I need not have worried. Something from my daughters' travels in Russia has nestled deep in their souls: "The soft wind blowing in my hair as I sit on a bench staring in the glass sea," she wrote. "The water is very soft, as smooth as my bedtime blanket. I can re­­mem­ber the waves rocking me to sleep. I re­­member looking out my porthole when I woke up and sun filling the room and light in my eyes. It's like a big, very big, dream."

Those interested in renting a boat on Lake Baikal should contact Leonid Batorov at Baikal Explorer (from $1,370 a day for eight passengers; 7-3952/742-440; baikalex.com).