It’s on my long list of things to do to go on an Intrepid Travel tour perhaps somewhere like Lebanon, Syria, or maybe west coast Australia. Until that day comes, I figured one of the best ways to introduce myself to a few new cities would be through Urban Adventures. Mini Intrepid Travel appetizer tours, if you will. Essentially, Intrepid offers an assortment of day tours in different countries, and the tours are guided by a local. Over the last few months, I did four tours in different cities and countries all of which offered very unique experiences.
Moscow – Underground Bunker Tour – July 27
My first tour with Urban Adventures took place in Moscow, and needless to say, I was thrilled to have an English speaking guide for a few hours. It got off to a rocky start because the tour guide was about 20 minutes late, due to a miscommunication, leaving me wondering whether or not the tour was still scheduled. She did apologize and turned out to be the sweetest woman. Almost like a mother. During the tour, she answered any/all of my questions and even bought lunch for me and the Indian couple on the tour with me.
The tour consisted of visits to some of Moscow’s immaculately decorated metro stations and the bulk of the tour was spent underground at a former military bunker. As a passer-by, you’d never know it existed because the entrance above ground looks like a regular building. Though the bunker is now only used as a museum, it once served as a location for communication and security for the military during the Cold War.
Despite being really eerie and the bunker guide hard to understand, it was really cool to visit. Don’t know that it was worth $100 either, but again, it’s one of those things that not many people visit when they go to Moscow.
St. Petersburg – St. Petersburg Unveiled – August 11
I booked this tour fairly last minute, on account of running out of things to do in St. Pete, and it was only the end of week 1 of my time there. When people at the hostel asked me about the tour, I couldn’t even give any kind of explanation to what the itinerary looked like. I had read through it once on the Urban Adventure’s site, thought it sounded good, and booked it without giving a second glance.
It ended up being a really nice evening out. My tour guide, Alexander (super nice and not bad on the eyes either), took me and a couple from Malaysia/Belgium through some of the courtyards and alleyways of the city. We stopped along the way to admire architecture, stare in awe of a few of the decorated metro stations, learn the significance of various statues along our route, and visit a local pub complete with Soviet Air Force paraphernalia like ejection seats in the entrance. Unfortunately, the pub didn’t have the honeybeer available that was supposed to be part of the experience. So what did we do?
This is where it gets interesting. We stopped in a supermarket to buy vodka, salted cucumbers, and cheap paper cups instead. Even though it’s technically not allowed to drink alcohol in public, we sat in a nearby park, and did just that. After doing shots of vodka followed by cucumbers, the rest of the tour was a blur (sorry, mom).
If you ask me, that was a far better experience than honeybeer at a pub because we were able to sit outside to enjoy the cool air, ask Alexander questions about his personal life growing up in St. Pete and hear about all his strangest tour guide stories that aren’t typically shared beyond the feedback cards.
Istanbul – Home Cooked Istanbul – August 31
It seems as if each Urban Adventures experience is always more enjoyable than the last. My home cooked Istanbul tour started with a quick visit to the Intrepid Istanbul office which was cool. Had a nice chat with Bruce, their Aussie representative and new friend, for a little while before being shuffled out the door on what ended up being a private tour.
My guide, Salih, and I took a stroll through Sultanahmet Square where he shared a bit of Istanbul’s history, and we continued through some of the back streets into a quieter, more residential area. It is here where we were greeted by a local family who are accustomed to cooking dinner for people on this tour nearly every night. Although they don’t speak English and were fairly reserved, they were very nice, polite, and accommodating.
In the comfort of their quaint home, we ate a traditional dinner consisting of rice, chicken, soup, and vegetables while sitting on the floor having a conversation being translated two ways through Salih. It was a very relaxing environment to say the least. Over dinner, I learned a lot about Turkey’s politics, religion, the call to prayer, football, what day-to-day life is like, and how terrorism still has a heavy presence in the country. Throughout Istanbul, residences are mostly apartments. It’s rare to see single homes unless you’re wealthy enough to build your own. Also, from what Salih told me, many Turks can’t even afford their lives as a minimum wage salary barely covers one month’s rent.
After dinner, we went to a tea cafe where the conversation over life in Istanbul continued, and I learned how to play backgammon. Believe it or not, I was having the time of my life that night that before I knew it, it was 10pm and time to bid farewell to my favorite guide.
It’s always such a privilege for me to get a peek inside the life of a family who lives half way across the world. No matter what kind of impressions these people have of America/Americans, it was a humbling experience to feel welcome by complete strangers.
Hong Kong – Rags to Riches Tour – October 25
My final Urban Adventures tour was a bit underwhelming, but throughout the 2.5 hours, my guide, Danny, introduced me to the neighborhoods I had been searching for since I had arrived in Hong Kong. Young, trendy, and multicultural, where the people are as diverse as the food options. We strolled through the Sheung Wan area where we chatted about lifestyle and politics of our respective countries over tea at a local market. It seems that the election is central to any conversation no matter where I am in the world. I can’t escape it.
Afterwards, we strolled along different street corridors that gave way to a new neighborhood both architecturally and vibe wise at each turn. From Chinese medicine wholesale shops to the ultra modern Hollywood Road, home to the most chique art galleries and coffee shops. It’s not difficult to tell that Hong Kong is easily the NYC of China.
Other stops included Lan Kwai Fong and Soho where the night life doesn’t taper off until the early rising businessmen and women head to work at 5am. Resembling many of Manhattan’s neighborhoods, there isn’t a shortage of bars, cheap cafes, restaurants, and English speakers of all accents in this area.
The tour ended in statue park across from the 3 buildings that are essentially the foundation of Hong Kong: the HSBC building, Bank of China, and Standard Chartered building. Fun fact: HK is one of the banking capitals of the world, and the HSBC building cost $1 billion USD to construct. Individual pieces were shipped to Hong Kong from Scotland. Thinking about shipping costs alone gives me a headache.