Mar 192019
 


Despite this trip being nearly three weeks long, it was over in a heartbeat. I guess that’s what happens when a trip is split up into several distinct “chunks” involving work and fun, before you know it…it’s over.

After sleeping in and enjoying one more leisurely morning in Moscow, it was time to head to the airport to start the long trek home. Since I had plenty of time I opted to take the metro across town and connect to the Aeroexpress train to Domodedovo. Looks like it was my lucky day, as I had the entire train to myself!

Through immigration no problem (I admit only slight concern due to our “weird” border crossing up by Kirkenes and Murmansk) and off to the lounge. I had lots of time, so I decided to head to the Lufthansa lounge. Got a big “nyet” from the provodnitsa, despite my protestations that it was Star Alliance policy that Star Alliance Gold members on a business class ticket get access to all business lounges, she said Swiss lounge only! I knew better than to argue with a surly provodnitsa!

Off to the Swiss lounge, where it was a very sad array of snacks, beer…and soft drinks. That was it. I had a bit of cash left, and with no exchange posts or plans to return to Russia soon I decided to head to a cafe and see what I could find. Mini bottle of wine and…a champagne flute…and a piece of apple pie. When the lounge isn’t to your standards, make your own lounge!

Soon, it was time to board our non-full flight which was delayed 45 minutes, and head westward!

SWISS flight 1337
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Geneva, Switzerland (GVA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive: 17:55, flight time: 3:55
Airbus A220-100, Registration HB-JBB, Manufactured 2016, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,373
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,706,961

Once again, seating is 2 on the left and 3 on the right on this aircraft, which means on the left side in “business” you have an empty next to you, but on the right side only the middle between two people is blocked. Flight wasn’t full, but I enjoyed my seat 1A. Did some plane-spotting on the taxi. First time I’ve ever heard of “Iraero” – looks like they bought some of the old Transaero 777s.

Izhavia Yak-42….now I want to come back just to fly this! Apparently they are headquartered in Izhevsk which is home to the Kalashnikov museum. Seriously, sign me up!

Looks very cold and snowy below on departure from Moscow…

I didn’t expect much of a meal on such a small plane, and was trying to figure out what to do when I landed…except Swiss had a surprise for me. Some mixed nuts/crackers to start…a choice of appetizers…choice of mains…AND choice of desserts. Seriously, on a regional flight on a small plane that seats less than 100?!

Went with the fondue starter, because I figured there was no way that could be any good on a plane. Surprise, it was actually fantastic and delicious. Who would have expected that on a plane!

Then, because the flight attendant recommended it, I went with the veal main course, which was also absolutely delicious.

To finish it off, what was described as a “crumble” and was also amazing. Could have used a little ice cream, but who am I kidding. On such a small plane on such a short flight this meal was absolutely amazing…and as good as many airlines do on much, much longer flights. VERY nicely done, Swiss! Also, let’s not forget, the crew was absolutely amazing, and once they figured out I spoke enough French and German to practice, they mixed it up every time they came around to keep it fun. Seriously one of my best flights in ages – amazing!

Descent into Geneva was much sooner than expected, and despite departing over 45 minutes late we actually landed five minutes early! Holy winds, Batman. Plus, getting in on time allowed us to see the Alps as we landed. Absolutely gorgeous!

Easy arrival, quick train into the city, and checked into my hotel. Chose it for location right next to the train station, and the Hôtel Suisse, Genève met my expectations as conveniently located ,clean, and comfortable. For a three star hotel in a great location with super friendly staff, I highly recommend it if it fits your needs. Plus, look at the view out my window…I knew I’d like this place!

Since I’d already had dinner, and my body clock thought 7pm was the new 9pm, I just wanted a couple of delicious local beers and bed. Au Coin Mousse had been closed for summer holidays on my previous trip, so I was excited to see it open this time. Lots of amazing very local small batch craft beers – I was super happy!

After a super long sleep-in, of course on the way back to the train station I stopped at Starbucks for one last four cheese toastie. Mmmm….

Gasp….what happened to Swiss law and order. My train to the airport was defaced…but colourful!

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the Swiss lounge in Geneva, which is plenty nice, is that between the Newark and Dulles flights it was packed with loud, obnoxious Americans, most porting surly teenagers. It’s funny that it only takes a few weeks away to make something I normally see on a daily basis seem out of place.

United flight 975
Geneva, Switzerland (GVA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 11:40, Arrive: 15:10, flight time: 9:30
Boeing 767-300, Registration N669UA, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,464
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,711,052

So, not too much to say…another completely mediocre United business class flight. I keep hoping I’m going to get one of the 767s with new Polaris seats since more than 50% of them are finally done, but every time I seem to get one of the old ones like clockwork. I will say, however, the food was generally better than average. A few thoughts:

The starter was two rather sad slices of “smoked” salmon and some quinoa salad. Completely forgettable, and in line with the two prawn appetizer. Seriously United, is this the best you can do? The salad, however, was way better than average, so overall, I’ll call the appetizer a wash.

I ordered the shortrib, which I figured would at least be predictable since they’ve been serving it for going on six decades now. However, this flight, apparently the usual neon brown sauce that makes it sort of sweet and BBQ like was totally absent…and it was meh at best.

Cheese course from Europe….better than cheese from the US as always. It’s not because they don’t have good cheese in the US, I suspect United is just too cheap to pay for it. SAD! At least the ice cream was delicious as always!

Giving credit where credit is due, the pre-landing deli plate was tasty. Nice variety of meats, cheeses, and pickles. Overall, nice and light-ish and just what I wanted before landing.

United business class is certainly nothing to write home about, but the seats are adequate (as long as you’re not stuck in snuggle class in the 2-4-2 777 or the “two side” of 2-1-2 business class) and the meals are solid. Wouldn’t be my first choice, but the convenience of nonstop sure can’t be beat!

I thought I’d only be home for three weeks until my next trip, but due to some work drama llama it now looks like nearly nine weeks! What will I do with myself?!

Fortunately, options to Dubai and Berlin in the meantime are already presenting themselves…stay tuned!


Mar 172019
 


Our first several days in Moscow we had seen lots of new sites quite a bit more off the tourist trail, so for the last day and a half we decided to do some of the more traditional touristy things that we had both enjoyed on previous trips. After getting a late start we headed out for a walk, but got distracted when we were both hungry and saw a cool looking craft beer place that looked somewhat promising. Delicious sausages and even better beer – a nice find!

Back into the super-crowded, but somehow always orderly, metro to head down to Red Square. Even food delivery services use the metro in Moscow!

First stop was the GUM department store for one of their delicious pistachio ice cream cones. This has been a tradition on all my trips to Moscow, and a long stop like this wouldn’t have been complete without it!

Like Kirkenes earlier in the trip, GUM seemed to also be in the throes of Chinese New Year with cherry blossoms and Chinese signs everywhere:

GUM on Red Square…since 1893!

A stop in the food store. I love going to grocery stores around the world and getting a sense for how people shop. Now, of course normal Muscovites don’t do their daily shopping at GUM (except maybe some of the higher-up apparatchiks at the Kremlin?) but if you do, plenty of $500+ champagne to choose from!

Or, if vodka is more your think, there’s Oil Brand Vodka….sold in little mini oil drums. A bargain at only $60 per 700ml can!

There were little caviar coolers all over the store, and every time I got near one a very eager sales clerk would dash over to try and help me. Based on the behaviour, I’m pretty sure the caviar sales are on commission. After a few attempts I finally let one of them give me a caviar lecture just so I could get a decent pic!

An ice skating rink had been set up in the middle of Red Square, and I was really wishing I had my skates (and it wasn’t freezing) so I could have a short skate on Red Square. Next year!

The Kremlin in the late afternoon sun.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral – one of those must-take pics in Moscow.

Now, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in Moscow this is an inside joke that probably won’t make sense, but in all my visits I always giggle that in GUM in addition to the public toilets (which you still have to pay for) there’s this sign for a “Historic Toilet.” I decided this was the time to finally see what it was all about!

Price was 100 rubles (about $1.50) instead of the 50 for the regular toilets, and it was certainly much nicer in side. Can’t imagine this is historic from communist days – this must precede the Revolution.

Some shopping for kitschy souvenirs…couldn’t decide between the Putin riding a bear t-shirt and the Trump/Putin “We Love Russia” t-shirt.

There was also this Caviar Russian Big Mac t-shirt….I’m lovin’ it!

One last photo op with Lenin in the metro on the way back to the hotel.

We decided to check out one more KHL night on our last night there, and this time ended up right at centre ice, first row of seats!

The horse mascot was…unusual.

Pre-game lined up for the national anthem. Is this a thing in all countries? I know it is in the US and Canada.

Managed to get a good video of the national anthem. Say what you will, but it’s definitely powerful and patriotic.

…and the game was off. Absolutely terrible seats. Definitely not worth the $15. Total sarcasm.

If the horse wasn’t strange enough, the dancing CSKA star was pretty amazing! Packed stands tonight – probably because it was a Friday game – and the cheerleaders were feeding off the crowd energy!

I figured after two games, I had to pick up a souvenir from a great vacation!

After a great six days in Moscow, it was time to start the trek home, and the end of a fantastic trip. But still one more post coming up…headed home…with an overnight in Geneva.


Mar 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!


Mar 152019
 


Woke up, took a look out the window and the sky looked so much bluer today…quick look at the weather app and yup, high pressure and low temps. Around -20 today. Brrrr…but beautiful!

We were ready with the credit cards for breakfast this time, and after some food to fortify it was out to take advantage of the clear skies for just a few more photos before heading to the airport.

On the side of a building near the hotel…Murmansk, hero city!

The large square right outside our hotel still had some festive holiday display out…despite it being February already.

I had to, of course, have a seat on the big sparkly throne! Snow King of Murmansk!

Anyone who’s spent much time in Vegas will totally understand why I had to have this pic with Kitty Glitter 😀

After packing up we called a Yandex Taxi and off to the airport it was. Murmansk airport definitely wasn’t big, this being most of the boarding area. Pretty basic. The lounge was up the stairs, and it was also…extremely basic.

The waiting room for the bus to our flight (no jetways here) was a tiny little basement room that was very Soviet in feel and appearance. It just made it all the more awesome in my eyes. Boarding was right on time, and it was off to the bus!

Aeroflot flight 1321
Murmansk, Russia (MMK) to Moscow, Sheremetyevo (SVO)
Depart 13:10, Arrive: 15:30, flight time: 2:20
Airbus A320, Registration VP-BFG, Manufactured 2017, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 11,711
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,704,299

Absolutely terrified of the horrors that would await me in economy class, my worst fears were confirmed when this dude sat down across the aisle, and started blowing up his inflatable…face rest? Seriously? This is a thing?

Oh look, a two hour flight and they give us food. A+ for the tasty tea, and honestly for such a short flight….a choice of sandwiches (I went cheese) with fruit and sweet was pretty respectful. Points to Aeroflot for a very solid experience. We also had a super friendly crew who loved letting the non-Russians practice their Russian.

Landed right on time at Sheremetyevo, and it was off to the Aeroexpress Train to the city. We had just missed one, so plenty of time to check out the caviar vending machines. Only in Moscow!

Still a bit of time, so I grabbed some Starbucks to wake up. Mr. Trump, is that you?!

Train into the city, checked in at our hotel the Hilton Leningradskaya, then it was almost time to head out again for an awesome cultural experience. While waiting for the tour of the Icebreaker Lenin the day before, we got the idea to check if maybe there would be a hockey game while we were in Moscow. Sure enough, CSKA the Red Army team was playing, and we were able to get awesome and cheap tickets.

When in Moscow to see hockey, you have to have a hot dog and beer…which the saleslady made sure to tell us you could NOT bring to your seat and had to eat there. Well that’s unique!

I mean, a Russian Oil company (RosNeft) blimp flying around the rink to set the mood just made it awesome!

We were seated next to this very colourful superfan…yeah, first row seats for like $15. Absolutely awful!

Faceoffs in the corner were literally right in front of us:

Walked the concourses between periods, and couldn’t resist a picture in front of the CSKA fan banner:

One more faceoff…I think CSKA was up like 4-0 at this point…not a surprise since they were on top of the league with a record of something like 45-10.

We left shortly before the game ended, having had a great time, and one quick shot of the arena from outside. Yup, it’s Moscow and still looks cold…despite being only around -5 here compared to the -20 in Murmansk.

We walked back to the Metro, but then realized how many changes it would take to get where we wanted to go, so yup, called an Uber to take us to the cool craft beer pub we’d found a couple years back. Rule Taproom. Amazing tap list with a super cool atmosphere. Even if we were probably the oldest people there by ten years.

Out of order, but we also had delicious Georgian food…or maybe this was the second day, it sort of blurred together. Delicious Khachapuri with bacon, cheese, and egg. Soooo…good….

With that, off to bed. So much more Moscow to explore! Despite having been here several times, there’s always more to see!


Mar 142019
 


It was pretty nice to wake up with no big plans for our full day in Murmansk, so we were able to sleep in a bit and take the morning slowly. Walking to the elevator to go down to breakfast, past the big neon sign that didn’t let us forget which floor we were on:

Look out the windows while waiting for the lifts…it was -18 with a wind temp of -26, and looked pretty cold and barren:

We had passed on breakfast, not sure if we’d wake up on time…and oddly enough when we got to the restaurant they were not able to charge it to our rooms…and insisted we pay by credit card. I think that’s a first for a hotel breakfast buffet!

Back up to the rooms to get ready to head out into the freezing temps, another view from my room onto cold, cold Murmansk:


There was no Uber in Murmansk, but I chatted with the front desk and they called Yandex Taxi (which is basically the Uber of Russia) and arranged an hourly rate with them. It wasn’t all that far – we would probably walk five miles or so in total, but in these temperatures a car would be a must. First stop, the Alyosha statue – a 42 meter tall commemoration of the Soviet defence of the Arctic during World War II:

Supposedly it is common for wedding parties to visit and leave flowers, but in the arctic chill today there were none.

Looking back towards the city. You know it’s freezing when you see the steam layer turning to frozen mist over the city:

Memorial wall of the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union:

Anti-aircraft gun at the Aloysha Statue…soooo…cold….

Praise to the wartime workers of Murmansk!

It was actually still before noon, but the sun was still low in the sky when we visited the Monument to the Waiting Women, dedicated to the spouses of the Soviet Arctic Fleet awaiting the return of their sailors.

Lovers locks on a fence near the Monument to the Waiting Women:

Looks. So. Cold.

Getting artsy with the Monument to the Waiting Women

Church of Our Saviour on Waters….are you catching the theme in Murmansk? Everything was focused around the navy.

Lighthouse at the Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime. It was closed today, but contains artifacts and memorabilia from those soldiers.

Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime, many of whom died on the Kursk in 2009, it’s become a bit more of a memorial to submariners as well. Again….so much snow and ice…

Yes, it was THAT cold…on the hill next to the memorial.

Looking back towards the lighthouse, with groundcrew trying to keep up with the snow that was somehow falling from a blue sky:

We were frozen after a couple of hours of touring, despite the car. The driver was wonderful, and chatty despite speaking zero English. All those years of Russian lessons came in handy, however, because we got between all the sites we wanted to see in about two hours, and then even made it back to the place we had dinner the night before to have some lunch. Yup, hot apricot brandy drink sounded (and was) wonderful:

The super tasty Tundra pizza with venison, wild mushrooms, and northern berries. Yum!

…and what better on a cold day than some more lingonberry vodka along with pistachio and vanilla ice cream! Seriously, this city is a delicious foodie paradise!

After lunch, back to the hotel for a bit, before walking the mile or so in the freezing wind and snow to the Nuclear Icebreaker Lenin. Unfortunately, tours were fully booked, so they told us to try back in an hour. Fortunately, Ian spotted a cafe where we could get some hot tea and wait, and when we went back in an hour, it took a bit of pushing and shoving to maintain our spots in line, but finally we were let in:

Guided tour, Russian only, but was able to get the gist of most things. When you have a boat that big, and you’re away from shore that long, you have to be prepared for everything. Operating Room in the medical clinic:

The reactor room with a mockup of the previous nuclear reactor that powered the ship…complete with mock

Inspirational words from Lenin himself…it IS his icebreaker after all!

View from the deck onto the port of Murmansk.

View of the deck – I love how the snow made little “pillows” and there’s still a Soviet flag on the side of the ship:

Ian, hanging out on the bridge:

I decided to get a very cold picture outside, instead:

Port of Murmansk building. I love this blue colour, which you seem to only find on buildings in Russia:

Port of Murmansk, 68+ degrees north and 33+ degrees east:

Walk back to the hotel from the Lenin was past the train station….even the train station looked barren and frozen:

Of course I had to pose in front of the northernmost McDonalds in the world as well:

Found a little antique and souvenir shop in our hotel, where I found 10 Ruble notes with Putin on them. What an amazing souvenir!

So, Tunda Restaurant the night before was amazing, but there was another restaurant that looked just as good, the “Tsar’s Hunting Lodge” – so we grabbed a Yandex Taxi there (seriously, the app is just as easy to use as Uber) and were rewarded with a homemade vodka sampler! Lingonberry, cloudberry, and I think blackberry?

Starter of Pelmeni – siberian dumplings – filled with meat and served with sour cream:

Venison leg meatballs with wild mushroom spelt – this was absolutely amazing!

Yeah, there were giant, random stuffed bears in the restaurant:

…and some sort of other critter pelts sitting above our table:

Yeah, the guy working the coatcheck made me take a picture with this awkward bear display in the lobby:

For dessert, a “Murmansk Charcoal” – a cheesecake made with black currants and bog whartleberries. Don’t ask what a whartleberry is – I have no idea either – but it was delicious with the homemade honey vodka.

An absolutely amazing meal, and I was thrilled how interesting Murmansk was. I’m sure it would be amazing in the summer as well, but there was something extra-special about seeing it in the winter. Off to bed, because we were off to Moscow the next day…fortunately not TOO early!


Mar 132019
 


Woke up relatively early after a good night of sleep, and headed down to the restaurant of the Scandic Hotel to see what breakfast was all about. It was absolutely packed with people, mostly Chinese and Russians based on the languages being spoken.

The buffet seemed to be closer to Russian than Norwegian, with caviar, beets, pickles, and lots of smoked fish that could have been at home in either country. Not exactly what I expected, but a delicious wake-up call that we were about to cross the most northern border in the world!

After breakfast, we still had a few hours for a walk. Since our bus to Murmansk wouldn’t depart until 14:00, we asked the hotel about the possibility of a 13:00 or 13:30 checkout, and without even looking the front desk agent rather shortly told us NO. Checkout is 12:00 sharp. I understand the reason, but it could have been delivered in a much friendlier manner…

Off on the walk, we walked by the ice rink, which was being cleared of around 10-12cm of snow overnight. I was majorly bummed out that we would miss the tournament later in the day.

Walking through the very snowy town, I started to get excited for our upcoming border crossing:

Looking north, towards the Barents Sea. Brrrr…. Temp fortunately wasn’t too bad at about -15, but the snow and wind made it a little less than optimal walking conditions.

The Kirkenes Kirke, or the church…

The Soviet Liberation Monument, in memory of the Soviets fighting to free the town from the Nazis:

Picturesque view back onto the city of Kirkenes…yes, this was noon…

We stopped in the one coffeeshop we found after our walk for a warm coffee and sweet, and you could really tell that China was the theme of the big town festival going on. My oreo brownie even had a little Chinese flag in it. Does anyone know what it says? Google translate seems to think “family?” My reputation must have preceded me to Kirkenes….

Back to the sign, but better view of the snow “mountain” in the daylight. Little kids sledding down the other side. You can see the snow falling a bit in this pic.

Back to the hotel to check out and wait for our bus, and we still had about 90 minutes to kill. Kirkenes is famous for its king crab, and there was a tank in the lobby for the restaurant. I can’t decide if this guy looked scary or delicious…

Very snowy exterior of the Scandic Kirkenes.

About 30 minutes before our bus’ departure, we walked outside, and the bus was already full and waiting – with just two seats left for us. Everyone else on the bus was Russian from Murmansk, so we were the last ones and headed off early.

The border was only about 20-25 minutes away, and soon enough we were there. Funny enough, I had entered the Schengen Area on my work passport, which caused quite a lot of confusion exiting Norway, as I imagine they don’t see a lot of official passports at this northernmost Schengen border. Only added a few minutes, and soon we were all stamped out and back into the bus to Russia.

I debated trying to get a few pictures of this northernmost border in the world, but there was really no opportunity, and soon we were at Russian immigration. Immigration itself wasn’t too bad, although the rather junior agent decided to call over the station chief to have a look at my visa and passport. The giant 96 page passport definitely stood out, and I imagine the colourful assortment of visas in it from all corners of the planet didn’t help either. After a very short chat in pretty basic Russian no problem, stamp stamp.

Given the slight bit of extra attention customs decided they wanted to open and go through my bags, which was no problem at all, and it was maybe 15 minutes start to finish and we were through the northernmost border!

Another 15 minutes, and we came to a rest stop for a bathroom break. I think there might have been food for sale too, but we skipped that in favour of a few photos. It was a little snowy…

Russian AND Soviet flags still flying this far north. Love the contrast of the deep blue sky:

Some sort of Soviet memorial. Even zooming in the text is blurry so hard to tell exactly what to.

Fortunately, the minibus (which only held about 12 of us) had no trouble driving 100+ kph the whole way, despite the rather heavy snow, and we all lived to make it to Murmansk after less than four hours on the road. Bus dropped us right at our hotel, where after a quick check-in we were off to find some food. After missing lunch we were pretty hungry, so set off through snowy Murmansk. Snow was still coming down very heavy:

Monument to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker of Mirliki:

Dinner was at Tundra Restaurant which looked delicious online, but surely this far north in the Arctic the menu would overpromise and under deliver, right?

We started with the salmon caviar and soft cheese on black rice crackers, which was outstanding. Why it’s served on a bunch of stones I don’t know, but…

Next up was the grilled meat platter with venison, marbled roast beef, pork neck, and some sort of arctic berry sauce…again…delicious.

For the main, I went with Kamchatka king crab baked with wasabi sauce. Once again…absolutely delicious and decadent.

Couldn’t resist desert, which was the house specialty of boiled condensed milk served in “wafer tubules.” Extremely sweet and caramelly, but again…delicious.

By this point we were absolutely loving everything about this restaurant, so when in russia…homemade lingonberry vodka.

On the way out after an amazing meal, one last chance to stop and admire the slightly unusual decor:

All that was left was a nice snowy walk back to the hotel, past the monument to the Hero City of Murmansk…complete with Lenin:

After an amazing first day in the Arctic I couldn’t wait to catch up on sleep a little bit, and spend the entire next day exploring this winter weirdness!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Mar 092019
 


So, continuing with my week in Berlin, the next day when I had a long lunch I decided to venture even further out into the former East Berlin, and visit the main prison of the Stasi which is now a museum. The Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen is a museum on what was once the site of the Stati’s most notorious prison. Tours are relatively infrequent – at least public ones – and when I called I couldn’t get anyone who understood English…but based on my limited German there would be a tour today, so I made the long trek by tram out to Lichtenberg.

Fortunately, the tour happened right on schedule, but unfortunately, our guide would be a young Czech lady. While she was excellent, the majority of guides are former prisoners, and it would have been much more interesting to hear their perspective.

We started with a 25 minute movie which was a fantastic introduction to the complex, and then it was off to the original prison building, and its cells. At the time, like Robben Island or other former prisons, it was just another site, but looking back today it’s much easier for me to see the terror in the site…even decades later.

After touring the old cellblock, it was out into the main yard to walk to the “newer” building which was built once it was clear the DDR was going to be a thing, and the Cold War was going to split Germany for quite some time.

Inside the new cellblock, the door to a cell. Note the wire running over the top of the door? See how to the right of the door there is what looks like connectors? This is because guards were unarmed, and if shit went down they could loosely yank on the wire, which would pull the connectors apart, and set off an alarm. The entire complex was wired this way.

Inside of an interrogation room. Prisoners were never interrogated right away – they waited several days or weeks until they were sufficiently disoriented first and ready to talk.

Metal grates on the stairwells between floors.

Barbed wire on the ends of the complex.

Another day, I took the U-Bahn out to Friedrichshain, a now trendy and gentrifying part of former East Berlin, and decided to go for a long walk back to my hotel to appreciate how the city was laid out. With a subway, it’s often hard to appreciate how all the parts of a city fit together, so I figured this would be a great way to do it – plus – I love long urban walks. A very colourful street in Friedrichshain:

Funky mural – not entirely sure what it’s supposed to depict:

Even the Germans aren’t big fans of the Cheeto in Chief:

A short way through the walk, I was hungry and cold, so stopped into Ostbahnhof which for some reason I really like, and had my favourite German snack….a Bretzelsnack and caramel macchiato – perfect on a cold winter day.

Crossing the river and looking west towards Alexanderplatz:

St. Michael’s Church:

One of the best street names in the world – under water street! Wonder if Spongebob Squarepants is around…

…and after the long walk, nearly 12km, I rewarded myself with a currywürst and beer. I mean, when in Berlin…

One of the weirder parts of Berlinale, on top of all the fru fru people in my hotel in silk scarves, was the pop-up make-up booth in the middle of Potsdamer Platz. I very tempted to poke my head in and see if I could get my makeup did…

Another day, I went for a long walk through the Tiergarten. Seeing the Siegessäule brought back memories of U2, and I think I was humming “Stay – Faraway So Close” for the rest of the trip.

Just the bang…and the clatter…as an angel…hits the ground.

Another evening, walking back to my hotel, I stopped by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Very moving, lots of slabs of concrete, and catching it at sunset made it extra-reflective.

Walking through the memorial. Unfortunately, lots of young people acting disrespectfully – I really hope the future holds better than a lot of these kids were displaying, or history will be doomed to repeat itself.

From there, I wandered back to the Brandenburger Tor, which looked awesome with the sun setting behind it:

Apparently, there were multiple protests/demonstrations going on….including this colourful character…the “Kaiser”

A short video of his…interesting…spiel…

One final walk on my last night in Berlin, and the L’Oreal people were still out in Potsdamer Platz doing makeup…incredibly odd.

Last morning, before heading to the airport, decided to go for one final long walk through the Tiergarten. Pond partially frozen over:

Statue of Albert Lortzing, a German composer:

I love how this picture captured the reflection of the trees on the partially-frozen pond:

One final stop by the Siegessäule. I was going to climb to the top, but was running short on time to get to the airport, so decided to skip it so I’d have an “excuse” to come back again.

…and with that, my week in Berlin was over. Definitely confirmed my feeling that it’s an amazing world-class city, and somewhere I’d love the opportunity to live. So if you know anyone there who’s looking to hire… 😉

Next up, off to Norway!

Mar 032019
 


Due to the way schedules worked out, and the fact it made no sense to go back to Washington for five nights and then turn around to head straight to Norway….combined with some client meetings in Germany I needed to take care of, I decided on spending six nights in Berlin. I can’t remember the last time I’ve spent six nights in one place that wasn’t for a work trip, so I was definitely looking forward to it!

…looking forward, that is, until I got to my hotel. Now, I’m not really a movie person, and I can probably count the number of movies I’ve seen in the last ten years on one hand, but I was about to very quickly get an introduction to the world of “movie people.” It seems I had arrived right in the middle of Berlinale, one of the biggest film festivals in the world. To make matters worse, apparently my hotel was one of the host hotels, and a huge chunk of the rooms were taken over as makeshift offices by various film studios:

I will give the hotel high marks for how they managed the huge crowds. Other than the lobby being a teeming mass of people from sunrise until midnight, the floors themselves were actually reasonably quiet. Despite half the rooms on my floor having their doors open all day to entertain visitors, the hotel had security posted at the elevator so the only people who could come to the rooms were those who were authorized. Given how big the event was, I was impressed how little impact it had on my stay. Except all the silk scarves in the executive lounge, it was fascinating listening to the conversations.

Right, so most days were filled with nonstop work, partly from my room and partly going on to meet with clients. However, I still had a lot of work to take care of back in the US, which meant working long hours into the evening. That did mean, however, sneaking out for long lunches to see things was totally possible. I’ll post the first couple here, then follow up with another post covering the next couple of days.

Having arrived on a weekend, I had a full day, and after several failures on previous trips I finally managed to book on the Tempelhof Airport tour. One pro tip: despite being sold out online for a couple of weeks, I witnessed several people arrive without tickets, and they were all accommodated. So even if it shows up not available online you might want to chance showing up well in advance and seeing about tickets. Standing at the meeting point outside the old general aviation terminal:

First stop was out on the apron, the first in the world where planes pulled up to the terminal under a covered roof so that passengers could board/deplane regardless of rain:

Main check-in and baggage hall. Supposedly the roof used to be twice as high, but after World War Two the victorious powered had it lowered. Why? Because, and I roughly quote our tour guide, “walking into such a grand hall with high ceilings would invoke visions of German might and power, and arms might inadvertently snap up into a Nazi salute.” Thus, it was lowered, to make it less grand after the war…

You just knew I’d find the VIP waiting room…

Under the checkin hall, a couple stories down, were lots of bomb shelter rooms. This one, apparently, after the war was re-purposed by Lufthansa as a storage room.

Inside many of the bomb shelters, painted on the wall, were passages from common German fairy tales. According to our guide, this was because people would often be sheltered here with complete strangers, and this would give them something common to talk about until the all clear signal was given.

Top floor of the airport was…a basketball court?! After the war, the airport was in the American Sector of Berlin, and the airport was split 50-50 between civilian use and US military base. The two sides were strictly separated, but the American side had a basketball court and other rec facilities added.

From there, we climbed more stairs to the roof of the building, looking down on the apron. Great view, although I could have down without the howling wind and the stinging rain:

Outside the airport, the Berlin Airlift Memorial:

Apparently, not everyone is a big fan of capitalism.  …and, no thanks, too high in fat.

The next day, I made the trek way out to Lichtenberg deep in eastern Berlin to see the Stasi Museum, located in the former Stasi (secret police) headquarters building:

The main building in the complex is where the museum is housed. The whole complex was several dozen buildings, many of which have now been leased out to various companies and businesses.

In the entranceway of the museum was a statue of (I believe) Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Checka, predecessor to the KGB and FSB in Russia.

Behind the office of Eric Mielke (head of the Statsi’s) was a room where he could retire for small private meetings, or as you can see from the bed in the corner, a nap. Rumour was that he would often sleep here at night in the final days, fearing assassination attempts if he left the building.

Waiting room in the executive area of the Stasi headquarters building.

Boardroom where high ranking members of the Stasi held many of their meetings:

Interesting exhibit on “the use of scent differentiation to fight crime” – supposedly when they arrested people, they would place this cloth under the chair of the person being interrogated. Idea was that it would collect their “scent” and that when they had enough of these collected they might be able to predict future criminals. I kid you not…

The “red suitcase” where Mielke kept secret documents that reportedly could bring down Erich Honecker, the President of the GDR. The suitcase allegedly contained evidence of Honecker’s cooperation with the Nazis, although to this day German authorities deny that. Even in East Germany, the head of the secret police keeping a blackmail file on the President would have been….sketchy at best.

The receptionist’s telephone outside Mielke’s office.

Panoramic view of Mielke’s office, with his desk on the far side, a large table for meetings, and chairs around a table for what I assume were smaller meetings?

Transit bear in the U-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz. DC did donkeys and elephants several years back, and Berlin did bears. What other cities have done a collection of statues around the city?

World Clock outside at Alexanderplatz with the Berliner Fernsehturm in the background. I’ve never been up to the viewing gallery at the top, but it’s supposed to have amazing views of Berlin.

Loved this shot of the station at Alexanderplatz.

With that, the first couple of days were over. Many more things to see, which I’ll detail in the next blog!

Mar 022019
 


So, this trip wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had a nice vacation planned with a friend to Norway and Russia. Then, as happens, a work trip to Switzerland fell into place…with an awkward six days until I had to be in Norway to start my vacation. Then, work in Germany conveniently popped up in the middle. Upside: saving a lot of jetlag. Downside: more than three weeks away from home! Focusing on the positive, I moved straight ahead! Let’s start out this first post with Switzerland.

Not really anything to say about the trip there, but I do have to give a nod to United. This dish, known as the “spicy chicken” is absolutely delicious, and pretty unique for an inflight meal. …despite the fact the crew tried to tell me there “probably wouldn’t be enough for you” – um, since United prioritizes meals by status, I highly doubt this. A side note, a walk through the galley later and at least two different crew members were eating it. Plus ça change…

While waiting on my train, I reacquainted myself with one of the most fabulous fast food items in Switzerland, the five cheese toastie:

Given it was a work trip, I spent most of it cooped up indoors doing work. Of course, during coffee breaks, I walked out the door and had this view. Miserable I tell you. Actually the worst part was the big windows in the conference room which pretty much had the same view. How were we supposed to focus on work!  (Spoiler: tons of work actually did get done)

One of the trip’s highlights was a traditional Swiss fondue at a colleague’s house prepared by her partner. These are always my favourite moments of travel…spending time with the people that live there, and taking time to enjoy traditions as locals enjoy them as opposed to how a restaurant might serve it up to you in a quasi-realistic atmosphere. Very fortunate to have such amazing and hospitable clients!

After finishing up with work, I had about 24 hours in Zurich on a Friday night / Saturday morning to see the city. Most times when I come through Zurich, it’s in transit to/from somewhere, so I was really looking forward to having a full 24 hours to actually see just a little bit. Despite the -10C temperatures, wind, and snow….anyways….

I loved this ad for Swiss milk and their strong cows….

After a fun and freezing night of grabbing several craft beers outdoors in the freezing temperatures, I got up and had about four hours to see the city. I decided a long walk was the best way to do it, so I headed out from my hotel, towards the old town of Zurich, which I’d never seen before. Beautiful view across the Limmat:

Murals by Giacometti on the side of a building in the old town:

Another gorgeous view across the Limmat. Even on a cloudy day the city looks magical:

I got a new phone right before the trip (iPhone XS) and love how even when zoomed in, I got super clear views:

The pictures above were taken from Lindenhof, a park on the top of a small hill in the old town. From there, down the winding alleys towards the river. One thing that struck me on a Saturday morning was the fact that Chinese tourists outnumbers locals by a factor of at least 10:1. I’m really happy more people are traveling these days, but also really concerned with the impact mass tourism is having. Especially on the major cities in Europe.

Looking across the river at the Grossmünster church. Trying to get all artsy with the seagull in the pic:

So many birds. Everywhere.

Again, trying to be artsy:

Group of Chinese tourists on the water, getting absolutely swarmed by a flock of seagulls. It was like a cross between a bad 80s band and a Hitchcock novel. I was getting a little nervous at this point, so I ran. I ran so far away…

With that, it was time to head to the airport and fly off to Berlin for the next stage of the trip. One little thought from that. Got to fly for the second time on an A220-300 from Zurich to Berlin, and I love that on a flight of one hour Swiss can still serve a tasty little snack….with refills on drinks! In the US, we get “due to the length of this flight, no service will be provided.” Next up – a week in Berlin!