Nov 192015

Took the MRT to Hong Kong airport, and went absolutely without a hitch. Tried to check in at the Kowloon station checkin desk, but the Air India counter was like 20 people deep, and no special lines for Star Gold or business class. Got to the airport, and things were a bit better. The agent was a bit confused – seems nobody flies to Delhi just to connect to a United flight to Newark. I’m…special. She didn’t give me any grief about my carryons, however, I asked her for blank luggage/nametags since I know Indian security likes to have something to stamp. She thought this was the oddest request she’d ever heard, but after checking my onward ticket to Newark she was ok with it.

Long line about 20 minutes for security, and another 20 minutes for immigration. Not sure if this is normal or not, but was rather surprised there were no business class lines or anything. Still had time for one more Starbucks before heading to the United Club for a pre-flight glass of wine and 15 minutes of relaxation. Got to the gate, where boarding was just beginning on time.

Air India flight 317
Hong Kong, SAR (HKG) to Delhi, India (DEL)
Depart 18:05, Arrive 21:10, Flight Time: 5:35
Boeing 787-8 Registration VT-ANE, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 97,462
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,136,068

First impression of this Air India 787 which was less than two years old, RATTY! Seems they have the same-ish hard product as Turkish A330 I’d flown to Istanbul earlier in this trip, complete with the “footsy” benches for your feet. I can just see trying to sleep in this seat setup and playing footsy with your neighbour. How hard would it have been to put a little divider in the middle of the bench?


Seats were in some of the worst repair I’ve ever seen for a two year old plane. Just look at the footrest area:


Welcome aboard drink, choice of hot or cold towel, but only juice or water to drink:


For a five hour flight, the menu sounded pretty tasty:


The horrors…not only were the nuts not warm, they were served in a bag! Good thing Korean Air Princess wasn’t on this flight!


In case you are wondering what “Dry Snax” are, this is it. Crunchy and tasty, but I pretty much just picked out the cashews:


The meal was served all on one tray, which was extremely packed. The bread was even left in its foil to stay warm a bit longer. I have to admit, the main course was seriously tasty, and the dessert was pretty good too. Some sort of cake with cherries in it. There were two choices of main, and I believe this was a lamb curry:


Flight was very uneventful. Crew was friendly and helpful, quick with drink refills when asked, and always pleasant. They seemed almost offended I wasn’t staying in India, despite over a dozen trips in the past, including two weeks earlier this year. This crew was from Mumbai, and told me I really did have to check it out next time as it’s “much better” than Delhi or Chennai!

Landed, and had a long walk in the hot and humid terminal to the transit desk…where things got real. Real crazy. Fortunately, I had packed my patience for India, and when I was told to “go sit down, we will find someone from United to assist you” decided not to. Standing at the desk, reminding them every five minutes, and using the words “global services” I managed to get someone from United to come to the transit desk…nearly 45 minutes after landing! Had I just gone to sit down and wait, I’m sure it would have been over an hour….

When the agent did arrive, she was super friendly and helpful. First, she had to let me know some bad news. The flight “might” be delayed because it had come in with a non-functional WiFi and entertainment system. Ugh. I tried asking really nicely since it looked like there might be three or four empty seats if she could try and put me in any set of two with an empty next to it. She promised to try her best.

This is where it got much better…she insisted on escorting me from the transit desk, through transit security, through some back “employees only” corridors, up a secret elevator, and directly into the lounge. I only had 20 minutes, but she came back to get me at the end of those 20 minutes, and escorted me to the gate! Best service ever! To top it off, she’d managed to secure seats 10A and 10B for me, with a promise of nobody next to me. It’s amazing how far patience and being nice can get you sometimes! Unfortunately, there would be no WiFi or entertainment of any sort on the flight….

United flight 83
Delhi, India (DEL) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 23:35, Arrive 05:15, Flight Time: 15:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N27015, Manufactured 2000, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,786
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,143,392

Boarded to a crew that looked incredibly grouchy, but the menu looked…interesting…




Warm nuts were served, but warm to the point they’d lost their crunch. I passed after just a few. There was also another packaged Indian snack, which I wasn’t overly fond of:


Looks like the appetizer has been upgraded…two shrimps. I took it for the picture, but still refuse to eat shrimp on a plane after getting food poisoning from it on two different occasions:


Unusual indian-style salad of missed vegetables in a dressing. It was tasty, and made for a very nice change from the rather bland salads United usual offers:


The lamb biryani was, quite simply, the best main course I’ve ever had on United. Just spicy enough, served with tasty raita, and I admit I ate every bite of it and considered asking if they had another. I’ve never done that before!


Even the cheese selection was better than usual, and yes, I did ask for two in this case:


Strangely, the only choice for the ice cream was caramel, and there were no cherries. Boo! This flight might get dinged in my 2015 sundae year in review…


Slept nearly nine straight hours, which is great for me on a plane. There is something about late night westbound redeyes that not only helps me sleep really well, but helps me arrive feeling super refreshed. I guess sleep is easier because it’s 1 or 2am local time when I try and sleep, but landing, despite it being 5/6a local time it’s after noon to the body clock. I learned this when I was doing Dakar-Washington frequently, and actually don’t mind redeyes as long as they are long enough…and westbound!

Breakfast was ok…but as usual the fruit was dry. I had the omelette, the corn croquette was also pretty tasty, and the grilled veg. I left most of the carbs aside, though:


Immigration via Global Entry was a snap, and was to the lounge less than 15 minutes after landing. There was a 30+ minute wait for a shower, so of course I went next door to Starbucks to inhale a quad iced espresso on ice before taking one of the best showers of my life. There’s nothing like a nice warm shower after spending 20+ hours on planes! The good news, is I checked my email while waiting, and there was already a proactive email from United apologizing for the broken entertainment system, and offering a $200 travel voucher.

Unfortunately, my connection was out of the A gates, so it was out in the cool drizzle to shuttle over to the A terminal, where I got there just as we were boarding.

United flight 3522 (operated by Shuttle America)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 06:50, Arrive 08:18, Flight Time: 2:28
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N647RW, Manufactured 2005, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 105,505
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,145,345

Extremely unremarkable flight. The flight attendant was attentive with frequent water refills, watched some tv on the iPad. There was a breakfast offered, but I skipped it since they were somehow one short, and I wasn’t really hungry since I’d just eaten. I really would have only taken it for photography purposes anyways…

Nice view on approach to Chicago:


Had to hop over to the F Concourse for my connection, first time I’ve ever been there at O’Hare. Am I right it’s pretty much just for the ERJ-145s? Nice new lounge there, however, even if it was extremely packed. Good view of Barbie Jet Central:


United flight 3259 (operated by ExpressJet)
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Ottawa, Ontario (YOW)
Depart 10:47, Arrive 13:36, Flight Time: 1:49
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N13903, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,000

Nothing at all to say about this flight. Standard E145 flight, one pass on drinks, then then we were descending. I’ve never been on one of these planes for a flight over two hours, but can see how it would be a total nightmare.

Immigration was a bit of a pain at Ottawa – first time I’d ever been through without Nexus in over five years. Questioning was pretty extensive, and given that (a) I’d lost my NEXUS card during my last visit and (b) I was only there to change planes flying back to the US because “it’s cheaper to fly international out of Canada….yup…I got sent to secondary inspection. Ugh!

Fortunately, a quick show of my printouts, an explanation, and I was in and out in under five minutes. At least as far as secondary goes it was painless. Quick trip up to the Nexus office to retrieve my lost card, and still had time to get lunch with a friend.

It was a gorgeous day in Ottawa, about 22C and sunny, and perfect for a small lunch and beers on the patio:


Just to show again how sunny and gorgeous it was, one more sunny selfie in front of TD Place:


Immigration back at the airport was painless, and I had 20 minutes or so before boarding, so grabbed a beer at the one restaurant inside the US Departures area. The guy sitting next to me was in a sling, and had just had rotator cuff surgery two weeks prior, so we commiserated a bit. I let him know I was up to 100% already after just four months, so hopefully left him feeling a bit hopeful!

United flight 5946 (operated by ExpressJet)
Ottawa, Ontario (YOW) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 17:15, Arrive 18:42, Flight Time: 1:27
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N12175, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,489
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,329

Plane go up. Consume Diet Coke. Plane go down. Arrive right on time. Connecting flight was just two gates over in the A concourse, so I had time to enjoy some of Oscar’s finest hummus and cheese cubes in the packed A Concourse United Club while waiting.

United flight 4312 (operated by ExpressJet)
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:43, Arrive 21:04, Flight Time: 1:21
Embraer ERJ-145, Registration N14573, Manufactured 2002, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 106,688
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,144,528

One last flight, another E145. Yes, you know how it goes: plane go up, consume Diet Coke, plane go down. 40 minutes start to finish…and with that the end of another epic trip! I promised myself I’d get this trip report done before leaving on my next trip…and…done with ONE HOUR to spare! Stay tuned..up next: Algeria, Cuba, and the Bahamas!

Nov 182015

After landing at 7pm, conquering the bus gate and long immigration lines I got the MTR and just over 20 minutes later was at Kowloon station. From there, it’s a short walk through the shopping mall to my hotel of choice in Hong Kong – The W. Hong Kong is one of those cities that has a ton of great hotel options, and everyone seems to have their own favourite. The W wins for me for convenience to the airport, being connected to the mall and the MTR, and the overall great service I’ve received each stay. The biggest downside, which to be fair is the downside of most nice Hong Kong hotels, is that there’s just no way to get it on the cheap.

Check-in was pretty efficient, friendly, upgrade to a slightly larger room, but unfortunately when I got to it…it absolutely reeked like someone had been smoking in it. The response from the front desk? We are really full and really busy, can we give you a call back in 30 minutes? Seriously, what is it with my bad luck on this trip. I told them it wasn’t acceptable, and only had to wait 15 minutes for a new room. Ugh. Fortunately, that one was much better and since it was already 9pm I headed to a place next to the mall for a quick dinner.

Choice for dinner was Madame S’ate, which had a nice outside patio as well as an enclosed space. Given the humidity was oppressive and it was about 28C even at night, I definitely opted for the air conditioned indoors. Place was still quite lively that late, and opted for what was a delicious wagyu steak, lyonnaise onion and cheese tartine. Washed it down with a craft beer from the local Young Master brewery, which was also pretty good:


Back to the W a bit before 11, where the elevator floor made sure to welcome me back:


The W gives a bonus welcome amenity to SPG Platinum members, which is a complimentary drink in the hotel bar…I assume to encourage you to stay and spend more money. Decided to have a second beer and people watch, which is always a fun pastime in Hong Kong:


Slept well, and unfortunately when I woke up it was absolutely pouring outside. Decided to delay sightseeing for a bit, and enjoy some Starbucks for breakfast…given its convenient location right in the mall under the hotel. I think this must be the first time they’ve ever spelled my name right at Starbucks!


It was still pouring after breakfast, so I did a bit of walking around in the mall for some light exercise while waiting for it to taper down. Back to my room a bit before 11, and the rain was finally starting to lighten up a little bit. View from my room:


Took a long walk through the mall to the MTR to grab some lunch a bit, and walked right past the mall’s enclosed ice rink. I think I need one of these myself given how I skate:


Not bad for an in-mall rink…it would be pretty awesome to get the chance to play some hockey here at some point!


The rain had finally let up, so I took the MTR one stop to Hong Kong station, to walk around and grab some lunch. The light mist and humidity were a foul combo, combined with the fact that the walk to the restaurant was pretty steep uphill:


To the point that after the relatively short 10-15 minute walk I got there and was absolutely drenched in sweat. Gross. Went to the washroom to clean up before ordering, and was met with this poster in the washroom:


Uhhh….thanks POTUS! The restaurant was The Roundhouse, billed as an authentic Texas BBQ and home to 25 different craft beers on tap. I have to say, the tap list was seriously impressive, containing lots of great American, Danish, and European craft beers as well as a few scary local Chinese options. Oh, and there was the BBQ…the beef shortrib sandwich was absolutely amazing:


Had a couple of beers, and went to wash my hands afterwards, and next to Mr Obama was this poster:


By this time the steady rain had started again, so it was back to the hotel to clean up and shower before heading to the airport for my flight back home. At least the downhill walk was a lot less sweaty, but a lot more moist do to the rain:


Despite the rain, quite a bit of shopping going on:


I didn’t end up getting to do nearly as much exploring as I had wanted to this trip, but by this point sleep was winning out and the rain was making things uncooperative. I guess in all my travels, I’ve been extremely lucky with weather overall so can’t complain I had a bit of a washout in a city I’ve already visited several times. There’s always the next visit. Quick shower and check-out, and it was time to MTR to the airport and begin the long trek home!

Nov 172015

Slept in a little bit, and enjoyed one last breakfast at the Kempinski, complete with several more tasty mongolian dumplings. Had the hotel call a taxi for me, and negotiate the price in advance, so I was able to use the last of my local currency towards the hotel instead of having any leftover since I didn’t expect I’d be back in Mongolia any time soon. It’s probably not a reassuring sign that when leaving your room, this is mounted to the wall right outside your room:


I was a little worried about my flight, because it had gone from showing as a 737 online to a Dash-8 a week before the flight. Now, as far as I could tell, Air China has no Dash-8s, but at the same time, they stopped selling business class seats even on their own website. I figured whatever was going on, they were going to downsize the plane to something that had less business class seats, so I better get there early.

Given the airport has like three international flights a day, I decided two hours was early, and was actually the second to check in, and no, it’s a 737. Strange. Who knows what was going on, but she confirmed it was sold out, but had no problem accommodating my seat request. No line at all for security or immigration, and it was soon into the holding pen that was shared for the few gates at the airport.

Upstairs in departures there were like four or five duty free shops mostly selling liquor and tobacco, as well as an entire store selling nothing but Chenggis Vodka. Since I decided I probably couldn’t drink an entire bottle in transit, I resisted the urge to bring back this unique souvenir. There are some disadvantages to taking the long way home!

After browsing duty free, I decided to check out the business class lounge. It was pretty packed, and there wasn’t much on offer, except reasonable WiFi, so once connected I actually went back out into the departures lounge (which had much more space) to wait for the flight. Given the plane only held 16 in business, I had no idea where all the people in the business lounge had come from, except maybe if they let Star Alliance Gold members in.

Boarding was right on time, and I was about to have my first experience on Air China!

Air China flight 902
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (ULN) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:05, Flight Time: 2:15
Boeing 737-800 Registration B-5500, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,133,737

Welcome aboard was satisfactory, but unfortunately the bubbles were warm. Ugh.


The seats were a hideous psychadellic purple, and rather uncomfortable. I tried to move the headrest up to be more comfortable, and this happened. The flight attendants couldn’t get it back on, and the flight was full, so they gave me a choice: fly without a headrest, or middle seat in economy. You can guess which I chose…


…business, naturally, with hot towels on a plate:


Offered “Chinese or French wine” you can once again guess which I chose. While the Chinese had a novelty factor, after Mongolian wine on MIAT I went with the safe option…well not TOO safe, because they spilled everywhere while pouring it, including on my shorts. Not even a sorry…


Starter was described as “duck” and pretty scary. It seemed like some sort of pressed duck coldcut or something…I tried one bite and was definitely unimpressed. The fruit was pretty decent, had flavour, and was mildly juice, so I consider it a success:


The “beef” entree was pretty bad as well, as was the garlic bread. Overall, I’d rate it up there with United domestic in terms of meal service, but give them extra points for the real china and tablecloth…but take away points for not having a headrest on my seat.


Short flight, watched a little bit of tv on the iPad, and soon we were arriving into Beijing Airport via the giant smog layer over the city. Right on time, bus gate, but no special bus for business class. It was quite a long walk to transit security and passport check (they do a full passport check for transit, but don’t stamp your passport) and unfortunately it was nearly 25C in the airport. Definitely gross. I was pretty much a sweaty mess by the time I finished formalities, and all I could think of was how good an iced Americano from Starbucks would be.

Asked the nearest airport employee, and yes, there was one about a five to ten minute walk in the opposite direction of the gate. Don’t care…must find nirvana. The Starbucks experience itself was frustrating, stuck behind two young American women who wondered “how much is that in REAL money?” I told them to just use their credit cards, it wasn’t expensive, and I was just anxious to get them moving.

Having procured reliable caffeination, I was left without time to check out the Air China business lounge, but figured I probably wasn’t missing a whole lot. Got to my gate 40 minutes before the flight, and there was no sign of an agent. Finally, 15 minutes before the flight, an agent showed up and an announcement was made – we were moving gates…another 10 minute walk back in the direction I’d come from. It was still sweaty, hot, and gross in the terminal, and my patience at China was running extremely low.

Fortunately, the new gate was a bus gate, and this time there was a business class bus. Interesting security feature, when they scanned your boarding pass at the gate, your picture came up on the screen. I hadn’t noticed, but when transfer immigration was checking boarding passes they also took a picture of you to match things up. Pretty slick system.

Air China flight 115
Beijing, China (PEK) to Hong Kong SAR (HKG)
Depart 15:30, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 3:30
Airbus A321-200, Registration B-6363, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,365
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,134,971

Welcome aboard again, and this time with a reasonably cool glass of bubbles:


There was a Chinese-American older couple seated in the row in front of me, and the gentleman was absolutely hysterical. For pre-departure drinks he asked for “as many small bottles of vodka as you can fit in a glass with two ice cubes” and was told no vodka until we were in the air. He laughed loudly, said something back to them in Chinese and then just said “fine, bring me alcohol.” He found himself incredibly funny, but his lady friend was clearly less than impressed. He leaned over the seats and started talking to me, and was absolutely hysterical. Fortunately he was the friendly funny drinker type, and not the obnoxious drunk, and once airborne settled down.

I tried the “Chinese red wine” which was almost drinkable, and actually better quality than much of the stuff United serves. Plus, warm salted almonds, which unlike United’s which tend to be a bit mushy they were still firm and crunchy:


Meal served all at once, including some sort of chicken curry which looked vaguely like vomit, but actually tasted really good…I might have eaten the whole thing, including the scary warm salmon snack starter:


All in all, the flight was exactly what I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be roughly the quality of a domestic flight in the US, and that’s exactly what it was. The crews were a mixed bag of mildly friendly to downright grouchy just like crews in the US, and the catering was…well, roughly what I would expect for an upscale prison cafeteria or maybe a mid-tier middle school. Well, except the fruit, which was definitely above average, but again…Asia…and I expect that.

Problem on the second flight was…they forgot to load bread! I decided not to eat the butter alone, however, so sadly it went to waste 😉

Three hours went by pretty quickly, arrival in Hong Kong was on-time at a bus gate, and soon it was off to enjoy my rather short 20 hour transit of Hong Kong!

Nov 132015

Got checked into the hotel around 6pm after a drive through Ulaanbaatar’s (also known as just U.B. by the locals) horrible traffic, and the room was much larger than expected. It was suffering from a bit of 70s hotel fatigue, but was large, super comfortable, and clean, and a reasonable temperature, so overall the Kempinski impressed me.

I walked the area around the hotel a little bit, finding a small grocery store, but nowhere I really felt like eating at. I was too tired to walk very far or get a taxi, so decided to try the hotel’s Mongolian restaurant for dinner. Went down, and only one problem…the restaurant was closed the night for a private event. Figures with my luck! The hotel felt relatively empty, but the restaurant was booked out. But never fear…the hotel has two other restaurants…BOTH Japanese! I guess it’s the “in” thing in Mongolia?

Started out with an eel salad, which was super, super tasty:


What’s the local beer called? Chenggis of course…there was also Chenggis energy drink, etc…


The restaurant even featured authentic decor and waitresses in authentic Japanese attire:


Tableside grilled kobe beef filet…try not to be TOO jealous…it was absolutely amazing…the right level of marbling and fattiness:


Crashed early, since it was going to be a very long day of touring with my one full day in Mongolia. Up early, and checked out the hotel breakfast which was included in my rate. Pretty wide selection of foods, but the quality didn’t look amazing. They did have some super tasty local dumplings, but the western offerings (especially the breads and pastries) were a bit lacking. That said, there were plenty of options so it was pretty easy to find something I liked. Plus, coffee came in individual small pots, and was pretty tasty!

My driver picked me up right on time, and he was driver and guide. Nice younger guy who’d actually studied in the US for a couple of years, and decided he wanted to go back to Mongolia. As we started to drive out of the city, the thing that surprised me was just quickly the quality of the road deteriorated. Yes, it was still asphalt, but pretty badly rutted to the point it seriously affected how fast we could go.

Our first stop outside town was a traditional rock gathering called an ovoo. The tradition is when you are traveling, you stop at the ovoo and walk around it three times, always in a clockwise direction. Historically ovoos were made of wood, and now lots of them are stones, wood, and miscellaneous…stuff. Our ovoo was also the home of several wild dogs. I love this shot with the clear blue sky behind:


Our next stop was the 100 monks cave, where supposedly at one time 100 monks hid out during the Russian occupation. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending because they were eventually found and killed. My guide climbed to the top and went in, but I only went about 2/3 of the way up because the rocks were tricky, and I was still being careful with my shoulder post-surgery:


Back to the bottom, we went across the road to visit with some local nomadic people…and their yaks!


Their goats seemed fascinated by me:


We drove a bit longer, and our next stop was a place called Turtle Rock. Note again just how amazing the blue skies are…and you can see why it’s called Turtle Rock…really does look kind of like a turtle!


Not sure it looks as much like a turtle up close, but again, the wide open spaces, changing leaves, and the sky just wowed me:


The view into the valley from Turtle Rock:


At this point, my guide announced I should try the most Mongolian of activities and go for a horseback ride up to the temple at the top of the mountain. Now, keep in mind, it has probably been 30+ years since I’ve been on a horse. However, I survived the nearly 90 minute ride. I look much happier at the end than my poor horse:


A regular Chenggis Khan I am:


Having survived horsing around (see what I did there?), it was time to walk up to the monastery. There were something like 100 signs on the walk, each with a saying from the Buddha on them:


Approaching the monastery. Amazing the leaves were so colourful in September:


Inside the monastery:


After a visit to the monastery and sitting and reflecting for 30 minutes or so, we started the trek back down the mountain. Scary bridge? No problem!


On the way down, I spun the prayer wheel to see which of the 100+ verses I should meditate on:


I spun lucky number 13, so on the way down, I stopped to contemplate it:


After the monastery we drove a bit longer to a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp for lunch. The accommodations were so luxurious I regretted not being able to spend the night 😉


View of the gers against the sky and hills:


Mongolian food isn’t known for being very fancy and is generally very heavy – lots of dumplings, meat, etc, but the lunch was delicious. I thought I’d taken some pictures, but apparently I was too busy being polite and chatting with my guide who ate with me. It was a nice four course lunch at the tourist ger camp, consisting of a starter, soup, dumplings, and some fruit for dessert. Nice and filling and tasty!

After lunch we headed to our last stop, the Chenggis Khan Memorial and museum. In the middle of nowhere, it was build recently and seemed to be a prime attraction for tourists, including busloads of very noisy and rude Chinese tourists. It was so crowded, and they were so loud, that it made the whole thing unpleasant that I asked my guide if we could just hang back for 30 minutes and walk through after they were done. He was completely fine with this, and off we went.

First, the “largest boot in the world” – no clue why, but:


Hanging in front of the giant Chenggis Statue:


From below…yes, the shot above is from the “observation desk” on the horse’s back, lol:


The museum was actually super interesting, and basically told the history of the Mongolian Empire and the Khans, including Chenggis. I had no idea the empire had been so vast at its peak, basically reaching to Europe and most of Southeast Asia as well. After spending around 90 minutes or so at the museum, we began the long flight back to UB. Toll booth on the way back into town:


Gate/arch entering the outskirts of town:


On the way into town, I convinced my guide to let me stop in Chenggis Khan Square for 30 minutes to walk around. Fun fact, wanna know why UB was founded where it was? Supposedly in Mongolian tradition, where your horse stops to pee is good luck. Well, Chengis’ horse stopped here and decided to take a leak, and voila, UB was founded. Not kidding, from MIAT magazine:


Fun architecture:


Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square:


Local kids hanging out in the square:


There were lots of booths set up too selling miscellaneous stuff. The architecture was also pretty wild and modern:


Chenggis statue, yet again!


Back to the hotel, where I finally got to eat at the Mongolian restaurant, which was honestly a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but certainly nothing special, and the food I’d had at the tourist ger camp was actually better. When I got back to my room, there were fireworks going off out the window:


With that, the day was a wrap. I was super impressed how much I managed to cram into one day, especially considering we drove something like 300 km on roads that were often pretty awful. I can’t wait to go back some day for the Nadam Festival, but I feel like I made the best of a bad situation (thanks Turkmenistan!) and got a really good introduction to Mongolia. Next up, the long, long way home!

Nov 062015

Took the KAL Limo Bus back to the airport, and it was a gorgeous day. Traffic wasn’t horrid either, and soon it was check-in time. Decided I would check in first, and then stumble down to Starbucks to join the rest of the world. There was a huge and horridly organized queue for checkin, and long lines for business class…full of economy class passengers. After about 5 minutes I gave up, and walked to the front, and asked “are you checking in business class here too?” That was the magic ticket, and they finally stopped the economy line and helped me.

Was told it was a 2-1-2 configuration today, which is odd because it was 2-2-2 when I booked it. She assured me this was the case, so I asked for row two in the middle. Got a lounge pass to the Korean Air lounge, and then headed off to join the world with Starbucks. Starbucks was packed, but after coffee and a snack I was much happier and ready to head to the lounge.

However, first there was security, which had a 20 minute line, and no priority queue. Ugh. After that, it was another 20 minutes in the immigration queue. This wasn’t shaping up to be my morning. When I finally got through, had to take the train over to the other terminal and that’s when I found the Korean Air Lounge. Found is the right word, because I couldn’t find any signs that said where it was, and the few airport employees I asked spoke absolutely no English.

Once I finally found it, I pretty much wished I hadn’t. It was filled with families, with small children running all over. At first I thought “apparently the US isn’t the only country where mommy and daddy let their precious angels run around and disturb everyone else” but then I heard the accents…and realized they were pretty much all Korean-Americans letting their kids run around. Ugh. America. Stop it. Manners aren’t that hard!

The lounge also had an extremely poor selection of food and drink on top of being super warm. In fairness, some of this was probably due to the large glass windows with a sweeping view of the airport where you could see tons of planes, but unfortunately with the view came the heat, and I was over it. Plus, MIAT was at the very last gate in the terminal and a rather long walk away. But when I got to the gate, the excitement built:


My ride to Mongolia:


Business class turned out to be extremely empty, with only me and one other passenger today, but economy looked packed. Oh well, was very glad I’d paid the extra!

MIAT Mongolian flight 302
Seoul, Incheon (ICN) to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (ULN)
Depart 14:20, Arrive 17:50, Flight Time: 3:30
Boeing 767-300 Registration JU-1021, Manufactured 2013, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,406
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,133,012

Was super glad to see I’d paid extra when I saw we got a reconfigured plane with proper international business class seats instead of a regional product!


Nice seats, with power ports:


Plenty of legroom:


Decent entertainment system:


Welcome aboard glass of bubbles…it was semi-warm, and I only had a sip:


Impressive looking amenity kit for a short flight:


The contents were much less impressive, although I don’t think I’ve ever gotten an amenity kit with an inflatable neck pillow before!


Ahaha, I knew I wasn’t dreaming it…there is such a thing as economy class syndrome! 😉


MIAT’s fleet…looks like while the 767-300 which I was supposed to have has crummy regional seats, the 767-300ER we actually got has 30 proper international business class seats. A definite score!


Before the meal, packaged nuts were offered along with a pretty terrible glass of red wine:


“Meat or fish” was the choice. I had the meat…I think it was beef, and it was…about as good as it looked. The overall presentation wasn’t too bad, but…


Close-up of the mystery meat. I tired a bite and it tasted much better than it looked, so I had a few more bites:


This is what passes for dessert on MIAT:


Flight went quickly watching movies on the iPad, and soon we were descending towards Ulaanbaatar:


The city coming into view:


Aero Mongolia plane on the apron:


Inside the airport, this sign welcomed us:


Overall impression of MIAT: the seats were quite nice, the plane felt new, and it was a pretty peaceful experience. The soft product was pretty bad, however. The food was grim, the crew completely disappeared after serving it except to try and sell duty free, and after that they didn’t even respond to the call button so I could get more water. I had to go all the way back to the coach galley to find someone. I’m pretty sure had business been any fuller I would have been left with a bad impression, but since the cabin was empty and it was a relatively short flight I was willing to overlook it and call it an all-around ok product.

Next up, time to explore a bit of Mongolia!

Nov 052015

As I mentioned earlier, since it was absolutely pouring rain and late at night, I really didn’t have much choice but to take a taxi to my hotel in Tokyo. I considered trying to call an Uber, but there wasn’t one anywhere on the map, and I was too tired to wait, so went with it, fully expecting an extremely expensive ride.

I had asked the hotel approximately how much I should expect in an email, and they told me “around 70,000 Yen.” This was around $55 or so, so I didn’t feel like it was too bad. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the hotel, the total bill was 9,370 Yen, or just over $78. Ouch. To the driver’s credit, however, he knew exactly three words of English (compared to my four of Japanese), made exact change, and was as pleasant as could be.

Arrived at my hotel the Sheraton Miyako Hotel Tokyo, and there was a line waiting to check in, and only one agent working. Waited nearly 15 minutes (even as an SPG Platinum) and finally got to the front of the line. The agent was indifferent, displayed absolutely no personality, and when asked about the possibility of a platinum upgrade, perhaps to a suite, said “we do not do that.” So, standard room it was for me. This ranks as some of the poorest platinum treatment I’ve had anywhere in the world.

Got to the room, and it was smaaaaaaal. I’ve stayed at the Westin Tokyo before, and through the rooms were a good size. This hotel was more “traditional” feeling, but at the same time felt old, run-down, and not nearly as nice. After putting my bags down and grabbing a shower (it was about 12:30am at this point) I realized I was pretty starving. Ordered a sandwich from room service along with two beers, which was actually a pretty reasonable (for Japan) around $38.

When it arrived, I had just sat down to my computer to do some work and saw that there would be no internet from 9-5 the next day due to upgrading work. Are you kidding me? How can a hotel of this level not have internet? Regardless, my body clock was off by 4-5 hours at this point, so ended up staying up until around 2am doing work after having what proved to be a reasonably decent sandwich. Then, passed out, and didn’t bother to set an alarm.

…which I probably should have done, because it was nearly 1pm when I woke up! I can’t remember the last time I’d slept nearly 11 hours, and pretty sure it’s been more than a decade. So, despite the room being small, the AC being barely functional (it was 22C in the room), and anything else I didn’t like about this hotel, at least I managed an amazing night of sleep!

Upon seeing the time I leapt out of bed, but when I threw open the curtains I suddenly didn’t feel bad about sleeping in – it was STILL pouring rain! I puttered around for maybe 30 minutes before grabbing a shower and heading to check out. Once again, the front desk was completely indifferent, so I headed to the concierge to find out the best way to Narita. He suggested a taxi to Shinagawa station about 2km away, followed by the Narita Express train to the airport. Given the rain this sounded good, and off I went. The taxi was just under 1,000 Yen (around $8) and the station was absolutely huge.

I was able to buy tickets no problem from the ticket office, and decided to wait 55 minutes instead of rushing for the train in 25. I hadn’t had anything to eat since room service like 12 hours prior, so headed off to, well, you can probably guess…


Yes, apparently the Pumpkin Spice Latte is called the Pumpkin Pie Latte in Japan. It was super packed in Starbucks, but after stalking tables I managed to find somewhere to sit. Coffee and sandwich was good, but after around 15 minutes of people watching it was time to head down to the platform and find my Narita Express. I’d decided to pay a little extra for the “Green Car” aka business/first class and it was definitely well worth it given it was empty while most of the rest of the train seemed pretty full:


It was a reasonable walk from the train station at Narita to the JAL check-in counter, and I waited about 10 minutes to check in since apparently there was also a flight to Taipei leaving around the same time, and the entire business class was filled with people needing to check their golf clubs. Wasn’t too bad of a wait, the agent was very friendly, and soon it was off to immigration and security (which were completely uneventful) and finally the JAL lounge.

I don’t fly a ton of OneWorld, so in all my trips to Narita had never been in this lounge. A few thoughts…it was absolutely packed, to the point it felt like a United Club. I know late afternoon is rush hour in Tokyo, but it was still pretty ridiculous. The food options were also rather poor, basically some little wrapped cheese things, some biscuits, and that was more or less it. The beverage option was decent, and I took the chance to have a bit of plum wine. Internet was also reasonably quick, so overall not a bad stay. Just nothing “special.”

Headed off to the gate about 50 minutes before the flight, and there was already a long queue to board. Didn’t matter, however, since we ended up being a bus gate. Fortunately the rain had turned into a heavy drizzle at this point, so didn’t get TOO wet waiting to board.

Japan Airlines (JAL) flight 959
Tokyo, Narita (NRT) to Seoul, Incheon (ICN)
Depart 18:40, Arrive 21:15, Flight Time: 2:35
Boeing 767-300 Registration JA601J, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,180
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,131,786

Upon boarding, this 767 business class was exactly what I expected. Those who fly United will remember what was not-too-fondly called the “Ghetto Bird” which was a 767 with 2-2-2 seating that was pretty much domestic first. Well, JAL still flies them, and that’s what we were on today. The big difference was the crew was super friendly and helpful and despite the flight being booked full there was one seat empty in business class…and it was next to me!

Plus, how can you complain when you get a menu on a two hour flight:


Sure, it came all on one tray, but the wine came in individual bottles, and the presentation was pretty much excellent:


When I finished it all, I was asked my favourite part, and the flight attendant brought me another lobster salad along with my ice cream dessert…and insisted on bringing me another bottle of wine. So far, this crew was excellent!


After clearing my tray, she came back again…with yet another bottle of wine. “Please, I would like you to have.” I mean, come on, how can you not drink it when the flight attendant pretty much guilts you into it? I have to say, despite the hard product being pretty poor, the soft product was most likely the best I’ve ever had on a two hour flight. I know lots of people say JAL is no ANA, but I have to say after this flight I look forward to trying them on a longer flight.

Immigration was a piece of cake in Seoul, bought my ticket for the KAL Limo bus to my hotel, the W Seoul. After about a 90 minute ride, we finally arrived at the hotel around 11:45 pm. I’d been upgraded to a “studio suite” which wasn’t quite as large as my previous stays there, but was still a pretty good size:


Super large bathroom too:


So, this is where the problem began. I’d unpacked, and after 15 minutes of the AC running it wasn’t getting any cooler. The thermostat read 24.2, up from 24.0 when I’d checked in. So, I called down and asked someone be sent up. Someone came up, but they assured me it ‘just takes time’ and I should wait. So, I waited 15 minutes…before calling back and informing them it was no cooler.

Ok, so now maintenance will look at it. Maintenance assured them the AC was working fine, and sometimes “these just take time.” No, this isn’t acceptable. I asked to change rooms…please…give us 15 more minutes, it will cool down. I waited 15 more (it was now 12:30 am) and I called down and demanded to speak to the manager on duty.

The manager showed up a few minutes later, and agreed to see “if” she could find another room since they were “pretty full.” Well, not according to the website, which had all kinds of rooms to sell me if I wanted. After 15 minutes she managed to find me the exact same room on the floor below….which was also 24C when I walked in, but cooled to 21C in the first 15 minutes. Ugh.

Fortunately, now that I had a cool room, I could tuck into the wine JAL had supplied me with, along with the chocolates the W had left in my sauna…I mean room:


By this point, it was approaching 1:30 am, and I was ready to tuck into the Austin Powers bed:


So, overall, extremely disappointing performance by the W. Eventually I got a good room, and a good night of sleep, but barely six hours thanks to all the mixups on their part. The kicker was the next morning when I asked the manager on duty for some points as compensation for all the problems. She was “not authorized to do that” because only the General Manager can…and he is on vacation for two weeks. Are you serious? Service recovery seems to be a MAJOR weak point for this hotel. When things go right, it’s a great property, but as this stay proved when things go wrong, they really have no idea how to recover for it.

Six hours was plenty of sleep to function on, however, so off to the airport it was for my next new country…Mongolia!

Nov 042015

I had to get up early. Way too early. When I booked this ticket, I had all sorts of options for getting from Muscat to Seoul on OneWorld with an award ticket, and the question really came down to two things: redeye flight east, or get up early and take a daytime flight. I really hate sleeping on planes if I can avoid it, so went with the oh-dark-thirty flight instead, which turned out to be a really good call.

Check-out from the W was swift, my Uber arrived within five minutes, and it was a completely effortless drive to the airport. Nice and insightful drive with Uber, and was soon at Doha Hamad Airport Intl Checkin. The Qatar business class checkin queue was completely empty, so I figured I would reprint my boarding pass on proper Qatar stock since they had printed it on generic stock in Muscat. Also switched my seat to the last row of business, hoping it would be a bit quieter back there.

No line at all at immigration or security, and I took yet my third selfie in as many months with the giant scary stuffed bear in Doha airport:


It was still nearly an hour before boarding, so I had time for a proper breakfast in the lounge. Proper, because I decided it was a champagne breakfast…since it was almost noon in Tokyo after all. When a bottle of something was pulled out, I asked “oh, don’t you have Krug today?” and got “oh yes, but we don’t normally serve it unless asked for by name!” Krug obtained, it was time for a delicious breakfast. Fresh kiwifruit and pineapple, hummous, museli, olives…and Krug!


I was still slightly hungry, so decided to try the warm options…grilled halloumi cheese (yum!), sautéed mushrooms, and a chocolate muffin which I decided wasn’t worth the calories after one bite. Too dry. Oh, and Krug. Definitely Krug.


I still had a bit of time, so, well, yeah….Krug! The Qatar lounge is exceptional for a business class lounge, especially when it’s not too crowded, which it wasn’t this morning. It definitely was far from empty, but was quiet enough that it still felt peaceful.


My gate was the same gate I’d been at a couple months prior for my flight to Eritrea, and required more or less walking halfway to to Tokyo to board the plane. By board the plane I mean the bus to the plane…at least we had a private business class bus once again:


We were only about 60% full in business class today, so it promised to be a good flight!

Qatar Airways flight 812
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Tokyo, Haneda Airport, Japan (HND)
Depart 7:20, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 9:25
Boeing 787-7, Registration A7-BCC, Manufactured 2012, Seat 5K

Crew was very quick with the towel (hot OR cold) upon boarding, a glass of Tattinger Rosé and some water before we pushed back right on time.


Qatar’s 787s have WiFi aboard, but the price is pretty much extortion. Either you are very careful with your usage, or it’s easy to run up huge bills. I avoided facebook/graphics, only monitored emails, and did a few facebook chats, and still ran up $25 during the flight. No thanks!


Right after takeoff, the windows were dimmed by the crew (override – you didn’t have a choice) and breakfast was served. Starting with some warm nuts and more bubbles:


I wasn’t hungry after breakfast in the lounge, so just asked for a bowl of muesli. The crew was pretty confused by this, but after telling them I’d already had my breakfast in the lounge, the understood much better. In true Qatar style it was order what you want when you want, so they were happy to bring it.


After this I watched some horrible movie I’ve already forgotten, and napped for a few hours since I’d only gotten around four to five hours in Qatar. Couple of comments on the Qatar 787. I really like the 1-2-1 configuration of the seats, since it means everyone has aisle access. (YOU LISTENING UNITED?!) That said, the seats felt pretty short and squat, and almost a little claustrophobic. That said, even at my height I had no trouble at all sleeping in them and being comfortable, and would be happy to fly them any day. The 787 is a great place, as this flight confirmed, and I was happy to arrive feeling refreshed and alert.

Upon waking, I watched another bad movie and it was time for another “formal” meal service. Although in theory it’s possible to eat whatever you want whenever you want on Qatar, I find they tend to do a formal service once or twice during long flights. You can customize it as much as you like, but they definitely gear up to come around a couple times.

This time, I asked for the Japanese sushi starter first, along with a glass of bubbles. For airplane sushi it was surprisingly tasty, and not at all dry…and the miso soup was quite good as well!


Next up was a steak sandwich with a chutney. I remember it being pretty tasty, but looking at this picture I think I would rank it slightly below the Air Koryo burger. That said, in my opinion people place way too much emphasis on presentation on a plane (it’s food on a plane after all) and I remember it being tasty, so there you go.


Had a few chocolates for dessert, along with, yes, more bubbles, and soon we were landing in Tokyo right on time. A few thoughts about landing in Tokyo:

Haneda Airport, like everywhere in Japan, felt horridly warm and humid to me. It was a reasonable walk to immigration, and I was a rather sweaty mess by the time I arrived. Qatar hadn’t loaded immigration cards, so we had to complete one in the arrivals hall, which wasn’t too bad, but I was getting warm and cranky. Immigration was reasonably fast, and then time to line up for customs.

One problem…two flights from Hawaii had arrived right before us, and the lines were outrageous. I got to the front, only to be told I needed a customs form…which they also hadn’t given us and nobody had told us about. Went back to sweatily fill one out, and my patience tried, walked right back to the front of the now super long customs line and just gave it to him. I think the Japanese vacationers were all too polite to say anything, and soon I was through to arrivals.

Found an ATM which accepted foreign cards, took out more cash than I thought I’d need (since I find Japan the most difficult developed country in the world to find ATMs which accept foreign cards), and went to join the taxi queue. It was late at night, so taking the bus wouldn’t be a practical option, and it was off to my hotel in the pouring rain.

Oct 282015

Short ride to the airport, and there was no wait at the check-in area. For some reason, my seat had been changed from a window seat to an aisle seat (the configuration on Oman Air’s A330s is 1 window, 2 seats together in the middle, the 1 window), but that was quickly fixed by the friendly agent. Immigration and security also had absolutely no wait, so it was quickly through and to the lounge.

When I had originally booked this ticket, I was planning to go from Salalah to Turkmenistan (via Yemen) so had a Salalah-Muscat-Dubai ticket. I debated just throwing away the last segment when plans changed, but figured that was kind of risky. So, in a moment of foodborne-illness induced delirium a few days prior in the Ethiopian lounge in Addis Ababa, I changed it to a Salalah-Muscat one way in business (instead of economy) for about $100 more. I figured I would be happier, it could be done on line, and…less risk of something going wrong and them trying to put me on a Salalah-Dubai direct flight. Plus…it was a widebody and would have international business seats. This is me rationalizing…

…and this is the SALALAH Oman Air business lounge. Keep in mind this isn’t even their hub, but the lounge was large, spacious, and had great snacks out. This pic is from the mid point of the lounge towards the buffet. Behind me are recliner chairs.


I’d already had breakfast, so settled for Coke Light and some pre-pitted dates. Delicious.


After relaxing in the lounge for a bit, I took the short walk to the gate. On the way, there was a random traditional Omani tent just set up in the middle of the terminal. I wonder if napping here would be permitted…


Got to the gate, and they were already boarding 40 minutes prior to departure, so straight on the plane it was.

Oman Air flight 904
Salalah, Oman (SLL) to Muscat, Oman (MCT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 12:30, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration A4O-DD, Manufactured 2009, Seat 14A

First impression of Oman Air’s international business class:


Nice spacious seats with huge storage bins for the window seats:


Centre seats…still very roomy, but not much storage:


Interesting cultural aspect to the flight. Omani guy seated in the row next to me with a woman who was obviously a relative of some sort. But, every so often he would wave his hand around, and the woman across the aisle would leap up to tend to him. First time it happened during boarding…when he needed his seatbelt fastened:


Welcome aboard lemon/limeade drink:


Interesting cartoon safety video:


She looks rather enthusiastic about that life vest…


After the pre-departure lemon/limeade, and before the door closed, the also came around with delicious Arabic coffee:


After takeoff, a choice of chicken patties or fish was offered. The chicken was pretty tasty, but even better was the amazing mousse with mango sauce. It was delicious! Pretty impressive meal for a short flight, but surprisingly no bread offered. I did ask (not that I really wanted any) but the flight was also dry. I didn’t think Oman Air was a dry airline, but maybe on morning or domestic routes? The crew wasn’t overly confident in English, so I didn’t push the questioning.


From what this interaction appeared to be, he needed his napkin placed on his lap…and his companion hopped right up to do it:


Landed on time in Muscat, and had about five hours until my next flight. We arrived at the domestic arrivals, which meant taking a bus to baggage claim, and then straight outside. There was someone asking for transfers, so I joined the group. They were confused why I didn’t have a boarding pass, and when they found out I was transfering to someone other than Oman Air they were extremely confused. Apparently in Muscat they only expect you transfering to Oman Air. Upon checking my Qatar boarding pass on my phone, they decided they would bus me over to the international terminal with everyone else, and leave it to be sorted there.

Fortunately, upon arrival at the international terminal, there was not only a transfer counter, but a special line for business class. Qatar markets its regional flights as first class, and when they saw that boarding pass they leapt up to help quickly. Only problem was, again, they only really knew how to deal with Oman Air transfers. About 20 phone calls were made, and they finally found someone who knew how to issue a Qatar Airlines boarding pass. Only problem was…it was going to take at least 30 minutes. They escorted me through security, and told me to go to the Oman Air lounge to wait.

Get to the Oman Air lounge and…no, you may not use this lounge. Uh, ok. They sent me off to the Plaza Premium lounge, which turned out to be the right lounge. I asked the agent when I get stamped out of Oman, and she was stunned I hadn’t been. She made a call to airport immigration, and seems someone had escorted me right past exit immigration without getting me stamped out. The solution? Since I was already outside immigration, and security, they send an airport employee to carry my passport to the immigration folks to get me stamped out…and hopefully come back to the lounge with it. Fortunately, this worked out just fine and all was good in the end.

Despite a good snack on the plane, I was a little hungry, and the lounge had some great hummous and mezze:


Blogged for a little bit, got a little hungrier, so more snacks, including Fosters…Omani for beer!


Soon it was time to walk just across the hall to our gate, where the 4 people in business class had a bus all to ourselves. The airport apparently has a huge shortage of jetbridges, as we didn’t get one in either direction. Nice thing about only four people in the front was that we each had a row all to ourselves.

Qatar Airlines flight 1127
Muscat, Oman (MCT) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 17:45, Arrive 18:25, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3F

So, what’s to eat? Despite a short flight, we got a full menu:


Plus a rather substantial snack:


Beverages…today the champagne on offer was Krug…yum!


Pre-departure towels were offered…warm or cold, your choice. Given the 100F temps, I went cold…


Arabic coffee was offered, but no champagne on the ground in Oman “for tax reasons.” Plus the dates were packaged…kinda…cheap looking


The champagne situation was quickly rectified after takeoff:


The shish tahouk main…quite tasty, although rather small:


Upon landing, again first class passengers got their own bus to the terminal. The luxury first class bus:


It was clearly rush hour at the airport, and the lines for transfer security was enormous. Had to pass by scary interrogation bear again, and then downstairs to immigration. Fortunately, Qatar has business class lines at immigration, so I quickly got my visa (100 rials please) and was soon outside and in my taxi.


Pretty short ride to my hotel for the night, the W Doha. I’ve said it before on this blog, but the W Doha in my opinion is probably the best SPG property in the world. Some time soon, I want to take a few day trip to Doha just to hang out there and be pampered. I was chatting with the manager on duty at reception, and he informed me I’d been upgraded to a “residence apartment” for the stay. This was a new one in my several stays there, and I was curious to see what it involved.

The residences are a separate tower, and accessed through what feels like a secret door from the lobby area with their own elevators. Once inside my apartment, there was a huge living area:


…a very nice kitchen complete with Nespresso machine:


…and even a washer and drier as well as refrigerator. Basically everything you could want for an extended stay.


Not to mention, the bedroom was extremely spacious as well:


I felt kind of bad I had such a short night. It was way too early to go to bed, but also had to be up super early the next morning. I decided four hours or so of sleep would have to do, and decided to go over to the mall a couple blocks away just to walk around and people watch. I’d been sitting around airports all day, so stretching the legs would feel good. Got to the mall, and decided instead of walking to rent some skates and go skating. Managed about an hour on crummy rental skates, but it was still lots of fun. Nothing says ice skating like Qatar!

Got back to the room, and still wasn’t really all that tired. At check-in the told me about a new service they were trying out which was a WhatsApp concierge. They gave me a number to message with anything I wanted, and they would take care of it. I decided to try and ask them to bring me a half bottle of one of the red wines on the room service menu, and it arrived within 15 minutes. Pretty impressive. Also needed the code for the internet, and they responded with that quickly as well.

All in all, the service was outstanding at this hotel again, and combined with the location and overall facilities it remains probably my favourite Starwood property anywhere in the world! Finally got to bed in time to get just under five hours of sleep. It’s off to Japan in the morning!

Oct 272015

After resting up at the hotel and grabbing some lunch, it was a bit afternoon and my driver returned to take me on my afternoon tour…except my driver wasn’t my driver. Seems the nice Bangladeshi guy who picked me up at the airport was merely a driver, and my actual tours would be conducted by the Omani guy I had been corresponding with all along. This was a, um, bonus as we’ll see below.

We started to head a bit out of town, where he informed me he was hungry and would I mind stopping for some food. Nope, any chance for a local experience was fine by me. He asked if there were things I wouldn’t eat, and despite having lunch I said no, and so we stopped at some roadside foodstalls which were his favourite. That’s where I was introduced to camel. Racks and racks of it drying in the sun:


Some delicious grilled camel…it was really super tasty, and he claimed it was the healthiest meat on the planet. “When you get sick, you eat camel. Everything better!” I’ll admit, I finished all of my serving. It had a slight bit of oiliness to it, but overall did seem pretty lean:


Our first stop was about a 30-40 minute drive outside of Salalah at the Tomb of the Prophet Job…otherwise know as the Tomb of Nabi Ayoub. It’s up for debate just what Job’s role in history was, but one thing Islam and Christianity can agree on is that he was a very important figure in the spiritual history of mankind. So  important that his tomb is covered in green velvet:


The view from the tomb area was very nice, however:


I had plenty of time to walk around, because my driver asked if I minded him taking some time to pray, which wasn’t a problem. About 15 minutes later, we headed out on a short hike to see some of the area around a tomb. Only one small problem…turned out a group of women was also making the hike, so we had to wait for them to come back. Didn’t understand why completely, but had something to do with men and women mixing inappropriately.

The hike was a bit steeper down than I expected, and keeping myself balanced with only one good shoulder was a bit of a challenge. I asked my guide to go a bit more slowly, which when explained to him turned into a discussion about the relative quality of healthcare in our respective countries. Turns out he had had a shoulder injury several years ago, and never did anything about it because “these are the kinds of things you just live with in Oman.” These are the kind of interactions you just can’t plan! Finally we got to the bottom of the trail, and there was a nice reservoir under an overhang of rocks:


He suggested we go the same way back up the rocky trail, but I asked if we could go the “longer” way that had a much better trail. No problem, and the trail was MUCH nicer, and actually had some great views:


Back to the car, and we headed back to begin our city tour. We got a bit delayed by the local traffic…


First stop in the city was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. It was closed for visitation, so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside. Much smaller than its counterpart in the capital of Muscat, but still very nice to see:


After the mosque our next stop was the Al Baleed Archaeological Park and the Museum of the Frankincense Land. I had a nice walk around the archaeological finds, and finally the museum which was very nicely air conditioned. It had some fantastic exhibits that explained the history of Oman, which I found I knew relatively little about. Before Sultan Qaboos, the country wasn’t really united until 1970 when he overthrew his father and really strengthened the armed forces and united the country. Of course, the museum told the story of him overthrowing his father much more diplomatically…


Geese hanging around at the park outside the museum:


The museum also had a great exhibit on Omani nautical history. Oman had once been ruled by the Sultans of Zanzibar, and had a long seafaring tradition. The whole time I was in the museum there wasn’t a single other visitor, which was a shame because it was really interesting. After the museum we went to the old city, where I wandered around the local shops while my guide again got something to eat. The shops were all pretty touristy cookie cutter copies of each other, all selling pretty much the same frankincense-related souvenirs.

The sun was starting to go down at this point, so I headed back to the hotel since we had a very, very full day ahead of us the next day.

Headed out bright and early in the morning, and first thing out of town my driver stopped to get gas and bottled water for us. He also came back with a six pack of glazed donuts, which he managed to polish off in under 15 minutes. He did offer them to me as well, but I figured if he managed to have some sort of diabetes-related incident one of us had to be able to drive!

Our route for the day. The time was WILDLY underestimated due to severely winding roads:


The first stop after donuts was Mughsail Beach:


View of my driver looking out into the sea:


The blowholes of Mughsail:



After Mughsail, I realised just how strong the sun was, and after only 30 minutes watching the blowholes I was already mildly sunburned. Next stop was at a group of frankincense trees along the side of the road. You could actually pick small amounts of the mineral from the bark:


More traffic delays en route:


In fairness, there were good traffic signs warning us to be aware of this:


View of the valleys between the mountains. The coastal drive is extremely windy and there are lots of hairpin turns up and down the mountain, which make for some spectacular views:


After another hour or so of driving, we got to this point:


The view from…”this point” …the strip of road in the upper right corner with what looks like a clearing at the horizon…that’s the border.


After enjoying the view from the lookout, my driver confirmed I would “like to have lunch with his relatives” and we continued driving another 1000 feet or so. Border formalities were arranged, Jacksonian principles of democracy and openness were discussed, and we were soon in the small village of Hawf, temporarily one passport and cell phone lighter. I assume this was the “daytrip tax” to ensure we returned from our excursion, but all I could think was it would give the border patrol an incentive to ensure we returned.

Got to my driver’s aunt’s house, and was invited to sit and have tea in the entry room. There were probably 10-15 small children in the room, who he said were cousins of his. A large part of his extended family clearly lived in this house, and by the end of our couple hour stay many more people had arrived…strangely all middle to older aged women and men well under 18 who were all obsessed with playing their portable video games. Kids are really the same anywhere in the world.

After about 30 minutes of smiling at his relatives, none of whom spoke more than 10 words of English, I was invited into the larger room next door where there was a large carpet on the floor and lots of cushions around the room. I took a seat on one of the cushions, and his aunt soon appeared with bottles of water, tea, and glasses of goat’s milk. I decided this wasn’t the time to refuse anything, and fully enjoy the experience. Goat’s milk and all. Between her 10 words of English, my 10 words of Arabic, and my driver translating I managed to thank them for having us in their home. Then, the feast arrived.

First came a huge bucket of steamed rice, mixed with pieces of chicken, saffron, and small pieces of tomato an cucumber. This was dumped onto a large silver tray on the floor, and my guide showed me the local way of eating with the hands. Making a small ball of rice and chicken, rolling it between your fingers, and eating it. I think this explains the whole “no left hands” rule 😉 The strange part of this is my guide and I were left to eat alone and nobody else joined us. Occasionally one of the children would come in, sit on one of the cushions in the corner (still playing their video games on their cell phones) but never talking to us, or eating, despite there being plenty of food.

We were there for about two hours, and it just felt like one of those awesome cultural moments you can’t really plan. After we finished eating, his aunt came back and tried to give me gifts. Purses made from goat hide and other small trinkets she had made from animal parts. Not knowing how I would explain to customs on my return that I was carrying local Yemeni handicrafts made of dead goats, I politely declined. She was offended, until I explained the reason, and she seemed satisfied. I did have a small conversation with her with my driver playing translator, and while I had assumed she was around 60 or so, it turned out she was only 35. She had clearly lived a very rough life, walked hunched over with a pretty bad limp, and wasn’t in the best of health. When my driver told me later they were some of the “wealthier people in the village” it really hit home.

Thanking her profusely for her hospitality again, we got up to leave and one of the small children, a girl of maybe three or four years grabbed onto my shirt and didn’t want to let go. I didn’t exactly figure out the reason, but my guide said she “wanted to come with us.” It was kind of touching, but also really awkward at the same time.

Back in the car, drive to the border, passport and cell phone handed back, I believe there may have been more “diplomatic exchanges” but since I was in the car I didn’t see what went on, and soon we were back in Oman and the Omani guards kept laughing at me and my attempts to thank them and say hello in Arabic. Humour goes a long way in awkward situations!

Last stop was the fishing village of Dhalkut, and its local mosque:


View of the beach in Dhalkut…complete with camel lounging on the beach:


I mean, come on, you see camels on the beach just hanging out all the time, right?


But cows on the beach? Much less common!


What are YOU looking at?


You know, just cows hanging out on a beach, no big deal…


Heading out of Dhalkut, I stopped to take this picture of a sign I noticed going in the direction we had just come from:


Back near Mughsail, a view onto the water from the other direction. Note how blue it is!


Finally back to my hotel around 5pm, and I was up to 181 countries visited. Just 15 to go now! Relaxing evening at the hotel, since I had to be up relatively early to begin my journey to Qatar.

Oct 212015

Called an Uber to take me to the Dubai airport, and the driver showed up in less than 10 minutes, very clean car, polite, chatty but not too chatty, overall a very good experience. Was maybe 10 Dirhams or so more than the taxi the day before, but for the convenience of using up the last of my cash on the hotel and paying by credit card it was well worth it.

Arrived at Dubai T2 and it’s amazing how much this terminal has changed in the past 10 years or so. My first experience was in 2007 when I attempted to fly KishAir to Kish Island, and the entire terminal was basically one small room with a few bus gates on the other side. These days, it has a bright and sunny check-in area with probably 30 counters, 12 or so “gates” which are essentially just bus waiting areas, but the whole thing is a much nicer experience…except it is massively crowded since it houses all flights of FlyDubai as well as other airlines from dubious neighbouring countries such as Iran and Afghanistan.

Check-in took about 10 minutes, and even that wouldn’t have been necessary since online checkin worked just fine. I wanted to check about the possibility of discount upgrades, but it appears FlyDubai doesn’t do this at all…and my 737 only had a total of 30 passengers, so there was definitely no need for it today. All checked-in, before heading through immigration and security I decided to grab a little breakfast…at where else? See, I told you T2 had improved since my previous visit!


Caffeinated and ready for adventure, I headed to immigration. After double-checking to make sure Stephen Harper wasn’t around, I decided to skip this special immigration line and head to the main line:


Immigration was question-free and security took about 10 minutes, but that was only because the truple (not sure what else you call a man and what appeared to be his two wives) in front of me had eight children with them, and three strollers (including a doublewide), and security was insisting they had to collapse every stroller and put them through the x-ray. Try doing that with eight children…no easy task. And they were having none of me trying to go ahead of them in line.

The gate area was jam-packed with at least 15 different flights waiting to board. However, for some reason that I couldn’t figure out, the crowds were all congregating near the food court, and at Burger King in particular. There were still a few seats left at the gates, so it was easy to sit and wait. Because waiting is what you do when your flight time passes, and then 15 more minutes pass, and finally after 30 they announce boarding for your flight. I would have asked what was going on, but, well, there were no airline employees anywhere to ask.

Hmmm. Short bus ride to the plane, and it was time to head off.

FlyDubai flight 8039
Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB) to Salalah, Oman (SLL)
Depart 9:00, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 2:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEJ, Manufactured 2013, Seat 6E

Boarding confirmed there were only about 30 people on the flight, and since I’d paid an extra 100 dirhams for the bulkhead I had the entire row to myself. Got to sit in the middle and enjoy the amusing safety video:


We also had a few stowaways for the flight…


All in all the flight was extremely uneventful. As a low cost airline FlyDubai charges for absolutely everything, which means my Starbucks was more than enough to hold me over for about 100 minutes of flight time. At least in economy I prefer this model, because I can pick and choose exactly what I want. More legroom is always worth it, and if I decided I want something to snack on, I can pick exactly what.

Arrived Salalah slightly late, and then it was off to immigration. The airport was very new and modern, despite only having a handful of gates, and had clearly been built with growth in mind. First stop was the visa on arrival desk, where I asked if I needed one. I’ve read several times that if you arrive from Dubai that covers both the UAE and Oman, but once again was told this isn’t true. Maybe that’s only the case if you have to pay the UAE for your visa? Regardless, the foreign exchange counter finally opened, which is where you pay for and receive a receipt for your visa on arrival. They were happy to take Euros at a pretty miserable exchange rate, and that done passing immigration and customs was a piece of cake.

My pre-arranged driver was waiting just outside, and took me off to my hotel for the few days, the Salalah Hilton. It’s located a few kilometers outside of town on a relatively quiet part of the beach. He agreed to drop me for a couple of hours to rest and have some lunch before heading out on our afternoon tour. I’ll cover the tours in the next post, and for now will just focus on the hotel.

Grabbed a lunch at the beach bar, which was service nice cold Stella:


In the evenings, there was another lounge/bar which did a nice happy hour deal of a burger and beer for a very reasonable price. It was just cool enough that sitting outside in the evenings was nice, although the biting insects were pretty terrible. I ended up with bites that itched for nearly a week after I got home, which is pretty amazing. That said, the burgers weren’t bad at all, the the service was super friendly. Plus, can’t complain about the views:


Especially once the lights went on, hahaha


As a Hhonors Diamond member breakfast was included, and they had quite a nice spread. My favourite part was the guy who brought you your coffee. He was wearing an apron that said something like “coffee man” had had lots of little pockets on it that were filled with different tea bags. Definitely different. But the breakfast was tasty, and could be pretty healthy if you wanted:


A few thoughts on the hotel. It was definitely not a luxury Hilton, but at the sametime it was a nice and well-maintained property. The staff was super helpful and friendly, and several times asked if everything was alright and if there was anything else they could do. The rooms felt slightly older and worn, but this is a beach property, and a bit of mustiness is to be expected. The AC wasn’t ice cold, but worked plenty well to get a good night of sleep, so points in that department. The rooms were also slightly larger than your average Hilton room, and the internet was quite a bit faster than I had expected.

A view from my pool/ocean view room, with the daily anti-mosquito fogging going on:


All in all a solid property, and if you have Hhonors points to burn it’s an amazing value – some say it’s one of the best values anywhere in the world for using Hhonors points. Next up, just why did I come to Salalah, Oman, anyways? 😉