Jan 192019
 


After landing, I discovered the first unpleasant fact about Riga: no Uber. This meant getting semi-fleeced by an airport taxi on the ride into town, but end of the day it was vacation, and I made a point not to stress about it. The first time I was in Latvia on my every country in the world quest my flight was delayed by 12 hours, meaning that I lost all my time in Latvia, and immediately upon landing the airline had to drive me to Vilnius. I wanted to see more than I did, so was really excited to be coming back for a bit longer!

Hotel was the Radisson Blu Elizabete, which overall was very solid. Nice big rooms, helpful, but not overly warm staff. Overall I’d definitely stay there again because it was a nice location out of the Old Town, but a nice easy walk to it, so overall it was exactly what I expected.

It was already getting a little late, so immediately after checking into my hotel I made a beeline walk into the Old Town of Riga to get some dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs…partly because they claimed to have a good craft beer list, and partly because on many sites I had seen it was described as a really fun mix of tourists and locals.

What I didn’t expect was just how crowded it would be. The restaurant was several large underground rooms, and was super crowded and noisy – boring it wasn’t! Found a seat at the bar right away, and asked the bartender what she recommended to eat, and the Royal Stroganoff got her nod…it was pretty tasty:

I was super exhausted at this point, and all the travel of the past two months was really taking a toll on me, so it was back to the hotel and early to bed. I wanted to hit the Riga Free Walking Tour the next morning, so in bed by 11 and I thought I’d have no trouble since it didn’t start until 2pm. I chose the “alternative tour” instead of the old town tour, figuring I could always walk the old town myself, but seeing more residential parts was more difficult.

…except breakfast at the hotel ended at 11am, and I woke up at 10:55 haha. Quick breakfast and and getting ready, and figuring out where the tour actually started from, and finally made it just in time to meet up with the tour. Crossing the picturesque river on the way to the walk:

Amazingly, over 100 people showed up for the tour, but fortunately there were two guides, and I decided to go with Kaspars, who just seemed to be really energetic and a fun guide. Off we go, with the first stop being the central market:

The fish section of the market:

Caviar….this is how I knew I was in the right place!

After continuing on, we walked through some much more residential areas, which was cool. I always enjoy getting out of touristy areas and more into areas where people actually live life on a day to day basis. In the short time I’d been in Riga, one thing that had bothered me was just how overrun the old town was with tourists, so I was enjoying getting out of that area. Unfortunately after the market our first major site was a rather somber Holocaust memorial:

The other site of the memorial. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was really no recognition of the Holocaust in Latvia, but very quickly after independence many memorials went up.

Next up, the same building you seem to see in Warsaw and every other former eastern bloc city…this time, it’s now the Latvian National Academy of Sciences:

Cool Orthodox church right across the street:

We continued on to the train station, where we took a short break for people to warm up. I really liked the tower with a clock on the front of the station:

After the tour eventually ended, I wandered back to where we started at Saint Peter’s Church for this Brother’s Grimm sculpture:

After a long walk, I was hungry and ready for some dinner, so was off to a place called “Easy Beer” for dinner and some beers. Very ominously named beer called “Do I Have a Contact in Moscow?”

As our president says….

There was a venison burger on the menu, so I had to give it a try when I was told it was good. It certainly looked tasty:

Ok, I totally don’t get this, but just like in Kiev the day prior, my burger came with black gloves. Not one to judge, and when in Rome and all that, I decided to give it a go….since when I looked around lots of other people were. Is this a Ukrainian and Latvian thing? I’ve seriously never seen it anywhere else in the world!

Since the evening was already adventurous, I decided to check out a bar called the Armoury, which supposedly had cases full of guns you could play with while enjoying their extensive beer selection. Went in, sat down, ordered a beer, and it definitely did not disappoint. Who knows what this is?

Two beers later, and the real fun came out. Breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t drink and play with MANPADs…” But hey, when in Latvia….nothing says amazing Sunday like beer, rockets, and freedom!

Ok, fine, you talked me into one last drink….but let me put this down first…

So, Riga (especially the Old Town) was cool, buy way too touristy for my tastes. I’m glad I came back, and I’d especially like to come back and see some smaller towns in Latvia, but it was time to get some sleep, I had a very long 12 hour day the next day of going from Riga to Vilnius via a full day tour!


Jan 122019
 


So, you’ve already seen the Chernobyl Post, but what else did I get up to in Kiev? Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. However, since this was my first visit in 30 years, I did accomplish my two goals of seeing Chernobyl and getting a feel for the place. I’ll be right up front with that: Kiev was absolutely awesome, exceeded all my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip!

Finally!  I’ve been to every country in the world post-independence! Move over Ukrainian SSR, I’ve now been to Ukraine!

Found a great craft beer bar called Punkraft with an amazing selection of beers – I wouldn’t have expected that in Kiev!

Tasty burger with dinner too – see the shot glass behind the burger? I assumed the black thing inside was a wet nap for after the burger…nope….it turned out to be a rubber glove. Ok, that’s….odd.

Statue at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square – Independence Square – where in 2014 protests were finally successful at toppling the government and instituting true democratic rule for the first time.

Monument on Maidan Square:

Monument to the “Facebook Revolution” – Facebook was largely crediting for helping to organize the protests which eventually brought down the government.

Looking the other direction onto Independence Square. There was a strong wind as you can see with the Ukrainian flaga, and light snow was falling….you can see on the building it was also -2 out. Brrrr!

Thanks to google, I found some of the more artistic subway stations to visit. I love just popping around to subway stations in Moscow to see the grand Soviet architecture, so wanted to see what Kiev had to offer. Teatralna station, where the national theatre is:

Zolotoy Vorota Station – Michael the Archangel and Patron Saint of Kiev. Can you imagine religious figures in a US subway station?

More from Zolotoy Vorota, note in the upper left that all the arches are covered in mosaics:

Yaropolk II of Kiev – Grand Prince of Kiev in the early 1100s:

Slavutych Station – it’s supposed to symbolize the river. It looks more like a space odyssey:

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

I loved the futuristic look of this station with the shiny pillars and the tiled walls and floor:

View of the Palace of Sports. Next time I’m here I definitely want to catch a hockey game:

On the way out, information board at Kiev airport. The price for business class on the way out was outrageous, so I settled for economy once I saw that if there were remaining business seats you could buy them at the airport. It was a bit of a protracted negotiation, but I finally managed to buy one for about $130. The website said $95 – so end of day it was fine.

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

Turned out when I got on the plane, I was the only person in business class! Made the upgrade totally worth it! It would have been empty without me, and the crew was super friendly and attentive. Bit of pre-departure champagne and a newspaper:

Three choices of snacks! Not bad! It was like my own private jet. Some smoked beef with potatoes and peas. The chocolate tort was super tasty tho…and a bit of champagne in very stylish glasses:

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

Unfortunately immigration at Riga took more than an hour, due to a sour and suspicious immigration drone who decided my passport must be fake with all the stamps and “too many Russia visa.” Ugh. Eventually allowed into the Schengen Area (which is 100x easier in Frankfurt) and off to explore Latvia for the first time in 20 years!


Jan 092019
 


I think this is the third time I’ve planned to go to Ukraine, Kiev, and Chernobyl in the last five years, and unfortunately the third time that it just didn’t look like it would work out. Battling a nasty sinus infection for the last six weeks that refused to go away, beaten down by nearly 30,000 miles of work travel in the same period, combined with getting food poisoning on Christmas Eve…it once again looked like it wouldn’t happen.

However, the day of the trip rolled around, I decided I could survive the flights, and since I really wanted to see Chernobyl in the winter I decided I had to try. After all, Ukraine is the one country out of all the countries I feel worst about “counting” when I say I’ve been to every country. See, I was in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union in 1989, but I’ve never been to independent Ukraine. Add that to the fact that the Chernobyl scare was a significant global event during my teen years…I felt I had to try.

If you don’t know what the Chernobyl Disaster is, I recommend you head over to Wikipedia to read up. Basically, in 1986 during a very poorly designed emergency test the reactor ran out of control causing a fire and steam explosion that propelled a bunch of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere, which was then carried by the wind all over northern Europe.

I’ll skip over the flights, but I made it to Kiev around 1030p, and with the tour kicking off the next morning nice and early sleep would be scarce…but that’s not a problem. I never sleep great the first night in Europe with the time change anyways. Right. I’ll review the flights later, but onto the stuff you’re probably really interested in. What’s Chernobyl like in the winter?

Well, for starters, I was worried about snow. Watching online, temperatures had hovered around 0C for the previous two weeks leading up to my trip, although there were dips above and below, and times that seemed to indicate significant snow was falling. The minute I walked out of the airport, it was actually 2C…and a good amount of snow coming down. I was hopeful!

I booked my tour with SoloEast Tours based on the recommendations with several friends, and their instruction to meet at a square in central Kiev seemed easy enough. I don’t know if it was because of snow in the morning or what, but I had four straight Uber drivers drive towards me for five minutes or so…then abruptly cancel. After a successful Uber from the airport the previous night I was puzzled, and a bit confused. Fortunately, I finally got one and made it to the point at exactly the departure time. Fortunately, turns out, they always wait 10-15 minutes just in case, so wasn’t a problem.

There were maybe 15 people in my van, which was a good size for a tour. Mostly younger people in their 20s and early 30s, but a good group of people to spend a roughly 11 hour day with. With that, we were off to a gas station on the outskirts of Kiev so people could stock up on water, snacks, bathroom, whatever, and then to the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone about an hour away.

While our guide sorted our permits, we got to enjoy…what else…a tourist information centre. Felt a bit…”wrong” at the sight of a nuclear disaster, but…

Into the exclusion zone, and a stop at a small abandoned village. The town hall/meeting spot, now overgrown:

Then onto Chernobyl itself, where posing with the town sign is practically obligatory. Note there was no lack of snow at all to make everything otherworldly:

WWII memorial statue outside a Kindergarten in Chernobyl:

Geiger counter shows a radiation hotspot in the snow outside the kindergarten. 10-15x background radiation, but still only about 3x higher than a transatlantic airline flight.

Abandoned kindergarten:

Creepy doll in the kindergarten…according to the geiger counter covered in mostly dirt, but probably a bit of radioactive soot too:

Decapitated doll amongst beds:

Hey, welcome to Chernobyl!

Next stop was for lunch in the exclusion zone, which was at a small motel with a restaurant. Food is brought in daily from outside the zone, so you know it’s relatively radiation free. Nice tasty lunch of soup, meat, and potatoes, and it was off and time for the main event…the reactor itself!

Approaching the nuclear site, with reactors one, two, three, and four. Reactor four was the one that blew and now has the domed sarcophagus over it:

About 80 meters from the sarcophagus of Reactor #4, and the still highly radioactive material inside. Bit of background, in the couple of weeks immediately after the disaster, many firefighters and military conscripts died fighting the highly radioactive fire, some in rather horrific ways due to radiation poisoning and burns. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was built over the reactor to stop the wind from carrying more material into the atmosphere, but everyone know this sarcophagus had a very limited life.

A few years ago efforts began to build a more permanent solution, but there was one problem: getting within 100 meters of the reactor was still far too dangerous for more than a minute or so, so how were there going to build such a massive structure? End of the day, it was built about 100-200 meters away, and then slowly inched over the reactor on a massive series of hydraulic jacks. Great details on the “New Safe Confinement” on Wikipedia where you can read about the massive international engineering feat. Right, so here’s the new safe confinement…and also melted down reactor…from just about 80 meters away:

Near the reactor, hotspots are marked by signs. Most of these contain between 10-40x background radiation levels.

Town sign for the town of Pripyat, near the reactor, where most plant workers lived. Pripyat is actually closer to the reactor than the town of Chernobyl. Not sure why it wasn’t called the Pripyat Nuclear Power Plant…

Recreation Center in Pripyat with a destroyed basketball court:

Remains of an Olympic swimming pool:

Olympic pool from another angle:

One more shot of the Olympic pool. Was very post-apocalyptic creepy:

Next up, an abandoned Soviet apartment building in Pripyat. View from the roof:  (shhh, don’t tell anyone, we weren’t supposed to go up there)

Abandoned apartment:

Front of the apartment building 30 years after the disaster:

Then on to an amusement park in Pripyat, scheduled to open the week after the disaster. Unfortunately, it never opened. Abandoned ferris wheel:

Anyone up for a ride?

Bumper cars:

The snow definitely added to the effect:

Next up, the town square in Pripyat, complete with abandoned restaurant:

…and grocery store. I found the beer aisle, of course:

Sadly, the candy and cookies aisles were bare:

Random gasmask on the ground outside the grocery store:

One final stop as the sun was setting was the DUGA radar station, also known as the “Russian Woodpecker” for the pecking noise it made over shortwave radio bands. I can’t describe the technology well, but Wikipedia has a great explanation of what the DUGA was. One thing it certainly was was massive:

View of a small part of the abandoned radar from below:

After that, it was completely dark, and time to head out of the exclusion zone. To get out, we had to pass through two separate radiation detectors, one at the 10km marker and another at the 30km edge of the exclusion zone. Here I am being scanned. If you pass, the gate would automatically open for you. Supposedly the detector at the 10km marker isn’t very sensitive, but the 30km one is since that is where you’re “free” from the zone:

With that, it was about a 90 minute drive back to Kiev, which we reached just before 8pm. It had been a very long day, but super fascinating and well worth it. Highly recommended for anyone going to Kiev! SoloEast was also absolutely amazing – especially our guide Vika – and would highly, highly recommend them to anyone wanting to visit Chernobyl!


Jan 062019
 


A few months ago, Saudi Arabia announced that for the Formula E race they would be hosting in December they would also be issuing eVisas to those who bought tickets to the event. Now, historically, Saudi Arabia has only issued tourist visas if you travel with one of a very few authorized tour agencies, who universally charged rather outrageous prices for what you get – usually in the several thousands of dollars range. Because of this, Saudi Arabia has always been a country that “country collectors” have trouble checking off unless they’re Muslim and can go on the Hajj, or they get invited on business.

The Saudis have promised several times that tourist visas were coming soon, but it has never materialized. We all thought this was too good to be true, but their Sharek website was not only online, but buying a race ticket and getting your eVisa only took about 15 minutes and you received your eVisa by email. Now, the timing was terrible for me as my December was already packed, but this was one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities, so I couldn’t say no. Hopefully they keep issuing these visas going forward.

The other reason I felt I had to jump on this is that Saudi Arabia is one of a few countries that I’m not thrilled with the quality of my initial visit on the first round of visiting every country. (Others include Yemen, Syria, Sudan, FS Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands) So this was a chance to take care of one of them.

Right. Fast forward a few weeks, and the first people started arriving, and were having no trouble with the visas, so this was really happening! Now, word of this spread like wildfire in the country counting community, and there was a rather substantial number of people jumping on the bandwagon, so this would also be an awesome opportunity to meet a great number of other travelers with well over 100 countries under their belts. Should be an awesome time!

Landed pretty late at night, and wanted to get to bed since we had a very early morning tour planned to the “Edge of the World.” This would be the first chance for the majority of the group to meet each other, and there were about 30 of us heading out. We were meeting at 0530 to head out, which prevented hotel breakfasts or even a Starbucks stop. I thought to stop at Starbucks the night before and get an iced coffee with extra ice and put it in the minibar fridge, in hopes that in 6-7 hours it would still stay largely frozen and cold…and it worked like a charm.

Small hotel note: stayed at the Marriott Courtyard, which was a perfectly nice hotel. Rooms were very nice for a Courtyard, and staff tried to be helpful, but like most places in Saudi Arabia the service culture was short of Western standards. All said, however, it was a perfectly nice hotel.

Right, off on the drive to the Edge of the World. Beautiful scenery on the way out of Riyadh. The grey cloudy skies certainly gave it an otherwordly look:

Our driver just chugging along in our Chevy SUV:

First impression at the Edge of the World:

A little better perspective. It was also super windy and surprisingly chilly here!

Did I mention that the sky was just crazy?

Standing at the Edge of the World. You can’t really see the perspective in this shot, but if you look at knee-level that’s where the ledge sharply drops off hundreds of meters.

This puts into much better perspective just how huge and vast this place was, and how sheer the drop was. About half of our group only about 100 meters away:

The windy walk to the Edge of the World. I think this is my absolutely favourite shot.

Three of the ladies on the trip, Ania, Katelyn, and Jenna, rocking their abayas. More than 500 countries visited between them

The group. I’m not sure a larger group of people who’ve visited 100+ countries has ever been assembled in one place!

After the Edge of the World our drivers took us straight to the Formula E race, which was the raison d’etre for issuing the visas. I wasn’t terribly interested in it, but with no other plans for the afternoon figured I should stop by and check it out at least. They had a fair/festival going on as well near the race, with a bunch of very slow food trucks and displays. Scott and I briefly considered giving it all up for jobs with Saudia….

Who would have expected a Grilled Cheese truck in Saudi Arabia? Unfortunately, it was as bad as I expected. Boo.

Locals milling around the festival waiting for the race to start.

The race….was a disorganized mess, but we eventually made it to the bleachers to watch for about an hour. I can’t say I’m in a great hurry to go to another Formula E race, but it was cool to see an event like this happening in Saudi Arabia.

Note all the westerners taking photos, lol

Little close-up race action:

…and I definitely didn’t expect to see a local guy in a unicorn onesie at the race!

Security…being effective?

After we’d had enough racing action we headed to the Kingdom Tower, otherwise known as the giant taser. You can see why the way it’s lit up at night: (not my photo – not sure who in the group took it though) It changes colour every few seconds, which gives a pretty neat effect:

The walkway at the very top, 99 stories up, is a glass enclose walkway. I’m not generally a big fan of heights, and this was pretty creepy. They’d even let you lean on the windows. No thank you!

View of Riyadh’s main drag from 99 stories:

We got there right at sunset, so got a chance to see the city lighting up at night:

Playing with perspective…giving the inside a bit of a Star Trek look:

Forget who in the group took this photo, but at night there was also a concert featuring David Guetta and One Republic. It was really hard to believe this was happening in Saudi Arabia of all places, where just a few years prior even movies were banned!

Next morning, I was up early to get some Starbucks. Store was divided right down the middle with two separate entrances, although the employees worked behind the same counter. The dividing was was just a foot short of ceiling high, and ran all the way up to the counter. Way to rub it in Saudi Arabia, making me sit in the “Single’s Section”

After that it was time to begin the trek onwards to Germany…but I’ll write about the flights in my next post about this trip.


Dec 102018
 


One thing I love about the Lufthansa flight to Washington out of Frankfurt is that it leaves just late enough that you can sleep in a little bit, but you still arrive at a reasonable hour. Today that meant plenty of time to get a leisurely coffee and breakfast. I have to say, for a simple lounge breakfast, the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport knocks it out of the park…and the convenience to the terminal can’t be beat!

Was nice to have the time to take the morning at a casual pace, but that very rapidly changed when I got to security. I figured that having 25 bars of soap in my rolling bag might look a little unusual, but things turned south when I got the random explosives swab on my bag…and for some reason it came back positive. Took nearly 40 minutes to get cleared, but eventually did, and I was on my way straight to the gate. Fortunately today, we were at the very first gate in the terminal!

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive:15:50, flight time: 9:00
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 11D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 143,304
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,663,366

Pre-departure champagne? Have I ever said no to that?!

Almonds and a reasonable glass of malbec to start things off…

“Slow-roasted veal loin, zucchini tatar, and mini bell pepper” – despite trying to be overly fancy with the name, it was absolutely delicious.

One of my two favourite seasons on Lufthansa: the time of year when they have “Christmas Goose” on the menu. Delicious as always…hopefully I don’t miss asparagus season in the spring!

Four cheeses AND a chutney? That’s how you do a remarkable business class cheese plate!

Could I really say no to a gingerbread mousse with plum compote? It was delicious…

Slept for maybe three hours, watched a lot of tv and caught up on work, and soon it was time for the pre-arrival meal…which is much more substantial than normal. Salad with parma ham, tomatoes, potatoes, and balsamic, a pretzel, and ginger and lemongrass soup. Can’t forget the chocolate and cherry cake! I actually skipped a red wine which would have gone perfectly with it, thinking I might actually try and get myself to the gym upon landing. Yeah, right…

Normally when I book tickets out of Cairo, I can count on a 2-3 hour grilling minimum by the fine men and women of US Customs and Border Protection, but shockingly today the Global Entry machine spit out my receipt…with no giant X of glory on it. Either they’re finally onto the fact that Cairo doesn’t automatically = shady, or they’ve finally flagged my profile as “he just crazy, not dangerous.” Either way, was glad to be out of the airport and on the Washington Flyer bus home in no time.

So, that concludes the trip. It’s funny, I went into it in a bunch of stages:

  1. Have a ticket to Egpyt I have to use up…hmmm, maybe I’ll just do a quick turnaround and enjoy thanksgiving at home
  2. No, that would be a waste, I should do something super adventurous from Cairo while I’m there…maybe Sinai? Sudan? Somalia? Take advantage of being there?
  3. Nah, I want to relax, and to me flying around is sort of relaxing, so where could I sidetrip from Cairo that I would love?

Johannesburg turned out to be the perfect sidetrip, lots of fun, and super glad that I ended up doing it.

Next up: nearly a month straight of travel, comprising a week in Germany for work, a side-trip to Saudi to take advantage of the fact that they’re offering open tourist visas for the first time ever…back to Minnesota to see family over the holidays, and then finally off to Europe to do Chernobyl, Kiev, Riga, Vilnius, Kaliningrad, Gdansk, and Berlin for Thanksgiving. I’m going to be really happy early January to have a bit of time at home!

 


Dec 102018
 


Fortunately, I had no trouble getting slightly over three hours of solid sleep, although knowing myself (thanks to FitBit) chances are unlikely that I got any decent REM sleep in such a short time…but still way better than nothing or trying to snooze in a lounge!

Skipped checkout at the hotel, having previously told them I had no charges (award night) so please check me out at 9am, I went straight to the terminal where Egyptian bureaucracy was at its finest, and it took two or three counters to figure out who would give me the correct departures queue so that I could go through immigration.

Despite trying to cut it close and maximize sleep, I still had nearly 20 minutes to visit the lounge for some espresso, and then it was off to the gate, where I still made it a solid 10 minutes before boarding. This seems to happen to me every time in Cairo – I should learn my lesson that I never need as much time as I think I will. Of course, the time I do that will be the one where I do actually need the time…

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 07:30, Arrive:10:35, flight time: 4:05
Airbus A321, Registration D-AIDE, Manufactured 2011, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,037
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,099

Surprisingly, this flight was completely sold out, and every seat was taken. In “EuroBusiness” this just means a regular coach seat with the middle blocked, which is a pretty crummy way to treat someone on a four hour flight, but nothing you can do about it if you want to fly Lufthansa, and a small price to pay for flying first class across the water.

We even got a…reasonable…breakfast:

Landing in Munich was right on time, but we were at the very last gate, and it was quite a walk to immigration and security, but still made it to the gate about 10 minutes before boarding. What are the chances – everything was working out perfectly this trip!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive:13:00, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 8F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 139,223
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,659,285

I’ve said it before, but I’m always impressed that on a 35 minute flight Lufthansa can still turn out a snack that’s better than what most US carriers offer on three hour flights. Seriously, how hard can it be? I can’t imagine it costs much/any more!

Got to my hotel in Frankfurt around 2pm, and was straight to bed for a two hour nap. I was wrecked from only getting three hours the night before, and knew that even if I took a long nap I’d sleep well that night. Plus, very little change of time zone meant I wouldn’t have that to deal with so nap it was! Felt quite a bit better after two hours, and grabbed some coffee and then wandered around the city just stretching the legs for a few hours.

Ended up at my favourite watering hole, NaÏv, which I’ve posted on here before. The selection didn’t didn’t disappoint, and had an imperial oatmeal stout from Sudden Death Brewing called Mr. Cinnamon Roll. Delicious! Plus the old school goalie mask as part of the logo made it extra cool!

After a great night of sleep, decided to buy a train ticket and head down to Speyer where there was a museum I’ve wanted to see for a quite a while. Bought the ticket, off on the train, and only then did I do my research. Bit of a bonus this trip, because turned out that the Speyer Cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well. I promised myself I’ll never start on another travel list, but it’s fun to still check them off when I come upon them…

Statues outside the cathedral:

More statues:

Trying to get artsy inside the cathedral…I really like how this shot turned out.

Finally after a bit of a long walk made it to the Technik Museum Speyer – which had an amazing collection of planes, trains, and automobiles. I’ll confess I skipped everything but the aviation displays, but that alone took me almost three hours – nearly unheard of for me in a museum!

First plane was a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo:

Mi-8 Helicopter which you could actually go inside:

The inside has definitely seen better days:

Selfie inside this ancient helicopter:

Next up was an Antonov An-22, the largest propeller powered aircraft ever made. Huge cargo plane. Inside:

That’s a whole lot of cargo space:

Look into the flight deck, through an unfortunately scratched up portal:

Looking out through the observation dome on the top…Lufthansa 747 in the background!

Antonov An-22 from the outside…simply huge. Amazing how something so big can get off the ground with just propeller power!

Vickers Viscount 814. Getting up to this level involved climbing several stories of metal steps, while being able to see down the entire time. Even once I got up here, you could see down through the metal grated walkway. Not great for someone terrified of heights, but my desire to see the planes won out!

Quick, terrified selfie outside the plane:

Inside…this poor passenger looks almost as terrified as I was!

Artsy shot just along the fuselage:

Across the grating, and up another couple of terrifying stories, and it was into the Lufthansa 747. The plane was pitched at maybe 10 degrees as you can see in this photo, and walking inside was absolutely terrifying to me. The back of the plane had a cutaway, so you could see all the innards you don’t normally see when seated:

There’s no question which way I’m going! As someone who had the privlege to fly the Lufthansa 747-400 in both business and first, this was really cool to see!

Most terrifying part of the entire museum….economy class!

FInally, into a hangar at the back of the museum, where a Soviet Buran Space Shuttle was stored:

The Buran from another angle:

Wing and tail shot….

Buran thrusters…I was fascinated by this thing!

Climbed up just a couple stories this time, to get a glance inside the cargo bay of the Buran:

Looking down on the wing:

I had no idea that there was a series of prototypes for Buran, all of which were launched into space. The Bor-5 was the prototype vehicle, and one was displayed in the museum. Super cool!

Final shot of the 747 and the Viscount as I headed to get a snack before leaving:

Quick snack at the museum of red bull and some delicious plum cake before leaving the museum. I’ve never seen plum cake anywhere but Germany…and in mom’s kitchen growing up. Given mom’s entire family came from Germany, I have to believe that’s what influenced it. Plum cake was one of those foods of my youth that when I (rarely) find it now, I can’t resist!

One more 747 shot…because they’re just so sexy…

Walking back through Speyer to the train station…

Wild AND cheese? This is my type of town!

Fun shot of a smaller German street:

Train snack of salami baguette and some traditional Frankfurter Apfelwein:

Fun graffiti in Frankfurt. I am how I am!

Train snack…how can you not love a train company that gives you free gummi bears?!

Wonderful day exploring the Speyer museum, and next time I get a full day near Frankfurt I want to travel to Sinsheim and view the other Technik museum there – which has a Concorde and a Soviet Concordeski!

Next up, the flight back to Washington…and finishing this blog just in time before heading back on my next trip.


Dec 092018
 


So despite it being a very, very short 40 hour stop, I really enjoyed my time in Johannesburg catching up with friends, and was ready to begin the trek up to Cairo. I kinda joked that I would book this routing (which I got with United miles) but at the end of the day I decided why not! It could be an adventure…right?

10:30 flight was just late enough that I could sleep to a reasonable hour, have coffee at Starbucks, and head to the airport with just enough time to spare before my flight. Everything with the train went super smoothly, so I actually got to chill in the lounge for 30 minutes even before heading to the gate. I was surprised to see the bartender that I’ve gotten to know well there so early in the day, and it was more than mildly embarrassing when he brought me a glass of wine at 9:30am and I had to politely decline.

Not sure what it is, but regional flights to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi always seem to go from A1-A3 in Johannesburg, which are super ancient gates in the old part of the airport. They have almost zero seating, definitely zero air conditioning, and you can’t help but feel like it’s regional flights getting second-class treatment. Regardless, off we go on an adventure!

South African Airways flight 22
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 10:30, Arrive:12:05, flight time: 1:35
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZA, Manufactured 2013, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,953
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,654,015

Business today was five rows of 2×2 seating, and only four of the 20 seats were occupied. First due to “air traffic control” and then due to “baggage loading issues” we left the gate almost an hour late, reducing my 3.5 hour connection in Zimbabwe to 2.5 hours. 3.5 hours was already cutting it super close to leave the airport and meet friends for coffee or lunch, but with 2.5 hours there was no way it was going to work. Grrr, the one time you really need things to be on time…

That said, regional catering on South African has gotten super miserable. Not sure what this was supposed to be, but some overly ripe fruit and fried pastries was just nasty. I sent it back, and opted for another glass of wine…

Welcome to Harare, Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport!

Despite immigration being super quick and getting my visa quickly, by the time I got through I only had 2:15 until my next flight. I debated chancing a quick taxi to get lunch, but best case I could have sat somewhere for 30 minutes. It just wasn’t worth risking, especially given I had a connection in Cairo, and missing my flight could cause lots of drama.

Nevertheless, I got to see the wildlife of Harare Airport:

Air Zimbabwe transfer desk. Like their flights, it was suspiciously absent of any signs of life…

Went back through immigration (who didn’t like my boarding pass printed in South Africa, and tried to suggest that I owed a “fine” – silly guards, this ain’t my first rodeo) and eventually found the South African Airways lounge. Now, normally I love my lounge cheese and crackers, but I wasn’t touching the cheese in this lounge with a ten foot pole:

The sandwiches and…sausages? on offer didn’t look any safer:

Also, a quick glance through the lounge windows to the runway didn’t give any more hope….

Fortunately, when I took the short walk to the gate my Ethiopian Airlines plane was right on time, and boarding happened right on time as well!

Ethiopian Airlines flight 654
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart: 15:35, Arrive: 20:35, flight time: 4:00
Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Registration ET-AOV, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 135,876
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,655,938

For such a new Dreamliner, the seats being a disappointing 2x2x2 configuration was really sad…but hey, United does the same thing, so can’t complain too much. Plus, over half the seats were empty, so there was a ton of space, and on a four hour daytime flight this was actually quite a nice seat:

Reasonably roomy cabin:

Pre-flight proper champagne was offered….

Quite a small pour, and warm, but hey…TIA…

Five minutes later, seeing my empty glass, the crew came by again. “I see you like the champagne. Can I maybe get you much more?” I was definitely liking this crew!

Right when the door was due to close, a commotion broke out by the door. Seems someone didn’t have the right visa for their destination, but despite that he was trying to FORCE his way past the gate and flight crew and onto the plane. Lots of yelling in Arabic, occasional english, and eventually Zimbabwean security hauled him off the plane. Nothing like a little excitement before departure. Only part that concerned me was him screaming “my bags, my bags” as they dragged him away and closed the door and we were underway…

Dark clouds on departure indicated a very, very bumpy climb out of Zimbabwe:

Love the scenery of the dark clouds and the sexy Dreamliner wing.

Once we got about 20,000 feet high things smoothed out a lot, and off we were to Ethiopia!

Unusually, a choice of snacks was offered before the meal, of kolo (a roasted ethiopian grain/nut mix) or crackers. I went with the crackers hoping they would be the airplane-shaped crackers ethiopian sometimes serves, but these were ok as well, and a nice change.

I went with the “beef” starter which was a very few tiny slices of marinated beef. Odd, but mildly tasty.

I have to say, I never expected the first time I was served General Tsao’s Chicken on a plane would be on Ethiopian Airlines. Very bland, no spice, but interesting…

Now that is a seriously huge cheese plate…and a small opera cake to finish it off.

Overall, nothing at all special about this flight, but it was solid, comfortable, and the food was filling. All things considered, I was very happy with the flight, and glad to be 2/3 of the way to my destination for the day. While it was nice to break up the longhaul to Cairo into several segments, I was starting to get pretty tired!

Got to Addis, and of course we got a bus gate, but fortunately the wait wasn’t too long, and the walk to the gates wasn’t terrible either given the delay out of Harare. Unfortunately, the queue at security was atrocious, and I didn’t realize that Ethiopian now has a special boarding area for business class only! This must be new in the last year, and would have saved me a lot of time and stress.

That said, despite the long security queue, it moved super quickly with lots of “helpers” helping clueless passengers to properly load their items onto the x-ray belt, so overall, it wasn’t terrible. ANOTHER bus to the gate where I was told about the special business class line/bus for next time, but hey, at least we were off.

Ethiopian Airlines flight 604
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Cairo, Egypt (CAI)
Depart: 22:05, Arrive: 01:20 next day, flight time: 4:15
Boeing 737 MAX-8, Registration ET-AVJ, Manufactured 2018, Seat 2L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 137,407
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,657,469

I admit before this flight, I was a little nervous about flying not just on a 737-MAX aircraft, but one that Ethiopian Airlines had received just THREE DAYS ago and had only had 8 passenger flights before. Nervous? Why? I fly a lot, right? Well, the 737 MAX crash of Lion Air in Indonesia last month may have to do a little with that, especially when you consider that yes pilot error was probably involved…but only in that they were reacting to a flaw with the aircraft. Eek, I just hoped Ethiopian would have the skill to deal with any such issues.

Business class was a few rows of 2×2 seating, but again less than half full. Well, after we had to get rid of the couple who sat down in my seats and wanted to know why. They got to them first, so why couldn’t they sit in them! No amount of explaining to them that not all seats are the same, and aren’t first come first serve would assuage them, but finally when they were told they could either take their assigned seats (in the very last row) or get off the plane did they move. Heh!

Not bad seats for a regional flight:

Another glass of warm pre-departure champagne:

Menu was almost identical to the previous flight (which is odd, since usually flights into a hub are different than out of a hub, but whatever) so I went with the options I hadn’t tried.

The watermelon and feta salad was….ok?

The beef was massively overcooked and like leather, but when I added the tabasco sauce I finally figured out why they give you so many condiments…and the ketchup made the potatoes quite good as well! At least I finally understand why Ethiopian gives you that weird large condiment tray on every flight.

Same cheese and crackers, just a smaller portion:

We arrived in Cairo about 10 minutes early, which was good, because I only had six hours until my flight to Munich. Too long to spend in a lounge or waiting area, but barely enough time to justify I hotel. I had decided to risk it, and my goal was three hours of sleep. Fortunately, there was zero wait at immigration and I was through in maybe 10 minutes.

I had asked the hotel to have my key waiting for me a few days ago when I was there, and shockingly (given the usual Egyptian inefficiency) it was ready and I was plane to room in under 20 minutes. Even after a shower, I was in bed in under 45 minutes after landing…which gave me 5:15 until my flight left in the morning.

I went with three hours on the alarm, figuring if anything went wrong 2:15 wouldn’t be enough time, and off to dreamland I was….


Dec 072018
 


After a great night’s sleep I finally felt a bit more adjusted to the time zone, and ready to have a full day. The weather was gorgeous, if not a little warm, so enjoyed a nice relaxing morning coffee and breakfast outside before heading to the Gautrain for the ride up to Pretoria to meet a friend for lunch. Delicious lunch of BBQ pulled pork over grilled halloumi cheese along with tomatoes and onions…and a couple of local beers as well of course. Was great to just sit out in the garden and enjoy the nice warm weather and catch up with friends.

After lunch, it was still pretty early afternoon, so I decided to go see one of the few sights in the Johannesburg/Pretoria region that I haven’t seen before – the Voortrekker Monument. Grabbed an Uber right from the restaurant, and about 20 minutes later was at the monument, which is situated on the southwest edge of Pretoria.

Completed in 1949, the Voortrekker Monument was built to commemorate the Voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony between 1835 and 1854 by covered wagon into the interior to live in areas that weren’t controlled by the British at the time.

Each of the four corners of the monument has a statue of an important Voortrekker leader, the one below is Piet Retief (who the town of Pietermaritzburg is named for), one of the governors during the Great Trek…who also wasn’t beyond some seriously controversial moments when he came into contact with people already living in the area.

Artsy shot from another corner:

Great view from the top out over Pretoria:

Cascading archways around the top of the monument:

The inside of the main hall of the monument. The monument is 40 meters high, 40 meters wide, and 40 meters long. You can see the opening in the middle through which you can look down into the “crypt” below, which has an interesting museum on the history of the Voortrekkers.

There’s an opening in the dome that you can see below, and at noon on December 16 every year the sunlight comes directly through and lights up the cenotaph below, highlighting the phrase “Ons vir Jou, Suid Afrika” (Afrikaans for “we’re for you, South Africa”) on top of the cenotaph. The date is significant because December 16, 1838 was the date of the Battle of Blood River when 470 Voortrekkers led by Andries Pretorius fought somewhere between 10 and 15,000 Zulus

After lunch and the visit to the memorial, I caught an Uber back to the train station, and took the train back to Johannesburg. Ads inside the train station showed the US doesn’t have a monopoly on cheesy reality tv. An ad for a show called “Boer Soek ‘n Vrou” or “Farmer Seeks a Wife.”

Stopped at the store to pick up a Diet Coke. I’ve always been amused by the “Share a Coke with…” campaign, and the names on display let you know you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!

Dinner with a couple more friends, but no more pictures. I had actually expected this to be a much longer entry, but it says something about the quality of the time you had that you were too busy enjoying and catching up than taking pictures. It was a relatively short period of time in South Africa, but had been a wonderful way to spend the time between Cairo flights, and I was looking forward to some of the stops on the way back home as well.

Next up, headed back to Cairo, the very long way…


Dec 062018
 


Slept a little better this morning, but due to being exhausted the night before I still got up pretty early (although with a solid seven hours of sleep this time) and still had a solid two hours before I had to head back to the airport. The nearest Starbucks I’d been able to find that was open by 7am was about 2km away, and although it was already 27C at this hour, it was a dry heat so I decided to start walking. After all, there would be coffee at the end of the rainbow!

On the way, I passed the suspiciously-named “Top Touch Men” salon. Awkward!

It was fortunately slightly overcast as I walked past the office towers of Abu Dhabi…it’s unheard of for me to walk 2km in these temps and barely break a sweat. I love low humidity!

Starbucks was surprisingly hopping at 7am, and I got a tasty grilled halloumi sandwich and my usual iced coffee. Apparently, however, I picked up Mohammad’s iced coffee (PBUH) instead…. I’m guessing when they can’t spell your name they just pick the most common name they can think of?

Back to the hotel, quick shower, felt good about myself for getting a nearly 5k walk in, and grabbed a Careem to the airport. It was only about 60% of the price from the night before, and it appears that’s because there’s a rather large airport departure surcharge.

Went straight through immigration and security which had absolutely zero line, so I had about 20 minutes in the lounge before heading to my gate to board the flight:

Golden rule of travel: no matter where you are, if it’s real champagne and it’s offered to you with no charge, you don’t say no:

The Abu Dhabi airport was guilty of major cultural appropriation with this Christmas display near my gate. I do love the architecture of this satellite terminal with the gaudy gold and green centrepiece:

Over to the gate area, which was very lightly filled, and they were just about to start boarding. Perfect timing!

Etihad flight 604
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 10:00, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 8:40
Airbus A330-200, Registration A6-EYR, Manufactured 2009, Seat 9K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 133,360
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,653,422

After boarding and finding my seat I know it wouldn’t be as nice as on the Dreamliner, but overall it seemed to be pretty close. Take close note on the bottom of the seat…and the indentations…

Seats in the middle section…they were still pretty spacious, although I wasn’t a big fan of how close and exposed they were to the aisle. I could just see people banging into you when sleeping.

Despite being a daytime flight, there was a nice duvet, amenity kit, and menu….overall I was still super impressed with Etihad!

Then, I sat down and had my pre-departure champagne. I would say the seat was like sitting on a brick, but it was much worse. There were clearly a couple of large metal bars in the cushion, and no matter how much I tried, it was still like sitting on a pile of rocks. Uneven, firm, and uncomfortable. I tried another seat, but same problem. In 2,000,000+ miles, these were literally the most uncomfortable seats I’ve ever sat in…even sitting on a pillow, you could still feel it. I don’t know what it was, but they were just awful.

The crew? Well, English wasn’t their strongest suit, and customer service definitely wasn’t. There was no real show of concern or care, and no solutions at all offered. I pretty much had no choice, so put down two pillows AND a blanket, and it was close to tolerable.

That said, at least there was champagne!

Menu was extremely similar to the day before (which was weird, because usually they plan for connections better than that) but that’s ok, there were still plenty of options I wanted to try! I saw the steak sandwich on the menu, and asked them to reserve one for a pre-arrival snack (since in my experience Etihad tends to run out of them) and ordered the smoked duck starter…which was very tasty.

Skipped the beef tenderloin as a main, and went with the Chicken Madbi, given my previous track record of amazing Chicken Biryani on Etihad. It did not disappoint, and was super flavourful and well-spiced. The meal was actually so tasty I almost forgot about how uncomfortable and numb my rear end was becoming…

Cheese plate was just so-so with only two kinds of cheese, but at least there was some chutney!

I flipped channels on the inflight entertainment, and noticed we were right over Somalia. I wasn’t aware that international airlines were ok with using somali airspace now! Usually they stay well off the coast, but apparently they’ve now decided it’s safe again.

Love the engine and wingtip shot over the Somali dessert:

I couldn’t resist finishing it off again with some ice cream and Amarula since it had been so delicious the day before:

Cruising along the Somali coast…

I tried a short nap, and the seat was actually much more comfortable fully reclined, so I spent about four hours laying down and watching my iPad by holding it above my head. Not the most convenient, but at least I wasn’t going numb any longer.

About 90 minutes before landing, I asked for my steak sandwich and a glass of wine, and it was a delicious pre-landing snack.

Ordered the almond and pistachio pudding with butterscotch sauce for a sweet, and with a glass of desert wine it was the perfect ending to a great flight. The crew did what they could to make up for the seat, and I have to say every other aspect of the flight was absolutely wonderful. That said, I promise I will never again fly an A330 with Etihad!

Landed a few minutes early in Johannesburg, absolutely no wait at all at immigration (maybe due to the fact we got a bus gate – I’m not sure) and was soon on the Gautrain to my usual hotel. They were fantastic, and sold out, and gave me a nice upgrade, so overall it was definitely a good day. Went for a short walk, and Christmas was in full swing in Johannesburg!

Also, Heineken, we can agree…assuming you’re not in North Korea…otherwise, we need to talk about how you’re counting countries!

Was fading pretty quickly, but decided to go out for some snacks and beers with a friend, and found this beer with the most amazing name ever:

That said, it was off to bed, and time to get some sleep so I could enjoy my first FULL day of vacation without any planes or flights!


Dec 042018
 


Unfortunately, thanks to jetlag, I was awake bright and early before 6am, so had no excuse to avoid a bit of time in the hotel gym. I walked around the airport a bit trying to explore the landside areas, but apparently security wasn’t too thrilled with that, so gave up and headed back to the hotel for a little while until…yes, you guessed it, Starbucks opened. I had hoped to sleep in and catch up a bit, but jetlag wasn’t having it, so this was the best relaxing I could do. Hundreds of transatlantic flights, and there’s still no foolproof way to slay jetlag.

Grabbed an Uber to toe mall, where Starbucks was just about to open. Unfortunately, the ice rink inside the mall still wasn’t open. One of these days I’m going to pass through Cairo at an hour when I can go ice skating in the mall!

After a short stroll in the mall, Starbucks was open, and it was time for some coffee! In US$ terms, the second cheapest Starbucks in the world after Johannesburg, South Africa.

Back to the hotel just in time to pack up, and I had completely forgotten that Terminal Two at Cairo had opened a while back (I even went through here on my last trip!) so it took a bit of planning to have to take the hotel over to Terminal Two since it is connected to Terminal Three. I swear Cairo might be one of the worst designed largish airports on the planet.

That said, the checkin area at Terminal Two was quite nice, the Etihad agents were rather lovely, and after passing through immigration and security the lounge was surprisingly nice as well. It was way nicer than the horrible EgyptAir lounges in Terminal Three, but still a very limited selection of very weird food.

7up Free, weird hazelnut banana pizza, and the “EgyptAir” pizza, anyone?

That said, the terminal itself was really quite nice – bright and airy, and there was even a Starbucks airside…with prices exactly 50% higher than outside the airport. Boo hiss!

Boarding was right on time, and soon it was time to check out what Emirates business class was all about. I’d only flown them in first prior to this, and heard their first (like Qatar) is a bit of a waste except on the A380, because it’s not all that much nicer than business. We’ll see about that!

Etihad flight 654
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (AUH)
Depart 13:35, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 3:15
Boeing 787-9, Registration A6-BLS, Manufactured 2017, Seat 10K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 129,461
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,649,523

First impression of the seat: super nice, super roomy, and super private. I like it! This is just as nice as the first class seats on the 787s as well!

Another perspective…lots of room!

The crew was absolutely fantastic…friendly and helpful, without being awkward and obtrusive…this was going to be a great flight. A view over the wing and super smoggy Cairo right after takeoff:

A glass of Piper-Heidsieck and some mixed nuts? Don’t mind if I do!

With the windows dimmed, a great shot of the setting sun over the wing:

Arabic mezze starter. Only complained was there needed to be more pita bread to go with it. Other than that, loved the presentation!

Braised lamb shank for a main, cooked medium, and absolutely delicious. I had to admit, this was actually topping most of my flights with Etihad in first! Overall an extremely solid performance!

Delicious vanilla ice cream with some Amarula for dessert. Perfect!

Sunset catching the blinker on the engine:

Landed right on time, and I have to give Etihad a perfect 10 on this flight. There was absolutely nothing that could have been done better on such a short flight. Perfect crew, excellent short/medium haul meal, great seat, all in all a wonderful experience that wouldn’t make me hesitate to fly them on the 787 again. Honestly, compared to my first flights, this was just as good (except the suites on the A380 of course) and maybe better in some regards.

Got to Abu Dhabi, the home of no Uber, and was through immigration pretty quickly, and had no trouble finding my Careem driver instead to whisk me off to the Marriott Downtown Abu Dhabi. Since the merger with Starwood I was keen to find somewhere new to stay in Abu Dhabi, and wanted to give this place a try. On the downside, they claimed to be “completely sold out” so could offer no upgrade at all, but that said the standard room was perfectly nice:

They even had a lovely selection of pastries waiting in my room:

I was absolutely wiped out from the lack of sleep the previous two nights, so went up to the executive lounge where they were still serving cocktail hour (yay free wine) which I enjoyed a bit of before heading back to the room and passing out early. It would be a pretty wakeup call so that I could (you guessed it) get Starbucks before heading back to the airport to continue my journey!