Jun 252015
 

As I mentioned in my previous post, booking two days before the trip I didn’t have a lot of choice on getting to Beijing. I was finding economy fares that were super high, and looked like a middle seat was the best we would do, or we could do business for about twice the price. It remains the single most expensive round-trip ticket I’ve ever purchased for personal use, but like I said I felt like this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, being in North Korea for less than 72 hours I wanted to be as rested as possible to try and maximize the experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember the details on the flight in great detail, but thanks to my notes I can at least reproduce some of it. Plus, this will be a bit of nostalgia for the good old days before Jeff’s cost-cutting.

Continental Airlines flight 1104
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: Approximately 1 hour
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 2F

Unfortunately, don’t remember much about this flight. It was a morning flight, so can pretty much guarantee I enjoyed a diet coke and not much else. I remember when Continental used to run 737s from DCA to EWR…and they were always packed. What happened?!

Enjoyed the Presidents Club in Newark, and soon it was time to board our flight to Beijing. I remember at the time thinking Continental BusinessFirst was a really big deal, and remember it being something like a six or seven course experience. Those days, well, they’re long gone!

Continental Airlines flight 89
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: ??
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 10A

I remember this flight being about 80% full in business, but the back mini cabin (I think there used to be five rows in the front cabin, and rows 8-10 were in a separate mini cabin) was less than half full. We had plenty of room to stretch out in our old-school barcaloungers.

For some reason, I didn’t take a pic of the soup, appetizer, salad, or any of the starters, but these were the days service in BusinessFirst was better than anything Jeff gives us in “First” on United these days.

Apparently, I had some chicken and veg for a main, and this reminds me how Continental used to plate the veg and starch from the trolly. Potatoes? Rice? They had multiple options, and you can fully customize the meal. Not sure what’s in the small bowl at the top, but I remember the Château le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Château le Jeff!

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Good to know I didn’t miss the ice cream sundae, though I’m not too sure why there’s Kahlua in the pic since I can’t remember ever going through a Kahlua phase. I’m glad to see four cherries though, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t multiples!

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Then I slept. I remember it being a pretty good amount, probably 4-6 hours. Cabin shot here with me enjoying the view out the window. You can see just how empty the back two rows of business were:

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Landed, immigration was a piece of cake, and even getting a taxi to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, was a piece of cake. We checked in mid-afternoon, and decided to use the little time we had to do a bit of exploring since we hadn’t been to Beijing before and would only have one evening before the flight to North Korea.

Looking jetlagged in front of the Forbidden Palace:

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Changing of the guard ceremony:

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Forbidden Palace all lit up at dusk:

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For dinner, we walked to the Quanjude duck restaurant. Don’t know how we found it, but they had a counter that indicated they’d served more than 15 million ducks since they opened:

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Our duck, being hygienically carved up table-side…it was absolutely delicious with all the sides, and the waiter showed us how to plate it up and eat it all together.

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Promptly crashed for at least eight hours, and was up way too early. Found Starbucks (do you doubt my abilities to find them, even back them?) and wandered the city just a little longer. Found a countdown to the Beijing Olympics, which were still three years away at that point:

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The Grand Hyatt:

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Then, it was time to taxi to the airport and meet up with our group from Koryo Tours for the flight to Pyongyang!


Jun 252015
 

A reader posted out that I’d never posted this, and realized this trip happened way before I had a blog. I was sitting at home one night back in 2005, after I’d already decided I wanted to visit every country, and had decided that North Korea was going to be by far the most difficult because they simply didn’t allow American Tourists. Period.

I was reading CNN online that evening, and there was an interview with a British guy in Beijing who said he’d received permission to do the first ever tour of Americans to Pyongyang. Thinking it was a joke, I emailed him. Yes, it was for real, and they were leaving from Beijing. This didn’t seem real. At this point, I didn’t see any other way I’d ever get to North Korea, because for all we knew they’d shut the door again after this one trip.

That hasn’t really happened, however, but it still makes a great story to be part of the first group to go there in decades. I understand a scattered individual here and there had been allowed in prior, but never a group. North Korea would be my 34th country visited (seems so long ago) and it’s funny that even way back then I was worried about how I’d check off the “difficult countries.”

Tickets purchased, and literally 48 hours later we were off to North Korea. I’ll do my best to clear the cobwebs off my dusty memory, and tell as much of the story as I remember 10 years later. I have tons of pictures, however, and about 130 of them are worth posting I think. For that reason, I’ll split this into six parts:

I.  Washington DC to Beijing on Continental Airlines, 1 night in Beijing
II. Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, arrival in Pyongyang
III. Arirang Mass Games
IV. Trip to DMZ and Kaesong, return to Pyongyang
V. War Museum, Movie Studio, Pyongyang Metro, USS Pueblo, Childrens’ Palace
VI. Evening in Pyongyang, and Pyongyang to DC

Even though a trip to North Korea isn’t quite so unusual anymore, I hope you’ll enjoy!


Jun 122015
 

It’s been nearly a month since I returned from Eritrea, Qatar, and Finland, and almost that long since I’ve updated here. Part of that is due to no travel in the meantime, which is largely a result of having rotator cuff surgery two weeks ago. I thought I might be away from here longer, but only two weeks in (and still in a sling) it’s surprisingly not too awful to type…and I can even use both hands but not all fingers…so this will be short 😉

One good thing about the downtime away from work is it enabled lots of planning – both work and personal trips. I have the majority of my 2015 travel planned and booked now, pending more surprises especially on the work front. It’s shaping up to be:

Late June into July: 18 day trip to Chennai, India for work. Nothing fancy or special about this trip. It’s a Lufthansa business ticket, and the only “new” experience for me will be the two-class Lufthansa A340 – never been on one of their longhaul planes without first class. Supposedly it has the new lie-flat seats, so that’ll be nice. On the way back, I’m on a 747-400 from Frankfurt to Dulles, and got the “Captain’s Seat” 4D. Still need to find a way to talk myself into an old first class seat on the upper deck. Suggestions?

Early July: After getting back from Chennai I have a four day weekend with comp days from the missed holiday, so will be enjoying the pleasures of nonrev travel, likely to Minneapolis to visit family, with possibly a day in Detroit to visit a friend and go to Cedar Point. I was debating taking United down to Belize and getting country #179, but with the rotator cuff only six weeks post-surgery at that point going to Belize (which will mean wanting to scuba) probably isn’t wise. So, Minneapolis wins!

Mid July: Busy weekend. I redeemed Avios for a bargain flight on US/AA to Pittsburgh for a tattoo appointment (still too soon post-surgery for such a long drive), and then I’ll spend the night and party like a rockstar with my artist. It’ll be our “nearly done” session, and we’ve been wanting to go beer-ing for a while, so that’ll be fun! Then, Saturday, I fly to Hartford for a post-“we got married really quickly” reception for some good hockey friends, and for something called a “clambake.” Yay new cultural experiences! There’s also no easy way to get from Pittsburgh to Hartford on a Saturday morning. Ended up booking United via Newark with a one hour connection…and they offered me an upgrade on the first segment for $59, so hey, not too bad! Then, we’ll all fly back to DC together on Sunday on JetBlue…which will also be a new experience for me!

Early September: The next crazy country collecting trip with my friend Ian, who I went to Israel with last year. We’re flying into Cameroon, then on to Central African Republic, Chad, and finally Ethiopia. Details still very much TBD. From there he’ll head home, and I’ll head on to Dubai to meet my friend Daniel (who I met up with in Bali last year) and we’ll head to Turkmenistan for four days before I head home. Oh, I might be making a sidetrip from Dubai…but we’ll see. For now, shhhh 😉 This should get me to 182 countries, with 14 to go.

Mid November: Off to Spain, where I’ll make a side trip to Algeria for a couple nights. Any suggestions on 48 hour itineraries from Algiers? Then, I’ll board a Cubana Ilyushin-96 and fly Madrid to Havana for a few days in Cuba. Very excited! Then, it’s off to Nassau, Bahamas via Grand Cayman using a combo of Avios and paid tickets. First time on British Airways (Grand Cayman to Nassau) in business class on a 767 with less than 10,000 Avios. This should get me to 185 countries, with 11 to go!

December: To Minnesota to spend Christmas with the family, before heading off on my last epic New Years trip for a while. Plan is to do (in some undetermined order) Mali, Mauritania, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Those seven will bring me to 192, with only four to go. Tentative plans:

map

So what’s left?

Belize diving trip, probably early winter 2016.

Tuvalu and Mongolia – to be done in June/July 2016 for the Naadam Festival in Mongolia. Hopefully this time I’ll get Tuvalu on the first try, but I’m leaving two weeks for it. If I finish early I can make side trips from Fiji to other places, maybe Melbourne or Wallis and Futuna.

Then, the grand finale, Iceland in September 2016…that’ll make all 196 countries!

I’m sure 2015 will contain a few added surprises, maybe work trips, maybe some fun trips to LA, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver to make some long overdue trips to visit friends – but that’s all up in the air for now. Should be an exciting next six months!


May 202015
 

After landing I grabbed a quick coffee from Starbucks and caught the Finnair bus downtown to the main Helsinki train station. It was quite a bit colder in Helsinki than Doha or Frankfurt (duh) and even with shorts and a hoodie it was a pretty brisk walk in the 10C temps to my hotel. At least it was sunny!

I was staying at the Hotel Kämp, where I’ve stayed on all my previous visits to Helsinki. They’re one of my favourite Starwood properties, and usually deliver the perfect balance of polite, formal service along with being non-stuffy. Unfortunately, today I had to wait over 10 minutes to check in, because a large group of Chinese tourists were arguing and all trying to guarantee rooms on the same floor. Ugh!

The wait was well worth it, however, because I ended up with a pretty sweet suite upgrade:

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It was just a large studio suite, but had a great view out onto the Espalande, which would have been nice had it stayed sunny more than 15 minutes, lol.

Spent the next couple of days with friends, touring around the city a bit and just hanging out. Plus, lots of sauna time…obligatory in Finland! Spent an afternoon at Suomenlinna, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was build in the mid 1700s as a protection from Russian invasion (pretty much a common theme whenever discussing the Finnish military). Unfortunately, the fort fell to the Russians in 1808, and Finland was occupied the next year.

Currently, the island has many year around inhabitants, as well as being crawling with tourists and daytrippers. Obligatory shot sitting on one of the cannons on the island:

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After a coffee, headed back into Helsinki for a quick snack at the Karl Fazer Cafe. Yum! Finns consume more coffee per capita than any other country, which probably explains why I feel so at home here:

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Time in Helsinki was much too short, and soon it was back to the airport for departure. The bus was on time and quick, and soon I was through immigration and security and into the Finnair lounge, which is divided into two parts. There’s a business class lounge, and there there’s a Premium Lounge for OneWorld Emerald and Sapphire members.

I got to use the premium lounge, which had a rather tasty spread:

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You have to love a lounge with pickled herring and salmon!

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…and of course champers!

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Delicious white chocolate mousse to finish it off:

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After a tasty lunch, it was time for the best part of the lounge…the sauna! The Finnair lounge is (probably) the only lounge in the world with an authentic sauna in it, and what better way to spend time before your flight than getting naked and sweaty with your fellow passengers. Of course, Finnair “encourages” the use of towels in the sauna, but that’s something no self-respecting Finn would ever do.

Just, um, make sure that the lock on your locker works before you lock your clothes in it and find after the sauna you can’t get them out. That might make for an awkward few minutes having to hunt down a staff member to unlock it…

Aaaaaannnyways, moving on to the gate, it was time to board!

Finnair flight 5
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to New York, Kennedy (JFK)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 15:50 Flight Time 8:40
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 2A

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Finnair uses the same seats that Brussels Airlines uses, meaning there are good seats, great seats, and not great seats. On the left side, the rows alternate with two not great seats (window has to climb over aisle to get out) with a row of great seat…one seat with two huge tables on either side. In the middle, all rows have two seats, but all have aisle access, so they’re ok. Then, on the far right, it’s all solo seats, which are also pretty good. So, avoid at all costs rows 1, 3, and 5 on the left side. They’re far inferior. I had 2A, so was all set!

Funky Finnish design pillow, amenity kit, and bubbles:

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Today’s menu:

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Champers, with strange snack mix of asparagus and soy sauce marinated fish…it was actually really tasty. This is also a good time to mention how much I love Finnair’s glassware!

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Salmon and potato salad with Finnish rye bread. Taste, but tiny portions:

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The lamb and red wine sauce with barley risotto, again, delicious!

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Cheese and ice cream for dessert. Unfortunately, the ice cream was super mushy. Boo!

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I may have had a second go at the cheese…

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Oh hai Iceland aka country #196…see you in just over a year finally!

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Dozed a bit and watched lots of tv on the flight, and soon it was time for a pre-landing snack. Smoked salmon and egg salad, with capers. Very light, but still tasty. The fruit, however, was even below United’s usual low standards. Everything else was super fresh and tasty (albeit small portions) but the fruit was just sad. I suppose the portions also explain why people aren’t America-sized!

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Dessert, a Finnish cinnamon bun. Not nearly as sweet as their American counterpart, and not slathered in cream cheese frosting, but you can actually taste the cinnamon…shocking!

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Landed at JFK about five minutes early, and after the gate agent came on the plane, she paged me asking me to identify myself at the door. Ut oh, this isn’t good. I was praying it meant they’d put me on the American nonstop from JFK to DCA which left one hour after hour arrival (thus making it technically an illegal connection) but no, she was there to be my escort! I’d booked a 3:10 JFK-LaGuardia transit, which I guess they thought was really tight, and so being in business class I got my own escort to immigration, through immigration, and to my onward transit. Absolutely stunning service by Finnair on arrival!

With Global Entry immigration was a breeze, and then it was off to find transit. I’d planned to take a taxi at around $40-50, but my escort convinced me to take the bus. For about $13 I wasn’t going to argue…but then found it it would be a 30 minute wait. I decided to do it anyways and save $30 or more, but was seriously having trouble figuring out when the bus left. It didn’t help that the ticket salesman spoke less English than anyone I’d encountered on this entire trip. Ugh! Anyways, the bus finally came, they crammed us in, and we were off to face the nightmare known as the Van Wyck Expressway at rush hour. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad, and we made it to LaGuardia about 90 minutes before my 7pm flight. Security was a breeze with PreCheck, and just as I cleared it…I got a phone call.

My 7p shuttle to DCA was delayed until 7:40p now. Since it was about 5:40 at this point, I rushed over to the gate for the 6pm shuttle, which coincidentally was delayed until 6:45. “No, it’s full, you can’t standby” was the extremely rude reply I received. Then, I noticed the 5pm shuttle was still hanging around too…maybe I can get on that? “Go to the customer service counter. We’re closed here.” Ugh. Service.

With several other grouchy passengers I reluctantly headed to the customer service counter. We waited nearly 45 minutes, and then got the update. The 5pm wasn’t actually full at all, and if I didn’t mind sitting in economy I could get on it…when and if it left. It was around 6:30 at this point, so I asked about the 6pm. “It’s due to leave DC any moment, and yeah, plenty of seats on it…should leave here around 730p.” I figured I’d wait the extra 45 and be comfortable, and moved to the 6pm.

I waited it out in the AAdmirals Club. Not sure if I was technically allowed entry since I was connecting from Finnair business, but the agents just smiled and let me in. Two glasses of wine? To quote the bartender: “you look like you could use a double.” Hah!

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So, at the end of the day:

The 5pm shuttle left around 6:45, and I could have taken it on coach and gotten home 15 min earlier than expected.

The 6pm shuttle (with me) left at 8:00 and I was about one hour behind schedule.

The 7pm shuttle which I was initially booked on…ended up leaving around 9:30. I guess I made a pretty good call!

American Airlines flight 2145 (operated by US Airways)
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Washington, National (DCA)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 19:23 Flight Time 1:23 (2 hour delay)
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N956UW, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A

Plane go up, plane go down. Enough time for a “big boy glass” of wine, some biscotti, and about 30 minutes of Wifi enroute:

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On approach to DCA:

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…and with that, the trip was over. Felt like a long whirlwind trip to only check off one country, but with the extra time in Doha and Helsinki it was well worth it! It’ll likely be a few months before my next trip report, but you never know…


May 182015
 

Quick check out from the hotel, and used Uber to call a ride to the airport. In order to avoid having any leftover Qatari Rials I used the rest of the cash I had to pay down the hotel bill a bit and figured the ride would go on my card. The driver had a little trouble finding me at the W (he thought I was at the next hotel over) but once that was settled it was a quick ride to the airport. It turned out to be slightly more expensive than the cab to the hotel had been (by less than $2) so it was a good decision in order to minimize having cash leftover.

I was already checked in for my flight (they’d done it the night before in Asmara) so was able to skip check-in and go straight through to security. Qatar has a nicely sectioned off part of the check-in area for business and first passengers, complete with its own passport control and security. Since I already had my boarding pass I was able to get through immigration and then security in a total of maybe five minutes. Less than five minutes from curb to terminal is pretty impressive.

Of course, evil teddy was still waiting for me when I arrived:

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Having not had much lunch, I decided to have a “small” dinner at the sit down restaurant in the lounge. There’s a large buffet, and this menu to order from:

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I ordered the lamb tagine, and in the meantime I had a glass of Veuve Cliquot Rosé and some small salads from the buffet. Duck, crab and chicken salads. Quite tasty:

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The lamb arrived shortly, and was quite tasty:

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…and a couple of small cakes and pastries to finish it off:

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It was still nearly three hours until flight time, so I lounged around, caught up on a bit of blogging and enjoyed a bit more champagne. Soon, it was time to head to the gate where the big excitement was about to begin…a ride on the A350. View from the gate:

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Advert in the gate area:

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Boarded about 30 minutes prior to departure time, and was the first on board to get some pics.

Qatar Airways flight 69
Doha, Qatar (DOH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 01:20, Arrive 06:55 Flight Time 6:35
Airbus A350-900, Registration A7-ALA, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2K

First thought on the cabin…the front few rows were pretty full, but only two people in the whole back cabin. Had I known it was an “open” cabin with no real bulkhead between the two sections, I definitely would have booked a seat further back, but that said, 2K was a great seat:

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Fancy new electronic signs with rotating text. Too bad the time was off by a few hours:

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Very few people were planning on eating, but for the sake of the review, who was I to say no. Amuse bouche of “mushroom and rice fritters with mild chili and garlic sauce” to start. Extremely bland, and just had a small taste:

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Next up was the roasted bell pepper and tomato soup with saffron and mint yoghurt with garlic croutons. Extremely tasty, I could have had a couple of bowls!

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The “classic Arabic mezze” appetizer which was described as “hummus, tabouleh and baba ghanoush served with arabic bread.” Again, extremely bland and only had a few small nibbles, except for the hummus which was pretty tasty.

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For a main, I went with the “chicken machboos with rice – golden fried onions and toasted nuts.” Now, the presentation needs some serious work because it looks like a cross between vomit and cat food, but it was extremely tasty!

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Then, disaster struck. I asked for the cheese plate and “I’m sorry, we’ve run out of those.” Wait, there’s 10 empty seats…how could you have run out of cheese? Do they not at least cater one for each passenger? She wouldn’t tell me what was up, so either the crew was hoarding it for themselves (unlikely), some passengers asked for multiples and got it (possible – lots of people seemed to be having cheese/dessert and wine then passing out), or they just don’t cater enough for all the passengers. Either way, extremely poor service.

So, I settled for the “Ladurée Plaisir Sucré” which was amazing. Described as “dacquoise cake with crushed hazelnuts, crispy praline, milk chocolate thin leaves, chocolate ganache, milk chocolate chantilly whipped cream.” It was amazing. I wanted another, but sleep won out…

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…and back went the seat, and I got a solid four hours of sleep. Unlike the 787, where I’ve had the best sleep I ever had on a plane multiple times, the A350 seemed like any other plane in this regard. The seat was plenty comfortable, but I didn’t wake up feeling hydrated and refreshed like I did on the 787. So that said, it was quite a nice flight, but stopped short of the “omg this is amazing and I have to fly this plane again” experience.

Like my other flights the crew was solid, and responded to the call button quickly and curteously, but made no effort to anticipate passenger needs. Maybe this is a European/Asian thing, but on Qatar they seem to wait until you ask for something to provide great service. Not bad, just different. However, if you’re the type who’s shy to use the call button, you might want to avoid Qatar.

Pic of our plane in the very early morning sun upon deplaning:

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First stop (without thinking) was outside immigration to Starbucks to get some coffee and attempt to come back to life. But, like I said, not thinking because I was planning to use the Z-Gates Senator lounge to grab a shower, which meant going back outside immigration. Not bright, but at least they didn’t question it. After a shower and catching up on emails, it was time to find Finnair. Unfortunately, they left from Terminal 2, which I can’t remember the last time I’ve used that in Frankfurt. Must have been way back in the NWA days when they flew there.

Took the train (outside Schengen still) to Terminal 2, cleared security, and found Terminal 2. Most flights from Terminal 2 area outside the Schengen, so upon arriving there I used the JAL lounge for another hour before trying to find the gate. The JAL lounge was nothing special, with the usual non-hub offerings of drinks, snacks, etc. It was a solid selection and reasonably comfortable, although there seemed to be an extreme lack of power outlets in the lounge. But hey, sushi and sake in Frankfurt. From Qatar, to Germany, to what felt like Japan, and onto Finland…it was becoming quite the multicultural day!

Finally found the way to it, and cleared immigration…which dumped you back outside security. Got a strange look from immigration, and he just crossed out my exit stamp instead of re-stamping me in. Ugh! I guess it makes sense, but had to re-clear security and then finally found the Finnair gate, which was of course a bus gate. Proletarian “all in one” bus mixed with economy and business, and soon it was time for the delights of European business class…standard coach seats with the middle blocked.

Finnair Airways flight 822
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 15:10 Flight Time 2:25
Airbus A319, Registration OH-LVH, Manufactured 2000, Seat 3C

The seats may have sucked, but hey…amazing glassware and cute little airplane crackers:

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Proper menus:

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Tasty reindeer starter, relatively tasty chicken masala, and a really lame pre-packaged sweet for dessert. Overall, solid service and friendly crew, so can’t ask for too much more on a short inner-Europe flight:

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Landed in Helsinki right on time, arriving of course at a bus “gate” and was quickly bussed to the terminal to continue the adventure…


May 152015
 

After a solid 3-4 hour nap I woke up just before midnight, showered, and headed down to the front desk of the Asmara Palace to check out. The travel company had already paid the bill so all I had to do was sign the bill and be on my way. The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport, and it was just me and one other passenger, and soon we were off.

When we got there, the hotel doorman/concierge made a point of walking me to the check-in desk, which was absolute chaos. With Turkish and Qatar leaving within 15 minutes of each other, it was a mad scrum, with no signage anywhere. There was one desk marked business class, but it had a couple dozen people clustered around it who were most certainly not flying business. I (politely) pushed my way to the front, and was checked in all the way to Helsinki in about 10 minutes. Immigration was very quick with no questions asked, except by the driver/concierge: “perhaps you have a tip for me?” Um, no, didn’t ask for or need your help, and you insisted on following me. Grrr!

Security was somewhat silly…regular x-ray machines, and then they insisted on going through each piece of handcarry individually. Usually developing country practices in place, a quick 10-15 second check of your bag (open it up, quick look, close it up) if you were western looking, but if you looked local they basically tore it apart and flung everything out of the bag. Ugh!

Upstairs was the waiting area, which was just one big room for 300+ passengers. Just enough seats for everyone, as well as a small cafe and a couple of small shops. No lounge, of course. I decided to kill the 90 minutes until flight time (hopefully only 60 til boarding) people watching, which was reasonably interesting. Several Australian guys getting rather happy on local beer after local beer, a few exhausted looking development worker and missionary types, and lots of people looking fairly nervous like they’d never been on a plane before…you know, the usual developing country travel crowd.

At about 1:50 the plane arrived and unloaded quickly, and by about 2:30 we’d taken our bus to the plane (no special bus for business class this time) and boarded. Pushed back about 35 minutes behind schedule, which the captain said we’d likely make up in the air.

Qatar Airways flight 1444
Asmara, Eritrea (ASM) to Doha, Qatar (DOH)
Depart 02:00, Arrive 05:20, Flight Time 3:20
Airbus A320, Registration A7-ADE, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D

Unfortunately, upon boarding we were greeting with the old style A320 seats, which since I’d already been expecting them wasn’t so bad. They’re still better than domestic U.S. first class seats since they have a couple inches of extra legroom, and they’re heaps better than European business class since they’re in a 2×2 configuration. Interestingly, my seatmate was the same guy I’d sat next to on the flight into Asmara two days prior who works in the same field as me, and we knew many of the same people. Champagne (white or rosé), juice, or water was offered before takeoff, along with a hot OR cold towel service. Quite nice! My seatmate was asleep before the plane even left the ground, but I decided to stay awake.

My plan was to get four hours of sleep before heading to the airport, stay awake for the awkward 2.5 hour redeye, and then get another 4-5 hours upon arrival in Doha since it was Friday morning anyways, and everything would be closed for prayers in the morning. It sounded good in theory…it remained to be seen if it would work in practice.

Nice meal service for a short redeye, and only myself and one of the other 12 passengers decided to partake:

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Pre-meal bubbles and nuts…today’s offering was Veuve Cliquot Rosé:

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The prawns and salmon starter, which was super tasty, along with more bread than any one person needs:

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The chicken main which was good, but nothing super special. Most surprising was the mashed potatoes…something which usually doesn’t interest me enough to partake, but which was super good. Must have been the ridiculous amounts of butter:

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….cheese course one of two. Yes, it was that good, and everyone else was sleeping, soooo…. Had it along with a couple of glasses of a fairly nice tempranillo, and just as I finished the sun was coming up outside. It was about 4:15 am and we had about 45 minutes of flight time remaining:

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Then, horror of horrors…there was no dessert left! It seems the passengers on the inbound had consumed all of them, and there were none at all remaining. Seriously Qatar? You don’t cater enough for each passenger in each direction? …and I can’t believe the crew served two each to every passenger on the outbound. Boo hiss! I need my Ladurée. Oh well, my pants thank you at least.

Parked at a bus gate (of course) and took the business class bus to the terminal. Short walk towards immigration (where I spied the creepy giant teddy bear again), and immigration was a breeze. Agent spoke nearly no English, but was anxious to try and chat. “W Hotel! Party! Hot girls!” So, I responded with the only appropriate thing: “na’am…shukran habibi!”  (yes, thanks my friend!) It’s amazing how many situations that basic phrase comes in useful in!

Easy to find a cab to the hotel and my taxi driver Mohammad from Pakistan was rocking out to Pitbull for the entire drive. Just what I wanted to hear at 6am…and 50 Qatari Rial later I was at the W. They’d been waiting for me, and asked when I’d like to check out. I’d asked for the 4pm SPG Platinum late check out, and that was no problem…how much later would I like? Can I do 6pm? “What time is your flight? 1am? Oh, how about 8pm, is that ok?” Wow, very nice job…so I had a dayroom for 14 hours. There’s a reason this is one of my favourite SPG properties in the world.

Plus, they upgraded me to a huge “W Suite”

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Closed the blinds, cranked down the AC which got nice and frigid, and after a shower was in bed just before 7am…and promptly passed out hard until noon. Was very glad to see that my plan actually worked out! Got up, showered again, and walked the four blocks to the City Centre Mall in the 44C (111F) heat…but at least unlike Massawa it was a dry heat and actually felt nice. Got there at 12:30 and everything was still closed for prayer time…I had to wait 30 minutes to get caffeine. NOOOOO! Did laps of the mall for 30 minutes to get the legs moving, and then finally…coffee!

Uh, Jason, Andrez, sounds totally the same…right?

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Walked around a bit after coffee, and found where they hide the skeletons:  😉

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What’s not to love about a mall with an ice rink? Reminds me of Kettler Capitals Iceplex where I play…except the rink is supposed to be on the roof, not in the basement! Really wanted to skate, but with a torn rotator cuff decided to be smart and not risk getting hurt by cheap rental skates and out of control children:

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I couldn’t resist Chili’s for lunch…I’m betting this margarita had no tequila in it, but honestly I was so tired it was hard to tell!

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After lunch caught an uber to the Islamic Museum and wandered around for a couple of hours. I think this is one of the most interesting museusms in the world to me, and actually manages to hold my attention for over two hours which is saying quite a lot for a museum! After wandering caught another uber back to the mall, grabbed another coffee, and then walked back to the hotel:

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Swinging chair in the corner of my room where I relaxed, blogged a big, and killed the last hour or so before heading to the airport for my onward flight. There was a sandstorm blowing in, and I hoped there wouldn’t be serious delays…

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May 142015
 

Although I slept better at the Asmara Palace hotel and got nearly 10 hours on and off, the incredibly warm room made it hard to sleep too well. Headed down for breakfast eventually, which was included, and the spread was pretty disappointing. Toast is usually the one reliable option anywhere in the world, but in this case there were just a few mediocre baked goods, some sketchy looking cold cuts, and some canned fruits. They were making eggs to order, and I did get a pretty good cheese and onion omelette. Oh, and the coffee was reasonably good as well.

Ended up chatting with a couple of Canadian guys sitting at the next table about the Caps win over the Rangers a couple hours prior, and discussed the woes of being Jets and Leafs fans at this point in the season. They were in Eritrea for work, working on a couple of large mining projects. The government seems to be opening up a bit, and allowing a bit more outside investment which should help a bit.

If you’ve read my recent blogs, you know that in November you know I ran into the Chinese Premier in an elevator in an Auckland Hotel. Then, back in February, I ran into Ugandan president Musevini in an elevator in Kampala.

So, as I was getting ready to leave on my daytrip, there was a huge security entourage pulling up to the Asmara Palace and hustling someone very important looking in…and when I saw the flag on the car it just confirmed it: it was semi-deposed President of Yemen Hadi! This just keeps getting weirder!

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My driver eventually showed up nearly 45 minutes, turned out they’d had some trouble getting a permit for me to visit Massawa (foreigners require an individual permit for each trip outside Asmara, and you can only apply for one at a time) but eventually it had arrived and he came to pick me up. The day before we’d been in a standard medium sized car, but today was a four wheel drive. Asmara is at 2,300 metres above sea level and the weather is quite nice – around 22C/72F during the day but Massawa is on the coast and rather hot…hitting 46C/115F the day I was there. Yikes!

A short way out of Asmara, we began the long, winding, gradual descent towards Massawa:

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Scenic descent:

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Mosque in a small village along the route:

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This was a common site on the drive, local men herding cattle along the side of the road:

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After about two hours, we crossed the final bridge towards Massawa:

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Driving into the city, our vehicle started to overheat due to the stifling temps, so my driver stopped to add coolant or some such thing. I used the opportunity to snap some photos of some tanks from the Eritrea-Ethiopia war which were on display:

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Entering down from the intersection:

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Bombed out building from the war:

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Finally, we drove into the old city of Massawa, and stopped on the coast to take some photos:

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At this point, I was hot, hungry, tired, and a bit cranky, and asked my driver to stop at “somewhere nice on the water” so I could have some food and a drink. He dropped me at what he said was the nicest hotel, and asked “you stay for 90 minutes? I want to swim.” Swimming did sound nice, but with a healing tattoo and being tired and such there was no way I was going to. I told him to go ahead, and I would sit and have some lunch.

I sat at a small outdoor patio with maybe 8-10 small groups of Eritreans, and ordered an Eritrea Beer and tried to cool down. The fans were helping slightly, but when it’s 46C and humid out there’s not too much you can do. I ordered the “spaghetti and meat sauce” to go with it, and it was delicious despite only making me warmer. I have to say, the Italian food in Eritrea was so far surprisingly rather tasty!

Then….CRASH! My plastic lawn chair absolutely gave out from under me and two of the legs shattered into shards and I fell to the concrete floor. This, combined with all the flies and mosquitoes trying to nibble on my healing tattoo had me rather grouchy, despite having finally gotten some food and drink.

The staff were super nice, making sure I was ok, and stacking two chairs on top of each other for me. Thanks. Now I feel fat. LOL.

At this point, a Sri Lankan guy came over and started chatting with me. He worked on a ship that was in port “picking up some supplies” and then heading back. Then, he beckoned over his Captain who was also eating there. He was a Ukrainian gentleman with nearly no English spoken. They were delivering a large shipment of food and oil to Eritrea, and picking up “supplies in transit” to carry onwards. They asked what I was doing there, and I told them I’m working on visiting every country, and Eritrea was #178 for me.

We discussed which countries I still had left, and I mentioned the list, and then said Yemen, and asked if they’ve ever been there. “Oh yes, we go to Aden port all the time with supplies. I know many people there.” Hmmm…. I tried to get more info out of them and where they were going, but the Captain seemed pretty reluctant. When he left, the Sri Lankan explained they picked up cargo in Eritrea that was “in transit from neighbour countries” and took it across the Red Sea. Use your imagination…

Then, the Captain came back, and offered a “speedboat ride” east into the Red Sea. Now, Eritrea has no data roaming, I wasn’t sure just how far away Yemen was, but I was pretty sure he was offering to try and give me a quick ride there to check it off. So, of course, I agreed. I told him “I can’t pay you for it” and he said “no no, this is just for fun” so…I agreed to go. Probably the single stupidest thing I’ve ever done travel-wise, but hey, there aren’t many options yet… I asked him exactly where we’d go, and he just kept saying “onto the water to see things from the water.” Ok, vague, but at a minimum it would be an interesting little cruise!

We headed out onto the water, passed the Dahlac Islands marine sanctuary, then out onto the open Red Sea. There were several small islands sticking out and soon we were on the open water. Maybe 30-40 minutes off shore the guy piloting the boat started to freak out, and suddenly turn the boat really sharply to the side. The Ukrainian guy said “look over there – they’re shooting” and I could make out what seemed like a boat in the direction we’d been heading. I asked “who are they” and he said “I don’t know – but we cannot wait to find out – they are shooting!”

Sooooo….we turned straight around and hightailed it back to Massawa. I was mainly concerned because the three guys on the boat had seemed so confident it was safe to head out onto the water, and now they were suddenly freaking out. The boat didn’t seem to be following us, and soon we were safely back to Massawa port:

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…and that’s where it started. “Perhaps you have a gift for us.” “I told you I cannot pay you.” “I know, but perhaps you have a gift.” Ended up agreeing to buy them a large pallet of beer from the hotel which still ended up being way more money than I’d planned on for a trip to Massawa, but well worth it for the story. Looking at the map when I returned, they were clearly not suggesting Yemen – way too far away, but merely just doing a joyride on the boat…which was cool!

My driver was back from his swim and just hanging around, and didn’t seem at all concerned I’d been gone over three hours instead of the 90 minutes we’d talked about…hahah. So, we packed up the car and started back towards Asmara. On the way, we drove through the edges of town and stopped outside a house where lots of little children were yelling and running at the car. So we stopped to talk.

The kids seemed very fascinated by me, and the woman I presume was their mother started talking to me. Translated by the driver, she asked “why does your God tell you to wear an octopus?” I’d noticed lots of Eritreans had a cross tattooed on their forehead, and she was genuinely confused why I had a large octopus tattoo on my arm. There was just no way to explain it, lol! I smiled, and showed the kids how to high five, and soon we were back on the road to Asmara.

A common sight along the road:

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We also saw a couple large groups of monkeys along the road. My driver had some nuts to toss at them, which kept them near the car and wanting more:

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Finally got back to Asmara just after 7pm, and headed to the tour company to settle my bill. The owner asked “wouldn’t you like to have another half day at the hotel to get some sleep before your flight? For an extra $60 she was able to get me midnight checkout, which was awesome, so took her up on it. Settled my bill, and then back to the Asmara Palace around 730p. Quick dinner at the Italian restaurant again, and was in bed a few minutes after 8pm. Quickly passed out from exhaustion, and slept 3.5 solid hours before getting up and preparing to head to the airport to start the long trip home….


May 132015
 

There’s no jetbridges at Asmara airport, and it’s a short walk to the terminal, but they insist on making you take a bus. In a surprisingly nice touch, the 12 people in business class got their own bus, and we made it to immigration ahead of the rest of the passengers. I thought this was a good sign, but alas, it was not to be that easy.

When we arrived in the small one room arrivals area, only one of the four counters was open and I was 7th or 8th in line. Shortly, a second one opened, but they were only processing one person every five minutes or so. After about 20-25 minutes I finally made it to the front of the line, where the immigration officer spoke absolutely no english. I handed him my passport, and my letter showing approval for visa on arrival…and he just started at me. After about a minute of sizing me up, he just started thumbing through my passport and saying “visa” over and over. I pointed at the letter and said “visa on arrival” which was met with him saying “visa” again. I said “no visa” and he pointed across the room and said “visa office.”

Oh, look, there’s a small room off to the side with six people and a few computers in it. They understood what was going on, took my passport and the letter, and gave me a visa application to fill out. Gave it back to them about five minutes later, and they said “wait.” At this point, it had been 30 minutes or so, and not just our entire Qatar plane of 150 had unloaded, but a Turkish 737 had arrived as well, so there were nearly 300 people in the small immigration room. About six of us were waiting for our visas on arrival after around an hour, and finally, the first guy was give his and got to join the remaining 200 people or so…at the back of the line.

After 1:15 or so, the second person got their visa. I was third of the six…but no visa for me. “You go there!” pointing at an office that had “Chief Immigration Officer” printed on the door. He didn’t speak a whole ton of English, but his point was pretty clear. There’s an embassy in the US, why didn’t you get your visa there? I tried to very slowly explain that I had tried to get it there, but due to the delays I had to ask special permission from the Immigration Dept for a visa on arrival, which had formally been granted. This was followed by “where you work? CIA?” Uhhh, no? It’s not the first time I’ve gotten that question, and no clue why…but eventually after showing him business cards, a letter explaining my job, and some other items he agreed to believe me and issue the visa. $70 later I got a nice sticker in my passport for it, and about two hours after arrival I finally had my visa.

It took another 45 minutes in the slow lines to get through to an agent, and finally at around 4am I left the airport, nearly three hours after landing. Oh well…could have been worse? Fortunately, my driver was still waiting for me, and with his limited English he took me to my hotel, the “Sunshine Hotel” for the night. When I got to the room, it was basic but adequate…except there were no blinds on the windows, and the sun would be up in 30 minutes. Unfortunately according to the hotel worker none of the rooms had blinds, because they were all out for cleaning. Ugh. Ok. I just want sleep at this point. Earplugs in, eyeshade on, and attempt to sleep. Bzzz bzzz bzzz…unfortunately, the room also seemed to be a feeding frenzy for mosquitoes. My strategy was to put the Qatar pajamas back on, crawl completely under the covers…head and all…and hope they couldn’t find me. It must have worked because I managed sometime in the next 30 minutes to fall asleep.

My driver had wanted to pick me up at 8am for the city tour, but I told him there was no way that was happening, and we agreed on 10am. Unfortunately, at 8am, there was a knock on my door. It was someone from the travel agency. They needed my passport to go apply for the permit to allow us to drive to Massawa the next day. I was still too tired to argue, so I gave it to her, and told them I’d see them at 10. Managed to fall asleep for another hour or so, then stumble downstairs for a decent, but basic, breakfast. Two fried eggs, two slices of toast, and coffee. Perfectly adequate.

The lobby of the Sunshine Motel, which also served as the dining area:

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My luxury, super-bright no shades on the windows room:

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Hide from mosquitoes here:

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The room could definitely use some renovation:

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Just shortly after 10, my driver reappeared, and said we were off. I asked first if it was possible to change hotels…I couldn’t do another night here. He said yes yes, no problem, and we headed off to the Travel Agency. The owner who I’d been corresponding with on email invited me into her office, offered me coffee, and got down to business. First “do you want to change money?” She agreed to front me 4,000 Nakfa at the official rate of 15 Nakfa to the Dollar. Now, the black market rate is closer to 50 to the Dollar, but she told me that was too dangerous. Whatever, it was only two days, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. She confirmed the tour program, and I was off with my driver, who would also be my tour guide. Despite his basic English things worked pretty well, and we set off on Day 1’s plan, the city tour.

First stop was the Nda Mariam Othodox Church:

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We walked around outside the church for a bit, but unfortunately it was closed, so we continued on. Our drive took us past the Red Sea Bottling company, producers of Coca Cola in Eritrea:

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From there, we headed just outside of town to the World War II era cemetery, where the soliders of the British Empire who’d died in the area were buried. Fascinating old tombstones for members of the Sudan Defence Force, several South African units, the Punjab Regiment, the Indian Infantry, etc:

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At this point we headed back into the city, and picked up the owner of the tour company, and she gave me some suggestions for lunch. We ended up at the Midian Hotel restaurant, where I had a nice plate of Eritrean “Tibs” – a beef dish and gravy, and some injera. It was also my first encounter with the local beer, called appropriately “Eritrea Beer” which came in a short brown bottle with no label on it…but it was tasty enough.

After lunch (which it turned out wasn’t included in my tour, and set me back almost $30 at the official exchange rate – extremely expensive for East Africa), we continued our tour to the Cathedral of Asmara which was also…closed:

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This was followed by a stop at the Al Khulafa Al Rashiudin Mosque, which was also closed to non-Muslims for prayer hour:

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After this, it was suggested I might like a nap. I think I was dozing off a bit…so we headed back to the hotel just before 3p so I could check into my new hotel and get an hour or two of rest. I was moving to the Asmara Palace Hotel, which was the former Intercontinental. It was $130 a night, quite a step up from the $55 at the Sunshine, but at this point I didn’t care. Oh, and did I mention that even for $130 the “air conditioning hasn’t worked for quite some time.” That would be fine if the hotel was the same temperature as outside, low 70s or so, but for some reason it was an inferno of nearly 80F inside. Opening the windows wasn’t an option with the mosquitoes either. At least they had nice carpeting:

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…and a funky atrium lobby:

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…and a nice pool, complete with outdoor AND indoor versions:

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Took a great 90 minute nap, and at 5pm my driver picked me up to continue our tour a bit. The next stop was the Fiat Tagliero – an old gas that was one of the best examples of art deco architecture in this former Italian colony. It was meant to have the shape of an airplane, and rumour was when it was time to remove the support columns for the “wings” the workers refused to do it because they didn’t trust the architecture, so the designer had to do it himself:

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Stopped at the post office to buy some postcards and mail them next…we’ll see if they ever get delivered!

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Across the way from the post office was the Albergo Italia hotel, which was listed as one of the better hotels in Asmara. The location couldn’t be beat right in the middle of the city, and it’s probably where I’d choose to stay if I was exploring the city on my own and didn’t want to deal with too many taxis. No clue how nice it was inside, however.

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The Roman Catholic church of Asmara:

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More art deco, the Cinema Imperio which supposedly still shows movie along with having a bar inside. Unfortunately it was taken over by a school group when we went past, so we weren’t able to go inside:

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…and our final stop for the evening, the “recycled goods market.” Here you can find just about anything and everything, constructed from recycled junk that people have foraged for. This pic is a good example of the unique transport options in Asmara. Horse and cart, bicycles, I even saw one camel, and several people using donkeys to haul things:

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Back to the hotel, and tonight’s two inside dining options were the buffet (which looked pretty underwhelming) or the Italian restaurant, which looked pretty lively. You can guess which I chose. Delicious lasagna:

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It was approaching 10pm at this point, and I was absolutely exhausted from the last two days and managed to pass out for nearly 10 hours. There was a long daytrip to Massawa planned for the next day!


May 082015
 

Nice thing about this Qatar flight is that it’s late enough it’s still possible to more or less work a full day, and still get to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Since I had the extra time I headed out to the airport with Metrorail, and when I arrived around 6pm at the Qatar Airways check-in there wasn’t another passenger in site. Still took the rather confused agents nearly 15 minutes to check me in (since I was traveling on two separate tickets), but eventually they figured it out and I was off to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse which Qatar uses in DC.

The club was empty when I arrived, and since I’d missed lunch decided to grab a bite from the menu:

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Combo of chicken and beef gyro, which was pretty tasty:

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I was the only one in the lounge when I arrived, which gradually filled up to maybe 20 people tops over the next two hours. I’d read online that the lounge can get super crowded during busy times, but didn’t really have much problem with it. Plenty of space to work, plug in laptops/etc, and lots of seating. Plus full floor to ceiling windows which made for some good plane watching.

Soon, my ride to Doha was pulled up to the gate:

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Continue reading »


Apr 282015
 

So, I posted a couple months back about Eritrea. How I waited eight weeks and still didn’t have a visa, and then the day after I got home from the trip…the visa on arrival was approved. Initially, I thought I only had 30 days to use it, but then when I got the scanned copy I saw it was valid for three months…which was nice, because I really didn’t have the energy to turn right back around and head back to Africa.

Played around with routings for a bit, and then US Airways was merged into the American program, meaning I had plenty of miles to make things work. To top it off, I had to learn about OneWorld, and how to book OneWorld awards which was a new one for me. One cool thing is that business class with US Airways to North Africa/Middle East was only 100,000 miles return. What a bargain!

One small catch: US Airways doesn’t recognize that Eritrea exists. At all. They wouldn’t let you book a ticket to Asmara. So, I did the next best thing and looked for Doha. Why Doha? Because another learning experience I had is that BA awards are based on distance, and I could get roundtrip from Doha to Asmara with BA Avios for 30,000 miles in business…and those miles could easily be transfered from American Express Membership Rewards…which happened instantly.

So, getting to Doha would be easy…nonstop from DC/Dulles to Doha on Qatar Airways was available on the way I wanted, so that was all sorted and easy. But getting home, there was just nothing. I searched everything across the atlantic in a three day span…and still nothing. Then…I thought…what about Finnair, aren’t they in OneWorld? They are…and I found Helsinki to JFK on the last day that would work. Now, getting from Doha to Helsinki was the challenge…wait, isn’t Qatar flying the new A350 from Doha to Frankfurt? I’m sure it’s not available…wait…it is!

I absolutely love Helsinki, so sure, it’s longer than Doha-DC, but in exchange I get not only the A350 but also a couple of days in Helsinki in Spring. Not complaining at all!

So, I mailed the tour company back. “We do not know…It has been almost three months, they might be suspicious of such an old visa on arrival. We cannot guarantee your entrance.” Well, I have the printout, and that should get me on the plane, so let’s hope this all works out as it’s under a week away now. I’ll do my best to update in more or less real time (except Eritrea, since from what I understand internet is miserable there) but if not…be patient. I’m having shoulder surgery the day after I get back which is going to make one-handed typing for the next month very, very slow going!

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