Jul 282016
 

Unfortunately,we had a super early flight back to Ashgabat the next morning. It’s very hard to find information about Turkmenistan Airlines online, so we just went with whatever scheduled the tour company had proposed. In retrospect, we should have suggested times that worked a bit better and avoided super early wake-up calls. But no big deal.

Short drive back to the Mary Airport, which was absolutely empty…or at least it felt empty. Our flight turned out to be rather full in the end, but thankfully in the waiting room there was a snack bar where we could get a little something for breakfast. Snickers bar and “Black Bruin” Turkish energy drink….the breakfast of champions!

IMG_1869

We had a rather long walk out to the plane, but did manage to get an empty seat between us for the short flight back to Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan Airlines flight 128
Mary, Turkmenistan (MYP) to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 08:35, Flight Time: 0:40
Boeing 717-200, Registration EZ-A106, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 115,307
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,444

The 717 was in an all-economy configuration, but who needs pre-departure beverages when every passenger gets offered a pre-departure candy?

IMG_1876

Flight was quick and uneventful, and as we got off the flight, I noticed the plane still had ancient Aeroflot supplies in the overhead. Not too sure what it would be, but chances are it was at least 25 years old:

IMG_1877

Our driver/guide Serder was waiting for us at the airport, and we headed out of town to the Turkmenbashy Mosque. Capable of holding nearly 10,000 worshipers, we were told that most of the time it sits empty.

IMG_1878

The reason it sits empty is that along with verses from the Koran inscribed on the building, Turkmenbashy (the first President of Turkmenistan) ordered verses from the Ruhnama to be inscribed as well. The Ruhnama is a book he “wrote” giving the guidelines for living a good life. Most people of Turkmenistan consider it wrong to have anything not from the Koran on a mosque, so they avoid going to this one whenever possible:

IMG_1879

Next door to the mosque was Turkmenbashy’s crypt, where you could go inside and see his tomb. Unlike Lenin, however, it wasn’t a glass case so you couldn’t actually see if he was really inside or not:

IMG_1881

Across the street was the small town of Gypjak, where Turkmenbashy is said to be born. Of course this is commemorated with a giant golden statue of him unveiling the Ruhnama:

IMG_1884

We drove through the streets, and while this was supposed to be a model village given its importance as the birthplace of the president, it was pretty unremarkable. We then headed out of the city to explore the Kow-Ata cave lake and its supposed healing waters. It was a bit over an hour drive to the lake, where we were promptly fleeced for over $10 each for the privilege. It was a rather long walk down the slippery steps into the cave, which was incredibly hot and humid inside:

IMG_1886

When we got to the bottom, there were several local guys swimming in the murky water. It was too dark to see how clean it really was, but since I have an aversion to bringing amoebas and parasites home as souvenirs from vacation, I decided to give swimming a miss…which seemed to seriously disappoint our guide. The locals down there encouraged us to join them swimming, and when we said thanks but no thanks, one pointed out that we were not only missing out on the magical healing waters (let’s get real…it’s underground and heated by thermal power…and it’s not clear how the water gets recycled…oh and it smelled like pee), but we were also missing out on swimming under Turkmenistan’s largest colony of bats! Um, get me out of here!

When we got to the top we were encouraged to have lunch from one of the local shashlik stands. I went with the lamb, and Ian went with a mix of lamb and chicken. The next morning, waiting for our flight back to Moscow, that was to be a decision he regretted! Stay away from sketchy semi-grilled birds! The lamb, however, was delicious!

IMG_1890

After this, we convinced our driver we had had enough for the day, and were happy to head back to the hotel. Partly, I needed their fast internet as I had a change in plans which meant I wouldn’t be able to join Ian in Crimea. I spent the next couple of hours frantically trying to change flights, and ended up with a strange itinerary that would take me back home for a day in Moscow followed by Novosibirsk, Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, and finally Australia and Hong Kong!

This would be a good time to show that not only the lobby of the Yyldz Hotel was grand, but the rooms were absolutely huge. The bedroom:

IMG_1892

Desk and work space behind the bed:

IMG_1893

Long foyer leading into the room:

IMG_1894

Glamourous washroom, complete with Bvlgari amenities:

IMG_1896

We were both pretty beat from the early morning and the heat, so after I got my flights all sorted we had a final celebration dinner in the hotel’s top floor sports bar. It was pretty lively and hopping…with the two of us being the only people there!

The next morning was super early for the second day in a row. All over the capital were these digital displays showing the countdown to the Asian Games coming to Turkmenistan in 2017:

IMG_1899

Check-in at the airport was rather confusing. No english was spoken, and when we asked for the exit row she told us they were all taken. “But you are in business class! Why would you want to move?” Uh, there’s no business class on this plane. She then said “well, ok, but you are in seat 1A and normally you have to pay for that. I can put your friend in seat 1B.” Ok, good enough for me. Through immigration which took nearly an hour due to a line of travelers that clearly never traveled (and a sketchy-looking Ukrainian woman who got hauled into a side room with her teen son for questioning), but eventually we made it through for our second airport cafe breakfast in two days.

Today it was Royce brand energy drink, which tasted remarkably similar to the Bruin from the day before…and another Snickers bar. Ian, however, was having none of it, still dealing with the revenge of the sketchy grilled bird from the day before:

IMG_1900

Soon we boarded, and indeed just about every seat was taken. There were only 10 free seats, including the entire second row along with 1C so we ended up with an empty seat between us. Turns out the first 2-3 rows are “extra legroom” which meant maybe an extra inch or two, and you have to pay for them. I have no idea how we ended up in them (connecting flight in Business? OneWorld Emerald status? who knows) but we were very thankful for the empty middle and nobody reclining into us:

S7 Airlines flight 970
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB) to Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME)
Depart 08:05, Arrive 09:50, Flight Time: 3:45
Airbus A319, Registration VP-BTP, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 116,842
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,306,979

Taxiing for takeoff we passed some of Turkmenistan Airlines’ fleet, including this Ilyushin IL-76 which occasionally sees service:

IMG_1901

The flight was my first on S7, and the service was pretty good for economy – with both a snack box and a hot meal handed out with a glass of water:

IMG_1902

The snackbox contents were rather spooky…containing fruit/jellow, a beet and carrot salad, a packaged slice of bread, and a chocolate/hazelnut snack. I had the bread and candy bar, and then noticed the ketchup, which came in handy, because…

IMG_1904

….this giant mystery meat ball was much tastier with ketchup on it!

IMG_1905

We actually arrived in Moscow slightly early, where although it was a sunny day it was majorly colder than in Ashgabat. It was just barely 60 degrees fahrenheit mid morning and wasn’t forecast to get much warmer.

Despite arriving at a jetbridge, we had to walk down stairs to a waiting bus which transported us to the terminal. We had likely arrived at a domestic gate, so they had to bus us over to the immigration area. Since I was staying in Moscow a few days, and Ian was off to Crimea, we had to clear passport control here in Moscow. The lines were incredibly confusing and and when I got to the front I got a rather quizzical agent. “Why are you coming to Moscow? Where else will you go? Why?” When I told her my next stop was Novosibirsk, because I had studied there in early 1989, her eyes lit up. “1989? Novosibirsk in the winter? In the Soviet times?” When I confirmed, she just mumbled “I’m sure it has changed…” and with that I was stamped into Russia.

We went on to find a cash machine to get Ian some cash for Crimea since it operates on a total cash economy, and then we said our goodbyes and I was off to the Aeroexpress train into the city…


Jul 252016
 

After exiting the airport in Mary our driver was waiting for us. Loaded the bags in his car, and headed off to the hotel. Mary definitely didn’t have as many monuments and white marble as Ashgabat, but there were still some monuments:

IMG_1820

On our way to the hotel, our driver/guide seemed unusually quiet. After a while, I asked him something, and he became much chattier. It turned out he just didn’t speak more than a few words of English, and was quiet assuming we didn’t speak Russian. Things got a bit better from there, but the next couple of days were going to be a bit of a challenge!

Got to our hotel, the Hotel Mary, which wasn’t nearly as grand as the Yyldz Hotel in Ashgabat, but it did have it’s moments…like this sitting room off to the side of the lobby:

IMG_1824

First room I was given when I went in the window was open…and wouldn’t shut. I went down to tell the guy at the front desk that the room was really warm because the window wouldn’t shut, and he insisted that I just didn’t know how to close it. Uh, ok. Sent someone up to the room to check it out for me and he confirmed, surprisingly, that the window indeed wouldn’t close. I was given another room just two down from that one, and everything was fine from there. The hotel was comfortable enough and the AC worked well enough, so it would definitely do for a couple of nights. Plus, Ian’s room had a great view of the empty pool. I mean, if you can’t fill the pool in the middle of summer, when can you!

13838459_839438002498_1915239130_o

Next step up was to grab something to eat and drink, so we headed down to the hotel restaurant. It was rather short on ambiance and looked more like a cafeteria, and so we asked for a menu. “No menu.” Uh, ok, could we get a couple of beers. The guy went in the back room and came out a minute later “no beers.” Apparently the hotel restaurant wasn’t really much of a restaurant, so we retreated to the WiFi to scope out the options.

The only restaurant on TripAdvisor with more than one review (and there were only five restaurants to begin with) was the Cafe Gyzylgum, about a 20 minute walk away. It was still around 105 degrees fahrenheit, but there was a bit of  breeze so we decided to brave it. The walk wasn’t too bad, it was sidewalk the whole way, except for one point where we had to dash across a rather major street. When we arrived, the place was absolutely packed with locals, but they did find us a table upstairs right by the air conditioner!

Overall this place was perfect! A few ice cold beers, fantastic pelmeni in broth as a rather heavy starter, and some pizza to finish it off. The place was a great find and the only slight downside were the “no smoking” signs that were posted everywhere – but completely ignored. In fairness, the group of rather wasted guys at the table next to us did ask nicely when we started at them after they lit up if we minded which then lead to an interesting conversation about their favourite American sports teams. Headed back to the hotel, and crashed. I should mention, this bizzarre park that had all these animal statues along the walk:

13833591_839437982538_444078501_o

Up somewhat early to get some breakfast before heading out to see the Merv historical site. The driver had originally proposed leaving at 8am because “it is very hot” but we convinced him to wait until 9am. Fortunately, it was very cloudy out, and even an on and off sprinkle, which apparently never happens during the summer in Mary. I guess we were just lucky, because it kept the temperatures very reasonable and without the direct sun it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast, however, was another story. The restaurant was actually open, but not doing much better than the night before. They did have a very small buffet set out, and it was just enough to make breakfast. Toast, some hard boiled eggs, and some pre-packaged little chocolate cakes. There was coffee and tea, but it was quite an ordeal to get it. The instant coffee seemed to be rationed by the teaspoon (one per guest) and getting a tea bag was also seemingly a difficult request. It was just enough to fuel up for the day, however.

We drove for about an hour, and our first stop was the Mosque of Talkhatan Baba from the 11th century. It’s supposedly a relatively major pilgrimage site, though it’s unclear exactly why:

IMG_1826

There were a couple of pilgrims doing laps of the sarcophaguses while we were there:

IMG_1828

Though many archeologists agree it was built in 1095, for whatever reason the official story is that it was built in the 12th century:

IMG_1829

Our next stop was the visit the ruins of a 20th century madrassah which was being restored, seemingly by one very old man. A few student dwellings:

IMG_1830

More ruins of the madrassah:

IMG_1831

Ruins of the old minaret….Ian had to climb it:

IMG_1832

Next stop was to head off to our main site for the day, the Merv historical site, which is designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. The area dates back to at least the 8th century BC and one of the major contributors to its growth as a city was that it was the first place in central Asia where irrigation appeared and thus it became a major stopping/trading point on the old silk road. It’s also thought that at some point in the 12th century Merv was the largest city in the world. Over the centuries it traded hands from the Turks to the Mongols and eventually to the Uzbeks who completely destroyed it. The current ruins comprise at least five ancient cities, and honestly I was really let down by the state of repair of them:

IMG_1836

There is some attempt at restoration, but very little of the original remains:

IMG_1840

Crypts:

IMG_1841

One rather cool ruin that was still largely in tact was the great icehouse from the 12th century. These were cooled to store meats during the summer. They would be packed with snow and ice during the winter, and it would remain frozen through the summer – rather impressive given the 110+ fahrenheit temperatures:

IMG_1843

Inside the icehouse:

IMG_1844

IMG_1845

Next we drove to a vantage point where if you wanted to climb the big hill, you could supposedly get a good view. I would guess it was a nearly 20-25 degree incline at a minimum, but we managed to scramble up:

IMG_1846

From the top, you could see our driver waiting down below with the car:

13833020_839437977548_911393536_o

Walking along the ridge at the top, you can see Ian about 200 metres further down:

IMG_1850

…and his view of me:

13833412_839437987528_570482670_o

Next stop in Merv was the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. It was built in the 12th century, and legend has it the size was determined in order to allow approaching caravans on the silk road to spot it from a day’s journey away. Inside the mausoleum:

IMG_1858

IMG_1859

The crypt of Sultan Sanjar, who reigned over the area when it was likely the largest city in the world:

IMG_1860

Pilgrims walking around the crypt:

IMG_1861

IMG_1862

Next up, yet another mausoleum. This time of Mohammad ibn Zayed…or Mohammad, the son of Zayed. The crypt:

IMG_1864

Arabic script on the walls of the mausoleu

IMG_1866

Outside the mausoleum:

IMG_1867

After we finished seeing Merv, it was time to drive back to Mary. Being time for a late lunch (it was around 2pm at this point) our driver took us to what he said was the best restaurant in town. You guessed it, it was the place we had dinner the night before! Had another tasty meal, and then set out to do a bit more sightseeing.

First stop was the local Orthodox Church:

IMG_1868

Second stop in the city was the Mary Museum, which was completely empty except for us, but was really rather large, with several good exhibits spread over two levels. The biggest shock was that we got a guide in the museum who spoke English rather well. He guided us through the exhibits, which were everything from local current artwork to stuffed taxidermy of local animals and birds, and tons of items excavated from the area around Merv. There were also exhibitions on local costumes, local rugs, and tons and tons of pottery, coins, etc. It was definitely interesting, and despite being the only ones in the museum we managed to spend almost two hours there.

The funniest part came when we were getting ready to leave the museum. Another of the workers came up to us, having noticed the hockey tattoo on my leg. He only spoke Russian and asked where we were from. I told him Washington, and he asked “and do you play hockey?” I said yes, and he gave me a big thumbs up and said Ovechkin! Then he pretty much demanded to pose for a picture with us. I think he probably assumed that hockey + washington = playing with ovechkin, so he had to have a picture with me. It was absolutely priceless. I was seriously fading by this point, so we went back to the hotel where I ended up taking a short nap.

When I checked my email after the nap, I got some news that meant it was very unlikely I would be able to join Ian in Crimea for the next leg of our trip. This is probably a good place to talk about internet. There was no phone roaming available, which meant no checking email, data, etc except for at the hotel where there was wifi. Even when there was wifi, lots of services were blocked including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. This was solved by downloading a VPN for my phone, which allowed me to get to those sites…when it was working. It was a minor frustration for our four nights in Turkmenistan, but one which was well worth it for the cool sites!

After the nap we ended up heading out for a walk to the same place for dinner again, followed by getting to bed early. We had a super early flight back to Ashgabat in the morning for our last full day in Turkmenistan.


Jul 222016
 

After getting to bed around 1am it was nice to be able to sleep in a bit. We didn’t have a ton on the agenda for today since it was mainly just a bit of final sightseeing around Ashgabat before a late afternoon flight to Mary. First stop was the Tolkucha Bazaar, otherwise known as the Altyn Asyr Bazaar. It was opened in 2011 to replace the old bazaar, and like so many of the new buildings in Ashgabat it was built to resemble something. The most famous product for sale are the red Turkmen rugs, so the buildings of the bazaar were of course built in the shape of a common patter on these rugs.

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in the bazaar, and frankly I thought the whole place was a huge letdown. Nothing terribly interesting for sale – lots of computer gear and such, a small area selling fruits/vegetables, and tons and tons of clothing. Nothing interesting, however…I was hoping maybe for a fun Turkmenistan t-shirt or something, but nothing at all. Looked to be mostly surplus clothing from the US/Europe. I did manage to get one shot of the area between some of the buildings, mainly to prove there were at least some people walking around:

IMG_1756

Perhaps the most interesting part of the bazaar was trying to park, because there were hundreds and hundreds of cars dropping people off and picking them up. There were certainly lots of people walking around, and maybe our guide failed to show us the most interesting part of the bazaar, but I failed to see the attraction to local citizens as there wasn’t even a lively place for common products that we could see.

Our guide was seeming a bit puzzled by what more he could show us for the rest of the day, so I asked if we could go take pictures of the “World’s Largest Indoor Ferris Wheel” that we had driven by the previous day. He agreed that would be a good idea, so off we went. View of the ferris wheel from the car park:

IMG_1758

A little perspective on how big the thing is…nearly 300 feet high:

IMG_1759

There were maybe 10 other people there – I can’t imagine this thing makes any money. Waiting in line to ride…total cost was maybe $3 or so for a 10 minute or so ride:

IMG_1760

View from about halfway up:

IMG_1762

Inside mechanics:

IMG_1766

What we didn’t know, is the ferris wheel is part of the “Alem Cultural and Entertainment Complex.” This meant there was a giant arcade and video games. Ian couldn’t resist one of the driving games…I’ll let him comment on just how awesome he did…

IMG_1768

I mean seriously, how can you resist a shooting game called “The Hillbilly’s” [sic] in the middle of Turkmenistan?

IMG_1772

IMG_1776

There was also some terrorist/hostage game, which Ian had to take a crack out. Only a few innocent hostages perished:

IMG_1778

After spending an hour there, our guide suggested we go to the Ashgabat Cable Car. It’s an approximately 4km long ride from the city of Ashgabat up into the Kopetdag Mountains which form the border with Iran. Waiting to board:

IMG_1781

View on the way up:

IMG_1782

Once we got to the top, the view of the mountains was great:

IMG_1784

IMG_1787

We had lunch at the top, and sat enjoying the outdoors for around an hour before taking the ride down. A short way into the ride down we crossed this strip of land. This was the “first line” defence zone between the old Soviet Union and Iran. It’s still barbed wire on both sides of the strip, and there are guard towers and motion sensors. Since so much of the border is mountainous and difficult to patrol this is meant to be a buffer zone for anyone who made it this far over the border:

IMG_1789

By the time we got back it was time to head straight to the airport for our domestic flight to Mary. We were hoping for a bit of drama that might mean one of their few flightworthy old Soviet planes would be pressed into service, but it was not to be. Check-in was very easy, as was security. We only had to wait about 15 minutes before it was time to board.

Turkmenistan Airlines flight 131
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB) to Mary, Turkmenistan (MYP)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 18:00, Flight Time: 0:40
Boeing 737-700, Registration EZ-A008, Manufactured 2009, Seat 20D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 115,112
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,249

The plane was hot. Very hot. It was nearly 110F outside, and the ground air conditioning unit wasn’t working despite this being a relatively new 737. We finally found out where all the people are in Turkmenistan…apparently on board our completely full plane:

IMG_1790

IMG_1791

Mini bottles of water and candies were passed out, and there’s not much else to say about the quick 40 minute flight. It was super bumpy due to the warm outside temps but nothing too bad. Maybe it just seemed bad because we were so far back, and I can’t remember the last time I sat behind the wings! Both coach and business class had pictures of the President to watch over them. Supposedly it’s rare to see the 737 on this route, and they normally run economy-only 717s on the route. Had I had the option, I would definitely have paid the extra for business class since the one way economy ticket was under $40!

IMG_1793

Welcome to Mary Airport…picture of the President greeting you on the rather long walk (maybe 200m or so) into the terminal building:

IMG_1801

Mary Airport from the car park.

IMG_1804

Now it was off to the hotel to enjoy two nights in Mary!


Jul 202016
 

Tried to sleep in a bit, but due to the time zones was up super early. Got to breakfast shortly after 7 and they still weren’t open but went back a little later and they were. The odd thing, the breakfast buffet was set up in a restaurant that had only one purpose all day: to serve breakfast. It was a huge room, definitely capable of seating a few hundred, but at no time did we ever see more than ten people there. The whole atmosphere was surreal.

The breakfast buffet was also quite large, with plenty of options, included a white chocolate fountain and fruits for dipping. It was a very strange combination of items, but more than enough choices. It actually felt rather wasteful as few people as there were there, but I was happy to get a good start to the day. Shortly after, I got a text from Ian that he had survived the post-terrorist attack chaos at Istanbul Airport and had just arrived in Ashgabat and met the driver. Shortly after he got to the hotel, and we headed out to do a city tour.

First stop was the ancient settlement of Nissa. The site is located about 10 miles outside of Ashgabat, and the driver said we should do it first thing in the morning since it involved a good deal of walking and it would be better to start before it got too hot. It was already nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit at 9am, so this sounded like a good plan. Nissa was a settlement of the Parthian Empire which lasted around 500 years from 250 or so BC to 250 or so AD. The Parthian Fortresses of Nissa are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but excavation has been slow. In order to protect the sites from the elements, many of them have been covered in mud temporarily to protect them. Here’s one spot where the mud was peeled aside to show just a little of what’s underneath:

IMG_1658

Part of the old fortresses, partially restored. It was difficult to tell what was original, and what was restored:

IMG_1659

Obviously, this part is mostly restored:

IMG_1662

We wandered around for an hour or so, but it was really difficult to get much sense of the place because so much of it still had yet to be excavated. It was still interesting to see, but having seen so many other ancient ruins at places like Leptis Magna in Libya, this was more than a little bit underwhelming. I asked if we would be seeing the tall rotating statue of Turkmenbashi that used to sit in the city, and it was announced that was where we would go next.

The statue has been placed outside the city now, and while the gold statue of Turkmenbashi still stands atop, he no longer rotates so he is always facing the sun. According to our guide, this may actually be a legend, as nobody admits to remembering seeing it rotate in the past. I guess this is what happens when one ruler-for-life is replaced by another. The monument is known as the Neutrality Monument, built to commemorate Turkmenistan’s status as the only officially neutral state in the world:

IMG_1666

Great views of the City of White Marble from above the viewing platform:

IMG_1672

Although you can’t really see it in the pictures, one of the interesting features is that all of the government ministry buildings (which were absolutely huge and made of white marble) were constructed in the shape of what they were in charge of. For example, there was the ministry of health located near the local medical university. The building for dental studies was shaped like a large tooth, for example. The Foreign Ministry had a large globe on the roof, with Turkmenistan outlined in gold. The Ministry of Health itself was shaped like a giant syringe. We were told that one joke was if the University ever opened a department of OB/GYN studies you had to wonder what the building will be shaped like…

IMG_1676

Funicular up one of the legs of the tripod, and from there you take an elevator to the observation deck:

IMG_1678

Looking up at the monument from below:

IMG_1680

Last stop before lunch was the Turkmenistan Independence Monument, surrounded by famous people from Turkmen history. None more important, of course, than the leader himself:

IMG_1683

IMG_1685

Celebrating Turkmenistan’s independence, and trying to look half as fierce as the guys in the background:

IMG_1694

IMG_1695

IMG_1697

After a morning of monuments, we headed back to the hotel to get some lunch, and get out of the heat of the day. Before heading back, however, we needed to change some money. A very…favourable rate…was obtained, and suddenly prices didn’t seem to be quite as much of a rip off. On the way back to the Yyldz Hotel we stopped at the National Wedding Complex, complete with its own hotel for guests who come from outside the capital to get married: Definitely an interesting architecture:

IMG_1698

View of the city from the hill outside the Yyldz Hotel:

IMG_1699

We grabbed lunch at the hotel restaurant, not to be confused with the breakfast restaurant. This one was on the second floor from the top, complete with white tablecloths and a very formal atmosphere…and nobody other than us eating. Grabbed a couple of club sandwiches and beers, and took a couple hour nap before our long evening excursion.

After resting up, it was time to begin the approximately three hour drive out to Darvaza to see the flaming gas craters. We had originally planned to camp near the crater and spend the night, but being exhausted and in need of a good night of sleep we opted to drive back afterwards and just sleep in in the morning.

The drive itself was pretty uneventful, and the road was in decent condition most of the way. We stopped at a small village near the crater to stock up on important supplies: local beer and snickers bars. Definitely the dinner of champions!

First stop was the “water crater” and yup, it was filled with water. It was easy to climb over the security ropes, and get very close to take pictures. I definitely didn’t want to fall the 50+ feet down into the crater, however. Pretty obvious there would be no easy way out!

IMG_1705

Second stop was the “mud crater” which clearly had some gas burning off as well, but there was lots of bubbling mud. Again, you could get really close, and in this case falling in was definitely not going to have a good outcome:

IMG_1708

After these two craters we headed off to the final stop, the flaming gas crater. On the way, it was a bit of offroading through some very desertesque landscape:

IMG_1711

Final stop, the Darvaza Gas Crater, otherwise known as the Door to Hell. It collapsed in 1971, and geologists set it on fire because local nomads kept wandering into the area and dying from all the poisonous gasses being released. They had expected the gas to burn off quickly, but now nearly 45 years later it is still going. The crater is more than 200 feet across and 70 feet deep:

IMG_1712

As the sun began to set, we wandered up onto a nearby hill to take some pictures:

IMG_1720

Ian looking down on the crater from the hill:

IMG_1724

Sunset. You can’t tell from the picture, but there was an extremely strong wind in the open area, and I can’t imagine pitching a tent to camp there. It would definitely been a very windy and very uncomfortable night:

IMG_1736

Sunset, with the crater in the distance:

IMG_1739

IMG_1740

Shortly after sunset, the crater gave a brilliant glow against the night sky:

IMG_1744

Looking evil next to the flaming crater at night. It was hard to stand this close because of the extreme heat:

IMG_1747

One last look:

IMG_1752

By this point we were quite tired, and I’m pretty sure I slept on and off (mostly on) for the rest of the drive back to Ashgabat. We arrived around 12:30am, and I crashed hard for nearly 9 hours from exhaustion. Coming back was definitely the better call, because with a 4am sunrise, combined with sleeping in a tent it would have been very difficult to get enough quality sleep. Next up, time to see a bit more of Ashgabat and then head to Mary and see the Ancient City of Merv.


Jul 172016
 

Upon arrival at Dubai, despite being in first on Lufthansa, I was absolutely exhausted. Didn’t want to deal with getting any local currency and getting a cab, so took a black car from the airport since they accept credit cards. Was about a 30-35 minute drive to the hotel, and the small premium for air conditioned comfort and not needing to deal with local currency was more than worth it.

For a normal stay in Dubai I’ve been staying at the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates which is a great property with excellent SPG platinum recognition, but this time I was trying to complete an SPG promo by staying of all 11 of their brands in a year. Since the Grosvenor House was a member of the Luxury Collection, which I hadn’t yet stayed in had a very reasonable rate I figured it was a good place for an overnight.

Arrival was great – they had upgraded me to a nice suite which was way more space than I needed for a short overnight. Got to the room, cranked down the AC which struggled to get cool but was just barely acceptable, had a shower, and quickly passed out. Body clock was way off, but I managed a solid five hours or so of sleep before giving up and going down for an early breakfast.

The breakfast at the hotel was a huge impressive spread and one of the more impressive offerings I’ve seen from an SPG property. Friends Daniel and Rianda who live in Dubai were nice enough to come by the hotel for coffee before I had to head to the airport early – was great to see them and thanks to them for making the early trek out to the hotel!

Got ready to go to the airport, and that’s where the drama started. One of the benefits of suites at this property is it includes complimentary airport transfers. SPG policy is that when upgraded to a room, you are entitled to all the benefits of the room. The hotel refused to honour this, and insisted on charging me something approaching $100 for the transfer. I told them fine, go ahead put it on the bill, and I’ll make sure to take it up with SPG later. They made a “one time exception” and did it complementary, but supposedly this hotel has a history of this. They need to make up their mind: either stop upgrading people to suites, or provide the benefits.

That said, the transfer was extremely comfortable, and made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare before my flight. That, of course, also meant time for Starbucks! Since it was Ramadan, I had to have my coffee behind the screens of shame so nobody fasting had to watch me consume it:

IMG_1623

FlyDubai has a small lounge now in Dubai T2 and I spent maybe five minutes there to grab some water before the flight. The best part, however, is that there is a separate boarding gate for business class passengers and you get a private bus to the plane. Anyone who’s ever dealt with the chaos of T2 will certainly appreciate this. It was a nice touch!

FlyDubai flight 731
Dubai, UAE (DXB) to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration A6-FEL, Manufactured 2014, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,917
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,054

PDB was offered: water, water, or….water!

IMG_1625

I love FlyDubai’s safety video, I find the animated characters and their expressions to be hysterical. This guy looks absolutely terrified to be flying:

IMG_1628

These ladies look equally terrified:

IMG_1630

…maybe they knew the oxygen masks were about to fall down:

IMG_1632

Wow, not only business class but also a menu on a low cost carrier? FlyDubai was doing better than domestic airlines in the US by far!

IMG_1636

FOUR choices of meal? Wow, impressive!

IMG_1637

 

I went with the chicken which was decent, but far from memorable. But, then again, they not only knew what a mimosa was, and were happy to provide as many refills as I wanted:

IMG_1639

Soon, we were on approach to Ashgabat. Note the green roofs on all the buildings:

IMG_1641

Passing the centre of the new city on approach…Ashgabat is known as the “City of White Marble” for a reason apparently:

IMG_1645

I had arranged for visa on arrival, and the process was a bit confusing…..since the office marked “Wisa” in the arrivals hall was dark when I arrived I assumed that you just got it from the guy at the immigration counter. Wrong. By the time he’d sent me back to the (now open) visa booth there was a bit of a line. No big deal. Handed over the visa on arrival fee of $86 plus the registration tax of $15, and quick and easy got the very nice and unique visa sticker.

After the long wait for the visa and finally immigration stamp, by the time I got into the arrivals hall my driver was already waiting for me. We were off to the hotel so I could rest up before Ian arrived on a redeye from the recently-attacked Istanbul Airport at 7a and we set off for touring. I was very thankful to have a night to recover!

The standard hotel proposed with the tour looked “adequate” but when I heard there was a “North Korean style over the top supposed five star hotel” I insisted we pay to upgrade. First approach to the Yyldz Hotel, which is supposed to be shaped like a teardrop, and was built by the major French construction firm Bouygues to be highly seismic resistant. See, in 1948 most of Ashgabat was leveled by one of the largest earthquakes ever on record outside the pacific rim, with a magnitude of 7.3 and estimates are that over 100,000 people were killed. The Yyldz Hotel from outside:

IMG_1700

The extremely understated lobby:

IMG_1651

IMG_1653

Checked in to my room, which was absolutely palatial for a “standard” room. There were only like 8 rooms per floor, and the entire place seemed rather deserted. It was overall a really surreal experience, and very similar to my experience in North Korea in that the whole place just seemed kind of empty. Had dinner in the top floor sports bar, where I was the only person eat…and watching the Euro football championships. (Sorry, Poland.) Had dinner and a couple of very overpriced (at the official exchange rate) $10 beers and crashed early. Next day was going to be the tour of Ashgabat city!


Jul 132016
 

One of the nice things arriving at Frankfurt in the morning is there’s not such a heaving mass of humanity at immigration. Wait, why was I clearing immigration if I was just connecting between international flights? Well, I had over three hours for my connection, which meant two things: I had time to go to the landside Starbucks (of course!) and two: I was finally going to check out the First Class Terminal.

All my other transits of Frankfurt I’ve been content just going to the first class lounge, which honestly has facilities just as nice as the terminal. But, the First Class Terminal is something special that only Frankfurt does, and I figured I should finally do it. After grabbing Starbucks, I headed downstairs from the check-in level (key point here), out the front of the terminal, walked left for 5-10 minutes, and I was at the elevator to head into the terminal. I think they’re more used to people driving to the terminal (since it really is meant to be a Frankfurt-origin terminal) but no problem at all.

Grabbed a quick shower, and asked the attendants if they could arrange any of the UEFA special edition rubber duckies. No problem, she would search for them while I was showering. As usual, the lounge was heated to a temperature somewhere between roasting and blazing hot, and even a good 15 minute cool shower didn’t help too much. Oh well, the biggest downside of Lufthansa in my book.

Since I hadn’t had breakfast on the plane, I decided to actually have a formal sit-down in the restaurant in the terminal – something else I’ve never done before because I’m always too full from the shorter transatlantic. The sit down menu:

IMG_1587

I had unfortunately just missed breakfast, so lunch it would be. My Wiener Schnitzel arrived maybe ten minutes later, and was an absolutely huge piece…and served with a super tasty potato salad and a couple other sides. Naturally, some champagne to go along with it:

IMG_1588

Look at the size of that cheese wheel on the buffet…it’s like they knew I was coming!

IMG_1589

There was a glass case in the lounge showing many of the limited edition ducks they’ve given away over the years. Just wish I had more of them. A bit of polite begging and I was able to get a couple extra UEFA ones, so if anyone out there is interested in a trade….

IMG_1593

Unfortunately no Porsche for me today, but still a rather nice ride to the plane:

IMG_1595

Lufthansa flight 630
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Dubai, UAE (DXB)
Depart 14:05, Arrive 22:30, Flight Time: 6:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKD, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 114,022
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,304,159

Upon boarding, I was only one of two in first class on this flight, and the other passenger informed the purser she would skip eating and sleep the entire flight because she was fasting for Ramadan. Works for me! The usual macadamia nuts and champagne to start things off:

IMG_1596

Today’s menu:

IMG_1597

IMG_1598

Amuse bouche:

IMG_1603

Have champagne, am happy:

IMG_1605

The great thing about inflight internet is you can chat with other friends who are also in-flight. A quick chat with my friend Jason on his American Airlines London to JFK flight revealed that I was much happier to be flying Lufthansa First than American today. This looks one step above cat food:

IMG_1606

Whew, now that that trauma was over, we can get onto the serious business: caviar. Large serving number one:

IMG_1607

…and since I was the only passenger eating today, well, this might have happened after serving one was gone:

IMG_1613

All three appetizers and salad. The only one I was really a fan of was the tuna. The grilled vegetables and goat cheese was also decent, but I wasn’t a big fan of the other one.

IMG_1614

This is where it got interesting…I decided since it’s Spargelsaison, which is apparently a big deal in Germany, I went with the asparagus entree, and it was absolutely delicious. The sauce really made the dish, and there were some smoked meats served on the side to ensure the carnivore inside you stayed happy.

IMG_1615

I was getting seriously full by this point, but I had to try the cheese…in the name of science.

IMG_1617

…and finally the chocolate dessert which was absolutely fantastic and worth the splurge. It also paired really nicely with the wine I was drinking. Thankfully I was already way past full, or there might have been a second.

IMG_1618

That didn’t stop me from a couple chocolates and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue.

IMG_1620

…at which point I passed out. For another three hours. That was the end of the flight. Unfortunately I can’t report back on the snacks that were on offer because I slept right through it, but clearly I hadn’t sleep quick enough on the previous flight. Another extremely solid Lufthansa First experience in the books – and even better – it’s now been several flights since they turned it up to sauna temperatures. Maybe Lufthansa finally has lowered their in flight temperature protocols.

I’m definitely going to miss flying Lufthansa first in the immediate future, but after this trip report is done I think I’m going to do a comparison of first class products. Although Lufthansa isn’t perfect (especially on privacy of the seats) they do as good of overall job as anyone!

Next up, off to the hotel for a rather short night in Dubai, and then on to Turkmenistan!


Jul 102016
 

After exiting the airport I called an Uber, which was slightly confusing to find. Las Vegas has an Uber waiting area in the parking garage, and the signs to find it aren’t great. I suspect the local taxi mafia is behind it, but in the end it worked out fine, and was a convenient way to get to the hotel.

When I booked my hotel, I had one primary motivation: don’t stay anywhere too exciting so I can manage to get a reasonable amount of sleep. I chose the Westin which was off the strip for this reason. Waited in line over ten minutes to check in, and when I did was told they were 100% full, so I ended up with an old unrefurbished room. Pretty poor platinum treatment, but they did offer 500 starpoints as an apology.

That said, the room was cold and functional, and I slept well, so can’t really complain. Best part…they was a Starbucks in the lobby which was great in the morning. I’d definitely stay there again for a quiet Vegas stay if the price were right, but overall for a Vegas hotel it was very, very unimpressive.

Uber to the airport in the morning, where I got a super awesome driver. She’s a kindergarten teacher who drives Uber in the summer “because I meet all sorts of fascinating people.” She was really awesome, and the first driver I’ve ever given a cash tip to! No line at security, and off to the packed Centurion lounge. Was super impressed to see dragonfruit, but the rest was awful. The waffle was rock hard and the eggs were awful, cold, and rubbery. At least there was Veuve…

IMG_1552

Small rant. The lounges are nice enough, but they’re way, way too packed. Maybe that’s expected with a Platinum Card, but they really need to do something for Centurion members. When you pay six times the annual fee, you shouldn’t feel herded into the same cattle lounge. Ok, end rant.

Delta flight 976
Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS) to Los Angeles, California (LAX)
Depart 11:03, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 1:17
Boeing 717, Registration N969AT, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 105,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,295,341

Nothing much to say about this flight. I’d originally booked on American, but it got delayed 90 minutes, so I bought a last minute ticket on Delta which was super reasonable. Short flight, and I recommend the firefly vodka and lemonade as a beverage 😉

Thanks to the semi-new connector tunnel at LAX was able to walk to the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) without having to reclear security. My first time in the Star Alliance first lounge there, and was very nice. Small, but functional and plenty of space that even when it got full it didn’t feel crowded. The menu of to-order items:

IMG_1555

Nothing caught my attention so I decided to stick to the buffet and champers instead:

IMG_1556

Great cheese selection AND macarons? Best lounge in the US for sure!

Was offered an escort to the plane by the lounge agent, which I turned down because it just felt awkward. Should have taken it, because when I got to the gate there was already a huge line to board, and when I walked to the front I got yelled at by a couple of angry Europeans that “we’re all waiting in line here!” Rather than get in an argument I just ignored them and walked to the front of the queue, where the agent was happy to board me right away.

Lufthansa flight 457
Los Angeles, California (LAX) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 15:25, Arrive 11:20 next day, Flight Time: 10:55
Airbus A380, Registration D-AIMH, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 111,010
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,301,147

Nice matronly crew today, and it didn’t take long for bubbles and macadamia nuts to appear:

IMG_1557

Today’s menu:

IMG_1559

IMG_1560

IMG_1561

IMG_1562

IMG_1563

IMG_1564

Did something I never do, and changed into the pyjamas before the door closed. This was a long flight, and I wanted to be comfortable. Oh, and first was full today…three couples obviously on “once in a lifetime” trips and their excitement was contagious. They were all in their PJs the moment they got them, and I have to admit it kind of felt like a fun pyjama party up in there! Other reason is I was nervous Lufthansa would do it’s “turn up the heat to Mediterranean levels” thing, and I didn’t want to sweat through my clothes. Fortunately, nice and cool today, as it has been my last few flights.

Before the door closed amuse bouche was delivered…mmmm Spargelsaison!

IMG_1567

Shortly after takeoff the crew was quick to action, and it was caviar time:

IMG_1572

I’ve never had such a large portion, AND such an artistic presentation:

IMG_1573

Next, the appetizers came around, and I wasn’t given a choice. I was told I would try all three of them plus the salad. For once, they were all super tasty, and I may have finished it all…

IMG_1575

Took a risk and went with the filet and pork belly main, and it was delicious. The beef was even cooked medium well, which on a plane I consider a huge success! The veg was good, but too much sauce. It was easily avoided though.

IMG_1576

I can never say no to cheese, and today’s selection was super tasty:

IMG_1578

Since it was a long flight, I decided why not keep going. The tart was superb, and washed down with a couple of glasses of Johnny Blue it was delicious. Unfortunately, yet another crew who doesn’t understand “one ice cube.” Oh well!

IMG_1582

Before the meal, the flight attendant asked if I wished to be woken for breakfast. I told her no, on the off chance I was still sleeping. Since it was a far longer flight from the west coast I expected to be awake, but….seven solid hours of sleep, and I was woken up about 20 minutes from landing. Just enough time to get out of the pyjamas and guzzle a bunch of water. Another superb Lufthansa first experience.

After this trip is over, I’m going to do a comparison of first classes from this year, but so far Lufthansa hit another home run! Next up, the first class terminal and onwards to Dubai…


Jul 092016
 

So…I should preface this whole entry by saying that lots and lots of things on this trip didn’t go as planned. Actually, since I’m still in the middle of the trip, who knows what else will change. Originally, it was to be a trip to Turkmenistan to hit country #195 and then a stop in Crimea on the way home (because, hey, why not). Then things got weird. Really weird. But I think suffice to say I’ll just let it unfold segment by segment.

Originally, the plan was to fly DC to Dubai and then pick up a flight with FlyDubai to Ashgabad. Simple and straightforward. I had a booking DC-Zurich-Dubai on an award ticket in United First and Swiss business. Then, about 12 days before departure, Lufthansa first opened up…but not out of DC. Only out of Chicago. Ok, change of plans number one, I’m going to go DC-Chicago-Frankfurt-Dubai with the last two segments in Lufthansa First. I figure since this is my penultimate country trip, I should go big or go home and enjoy it…so Lufthansa First it was to be.

Then, three days before departure, LAX to Frankfurt opened up on the A380 in first. Sold! Of course, when I booked it, I hadn’t really thought about how I was going to get to LA. I could try flights the same morning, but that was a really risky connection. I could go the night before, but fares to LA were outrageous and there were no first class awards. Wait, what’s this…DC to Las Vegas (via Houston) for a really reasonable price? Sold! Ticketed!

Of course, I hadn’t thought about how to go Las Vegas to Los Angeles the next morning, but I figured American, United, Delta and Southwest all fly the route so something would work out.

So, off to the airport it was! It had been so long since I’d flown domestic that I forgot I couldn’t get into the United Club…but that’s what I save those Chase passes for…right? Unfortunately, turns out after handing it over that it had expired. When I asked if they might accept it this one time, her response was “does it LOOK like it’s 2015 to you?!” Uhh…thanks lounge dragon 🙁 You could have just said “sorry, I can’t do that even though I’d like to.” #Phrasing

Boarded right on time, and we’re off to Houston…maybe

United Express flight 6230, operated by Mesa Airlines
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Houston, Intercontinental (IAH)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 18:00, Flight Time: 3:25
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N89313, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A

Upon boarding was offered full open bar for pre-departures, so I went with a red wine and a water. When did United get these funky blue plastic glasses? Hint to United: doesn’t help them look any classier! I set my watch to Houston time and tried to get on vacation time.

IMG_1516

While sipping my 2016 Château l’Oscar I looked out the window and saw this:

IMG_1519

Regulated garbage. A very fitting description for US airline catering these days! Then…the pilot came on. We’ve been given a slot time in one hour due to weather in Houston. Ugh. Oh well, flight attendant was great and offered refills on drinks until five minutes later when the pilot came on and informed us we now had a slot time THREE HOURS later due to weather. I called the 1K line instantly and got a very unhelpful agent who told me there was “nothing at all available.” Even when I asked about Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, LA, Dulles, nope, she said no seats anywhere.

Ugh. Since it was going to be three hours we were told to get off the plane, and I made a beeline for the gate where an amazing agent got me the one and only seat via Chicago. Despite all the pressure he was under he did an amazing job and took care of me. Sure, it was the two things I hate: window seats and bulkhead, but he got me out that day!

So, I headed to the bar to get a drink. Where I wondered, wow, how do I have over an hour until my flight to Chicago yet I still get in sooner. That’s when I realized I’d already set my watch to Houston time, and I was about to miss my flight! Ran to the gate where I was pretty much the last one on board, but I made it!

United flight 565
Washington, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 16:45, Arrive 18:03, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A320, Registration N485UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,066
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,293,591

Still had time for a glass of Château l’Oscar while my seatmate proudly informed me he was on his third PDB beer. Good on you! You’re off to Vegas!

IMG_1525

Pilot announced we “have to shut the doors five minutes ago before we get hit by this line of storms and don’t get out of here!” Totally agree with him…

IMG_1527

After takeoff, there’s not too much to tell. The snack basket came around, and I was glad to see the caramello latte biscotti back in the rotation! Of course, my “water, no ice” wasn’t to be…

IMG_1531

Soon, we were on approach to Chicago. Best part of a window seat is the view:

IMG_1536

Landed a bit early in Chicago, and made the hike from Terminal C to Terminal B. Ran into a friend who’s a flight attendant for United, and by the time we were done chatting it was time to board the Ma and Pa Kettle Express to Vegas, where everyone thinks they’re in group one. Little hint, when they call Global Services for boarding, nobody actually bothers to check your boarding pass, so you can just waltz right on 😉

United flight 599
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS)
Depart 19:35, Arrive 21:36, Flight Time: 4:01
Boeing 737-900, Registration N62889, Manufactured 2015, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,968
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,295,105

Shortly after takeoff, the warm nuts were served. I applaud the new blend which includes pistachios and some other unidentified nut:

IMG_1546

Of course, this ramekin should never have been used. I nicely pointed it out to the FA so she could take it out of rotation, and got a “whatever, lots of them are like that.” Ugh, way to be classy United.

IMG_1547

The most boring and bland looking meal ever. On the positive side, the broccoli and chicken were perfectly cooked, and when combined with the salad made a relatively healthy meal. For once United wasn’t trying to put me in a carb coma. One of the better meals I’ve had in a while domestically, although that’s not saying a whole lot.

IMG_1549

Somewhere after eating this and a couple glasses of wine I passed out…and woke up nearly three hours later just as we were about to land in Vegas:

IMG_1550

Overall, it was a relatively uninteresting set of domestic flights. United’s catering has clearly gotten slightly better, but the grumpy attitudes of a few flight attendants are still detracting from their attempts to do better. Major kudos, however, to ground staff (not club staff) who really took an unfortunate weather situation and turned it around for me. In retrospect, they did the best they could in a bad situation and got me where I needed to be. So overall, a net win for United on this one!

Next up….now….how do I get to Los Angeles? Called an Uber who took me to the Westin Las Vegas, which I’ll review in the next post…


Jun 272016
 

Elite status with airlines is great. At a minimum, you can usually get a better seat on the plane. You also generally earn approximately double the miles each flight when you’re a top-tier elite member with most airlines in the US.

Then, there’s free luggage if checking bags is your thing. I know most top-tier elites go out of their way not to check luggage, but it’s certainly a nice benefit when you need it.

Did someone say upgrades? Most of the US airlines offer unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades to elites – space available of course – which is less and less these days. There’s also the ability to do international upgrades a few times a year with vouchers if you’re a top elite. Definitely a great benefit.

However, at least for me, while trying to do every country the single most valuable benefit is free changes on award tickets. Sometimes, I change tickets a lot because I can’t make up my mind. It’s good to lock things in when you find the availability in case it’s gone later, but other times there’s just a change of plans. Or, say 300 days out, you lock in the only routing available with miles…then closer in, better options open up. Free changes, and you’re good to go.

Then, there’s what happened today…

See, I’ve been wanting a flight on the Lufthansa A380. I got one once from Miami to Frankfurt on Christmas Day a few years ago, but I’ve been dying ever since to do it again. Lufthansa is probably my favourite first product, and doing it on the A380 is as close to perfection as it comes.

Once I decided to splurge the miles for a first award to Dubai to start my Turkmenistan trip, there was no question – I wanted the longest flight possible. Lufthansa generally doesn’t open up first awards until 14 days out, so booking United and changing to Lufthansa at 14 days is the best you can hope for. I did that, and at 12 days, lots of options opened up. Grabbing the Frankfurt to Dubai was a piece of cake. Question then was, how to get to Frankfurt.

DC to Frankfurt is a short flight, and wasn’t available anyways. Chicago to Frankfurt was, and surprisingly DCA to Chicago with United was there too. Put it on hold while I looked for something better. There was Houston to Frankfurt on the A380, but getting to Houston appeared to be a giant pain – and in the meantime the availability was gone. A week went by, and it looked like I was going via Chicago. Until this morning.

The longest Lufthansa flight from the US opened up this morning – LAX to Frankfurt! I grabbed it, not even thinking about how I might get to LAX. 11 hours on the A380 with Lufthansa in first was like a dream. Even managed to get an add-on with United from Las Vegas…but that’s as far as I could backtrack with miles.

I’m seriously short this year of requalifying with United in terms of miles. I’m only at around 50,000 booked so far, so am looking for United options whenever they come up. Found a shockingly cheap first fare from DCA to Las Vegas the night before, and I was set! No, this wasn’t how I expected this trip to go down, but, we have a new routing for the trip:

map-lax

So, plans change, and the only reason I could even consider this is due to elite status. So, bring on one night in Vegas…..and then LA where I will have 6 hours (side trip to In-n-Out Burger perhaps?) and then a super long A380 ride to Frankfurt!


Jun 252016
 

…and then there were two.

After my recent trip to Mali and Mauritania that left me with just two countries to visit on the list of 193 UN Members + 3 countries most of the world agrees are countries. This was to be a simple trip to go to Turkmenistan, since the last time I tried to visit I had some challenges getting the visa.

But, as with most trips I plan, things are never that simple. First monkeywrench was Ian’s fault. “Hey, let’s go to Crimea after Turkmenistan?” I mean, really, you expect me to be able to resist an offer like that?

Then, I had to get back from Crimea. Lots of really cheap fares ex-Russia at the time, and I was thinking…maybe I’ll go to St Petersberg and fly back via Helsinki. Wait, if I’m going to get a Russian visa anyways…I should see more of Russia.

I know…I’ll go to Novosibirsk. See, Novosibirsk is a special place for me. Back in high school, when my world was limited to the US and Canada I wanted to travel abroad…somewhere big and interesting. School study trip to the USSR was offered…in a small town near Novosibirsk called Akademgorodok. That was in 1988. Where better to go right before Iceland than the town where it all began? It was settled…I was going to Novosibirsk after Crimea.

Then…I was thinking. If I’m that far east, I should keep going. I explored going to Vladivostok, to Magadan, to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk…and while I wanted to do it, I felt that it would take more time to do it justice than I had. So, I scrapped that.

It was Ian to the rescue with a great fare…but that meant I had to get to Malaysia. I started looking how to do that…pieced together some stuff, and suddenly I was going from Novosibirsk to Malaysia via Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, and Bangkok…naturally.

If that wasn’t enough, some last minute changes ensured this trip will have outrageous first class flights on Lufthansa, Etihad, and Hong Kong. I’m going to pack gym clothes, because there’s going to be lots of champagne and caviar…because…penultimate country and I’m doing it right!

The route should be set now, insh’allah:

map1213

With that, in just a couple days, I’m off. I’m hoping to do this report in more or less real time…I’m gonna force myself to do it. Fasten your seatbelts, comrades, we’re in for a wild ride!