ironmanjt

Jan 252019
 


Landed in Berlin right on time, and despite over a dozen trips my first time arriving by air and getting to experience the joy that is Tegel airport. For an arrival it wasn’t bad – we got a bus gate, the signs to the area to take the bus to Berlin Hbf station was pretty easy, and overall it wasn’t awful. I was later to find out I was deceived.

I’d decided to forego my princess side, and see if I’d enjoy staying at the Moxy Hotel Ostbanhof. Now, I fully knew that I was getting a very basic hotel, and the room would be tiny. Honestly, the room itself was completely fine, even though the neighbourhood was pretty dead. The service, however, was absolutely abysmal. It took over 20 minutes to check in because they were slow as heck, and the complete lack of desk in the room was not something I could deal with for more than one night. I’d booked the one night as an experiment, and sorry to say…I gave up and went to the Marriott after that. I had work to do, and as fun as working in a common lobby area is for people watching…it’s really not conducive to getting work and writing done.

So right…first time at the Marriott since it was my first post-merger trip, and in the past I’d usually chosen the Westin. I have to say, the Marriott was leaps and bounds above the Westin for me – and will definitely be my hotel of choice going forward in Berlin. Great executive lounge with a super long evening happy hour (albeit a bit crowded at times), and cool artwork as well:

Two of the days I was in Berlin I had a few hours free, so went on two long walks, probably about 12-15km each. Some cool graffiti:

Don’t tell anyone, but my guilty pleasure in Germany is the Starbucks Bretzelsnack and a Caramel Macchiato…

Hey Dotard….I found the wall…it’s already been built AND torn down. Plz to open the US Government back up now kplzthxbye!

Continue reading »

Jan 242019
 


Slept in quite a bit and didn’t make it down to breakfast until just after 10am…which was fine…because strangely the hotel was only serving breakfast starting at 10am. I guess they figured everyone was out past midnight, and nobody would want breakfast at a regular time? Served me perfectly, but if I was the more bah humbug type about New Years Eve, I can see being frustrated.

Regardless, when I got to breakfast at 10:30 or so, I was one of only four or five people in the restaurant. Good breakfast, and had another two hours or so to explore, so I took an Uber about 7km to the train station and decided to walk back to my hotel via the Old Town.

The train station was a good place to start, but unfortunately I got a bit distracted looking at time tables on the wall. I love train travel, and really need to make some time to do Vladivostok to London by train some time soon….with lots of one night stops along the way. I think it would be an epic three week trip!

Right, I finally got undistracted, then headed to the reason I chose the train station to start: a block full of really fun murals.

First up, the Dirty Mexican Wall!  (who knew when I took this three weeks ago there would still be a government shutdown over the wall….) but hey….

…gotta keep out those bad hombres!  (Don’t even get me started on the nasty women!)

The best mural of all….Trump and Putin sharing a joint and shotgunning some smoke. The mural originally showed them sharing a kiss, but I guess that was too controversial and it got vandalized immediately, so now…this is supposedly less controversial?

Hitler, Stalin, and Belarus president Lukashenko….let’s roll the highest joint, not build the highest wall!

Wandering through the streets of old town Vilnius…I really enjoyed the chill and laid-back feeling of the city

The Church of St. Casomir:

Back to Cathedral Square, don’t remember who was on this statue…

Vilnius Cathedral

Bridge over the River Neris, which led back north to the Courtyard Hotel:

Looking back south towards Cathedral Square from the bridge. The snow was picking up pretty heavily at this point, and I decided to head back to the hotel and seek refuge, hoping there would be no flight delays.

Memorial at the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.

Everything looked on time – one thing I love about traveling in northern climates during winter is that the airports know how to deal with snow! Although my time in Latvia and Lithuania was brief, it was far more than my previous visits, and I felt I could honestly count them as visited now. I definitely want to go back to Lithuania, however, because Vilnius seemed really cool and I wanted to check out the country a bit more.

Contact lens vending machine at the airport. I’ve only seen these things in Russia before. Odd! Just in case, you know, you’re at the airport and somehow forgot your contacts.

So, it’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged a flight, mainly because it’s been a lot of my usual routes and airlines, but I figured this one might be interesting!

LOT flight 780
Vilnius, Lithuania (VNO) to Warsaw, Poland (WAW)
Depart 16:00, Arrive:16:05, flight time: 1:05
Embraer ERJ-195, Registration SP-LNH, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 247 (first flight of 2019!)
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,692,835

Prior to the flight to Kiev, I hadn’t flown LOT in like ten years, so I partly took this route because I was curious. Plus, what better way to get a big enough sample size for opinion. I was, however, very nervous about my Rimowa bag because one half of the handle was stuck in the “up” position, and wouldn’t go down, so I was worried if it would still fit in the overhead bins. No problem on this flight!  The ERJ-195s are 2×2 seating, and in business class LOT only puts 1 person in each set of two, which works out quite nicely. As far as EuroBusiness goes, this is as good as it gets.

Here’s where it got weird, however. Flight attendant serves the four people in row one and two, then says to me and guy across from me “we do not have enough food, so buy you this from airport” – um, a giant cheese plate, a cold cut tray, a salad, roll, and a dessert? Crazy – that’s a ton of food for a 50 minute flight…plus a decent South African red wine – overall, I was glad they had run out of food! I wasn’t that hungry, so mainly just finished the cheese, double bread, and dessert, but I was impressed. (No, you can’t ask how many bottles of wine….)

Got to Poland, gate was still in the Schengen Zone, so I headed to the LOT lounge briefly to check it out. It was really hard to figure out with multiple rooms, including one “hidden” room that was for some sort of priority something only, but there was nobody manning the desk so I went in there. It didn’t look nicer, but was slightly quieter. Except the bathroom, with this helpful sign. Felt just like my last trip to Poland circa 2002 when they were still modernizing after the communist era….

Next up, the flight I was really worried about with my gimpy bag….a Dash 8 to Berlin!  I almost booked SAS via Norway to avoid this routing, but the time savings was too tempting. What would they do? Force me to check my bag and break it more? I figure it was worth the risk.

EuroLOT flight 389
Warsaw, Poland (WAW) to Berlin, Tegel (TXL)
Depart 17:25, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 1:25
Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, Registration SP-EQK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 573
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,693,161

Good news – apparently the Q400s have pretty large overhead bins – roughly the same size as the ERJ-195, so getting the bag to fit was no problem. Like the ERJ-195 the seating was 2×2 which meant that business again was one person in each set of two so plenty of room.

Impressed that we got a meal (albeit cold) on a Q400, and it was the same meal from a few days prior on the Warsaw to Kiev flight. Overall, perfectly nice for such a short flight on a propeller plane!

Seats were reasonable…especially because you get two!

Deplaning at Tegel…major the worst capital city airport in the developed world! What a nightmare!

…and with that, I was set to enjoy/work several days in Berlin!

Jan 222019
 


Woke up nice and early the next morning, but fortunately not too early since I wanted to still get breakfast before what promised to be a very long day. Years ago when I did both Lithuania and Latvia, thanks to a delayed flight, I got only the briefest glimpse of both of them. Thanks to my friend Naomi who had recently done a similar trip, I found out that a bus or taxi (3-4 hours) wasn’t the only way from Riga to Vilnius…you could actually take a full day tour that stopped at interesting places along the way. Absolutely perfect!

The company was called Traveller Tours, and I booked the Riga to Vilnius Sightseeing Tour Bus. Good thing was, we didn’t depart until 9am, which was good because not only do I hate early mornings, but it was still dark until 9am and I wanted breakfast. Everything worked out though, and at just before 9am I found myself limping to a hostel in Riga’s old town to begin the tour. Yes, the fact it began at a hostel should have been my first warning, but in for a penny in for a pound, and I was ready for adventure.

Limping to the hostel? See, on day one of this trip, way back in Frankfurt, the handle of my suitcase snapped. It was one of those rolling backs with a handle that’s connected to the bag by two telescoping “rods” for lack of a better word….and the handle cracked and came apart….and one of the rods fell into the bag never to be seen again. So I was dealing with a rolling bag that I had to steer with one thin post….on cobblestones…for about 700m. Yeah, now you see how this trip was getting super interesting…

Anyways, got to the hostel, and there were like a dozen people waiting around…but the vans only seated eight people, so it was all very strange, especially since when I booked they told me I got the last seat. Turns out there were two busses today, however, and since six of the people were a family it ended up being eight in the other van and only five in ours…which meant plenty of space! The downside to being with people for 12 hours is that if you have nothing in common it makes for a very long day, but I was fortunately that at least everyone in my van was nice to each other and it all worked out.

With that…we were off! First stop was the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble. Salaspils is a town maybe 30 minutes from Riga where first the Nazis ran a smallish concentration camp (at least compared to others) and then during Soviet times and especially under Stalin lots of people were shipped off to Gulags, many never to be seen again. According to our guide, everyone in Latvia has stories in their family of people who were shipped off during one of these two periods, and this memorial park was meant to commemorate both.

We got there as a light snow was falling, which only added to the solemnity of the site:

Beautiful, but also cold and foreboding…

A large gate that you enter by walking under, and an inscription that translates as “beyond these gates, the land groans”

Seven concrete structures dot the fields, known as  “Mother”, “The Unbroken”, “The humiliated”, “Protest”, “Red Front”, “Solidarity”, and “The Oath”.

More statues…the cold, grey, snow, and wind really added to a contemplative feel about the place…and I could swear I heard a heart beating. Turns out, there was a speaker somewhere playing a heartbeat, but it was just subtle enough that it wasn’t obvious. Eerie…

Close-up of the entrance gate. Seeing the people underneath, you get an idea of just how massive it was…

After that rather solemn start, it was back in the bus and off to our next stop – Rundāle Palace – which was about a 60-90 minute drive from Salaspils, and just north of the Lithuanian border. I’m not much of a museum person, but have to admit it was pretty interesting. Rundāle was originally the home of the Duke of Courland – an independent dukedom. It was built in the mid-1700s, and I had to wonder: why couldn’t it still be independent – I could count it as a new country!

During Soviet times, it was first used as grain storage, and then as a school, and eventually a local history museum. It was extensively renovated after Latvian independence and restored to its 1700s-splendor. From the outside, it certainly looked grand:

Fortunately, the self-guided walking tour with audioguide was only billed as 30-60 minutes – finally a museum that is appropriate for my attention span! A ballroom:

Loved this study – I’m still not sure what the thing in the corner was, but if I recall correctly it was brought to Latvia from China in the 1700s:

The Duke’s bedroom… I always wonder in these old palaces, who wants to sleep somewhere that fancy? When I go to bed, the idea of having “staff” around tending to things gives me the creeps…

After the palace, we drove the short distance to the border, and less than five seconds after crossing into Lithuania, a police car came up behind us…sirens flashing. Seems that despite the Schengen Area having open borders now, the police were conducting random checks, and picked us. First, they went through passports, and decided one of the younger backpacker couples in our van was a bit suspicious…so there was a luggage inspection as well that resulted in…some contraband being found and people being detained. I won’t give details here, but suffice to say some people learned the hard way that just because there’s no mandatory border inspections doesn’t mean you can cross internal schengen borders with whatever you want.

Police detour over, it was on to lunch!

Before the palace, a menu was passed around the van, and we were told to give our order to the driver so it could be ready when we got to the restaurant. Lunch was just over the Lithuanian Border at Audruvus – a restaurant, inn (I think?), and horse club / racing place/ not quite sure but there was a lot of horse-related memorabilia around. I went with the “Lithuanian cheese plate” as an appetizer, because you know I can’t resist cheese, and have to admit I didn’t really expect a platter of cheese cubes. Oh well, when in Lithuania!

Venison was very prominent on the menu, and my venison shashlik was pretty tasty:

Onwards another hour or so, to the Hill of Crosses. Short version, nobody knows just how it came to be that there were thousands or maybe even millions of crosses planted on this hill. Legend says the Soviets would bulldoze it, and every time they did by the next day it was back – with even more crosses. Many people think the number is now well over a million:

Crosses of every shape, size, and type:

There were just a few narrow paths through the crosses, and at my height I frequently found myself ducking to get around them.

About halfway up the hill, I stopped to take this picture towards that bottom that shows just how many there are:

After about 45 minutes at the Hill of Crosses, it was onwards to our final stop – the town of Kaunas – where we were given 45 minutes to walk around and explore the old town. Except it was cold. And windy. And New Years Eve so lots of places were closing up…and dark. But was still fun to walk around and see #Kaunas. By this point, it had already been a long day, and I’d had enough, so was kind of hoping we would hurry up and get to Vilnius. I wanted to get there in time to get some dinner before everything was closed and mobbed for New Years, but tried to make the best of it, and enjoy the stroll.

Christmas tree in the main square of Kaunas:

The old Town Hall:

With that, the tour was at an end, and we had about a 90 minute drive to Vilnius, where we were finally dropped off at about 8pm right on Cathedral Square and Gediminas Castle Tower right by the National Museum:

Grabbing an Uber to my hotel – the Courtyard Marriott was no problem. If it wasn’t getting late, and my bag wasn’t gimpy, I would have just walked the 900m or so, but I really didn’t feel up to strugglebussing with my bag over cobblestones. Uber worked like a charm in Vilnius (unlike Riga) and once again the lingua franca with my Uber driver was Russian. I was pretty surprised by the fact everyone my age or older still used Russian to communicate, and even many younger people I observed speaking it with what I assumed were Russian (or maybe even Latvian?) tourists.

Dropped off my bags, headed out to get dinner, and in Cathedral Square passed by a Christmas tree and market, just getting ready for New Years Eve celebrations:

I ended up at Beerhouse & Craft Kitchen, which was a super cool restaurant in the basement of an old building. But, it wasn’t just one room in the basement, it was like 10. Wandering about to try and find somewhere to sit was an adventure, and I finally found a room in the back with an actual bar I could sit at. Super cool staff who I asked for a recommendation, and I ended up with the schnitzel burger. Tasty, and definitely unique:

After dinner, and a few tasty beers, it was nearly 11pm, so back to Cathedral Square, where the crowds were starting to thicken for the show, which I expected would include fireworks.

The tower all lit up…at 11:55 they started a countdown on the side of the tower…it was super cool.

Another view of the square, and museum in the background:

Happy 2019!

With that, it was back to my hotel to pass out. It had already been a super, super long day, and I had another one ahead! It was off to Berlin the next day in the afternoon, and I wanted to pack in as much sightseeing as I could with the holiday before heading to the airport!

Jan 192019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fish section of the market:

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

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

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

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

Cool Orthodox church right across the street:

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

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

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

As our president says….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 122019
 


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

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

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

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

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

Monument on Maidan Square:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

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

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

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

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

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

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

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

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

Jan 092019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWII memorial statue outside a Kindergarten in Chernobyl:

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

Abandoned kindergarten:

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

Decapitated doll amongst beds:

Hey, welcome to Chernobyl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recreation Center in Pripyat with a destroyed basketball court:

Remains of an Olympic swimming pool:

Olympic pool from another angle:

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

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

Abandoned apartment:

Front of the apartment building 30 years after the disaster:

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

Anyone up for a ride?

Bumper cars:

The snow definitely added to the effect:

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

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

Sadly, the candy and cookies aisles were bare:

Random gasmask on the ground outside the grocery store:

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

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

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

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

Jan 062019
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our driver just chugging along in our Chevy SUV:

First impression at the Edge of the World:

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

Did I mention that the sky was just crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note all the westerners taking photos, lol

Little close-up race action:

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

Security…being effective?

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

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

View of Riyadh’s main drag from 99 stories:

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 102018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dec 102018
 


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

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

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

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

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

We even got a…reasonable…breakfast:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statues outside the cathedral:

More statues:

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

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

First plane was a McDonnell F-101 Voodoo:

Mi-8 Helicopter which you could actually go inside:

The inside has definitely seen better days:

Selfie inside this ancient helicopter:

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

That’s a whole lot of cargo space:

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

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

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

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

Quick, terrified selfie outside the plane:

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

Artsy shot just along the fuselage:

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

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

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

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

The Buran from another angle:

Wing and tail shot….

Buran thrusters…I was fascinated by this thing!

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

Looking down on the wing:

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

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

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

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

Walking back through Speyer to the train station…

Wild AND cheese? This is my type of town!

Fun shot of a smaller German street:

Train snack of salami baguette and some traditional Frankfurter Apfelwein:

Fun graffiti in Frankfurt. I am how I am!

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

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

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

Dec 092018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Harare, Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasonably roomy cabin:

Pre-flight proper champagne was offered….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad seats for a regional flight:

Another glass of warm pre-departure champagne:

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

The watermelon and feta salad was….ok?

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

Same cheese and crackers, just a smaller portion:

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

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

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