Oct 092017
 

Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.



If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.

Oct 072017
 

Another great night of sleep, and despite being go go go on this vacation, one thing I was managing to do pretty well was catch up on sleep. Now, that might be due to the tremendous amount of walking I was doing in general, but either way, it was actually feeling like a vacation!

My rate at the W included breakfast, so made a point to partake in that before heading out. I would rate it pretty middle of the road as far as hotel breakfast go, but there were plenty of choices including eggs and porridge cooked to order, so it was more than enough to get a start on the day.



After fueling up, it was time for a walk! I had highlighted some of the sights I wanted to try and see, so the plan was to head out and see how much I could do before I got absolutely exhausted from walking. First stop near the hotel was the Fountain of the Admiralty:

Plan was to head over to Nevsky Prospekt and head east-southeast before heading back north and eventually crossing the Neva River. First major site was the Stroganov Palace, and yes, that’s the family that beef stroganoff was named for. Since I only had one full day I opted to walk around and see as many sites as I could from the outside, without spending the time in line for tickets and exploring the inside. Stroganov Palace:

a little further down Nevsky Prospekt was the Kazan Cathedral:

Statue of Field Marshall Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk:

At this point, the grey weather and walking was catching up with me, so I stopped at Starbucks for a large iced coffee and a sandwich. After resting up a bit, I continued the walk. Crossed Nevsky Prospekt, and passed the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood:

Very impressive up close, and swarming with tourists:

Best part about tourists? All sorts of souvenir stands. I was pretty disappointed they only had this shirt left in a small size, because I totally wanted to buy it:

I did, however, managed to find a whole bunch of awesome magnets:

From this point, back to Nevsky Prospekt to catch the metro up to Finlandsky Station and continue my walk on the north side of the Neva River.

Finlandsky Vokzal, you can see how dark and heavy the clouds got, but it never did rain.

Two reasons for coming to Finlandsky Vokzal. First was to see where it was so I knew where to go for my train the next day, and second reason was the giant statue of Lenin. Looks especially ominous against the clouds:

The fountains in front of the train station made a nice contrast. I love this shot with the bright reddish-orange brick, the dark greyish-blue sky, and the contrast of the bright coats the pedestrians are wearing.

Finally figured out where/how to cross the tributary of the river, and a great view of the Nakhimov Naval Academy with the cruiser Aurora docked in front:

Another shot downriver with the Aurora:

The Aurora was closed to tours today, but that didn’t stop the large groups of Asian tourists from milling about and taking pictures:

Close-up of the Aurora:

Bit more of a walk, and the Peter and Paul Fortress:

Kept walking…and walking…and eventually passed the Yubilyeni Sports Palace. Wait, is that an ad for a pre-season hockey game…tonight? Even better, a bit of googling, and it appeared absolutely free. Registeted on the website, and very quickly my free tickets were e-mailed to me! Score. I had planned on a relaxing evening after over 10 miles of walking during the day, but how could I pass that up!

Given the game was less than two hours away, I cut my walk a little short and took the metro back to the hotel to change clothes and rest up a little bit. Only had about 30 minutes to rest before I had to catch the metro right back to the arena for the game. It was open seating, and appeared 25% full at most:

Let’s get a little closer to the ice…now these are great seats!

Cheerleaders and dragon mascots:

Old Soviet National team memorabilia on display:

It was nearly 9pm at this point, so I opted to skip the third period and head out to get some food and drink before it got too late. On a recommendation from a friend, I headed to Craft Pub to have a bite. Keeping in the theme of the day, a delicious beef stroganoff and a few great beers to wash it down:

Unusual decor in the restaurant…what would the Singapore First Class lounge think of this?!

One final local imperial stout to close out the evening:

With that, more than 10 miles walked and a hockey game, I think I made a pretty amazing dent in seeing St. Petersburg given the extremely limited time I had there. Now, it was time to get to bed so I could enjoy my train ride the next day…and my final stop: Helsinki.

Oct 052017
 

Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.



I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!

Oct 032017
 

Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.



Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!



I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

May 112017
 

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:

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Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:

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After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:

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Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!

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I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:

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Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:

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We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:

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Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!

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Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!

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Goodbye Sochi!

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Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:

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Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.

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Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:

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After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.

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After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!

Apr 292017
 

Airport in Sochi was relatively modern, no doubt a beneficiary of the recent Winter Olympics. Since it was already nearing sunset and we were exhausted from a long day of travel, we decided to go with the taxi desk in the arrivals area as opposed to negotiating with the taxi mafia to potentially save a couple dollars each. Nice quick ride with a polite driver who coincidentally enough had Abkhazia plates on his car.

10 minute ride to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Resort and Conference Centre, where check-in was a polite but disorganized affair. First they sent us to our rooms…which we realized when we got there we’d both been given the same room number. Back to the front desk, and apparently they had screwed up, and oh btw, we charged you the wrong amount. Your room requires you to pay this much more. Was somewhat odd that they expected the room to be paid upon check-in, but eventually everything was sorted, and the view of the Olympic venues from the room was fantastic:

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With the sun having set, and the stories of stray dogs around the area (which we never actually saw) there was really no point in trying to see the Olympics sites in the evening, so we decided to head into Sochi for some dinner. See, the airport and the Olympics venues are in a suburb called Adler, which actually sits right on the Abkhazia border. We called an Uber, which was really quick and reliable in Sochi, and made the 30 minute drive to the Morye Mall located in Sochi.

What was the first thing you see at the main entrance to the mall? Yup, it’s like they knew I was coming…AND Sochi managed to get my name right. Bonus points for them!

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We wandered around the mall a bit, walking off the jetlag, and the mall was majorly modern with lots of international stores – likely a beneficiary of the Olympics as well. We were getting a bit hungry, so stopped into a pelmeni restaurant for some dinner. Dozens of varieties of pelmeni on the menu, and I don’t remember what we ordered in the end but they were seriously delicious.

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After a bite to eat, a little more walking around the mall and exploring, and we found another odd vending machine to pair with the caviar vending machine in Moscow. I mean, don’t you always go to the mall and realize “damn, I forgot my contact lenses, I better hit up the vending machine!”

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There was also a huge grocery store in the mall, so explored that a bit as well. I find grocery stores fascinating places when abroad, and a good insight to how at least some segment of the local population lives. Nothing terribly unusual about this one, except for multiple aisles with nothing but alcohol.

Called an Uber which had no trouble locating us at the mall, and after a short ride we were back at the hotel where we promptly passed out for the night. Despite all the confusion over the room rate at the hotel, they did decide that breakfast was included, and it was a reasonable spread for Easter Sunday. The breakfast was seriously empty, but there was still a huge amount of choice at the buffet, both hot and cold options, plus some local sparkling wine. Not bad at all!

…and seriously, how can you resist taking a pic when the hotel has something like this set up?

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It was a nice clear morning, and unfortunately sleep won out over an early morning walk around the Olympic sites. Most of them were well behind fences anyways, so it wasn’t like I was going to get an early morning tour of them. This view from my room would have to do:

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We hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into getting to Abkhazia, but knew that there were essentially two options: take a taxi to the border, cross over, and then wait for a minibus to Sukhumi, or find a driver/taxi who was willing to make the full trip. Given it was Easter, and we didn’t know how much traffic there would be, we opted to skip the public transport option and arrange for a driver. My first thought was to hire our driver from the airport since he had Abkhaz plates, but he he no interest in making the trip.

Our second try was to see if they hotel could find us a driver. Yes, they could, but their driver wanted to leave at 6am to avoid traffic at the border, and wanted 9,000 rubles ($180) for the one-way trip. We definitely weren’t going to pay that much to get up early.

So, google to the rescue and I found kiwitaxi.com which seemed to be too good to be true. A global transfer booking company that could arrange transfers anywhere in the world? They only wanted about 5,500 rubles for the trip ($100) and only 20% in advance with the rest to the driver (I imagine the 20% is their commission) so I figured I would give it a go. Only took about 30 minutes, and I had confirmation that our driver was booked, and would pick us up at 11am as we requested.

Our driver Dima showed up right on time, and had a perfectly comfortable and modern SUV for the trip. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was extremely friendly and easy to communicate with. We set off right at 11am, and were at the border in just over 15 minutes. He made sure to tell us that if anyone at the border asks, we are “friends” since trying to explain a taxi might open him up to bribes. When we got close to the Russian side of the border he let us get out, and go walk through passport control. Exiting Russia was pretty straightforward, with just a couple simple questions “how long will you be in Abkhazia? When will you come back to Russia? Where do you live? Why do you speak Russian?” and we were through.

Dima was just getting the car cleared when we exited, and we were ready to head to the Abkhaz border post about 100 meters down the road. Here we just pulled up to the officers, said hi, showed them passports, and they waved us through without a single question. Way too easy! The whole border had taken about 30-40 minutes due to the passport control line on the Russian side, but overall really easy.

From here, it was about a two hour easy drive to Sukhumi, where we had little trouble finding our hotel. I asked Dima if he would be interested in picking us up in two days, but when we told him we needed to leave at 9am he wasn’t interested since it would mean leaving Sochi super early. No problem, we had two days to sort out transport or use kiwitaxi again, so figured we were set.

Now, time to explore Abkhazia!

Apr 252017
 

The day of the trip was finally here, and despite lots of last minute changes needed to deal with some unexpected work and personal commitments, I finally was able to salvage part of the trip. Unfortunately, that would mean missing two of the stops we had planned, but at least we would get to Abkhazia which was one of the parts I was super excited for.

American had changed their schedule about three months before my flight, and suddenly my DCA-JFK flight no longer existed. They decided instead to book me on an ERJ-145 flight instead, which meant an involuntary downgrade. Because it was the short part of an international itinerary no compensation was due, and they seemed completely uninterested in helping. Fortunately, about 45 days before the flight they changed schedules again, and there was now an option with first class. It meant a relatively short two hour connection in JFK, but I figured it should be doable in the spring.

Calling in, I got the rare fantastic agent who was able to force availability and get me on the new flight, and all was set. Day of travel I actually had quite a bit of time given the later departure, so decided to risk taking the metro to the airport, which was drama free. Rare occurrence on metro! Had to check-in with an agent to show them my Russian visa, and after they made sure to show me how annoyed they were with having to help me they checked me in and I was on my way to the lounge.

Lounge was serving the usual cheese and crAAckers along with some other unexciting kibble, but who can resist a whole carrot right before Easter?

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Blue skies, and a great view form the lounge at DCA for a bit of plane-watching. Plus, N406YX in the foreground would be my ride up to JFK today:

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Boarding commenced right on time with some rather grouchy gate agents and a total of three emotional support animals for the rather short ride up to JFK.

American Eagle flight 4540
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, JFK (JFK)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N406YX, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,332
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,405,647

I see lots of complaints online that American is very hit-or-miss with pre-departure drinks, but today was a definite hit. The always classy Chateau le Parker in the finest plastique crystal:

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Shortly after boarding and being seated there was some commotion in the entryway. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but apparently the passenger had accidentally packed some vital medications in the bag she was forced to gate-check, and needed/wanted to get them out. All I heard was the rather nasty gate agent saying “I don’t care what you think you need you ain’t gettin’ the bag now!” Followed by “you know what, you’re a very nasty woman!” from the passenger. I was having visions of Dr. Dao at this point, and had the iPhone really to shoot prize-winning footage….but eventually the pilot who was great managed to calm the situation (after the gate agent yelled at him to) and everything was defused.

After that bit of excitement, departure time came and went…except we weren’t going anywhere. The pilot came on at five minutes past the departure time and told us we would be another 15 minutes because they were trying to locate…a first officer. Apparently the first officer’s dog had died and they were desperately trying to locate a replacement one. Another five minutes passed, and we were assured one bad been found, and he was “on his way” and we “should be out of here” in 15 minutes. Of course, 15 minutes came and went…and no first officer.

Finally, about an hour past departure, the new first officer rocked up and the door was closed a couple minutes later. My 1:45 connection had been reduced to about 40 minutes, so I was hopeful we would make up a little of the time in the air. Great view of the turn over the Pentagon right after departure:

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Once in flight, the crew broke out AA’s finest stemware, and passed around the kibble basket. Since I’m addicted to the DiBella biscotti, I wasn’t complaining for a 42 minute flight. Never seen blueberry lemon before…yum!

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We made up a tiny bit of time, and looks like we would make the gate with about 50 minutes to connect. I had to blink twice to make sure the plane hadn’t entered a time warp on the way when I saw this parked at the terminal:

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So despite flying well over 2 million miles and over 250 transatlantics in each direction, I’ve never flown internationally out of JFK before. I remember the day when international travel almost ensured you would head to O’Hare or JFK, but these days unless you’re flying a smaller international carrier, JFK is super easy to avoid. Of course, it was just my luck that my arriving flight would arrive as far from the International First Lounge as possible, and the departing flight which normally leaves from right by the lounge was also leaving as far away from the lounge as possible.

Ian was perfectly fine skipping the lounge, but I was having none of it, so he met me near my arriving flight and off to the first lounge we went.

I mean, I’m not going to turn down Bollinger and a nice cheese plate!

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Unfortunately, given time constraints, I had to limit myself to around two glasses, and then make the long trek over to my departure gate. I wished Ian well, made sure all his shots were updated for his flight back with the proletariat, and then boarded.

Finnair flight 6
New York, JFK (JFK) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 8:50 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTT, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 37,449
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,409,764

I had fortunately booked well in advance, so had one of the “throne” seats on Finnair. On the left side of the plane the rows alternate, with one row having two seats, and the next row having one. In the row with one seat, your footwell is under the centre console of the two seats in front of it…in the row of two your footwells are under the two large tables on either side of the “throne” seat. My fabulous Marimekko branded slippers and amenity kit were already waiting for me:

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Pre-departure champagne, blueberry juice, and water were offered. I asked for a champagne AND a water, and with the sigh that followed you would think I was asking for them to move Heaven and Earth. But, I was successful. I still love the Littala crystal – even for pre-departure drinks. I really need to pick up some of this glassware for at home.

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Unfortunately, right before the door closed, a couple boarded sitting right in front of me with twins who looked no more than a month or two old…and were already crying their lungs out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Seeing the glares they were getting from the other passengers, the purser suggested that all 12 seats in the mini cabin of business class were open, and perhaps they would be more comfortable there. They agreed to move, much to the relief of the other passengers.

With that sorted, time to get comfy and rock the Marimekko slippers!

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About 30 minutes after departure drinks and snacks were finally offered. While I was glad not to see the usual mixed nuts, a single skewered prawn doesn’t really make much of a cocktail snack….

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Even more surprising was that the meal was all served on a single tray. No courses here. I would be less surprised if this was a late departure, or if I requested the executive meal, but nope…everyone got their entire meal on one tray. This looks like something that would be served on a domestic flight in the US and not internationally! That said, the beef was rather tasty along with the potatoes, but the salad and cheese course were rather stingy and disappointing. Definitely one of the most disappointing business class meals I’ve ever had across the Atlantic. Boo to Finnair on this one!

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An hour into flight, my free internet cut out. Supposedly Finnair elites and OneWorld Emeralds get free complimentary internet for the entire flight, but for whatever reason Finnair had forgotten to load this data into the computer for this flight, so everyone was cut off at one hour. Ended up paying for the rest of the flight, which per the purser’s recommendation I will now dispute with AmEx….

Package ice cream for dessert was pretty disappointing as well, but the fun little mini pastries were a nice touch, and there was plenty to go around:

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I still wasn’t tired, so after a bit of time watching tv, I used the call button to ring for another glass of wine. A new/different flight attendant appeared this time, and he was more than happy to bring me one. He also brought a mini snack of mixed nuts and dried fruits. Thought it was odd he served this right after dinner had finished, but it was definitely a nice appreciated touch.

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After finishing this glass of wine I was getting pretty tired, but there was just one problem. Two extremely loud large russian women in the row behind me having a conversation and cackling at a volume that I’m sure even the people back in coach could hear. I’d already asked them several time to keep their voices down because people want to sleep and was just met with a dirty glare in return. The flight attendant who’d brought me the nuts tried to quiet them as well, to no avail. He suggested I could move to the back of the cabin where there were plenty of seats and it might be a bit quieter. Fortunately, when I returned from chatting with him they had mysteriously and suddenly passed out cold. Saved!

At this point I managed to pass out for a nice uninterrupted five hours of solid sleep, waking up just as we crossed the Finnish coast on descent. Flight delivered in the ways that were most important to me, a comfortable seat for sleeping and a cabin temperature that made it possible. The food was a huge let-down, but again, it was adequate. However, if Finnair really wants to compete for connecting traffic they really need to up their game in this department.

We arrived in Helsinki about five minutes late, and only had a 35 minute connection to Moscow to begin with. Fortunately, there is no need to re-clear security in Helsinki, and since we also did not need to clear immigration it was a very easy transit. No time to check out the lounge, but our gates were right next to each other and I think the change of planes took maybe five minutes maximum. Most passengers were already boarded once we got there, so just a few minutes after boarding the door was closed 15 minutes early.

Finnair flight 153
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO)
Depart 9:25, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 1:40
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration OH-LKL, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,877
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,410,309

There was only one row of eurobusiness 2×2 seating on this ERJ-190, and only one other passenger, so we each had two seats to our self. It should be noted that unlike Lufthansa, Finnair sells all the seats in eurobusiness on the ERJs, so you don’t get a free seat next to you. The only thing you get is a free meal, when those in economy had to pay for buy on board. Not a bad meal for a 90 minute flight, and two main thoughts: yes, the fruit may have been packaged, but was fresher than anything United serves. Maybe being sealed held in some moisture? Also, the flight attendant noted: “surely you would like some champagne, you can’t fly business class without it!” Best flight attendant ever!

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Landed at Sheremetyevo Airport right on time, my first time there since 1989. I’ve been do Domodedevo and Vnukovo since then, but never back to Sheremeyevo. They wanted to make sure and remind me that I love it:

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Immigration was a relative non-affair, with no line at all when we arrived. Got a few questions from the agent, who seemed mildly amused that I spoke Russian. Why do you speak Russian? Where did you learn it? How do you still speak it if it has been more than 20 years? She was seriously curious, and every time I answered the other agent in the booth would giggle. I guess my accent is amusing or something.

Right past immigration there was a check-in flight for connecting flights, and the agent was able to issue our Moscow to Sochi boarding passes, even though it was a separate itinerary. Next stop after checking in was to find Starbucks. I knew there was one at the airport, but we weren’t sure exactly where. We decided to trust the Starbucks app, and head to the next terminal over (connected landside) and search for it. Ian knew better than to resist my need for caffeine, and we were off on the hunt.

On the way, we passed a caviar vending machine. Only in Russia! It was tempting to buy some for our connecting flight…

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All price points from $20 a tin up to well over $100 a tin. I mean, everyone buys $100 worth of caviar from vending machines…right?

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The Starbucks was right by the vending machine, and provided some much-needed fuel to continue on with the day. After sitting and resting for a bit, we were back to the check-in area to try and find our gate. On the way, we ran into the (relatively new) Krasnaya Machina Red Army Hockey Team store. I couldn’t resist posing with the cut-out poster and buying a hat:

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Security wasn’t too bad, except for the guy who was getting busted for trying to take a cage filled with rabbits through the x-ray machine. I mean, totally normal, right?

Next stop was the lounge, which since we had arrived on OneWorld they wouldn’t let me use with my SkyTeam Elite card. Apparently, no lounge access allowed to SkyTeam Elites on domestic flights with Aeroflot? Fortunately, they did accept Priority Pass, so that made short work of the 90 minutes we had left until boarding.

Reasonable selection of food and beverage, and more importantly, places to charge devices. Biggest downside is the lounge was completely dark inside, and emerging from the lounge was like walking back out into bright daylight!

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Boarding was nice and easy, and they actually made time for elites and business class to board first.

Aeroflot flight 1124
Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO) to Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A321, Registration VP-BAZ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 33C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,205
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,411,182

About a 90% full A321 down to Sochi today, but fortunately we had booked the A and C seats and hoped nobody would take B. We asked the gate agent nicely, and she verified it was still open and she wouldn’t put anybody in it. Score!

Scary pre-packaged sandwich, mandarin, and chocolate was offered, along with tea on the two hour flight. Not bad for a $50 ticket. Legroom was also reasonable, much better than you get from most domestic airlines in the US. This was my first time on Aeroflot since the late-1980s, and things have definitely improved with Western aircraft. No more cages of chickens in the luggage racks, no more fold-down seats, and especially no more grumpy Soviet passengers lighting up and chain-smoking the entire flight. It was actually more pleasant than most domestic flights in the US these days…

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Mystery meat sandwich, fruit/chocolate, and a mandarin. Not bad…

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Landed right on time in Sochi, and it was time to begin the adventure!

Aug 172016
 

You knew this post would be coming at some point. It’s the question I get the most often when I tell people I’m about to finish visiting every country in the world in just two weeks. Inevitably, they ask “what’s next?” It’s actually a pretty easy question to answer. Two things immediately pop to mind: first, I want to spend a little more time at home. There’s things I want to get done that I haven’t with so much traveling, so at least in the short term that will be nice. Plus, I have a few work trips to Zagreb and Bangkok coming up later this year, so that will close out 2016 more or less.

Second thing I want to do is go back to places I really enjoyed and spend more time diving a little more in depth. Some ideas that are already brewing:

Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia: I’ve already tacked this on after Iceland since it was the same price on Icelandair to fly to Europe with a stop in Iceland as it was to fly just to Iceland. Lithuania and Latvia I only got very short overnights in my first time, so this time I’ll take a full day in each to walk the old towns and take in the cities. It should be nice weather in September as well! After that, I’m off to Ukraine. You could debate if I really visited Ukraine at all, since when I was there it was 1989 and it was the Ukrainian SSR. So, I’m going back now to remove any doubt…plus I’ve been really curious to take the Chernobyl tour. I remember being a kid when the reactor blew and worried the whole world was going to die from radiation.

Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia: I’d like to visit all four of these more in-depth once it becomes feasible. Saudi Arabia because of a very difficult to get tourist visa, same with Sudan. Yemen and Syria will have to wait until things quiet down a bit.

Finland: I want to take a full week in the summer and go north of Helsinki and maybe do a road trip. Some camping, hanging out in lake country. Just a quiet laid back trip.

Namibia: I only got to see a tiny fraction of the country, and I really want to see more. From sand dunes to the Skeleton Coast to Swakopmund, I’d like to spend more time there.

Palau: When I went the first time in 2011 I wasn’t certified for SCUBA yet, and what I saw snorkeling was mind-blowing. I want to go back now, go deeper, and see more of the country! I guess you could add Belize and Bonaire to this last as well – three places I really want to go dive!

Russia: Probably more medium term goal, but I want to take 3+ weeks and do the Trans-Siberian. Take the train from Helsinki to St Petersburg, high speed down to Moscow, and then the Trans-Siberian to Mongolia. I’d like to break it up along the way as well, and maybe stop and see some smaller towns and more of rural Russia. A couple of years will give me a chance to strengthen my Russian more so I can really maximize the trip.

Being a bit of a list maker, there are two more goals I’m toying with:

All 50 States: I’ve visited 42 of the 50 states, and I’ve grouped the 8 remaining into either 4 or 5 trips. Suggestions and locals to show me around would be welcome in all of them:

  • First, I want to fly to Atlanta, rent a car, and do a loop covering Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. New Orleans is the only must-do on this list, so I’d love any other recommendations people have. Definitely a 2017 trip.
  • New Mexico is also on this list. I have friends there, so will probably take a 3-4 day weekend and do some hiking and relaxing at some point in 2017
  • Iowa – yes, I grew up in Minnesota for 15 years and never made it to Iowa, despite being a less than two hour drive from home. I’m thinking it might be fun to fly to Minneapolis, visit family, and then drive down for a college football game either this fall or next. Any Iowa readers want to join me?
  • South Dakota – as above, somewhat embarrassed, although it’s a longer drive from Minneapolis. Definitely going to do Mount Rushmore. I’ll likely fly there for a weekend at some point. Any other must-sees while I’m there?
  • Last but not least will be Oklahoma. Haven’t given much thought to this one, so any suggestions welcome! I’d like to finish all the states in 2017.

So, after visiting all 50 states, the only other immediate list is my list of 215 Independent Places. This is 19 places beyond the list of 196 countries that I think are independent enough I really should visit them as well. So far, I’ve visited 11 of the 19 already (Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Guernsey, Jersey, Isle of Man, Transnistria, Turkish Cyprus, Aruba, Curacao, Cayman Islands) leaving 8 to go:

  • Nagorno-Karabach – internationally-recognized as part of Azerbaijan, although the government of Azerbaijan hasn’t exercised any control in the region for over 20 years. Almost entirely filled with ethnic Armenians it’s in western Azerbaijan and accessibly only from Armenia and uses the Armenian Dram as currency. They do issue their own visas/visitors permits though.
  • Abkhazia – an autonomous republic of Georgia according to the international community it lies between Georgia and Russia, and as recognized as independent by Russia and a handful of over smaller states. Russia is also cooperating with the Abkhazia military forces, so obviously the only way in is really from Russia.
  • South Ossetia – almost identical to the situation in Abkhazia, also sitting between Georgia and Russia. Should be able to make one trip from these two.
  • Western Sahara, also known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Annexed by Morocco from Mauritania in 1976, it has been largely administered by Morocco ever since. They want independence, and have been recognized by nearly 30 countries. Should be easy to do flying in from Morocco.
  • Niue – self-governing, but in “free association” with New Zealand. Sort of similar to Puerto Rico and the United States, except there’s no independence movement. Population has dropped in the past couple of decades from about 6,000 to 1,000 with most people fleeing for Australia or New Zealand. The major problem? Only one flight a week, and it often gets canceled.
  • Tokelau – three atolls that are a territory of New Zealand, with only about 1,200 people total. Unfortunately, there’s no airport, so boats are the only way to get there. There are occasional seaplane flights from Samoa too, which is good because you need to get a Tokelau entry permit from Samoa before going!
  • Cook Islands – like Niue, a self-governing democracy in free association with New Zealand. Plenty of flights from New Zealand, and resorts as well. Rarotonga has lots of resorts and a nice lagoon. Will need to combine with Niue and Tokelau to make a very interesting trip.
  • Somalia – so I’ve technically been before, but to the northern part known as Somaliland, which has its own currency and government and is quite safe. Mogadishu is separately administered, so it’s on my list to get to eventually. Definitely doable, but will be tricky…

That should keep me plenty of busy for a while! What does everyone else have planned?

Aug 022016
 

After breakfast, I decided to give Uber a try for the ride to the airport. This allowed me to use one of my favourite tips for international travel: if you know how much your travel to the airport will cost you, spend all the rest of your local cash on your hotel bill if you don’t see coming back to the country any time soon. This ensures you don’t get stuck with any currency which may be hard to get rid of, but I usually keep some small coins for my coin jar.

That said, Uber worked like a charm. The car didn’t have AC, but it wasn’t warm in the morning and the driver (although he didn’t speak English) was super friend and excited to talk about how much Novosibirsk had changed in his lifetime. I was impressed someone going on 60, who’d grown up in Soviet times, was so in touch was modern technology that he was driving for Uber. Turned out to be a great experience, and only about $7 for the 30+ minute ride.

Gorgeous blue skies above Tolmachevo Airport:

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After checking in, I was told that “international VIP passengers can use Door #1” so back outside I went. Turned out the VIP Terminal was for all International Business Passengers. Sure, it’s no Lufthansa First Terminal, but for a small airport like Novosibirsk it was pretty cool having a separate terminal. My lounging area:

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Stand-up view from my lounge cubicle:

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More views of the lounge. It was empty except for three of us:

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30 minutes before flight time, all three of us were escorted out of the terminal from the back door…which led into another waiting lounge complete with security. X-ray done, all three of us were loaded into the van for the drive to the plane. However, the other two were going to Frankfurt so I was beginning to wonder if I was the only passenger to Almaty. When we arrived at my plane, the driver said “no, it’s hot, you wait here. Business class does not wait in lines!” So, I got to admire the peasants from afar:

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As soon as everyone was on board, except me, it was time to board.

S7 Airlines flight 3298
Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 13:20, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BDM, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 120,424
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,309,561

Pre-departure beverage of water was offered…to go with the bottle of water which was already at my seat:

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There did end up being three other people in business, no idea why they weren’t in the terminal with me, but the seat next to me was open so I moved to the window to do a bit of plane spotting:

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The amenity kit is something even United would be embarassed of. It was essentially a folded brown paper bag with some art on it. There was also nothing of any real use inside:

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Even for this relatively short flight, a printed menu was on offer:

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In addition to a breakfast menu, there was a lunch menu. I almost thought we might have a choice…but nope, we got lunch:

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A little red wine to start, and no 10 year old seated next to me to steal it this flight:

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The meal looked nice, but the self-described “meat starter” looked to be way too much processed meat product for my taste. Salmon on a plane is a dicey choice, so I enjoyed the olives, and decided to at least have the chicken for some protein…

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…or maybe not. It was without a doubt the driest most-overcooked bird I’ve ever seen. Completely inedible…and on plain pasta to top it off.

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Desert…I managed one bite. It was the most sickeningly sweet cake I’ve ever tasted. I swear it was 99% sugar and 1% flour….

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Although the meal was a huge let-down, we were arriving nearly 45 minutes early! Almaty from above:

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Super old aircraft on the tarmac:

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Immigration was quick and painless, and the fixed-price taxi line was super convenient for getting to my hotel, the Ritz Carlton Almaty. I can’t remember the last time I’d stayed at a Ritz Carlton, but had some hopes they would give some perks for Marriott Platinum status, but nope, nothing at all beyond a 2pm checkout. The room was very small, but comfortable:

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Nice wood paneling:

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Nice marble bathroom with heated floors:

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One of the best parts of the hotel was the view. The lobby is on the top floor (30th or so) and the whole hotel is like 8 floors going down from there. The rest is an apartment building I believe. It was a bit annoying having to take the elevator from the lobby up to 30, and then catch another elevator down to your room, but the views made up for it:

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I had to go attend a few meetings, so walked out the front door to the main road, held my hand out, and had no problem negotiating a driver to take me for a 25 minute drive for barely $2. Taxis in this part of the world are very informal, and anyone who has the time will offer to drive you where you’re going, usually for very little money as long as you speak the language.

So, apparently, Kazakhstan had heard I was coming, because the first Starbucks in the country had opened this year! So yeah, apparently I’m Jon:

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After wrapping up my meetings, it was back to the hotel, where the Almaty Ski jump was very visible on the nice clear day with the mountains in the background:

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Went for a walk to check out the super upscale mall next door, which was practically empty but was full of pretty much every international luxury brand you could imagine…including Kazakhstan Cola of course:

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When I left the mall, there was a huge musical performance going on outside with hundreds of people watching performers on stage. Turns out it was an offshoot of the Kazakh Idol competition and some sort of a local talent event. I watched for a bit, and the strangest part was that most of the songs were in French. According to one lady I asked French songs are very trendy in Kazakhstan now, so everyone was trying to imitate the style. Maybe it was just one person’s impression, but…

It was evening by this point and the 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures had dropped a little (but, given it was a dry heat it wasn’t too bad) so I headed to the hotel’s bar/cafe for something to eat. Turns out, apparently, the cafe is sponsored by Veuve Cliquot. While I was tempted to get a bottle to enjoy but decided to exercise at least a little restraint this trip:

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Theemed right down to the VC  bicycle, umbrellas, and aprons on the wait staff:

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Three of the largest “sliders” I’ve ever seen made for a very tasty dinner:

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Slept in the next morning, and as tempting as it was to grab a taxi to Starbucks for some coffee, I wasn’t in the mood for a 50 minute roundtrip taxi just for coffee when the luxury mall next door had a Paul which served up a very tasty croque madame:

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Which went well with a pain au raisin and a iced coffee. They couldn’t however, understand the concept of either a triple espresso or an iced coffee, so I did have to order three espressos and a big glass of ice. They seemed very puzzled by this behaviour, but were more than happy to provide it:

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After a relaxing breakfast it was time to head to the airport, and continue the trip onward to Abu Dhabi.