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.

Jul 312016
 

Upon arrival, I looked for the driver who had my name on a sign board, but couldn’t find him. Not knowing the taxi situation in Novosibirsk, coupled with the fact we were supposed to arrive just after midnight, I ordered the “business sedan transfer” offered on the S7 website when I booked. For 12 euros a driver was supposed to meet me, and take me to my hotel. Finally found him after 10 minutes (he was slightly late) and we were off through very dark roads to the city.

One thing that immediately struck me, was that for the third biggest city in Russia (according to some sources) and definitely the largest east of  the Urals, it was dark. Very dark. There were a good number of buildings, but it just struck me as very very dark. Arrived at my hotel just after midnight, the Marriott Novosibirsk. They wanted a bit over $100 a night for the stay, but I got it for an absolute steal on points. This hotel is a fantastic value!

Check in was quick and polite with decent English spoken, but the weirdest part was the insistance that they had to photocopy every page of my passport for “local border region security services.” Definitely a new one – I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in Russia – but I didn’t really have any room to complain. Fortunately, this passport was filled with relatively boring stamps. 😉

The hotel had reached out to me a few days before the stay to ask if there was anything they could do to make the stay extra special, so I mentioned I was coming back for the first time in over 25 years, and looked forward to seeing how the city had changed. Oh, and any upgrade they could give would be appreciated 😉 I certainly didn’t expect this huge corner suite:

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Odd layout with bed on the middle of the room, with a mini wall separating it from the living room area:

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Huge shower cube:

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Plus a tub and double sink:

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To top it off, they had left some brownie bites, chocolates, macarons, tea service, and a bottle of wine for me, well done!

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Didn’t end up making it to bed until nearly 2:30 given the time change, but no problem. I slept in until nearly 11, and then grabbed tea in the lobby (included with the suite upgrade) before heading out for a walk around the city. First stop was right near the hotel, the Novosibirsk Opera House. It’s the largest Opera House in Russia (bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow) but unfortunately, there were no performances going on while I was there:

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The opera is located on the Lenin Square, which still has not been renamed, and has great statues:

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…including Lenin himself:

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Workers of the world, unite!

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I then headed down Krasnij Prospekt, or Red Avenue…surprisingly still quite a number of symbols and names from Soviet days remaining in Novosibirsk. Stopped at the Chapel of St Nicholas, which is said to sit at the geographic centre of the old Soviet Union:

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After walking another hour or so, I decided to stop for lunch when I came upon a place called “Pivofactory” – literally translated as beer factory. I had a seat and asked for a menu, and was told “nope, we only have the business lunch menu now.” Sure, why not…when in Novosibirsk…

I was asked if I wanted dark or light beer, and I went with the dark. First the schci (cold soup) came out with cilantro, radishes, potatoes, cabbage in broth along with a salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers, more radishes and vinegar along with the beer in a mini boot and a bag of bread. This was a ton of food!

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Basket of bread:

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…but wait, there’s more! Mystery steak (somewhat like salisbury steak) with a BBQ sauce and mixed vegetables…and a nicely garnished plate sprinkled with paprika: …I also asked to try the light beer, which they were happy to bring:

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Grand total for all that food plus the second beer? Just over US$7. What a bargain! Kept walking, and was surprised at an intersection to see another of my favourite Washingtonians…Alex Ovechkin, peering down from a billboard:

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You can see how wet the ground is. There were periodic sprinkles and downpours all afternoon, in between which there would be sunny skies. During one downpour I decided it was a good time to check out the metro system. Took a ride to the end of the line, and found out the KHL Sibir hockey rink wasn’t far away. Thanks to google maps I managed to figure out which bus would take me there, and piece of cake I was able to get on. I had no idea how the busses worked but it was a piece of cake. Each stop a lady would come around selling tickets, super easy!

According to the website the rink had a fan shop, so I did a walk around looking for it. First, came upon the team bus. Given the location of Novosibirsk, I can’t imagine they drive to too many games:

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After a bit of wandering, someone finally asked what I was looking for. Told him, and it turned out he was the team equipment manager. He brought me inside, and showed me around the rink. It was much smaller than I expected:

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The “team store” turned out to be a glass display case with a few pieces of merchandise in it, but I did manage to pick up a t-shirt and hat at least. Banner outside the rink – you can see it sits right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood – “Sibir Hockey Club – Novosibirsk State”

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Full view of the rink:

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Then, it was time to head back into the metro and ride a bit more. It wasn’t as fancy as the Moscow metro, but still really cool to see:

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There was a station called Gagarinskaya – after Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, so I had to get off and take a themed pic of the station. You can’t see it well in the picture, but it’s a lit up pic of Gargarin in the circle:

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Got off at the station near the Ob river, and walked out onto the bridge. Unfortunately, there was really no good place to take a picture, but this was the best I was able to do:

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After a bit more walking around, I was getting really warm (it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit and humid!) I headed back into the metro. Note the murals of Lenin still in the station:

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I guess that was fitting, since the station near the hotel was called Lenin Square:

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After a bit of a rest at the hotel (the hotel doesn’t have a lounge, but has this weird arrangement where half the lobby cafe/bar is set aside for breakfasts and happy hour for club room guests. They had several snacks, and the staff was quite pleased to see I was willing to eat local pickled fish and other local foods along with a couple of rather poor local beers.

Finally headed out for some dinner. Many years ago, when I studied near Novosibirsk in high school, there was a pelmeni eating contest sponsored by the local Young Pioneers chapter. Pelmeni are a dumpling that is common in the region, filled with diced mixed meats. Needless to say, given the fact I won the championship 25 years and there was a whole restaurant for pelmeni, I had to go there. On top of it, it was called Beerman and Pelmeni…how could I go wrong!

They had several different kinds on the menu, but I decided to go with the “pick any three” sampler. I have to say the beer menu was a bit of a let down, but the pelmeni were great. I had one that was mixed beef and lamb, the black ones are squid ink filled with calamari, and the final one I think was called the Novosibirsk with onions and lamb, it was delicious, but unfortunately I’ve lost a bit of my touch – wasn’t able to finish them all:

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After a good night’s sleep, headed down for breakfast in the lobby. Lots of fresh fruit, croissant and nutella, boiled eggs, local cheese, and pickled mushrooms with fish. Quite tasty!

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Unfortunately my visit to Novosibirsk could only be for two nights due to the change in plans. With one more night I would have loved to go out to the small town of Akademgorodok where I studied and see how things have changed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have recognized anything at all! All too soon it was time to head off to the airport, and begin the onward trip…

Jul 292016
 

After purchasing my ticket, I headed to the AeroExpress train to Moscow. It was only 1,000 rubles for a “business class” ticket (around $17) so I figured the extra was certainly worth it for a 45 minute train ride. It was definitely the right call, as the economy section was packed, and business had less than half the seats full and plenty of space to spread out. The train went to Pavletskaya Station in the southeast of the city, and it was an easy transfer to the metro. Unfortunately, I had to change metro trains as well, so this meant two transfers. Slight pain with a rolling bag, but really not bad at all.

Got off at Lubyanka station, which was right next to my hotel. I had chosen to stay at the St Regis in Moscow mainly because I still had to stay at one in order to complete Starwood’s stay at every brand in 2016 promo and I had a great corporate rate.

Oh, and it was also just across the square from a Starbucks….but that had nothing to to with my choice…

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I’d been “upgraded” to a tiny room on the top floor, with a perfect view of the old KGB headquarters, now home to Russia’s FSB Security Service:

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Overall thoughts on the hotel. The room was rather warm, although it did eventually cool down to around 22C after I asked the butler. 20C was the lowest setting on the thermostat, but that didn’t get the room below 25C, so when I asked the butler she said the engineer could do a manual override and set it for 17C. That helped the room get down to 22C, which was reasonable.

Other than that, bed was comfortable, but the room was super small. I’m also not used to hotel rooms with chandeliers hanging over the bed, but hey, everyone has their tastes in decor. The stay confirmed that the St Regis brand really isn’t my thing, although I have nothing but positive reviews for the hotel. It just felt a little too uptight and formal for my tastes, but the internet was super fast, since I unfortunately spent almost two hours on Skype getting my onward tickets sorted out. Tickets sorted. I headed for a walk.

Just five short minutes from my hotel, I passed the GUM department store and headed into Red Square:

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Lots of flowers. This was my first time in Moscow NOT in the winter, and it’s a totally different city:

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Red Square on a clear summer day:

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St Basil’s against a clear blue sky…complete with bird flying by:

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The Kremlin…I wonder if they’re busy searching for Hillary’s missing emails inside…

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Lenin’s tomb…unfortunately it had already closed for the day so I couldn’t verify if he’s still there…

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Stopped in GUM after my walk for an ice cream cone. They’ve been selling them there forever, and it’s a treat lots of folks look forward to when visiting. Plus, they’re an absolute bargain. Pistachio please!

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I did, however, pass on visiting GUM’s “historic toilet” – I wonder if it dates back to Soviet times, or what…

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Grabbed a quick dinner, and headed back to the room to get to bed early. Watched some rerun KHL hockey on tv, and noticed the Lubyanka was even more eerie looking lit up at night…this is after 10pm!

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Had a good night of sleep, and headed down to check out the breakfast. Very formal at St Regis, but also very Russian at the same time. Where else can you have smoked eel, caviar, and tea for breakfast?

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Walked around for a few more hours, before taking the metro back to the airport. Watching for a change of trains at Park Kultury station:

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Finally arriving at Pavletskaya to change to the AeroExpress train:

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One of the cool things about the Moscow Metro is that lots of the old soviet murals and architecture have been left completely unchanged:

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Check-in and security were super easy, and soon I’d arrived at the S7 airlines domestic lounge. Nothing to write home about. More meatballs as snacks. Seriously, what is it with S7 and meatballs?

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Last minute gate change meant a bit of a hike to our plane, which appeared to be absolutely packed. There was a family of eight occupying eight of the twelve seats in business class, and they were scattered around the cabin – probably a last minute purchase. Some swapping, but other people refused to give up their seats so I was stuck next to a 10 year old for the whole flight. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad…maybe he’d be well behaved…

S7 Airlines flight 181
Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME) to Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:55
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BRG, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,308,716

S7 has an…interesting colour scheme going on….purple seats:

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Raspberry and lime flight attendant uniforms:

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Lime green safety cards…in case of a water landing, your flight attendant’s lips may be used as a flotation device:

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Even the toilet seat and the bathroom were lime green:

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Oh, and a snapshot of our plane…

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Just kidding….

S7 even had a printed drink menu for a relatively short domestic flight:

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Started off with a glass of red wine…I like the little airplanes…

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Nice and tasty salad and some good black bread:

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Chicken stew…it was way tastier than it looked.

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After eating, I watched some movies and had a few glasses of wine. At one point, I got up and went to the washroom, and remember thinking “I should slow down…I could swear I had a full glass of wine when I left.” Got a refill, kept watching more tv, eventually went to the washroom again. Came back…again empty glass…and then it clicked. The 10 year old was drinking my wine when I went to the washroom! I tapped his dad on the shoulder in front of me and told him what was going on….and he congratulated the kid with almost getting away with it. Ugh!

Soon, time to land, and they passed out some sort of vegetable juice shooter….it was…interesting…

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Overall, S7 was solid service for a domestic flight. Comfortable enough seats that rival anything in North America, and are way ahead of what you would get in Western Europe. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. With the time change it was just before midnight when we landed in Novosibirsk, and we ended up with a remote gate. There was a special bus for business class passengers, which meant we were from plane to taxi rank in less than five minutes. Can’t complain about that! Then, it was off to the hotel and time to explore Novosibirsk!

Jul 282016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desk and work space behind the bed:

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Long foyer leading into the room:

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Glamourous washroom, complete with Bvlgari amenities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 252013
 

Given my experience getting to my hotel on the way into Moscow, I decided to leave for the airport a solid 4.5 hours before my flight just in case it took four hours again. No such experience this time, and in right around an hour I was at Domodedovo Airport for my flight to Vienna.  Check-in went pretty quickly, and then it was off to passport control and security, which also was really quick.  Soon I was in the lounge with over three hours before the flight – ugh.  Oh well, better early than late!

Good planespotting from the lounge:

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A Saravia Yak-42 – not a plane you see every day!

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Uzbekistan Airlines…making up for the photo I couldn’t get when I flew them back in May.

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Dec 202013
 

As I mentioned before, the first time I ever left the US/Canada was exactly 25 years ago, when I headed to the USSR on a student exchange program.  Now, 25 years and 146 countries later I was finally headed back to Russia, and a very changed Moscow!

Although I didn’t get to the hotel until maybe 9pm, I thought I’d still go for a short wander and find dinner, to try and get a little bit of an impression of the city before playing tourist.  10 minute walk away was Mayakovskij Square:

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Which was a little more welcoming in daylight the next morning:

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First thing I had planned was to see Red Square and the surrounding area.  It was maybe a mile walk which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but it was -10C outside, and lightly snowing.  No worry, time to walk!

First stop was the Tomb of the Unknowns:

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A monument to those who died in Leningrad in WWII:

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Dec 142013
 

Fortunately my flight out of Istanbul wasn’t all that early, but I decided to try and get an early start to “enjoy” the Turkish lounge, crowded as it usually is. It’s a good thing I did, because traffic was nightmare-ish this morning, and took well over an hour to get to the airport. Due to that, it was also going to be much more expensive than on the way in. I had 74.60 lira on me, and prayed it wouldn’t go over that. I had some dollars and euros as backup, but didn’t want to get in a negotiation.

Pull into the business class check in and the meter reads? 74.32 lira. Obviously, I’m doing something right! w00t for that!

Business class checkin was quick with zero line, as was passport check and security.  I was curb to lounge in 15 minutes max…for once Istanbul airport is redeeming itself to me.  Of course, the lounge was mildly packed, but I not only found a seat, but one with a power outlet.  This day keeps getting better and better,   Time for a snack!  Mmmm…baklava!

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Soon, it was off to the gate. Boarding only started 20 minutes before departure…this was not looking good…except…upon boarding it was “new” style A321 barcalounger business class…and only 3 of the 16 seats were taken. I’m obviously living right today!

Turkish Airlines flight 415
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Moscow, Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 16:35, Flight Time 2:50
Airbus A321-200 Registration TC-JSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2F

I was glad to see that even though the flight was shorter, and with real seats, we had the chef again!  Hahhahaha!

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…and pre-departure fresh-squeezed OJ is always welcome!

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Continue reading »

Nov 232013
 

Having just returned from 5 consecutive weekends on the west coast thanks to the United $10 fare sale, I was ready to be home. Seriously I was. Especially since I had 7 visas to sort for my New Years trip to Africa coming up. Work, however, had other plans for me.

No Thanksgiving this year, but rest assured I was going to have Turkey. As in the country, not the bird.

It actually started as a week-long trip to Tajikistan…and the easiest way there was through Istanbul. Then, a week in Moscow got added on. Now, mind you, last time I was in Moscow was 1988 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and it was my 3rd country visited after Canada and the UK. I’m going to guess Moscow is a bit different 25 years later.

I’d planned on taking a few days of vacation after that, to visit 2 of my 3 remaining countries in Europe, when fate intervened I was needed in Montenegro. Score! This would also mean an overnight in Vienna. …and business would finish on Friday, allowing me a weekend connection in Serbia at no charge. That will leave poor little Andorra as my last country to visit in Europe.

I’m going to try and keep up with this in real time. Just managed to secure 10 visas in a little over 3 weeks, which is some sort of personal record, and especially impressive giving they included DR Congo, Angola, Russia, and several other places in West Africa where I’m headed in just five weeks!  Then, it’s back home for a grand total of five days, before a few day Christmas with the family, and then off to West Africa for two+ weeks.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up in real time. The flight routing is:

map

 

Off we go!