May 262018
 


Woke up way too early, turned on the iPhone, and as usual the messages started coming in. Emails, text messages…and the notification from TripIt that my flight with Air Namibia from Windhoek to Harare was canceled. UGH. I was already unsettled about this part of the trip given Air Zimbabwe’s recent fleet problem of being reduced to one airworthy plane, but this was a whole new wrench in the works.

It looked like I might be able to fly to Johannesburg and then to Bulawayo, but of course Air Namibia and Air Zimbabwe took no responsibility, and this would be several hundred dollars out of pocket. Too tired to really focus on the impending problem, I did what any sane person would do, and headed around the corner from the Hilton to Slowtown Coffee.

Ok, in fairness I stopped by the Hilton Exec Lounge first, but the caffeine looked unpredictable, and the lounge was filled with loud americans touting their “status” so I made a hasty retreat. Slowtown definitely seemed to be THE place to be in Windhoek this morning:

Plus, a super tasty iced coffee and a pastel de nata and I was much more prepared to figure out what I was doing with the next few days:

I debated just spending another day checking out Namibia, but after four nights I didn’t think there was that much I was going to see, plus the cost of extending the car might get crazy. I decided to head to the airport, fly back to Johannesburg, and decide from there if I could salvage the trip at all.

Back to the airport, up to the Hertz counter, and guess what? Yes, their credit card terminal was down again, so “please write on this paper what you think you should pay for” and that was it. I basically wrote down the four days of rental plus taxes, and decided to see how things went. No one way drop off fee. None of the crazy insurance they tried to push on me in Walvis Bay. I had a feeling this was going to get bad, but at the same time I was pretty confident that American Express would have my back.

Security and immigration took maybe five minutes today, and the airport was a ghost town compared to a few days prior. How much of a ghost town? This is the ENTIRE departures hall:

Short stop in the generic business lounge, which actually had a reasonable variety of snacks and beverages, and a couple bottles of Savannah Dry Cider later, and it was time to board. Our flight today had a total of 60 people, so it would be nice and relaxed.

This time, no complaints about taking pictures, and was able to grab a good shot of our plane while boarding.

British Airways flight 6274 operated by Comair
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 14:55, Arrive 16:45, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-ZWJ, Manufactured 2006, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,935
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,997

No pre-departure drink at all, but right after take off a glass of sparkling wine and a bag of nuts:

For such a short flight, meal service was still done in two parts, with the salad, cheese, and dessert coming first:

In case you’re curious exactly what it was:

Beef, chicken, or veg, and I went with the chicken. Unusual choice for me on a plane, but not only did I go with the chicken but I opted to stick with champagne. It was good – not great – but I was plenty happy with it. Slightly dry like I expect airplane chicken to be, but who knows…maybe I was feeling just a wee bit healthy?

Landed in Johannesburg almost 20 minutes early, got a bus gate, and it was time to head back to my hotel…and figure what if anything I was going to doing with the next three nights…since my journeys to Botswana and Zimbabwe looked to be at risk…

Mar 082018
 


So, I had to go to Mexico City for work. To be honest, I was actually really looking forward to it because despite having been to every country, and living right next door, I cheated on Mexico. It was actually the third country I went to; my aunt lived in Tucson for years when I was a little kid, and we used to go and visit, and after me whining and begging several times I finally convinced the family to hop across the border to Nogales. Remember, this was the early 1980s, so the concept of needing a passport as an American was kinda crazy.

Then, fast forward to college, and a group of friends went to a friend’s beach house in Ensenada, Baja California. Had a few great days and actually a bit more of a local experience, but still kind of cheating. Then, on a trip to Orange County we made a day trip to Tijuana. Walked around, had great food at restaurants that were all locals, but again….still doesn’t quite count.

I won’t even mention the ill-advised trip to Cancun.

So, yeah, I’ve definitely been to Mexico, and have no issues with “counting” it, but I still felt like I really needed to have more of a Mexican experience. Between my little tastes, and having been to lots of other countries, I was pretty sure I had a really good idea what it was going to feel like, so I was curious to see if I was right.

I’ll split this report into three parts: the trip there, a short report on my six days in Mexico City (4.5 of which were work), and finally the trip home.

Quick cab to the airport, no line at CLEAR, and realized I had nearly an hour left to kill before boarding. I’m generally not the type to go gaga for airport lounges, but since I had the time decided to do something I never do: lounge hop.

Airport train to the B gates, and a short walk ahead was the wonderful Lufthansa Senator Lounge:

Strawberry raspberry nutella AND a completely empty lounge due to being between the ANA and evening flights? Yes PLEASE!

Artsy shot thanks to the empty lounge. Unfortunately at this hour the “champagne” is a rather crappy cava and the raspberry nutella scone didn’t taste like nutella at all. Major sad panda.

No time to waste with only an hour to waste to do all the lounges, so off to the Turkish lounge. On the way, I nearly lost my lunch:

Short walk later, I was at the Turkish lounge, which people seem to rave about:

Bad news: same crappy cava. Good news: delicious baklava and a relatively-empty lounge.

I still wonder where this mystery staircase in the lounge goes. Perhaps I should have explored:

Walk all the way down to the A gates, catch the train to the C gates, and time for a quick stop at the United Club. *hums* one of these things is not like the other…

Lest anyone thing I was a giant pig, I woke up, went for a run, and ate nothing before getting to the airport – so was really hungry!  …yes, and thirsty!

United flight 484
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Houston, Texas (IAH)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 15:19, Flight Time: 3:34
Boeing 757-200, Registration N14118, Manufactured 1997, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,891
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,533,953

According to the app there were over 40 people on the standby upgrade list, so was very happy that I’d managed the night before to do a free same day change onto this flight. Always nice to have lie-fat seats on a domestic flight even if just for the legroom. Having already had my palate wrecked in the United Club preflight, I opted for a pre-flight prosecco:

It was also Valentine’s Day, and I got an e-mail card from the CLEAR team at Dulles. Awkward.

Once in flight, out came the warm nuts. Glass of red wine? Consider it handled.

All these years I’d never had the famous burger, so decided to experiment. Honestly, it was decent. There are lots of amazing burger places in DC so my standards are pretty high, but given this was a plan it wasn’t bad at all…and came on a pretzel bun. With a pretzel rolls on the side. Uh…oh.

Points also for a very fresh salad, and reasonably tasty cheesecake.

Landed a bit ahead of schedule in Houston, and I realized I’ve somehow managed to avoid this airport for nearly five years. We landed at some newish C Gates which were really bright and airy – a nice change for Houston. Spotted this 787 on my way to the D Gates to try and find the Centurion Lounge:

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

Finally found the lounge, which like most AmEx lounges these days was heaving and about to burst at the seams. Had to wait in line behind a family of SIX to get in, so good to see that problem has been solved. Not.

Oh well, a glass of Veuve Clicquot made it a bit better:

On the way to find my plane at the E gates, I was informed the Polaris lounge was coming soon. Giggle. Snort. Hah. Moving right along…

How can this be….absolutely no gate lice on the flight to Mexico City?!

United flight 1092
Houston, Texas (IAH) to Mexico City, Mexico (MEX)
Depart 17:44, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 2:21
Boeing 737-800, Registration N12216, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 14,654
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,534,716

Today’s load was a full 20 in business class (18 of which were upgrades according to the app) and a grand total of 24 people in economy. Wow, now that’s an empty 737! Pre-flight glass of Chateau L’Oscar to start:

The “meat and rice” – uhhh….at least it tasted better than it looked? Once again, a nice fresh salad.

Overall, it was a pretty typical domestic/regional first/business experience today. Food was maybe a slight bit better than I was expecting, and the international 757 to Houston was definitely a welcome bonus. Also, can’t neglect mentioning that both crews were excellent – friendly, efficient, and helpful. Definitely a real asset to United. Now, let’s get to the main event and check out Mexico City!!

Aug 112016
 

Ended up sleeping in a bit…so much that I actually missed breakfast in the Le Meridien lounge. That was no problem, however, because in KL Sentral Station just across the street there was a…you guessed it…Starbucks which did a great job of fueling me.

Grabbed a super inexpensive Uber and headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers…and got there just as the sky was about to open up and dump rain:

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Wandered the mall a bit as the rain let up, and then grabbed another Uber X out to the Batu Caves. The Ubers were so inexpensive in KL that I didn’t mind asking the driver to wait 30-60 minutes while I explored, and he was more than happy to do so. The roundtrip plus nearly 40 minutes of waiting time was still less than $30. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures I was really happy with, so I’m going to recycle some from a trip about ten years ago. The long staircase up to the caves:

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The one thing that struck me in the ten years since I’d been there was the complete absence of the monkeys. The place used to be crawling with wild monkeys:

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To the point they would sell you bananas to feed the little guys, who were not in the least afraid of humans:

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After getting back to the hotel with Uber, I head to pack up for my trip to Penang. On my original itinerary (as booked when I left the US) I had planned an overnight in Penang in case I misconnected. I didn’t want to miss the start of my ticket home. However, I found out that all the flights to Penang were out and back, so wasn’t too worried. Plus, with the originally planned detour to Australia, and now detour to Mumbai, I really didn’t have time for this.

Fortunately, I booked a two night stay in KL, and on the full day it would be easy to fly up to Penang and then turn almost right around. Packed a small daybag with essentials like passport, phone charger, etc, and caught the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport. Security was super quick, and the domestic gates are a short walk away…through the duty free shops of course. I’m not sure I understand the point of duty free shops for a domestic concourse, but it is what it is.

First stop was the domestic Malaysian lounge, which was a sad, sad place. A small buffet that looked like the food had been sitting there for hours, and several kids running around loudly screeching. I opted instead to walk around the rather small (but long) concourse plane and people spotting. At least the view of our plane for Penang from the lounge was fantastic:

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No spitting in the drinking fountain!

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At the end of the terminal two 747s were parked. Malaysia has been “hunting” for the owners of these abandoned planes since December, 2015! SWIFT Air claimed to own them, but apparently Malaysia doesn’t believe them, and now 8 or more months later, they still sit. I mean really, how do you forget you own a 747?

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Back towards our gate, the thunderstorms were rolling in, and things were looking ugly for an on-time departure.

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Torrential rain, thunder, and lightening started shortly thereafter. Of course, neither rain, nor snow, nor other mysterious circumstances shall stop Malaysia Airlines, so we boarded and pushed back right on time!

Malaysia Airways flight 1152
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Penang, Malaysia (PEN)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,448

Flight was completely full in both classes, but fantastic flight attendant in business offered a pre-departure of anything you’d like. Including nice warm Diet Coke…

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After a super turbulent climb out there was even a meal on the short flight! It wasn’t anything special, but those bread rolls were super addictive!

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Landed in Penang right on time, and went straight to the gate agent to ask about changing my reservation. My flight back to KL was scheduled about 3.5 hours later, and was the turnaround of the next flight. He was super helpful, could see me checked in on the next flight, and was happy to move me to the one leaving in 40 minutes…but did remind me that there wasn’t a meal catered for me, haha! Score, I could arrive back to KL three hours earlier and get more sleep before my early flight!

The domestic departures hall in Penang:

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Our gate today B1 was apparently a fragrance and cosmetic wonderland:

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There was a crew change in Penang, so unfortunately didn’t get to go back with the same wonderful crew.

Malaysia Airways flight 1155
Penang, Malaysia (PEN) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,649

Who needs a catered meal when right next to your gate there’s a Starbucks! I like Penang Airport already!

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Even better, there were only two passengers in business class on the return flight so I had an empty seat next to me:

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With that, there’s not much to tell. Super uneventful flight, and I even made it back to the Le Meridien with ten minutes to spare before happy hour ended in the lounge. Even better, the super friendly agents kept the lounge going an extra thirty minutes since there were so many people still around. I have to give high marks to the lounge staff, they really made this hotel extra welcoming.

Everything had worked out well with the side trip to Penang, and now the trip was coming to an end. Next morning, early morning flight to Hong Kong with Cathay followed by a long lounge break and flight to JFK in first…

Aug 102016
 

Grabbed an Uber from the W Hotel to BKK in order to catch my onward flight to Kuala Lumpur. So, why Kuala Lumpur? Mainly because I had gotten an incredible fare out of Penang, Malaysia back to Toronto which meant I would need to visit KL for a night on my way to Penang to start the new ticket. Malaysian check-in at Bangkok was super efficient, and there was no line for passport control or security. Soon I was in the main terminal where I love this piece of Thai art:

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Malaysian uses a contract lounge by Louis Tavern, with several cardboard cutout agents greeting me for my visit. Yee haw VietJet!

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The lounge was…unimpressive. Plenty of things to drink, and a bare few nibbles. It’s my one complaint about the lounges in general (including the Thai lounges) at this airport and that is that it’s hard to get anything substantial to eat from them if you’re hungry. Having recently had breakfast I wasn’t interested, but if I was there wasn’t much other than a few snack foods in the lounge. The lounge was nicely cooled but also rather small with most of the seats taken. Plenty of power outlets, but after 15 minutes of listening to two obese Australian gentlemen bragging about their…conquests…in Bangkok I decided to head to the gate early.

I remember when these routes in SouthEast Asia were operated by widebodies as recently as ten years ago. Unfortunately, these days 737s do lots of the heavy lifting. Our bird for the short flight was already at the gate being catered when I arrived:

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Boarding was as orderly as possible in Bangkok, and the flight was completely full with every seat taken.

Malaysia Airways flight 789
Bangkok, Thailand (BKK) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 14:15, Arrive 17:25, Flight Time: 2:10
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MLM, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,110
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,247

Pre-departure of water or juice was offered, and as soon as we were up in the air appetizers were delivered. The salad was amazing (anyone know what it is?) and garlic bread is always a winner with me. The big downside, Malaysian no longer serves alcohol on “regional” flights. Come on, how cheap can you guys get?

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Green curry chicken as a main…it was relatively tasty:

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Other than that, how much can you really say about a 90 minute flight on a 737? Reasonably tasty meal, no alcohol, but crew were happy to provide water and drink refills whenever requested. Overall, a solid experience. We landed in KL right on time, and fortunately in the main terminal so there was no need to wait for the train to take us to immigration. Unfortunately, when we arrived at immigration it was absolutely slammed. Talking to some others, they had been in the queue for over THREE HOURS. Even the business class/diplomat/CIP line was long, and I ended up waiting more than 30 minutes to clear.

After clearing, it was off to the KLIA Ekspres train for the 30 minute ride into the city. I had purchased my tickets through their iPhone app earlier, and with this got a 10% discount. The discount was even higher at 20% if you paid with a MasterCard. Scanned the QR code from the app on the turnstiles, and voila…nice and easy. Definitely recommend this method for anyone visiting KL. After a short ride we were at KL Sentral station, and it was a short walk across the street to the Le Meridien hotel. The Le Meridien and Hilton hotels share an entrance, and are essentially joined on the ground level. I had stayed at the Hilton before, but decided on the Le Meridien this trip.

Front desk checked me in, and told me I’d been upgraded to a newly renovated room on the top floor….going up…

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It was cocktail hour by the time I arrived, so I headed down to the club lounge. There was a huge buffet spread as well as complimentary drinks. More than enough food to make a dinner, and I ended up staying for a couple of hours until they closed it. I was tired from a few long days of travel, so not much in the mood to head out. Plus, it was pouring rain, so going outside really wasn’t an option. The first of several snack plates:

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View of KL from the lounge:

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View of KL from my room:

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With that I called it a rather early night. I wanted to get out and explore in the morning before going to Penang, so rested up and took it easy. It was also arctic cold in my room, and soon I settled in for a long hibernation…

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

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Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

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No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

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The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

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Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

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Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

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Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

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Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

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While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

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…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

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Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

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After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…

Jul 222016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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View from about halfway up:

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Inside mechanics:

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

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

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

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

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View on the way up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary Airport from the car park.

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

Apr 212016
 

I had a very long weekend coming up, and combined with the American Exec Platinum challenge it looked like a perfect time to get away to my 190th country visited – Belize! There were some excellent business class fares available, and even though they required an overnight in Dallas in both directions it looked like the perfect time.

I had always put off visiting Belize because I wanted to go for a week or more and get some serious diving in. However, with only a little over seven months left until my goal of visiting every country I opted for a shorter relaxing trip so that I had a but more intel for the next trip!

Put in a bit of a half day of work, then headed off to the Admirals Club for the first time in a few years to see what the upgraded food options were all about. There were pepperjack cheese cubes so I was happy…combine that with some decent brownies and some mushroom and brie soup, well, overall a very tasty and substantial snack:

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Soon it was time to board the flight to Dallas for the overnight.

American flight 327
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 15:40, Arrive 18:13, Flight Time: 3:33
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 19,248
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,208,763

Despite at 3:40pm departure, it was a dinner flight. Other than London-Chicago a month prior, this was my first domestic American flight in a few years and I was curious to see how they would do compared to United. Was pleasantly surprised to get a new 737-800 with sky interior, and everything felt new and clean. I was also glad to see that wine is still poured in “big boy” glasses, but boo to sourcing split cashews from Smisek’s Split Cashew Farm:

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I had pre-ordered my meal online (a nice feature American offers so you can be disappointed in advance) and I went with the pasta…which was as bland as it looks and sounds. I had a couple bites, and passed on the rest in favour of more vino.

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Mas vino and a pretty good chocolate chip cookie…but rather sad as a dessert:

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Overall verdict? Just like United, it’s a meal that you could get for under $10 in any workplace cafeteria. It’s far from fine dining, but if you’re busy and rushed it will do the job.

Spent a nice night at the Westin DFW. I felt a cold coming on, and the hotel shuttle driver was kind enough to take me a couple miles away to the nearest CVS for Sudafed…at no charge. Definitely high marks to this property on service! Woke up feeling quite a bit better, went to the airport a little early where I grabbed Starbucks (of course) then went straight to my gate.

American flight 2345
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to Miami, Florida (MIA)
Depart 7:15, Arrive 11:01, Flight Time: 2:46
Boeing 737-800, Registration N809NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 20,369
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,209,884

Unfortunately, my flight attendant was pretty much asleep as well, and dumped my seatmate’s pre-departure beverage in my lap. Ugh, fortunately it was “only” tea which wasn’t really hot…and also didn’t stain. She did apologize profusely at least.

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I decided to go with the mimosa option…I was on vacation after all!

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Another pre-ordered meal, the omelette. Fruit was dry and tasteless. I ate the eggs just for the protein, and left everything else behind…except a second and maybe third mimosa. Another blah and uneventful flight.

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Didn’t have very long in Miami, but since the American Express Centurion Lounge was on my way to the gate I stopped in for a few minutes and a celebratory glass of Veuve. The place was absolutely packed with families so I made a quick retreat on to my next flight.

American flight 2476
Miami, Florida (MIA) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 12:35, Arrive 13:50, Flight Time: 2:15
Airbus A319, Registration N90024, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,136
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,651

Feet on the bulkhead is apparently done in a much more classy fashion on American, with fuzzy pink socks:

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Fortunately, the flight was pretty empty and not all the seats were taken in first despite some non-revs boarding at the last minute, so I was able to swap over to a window seat. We started off with warm nuts and some wine:

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The nuts were, unfortunately, burned and chewy, so I had to give them a pass:

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We were given a snack option of “cheese and fruit” or “spinach dip” – I went with the cheese which was two sad hunks of cheese and a few bruised grapes.

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There was enough for seconds, so I asked to try the hummus…I wish I hadn’t. It was rather foul. One bite and done.

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Soon, we were on approach to Belize:

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Deplaned through stairs, immigration took a bit longer than it should have since it seemed several flights all arrived at the same time.

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Once through security, you were dropped right into the domestic departures area. My hotel had arranged my onward flights for me, so all I had to do was give my name to them, and they put me on the next flight to San Pedro. Flights seemed to leave every 15-30 minutes at peak time, so it was really a piece of cake.

TropicAir flight 76
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to San Pedro, Belize (SPR)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 14:25, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHL, Manufactured 2011, Copilot Seat
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,170
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,685

Even better the flight was completely full, so I got to sit in the copilot seat!

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Off to San Pedro we go!

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View out the window just after takeoff:

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Plotting our course:

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About 10 short minutes later, we were on approach to La Isla Bonita:

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Deplaning at San Pedro:

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San Pedro, the only place in the world you will find go cart traffic jams:

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I spent the next three days doing absolutely nothing. Going for walks on the beach, playing in the water, reading in hammocks, basically doing nothing. Well, I did manage a few good eats…starting with rum punch:

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Some conch fritters:

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Some absolutely delicious curried lobster:

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…and to finish it off some key lime pie that Madonna supposedly called “worth every calorie”

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A few days later, I was completely sad to leave. I mean, how can you not miss views like this outside your room:

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Apparently drinking hours were ending, and I was unfortunately going to have to go back to working hours:

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The hammock I spent most of the weekend in, along with a friendly stray dog:

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Home away from home, the Blue Tang Inn…fantastic hosts and facilities, I’d definitely go back again!

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The hotel dropped me back at the airport, and it was nice checking in just 30 minutes before my flight home!

TropicAir flight 91
San Pedro, Belize (SPR) to Belize City, Belize (BZE)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 15:15, Flight Time: 15 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration V3-HHI, Manufactured 2010, Seat “3C”
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 21,204
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,210,719

No copilot seat this time, since they used the weight and balance excuse. Still had great views on takeoff:

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Deplaning in Belize City, we were about 5 minutes before the skies absolutely opened up for a torrential downpour that seemed to last forever!

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While waiting on my departing flight, I checked out Jet’s Bar in the airport. Jet is the proprietor who has been running this very small bar for years, and has all sorts of pictures of himself with famous people all over the walls. It feels like a bit of a tourist trap now, but was still cool to see while waiting on my flight.

Unfortunately, it was still pouring when we had to walk to the remote gate. At least American had a bucket of umbrellas for us to use. Didn’t matter, however, since the rain was so strong everyone still got wet. I felt worst for the people in the back of coach who had to wait on the stairway to board the flight as people screwed around trying to find their seats!

American Airlines flight 268
Belize City, Belize (BZE) to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW)
Depart 17:09, Arrive 20:18, Flight Time: 3:09
Boeing 737-800, Registration N812NN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,393
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,211,908

Dinner time flight, and that meant more warm nuts…this time not burnt:

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Great sunset shortly after takeoff:

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I finally got to try the famous American Lobster Mac and Cheese with Steak, and it was actually pretty decent. One of the best domestic meals I’ve had in a long time!

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Cookie for dessert again. Ugh. I had a couple bites of the better-cooked part, and them passed on the rest.

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Good overnight, woke up a little early to make sure I had time for coffee, and when I looked at my phone it was filled with alerts from TripIt, American, etc. I knew DC had been expecting an ice storm, and due to that, American had canceled my Dallas to DC flight. They’d rebooked me via St Louis since all the nonstops were full. I didn’t have much more faith that St Louis to DCA would operate since it was a regional jet, but I decided to let go and trust.

American Airlines flight 96
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) to St Louis, Missouri (STL)
Depart 10:15, Arrive 11:53, Flight Time: 1:38
McDonnell Douglas MD88, Registration N963TW, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 22,943
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,458

No more than 30 seconds after the door closed on the flight to St Louis, did I get a message from TripIt…St Louis to DCA had just canceled.

UGH.

They booked me on a St Louis to DCA that went two hours later…but by the time we landed in St Louis that flight had canceled as well. Ugh. I got to know the staff of the Admirals Club in St Louis quite well during my nearly 9 hours there, and they were great trying to help me rebook. I think I must have asked at least a dozen times, and I did finally get them to put me on a flight via Chicago and then onto DCA the next morning.

Right before we left, the next morning’s flight to DCA canceled as well. United had seats, and I had to push pretty hard, but eventually they did end up rebooking me on United. Thank God! I even managed to check-in with United online and then do a same day change to a slightly later flight so I could sleep in.

American Airlines flight 3243 operated by Envoy Air
St Louis, Missouri (STL) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 19:05, Arrive 20:30, Flight Time: 1:25
Canadair CRJ-700, Registration N535EA, Manufactured 2010, Seat 1C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,201
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,212,716

This was a good thing, because my 7:05p departure was over two hours late, and when we landed in Chicago we had to wait another hour for a gate due to ice there. It was nearly midnight before we rolled into a gate, and I rolled over the the Airport Hilton for convenience sake.

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It was a good thing I did, because I woke up around 7a feeling like absolute death warmed over. Fever, chills, I was pretty sure I was about to meet my maker. Definitely the sickest I’ve been in years. Managed to same-day-change to an even later flight, and roll over for more sleep. By 11:30 I was able to struggle out of bed and put clothes on…and make my feverish way over to the terminal. Security was easy, and because I was dealing with a fierce headache (thanks caffeine withdrawl) I did manage to put down a venti iced americano from starbucks.

I needed food badly, and a McDonalds cheeseburger was the blandest thing I could think of, but after two bites, it wasn’t going to happen so I gave up.

United Airlines flight 616
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington, DC National (DCA)
Depart 13:55, Arrive 16:47, Flight Time: 1:52
Boeing 737-700, Registration N23721, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 23,813
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,213,328

I know this flight happened. I know I looked pale. I know that after the first glass of ginger ale the flight attendant kept them coming…I’m sure I looked pretty rough. But, somehow, I made it back home. I’ve never been so thankful a flight had ginger ale on board since I got nasty food poisoning returning from Iraq. Got home, found out I had a temperature of 102.5 headed straight down the street to Urgent Care where the flu test came back negative…and crawled into bed where I spent most of the next 48 hours.

Jul 122015
 

As I mentioned in the last post, after a long day of touring around Pyongyang we were taken to the Number 1 Duck Restaurant, which was promised to be a big treat. Contemplating dinner…and North Korean beer:

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Final evening chat with the variety of interesting characters on the trip:

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After dinner, it was back to the glamourous Koryo Hotel to crash. It was honestly reasonably comfortable, completely clean, even though the mattresses seriously felt like they were filled with straw:

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The uninspired hallways…if you would knock on the walls there were clearly lots of hollow spots in them…we decided there must be secret compartments and one-way mirrors…

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Final breakfast at the Koryo Hotel. What the food made up for in quality and quantity, they certainly tried their hardest with presentation…and bowtied waiters:

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Koryo Hotel lobby…note all the marble. Like old Soviet hotels, it was everywhere. I can’t remember if the pink flowers are Kimilsungia or Kimjongilia:

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Goodbye Koryo Hotel…waiting for the bus to the airport:

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Busy city streets of downtown Pyongyang at 7am:

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One last shot of the two towers of the Koryo Hotel:

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Shot with our “tour guide” by the bus before heading to the airport:

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Unauthorized secret photography on the way to the airport. Lots more people “risking” pictures at this point because, hey, what would they do, deport us?

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Goodbye from the Eternal Leader:

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Very busy day at Pyongyang International, with four flights arriving, including the two charters to take the visiting South Koreans home;

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Waiting area, including a V.I.P. Lounge…unfortunately, they don’t accept Priority Pass…yes I asked…

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Waiting hall…all flights wait in the same room:

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Inspirational reading on the walls while you wait for your flight. I wonder if Kim Il Sung would approve of the Kindle:

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Sympathy might not be the word they wanted:

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Our plane being prepared on the tarmac:

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Walking down the stairs to the bus to take us to our plane:

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So long Pyongyang!

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Boarding…was fun to get a different plane than the first flight!

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Air Koryo flight 221
Pyongyang, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (FNJ) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 9:30, Arrive 10:00, Flight Time: 90 minutes
Tupolev TU-154B, Registration P-561, Manufactured 1983, Seat 26D

The Air Koryo crew continued to photobomb my pics!

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No doors on the overhead bins this time, just put your bags up and pray!

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On the takeoff roll. You can see all the bags in the overhead, and the flight attendant standing in the aisle and bracing herself by holding onto two seats!

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The Air Koryo burger, and some kind of juice I think. The burger was actually surprisingly edible, but I have absolutely no idea what it contained!

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Final shot of our plane from the gate in Beijing:

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We had a few hours to wait for our connecting flight to Newark, and got some Starbucks in the airport and then just hung out in the lounge. Back then you needed a visa to even transit China, so might as well leave the sterile area of the airport and get some Starbucks while waiting!

Continental Airlines flight 88
Beijing, China (PEK) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart 15:45, Arrive 17:25 Flight Time: 13:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 9A

Was absolutely and completely exhausted by this flight, and ended up sleeping a lot of it. So tired I didn’t even think to take any pics of the meal or anything unfortunately.

Continental Airlines flight 1153
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Washington, DC, National (DCA)
Depart 19:00, Arrive 20:15 Flight Time: 1:15
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 5E

Speaking of exhaustion, this is when it hit. Flew economy on the domestic segments because buying first on those would have been hundreds extra, and it wasn’t worth it for such short flights when you could get the bulkhead. Remember the days when Continental flew 737s 10 times a day from DC to Newark?

All in all, it was an amazing trip, and a fantastic opportunity to be part of the first group of Americans to be allowed into North Korea. We got to see a slightly less-polished propaganda machine that wasn’t quite certain what to do with us. I look forward to going back for a much longer trip so I am not so severely jetlagged for most of it, and we can see more sights. Especially would love to take the aviation tour!