Aug 182018
 


So, back in late June, even before I went on my latest burst of travel, I was starting to feel like it was catching up to me. I had back-to-back trips coming up to Easter Island for vacation for a week, then two weeks in Switzerland for work, and then another week in Brazil for work. It was shaping up to be a busy period, and I was looking forward to mid-August when I would be home for two weeks before taking a two week vacation to Russia.

Problem is, halfway through Switzerland, I was feeling exhausted from all the travel…and work was entering a really busy period, so I ended up putting off the vacation. The point of a vacation is to enjoy yourself and relax, and it’s hard to do that if it’s always go-go-go. So, Russia was postponed by six months or so, and when I got home from Brazil I was really looking forward to six straight weeks at home, with a couple of short side trips to see the family….but a one to two hour domestic flight isn’t nearly as hard as an international trip, so it would be relaxing.

…and then, the avalanche started, and in the last two weeks I’ve had a minimum of five trips fall in my lap before mid-November, so I might want to enjoy this time at home while I can get it. Fortunately, on many of the trips I’ve managed to tag on a little sightseeing, so I’m looking forward to it. With that said, here’s the upcoming plans, 58,000+ miles in under three months:

Mexico City:  at the beginning of 2018 I’d never been here before, and now here I am my third trip this year.  (Well, fourth if you count the overnight on the way to Easter Island!)  Three days of work, and then I decided to stay for Saturday before flying out to see family on Sunday. I would love to hear your suggestions for what to do with a full day in Mexico City. I was tempted to do the historical center food walking tour again since I enjoyed it so much, but would also like to hear your suggestions!

El Ángel in Mexico City

Stockholm: next up in late September is a week  in Stockholm for a conference. Last time I was there was back in December of 2010, so I’m looking forward to going back when it’s at least slightly warmer. Unfortunately most of my free time will be taken up by the conference, but hopefully I have a tiny bit of time to explore as well. One of the neat things about this trip is that I’ll get to fly into an airport I didn’t even know existed before this (Bromma Airport) and on a new aircraft type for me – the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Sometimes it’s the little things….

Outside Stadhuset in Stockholm in December, 2010

Shanghai: I’ll only be back from Stockholm for about a week when it’s time to head to Shanghai for a week of meetings. I’m actually really looking forward to this, since I’ve never been to Shanghai before. Beijing, Shenzen, but never Shanghai. I booked my tickets into Beijing so I could take the bullet train to Shanghai, and also am leaving one full day on either side of my meetings to do a little sightseeing. Very excited for this, and would love to hear your “must-sees” – home-cooking with RapidTravelChai‘s mother-in-law is definitely on the to-do list!

The Forbidden City – Beijing

Bern: Home from Shanghai for one night, and then it’s off to Bern for three days of meetings again. Feels like I was just there – oh wait I was – but looking forward to returning when it’s a bit cooler. I should have two or three days free when I’m there, and thinking one of them I really want to go up the Jungfraujoch. Yes, it’s touristy, but the views in mid-October should be amazing! Any other fun towns you recommend? I definitely want to stop in Lausanne again – I really enjoyed it last time I was there!

Aare River – Bern – Switzerland

South Africa: if it’s late October, it must be Johannesburg! Off to Joburg and Pretoria for a week of meetings, right in the middle of jacaranda season. After missing them for years, I got to see them last October and discover I’m wildly allergic to them – but the beauty is worth it! I’ll also have a nine day vacation after meetings, and currently trying to plan them out. Current thinking is to fly up to Harare, skip down to the Great Zimbabwe, then Bulawayo. From Bulawayo, take the train to Francistown in Botswana and self-drive to Gaborone. Open to other ideas as well…

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa with the “tablecloth”

So that brings me to mid-November, and hopefully a quiet Thanksgiving! If anything, I think a three or four night trip to Europe will be in order, but definitely something low-key because I’m planning a 10-12 day trip over New Years to do Egypt and the Sinai, Kiev (and Chernobyl), Kaliningrad, Lithuania, and Latvia.

…oh, and mid-February? That brings me back to the trip that was supposed to start this week to Russia!  No rest for the weary for the next six months! I think it’s time to up the exercise and get the diet in order, because this is going to be pretty strenuous!

Aug 162016
 

With 195 of the 196 countries in the world visited now, I’d like to think I’ve learned at least a little bit about different places. Sure, some of these trips have been less than 24 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the country, but even in a short time it’s easy to discover that lots of the misconceptions you might have had about a country before visiting just don’t stand up. So, in no particular order, 14 common misconceptions I’ve recently discovered in my quest to visit every country:

10. Iranians hate Americans. The media in the United States repeats it constantly, and Iran’s government certainly doesn’t do much to dispel this notion. However, it’s hard to wander the streets of Iran for five minutes without someone coming up to you, asking where you’re from, and often inviting you back to their home for tea. I found Iranians to be some of the warmest and most hospitable people I met anywhere in the world, and they’re genuinely curious about how things really are in the United States. Sure, our governments and politicians can be pretty easy to hate on both sides…but on an individual level the vast majority of Iranian people will welcome you with open arms.

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9. Africa is full of disease and hunger. Usually when I tell people who haven’t visited Africa about an upcoming trip, their first questions revolve around what shots/medications I had to get, and how will I find enough safe food to eat. Sure, there are tropical and other diseases that are much more common in Africa (malaria, dengue, even HIV), but that doesn’t mean that walking down the street you’re going to drop dead. Regarding food, yes, there’s not a McDonalds on every corner, but you would be surprised how many places you see KFC! There are, of course, lots of hungry people in Africa, but there are lots of hungry people in the United States as well. …and like Iran, the number of times people insisted I come back to their home and join them for a meal was amazing. People may not always have much, but you’re a guest and they’re happy to share it with you.

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8. People in China are pushy and rude. While it’s true that overall Chinese culture isn’t the same as the west when it comes to queueing this is changing to some degree in larger cities. When people start pushing (such as boarding a plane) it’s not an attempt to be rude, but simply doing what one needs to to not get trampled in a society that views that as a norm. There’s no rudeness intended at all, and firmly holding your ground will be respected.

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7. The Australian Diet Consists of Blooming Onions, Fosters, and Vegemite. In several trips to Australia I’ve never once seen a blooming onion, and all the Australians I know confirm it’s an American invention. As for Fosters, it’s incredibly uncommon and nobody drinks the stuff. Victoria Bitter (VB) is much more the stereotypical beverage and a higher quality beer costs up to $30 for a six pack thanks to taxes. Unfortunately, the vegemite part is true…and is definitely an acquired taste no matter how thinly you spread it and how much butter you use.

…but you can also get kangaroo and crocodile pizza:

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6. Argentina is Nothing but Cowboys, Steaks, and Evita. While it’s true all three play a huge part making up the Argentine identity, there’s so much more to the country. You can’t deny that modern Argentine politics was largely shaped by Peron and Evita, and you’ll find some of the most mouth-watering steaks in the world, but you’ll also find a vibrant international city in Buenos Aires and amazing skiing in the south and west. Oh, and don’t forget the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu and the Casa Rosada at night:

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5. You Can Get By Everywhere in English. While this is more true than it’s ever been, it’s still not universal. In most major world cities you will have no trouble in English (and in most European capitals the quality of English will be astounding) but there are still places where English is extremely limited. In Europe, Spain and Portugal are exceptions, and especially in Brazil you will find almost no english spoken outside the most touristic of places. Similar in China – get off the few major sites and international hotels, and limited to no English. Plus, if you want to see smaller towns you’ll find English much less common. This also goes for Russia and Central Asia outside capital cities. That’s not to say don’t go – most people will be happy to help, and do their best to communicate with you despite the language gap.

4. South Africa is rife with crime. Yes, South Africa is no stranger to both petty and violent crime. Yes, the stories of carjackings and people being robbed at gunpoint on the street are true. However, the same things happen in major American urban centres if you venture into the wrong neighbourhoods at the wrong time of time. Keep to well-trafficked areas, and use the “women, children, and old people rule” and you’ll be fine. The rule means simply if women, old people, and children are out strolling in the area, chances are things are just fine.

Cape Town sunset:

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3. Nigeria is nothing but Investment Scams, Corruption, and Oil Money. Is there corruption in Nigeria? Absolutely, but there’s also amazing beaches and some of the most amazingly warm people in Africa. One day I was sitting on a deserted beach just outside central Lagos, and the next partying at the craziest wedding I’ve ever been to. I found Nigerians to be some of the most fun-loving and happiest people I met in Africa…and they want you to join in the fun! I highly recommend to anyone who has a Nigerian friend they know in the US – try and get yourself an invite and see the real country. It’s an amazing place!

Very festive Nigerian wedding…the theme was obviously pink:

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2. Japan is all Pokemon, Anime, and Cat Cafes. Sure, all three of those things are very modern Japan, and all originated there and have become global phenomenons. At the same time, however, Japan is still a deeply traditional society with traditions and a history that goes back thousands of years. While Western society is certainly very at home in downtown Tokyo (as attested to by Starbucks everywhere), just turn the corner and you’ll find a temple that goes back hundreds of years that young and old alike still visit and respect. I found nowhere in the world where modern and traditional manage to exist side by side quite like in Japan.

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1. The Gulf States are Largely a Vast Desert Full of Camels and People that Despise Western Culture. So, first off, yes, there’s a lot of desert in the Arabian peninsula. It gets extremely hot and dry, and yes, there’s a lot of camels – outside the cities at least. Speaking of the cities, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and especially Qatar and the UAE and littered with enourmous shopping malls full of western brands. Dubai has dozens of Starbucks, Caribou, Tim Hortons, Costa and every other coffee shop known to western man. …and all of them are packed with local men sitting for hours and talking over coffee. Like with Japan, Western culture and convenience have been imported and customized for local tastes. Infrastructure and convenience wise the gulf states are some of the most modern places on earth which in some part is owed to the fact that in many of them (especially Qatar and the UAE) over 75% of the population is expatriates!

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So that’s my list of 10 of my bigger surprises – what has surprised you about places you went? What did you discover that you didn’t expect?

Nov 172015
 

Slept in a little bit, and enjoyed one last breakfast at the Kempinski, complete with several more tasty mongolian dumplings. Had the hotel call a taxi for me, and negotiate the price in advance, so I was able to use the last of my local currency towards the hotel instead of having any leftover since I didn’t expect I’d be back in Mongolia any time soon. It’s probably not a reassuring sign that when leaving your room, this is mounted to the wall right outside your room:

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I was a little worried about my flight, because it had gone from showing as a 737 online to a Dash-8 a week before the flight. Now, as far as I could tell, Air China has no Dash-8s, but at the same time, they stopped selling business class seats even on their own website. I figured whatever was going on, they were going to downsize the plane to something that had less business class seats, so I better get there early.

Given the airport has like three international flights a day, I decided two hours was early, and was actually the second to check in, and no, it’s a 737. Strange. Who knows what was going on, but she confirmed it was sold out, but had no problem accommodating my seat request. No line at all for security or immigration, and it was soon into the holding pen that was shared for the few gates at the airport.

Upstairs in departures there were like four or five duty free shops mostly selling liquor and tobacco, as well as an entire store selling nothing but Chenggis Vodka. Since I decided I probably couldn’t drink an entire bottle in transit, I resisted the urge to bring back this unique souvenir. There are some disadvantages to taking the long way home!

After browsing duty free, I decided to check out the business class lounge. It was pretty packed, and there wasn’t much on offer, except reasonable WiFi, so once connected I actually went back out into the departures lounge (which had much more space) to wait for the flight. Given the plane only held 16 in business, I had no idea where all the people in the business lounge had come from, except maybe if they let Star Alliance Gold members in.

Boarding was right on time, and I was about to have my first experience on Air China!

Air China flight 902
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (ULN) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:05, Flight Time: 2:15
Boeing 737-800 Registration B-5500, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 95,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,133,737

Welcome aboard was satisfactory, but unfortunately the bubbles were warm. Ugh.

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The seats were a hideous psychadellic purple, and rather uncomfortable. I tried to move the headrest up to be more comfortable, and this happened. The flight attendants couldn’t get it back on, and the flight was full, so they gave me a choice: fly without a headrest, or middle seat in economy. You can guess which I chose…

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…business, naturally, with hot towels on a plate:

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Offered “Chinese or French wine” you can once again guess which I chose. While the Chinese had a novelty factor, after Mongolian wine on MIAT I went with the safe option…well not TOO safe, because they spilled everywhere while pouring it, including on my shorts. Not even a sorry…

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Starter was described as “duck” and pretty scary. It seemed like some sort of pressed duck coldcut or something…I tried one bite and was definitely unimpressed. The fruit was pretty decent, had flavour, and was mildly juice, so I consider it a success:

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The “beef” entree was pretty bad as well, as was the garlic bread. Overall, I’d rate it up there with United domestic in terms of meal service, but give them extra points for the real china and tablecloth…but take away points for not having a headrest on my seat.

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Short flight, watched a little bit of tv on the iPad, and soon we were arriving into Beijing Airport via the giant smog layer over the city. Right on time, bus gate, but no special bus for business class. It was quite a long walk to transit security and passport check (they do a full passport check for transit, but don’t stamp your passport) and unfortunately it was nearly 25C in the airport. Definitely gross. I was pretty much a sweaty mess by the time I finished formalities, and all I could think of was how good an iced Americano from Starbucks would be.

Asked the nearest airport employee, and yes, there was one about a five to ten minute walk in the opposite direction of the gate. Don’t care…must find nirvana. The Starbucks experience itself was frustrating, stuck behind two young American women who wondered “how much is that in REAL money?” I told them to just use their credit cards, it wasn’t expensive, and I was just anxious to get them moving.

Having procured reliable caffeination, I was left without time to check out the Air China business lounge, but figured I probably wasn’t missing a whole lot. Got to my gate 40 minutes before the flight, and there was no sign of an agent. Finally, 15 minutes before the flight, an agent showed up and an announcement was made – we were moving gates…another 10 minute walk back in the direction I’d come from. It was still sweaty, hot, and gross in the terminal, and my patience at China was running extremely low.

Fortunately, the new gate was a bus gate, and this time there was a business class bus. Interesting security feature, when they scanned your boarding pass at the gate, your picture came up on the screen. I hadn’t noticed, but when transfer immigration was checking boarding passes they also took a picture of you to match things up. Pretty slick system.

Air China flight 115
Beijing, China (PEK) to Hong Kong SAR (HKG)
Depart 15:30, Arrive 19:00, Flight Time: 3:30
Airbus A321-200, Registration B-6363, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 96,365
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,134,971

Welcome aboard again, and this time with a reasonably cool glass of bubbles:

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There was a Chinese-American older couple seated in the row in front of me, and the gentleman was absolutely hysterical. For pre-departure drinks he asked for “as many small bottles of vodka as you can fit in a glass with two ice cubes” and was told no vodka until we were in the air. He laughed loudly, said something back to them in Chinese and then just said “fine, bring me alcohol.” He found himself incredibly funny, but his lady friend was clearly less than impressed. He leaned over the seats and started talking to me, and was absolutely hysterical. Fortunately he was the friendly funny drinker type, and not the obnoxious drunk, and once airborne settled down.

I tried the “Chinese red wine” which was almost drinkable, and actually better quality than much of the stuff United serves. Plus, warm salted almonds, which unlike United’s which tend to be a bit mushy they were still firm and crunchy:

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Meal served all at once, including some sort of chicken curry which looked vaguely like vomit, but actually tasted really good…I might have eaten the whole thing, including the scary warm salmon snack starter:

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All in all, the flight was exactly what I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be roughly the quality of a domestic flight in the US, and that’s exactly what it was. The crews were a mixed bag of mildly friendly to downright grouchy just like crews in the US, and the catering was…well, roughly what I would expect for an upscale prison cafeteria or maybe a mid-tier middle school. Well, except the fruit, which was definitely above average, but again…Asia…and I expect that.

Problem on the second flight was…they forgot to load bread! I decided not to eat the butter alone, however, so sadly it went to waste 😉

Three hours went by pretty quickly, arrival in Hong Kong was on-time at a bus gate, and soon it was off to enjoy my rather short 20 hour transit of Hong Kong!

Jun 252015
 

As I mentioned in my previous post, booking two days before the trip I didn’t have a lot of choice on getting to Beijing. I was finding economy fares that were super high, and looked like a middle seat was the best we would do, or we could do business for about twice the price. It remains the single most expensive round-trip ticket I’ve ever purchased for personal use, but like I said I felt like this might be a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, being in North Korea for less than 72 hours I wanted to be as rested as possible to try and maximize the experience.

Unfortunately, I don’t really remember the details on the flight in great detail, but thanks to my notes I can at least reproduce some of it. Plus, this will be a bit of nostalgia for the good old days before Jeff’s cost-cutting.

Continental Airlines flight 1104
Washington, DC, National (DCA) to Newark, New Jersey (EWR)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: Approximately 1 hour
Boeing 737-500, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 2F

Unfortunately, don’t remember much about this flight. It was a morning flight, so can pretty much guarantee I enjoyed a diet coke and not much else. I remember when Continental used to run 737s from DCA to EWR…and they were always packed. What happened?!

Enjoyed the Presidents Club in Newark, and soon it was time to board our flight to Beijing. I remember at the time thinking Continental BusinessFirst was a really big deal, and remember it being something like a six or seven course experience. Those days, well, they’re long gone!

Continental Airlines flight 89
Newark, New Jersey (EWR) to Beijing, China (PEK)
Depart ??:??, Arrive ??:?? Flight Time: ??
Boeing 777-200, Registration: ???, Manufactured ????, Seat 10A

I remember this flight being about 80% full in business, but the back mini cabin (I think there used to be five rows in the front cabin, and rows 8-10 were in a separate mini cabin) was less than half full. We had plenty of room to stretch out in our old-school barcaloungers.

For some reason, I didn’t take a pic of the soup, appetizer, salad, or any of the starters, but these were the days service in BusinessFirst was better than anything Jeff gives us in “First” on United these days.

Apparently, I had some chicken and veg for a main, and this reminds me how Continental used to plate the veg and starch from the trolly. Potatoes? Rice? They had multiple options, and you can fully customize the meal. Not sure what’s in the small bowl at the top, but I remember the Château le Gordon being much better than recent vintage Château le Jeff!

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Good to know I didn’t miss the ice cream sundae, though I’m not too sure why there’s Kahlua in the pic since I can’t remember ever going through a Kahlua phase. I’m glad to see four cherries though, I’d be disappointed if there weren’t multiples!

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Then I slept. I remember it being a pretty good amount, probably 4-6 hours. Cabin shot here with me enjoying the view out the window. You can see just how empty the back two rows of business were:

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Landed, immigration was a piece of cake, and even getting a taxi to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Beijing, was a piece of cake. We checked in mid-afternoon, and decided to use the little time we had to do a bit of exploring since we hadn’t been to Beijing before and would only have one evening before the flight to North Korea.

Looking jetlagged in front of the Forbidden Palace:

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Changing of the guard ceremony:

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Forbidden Palace all lit up at dusk:

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For dinner, we walked to the Quanjude duck restaurant. Don’t know how we found it, but they had a counter that indicated they’d served more than 15 million ducks since they opened:

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Our duck, being hygienically carved up table-side…it was absolutely delicious with all the sides, and the waiter showed us how to plate it up and eat it all together.

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Promptly crashed for at least eight hours, and was up way too early. Found Starbucks (do you doubt my abilities to find them, even back them?) and wandered the city just a little longer. Found a countdown to the Beijing Olympics, which were still three years away at that point:

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The Grand Hyatt:

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Then, it was time to taxi to the airport and meet up with our group from Koryo Tours for the flight to Pyongyang!