Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!

Feb 192018
 


First, sorry for the delays in continuing with this trip report. It will probably come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that I’ve been traveling the last week.

Jetlag was finally wearing off by this point, and I was starting to adjust to the time zone so woke up at a relatively normal hour. I know I’ve sang the praises of the Sheraton Frankfurt Airport multiple times, but the executive lounge I find to be one of the best anywhere in the world. Grabbed a “light” breakfast after getting in a quick workout:

Off to the Frankfurt Airport long-distance train station, where I caught an ICE to Frankfurt Hauptbanhof, which according to the train maps was the same one which would continue to Dresden. What wasn’t clear to me is that when it arrived at Frankfurt Hbf my train would be joined to another train, and I would have to run down to the other end where my car was. Slightly confusing, but worked out just fine in the end.

The train ride to Dresden was nearly four hours, and the would be the second longest of my trip. Time passed pretty quickly catching up on some tv on the iPad, but there were some “gaps” in tv to look out the window:

Given the length of the train ride, there was definitely time for a snack and a beer…plus a good opportunity to practice a little German. DB crews overall speak really good English, but for some reason seem much more willing to tolerate my poor attempts at Germany than other service-oriented businesses Two flams, one greek and one traditional bacon and onion:

According to Google Maps my hotel seemed to be closer to the Neustadt train station in Dresden than the Hauptbanhof, so I got out there and started trying to find my hotel. Fortunately, it was very easy, and a short 10-15 minute walk just as Google Maps predicted. Got to the Westin Dresden where the place was buzzing with activity. Turns out there was a giant olympic-qualifying cross country sprint ski race going on in town that weekend, and turns out they were all staying at my hotel. This was going to be absolutely awful ūüėČ

Full hotel meant they needed to upgrade someone, so I ended up with an absolutely giant suite. The living room:

Another shot of the living room – it was absolutely massive:

Bedroom:

There was also a newspaper waiting in the room, full of the latest news from America where I got to learn some very useful German vocab:

Out for a wander after checking in mid-afternoon. The races had just wound up for the day so I missed that, but went for a walk. First stop was the Catholic Church:

Great DDR mural on the side of the Concert Hall:

It was actually cold and windy, with a bit of light snow falling during the walk, so I soon had to stop – where else – Starbucks for a nice hot coffee and snack to warm up. It seemed to be the most happening place on a Saturday in Dresden, with a line 50+ people deep out the door. It was absolutely crazy.

Warmed by coffee, I wandered around the city a bit more, eventually stopping in a shopping mall to buy a warm hat and gloves to stay warm. I had expected it would be cool, but with temperatures about five degrees below zero it was cold even for me and definitely required warmer clothing. That said, I miss having “real” winter living in Washington, DC, so one of my goals was to get some good cold weather this trip. (Foreshadowing: I would regret this by the end of the trip)

Now warmed with hat and gloves, I began the walk back to my hotel for a short rest. Panoramic of the Schloßplatz near the cathedral.

The Courthouse am Schloßplatz:

After a short rest, it was time to wander in the opposite direction – into the “new city” to try and find a restaurant/bar I was looking forward to trying out for dinner and drinks. Statue of King Friedrich August the Second also known as the Goldener Reiter:

After about a 20 minute walk I finally found the place I was looking for, Zapfanstalt, which had a very impressive beer list full of German and imported craft beers. The bar staff spoke absolutely zero English, so it was a wonderful opportunity to practice my German – made easier by a few good German beers:

Had a delicious Haloumi Cheese “burger” for dinner, and then it was time for the long cold walk back to the hotel. When I’d arrived at Zapfanstalt around 8pm it was pretty empty, but by the time I left around 10 it was absolutely packed wall to wall so – in proof that I’m getting old – it was time to head out and get some rest to continue trying to adjust to the local time zone. I wanted to get up early to try and catch some of the races as well, plus I had an afternoon train to continue my trip to Leipzig!

Nov 272017
 


I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruy√®re, and buttermilk blue affin√©e. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canap√©s and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canap√©s were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canap√©s were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

May 072017
 

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?

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We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…

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After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:

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One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:

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Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.

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The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:

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Panoramic of the area:

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Cat on a hot monastery ledge:

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The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:

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Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:

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Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:

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Water rushing down from above:

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I am king of the waterfall!

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After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:

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…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol

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We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!

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We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.

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Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:

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She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.

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We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:

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The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:

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Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.

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We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?

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After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:

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Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:

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Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.

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The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:

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Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:

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One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:

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It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with kiwitaxi.com again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

Mar 192017
 

Got a very good night of sleep, and was all set for a day of adventure ahead. Originally when I planned this trip, I had planned two days in Paris on the return, but when I had to skip the Cape Town side trip, I was no longer able to get the stopover in Paris on the way back. The options were Frankfurt and Munich, and having been to both several times I picked Frankfurt figuring I was likely to have more options for side trips from there.

After playing around on Die Bahn’s website I settled for a sidetrip to N√ľrnberg. I had really wanted to see Dresden or Leipzig, but spending 4-5 hours each way on the train wasn’t my idea of a good use of time. I’ll save those for another trip later this year when I have more time. I had also wanted a train trip side it had been a long time, and there were still some decent ICE first fares to N√ľrnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in N√ľrnberg, I figured it was a good option

Train left super early – around 8a – which meant being up early. The great thing of being at the Sheraton attached to the airport is I just had to walk into the departures hall, and I had my own Starbucks for breakfast and wakeup. There was a good breakfast spread in the Sheraton lounge, so it made for a nice and convenient morning.

Train was about 10 minutes late, and absolutely packed. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere in my car. Fortunately I got one of the seats on the single side, so no dealing with climbing over people – definitely plus! When I got to N√ľrnberg I found the machine to buy day tickets for local transit, pulled up google maps, and found out which tram I needed to take to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgel√§nde – the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

The museum opened in 1994, and the entrance is a long glass and steel tunnel into the front of the building – a creative play by the architect to mock Nazi architect Albert Speer. The place was much busier than I expected for a museum on a Monday, filled with school groups:

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The new Neue Kongresshalle – New Congress Hall – which was never finished. It was intended to seat 50,000 people during rallies and is the largest piece of Nazi architecture still standing.

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I spent about two hours walking through the exhibits, and there was a fantastic audiotour that you could either do a short version, or listen to lots of background in each room. It was an incredibly well-done museum with lots of historical facts as well. It was also slightly chilling given how many parallels were easy to draw to current events in the United States.

After finishing the museum, I went for a walk around the Dutzendteich – or dozen ponds, which are adjacent to the Kongresshall and museum. It was a grey a gloomy day, which somehow seemed appropriate.

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Grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld Рor Zeppelin Field. It was one of the first architectural sites build by Albert Speer, and based upon the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. On the top of the review stand there used to be a giant swastika that was blown up in 1945 at the end of the war to symbolically show that naziism was over. It got its name because it was the site in 1909 where Ferdinand von Zeppelin landed one of his zeppelins.

 

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Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

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Sideways view when standing on the podium on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand:

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How the site looked in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the giant swastika on the top of the grandstand and the columns which no longer exist:

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From the Zeppelinfeld I continued walking around the water, and got this view of the Kongresshalle from the other side:

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Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

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Looking down the Gro√üe Stra√üe – Great Road. Over a mile long and 40 meters wide it was a parade route for the Wehrmacht during the annual party meetings. It points toward medieval N√ľrnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old N√ľrnburg to the N√ľrnberg of the Third Reich. After the war ended, the US Army actually used the road as a temporary airfield since so there was so much damage to other infrastructure.

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Outside the Kongresshalle:

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After all this walking I was getting pretty hungry so pulled up google maps again. Figured out how to get to the restaurant I wanted to go to, and there was a direct bus leaving from the museum. Perfect! Between google maps and the daypass transport around N√ľrnberg was really simple. ¬†Bus dropped me right in the centre of the city near an old church:

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Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from N√ľrnberg:

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Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and N√ľrnberg Rostbratwurst with Kartoffelsalat – YUM!

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After lunch went for a long walk back towards the train station, passing the Frauenkirche – a great example of gothic architecture from the mid-1300s:

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Stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine, and had an absolutely terrible view on the Pegnitz River:

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The Wetterhäuschen Lorenzkirche Рor St Lorenz church. Ground was broken in 1250, but the church was only finished approximately 200 years later. It was badly damaged during World War Two but later restored:

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Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

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Train back to Frankfurt was on time, and once again managed to get lucky and get the single seat. Once again the train was completely full all the way to Frankfurt. Is this the norm lately, or was it because it was a Monday? I haven’t taken many train trips in Germany in the last ten years, but I remember first class on the ICEs used to be relatively empty lots of the time.

Had a quiet evening in Frankfurt just walking through the centre of the city, stopped at a couple of small random bars/restaurants for a beer, and then back to the airport early so that I could turn in. I had a relatively early flight the next morning, and wanted to maximize my time in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal!

Sep 182016
 

Fortunately, the mass 22 beer flight was consumed over enough time that it did no damage, and I had a great night sleep, waking up in plenty of time for breakfast. Lots has been made of the Fosshotel breakfast on TripAdvisor, so I might as well add my two cents.

Overall, it was a great selection. Certainly not world-class like many breakfasts in Bangkok, but a very solid performance for a breakfast that’s included with all rooms. They had a great coffee machine that made to-order drinks, a reasonable selection of fruits and pastries, eggs, deli meats, a good Scandinavian option of bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and deli meat, and pretty much anything you could want. Only downside is the breakfast room was pretty crowded at peak hours between 7:30 and 8:30, but it was never so packed we couldn’t find a space. That said, if you stay at the Fosshotel you’re already giving up on the serenity Iceland is known for, so I didn’t find it a bad tradeoff.

Fortified with breakfast, the entire group met up again at 9am for our Tour de Jour. I figured many people were probably still a bit tired with jetlag (as we had a few less experienced travelers) so I scheduled a shorter/more relaxing tour for the first day. We were headed out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then on to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also one of those things you have to do when you’re in Iceland. Our bus arrived right on time, and our rather geriatric bus driver herded the thirty of us on board.

We set off on a drive out of the city, headed in the direction of the airport. The Blue Lagoon would have been a much easier visit on the way to the airport or on the way back to the airport, but with everyone coming and going on different flights we decided to make a day trip out of it so everyone could go together. Our guide started sharing with us stranger and stranger stories, and complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Iceland for tourism – notably, the lack of bathrooms in rural places. We weren’t sure if he thought one of us needed one (I mean, we’d only left the hotel 30 minutes prior) or he needed one. We stopped at a series of rural farmhouse, and he came back defeated each time. At one point, while he was looking for a bathroom, we stopped and got to see a very friendly Icelandic horse (and quickly learned you don’t call them ponies):

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Next stop was about 15 minutes on, the bridge between two continents. This is the place where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and these ridges have risen up:

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Kirsten being all high and mighty and looking down on me from Europe:

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Hanging out in the neverland between Europe and North America, while others simply take the bridge back and forth:

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Fascinating land a mixture of volcanic rock, sand, and moss…

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Back on the bus, Ted found the only seat comfortable when you’re 6’8:

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Next stop was on the coast of the peninsula:

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Rocky outcrops on the far western coast of Iceland:

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A statue of a Great Auk, which went extinct about 200 years ago…playing with perspective and taking a photo with part of the group that had climbed a nearby hill:

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Selfie with Dewon on top of the hill, with the North Atlantic in the background:

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Fascinating geography:

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There’s lots of stories about hidden people and trolls in Iceland, and our geriatric driver only seemed to become animated when talking about them. We noticed the bus came complete with a troll on the dashboard:

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Final stop was an area of geothermal activity. Steam rising from underground – be careful to stay on the walked pathways as the ground is unstable and prone to collapsing:

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Smoking-hot selfie with Rich:

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After getting our fill of sulfur, it was off to the Blue Lagoon to relax. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t out, but it was still not too cold. After parking the bus in the Blue Lagoon’s rather large (and increasingly commercial) parking lot, you walk the path between volcanic rock to the welcome centre:

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The Blue Lagoon is definitely crowded, no getting around that. However, they do manage the number of entries every hour quite carefully so while crowded it was never so crowded that it felt too hectic. The only hectic part is the check-in area where you get your bracelet, slippers and robe if you paid for them, and directed to the changing areas. You do have to buy your tickets in advance as they definitely sell out (especially in the middle of the day) but it was possible for the one member of our group who missed that memo to buy one as a walk-up. Not sure if that was because there were already 30+ of us with tickets or what, but they did make it work.

After the mandatory change and shower, it was out to the lagoon:

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Panoramic shot of the lagoon:

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Part of what makes the lagoon famous is the silica mud on the bottom, which they scoop up (and maybe process) and put in bowls at the side. The idea is to make a mask of it which is supposedly good for your skin. Personally, I think it made me look more like a swamp creature:

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Ramzi and Jason, however, decided it made them look absolutely fabulous:

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This is also a good place to mention that you get a bracelet which has an RFID chip in it, and is used to track all your purchases inside the lagoon. Our first drinks were included, and there was a maximum of three drinks per person for safety reasons.

There was also a photographer off to the side taking pictures and e-mailing them, and the most shocking part of it was that they didn’t even ask you to pay for them. Pic of a part of the group:

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When you leave the lagoon, you have to stop by the cashier before you can get out. They scan your bracelet, collect any payment due, and they you have to scan your bracelet with a zero balance again to get out the turnstyle. It’s all rather well organized and efficient, and we had a great time spending a couple of hours there relaxing away the jetlag.

Then it was back on the bus to the hotel, where it was already late afternoon. After a short rest a group of us met up to head to the largest church in town, the Hallgrimskirkja:

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It’s a fully-functioning church, but also functions as a tourist attraction with an observation desk that provides a nice view of Reykjavik. For a price, of course.

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After taking in the views, we headed off to find somewhere with happy hour to have a few drinks before dinner. Unfortunately, this was also the one time on the trip that it decided to rain, so we ducked into the nearest bar with seats. After drinks, the group split up a bit to try and find something to eat. Getting increasingly frustrated that everywhere seemed to have no open tables, the group continued to splinter further and further, and eventually our smaller group of eight ended up at Steikh√ļsi√į – or steakhouse. They were able to seat all eight of us, and looked to have an interesting menu, and it was still pouring rain, so was an easy choice…until we got the bill, of course.

Starter of reindeer samosas….

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The surf and turf platter of horse and minke whale steak…along with fried sweet potato tots. Yum!

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Group shot at dinner:

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After a delicious meal fortunately the rain had reduced to a light drizzle/mist, and the 1.5 km walk back to the hotel wasn’t that bad. When we got back, some of us met up in the lobby bar where we discovered one of the Fosshotel’s hidden treasures – Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. You just had to give him an idea what you want “something with gin and an icelandic twist” and he’d come up with craft cocktails featuring local spirits, herbs, berries, you name it. Plus, he was really fun and chatty and added a great ambiance. If it wasn’t for the group of 30 geriatric german tourists all ordering Irish Coffees, where each espresso shot had to be pulled by hand, it would have been an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Then, it was off to bed, since our big tour day left early the next morning.

Jul 252016
 

After exiting the airport in Mary our driver was waiting for us. Loaded the bags in his car, and headed off to the hotel. Mary definitely didn’t have as many monuments and white marble as Ashgabat, but there were still some monuments:

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On our way to the hotel, our driver/guide seemed unusually quiet. After a while, I asked him something, and he became much chattier. It turned out he just didn’t speak more than a few words of English, and was quiet assuming we didn’t speak Russian. Things got a bit better from there, but the next couple of days were going to be a bit of a challenge!

Got to our hotel, the Hotel Mary, which wasn’t nearly as grand as the Yyldz Hotel in Ashgabat, but it did have it’s moments…like this sitting room off to the side of the lobby:

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First room I was given when I went in the window was open…and wouldn’t shut. I went down to tell the guy at the front desk that the room was really warm because the window wouldn’t shut, and he insisted that I just didn’t know how to close it. Uh, ok. Sent someone up to the room to check it out for me and he confirmed, surprisingly, that the window indeed wouldn’t close. I was given another room just two down from that one, and everything was fine from there. The hotel was comfortable enough and the AC worked well enough, so it would definitely do for a couple of nights. Plus, Ian’s room had a great view of the empty pool. I mean, if you can’t fill the pool in the middle of summer, when can you!

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Next step up was to grab something to eat and drink, so we headed down to the hotel restaurant. It was rather short on ambiance and looked more like a cafeteria, and so we asked for a menu. “No menu.” Uh, ok, could we get a couple of beers. The guy went in the back room and came out a minute later “no beers.” Apparently the hotel restaurant wasn’t really much of a restaurant, so we retreated to the WiFi to scope out the options.

The only restaurant on TripAdvisor with more than one review (and there were only five restaurants to begin with) was the Cafe Gyzylgum, about a 20 minute walk away. It was still around 105 degrees fahrenheit, but there was a bit of ¬†breeze so we decided to brave it. The walk wasn’t too bad, it was sidewalk the whole way, except for one point where we had to dash across a rather major street. When we arrived, the place was absolutely packed with locals, but they did find us a table upstairs right by the air conditioner!

Overall this place was perfect! A few ice cold beers, fantastic pelmeni in broth as a rather heavy starter, and some pizza to finish it off. The place was a great find and the only slight downside were the “no smoking” signs that were posted everywhere – but completely ignored. In fairness, the group of rather wasted guys at the table next to us did ask nicely when we started at them after they lit up if we minded which then lead to an interesting conversation about their favourite American sports teams. Headed back to the hotel, and crashed. I should mention, this bizzarre park that had all these animal statues along the walk:

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Up somewhat early to get some breakfast before heading out to see the Merv historical site. The driver had originally proposed leaving at 8am because “it is very hot” but we convinced him to wait until 9am. Fortunately, it was very cloudy out, and even an on and off sprinkle, which apparently never happens during the summer in Mary. I guess we were just lucky, because it kept the temperatures very reasonable and without the direct sun it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast, however, was another story. The restaurant was actually open, but not doing much better than the night before. They did have a very small buffet set out, and it was just enough to make breakfast. Toast, some hard boiled eggs, and some pre-packaged little chocolate cakes. There was coffee and tea, but it was quite an ordeal to get it. The instant coffee seemed to be rationed by the teaspoon (one per guest) and getting a tea bag was also seemingly a difficult request. It was just enough to fuel up for the day, however.

We drove for about an hour, and our first stop was the Mosque of Talkhatan Baba from the 11th century. It’s supposedly a relatively major pilgrimage site, though it’s unclear exactly why:

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There were a couple of pilgrims doing laps of the sarcophaguses while we were there:

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Though many archeologists agree it was built in 1095, for whatever reason the official story is that it was built in the 12th century:

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Our next stop was the visit the ruins of a 20th century madrassah which was being restored, seemingly by one very old man. A few student dwellings:

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More ruins of the madrassah:

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Ruins of the old minaret….Ian had to climb it:

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Next stop was to head off to our main site for the day, the Merv historical site, which is designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. The area dates back to at least the 8th century BC and one of the major contributors to its growth as a city was that it was the first place in central Asia where irrigation appeared and thus it became a major stopping/trading point on the old silk road. It’s also thought that at some point in the 12th century Merv was the largest city in the world. Over the centuries it traded hands from the Turks to the Mongols and eventually to the Uzbeks who completely destroyed it. The current ruins comprise at least five ancient cities, and honestly I was really let down by the state of repair of them:

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There is some attempt at restoration, but very little of the original remains:

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Crypts:

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One rather cool ruin that was still largely in tact was the great icehouse from the 12th century. These were cooled to store meats during the summer. They would be packed with snow and ice during the winter, and it would remain frozen through the summer – rather impressive given the 110+ fahrenheit temperatures:

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Inside the icehouse:

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Next we drove to a vantage point where if you wanted to climb the big hill, you could supposedly get a good view. I would guess it was a nearly 20-25 degree incline at a minimum, but we managed to scramble up:

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From the top, you could see our driver waiting down below with the car:

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Walking along the ridge at the top, you can see Ian about 200 metres further down:

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…and his view of me:

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Next stop in Merv was the Mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. It was built in the 12th century, and legend has it the size was determined in order to allow approaching caravans on the silk road to spot it from a day’s journey away. Inside the mausoleum:

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The crypt of Sultan Sanjar, who reigned over the area when it was likely the largest city in the world:

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Pilgrims walking around the crypt:

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Next up, yet another mausoleum. This time of Mohammad ibn Zayed…or Mohammad, the son of Zayed. The crypt:

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Arabic script on the walls of the mausoleu

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Outside the mausoleum:

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After we finished seeing Merv, it was time to drive back to Mary. Being time for a late lunch (it was around 2pm at this point) our driver took us to what he said was the best restaurant in town. You guessed it, it was the place we had dinner the night before! Had another tasty meal, and then set out to do a bit more sightseeing.

First stop was the local Orthodox Church:

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Second stop in the city was the Mary Museum, which was completely empty except for us, but was really rather large, with several good exhibits spread over two levels. The biggest shock was that we got a guide in the museum who spoke English rather well. He guided us through the exhibits, which were everything from local current artwork to stuffed taxidermy of local animals and birds, and tons of items excavated from the area around Merv. There were also exhibitions on local costumes, local rugs, and tons and tons of pottery, coins, etc. It was definitely interesting, and despite being the only ones in the museum we managed to spend almost two hours there.

The funniest part came when we were getting ready to leave the museum. Another of the workers came up to us, having noticed the hockey tattoo on my leg. He only spoke Russian and asked where we were from. I told him Washington, and he asked “and do you play hockey?” I said yes, and he gave me a big thumbs up and said Ovechkin! Then he pretty much demanded to pose for a picture with us. I think he probably assumed that hockey + washington = playing with ovechkin, so he had to have a picture with me. It was absolutely priceless. I was seriously fading by this point, so we went back to the hotel where I ended up taking a short nap.

When I checked my email after the nap, I got some news that meant it was very unlikely I would be able to join Ian in Crimea for the next leg of our trip. This is probably a good place to talk about internet. There was no phone roaming available, which meant no checking email, data, etc except for at the hotel where there was wifi. Even when there was wifi, lots of services were blocked including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. This was solved by downloading a VPN for my phone, which allowed me to get to those sites…when it was working. It was a minor frustration for our four nights in Turkmenistan, but one which was well worth it for the cool sites!

After the nap we ended up heading out for a walk to the same place for dinner again, followed by getting to bed early. We had a super early flight back to Ashgabat in the morning for our last full day in Turkmenistan.

May 202014
 

I wasn’t really expecting this daytrip to leave at 6:30am…it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that in advance, or I might not have booked it. ¬†I was beginning to seriously run on fumes by this point in the trip, but hopefully seeing Lake Titicaca would make it all worth it. ¬†I had to admit, though, as anyone who wasted time watching Beavis and Butt-head as a kid, every time I hear Lake Titicaca I still think of the Great Cornholio…lol

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Anyways, enough stupidity. Got to the lobby of my hotel at exactly 6:30, and there were no signs of life stirring yet. There was, however, a petite Bolivian looking lady wandering the lobby looking puzzled, so I asked who she was looking for. Yes, she was my guide…and the driver was on the way. This was all in Spanish, because up until this point she seemed extremely reluctant to speak English. She eventually warmed up, and we were underway.

It was about a 90 minute drive to Huatajata where we would pick up the hydrofoil across the lake. ¬†Although this was scheduled to be a group tour, there was nobody else booked from La Paz today, so I’d have the van to the hydrofoil all to myself. ¬†Additionally, the hydrofoil ride would be all alone, and we would pick up a large group of…you guessed it….Swiss tourists coming from Peru in Copacabana for the second part of the trip.

We made it Huatajata on time, after a long drive through the sprawling expanses of El Alto. ¬†Once there, there was a “museum” to see before starting the trip. ¬†When I was booking this, I discussed with several Bolivians I knew, and they all recommended to make the booking with Crillon Tours. ¬†Seems they had built much of the tourist infrastructure on the lake, including the hydrofoils, and had all the connections to make the trip the best possible. ¬†They’d even built a museum on Huatajata telling a bit of the history around Lake Titicaca, both before and after the arrivals of the Spanish. ¬†I was given 20 minutes to check out the museum while my guide got everything sorted for the hydrofoil. First highlight of the museum, a burial mummy:

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…followed by the arrival of the Spanish:

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Manco Capac, the first Incan incarnation of the Sun God, and his sister and Mama Ocllo in a traditional boat….

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Outside the museum were some friendly alpacas (or are they llamas?) ¬†just hanging around….

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May 062014
 

Through immigration and customs in less than 10 minutes, and had to find my way out of the airport, which was easier said than done due to lack of signage. ¬†Fortunately, I found an ATM on the way, so I could stock up on cash for the next few days. ¬†Got a taxi for 80 bolivianos (which I now know is a ripoff – 60 is the “real” price) – but getting ripped off by $3 on day number one in a country is nothing to get too upset about. ¬†Now, the fact he drove 140kph on the switchbacks down the mountain, that’s another story. ¬†Checked into my hotel the Radisson by 3:15, and was out cold by 3:30. ¬†Woke up the next morning to a fantastic view of La Paz out my window:

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After about an hour to get moving and adjusted to the thin air, decided to start on a walk. ¬†I seriously don’t know what we did before google maps. ¬†I decided to slowly head down to the main tourist area, and was stopping every 2 blocks or so to catch my breath. ¬†13,000+ feet above sea level kinda hits you hard. ¬†Along the walk, I saw a restaurant with a name that sounded familiar. ¬†Checked TripAdvisor, and sure enough I’d seen it there, advertising great breakfasts. ¬†Plus, Cafe Il Lampu had a fantastic seat on a little second floor mini balcony to people watch from:

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Fortified with some espressos, toast, and my new vocab word of the day “huevos duros” or hard-boiled eggs, I was ready for some more slow wandering. ¬†After another 10 minutes or so, I came upon the church of San Francisco, which had a fantastic plaza to camp out and people watch for a bit . Are you catching a theme here? ¬†It was lots of stop and go walking in the thin air for the first several hours:

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Jan 292014
 

Taxi only took about 30 minutes from the airport, and arrived at my hotel, the Epic Sana Luanda, around 10:30am. The hotel had plenty of rooms available, but wanted to charge a half day to check in early. They told me to come back at noon and “maybe” I could check in then with no charge. I stored my bags with the valet, and asked to see a manager about an exception. They ran around for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to handle someone who challenged their “no” and eventually, one of the front desk guys told the other guy to just let me check in…victory…and he also apologized and offered a room on the top floor. Score!

Originally, I was torn about booking this hotel. Hotels in Luanda are insanely expensive, but after my less-than-happy evening in Cabinda I figured for one night I could afford to splurge. At $495 a night, the Epic Sana was definitely a splurge! ¬†Got up to the room, which was nice and comfortable and had great views of Luanda looking out onto the waterfront and corniche, where I’d walk later:

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Jordan had gone to check into his hotel, so once I settled in I went across the street to a small market to get some drinks and water, and then set out in search of lunch. ¬†I couldn’t really find anything enticing in the immediate area, so settled for the hotel’s third floor rooftop/pool restaurant. ¬†The menu came….and the Luanda sticker shock set in again. ¬†If I was considering champagne, I had another guess coming! ¬†The prices were stratospheric! Continue reading »