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 Nürnberg. 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 Nürnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in Nürnberg, 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 Nürnberg 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 Reichsparteitagsgelände – 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 – or 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 Große Straße – 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 Nürnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old Nürnburg to the Nürnberg 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 Nürnberg 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 Nürnberg:

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Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and Nürnberg 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 – or 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 Steikhúsið – 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 »

Jan 262014
 

Right around noon, the taxi dropped us at the only hotel we’d managed to find online, the Hotel Maiombe. Now, “find online” didn’t mean it appeared bookable anywhere, and when I tried to call the only number I could find online it just went to a dead end. So, we were hoping it was there, and not too absolutely depressing.

When we got there, yes, they did have rooms, and the lobby area didn’t look too bad, a corner filled with local crafts for sale, and a very festive sitting area:

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The rooms?  Well, I was less than impressed.  Air conditioning was barely functional, standard rooms only had twin beds, and yes, there were suites with a queen bed (but not much more space) for $50 more.  The suite also felt a little cooler, so I decided to go for it.  Not sure if it was a worthwhile choice or not, but… At least things appeared mostly clean, and the rooms were functional, albeit a bit spartan.

Biggest downside was, it was a complete ripoff.  About $160 for a two star (at best) room, or around $210 for the suite.  Also, no internet in the rooms at all.  Thus, we hung out in the hotel bar/lounge in the evening, which did have internet and very affordable drinks.  Around $4 for huge beers, so all in all, it wasn’t bad.  Just a total ripoff for the price paid.

Just one other comment on the hotel:  when I went to bed around 11 or 12, it was warm in the room – very warm.  The small air conditioner was putting out a little cool area, but only enough to cool the area right underneath it.  So, I slid the bed right underneath it, and ended up sleeping face at the foot of the bed to get a little cool air – it was finally enough to make the room good enough to fall asleep.  At least there were no mosquitos in the room!

So, the minute we checked in, the clerk demanded payment up front – in cash.  He spoke no English, but we finally managed to communicate we’d head to the ABM, and be back in 10 minutes.  Fortunately there was no shortage of ABMs in Cabinda, and it was easy enough to take care of.  Everything sorted with the hotel, we headed out to explore for a bit.

Mission one, find lunch.  We headed to the first restaurant Jordan had found, which was billed as a local sports pub that was “popular with expats.”  There were precisely two people inside, and one dish on offer, and it just seemed off.  Bonus though, it was next to the local football club, which had a cool statue of their mascot outside:

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So, we kept walking.  There was another restaurant down the road, so we kept walking:

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Jan 082014
 

Driver was waiting for me right outside the airport, to drive me to my hotel, the Le Meridien Douala. Big bonus points to them – they arrived with a cooler full of cold scented moist towels and cold bottles of water. Definitely a huge plus in my book! The trip to the hotel took maybe 15 to 20 minutes, and we were there. I was upgraded to a slightly larger room, but really nothing too special.

First order of business was to get some lunch, since I hadn’t had anything to eat yet that day.  Went to the poolside hotel restaurant, Le Madiba:

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…and had what was actually a surprisingly tasty pizza along with a Castel.

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Properly fueled, it was early afternoon and time to head out on a walk.  I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, so off I went down the road.  Headed out of the hotel a few blocks, and took a left on Avenue General Charles de Gaulle and walked to the Place du Gouvernement.  Voila the Palais de Justice:

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Mar 072013
 

We had two full days to visit Lima, and decided to roughly split them up and use day one to explore the older part of the city and the historical centre, and use day two to visit a museum as well as walk around the newer and happening Miraflores district.  We started out late morning (after a midnight arrival the night before we were in no rush to get going!) by grabbing a cab to the Centro Historico and the Convento de San Francisco church.

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