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!

Jan 162016
 

Couple of days at home after Christmas to get things sorted, and it was time to head out on the more-or-less annual New Year’s Trip. I’m actually super excited for 2016-17 New Years, because I have no plans – nowhere I “have” to go, and I can actually do whatever I want. Pretty exciting after 10+ years of using the long weekends to take advantage and visit multiple countries.

Decided to be a bit economical, and take the Metro to National Airport, and no drama at all…which is much better than my usual commute where 15 minutes frequently turns to 30-45 at least once a week due to broken down trains, smoke in tunnels, you name it, it’s been a problem with Metro lately. Note that this post is going to be mostly photos, because there is only so much you can keep saying about United service.

Instead, this time, the drama was to be with United. No sooner did I arrive at the airport then I got notification my flight would be delayed an hour due to a late arriving aircraft. Of course. Nothing to do with weather in Chicago (for a change in December) it just looked like a crew rest issue turned into cascading delays for little things.

The United Club was open, however, and had this festive offering I haven’t seen before. United Club Eggnog? That just screams salmonella in a jug to me, so I decided to pass:

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An hour turned into two, and I finally headed to the gate hoping to have 30 minutes left to make my connection in Chicago. But, there was drama. When I checked in, United was “unable” to assign me a seat. Gate agent confirmed the flight was “overbooked” by two in first, and based on the seat I had originally reserved (and the person eventually occupying it) it was clear I was a victim of a Federal Air Marshal. I was offered “probably” a middle seat in coach – but since the flight was overbooked she refused to even guarantee that.

I reminded her that United’s policy for overbooked first is NOT to just downgrade whoever happens to not have a seat, but to downgrade upgraders first, followed by award tickets, and then order of status/fare. Being a 1K on a paid ticket, there’s no way I should be downgraded. She refused. I asked for supervisor. She refused. I asked for her name, so I could share with corporate that she doesn’t like their policy, because it makes her life difficult when I write them for compensation.

She relented, and called up the two upgraders – both of whom happened to be Global Services. Hahaha. To their credit, they were completely understanding and took the downgrade compensation. I guess when you fly THAT much you tend not to pull DYKWIA stuff. I know it’s only a 90 minute flight, but at the same time, being on a paid first ticket it was the principle of the matter…eventually ended up sitting next to a no-status bro on an award ticket who announced pretty much right away his intention to “get totally obliterated by the time we get to Chicago because I’m going to Vegas.” Maybe the new United policy should be to downgrade in order of behaviour…

United flight 619
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 13:46, Arrive 15:05, Flight Time: 2:19
Boeing 737-700, Registration N27724, Manufactured 1999, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 123,910
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,162,877

PDB were offered, and we were treated to a nice sunset on the way to Chicago:

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Other than that, pretty generic United 737 flight. Snack basket was offered, and when we pulled into the gate there were only 14 minutes to make my connection. We parked next to the United First lounge, and I decided to go there first. Having lost out on my 2.5 hour connection, I asked if instead of running for it they could just put me on the later flight to London instead, so I had some time to get work done. The same fare bucket was still available, and they were happy to make the change. I love this lounge.

Another reason I love this lounge:

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Had a small mini pre-dinner while getting some work done. Another reason to like this lounge past Veuve…it satisfies my cheese obsession:

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Somewhere around Veuve number three before boarding…

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Flight was parked just a couple of gates away from the lounge, and got there just as they started boarding.

United flight 938
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 21:05, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 8:00
Boeing 767-300, Registration N658UA, Manufactured 1993, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 127,863
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,166,830

Welcome aboard glass of the ever-classy Oscar Cliquot, in fancy Maison Plastique crystal:

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Hooray…we get the short rib…again!

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Warm nuts, and a rather respectable malbec to start things off. I never understood the obsession with “warm nuts.” I actually prefer them at room temperature – lots of times when they’re warm they verge on hot and feel a bit mushy.

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Coconut shrimp skewer and taboleh? Odd choice, but hey, it beats the two tiny shrimp shrimp cocktail they’ve been serving lately.

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All was forgiven, because the garlic bread was in plentiful supply tonight…and the salad had tasty olives on it:

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Baja Chicken Enchilada soup…a bit strange…and passed on it after a few bites:

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Nasty overcooked short rib. I really really need to learn my lesson about ordering beef on United.

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As cheese plates go, it was decent. Oddly, it came pre-plated, which was really strange for United. According to the crew, it came that way? Is this a new catering enhancement?

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Tonight’s request for “caramel and cherries” netted the average three…which overall is how this United flight was. Average.

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Managed a solid five hours of sleep, and woke as we were only about 20 minutes from London. Great view of the Thames this morning:

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Took the insanely long walk to the United First lounge, where I was asked why I wasn’t on my flight to Brussels. Um, excuse me? My new flight arrival time left a five minute connection, so there was no way to make it. Seems the agent in Chicago didn’t change my connection when she rebooked me for the later London flight, giving me a chance to make it if my arrival into London was earlier.

The club staff said they’d work on it while I showered, and when I came back 30 minutes later I’d been rebooked on the next departure – on BA! I was pretty surprised they didn’t make me wait an additional two hours for the Brussels Airlines flight, but it was a pleasant surprise! After a bit of rehydration, they offered to drive me to terminal five. Yes, it was no Lufthansa Porsche, but you read that right…United drove me across the tarmac to the other terminal instead of making me use the inter-terminal busses. I was floored…and yet another reason I think the London station remains the finest in the United system.

Having no status with One World, I got the honour of checking out BA’s regular business lounge. It was actually quite nice, I’d say even nicer than Lufthansa’s Senator lounges (note I didn’t even dare compare it to anything United offers) and I was pleasantly surprised. Can’t wait to see the First lounge on my next trip through. This was my first time in T5, and my gate was right near two very important things: Starbucks and the lounge. Enjoyed some Starbucks, and soon, it was time to board:

British Airways flight 398
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Brussels, Belgium (BRU)
Depart 15:15, Arrive 17:30, Flight Time: 1:15
Airbus A320, Registration G-EUYE, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 128,081
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,167,048

Had a glass of water as a pre-departure, and being only one of two people in business on this very short flight, service was great. She insisted I have champagne for my first BA experience, and how could I say now. Even got my own bottle.

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While enjoying my second great inflight sunset in two days, she insisted on a champagne refill. Yes, that meant another bottle.

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Arrived to Brussels, and was absolutely wiped out. Additionally, security in Belgium was a nightmare. Apparently the Belgian police had received “very specific and credible” evidence the city’s New Year’s celebrations were to be the subject of a terrorist attack, and everything had been canceled. Trains were also running on a severely reduced schedule. I’d planned to head out and do dinner with friends in Liège, but given the late arrival, lower train schedule, I just couldn’t do it. Managed to stay awake until about 9pm, then absolutely passed out for nearly 10 wonderful hours at the airport Sheraton.

Nice leisurely stroll to the airport in the morning, stopping along the way for some Starbucks of course. Security at Brussels has been massively renovated and upgraded in the last year, and is so much nicer now. No more underground walkway between terminals, and everything is light, airy, and much more efficient. The only downside is the exit-immigration for the G Gates was a zoo today, and I had to wait nearly an hour to clear. Seems every Africa flight was operating today – along with JFK – so there were seven full A330s leaving at the same time. No priority line either, so wait wait wait.

As coffee was kicking in, I enjoyed a few pain au chocolates in the Brussels lounge, and soon it was time to board.

Brussels Airlines flight 203
Brussels, Belgium (BRU) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 11:05, Arrive 16:15, Flight Time: 6:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFO, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 2,778
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,169,826

Rather strange amenity kit, containing quite unimpressive contents:

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Wait…they have a beer of the month? Belgian beer on the menu? Wow – awesome and unique!

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Although the menu was a bit seafood heavy (which I try extremely hard to avoid on planes) it also looked super tasty, so I decided to go for it and inshallah all would be ok. There were only three people in business today on top of it, while economy was completely full. It was my lucky day!

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Wait, there’s an entire beer menu?! Sure, the Stella and Hoegaarden aren’t impressive, but look at all those great Belgian beers. You can mark this down as the first time ever I would get rather happy in business class, and there would be absolutely no wine involved!

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Mackerel starter with mixed nuts and raisins, and a Gulden Draak…delicious!

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The smoked eel and radish starter, continuing with the same beer. It was 10% ABV so had to pace it a bit. Also, look at that awesome pretzel roll and butter. Mmm…

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Decided to go with the scallops main (yes, even more seafood!) and switched to the Julius beer since the menu said it went well with seafood. I absolutely wasn’t disappointed! Delicious!

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…and with the fantastic cheese course, the “Forbidden Fruit” beer. The nice flight attendant said “ooooh, this one I know, it has made for many not very memorable nights…I predict you will sleep after this!”

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…and finally, I was looking really forward to the rum-pineapple-marscapone baba for dessert, but it was not to be. The chocolate mousse with passionfruit sauce was a pretty darn good substitute, however!

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Defying the odds (I had slept 10 hours the night before, after all) I stayed awake and watched movies, and two hours later was ready to take one more for the team and try the kriek. I usually don’t like fruit beers, but this one was pretty darn tasty and went well with some nice Belgian chocolates!

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…and, because I couldn’t let the last one go…

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Soon we were arriving Dakar on time, and the other three in business class deplaned, giving me a private plane for the onward short flight to Banjul:

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Since the flight time would be too short to enjoy a beverage, while waiting on the ground during cleaning, the purser asked which beer had been my favourite, and insisted on bringing me another to enjoy while waiting for the plane to be cleaned:

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Soon we were off for the short 25 minute flight to Banjul.

Brussels Airlines flight 203
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Banjul, The Gambia (BJL)
Depart 17:25, Arrive 18:15, Flight Time: 0:50
Airbus A330-300, Registration OO-SFO, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 2,900
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,169,938

Flight was very short and uneventful, was the first one in line to immigration, and I didn’t ask about the visa on arrival, and they didn’t ask for one…so I was stamped in and that was that. In advance, the visa is $100 and visa on arrival is supposedly about $30-40, but perhaps since I arrived behind a large plane full of British tourists (who don’t need visas) they forgot to ask me? Either way, was nice to save the money. Waiting for Jordan in baggage claim:

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Exterior of the airport, grabbing a taxi to the hotel:

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With that, I’d entered my 186th country, and there were only ten more to go! Now, off to explore The Gambia!

Nov 182015
 

After landing at 7pm, conquering the bus gate and long immigration lines I got the MTR and just over 20 minutes later was at Kowloon station. From there, it’s a short walk through the shopping mall to my hotel of choice in Hong Kong – The W. Hong Kong is one of those cities that has a ton of great hotel options, and everyone seems to have their own favourite. The W wins for me for convenience to the airport, being connected to the mall and the MTR, and the overall great service I’ve received each stay. The biggest downside, which to be fair is the downside of most nice Hong Kong hotels, is that there’s just no way to get it on the cheap.

Check-in was pretty efficient, friendly, upgrade to a slightly larger room, but unfortunately when I got to it…it absolutely reeked like someone had been smoking in it. The response from the front desk? We are really full and really busy, can we give you a call back in 30 minutes? Seriously, what is it with my bad luck on this trip. I told them it wasn’t acceptable, and only had to wait 15 minutes for a new room. Ugh. Fortunately, that one was much better and since it was already 9pm I headed to a place next to the mall for a quick dinner.

Choice for dinner was Madame S’ate, which had a nice outside patio as well as an enclosed space. Given the humidity was oppressive and it was about 28C even at night, I definitely opted for the air conditioned indoors. Place was still quite lively that late, and opted for what was a delicious wagyu steak, lyonnaise onion and cheese tartine. Washed it down with a craft beer from the local Young Master brewery, which was also pretty good:

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Back to the W a bit before 11, where the elevator floor made sure to welcome me back:

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The W gives a bonus welcome amenity to SPG Platinum members, which is a complimentary drink in the hotel bar…I assume to encourage you to stay and spend more money. Decided to have a second beer and people watch, which is always a fun pastime in Hong Kong:

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Slept well, and unfortunately when I woke up it was absolutely pouring outside. Decided to delay sightseeing for a bit, and enjoy some Starbucks for breakfast…given its convenient location right in the mall under the hotel. I think this must be the first time they’ve ever spelled my name right at Starbucks!

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It was still pouring after breakfast, so I did a bit of walking around in the mall for some light exercise while waiting for it to taper down. Back to my room a bit before 11, and the rain was finally starting to lighten up a little bit. View from my room:

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Took a long walk through the mall to the MTR to grab some lunch a bit, and walked right past the mall’s enclosed ice rink. I think I need one of these myself given how I skate:

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Not bad for an in-mall rink…it would be pretty awesome to get the chance to play some hockey here at some point!

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The rain had finally let up, so I took the MTR one stop to Hong Kong station, to walk around and grab some lunch. The light mist and humidity were a foul combo, combined with the fact that the walk to the restaurant was pretty steep uphill:

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To the point that after the relatively short 10-15 minute walk I got there and was absolutely drenched in sweat. Gross. Went to the washroom to clean up before ordering, and was met with this poster in the washroom:

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Uhhh….thanks POTUS! The restaurant was The Roundhouse, billed as an authentic Texas BBQ and home to 25 different craft beers on tap. I have to say, the tap list was seriously impressive, containing lots of great American, Danish, and European craft beers as well as a few scary local Chinese options. Oh, and there was the BBQ…the beef shortrib sandwich was absolutely amazing:

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Had a couple of beers, and went to wash my hands afterwards, and next to Mr Obama was this poster:

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By this time the steady rain had started again, so it was back to the hotel to clean up and shower before heading to the airport for my flight back home. At least the downhill walk was a lot less sweaty, but a lot more moist do to the rain:

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Despite the rain, quite a bit of shopping going on:

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I didn’t end up getting to do nearly as much exploring as I had wanted to this trip, but by this point sleep was winning out and the rain was making things uncooperative. I guess in all my travels, I’ve been extremely lucky with weather overall so can’t complain I had a bit of a washout in a city I’ve already visited several times. There’s always the next visit. Quick shower and check-out, and it was time to MTR to the airport and begin the long trek home!

Dec 192014
 

Was up at 5:30 the next morning to drink canned coffee from the grocery store (I wasn’t taking chances so made sure I had something) to head to Jerusalem to begin our daytrip. Ian had found a tour online with Green Olive Tours that would cover the major sites in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The tour left from Jerusalem, but there was an optional add-on from Tel Aviv which unfortunately had a pick up at 6:30 am. Ugh. No worries though, I was so jetlagged that my body was used to running on little sleep.

Fortunately the Tel Aviv pickup was only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and even at 6am it was light out, so had a nice brisk walk in the cold. It was just me and one other person from Tel Aviv, so we headed off early. Thanks to it being Shabaat there was very little traffic, and we were in Jerusalem over an hour before the tour was scheduled to leave. The schedule the Tel Aviv pickup at the same time each day, regardless of Shabaat, which makes little sense.

The meeting point in Jerusalem was the YMCA, which might be the nicest and largest YMCA I’ve ever seen. Had a nice coffee in their restaurant while waiting for Ian…and another coffee once he arrived. The YMCA was located right off Abraham Lincoln street – LOL!

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Soon our group was together, and we were ready to go. Our guide was excited for this trip, since he’d just recently gotten his permit allowing him to travel into Israeli territory. Previously, the tour would have to go pick him up in the West Bank and then start. Green Olive is a Palestinian company, so it was interesting to get another perspective on the situation.

On the way, he gave us a bit of background on Palestine and Modern Israel, and explained about Area A, Area B, and Area C.  Area A is full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, and makes up around 3% of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem but including Bethlehem, and Ramallah which we were visiting as well as Jericho.  Area B is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control and makes up another 25% or so of the West Bank. Area C is the balance of around 70% and is under full Israeli control.

Leaving Area C, we approached this ominous sign. Dangerous to my life? Oh Israel, you CLEARLY don’t know my travel history:

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First stop in Area A was the tomb of Yasser Arafat:

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Arafat’s Tomb:

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Ok, so it’s a bit awkward posing next to a tomb, but the tour guide and the guards encouraged me:

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