May 142017
 

After a quick coffee and beer, we headed down to the Aeroexpress train. It had already been a really long day and I was tired, so decided to spring the extra $10 or so for the business class car, and it turned out there were only 3 people in the whole car. Sure, it’s only like a 30 minute ride, but it was nice to be able to relax and enjoy it.

I had made the mistake of wearing shorts since it was over 70F when we left Abkhazia, but in Moscow it was 35F and freezing cold. After a short metro transfer, we had a 10 minute or so walk to our hotel, the St. Regis, and it was definitely a frigid walk. I’m still amazing not a single babushka came up to me and chastised me for being poorly dressed for the weather!

Check-in was quick and polite, and since both rooms had been booked under my name they were good enough to upgrade both of us to very nice one bedroom suites – can’t complain about that at all! Doing 200+ nights with Starwood last year is definitely paying off with much nicer upgrades than I’m used to receiving. Unfortunately it was going to just be a relatively short overnight and we wouldn’t really have time to enjoy the room, but it was nice nonetheless.

After dropping bags and putting on warmer clothes, we headed out for a walk. First, the obligatory Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral shot – something about the grey cloudy weather gave the perfect mood to the square:

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We wandered around trying to find a shop Ian knew that sold wonderfully kitschy Putin and Russia souvenirs, but apparently they’d gone out of business in the last year. We headed back to the GUM department store for some fantastic pistachio ice cream, and deciding we were hungry decided to check out Stolovaya #57 – a cafeteria in the department store modeled after an old school Soviet cafeteria…except with much better variety of food!

Vegetable salad with beetroot, peas, carrots….fresh fruit, stuffed bell pepper, and a chicken cutlet with mushroom sauce. Delicious and filling…and very authentically Russian…all this for under $10.

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After eating we wandered through the grocery store in GUM, and in the alcohol section they were selling Kalashnikov brand vodka….complete in a plastic kalashnikov bottle….only in Russia!

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After dinner, we headed to a small bar I’d been told about, not terribly far from Red Square, called Rules Taproom. A friend had told me they had one of the best craft beer menus in the world, but that we should expect to feel “tragically old and uncool.” We definitely brought the average age up by quite a bit, but at least we didn’t look too out of place with the extremely tattooed and hipster crowd. Plus, an amazing taplist and great taps!  A hockey trophy, brass knuckles, a grenade, a wrench, and lots of other cool stuff. Can’t wait to go back!

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Back to the hotel and bed by a reasonable hour, because we wanted to be sure to be able to hit the St. Regis’ amazing breakfast buffet before heading to the airport. Flight was at 9am, and it can take up to an hour to get to the airport, so with a 630a opening time for the buffet we knew we would be cutting it close.

Great night of sleep, at the buffet right when it opened, and it was worth the wait! Smoked salmon and whitefish, caviar, blue cheese, pain au chocolate, and fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. With a pot of tea, of course!

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Took nearly an hour for our Uber to get to the airport, but was definitely the quickest option. We did make it with plenty of time, but unfortunately I lost Ian at immigration, because his gates were at a different checkpoint, and clogged with loads of Central Asians who they were taking forever to process. I, however, made it through quite quickly and even had five minutes to stop in the SWISS lounge for some water and snack. Unfortunately, none of the shops sold more Putin magnets.

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Fortunately, the lounge was only a two minute walk from my gate, so nice and easy for boarding which was right on time.

SWISS flight 1325
Moscow, Domodedovo (DME) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 9:05, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 4:35
Airbus A320, Registration HB-IJS, Manufactured 1998, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,522
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,399

Something about the welcome screens on SWISS always makes me feel relaxed and multicultural…a good feeling in this increasingly isolationist and polarized world:

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Pushback…the wonderfully kitschy lime green S7 livery and a Ural Airlines plane:

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Great view of the parked planes including a couple of Tupolevs on takeoff. Those S7 planes really stand out!

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Not a bad breakfast for a relatively short regional flight! Delicious Muesli, reasonable omelette, perfectly buttery and flaky croissant (unlike the ones usually served on US domestic flights which are more like glorified crescent rolls), some fresh fruit and cheese. I decided to make it a champagne brunch, and the fantastic crew insisted I have a second class…and pushed it on the guy across the aisle too. “If you waste the rest of the bottle, it will be a real pity!” Who can argue with that logic!

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Touchdown in a very snowy Zurich…yes, this is late April!

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Headed through immigration, and decided while I was at it to leave the secured area. As usual when dealing with Swiss border guards, they asked me a million questions, acting as if I was the most suspicious character they’d ever met. All Schengen/Swiss border controls are NOT equal – despite the intent. Why would you fly Zurich to Frankfurt? Why not just fly Moscow to Frankfurt? Why are you in Europe so much? Why do you spend so much time in Russia recently? Why is there a stamp from Somalia in your passport, on and on for nearly 15 minutes.

Headed to Starbucks for the most expensive Starbucks in the world (nearly $8 for an Americano – I think the only place more expensive might be Copenhagen…although even that might not compete these days.) On that note, any readers interested in adding to my database of Starbucks prices around the world hit me up. I track the price of a grande drip coffee (with tax) if you have a chance to look at your local shop.

After heading back through security, I headed to the SWISS lounge, where it was time for a local beer and a snack:

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One more local beer, and some Gummibärchen….because…it was still snowing and my Lufthansa flight was delayed nearly two hours:

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Finally, nearly two hours late, our flight was ready for boarding, so I headed off to the gate, where our Lufthansa plane was just pulling in….looks like we’ll be almost 2.5 hours late in the end! How un-German!

Lufthansa flight 1191
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 14:40, Arrive 15:45, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIPY, Manufactured 1991, Seat 6F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,699
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,413,576

On the taxi out, I noticed lots of sleet and ice forming on the window:

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We were at the end of the runway, turning onto the active runway to take off, when I also noticed lots of ice/sleet/slush accumulating on the wings. Visions of Air Florida started dancing through my head, and I decided to start ringing the flight attendant call button frantically – probably 10 times in 10 seconds or so. I still don’t know if it was me, or a sensor in the cockpit, but the pilot turned off the active runway and announced to us we would need to deice before taking off due to snow moving in as we taxied out. Quite a scary moment!

Once airborne, despite the 50 minute flight time, a small snack was served. Scary sandwich, some fresh fruit, chocolate, and a glass of white wine. Skipped the sandwich, but the rest was quite tasty and impressive service for a short flight. This probably wasn’t Lufthansa’s best effort with the delay and all, but overall I still was left with a better impression that I usually am in the US. I think the attitude and composure of the crew went a long way towards helping.

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Landed in Frankfurt much later than expected, but fortunately was staying at the airport Sheraton. I was met by the general manager at check-in, who let me know that they’d followed up on my previous disappointing stay, and found a room that was extra cool with great air conditioning. I found out later they had blocked the room on both sides of me as well as above and below, and turned the air up full blast in those. A bit unnecessary, but the effort and CRM was super welcome. I’ll definitely be staying at this property again.

Headed out to Naiv, my favourite craft beer bar in the area, and enjoyed some delicious beer-braised bacon-wrapped dates:

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Along with a reasonably tasty German imperial IPA or three:

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With that, it was a quick ride back to the hotel for a bit of sleep. I wanted to make sure to be up early to enjoy what I hoped would be another amazing experience in the Lufthansa first class terminal!

Jul 292016
 

After purchasing my ticket, I headed to the AeroExpress train to Moscow. It was only 1,000 rubles for a “business class” ticket (around $17) so I figured the extra was certainly worth it for a 45 minute train ride. It was definitely the right call, as the economy section was packed, and business had less than half the seats full and plenty of space to spread out. The train went to Pavletskaya Station in the southeast of the city, and it was an easy transfer to the metro. Unfortunately, I had to change metro trains as well, so this meant two transfers. Slight pain with a rolling bag, but really not bad at all.

Got off at Lubyanka station, which was right next to my hotel. I had chosen to stay at the St Regis in Moscow mainly because I still had to stay at one in order to complete Starwood’s stay at every brand in 2016 promo and I had a great corporate rate.

Oh, and it was also just across the square from a Starbucks….but that had nothing to to with my choice…

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I’d been “upgraded” to a tiny room on the top floor, with a perfect view of the old KGB headquarters, now home to Russia’s FSB Security Service:

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Overall thoughts on the hotel. The room was rather warm, although it did eventually cool down to around 22C after I asked the butler. 20C was the lowest setting on the thermostat, but that didn’t get the room below 25C, so when I asked the butler she said the engineer could do a manual override and set it for 17C. That helped the room get down to 22C, which was reasonable.

Other than that, bed was comfortable, but the room was super small. I’m also not used to hotel rooms with chandeliers hanging over the bed, but hey, everyone has their tastes in decor. The stay confirmed that the St Regis brand really isn’t my thing, although I have nothing but positive reviews for the hotel. It just felt a little too uptight and formal for my tastes, but the internet was super fast, since I unfortunately spent almost two hours on Skype getting my onward tickets sorted out. Tickets sorted. I headed for a walk.

Just five short minutes from my hotel, I passed the GUM department store and headed into Red Square:

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Lots of flowers. This was my first time in Moscow NOT in the winter, and it’s a totally different city:

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Red Square on a clear summer day:

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St Basil’s against a clear blue sky…complete with bird flying by:

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The Kremlin…I wonder if they’re busy searching for Hillary’s missing emails inside…

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Lenin’s tomb…unfortunately it had already closed for the day so I couldn’t verify if he’s still there…

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Stopped in GUM after my walk for an ice cream cone. They’ve been selling them there forever, and it’s a treat lots of folks look forward to when visiting. Plus, they’re an absolute bargain. Pistachio please!

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I did, however, pass on visiting GUM’s “historic toilet” – I wonder if it dates back to Soviet times, or what…

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Grabbed a quick dinner, and headed back to the room to get to bed early. Watched some rerun KHL hockey on tv, and noticed the Lubyanka was even more eerie looking lit up at night…this is after 10pm!

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Had a good night of sleep, and headed down to check out the breakfast. Very formal at St Regis, but also very Russian at the same time. Where else can you have smoked eel, caviar, and tea for breakfast?

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Walked around for a few more hours, before taking the metro back to the airport. Watching for a change of trains at Park Kultury station:

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Finally arriving at Pavletskaya to change to the AeroExpress train:

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One of the cool things about the Moscow Metro is that lots of the old soviet murals and architecture have been left completely unchanged:

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Check-in and security were super easy, and soon I’d arrived at the S7 airlines domestic lounge. Nothing to write home about. More meatballs as snacks. Seriously, what is it with S7 and meatballs?

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Last minute gate change meant a bit of a hike to our plane, which appeared to be absolutely packed. There was a family of eight occupying eight of the twelve seats in business class, and they were scattered around the cabin – probably a last minute purchase. Some swapping, but other people refused to give up their seats so I was stuck next to a 10 year old for the whole flight. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad…maybe he’d be well behaved…

S7 Airlines flight 181
Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME) to Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 00:15 next day, Flight Time: 3:55
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BRG, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 119,579
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,308,716

S7 has an…interesting colour scheme going on….purple seats:

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Raspberry and lime flight attendant uniforms:

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Lime green safety cards…in case of a water landing, your flight attendant’s lips may be used as a flotation device:

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Even the toilet seat and the bathroom were lime green:

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Oh, and a snapshot of our plane…

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Just kidding….

S7 even had a printed drink menu for a relatively short domestic flight:

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Started off with a glass of red wine…I like the little airplanes…

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Nice and tasty salad and some good black bread:

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Chicken stew…it was way tastier than it looked.

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After eating, I watched some movies and had a few glasses of wine. At one point, I got up and went to the washroom, and remember thinking “I should slow down…I could swear I had a full glass of wine when I left.” Got a refill, kept watching more tv, eventually went to the washroom again. Came back…again empty glass…and then it clicked. The 10 year old was drinking my wine when I went to the washroom! I tapped his dad on the shoulder in front of me and told him what was going on….and he congratulated the kid with almost getting away with it. Ugh!

Soon, time to land, and they passed out some sort of vegetable juice shooter….it was…interesting…

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Overall, S7 was solid service for a domestic flight. Comfortable enough seats that rival anything in North America, and are way ahead of what you would get in Western Europe. I definitely wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again. With the time change it was just before midnight when we landed in Novosibirsk, and we ended up with a remote gate. There was a special bus for business class passengers, which meant we were from plane to taxi rank in less than five minutes. Can’t complain about that! Then, it was off to the hotel and time to explore Novosibirsk!

Jul 282016
 

Unfortunately,we had a super early flight back to Ashgabat the next morning. It’s very hard to find information about Turkmenistan Airlines online, so we just went with whatever scheduled the tour company had proposed. In retrospect, we should have suggested times that worked a bit better and avoided super early wake-up calls. But no big deal.

Short drive back to the Mary Airport, which was absolutely empty…or at least it felt empty. Our flight turned out to be rather full in the end, but thankfully in the waiting room there was a snack bar where we could get a little something for breakfast. Snickers bar and “Black Bruin” Turkish energy drink….the breakfast of champions!

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We had a rather long walk out to the plane, but did manage to get an empty seat between us for the short flight back to Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan Airlines flight 128
Mary, Turkmenistan (MYP) to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 08:35, Flight Time: 0:40
Boeing 717-200, Registration EZ-A106, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 115,307
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,444

The 717 was in an all-economy configuration, but who needs pre-departure beverages when every passenger gets offered a pre-departure candy?

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Flight was quick and uneventful, and as we got off the flight, I noticed the plane still had ancient Aeroflot supplies in the overhead. Not too sure what it would be, but chances are it was at least 25 years old:

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Our driver/guide Serder was waiting for us at the airport, and we headed out of town to the Turkmenbashy Mosque. Capable of holding nearly 10,000 worshipers, we were told that most of the time it sits empty.

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The reason it sits empty is that along with verses from the Koran inscribed on the building, Turkmenbashy (the first President of Turkmenistan) ordered verses from the Ruhnama to be inscribed as well. The Ruhnama is a book he “wrote” giving the guidelines for living a good life. Most people of Turkmenistan consider it wrong to have anything not from the Koran on a mosque, so they avoid going to this one whenever possible:

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Next door to the mosque was Turkmenbashy’s crypt, where you could go inside and see his tomb. Unlike Lenin, however, it wasn’t a glass case so you couldn’t actually see if he was really inside or not:

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Across the street was the small town of Gypjak, where Turkmenbashy is said to be born. Of course this is commemorated with a giant golden statue of him unveiling the Ruhnama:

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We drove through the streets, and while this was supposed to be a model village given its importance as the birthplace of the president, it was pretty unremarkable. We then headed out of the city to explore the Kow-Ata cave lake and its supposed healing waters. It was a bit over an hour drive to the lake, where we were promptly fleeced for over $10 each for the privilege. It was a rather long walk down the slippery steps into the cave, which was incredibly hot and humid inside:

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When we got to the bottom, there were several local guys swimming in the murky water. It was too dark to see how clean it really was, but since I have an aversion to bringing amoebas and parasites home as souvenirs from vacation, I decided to give swimming a miss…which seemed to seriously disappoint our guide. The locals down there encouraged us to join them swimming, and when we said thanks but no thanks, one pointed out that we were not only missing out on the magical healing waters (let’s get real…it’s underground and heated by thermal power…and it’s not clear how the water gets recycled…oh and it smelled like pee), but we were also missing out on swimming under Turkmenistan’s largest colony of bats! Um, get me out of here!

When we got to the top we were encouraged to have lunch from one of the local shashlik stands. I went with the lamb, and Ian went with a mix of lamb and chicken. The next morning, waiting for our flight back to Moscow, that was to be a decision he regretted! Stay away from sketchy semi-grilled birds! The lamb, however, was delicious!

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After this, we convinced our driver we had had enough for the day, and were happy to head back to the hotel. Partly, I needed their fast internet as I had a change in plans which meant I wouldn’t be able to join Ian in Crimea. I spent the next couple of hours frantically trying to change flights, and ended up with a strange itinerary that would take me back home for a day in Moscow followed by Novosibirsk, Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, and finally Australia and Hong Kong!

This would be a good time to show that not only the lobby of the Yyldz Hotel was grand, but the rooms were absolutely huge. The bedroom:

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Desk and work space behind the bed:

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Long foyer leading into the room:

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Glamourous washroom, complete with Bvlgari amenities:

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We were both pretty beat from the early morning and the heat, so after I got my flights all sorted we had a final celebration dinner in the hotel’s top floor sports bar. It was pretty lively and hopping…with the two of us being the only people there!

The next morning was super early for the second day in a row. All over the capital were these digital displays showing the countdown to the Asian Games coming to Turkmenistan in 2017:

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Check-in at the airport was rather confusing. No english was spoken, and when we asked for the exit row she told us they were all taken. “But you are in business class! Why would you want to move?” Uh, there’s no business class on this plane. She then said “well, ok, but you are in seat 1A and normally you have to pay for that. I can put your friend in seat 1B.” Ok, good enough for me. Through immigration which took nearly an hour due to a line of travelers that clearly never traveled (and a sketchy-looking Ukrainian woman who got hauled into a side room with her teen son for questioning), but eventually we made it through for our second airport cafe breakfast in two days.

Today it was Royce brand energy drink, which tasted remarkably similar to the Bruin from the day before…and another Snickers bar. Ian, however, was having none of it, still dealing with the revenge of the sketchy grilled bird from the day before:

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Soon we boarded, and indeed just about every seat was taken. There were only 10 free seats, including the entire second row along with 1C so we ended up with an empty seat between us. Turns out the first 2-3 rows are “extra legroom” which meant maybe an extra inch or two, and you have to pay for them. I have no idea how we ended up in them (connecting flight in Business? OneWorld Emerald status? who knows) but we were very thankful for the empty middle and nobody reclining into us:

S7 Airlines flight 970
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB) to Moscow Domededovo, Russia (DME)
Depart 08:05, Arrive 09:50, Flight Time: 3:45
Airbus A319, Registration VP-BTP, Manufactured 1999, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 116,842
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,306,979

Taxiing for takeoff we passed some of Turkmenistan Airlines’ fleet, including this Ilyushin IL-76 which occasionally sees service:

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The flight was my first on S7, and the service was pretty good for economy – with both a snack box and a hot meal handed out with a glass of water:

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The snackbox contents were rather spooky…containing fruit/jellow, a beet and carrot salad, a packaged slice of bread, and a chocolate/hazelnut snack. I had the bread and candy bar, and then noticed the ketchup, which came in handy, because…

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….this giant mystery meat ball was much tastier with ketchup on it!

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We actually arrived in Moscow slightly early, where although it was a sunny day it was majorly colder than in Ashgabat. It was just barely 60 degrees fahrenheit mid morning and wasn’t forecast to get much warmer.

Despite arriving at a jetbridge, we had to walk down stairs to a waiting bus which transported us to the terminal. We had likely arrived at a domestic gate, so they had to bus us over to the immigration area. Since I was staying in Moscow a few days, and Ian was off to Crimea, we had to clear passport control here in Moscow. The lines were incredibly confusing and and when I got to the front I got a rather quizzical agent. “Why are you coming to Moscow? Where else will you go? Why?” When I told her my next stop was Novosibirsk, because I had studied there in early 1989, her eyes lit up. “1989? Novosibirsk in the winter? In the Soviet times?” When I confirmed, she just mumbled “I’m sure it has changed…” and with that I was stamped into Russia.

We went on to find a cash machine to get Ian some cash for Crimea since it operates on a total cash economy, and then we said our goodbyes and I was off to the Aeroexpress train into the city…

Dec 252013
 

Given my experience getting to my hotel on the way into Moscow, I decided to leave for the airport a solid 4.5 hours before my flight just in case it took four hours again. No such experience this time, and in right around an hour I was at Domodedovo Airport for my flight to Vienna.  Check-in went pretty quickly, and then it was off to passport control and security, which also was really quick.  Soon I was in the lounge with over three hours before the flight – ugh.  Oh well, better early than late!

Good planespotting from the lounge:

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A Saravia Yak-42 – not a plane you see every day!

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Uzbekistan Airlines…making up for the photo I couldn’t get when I flew them back in May.

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