May 112017

Woke up around 8am, since we wanted to be at breakfast at 830 right when it opened. We had asked our driver to meet us at 9am, and hoped he would be on time. Well, when we got to breakfast he was already there, and it was the same driver who brought us from Sochi two days prior. I guess he changed his mind and decided to make the trip after all! I never did ask him why he changed his mind, as he’d likely had to leave Sochi very early in order to come get us.

Quick breakfast with him waiting, and I noticed he was chatting with the lady at the front desk. She had kindly already explained to him we needed to make a quick stop at the Ministry of Repatriation on the way out of town to get the visa, and he was ok with that. On the way, I think we almost got hit two or three times, which launched him into a long tirade about the quality of drivers in Abkhazia. Found the ministry by 905a, and luckily they were already open.

Found the room where visas were issued, and there was no wait. We were invited in, the good bureaucrat started writing down all of our information, asked if we would pay together, and then asked for a credit card – never telling us the amount. Based on information I found online, they usually keep your passport, tell you how much the visa is, and then you have to go a couple blocks away to the bank to pay for it. Seems now, as long as you pay with credit card, you can pay on the spot. One problem, I told him, American credit cards won’t work in Abkhazia. He insisted on trying, and it went through no problem on the first try. All told, we were maybe there five minutes, and left with shiny new Abkhazia visas (which incidentally, were never checked after all.)

Not much to say about the drive to the border. We’d made most of the drive twice already, and it was completely uneventful this morning as well.

Got to the border, and were sent out of Abkhazia without much more than a 5 second glance at our passports. Same routine as before on the Russia side. Driver takes the car through, and we walk over to the passenger processing building and queue in line. I went first, and after a few questions from the junior-looking FSB agent (clearly stated on his uniform) he asked me to go have a seat and wait. A few minutes later, Ian got the same treatment. Now, entering Russia from an unrecognized country on a US passport probably isn’t something they see every day, so I figured we were just waiting for a more senior agent to check his work. This was confirmed 10 minutes later when a guy with more stars on his uniform came in, handed us our passports, and said thank you for waiting. Just like that, we were in.

One note: Russia does not stamp you in or out at this border, so there is no documentation of your visit to Abkhazia. Similarly, Abkhazia does not paste the visa in your passport, and they do not stamp your passport. Thus, no problems with getting into Georgia later.

Back in Sochi, and a minute later we drove past some of the Olympics stadiums:


Made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and check-in was a relative breeze as well. Unfortunately, the Aeroflot agent was having absolutely none of me, and insisted my rolling bag was going to be checked today. Decided not to fight it too hard, and just go with it. After grabbing my first decent coffee in a couple of days, we decided to sit down for some lunch before the flight. Delicious borshch with fresh garlic cloves and meat and a dark russian beer:


After that, it was through security, where they had the best giftshop ever. I wish I’d been thinking a bit clearer, because I definitely would have bought a few more things. I mean, check out these t-shirts:


Shapkas, magnets, and even strangely Philadelphia Flyers magnets for some reason. Because…Russia!


I picked up a couple of magnets for my fridge:


Unfortunately, Ian got the last one of these:


We got to the gate just as they were boarding the buses to our plane. For some reason, they had subbed in a 777 on this route a week before this flight, and based on the seatmap online and the buses, it didn’t look like it was even close to a full flight today!

Aeroflot flight 6552 operated by Rossiya
Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER) to Moscow Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 14:10, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:20
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration EI-UNP, Manufactured 1998, Seat 61A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,053
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,412,030

The plane was parked at an international gate, which is apparently why we had to take a bus to it. When we got there, Putin’s leopard friend was smiling at us:


Last row of the plane! I had no idea row numbers even went up this high!


Yup, it was definitely a light load today, way under half full, and in the back there was pretty much nobody except us!


Goodbye Sochi!


Good view of the Olympic venues as we flew out over the Black Sea:


Only water and a “snack” were offered. Still not sure what this was – one was some sort of chocolate meringue thing, and the other was vanilla.


Uneventful flight, and with all the space it was almost a pleasant flight as well.

Meow, our plane saying goodbye to us in Moscow:


After retrieving my bag (which thanks to the elite bagtag actually did come off the plane first) I found the best cafe ever. Coffee and Beer House! My two favourite things (excluding champagne) in one place! We had to stop while waiting on the next Aeroexpress train to the city to arrive.


After a quick espresso and beer, it was off on the train to enjoy our one night in Moscow!

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!


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?


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:


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.


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:


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:


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:


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:


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!


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:


Desk and work space behind the bed:


Long foyer leading into the room:


Glamourous washroom, complete with Bvlgari amenities:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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…


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


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…

Jul 222016

After getting to bed around 1am it was nice to be able to sleep in a bit. We didn’t have a ton on the agenda for today since it was mainly just a bit of final sightseeing around Ashgabat before a late afternoon flight to Mary. First stop was the Tolkucha Bazaar, otherwise known as the Altyn Asyr Bazaar. It was opened in 2011 to replace the old bazaar, and like so many of the new buildings in Ashgabat it was built to resemble something. The most famous product for sale are the red Turkmen rugs, so the buildings of the bazaar were of course built in the shape of a common patter on these rugs.

Unfortunately, photos are not allowed in the bazaar, and frankly I thought the whole place was a huge letdown. Nothing terribly interesting for sale – lots of computer gear and such, a small area selling fruits/vegetables, and tons and tons of clothing. Nothing interesting, however…I was hoping maybe for a fun Turkmenistan t-shirt or something, but nothing at all. Looked to be mostly surplus clothing from the US/Europe. I did manage to get one shot of the area between some of the buildings, mainly to prove there were at least some people walking around:


Perhaps the most interesting part of the bazaar was trying to park, because there were hundreds and hundreds of cars dropping people off and picking them up. There were certainly lots of people walking around, and maybe our guide failed to show us the most interesting part of the bazaar, but I failed to see the attraction to local citizens as there wasn’t even a lively place for common products that we could see.

Our guide was seeming a bit puzzled by what more he could show us for the rest of the day, so I asked if we could go take pictures of the “World’s Largest Indoor Ferris Wheel” that we had driven by the previous day. He agreed that would be a good idea, so off we went. View of the ferris wheel from the car park:


A little perspective on how big the thing is…nearly 300 feet high:


There were maybe 10 other people there – I can’t imagine this thing makes any money. Waiting in line to ride…total cost was maybe $3 or so for a 10 minute or so ride:


View from about halfway up:


Inside mechanics:


What we didn’t know, is the ferris wheel is part of the “Alem Cultural and Entertainment Complex.” This meant there was a giant arcade and video games. Ian couldn’t resist one of the driving games…I’ll let him comment on just how awesome he did…


I mean seriously, how can you resist a shooting game called “The Hillbilly’s” [sic] in the middle of Turkmenistan?



There was also some terrorist/hostage game, which Ian had to take a crack out. Only a few innocent hostages perished:


After spending an hour there, our guide suggested we go to the Ashgabat Cable Car. It’s an approximately 4km long ride from the city of Ashgabat up into the Kopetdag Mountains which form the border with Iran. Waiting to board:


View on the way up:


Once we got to the top, the view of the mountains was great:



We had lunch at the top, and sat enjoying the outdoors for around an hour before taking the ride down. A short way into the ride down we crossed this strip of land. This was the “first line” defence zone between the old Soviet Union and Iran. It’s still barbed wire on both sides of the strip, and there are guard towers and motion sensors. Since so much of the border is mountainous and difficult to patrol this is meant to be a buffer zone for anyone who made it this far over the border:


By the time we got back it was time to head straight to the airport for our domestic flight to Mary. We were hoping for a bit of drama that might mean one of their few flightworthy old Soviet planes would be pressed into service, but it was not to be. Check-in was very easy, as was security. We only had to wait about 15 minutes before it was time to board.

Turkmenistan Airlines flight 131
Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (ASB) to Mary, Turkmenistan (MYP)
Depart 17:20, Arrive 18:00, Flight Time: 0:40
Boeing 737-700, Registration EZ-A008, Manufactured 2009, Seat 20D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 115,112
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,305,249

The plane was hot. Very hot. It was nearly 110F outside, and the ground air conditioning unit wasn’t working despite this being a relatively new 737. We finally found out where all the people are in Turkmenistan…apparently on board our completely full plane:



Mini bottles of water and candies were passed out, and there’s not much else to say about the quick 40 minute flight. It was super bumpy due to the warm outside temps but nothing too bad. Maybe it just seemed bad because we were so far back, and I can’t remember the last time I sat behind the wings! Both coach and business class had pictures of the President to watch over them. Supposedly it’s rare to see the 737 on this route, and they normally run economy-only 717s on the route. Had I had the option, I would definitely have paid the extra for business class since the one way economy ticket was under $40!


Welcome to Mary Airport…picture of the President greeting you on the rather long walk (maybe 200m or so) into the terminal building:


Mary Airport from the car park.


Now it was off to the hotel to enjoy two nights in Mary!

Jun 112016

I hadn’t really thought ahead since I didn’t plan on arriving in Mali late at night alone, so when I walked out of the airport – it hit me. How was I going to get to the hotel? I had no idea what a fair fare would be in a taxi, or even if the taxis were safe. As usual, before I even got out the door someone approached me trying to get me in his taxi. Since there was no formal taxi queue or price list posted, I just went with it. We agreed on what seemed to be a very fair price (since I knew the hotel was quite a ride away, and we were off.

No problem at all since the roads were empty late on Sunday night, and we arrived at the Radisson Blu gates after maybe 25 minutes. Yes, I said gates. If you remember in the news ten or more terrorists attacked the Radisson Blu Bamako in November, 2015 and took more than 100 hostages. Well, the hotel had to close for a bit after that incident, but was up and running barely a month later. There are now huge  walls around the hotel, and cars are not allowed to enter. Pedestrians are dropped off just outside the walls, and you have to go through airport style metal detectors and have your bags x-rayed to get in. No problem at all, and soon I met up with Ian in the lobby.

Quick check in, and off to the hotel’s bar/cafe for a quick snack. Caught up on things of a few Flag beers and as had become our tradition in the Central African Republic snacked on a croque madame as well. Made some loose plans for the morning, and was off to sleep. The AC was super cold in the hotel, so managed to sleep a very solid 9+ hours.

Woke up and went down to see the pool area:


The hotel appeared to be majorly empty, which probably isn’t a surprise given the fact it had been the location of a major terrorist attack just six months prior. It felt plenty secure though, so there was really no need to worry. Grabbed some breakfast since it was included, and although it was nothing to write home ago, it was a pretty solid buffet with eggs cooked to order. Given the location, no complaints at all!

After grabbing a bite, we asked one of the guys at the front desk the easiest way to get a taxi, and he walked us out the front gates to one of the local taxi guys who hangs around. Negotiated a good price with him for a two hour city tour, and we were off. First stop was Point G. Point G is a residential area in the hills above Bamako, which is supposed to feature great panoramic views of Mali:


Apparently the vantage point even had its own fitness area…which was in use by…nobody:


Looking out over Bamako:


After Point G, we went to try and see the Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, driving up to it is extremely difficult, so we parked as nearby as we can and our driver led us to the mosque on foot. Unfortunately, it was closed for prayers, so we walked around it outside the gates trying to find somewhere to get a good photo of it. There was nowhere with a good angle, due to the fact that all the streets around it were a giant market. We walked through all kinds of small passageways in the market and got very surprised looks from all the locals. I guess it’s not every day two westerners walk through the market in Mali!

After the short city tour we had to get ready to head to the airport. Agreed on a price for the trip to the airport with the driver, who was more than happy to have the business. He took the “long way” to the airport so we could see a couple of other “sites.” First up was the Monument de la Paix, or Peace Monument:


After we crossed the King Fahd Bridge, built by the Saudis we came upon a buffalo statue at the Place de Sogolo. In the local Mandigo lore a princess was turned into a buffalo to terrorize the population. King Kone Sakaran offered a reward to hunters who ultimately shot the buffalo and they were allowed to choose among many girls for a wife. They took Sogolon Koné, the ugliest of the women, who the place is named after. Obviously I missed something in the story…


Got to the airport, things weren’t terribly chaotic, and check-in, security, and passport control were a breeze. There were three lounges in the one-room departure haul, and the first one said it was for business class passengers only when we tried. She suggested we try the next one. I decided to give her my United card, and see if we could get in as a Star Alliance Gold benefit since we were on Ethiopian. She had no idea, but offered to go check. About 10 minutes later she came back, and said yes, please stay and you can have a guest. Finished a couple of beverages, and soon it was time to board.

On the walk to the plane we saw an Antonov 124 Heavy Lifter on the tarmac, and with a window seat I had a perfect view to get a picture of it:


Ethiopian flight 909
Bamako, Mali (BKO) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration ET-AMG, Manufactured 2000, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,641
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,166

*shudder* coach…and not just any coach, coach on an Ethiopian 767, which must be some of the nastiest, dirtiest, poorly maintained aircraft ever. At least this one didn’t shudder and make all kids of awful noises like the last one I was on! Good view of Bamako and the Niger River after takeoff:


a small snack was served, with the typical mystery sandwich…which I took a pass on. Two things scare me on planes: mystery sandwiches made who knows how long before serving and shrimp. At least the mini bottle of wine and Kit Kat were tasty!


Short flight, and all things considered not totally awful in economy…I lived to tell the tale!

It had been an all-too-short visit to Mali, but due to the fact that most tourist sites like Timbuktu are off limits due to terrorism in the area, and the delays from American Airlines, I was happy that we’d made the most of it. Just three countries left to visit! Next up: Dakar!

Jan 082014

Quick ride from the Hilton in their shuttle bus, and I was at Malabo ready to check in.  The only problem was, the check-in area was total chaos.  Dozens of Chinese everywhere, each with several bags, busy saran wrapping them, tying them up with twine, you name it.  The room was chaos.  Since I couldn’t see a line, I just pushed my way to the front of the mass of humanity, and eventually found a check-in desk.  Yes, it was for Ethiopian, and yes, I could check in.  No checked bags, so should be a piece of cake.  I had tried online checkin, but it said it didn’t work, however, the seat I’d selected took.  Bulkhead aisle…not bad for a 30 minute flight.

Couldn’t figure out where to go next….tried one door, there was a woman at what looked like a passport check…nope, this is domestic flights…she waved her hands and pointed in another direction.  After wandering around looking lost for several more minutes, I finally found the right passageway, leading to international passport control and security.  Piece of cake, and soon I was in a large waiting room.  Time to have a seat.

There was a hallway marked “VIP lounge” but there was a security guy guarding it.  He wouldn’t let me past.  So, when he disappeared a few minutes later I just went down the hall, and followed some stairs upstairs….and did a little plane spotting:


Found the door to the VIP lounge, and it was unlocked…so I went in.  Nobody was in there.  Hmmm…there was a flight board though!

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