Oct 032017
 

Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.



Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!



I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

Feb 142017
 

After a refreshing shower, I still had about 90 minutes to enjoy the ANA Suites Lounge. Not one of the more impressive first class lounges for Star Alliance, it was still pretty empty when I arrived. It did, however, fill up quite a bit over the next hour. Before it got busy, I took a chance to have some tasty Japanese snacks and plum wine.

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Not much more to say. I actually liked it when it got a bit busier, because the lounge attendants hovered less…and they actually let me pour my own water/drinks. It’s nice having helpful people around, but at ths same time I really don’t like being waited on hand and foot and feeling like I have “staff.”

Thai flight 677
Tokyo, Narita (NRT) to Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 17:30, Arrive 22:30 next day, Flight Time: 7:00
Airbus A380, Registration HS-TUD, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,775
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,374,176

Boarding was a little late, and was the “usual” cast of characters. Three large western guys and their Thai “companions,” a Thai pop star (according to the flight attendant) and then there was me. While the hard product isn’t really world-class, it’s much better than what any US airline offers.

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“Can I get you some Dom Perignon?” Very first-world nit-picking, but while other airlines are more subtle, our flight attendant quite emphatically stressed the brand. As if he was trying to impress people. This perhaps goes back to my impression that Thai has some things in common with US airlines, including that lack of finesse in service. I suspect a much larger percentage of their premium cabin passengers are upgrades/awards.

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Thailand is still in mourning for the king, and after the safety video a brief video celebrating his life was played.

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Post-takeoff, more champagne quickly appeared.

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Very strange amuse-bouche. A curry puff and very fatty chicken yakatori.

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Delicious thai salad.

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Very nicely set table.

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Chilled seafood starter. Normally I avoid seafood and mayo on planes, but decided to go for it this time. I regretted it within 12 hours…

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Chestnut soup with duck liver mousse. A bit unusual, but quite tasty.

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The pork curry. Super tasty – definitely the highlight of the meal.

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Rather sad fruit and cheese course. Nowhere near expectations.

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Rum savarin with orange sauce, and a glass of Johnny Walker Blue. It was a bit on the sweet side for me, but definitely good.

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Unfortunately after dinner I passed out for two to three more hours, putting a dent in my plans to stay awake so I could get on a normal sleep schedule once I got to Bangkok. Oh well! The crew was largely absent after I woke up, but after using the call button they did show up with tea and water. They were perfecly friendly and helpful, but there was nothing proactive about the service. Nothing bad, just nothing outstanding.

I had an 18 hour overnight thanks to the award, so decided to stay at the W Bangkok. I’ve had very mixed experiences here before, but decided I would give it one more try. They proactively upgraded me the day before to a “Marvelous Suite” which was the largest suite I’ve gotten here. I think I actually prefer the junior suites I’ve had before, but on the upside the air conditioning was freezing in the room I got.

Six solid hours of sleep, and it was off to enjoy what I think is one of the best hotel breakfasts in the world – especially for the price! Sure some five star/$500 hotels might do a notch better, but for the price point this property’s breakfast can’t be beat! I wasn’t super hungry, but started with some super fresh fruit, salmon, and duck.

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After breakfast I went for a walk to walk off the jetlag. First, the view from the hotel:

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Stopped by the Siam Paragon Mall to walk around in air conditioned luxury, and then headed down the street to satisfy my craving for some Hokey Pokey ice cream. You can’t really find it in the US, so wanted to use this opportunity to make sure to get some…even if it was 10am!

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Very unusual sculptures in the mall.

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Walked by the in-mall ice rink, but no time for skating this morning.

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Back to the W, and decided to use my free drink coupons. Sure, it was only noon, but couldn’t use them the night before due to it being what the front desk guy called “some kind of respect the buddha holiday” causing a ban on alcohol sales. Decided to try the W’s signature cocktail, which was super sweet and came with 24 karat gold leaf.

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With that, it was time to call an Uber and got a fabulous ladyboy driver wearing a Hello Kitty shirt and giant silver bow in her hair. When we got to the airport, I asked to take a picture with her, and she suddenly got really nervous and wouldn’t do it. Awe!

Time to check in, and off to Hong Kong I go!

Jan 162015
 

So now that I’ve done the real year in review, it’s time to explore what many people consider the best part of the United international experience. Given just how much below industry standards United’s food and drink generally are, people often wonder if it’s worth it. Lots of folks think the best part of the United international experience is the ice cream sundae cart.

Is it anything special? Absolutely not. But hey, who doesn’t like ice cream? So, I present, the 2014 United Airlines Ice Cream Year in Review!

January – Lisbon, Portugal to Newark. This was ice cream soup with a bit of caramel and a few drowning cherries. Really rather sad. The crew even stole all the stems from the cherries.

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February – Houston to Honolulu – this was an odd one. The ice cream was rock hard, but part of it was completely soupy. Caramel again.

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February – Honolulu to Washington Dulles – what’s that, caramel AGAIN? …and LOTS of caramel. Just three cherries again though (this must be the United standard) but perfectly lined up in a row:

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu – alert Jeff, we’re missing a cherry! Only two today, but for some reason I decided variety is the spice of life and switched to hot fudge instead.

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August – Honolulu to Washington Dulles. Whew. Back to three cherries and caramel. I was getting concerned.

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August – Washington Dulles to Paris – whoah, what’s this. Caramel AND chocolate…and only two cherries. Yet, much of the ice cream has no topping at all!

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August – Paris to San Francisco – swimming in a sea of caramel and chocolate is one lonely cherry. Apparently there’s a cherry shortage in Paris.

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu – just chocolate…and one cherry. The Shortage might be a San Francisco thing. Lots of chocolate, but very little ice cream.

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August – San Francisco to Honolulu – same flight, but I decided to experiment. I’ve never had the strawberry topping, so decided  to see what it was about. Apparently not about cherries, because there were none in sight.

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October – Tokyo to Singapore – whoah, what’s this ceramic thing? You can’t serve ice cream in that. Plus, what’s that white stuff…I don’t “do” whipped cream. Hmmm….pretty sure I still ate it 😉

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November – Frankfurt to Dulles – ice cream soup again…caramel and chocolate, but segregation was in full effect, plus the three neutered cherries.

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November – Newark to Tel Aviv – whoah, seriously? I struggle all year to get my three cherries I’m due on my sundaes and then you go all wild and give me 10? I mean come on…that’s a lot of caramel and cherries!

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December – Zurich to Newark – four cherries and caramel. I have a theory. It’s year-end. United bought too many cherries and is now desperately trying to get rid of them.

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December – Dulles to Amsterdam – well that was short-lived. Back to chocolate and only two cherries. So disappointing.

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December – Frankfurt to Dulles – if it’s December, it much be two cherries.

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2014 summary: I ate lots of ice cream. I got fat. It was anywhere from soupy to rock hard. I tend to switch from caramel to chocolate, but occasionally go wild and have some strawberries. What does it all mean? Who’s to say…there was the one-off intrusion of whipped cream, but fortunately the nuts stayed away. That would have been problems.

Asking for “cherries” yields three most often, and sometimes two. Once in a wild, they go nuts and throw the whole mess on there. It’s really hard to say.

Peace, love, and ice cream in 2015 to you…