Oct 052017
 

Nice relaxing morning before I had to head to the train station to catch the train. I had left myself plenty of time, so was able to have some breakfast, grab some coffee, and go for a bit of a walk before heading to the train station.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning, so decided to walk the 10 minutes or so to Byelorusskaya Station to catch the metro to the train station where the trains to St. Petersburg leave from. Caught the metro to Komsomolskaya and when I came out of the station I was on what is known in Moscow as “three stations square” because there are three long-distance train stations here: Leningradsky, Kazansky, and Yaroslavsky. Not surprisingly, the train to St. Petersburg goes from Leningradsky Vokzal, and I had no trouble locating it.



I had more trouble resisting shopping at the Red Army Hockey store in the station, but somehow managed…

I had read there was a lounge in the train station, but had a bit of trouble locating it. When I did, it was confusing because it looked like it was also a coffeeshop. I asked the agent sitting in the front and she confirmed yes, half is a coffeeshop and the other half is the lounge….and can I bring you some coffee or tea?

Right on time, my train was ready to board. It was one of THREE trains to St. Petersburg in an hour, and they were all the SAPSAN high speed train. Forget priority boarding here, though, after getting your bags scanned by security it was a mad dash to the train:

First class was all the way in the front, which gave me a great excuse to grab a picture of the front of the train:

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

The pair of seats on the other side would be great for people traveling together – and the RZD Russian Railways website is great about letting you pick your seats in advance, and the diagrams are completely accurate.

There were also a couple of sets of four seats facing each other:

Pre-departure champagne was offered, and I didn’t have to be asked twice!

Wow, not only was there a choice of meals, but a printed menu! Sorry for the slightly blurry pics.

I went with option two, and got the “roastbeef rolls” to start followed by the rolled porn with bacon and potato croquettes. Overall, it was reasonably tasty, and much better than I would have expected on a train! Only wanted one glass of wine, so unfortunately can’t report back if it was all you can drink or not.

First stop for the train was in Tver, where we were treated to the golden domes of an Orthodox Church while we waited less than 10 minutes for joining passengers.

Double cappuccino cake and black tea for dessert. The crew spoke extremely basic english, which was barely enough to keep the several Chinese tourists in first class happy. Unfortunately, the tourists spoke even less English so it was a bit of a struggle for them the whole trip.

Overall, the trip was super comfortable and I would definitely book the SAPSAN again versus flying between the cities. Internet access the entire time, power outlets, a ton of space, and maybe (at most) an hour longer once you take into account the need to arrive to the airport early for security, etc. Definitely a very positive experience!

Upon leaving the station I decided to see if my good luck with Uber would continue, and yup, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Soon, I was checking into my hotel – the W St. Petersburg. Not too much to say about the hotel. The staff all spoke excellent English and were warm and friendly, although the hotel was not able to offer any room upgrade at all despite status. When I arrived my room was initially a bit warm, but it cooled down pretty quickly after the sun set.

Quick shower, and out to enjoy the last 90 minutes or so of daylight. Statue of Peter the Great along the Neva River:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, as seen through Alexandrovsky Park:

The Hermitage Museum and the Alexander Column…looks a little different than when I saw it in 1988 in the dead of winter during the Soviet days. The first time I left North America really was in 1988, and after a few days in London it was straight on to Leningrad. I guess my love for traveling to out of the way/unusual (at the time) places was born way back then. Returning felt like coming full circle a bit.

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

Panoramic of the square, with the Winter Palace on the left:

The Winter Palace was gorgeous in its shades of blueish green and gold. I’ll have to see if I can find my old hard copy photos to compare it to – I can’t imagine it was always this majestic.

By this point, the sun was setting, so I headed to the W’s rooftop bar to watch the sunset…and freeze. It was only 8 degrees at this point (yes, in August)_ but the view was worth it:

St. Isaac’s Cathedral again. Did I mention the W is in an absolutely fantastic location?

After the sunset, I googled some ideas for dinner, and ended up finding a great brewpub just down the street. The Craft Brew Cafe was certainly nothing fancy, but it had a great selection of local craft beers on tap, and actually made a reasonably good burger for dinner as well.

Short walk back, something about the streetlights in Russia feels distinct to me….so a selfie was warranted.

Early to bed, because I had planned a very, very long day of walking for the next day!

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?

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!

Apr 252017
 

The day of the trip was finally here, and despite lots of last minute changes needed to deal with some unexpected work and personal commitments, I finally was able to salvage part of the trip. Unfortunately, that would mean missing two of the stops we had planned, but at least we would get to Abkhazia which was one of the parts I was super excited for.

American had changed their schedule about three months before my flight, and suddenly my DCA-JFK flight no longer existed. They decided instead to book me on an ERJ-145 flight instead, which meant an involuntary downgrade. Because it was the short part of an international itinerary no compensation was due, and they seemed completely uninterested in helping. Fortunately, about 45 days before the flight they changed schedules again, and there was now an option with first class. It meant a relatively short two hour connection in JFK, but I figured it should be doable in the spring.

Calling in, I got the rare fantastic agent who was able to force availability and get me on the new flight, and all was set. Day of travel I actually had quite a bit of time given the later departure, so decided to risk taking the metro to the airport, which was drama free. Rare occurrence on metro! Had to check-in with an agent to show them my Russian visa, and after they made sure to show me how annoyed they were with having to help me they checked me in and I was on my way to the lounge.

Lounge was serving the usual cheese and crAAckers along with some other unexciting kibble, but who can resist a whole carrot right before Easter?

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Blue skies, and a great view form the lounge at DCA for a bit of plane-watching. Plus, N406YX in the foreground would be my ride up to JFK today:

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Boarding commenced right on time with some rather grouchy gate agents and a total of three emotional support animals for the rather short ride up to JFK.

American Eagle flight 4540
Washington DC, National (DCA) to New York, JFK (JFK)
Depart 14:35, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 1:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N406YX, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,332
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,405,647

I see lots of complaints online that American is very hit-or-miss with pre-departure drinks, but today was a definite hit. The always classy Chateau le Parker in the finest plastique crystal:

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Shortly after boarding and being seated there was some commotion in the entryway. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but apparently the passenger had accidentally packed some vital medications in the bag she was forced to gate-check, and needed/wanted to get them out. All I heard was the rather nasty gate agent saying “I don’t care what you think you need you ain’t gettin’ the bag now!” Followed by “you know what, you’re a very nasty woman!” from the passenger. I was having visions of Dr. Dao at this point, and had the iPhone really to shoot prize-winning footage….but eventually the pilot who was great managed to calm the situation (after the gate agent yelled at him to) and everything was defused.

After that bit of excitement, departure time came and went…except we weren’t going anywhere. The pilot came on at five minutes past the departure time and told us we would be another 15 minutes because they were trying to locate…a first officer. Apparently the first officer’s dog had died and they were desperately trying to locate a replacement one. Another five minutes passed, and we were assured one bad been found, and he was “on his way” and we “should be out of here” in 15 minutes. Of course, 15 minutes came and went…and no first officer.

Finally, about an hour past departure, the new first officer rocked up and the door was closed a couple minutes later. My 1:45 connection had been reduced to about 40 minutes, so I was hopeful we would make up a little of the time in the air. Great view of the turn over the Pentagon right after departure:

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Once in flight, the crew broke out AA’s finest stemware, and passed around the kibble basket. Since I’m addicted to the DiBella biscotti, I wasn’t complaining for a 42 minute flight. Never seen blueberry lemon before…yum!

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We made up a tiny bit of time, and looks like we would make the gate with about 50 minutes to connect. I had to blink twice to make sure the plane hadn’t entered a time warp on the way when I saw this parked at the terminal:

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So despite flying well over 2 million miles and over 250 transatlantics in each direction, I’ve never flown internationally out of JFK before. I remember the day when international travel almost ensured you would head to O’Hare or JFK, but these days unless you’re flying a smaller international carrier, JFK is super easy to avoid. Of course, it was just my luck that my arriving flight would arrive as far from the International First Lounge as possible, and the departing flight which normally leaves from right by the lounge was also leaving as far away from the lounge as possible.

Ian was perfectly fine skipping the lounge, but I was having none of it, so he met me near my arriving flight and off to the first lounge we went.

I mean, I’m not going to turn down Bollinger and a nice cheese plate!

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Unfortunately, given time constraints, I had to limit myself to around two glasses, and then make the long trek over to my departure gate. I wished Ian well, made sure all his shots were updated for his flight back with the proletariat, and then boarded.

Finnair flight 6
New York, JFK (JFK) to Helsinki, Finland (HEL)
Depart 17:40, Arrive 8:50 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Airbus A330-300, Registration OH-LTT, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 37,449
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,409,764

I had fortunately booked well in advance, so had one of the “throne” seats on Finnair. On the left side of the plane the rows alternate, with one row having two seats, and the next row having one. In the row with one seat, your footwell is under the centre console of the two seats in front of it…in the row of two your footwells are under the two large tables on either side of the “throne” seat. My fabulous Marimekko branded slippers and amenity kit were already waiting for me:

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Pre-departure champagne, blueberry juice, and water were offered. I asked for a champagne AND a water, and with the sigh that followed you would think I was asking for them to move Heaven and Earth. But, I was successful. I still love the Littala crystal – even for pre-departure drinks. I really need to pick up some of this glassware for at home.

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Unfortunately, right before the door closed, a couple boarded sitting right in front of me with twins who looked no more than a month or two old…and were already crying their lungs out. You have GOT to be kidding me. Seeing the glares they were getting from the other passengers, the purser suggested that all 12 seats in the mini cabin of business class were open, and perhaps they would be more comfortable there. They agreed to move, much to the relief of the other passengers.

With that sorted, time to get comfy and rock the Marimekko slippers!

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About 30 minutes after departure drinks and snacks were finally offered. While I was glad not to see the usual mixed nuts, a single skewered prawn doesn’t really make much of a cocktail snack….

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Even more surprising was that the meal was all served on a single tray. No courses here. I would be less surprised if this was a late departure, or if I requested the executive meal, but nope…everyone got their entire meal on one tray. This looks like something that would be served on a domestic flight in the US and not internationally! That said, the beef was rather tasty along with the potatoes, but the salad and cheese course were rather stingy and disappointing. Definitely one of the most disappointing business class meals I’ve ever had across the Atlantic. Boo to Finnair on this one!

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An hour into flight, my free internet cut out. Supposedly Finnair elites and OneWorld Emeralds get free complimentary internet for the entire flight, but for whatever reason Finnair had forgotten to load this data into the computer for this flight, so everyone was cut off at one hour. Ended up paying for the rest of the flight, which per the purser’s recommendation I will now dispute with AmEx….

Package ice cream for dessert was pretty disappointing as well, but the fun little mini pastries were a nice touch, and there was plenty to go around:

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I still wasn’t tired, so after a bit of time watching tv, I used the call button to ring for another glass of wine. A new/different flight attendant appeared this time, and he was more than happy to bring me one. He also brought a mini snack of mixed nuts and dried fruits. Thought it was odd he served this right after dinner had finished, but it was definitely a nice appreciated touch.

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After finishing this glass of wine I was getting pretty tired, but there was just one problem. Two extremely loud large russian women in the row behind me having a conversation and cackling at a volume that I’m sure even the people back in coach could hear. I’d already asked them several time to keep their voices down because people want to sleep and was just met with a dirty glare in return. The flight attendant who’d brought me the nuts tried to quiet them as well, to no avail. He suggested I could move to the back of the cabin where there were plenty of seats and it might be a bit quieter. Fortunately, when I returned from chatting with him they had mysteriously and suddenly passed out cold. Saved!

At this point I managed to pass out for a nice uninterrupted five hours of solid sleep, waking up just as we crossed the Finnish coast on descent. Flight delivered in the ways that were most important to me, a comfortable seat for sleeping and a cabin temperature that made it possible. The food was a huge let-down, but again, it was adequate. However, if Finnair really wants to compete for connecting traffic they really need to up their game in this department.

We arrived in Helsinki about five minutes late, and only had a 35 minute connection to Moscow to begin with. Fortunately, there is no need to re-clear security in Helsinki, and since we also did not need to clear immigration it was a very easy transit. No time to check out the lounge, but our gates were right next to each other and I think the change of planes took maybe five minutes maximum. Most passengers were already boarded once we got there, so just a few minutes after boarding the door was closed 15 minutes early.

Finnair flight 153
Helsinki, Finland (HEL) to Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO)
Depart 9:25, Arrive 11:05, Flight Time: 1:40
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration OH-LKL, Manufactured 2008, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,877
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,410,309

There was only one row of eurobusiness 2×2 seating on this ERJ-190, and only one other passenger, so we each had two seats to our self. It should be noted that unlike Lufthansa, Finnair sells all the seats in eurobusiness on the ERJs, so you don’t get a free seat next to you. The only thing you get is a free meal, when those in economy had to pay for buy on board. Not a bad meal for a 90 minute flight, and two main thoughts: yes, the fruit may have been packaged, but was fresher than anything United serves. Maybe being sealed held in some moisture? Also, the flight attendant noted: “surely you would like some champagne, you can’t fly business class without it!” Best flight attendant ever!

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Landed at Sheremetyevo Airport right on time, my first time there since 1989. I’ve been do Domodedevo and Vnukovo since then, but never back to Sheremeyevo. They wanted to make sure and remind me that I love it:

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Immigration was a relative non-affair, with no line at all when we arrived. Got a few questions from the agent, who seemed mildly amused that I spoke Russian. Why do you speak Russian? Where did you learn it? How do you still speak it if it has been more than 20 years? She was seriously curious, and every time I answered the other agent in the booth would giggle. I guess my accent is amusing or something.

Right past immigration there was a check-in flight for connecting flights, and the agent was able to issue our Moscow to Sochi boarding passes, even though it was a separate itinerary. Next stop after checking in was to find Starbucks. I knew there was one at the airport, but we weren’t sure exactly where. We decided to trust the Starbucks app, and head to the next terminal over (connected landside) and search for it. Ian knew better than to resist my need for caffeine, and we were off on the hunt.

On the way, we passed a caviar vending machine. Only in Russia! It was tempting to buy some for our connecting flight…

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All price points from $20 a tin up to well over $100 a tin. I mean, everyone buys $100 worth of caviar from vending machines…right?

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The Starbucks was right by the vending machine, and provided some much-needed fuel to continue on with the day. After sitting and resting for a bit, we were back to the check-in area to try and find our gate. On the way, we ran into the (relatively new) Krasnaya Machina Red Army Hockey Team store. I couldn’t resist posing with the cut-out poster and buying a hat:

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Security wasn’t too bad, except for the guy who was getting busted for trying to take a cage filled with rabbits through the x-ray machine. I mean, totally normal, right?

Next stop was the lounge, which since we had arrived on OneWorld they wouldn’t let me use with my SkyTeam Elite card. Apparently, no lounge access allowed to SkyTeam Elites on domestic flights with Aeroflot? Fortunately, they did accept Priority Pass, so that made short work of the 90 minutes we had left until boarding.

Reasonable selection of food and beverage, and more importantly, places to charge devices. Biggest downside is the lounge was completely dark inside, and emerging from the lounge was like walking back out into bright daylight!

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Boarding was nice and easy, and they actually made time for elites and business class to board first.

Aeroflot flight 1124
Moscow Sheremetyevo, Russia (SVO) to Sochi/Adler, Russia (AER)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:30, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A321, Registration VP-BAZ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 33C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,205
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,411,182

About a 90% full A321 down to Sochi today, but fortunately we had booked the A and C seats and hoped nobody would take B. We asked the gate agent nicely, and she verified it was still open and she wouldn’t put anybody in it. Score!

Scary pre-packaged sandwich, mandarin, and chocolate was offered, along with tea on the two hour flight. Not bad for a $50 ticket. Legroom was also reasonable, much better than you get from most domestic airlines in the US. This was my first time on Aeroflot since the late-1980s, and things have definitely improved with Western aircraft. No more cages of chickens in the luggage racks, no more fold-down seats, and especially no more grumpy Soviet passengers lighting up and chain-smoking the entire flight. It was actually more pleasant than most domestic flights in the US these days…

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Mystery meat sandwich, fruit/chocolate, and a mandarin. Not bad…

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Landed right on time in Sochi, and it was time to begin the adventure!

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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Continue reading »

Dec 202013
 

As I mentioned before, the first time I ever left the US/Canada was exactly 25 years ago, when I headed to the USSR on a student exchange program.  Now, 25 years and 146 countries later I was finally headed back to Russia, and a very changed Moscow!

Although I didn’t get to the hotel until maybe 9pm, I thought I’d still go for a short wander and find dinner, to try and get a little bit of an impression of the city before playing tourist.  10 minute walk away was Mayakovskij Square:

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Which was a little more welcoming in daylight the next morning:

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First thing I had planned was to see Red Square and the surrounding area.  It was maybe a mile walk which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, but it was -10C outside, and lightly snowing.  No worry, time to walk!

First stop was the Tomb of the Unknowns:

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A monument to those who died in Leningrad in WWII:

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Continue reading »

Dec 142013
 

Fortunately my flight out of Istanbul wasn’t all that early, but I decided to try and get an early start to “enjoy” the Turkish lounge, crowded as it usually is. It’s a good thing I did, because traffic was nightmare-ish this morning, and took well over an hour to get to the airport. Due to that, it was also going to be much more expensive than on the way in. I had 74.60 lira on me, and prayed it wouldn’t go over that. I had some dollars and euros as backup, but didn’t want to get in a negotiation.

Pull into the business class check in and the meter reads? 74.32 lira. Obviously, I’m doing something right! w00t for that!

Business class checkin was quick with zero line, as was passport check and security.  I was curb to lounge in 15 minutes max…for once Istanbul airport is redeeming itself to me.  Of course, the lounge was mildly packed, but I not only found a seat, but one with a power outlet.  This day keeps getting better and better,   Time for a snack!  Mmmm…baklava!

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Soon, it was off to the gate. Boarding only started 20 minutes before departure…this was not looking good…except…upon boarding it was “new” style A321 barcalounger business class…and only 3 of the 16 seats were taken. I’m obviously living right today!

Turkish Airlines flight 415
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Moscow, Vnukovo, Russia (VKO)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 16:35, Flight Time 2:50
Airbus A321-200 Registration TC-JSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2F

I was glad to see that even though the flight was shorter, and with real seats, we had the chef again!  Hahhahaha!

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…and pre-departure fresh-squeezed OJ is always welcome!

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Continue reading »

Nov 232013
 

Having just returned from 5 consecutive weekends on the west coast thanks to the United $10 fare sale, I was ready to be home. Seriously I was. Especially since I had 7 visas to sort for my New Years trip to Africa coming up. Work, however, had other plans for me.

No Thanksgiving this year, but rest assured I was going to have Turkey. As in the country, not the bird.

It actually started as a week-long trip to Tajikistan…and the easiest way there was through Istanbul. Then, a week in Moscow got added on. Now, mind you, last time I was in Moscow was 1988 when it was still part of the Soviet Union, and it was my 3rd country visited after Canada and the UK. I’m going to guess Moscow is a bit different 25 years later.

I’d planned on taking a few days of vacation after that, to visit 2 of my 3 remaining countries in Europe, when fate intervened I was needed in Montenegro. Score! This would also mean an overnight in Vienna. …and business would finish on Friday, allowing me a weekend connection in Serbia at no charge. That will leave poor little Andorra as my last country to visit in Europe.

I’m going to try and keep up with this in real time. Just managed to secure 10 visas in a little over 3 weeks, which is some sort of personal record, and especially impressive giving they included DR Congo, Angola, Russia, and several other places in West Africa where I’m headed in just five weeks!  Then, it’s back home for a grand total of five days, before a few day Christmas with the family, and then off to West Africa for two+ weeks.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up in real time. The flight routing is:

map

 

Off we go!