Apr 292017
 

Airport in Sochi was relatively modern, no doubt a beneficiary of the recent Winter Olympics. Since it was already nearing sunset and we were exhausted from a long day of travel, we decided to go with the taxi desk in the arrivals area as opposed to negotiating with the taxi mafia to potentially save a couple dollars each. Nice quick ride with a polite driver who coincidentally enough had Abkhazia plates on his car.

10 minute ride to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Resort and Conference Centre, where check-in was a polite but disorganized affair. First they sent us to our rooms…which we realized when we got there we’d both been given the same room number. Back to the front desk, and apparently they had screwed up, and oh btw, we charged you the wrong amount. Your room requires you to pay this much more. Was somewhat odd that they expected the room to be paid upon check-in, but eventually everything was sorted, and the view of the Olympic venues from the room was fantastic:

IMG_3806

IMG_3807

With the sun having set, and the stories of stray dogs around the area (which we never actually saw) there was really no point in trying to see the Olympics sites in the evening, so we decided to head into Sochi for some dinner. See, the airport and the Olympics venues are in a suburb called Adler, which actually sits right on the Abkhazia border. We called an Uber, which was really quick and reliable in Sochi, and made the 30 minute drive to the Morye Mall located in Sochi.

What was the first thing you see at the main entrance to the mall? Yup, it’s like they knew I was coming…AND Sochi managed to get my name right. Bonus points for them!

IMG_3808

We wandered around the mall a bit, walking off the jetlag, and the mall was majorly modern with lots of international stores – likely a beneficiary of the Olympics as well. We were getting a bit hungry, so stopped into a pelmeni restaurant for some dinner. Dozens of varieties of pelmeni on the menu, and I don’t remember what we ordered in the end but they were seriously delicious.

IMG_3811

After a bite to eat, a little more walking around the mall and exploring, and we found another odd vending machine to pair with the caviar vending machine in Moscow. I mean, don’t you always go to the mall and realize “damn, I forgot my contact lenses, I better hit up the vending machine!”

IMG_3812

There was also a huge grocery store in the mall, so explored that a bit as well. I find grocery stores fascinating places when abroad, and a good insight to how at least some segment of the local population lives. Nothing terribly unusual about this one, except for multiple aisles with nothing but alcohol.

Called an Uber which had no trouble locating us at the mall, and after a short ride we were back at the hotel where we promptly passed out for the night. Despite all the confusion over the room rate at the hotel, they did decide that breakfast was included, and it was a reasonable spread for Easter Sunday. The breakfast was seriously empty, but there was still a huge amount of choice at the buffet, both hot and cold options, plus some local sparkling wine. Not bad at all!

…and seriously, how can you resist taking a pic when the hotel has something like this set up?

IMG_3818

It was a nice clear morning, and unfortunately sleep won out over an early morning walk around the Olympic sites. Most of them were well behind fences anyways, so it wasn’t like I was going to get an early morning tour of them. This view from my room would have to do:

IMG_3822

We hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into getting to Abkhazia, but knew that there were essentially two options: take a taxi to the border, cross over, and then wait for a minibus to Sukhumi, or find a driver/taxi who was willing to make the full trip. Given it was Easter, and we didn’t know how much traffic there would be, we opted to skip the public transport option and arrange for a driver. My first thought was to hire our driver from the airport since he had Abkhaz plates, but he he no interest in making the trip.

Our second try was to see if they hotel could find us a driver. Yes, they could, but their driver wanted to leave at 6am to avoid traffic at the border, and wanted 9,000 rubles ($180) for the one-way trip. We definitely weren’t going to pay that much to get up early.

So, google to the rescue and I found kiwitaxi.com which seemed to be too good to be true. A global transfer booking company that could arrange transfers anywhere in the world? They only wanted about 5,500 rubles for the trip ($100) and only 20% in advance with the rest to the driver (I imagine the 20% is their commission) so I figured I would give it a go. Only took about 30 minutes, and I had confirmation that our driver was booked, and would pick us up at 11am as we requested.

Our driver Dima showed up right on time, and had a perfectly comfortable and modern SUV for the trip. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was extremely friendly and easy to communicate with. We set off right at 11am, and were at the border in just over 15 minutes. He made sure to tell us that if anyone at the border asks, we are “friends” since trying to explain a taxi might open him up to bribes. When we got close to the Russian side of the border he let us get out, and go walk through passport control. Exiting Russia was pretty straightforward, with just a couple simple questions “how long will you be in Abkhazia? When will you come back to Russia? Where do you live? Why do you speak Russian?” and we were through.

Dima was just getting the car cleared when we exited, and we were ready to head to the Abkhaz border post about 100 meters down the road. Here we just pulled up to the officers, said hi, showed them passports, and they waved us through without a single question. Way too easy! The whole border had taken about 30-40 minutes due to the passport control line on the Russian side, but overall really easy.

From here, it was about a two hour easy drive to Sukhumi, where we had little trouble finding our hotel. I asked Dima if he would be interested in picking us up in two days, but when we told him we needed to leave at 9am he wasn’t interested since it would mean leaving Sochi super early. No problem, we had two days to sort out transport or use kiwitaxi again, so figured we were set.

Now, time to explore Abkhazia!

Mar 192017
 

Got a very good night of sleep, and was all set for a day of adventure ahead. Originally when I planned this trip, I had planned two days in Paris on the return, but when I had to skip the Cape Town side trip, I was no longer able to get the stopover in Paris on the way back. The options were Frankfurt and Munich, and having been to both several times I picked Frankfurt figuring I was likely to have more options for side trips from there.

After playing around on Die Bahn’s website I settled for a sidetrip to Nürnberg. I had really wanted to see Dresden or Leipzig, but spending 4-5 hours each way on the train wasn’t my idea of a good use of time. I’ll save those for another trip later this year when I have more time. I had also wanted a train trip side it had been a long time, and there were still some decent ICE first fares to Nürnberg. It was far from cheap, but at two hours each way with great times, and plenty to see in Nürnberg, I figured it was a good option

Train left super early – around 8a – which meant being up early. The great thing of being at the Sheraton attached to the airport is I just had to walk into the departures hall, and I had my own Starbucks for breakfast and wakeup. There was a good breakfast spread in the Sheraton lounge, so it made for a nice and convenient morning.

Train was about 10 minutes late, and absolutely packed. I didn’t see an empty seat anywhere in my car. Fortunately I got one of the seats on the single side, so no dealing with climbing over people – definitely plus! When I got to Nürnberg I found the machine to buy day tickets for local transit, pulled up google maps, and found out which tram I needed to take to the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände – the Documentation Centre at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

The museum opened in 1994, and the entrance is a long glass and steel tunnel into the front of the building – a creative play by the architect to mock Nazi architect Albert Speer. The place was much busier than I expected for a museum on a Monday, filled with school groups:

IMG_3045

The new Neue Kongresshalle – New Congress Hall – which was never finished. It was intended to seat 50,000 people during rallies and is the largest piece of Nazi architecture still standing.

IMG_3046

I spent about two hours walking through the exhibits, and there was a fantastic audiotour that you could either do a short version, or listen to lots of background in each room. It was an incredibly well-done museum with lots of historical facts as well. It was also slightly chilling given how many parallels were easy to draw to current events in the United States.

After finishing the museum, I went for a walk around the Dutzendteich – or dozen ponds, which are adjacent to the Kongresshall and museum. It was a grey a gloomy day, which somehow seemed appropriate.

IMG_3047

aa

IMG_3049

Grandstand at the Zeppelinfeld – or Zeppelin Field. It was one of the first architectural sites build by Albert Speer, and based upon the Ancient Greek Pergamon Altar. On the top of the review stand there used to be a giant swastika that was blown up in 1945 at the end of the war to symbolically show that naziism was over. It got its name because it was the site in 1909 where Ferdinand von Zeppelin landed one of his zeppelins.

 

IMG_3051

Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

IMG_3053

Sideways view when standing on the podium on the Zeppelinfeld grandstand:

IMG_3056

How the site looked in the 1930s and 1940s. Note the giant swastika on the top of the grandstand and the columns which no longer exist:

IMG_3060

From the Zeppelinfeld I continued walking around the water, and got this view of the Kongresshalle from the other side:

IMG_3063

Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

IMG_3064

Looking down the Große Straße – Great Road. Over a mile long and 40 meters wide it was a parade route for the Wehrmacht during the annual party meetings. It points toward medieval Nürnberg Castle and the direction was an attempt to link old Nürnburg to the Nürnberg of the Third Reich. After the war ended, the US Army actually used the road as a temporary airfield since so there was so much damage to other infrastructure.

IMG_3066

Outside the Kongresshalle:

IMG_3067

After all this walking I was getting pretty hungry so pulled up google maps again. Figured out how to get to the restaurant I wanted to go to, and there was a direct bus leaving from the museum. Perfect! Between google maps and the daypass transport around Nürnberg was really simple.  Bus dropped me right in the centre of the city near an old church:

IMG_3068

IMG_3069

Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

IMG_3070

Lunch at the Hausbraueri Altstadthof – great homemade beer and Nürnberg Rostbratwurst with Kartoffelsalat – YUM!

IMG_3077

After lunch went for a long walk back towards the train station, passing the Frauenkirche – a great example of gothic architecture from the mid-1300s:

IMG_3079

Stopped at Starbucks for some caffeine, and had an absolutely terrible view on the Pegnitz River:

IMG_3082

The Wetterhäuschen Lorenzkirche – or St Lorenz church. Ground was broken in 1250, but the church was only finished approximately 200 years later. It was badly damaged during World War Two but later restored:

IMG_3083

Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

IMG_3084

Train back to Frankfurt was on time, and once again managed to get lucky and get the single seat. Once again the train was completely full all the way to Frankfurt. Is this the norm lately, or was it because it was a Monday? I haven’t taken many train trips in Germany in the last ten years, but I remember first class on the ICEs used to be relatively empty lots of the time.

Had a quiet evening in Frankfurt just walking through the centre of the city, stopped at a couple of small random bars/restaurants for a beer, and then back to the airport early so that I could turn in. I had a relatively early flight the next morning, and wanted to maximize my time in the Lufthansa First Class Terminal!

Mar 092017
 

Woke up right on time, nice quick check out from the Le Meridien, and a short walk over the bridge over the airport road and I was in Terminal 3. There is a baggage x-ray before you can get into the check-in area, and the guards will not let you in without either a printout or phone copy of your ticket. That accomplished, over to the check in desk where there was no line.

Asked about getting a seat with nobody else in the row, but the check-in agent informed me that all seats would be taken on the flight today. Oh well.

15 minute wait for immigration because the priority line wasn’t open, which left me 15 minutes to “enjoy” the EgyptAir Lounge. It’s gotten even worse (if that’s really possible) than the last time I was there, because on top of the horrible food offerings, they no longer have Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi either. The espresso machine was reasonably functional, so had a quick coffee then off to the gate.

Security at the gate was pretty easy, and we boarded right on time. All things considered, for Cairo, it was a pretty easy and relatively pleasant transit to get on board.

Lufthansa flight 587
Cairo, Egypt (CAI) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 7:35, Arrive 10:40, Flight Time: 4:05
Airbus A320, Registration D-AIQT, Manufactured 2000, Seat 4C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 26,977
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,378

Upon boarding, it was clear why we were full today. There were six rows of EuroBusiness today, which meant 24 seats, and at least 10 of them were filled with uniformed Lufthansa crew. Not sure if a plane broke down in Cairo or what, but that explained all the full seats. Fortunately for me, my window seat was taken by a teenager who slept the whole flight and never got up once, so for being a full flight it wasn’t bad at all.

Breakfast was another story – definitely not the tastiest thing I’ve eaten. My request for champagne was met with “we don’t have that.” So I asked for sparkling wine. Ok, that she could do. Normally I love Lufthansa crews, but for whatever reason this one definitely wasn’t having a great day. I probably wouldn’t be either if I was working a 7am flight out of Cairo.

IMG_3016

Other than that, flight was super uneventful. Immigration to get into Germany had no line, but unusually they actually asked questions like how long I would be in Germany and what I would be doing there. Avoided “no clue, I had planned to go to Paris but changed my mind at the last minute” in favour of “three days, just a bit of tourism.”

Nice and easy, security was also quick, and I had time for a bit of time in the Senator Lounge. I’ve never actually been in the Munich Senator Lounge, only the first class lounge, so this was a new experience.

To go with that white whine, a bit of white wine:

IMG_3017

There’s something about the Lufthansa pretzel bread with cheese, salami, and tomato that I love. Unfortunately there was no cucumber today.

While in the lounge, I looked up the registration of my upcoming plane, and was excited to see it was one of Lufthansa’s relatively brand new A320-neo planes!

Lufthansa flight 105
Munich, Germany (MUC) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 12:00, Arrive 13:05, Flight Time: 1:05
Airbus A320neo, Registration D-AIND, Manufactured 2016, Seat 3F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 27,163
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,391,564

Unlike the last flight this one was totally empty in business. 24 seats again, but only four were taken. Can you believe this was the meal on a 40 minute flight…and that refills on beverages were offered? It was much tastier than the meal from Cairo, especially the salmon, and I actually enjoyed most of this one.

IMG_3020

When I had changed two days prior from Paris to Frankfurt, the Airport Sheraton was by far the most reasonable Starwood option, and being on top of the airport (and thus Starbucks and an ICE station) made it a very convenient choice for me. My two nights here would be the closest I’ve ever come to living in an airport, and I have to say it was kind of fun.

Stopped at Starbucks after landing to get some coffee before checking in, and then after a shower I headed out for a bit of a walk around the city. I’ve never had the time to do much exploring of Frankfurt, so I just went on a bit of a random wander. Caught the train into the city, and then just started walking. The giant Euro symbol in front of the European Central Bank:

IMG_3023

Walked for a while and came upon the main square:

IMG_3024

…and Frankfurt Dom/Cathedral:

IMG_3026

IMG_3026

Kept walking for a bit, and eventually decided to check TripAdvisor for somewhere tasty for dinner. Settled on a place called Naïv which was a bit of a Germany craft beer geek’s heaven. German craft beer sampler:

IMG_3028

Bacon wrapped dates…which were absolutely amazing!

IMG_3029

Why a German beer is called Miss Florida IPA is completely beyond me, but there you have it….(and it wasn’t very good)

IMG_3031

I was still a bit hungry, so asked the bartender for a light recommendation. I was told I had to try the Handkäse mit Musik – or “handcheese with music” salad because it was a Frankfurt specialty. Definitely tasty and different!

IMG_3035

I was exhausted at this point from a very early morning, so headed back to the airport to head to bed in my unusually warm room. It was winter, and being Germany they had the heat on, and there was really no way to cool the room down much. They were happy to deliver a fan to me, and perhaps the nicest thing about the Towers Lounge is their happy hour goes until 10:30pm and they leave beer, wine, and snacks out until that time. Rather nice!

As tired as I was, it didn’t bother me that it was warm, and I passed right out. It would be another early morning with the daytrip I had planned!

Mar 022017
 

This one is going to get a little long. Yes, it’s only two days in Australia, but there’s just that much to see and enjoy that I can’t do it justice without at least a few dozen pictures.

Australian immigration is super easy now that ePassports can be scanned at the gate and you don’t have to deal with an immigration officer. Through the gates, straight to customs, and hand my slip to the customs agent. After asking how long I was here for, and hearing three days, he asked why so far for three days. Told him it’s been a rough few months at work, so decided to take a bit of a trip around the world to get away from all the drama in Washington DC lately. His response was so typically Australian: “yeah, that President’s a bit of a wanker, isn’t he?” Perfect welcome to Australia!

On to the Airport Express Train and off to my hotel – the Westin Sydney. I’ve always stayed at the Four Points Darling Harbour before, but it’s in the process of rebranding so it was time to check out a new part of the city. I’m very glad I did, because although it wasn’t on the water I was very happy with my stay here. Yes, I had the perfect storm of problems with my room (bad air conditioning, a door lock that froze in the locked position and needed a manual key to open, etc, etc, etc) but major kudos to hotel management for doing their best to make things right in the end. Suffice to say, for a stay with so many problems, I will definitely be giving them another chance.

Check in, quick shower after sleeping on a plane, and given it was already mid-afternoon it was time for a walk. Strolled down to The Rocks, and on the way stopped at a small pub I like for a couple of beers and an emu, crocodile, and kangaroo pizza. Lunch al fresco, ahhh….

IMG_6255

Got down to the waterfront just in time, while it was still full daylight, and enjoyed playing tourist a bit. The Harbour Bridge:

IMG_6258

Sydney Opera House just as the sun was beginning to set:

IMG_6259

Bridge selfie:

IMG_6260

Harbour panorama:

IMG_6262

Opera House just before dusk:

IMG_6268

Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

IMG_6269

I definitely stayed around the water for a couple hours just walking around and people watching. Even after having been to every country there’s something I really enjoy about going to the World’s great cities and just tourist/people watching. It’s amazing to see people who are still excited about the vacation of a life time, and watching the joy as they discover new places.

Opera House just after sunset:

IMG_6272

The next morning, I ended up sleeping in a bit later than planned (thanks jetlag and finally catching up – I think this was my first full night of sleep since I left DC) so by the time I headed out it was just afternoon and already approaching 40C / 105F. I was convinced it would be cooler by the water, so decided to head out on my planned excursion regardless.

My friend Ryan had suggested heading to Coogee Beach to do what is known as the Bondi to Coogee Walk. He suggested, however, doing it in the reverse direction, because finishing the walk in Bondi has great views and drops you in a much more happening area where you can celebrate and enjoy a long walk better. Bit of googling seemed to agree with this, and a couple pages suggested actually starting the walk even further down the coast in the the town of Maroubra.

Only problem was – how do I get there? Those of us over 35 remember when traveling meant maps, guide books, etc, but now things are easy. You tell google maps where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it gives you bus directions. It works like a charm. I had already purchased a local transit card and loaded fare onto it, so it was an easy matter of finding the bus stop, waiting for the bus, tapping on, and getting off and tapping the card in the right place. Couldn’t be easier!

Even the busses in Sydney are sports-crazed:

IMG_6283

Near the bus stop in Maroubra, getting read to head down the South Coogee Stairs towards the water:

IMG_6362

After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

IMG_6370

Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

IMG_6371

After Coogee Beach I had to stop. I was already baking 30 minutes into the walk, and severe sunburn was imminent. Fortunately every little corner store sells 100 types of sunblock, so after stopping for a can of spray-on SPF 50, water, and red bull, I was back on my way. A short while later, I rounded the corner again to Gordons Bay:

IMG_6381

Looking back towards Coogee:

IMG_6384

Next up was Clovelly Beach, with an ocean pool. Didn’t get pics of the pool, but did manage a selfie up against the small inlet:

IMG_6389

After walking around Shark Point, with some serious elevation gain and fall, I came upon Waverley Cemetery. The main walk along the water had been washed out in storms the pervious summer, so a detour straight through the cemetery and a bit inland was in order.

IMG_6399

Path right through the cemetery:

IMG_6403

Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

IMG_6405

Rounding the next corner after the cemetery brought me to Bronte Beach. Time to stop for a bit, reapply sunblock, before continuing on my way.

IMG_6408

Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

IMG_6413

Tamarama Beach – the last beach before Bondi, and the fourth beach I’d passed on the walk already:

IMG_6414

Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

IMG_6416

IMG_6417

Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

IMG_6425

Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

IMG_6428

Bondi Beach:

IMG_6431

Great view of Bondi:

IMG_6432

By this point I was starving, and found a great little Italian place for a late lunch/early dinner thanks to Tripadvisor. Highly recommend checking out Bondi Trattoria if you’re in the area.  Burrata, figs, and balsamic. Outstanding.

IMG_6435

Angel hair pasta, raw tuna, and chili oil. Again, outstanding, and makes me wonder why such simple, fresh dishes are so hard to find in the US:

IMG_6436

After stuffing myself post-walk, headed back to Bondi and sat down on the hill overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down:

IMG_6438

IMG_6439

Sunset:

IMG_6444

Found a fun little Star Wars-themed bar near my hotel when I got back, which had several great local NSW craft beers and was a fun way to close out the evening. All the walking had tired me out, and it was a relatively early night. I had nearly a full day the next day, but wanted to be sure I could get up at a reasonable hour and make the most of it.

Despite that, slept in a bit longer than I wanted, so hurried back towards the water to catch the ferry to Manly. Great view of the Harbour Bridge heading out:

IMG_6456

After docking in Manly, a quick shot of the beach. It was a gorgeous, although slightly hot, morning:

IMG_6459

Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

IMG_6461

Still wasn’t really hungry, but decided to stop by the 4 Pines Brewing Company to sample their beers. Definitely a great selection!

IMG_6465

The clouds were starting to gather, so I rushed back to the ferry to head back to Sydney and get my bags before the weather looked too bad.  Of course, a quick stop at Starbucks first to re-caffeinate for the long night ahead. About five minutes into the ferry ride the clouds started looking ominous, so I went to the railing and put the camera on rapid fire mode, hoping that I would catch something exciting. Just a few minutes out from Sydney, I got this amazing shot! Perfect way to end the trip!

IMG_6465B

Had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier for the super torrential rains to let up, and grabbed another crocodile pizza on the way back to the hotel and then it was time to check out and catch the train back to the airport. It had been an amazing few days in Sydney, and I can’t wait to go back.

But first, the Qatar A380 in first class to Doha…

Oct 032016
 

After being very sleep deprived the past couple of days, slept in a slight bit and managed to make it down to breakfast about five minutes before it ended – just in time for plenty of coffee and small breakfast. Headed out for a walk, and met John and Mark before they had to catch their flight back to Montreal. It was a perfect sunny day, and we sat outside enjoying some coffee on the main street, before sending them off to the airport.

I hadn’t made many firm plans for the last day in Iceland, since people would be trickling back to the airport throughout the day. Mark and Beth were out walking about about to get lunch at a place they had found their first day there, and it looked really good so decided to head that way despite not really being hungry yet. It was a good walk away, but perfect for enjoying the nice day. Met them at Bryggjan Brugghús for some lunch for them, and a flight of beer tasters for me. I decided I was just hungry enough for desert, which was delicious. It was a licorice chocolate mousse with licorice sauce, raspberries, sugared oats, and a sprinkle of sea salt. It was delicious and went well with the four house-brewed craft beers:

img_4427

After lunch, Mark and Beth were headed to get Icelandic tattoos, and I figured I would tag along…you know…just in case. They had already made appointments, and without really thinking about it I ended up in the queue as well. Mom decided to head back to the hotel to rest a bit, and Ian hung around to keep us company. When Mark and Beth were done, it was my turn. The artist was Phillip Wolves who had just arrived in Reykjavik to do a guest spot at Reykjavik Ink the day before. Demand for tattoos in Iceland far exceeds local artists so there are lots of visiting artists who come for weeks or months at a time.

img_4445

What better way to commemorate being to every country than an outline of iceland with the date September 1, 2016 in Roman numerals and “one hundred ninety-six” in Icelandic:

img_4431

After we were finished it had started to lightly sprinkle, so we headed back to the hotel along the water to take in a few sights. We walked past the Sólfairð or Sun Voyager. It was built in 1990 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Reykjavik:

img_4433

Next up was Höfði House. This is where in 1986 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for their famous summit:

img_4434

Near the house is a statue of Einar Benediktsson who was a nationalistic poet that people give a lot of credit to for developing Icelandic national identity:

img_4435

After a short rest it was off to a group dinner. It was our last night in Iceland, and also my birthday. I had planned the whole Iceland trip around the fact it would be my birthday as well as a long holiday weekend at the end of summer, and it really worked out perfectly. Beth and Mark had found me a fridge magnet which was a perfect memory of Iceland as well as checking off countries:

img_4439

Dinner was at Grillmarkaðurinn which several people had recommended to me as the perfect place to have a celebration birthday / last country dinner with a group of friends. For a starter, I couldn’t resist the “whale, puffin, and langoustine mini burgers” which were super tasty:

img_4441

For a main course, the “lightly salted cod” in a lobster foam broth. Amazing:

img_4442

It was tempting to get dessert, but we were pretty stuffed by this point and decided to head back to the hotel. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish off my birthday and the every country celebration than with a group of a dozen friends and family. It was truly a super special feeling. I had a super early flight the next morning, and wanted to at least try and get a little sleep.

Sep 182016
 

Fortunately, the mass 22 beer flight was consumed over enough time that it did no damage, and I had a great night sleep, waking up in plenty of time for breakfast. Lots has been made of the Fosshotel breakfast on TripAdvisor, so I might as well add my two cents.

Overall, it was a great selection. Certainly not world-class like many breakfasts in Bangkok, but a very solid performance for a breakfast that’s included with all rooms. They had a great coffee machine that made to-order drinks, a reasonable selection of fruits and pastries, eggs, deli meats, a good Scandinavian option of bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and deli meat, and pretty much anything you could want. Only downside is the breakfast room was pretty crowded at peak hours between 7:30 and 8:30, but it was never so packed we couldn’t find a space. That said, if you stay at the Fosshotel you’re already giving up on the serenity Iceland is known for, so I didn’t find it a bad tradeoff.

Fortified with breakfast, the entire group met up again at 9am for our Tour de Jour. I figured many people were probably still a bit tired with jetlag (as we had a few less experienced travelers) so I scheduled a shorter/more relaxing tour for the first day. We were headed out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then on to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also one of those things you have to do when you’re in Iceland. Our bus arrived right on time, and our rather geriatric bus driver herded the thirty of us on board.

We set off on a drive out of the city, headed in the direction of the airport. The Blue Lagoon would have been a much easier visit on the way to the airport or on the way back to the airport, but with everyone coming and going on different flights we decided to make a day trip out of it so everyone could go together. Our guide started sharing with us stranger and stranger stories, and complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Iceland for tourism – notably, the lack of bathrooms in rural places. We weren’t sure if he thought one of us needed one (I mean, we’d only left the hotel 30 minutes prior) or he needed one. We stopped at a series of rural farmhouse, and he came back defeated each time. At one point, while he was looking for a bathroom, we stopped and got to see a very friendly Icelandic horse (and quickly learned you don’t call them ponies):

img_3660

Next stop was about 15 minutes on, the bridge between two continents. This is the place where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and these ridges have risen up:

img_3618

Kirsten being all high and mighty and looking down on me from Europe:

img_3620

Hanging out in the neverland between Europe and North America, while others simply take the bridge back and forth:

img_3621

img_3622

Fascinating land a mixture of volcanic rock, sand, and moss…

img_3624

Back on the bus, Ted found the only seat comfortable when you’re 6’8:

img_3625

Next stop was on the coast of the peninsula:

img_3626

Rocky outcrops on the far western coast of Iceland:

img_3629

A statue of a Great Auk, which went extinct about 200 years ago…playing with perspective and taking a photo with part of the group that had climbed a nearby hill:

img_3633

Selfie with Dewon on top of the hill, with the North Atlantic in the background:

img_3637

Fascinating geography:

img_3639

There’s lots of stories about hidden people and trolls in Iceland, and our geriatric driver only seemed to become animated when talking about them. We noticed the bus came complete with a troll on the dashboard:

img_3640

Final stop was an area of geothermal activity. Steam rising from underground – be careful to stay on the walked pathways as the ground is unstable and prone to collapsing:

img_3645

Smoking-hot selfie with Rich:

img_3649

After getting our fill of sulfur, it was off to the Blue Lagoon to relax. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t out, but it was still not too cold. After parking the bus in the Blue Lagoon’s rather large (and increasingly commercial) parking lot, you walk the path between volcanic rock to the welcome centre:

img_3652

The Blue Lagoon is definitely crowded, no getting around that. However, they do manage the number of entries every hour quite carefully so while crowded it was never so crowded that it felt too hectic. The only hectic part is the check-in area where you get your bracelet, slippers and robe if you paid for them, and directed to the changing areas. You do have to buy your tickets in advance as they definitely sell out (especially in the middle of the day) but it was possible for the one member of our group who missed that memo to buy one as a walk-up. Not sure if that was because there were already 30+ of us with tickets or what, but they did make it work.

After the mandatory change and shower, it was out to the lagoon:

img_3655

Panoramic shot of the lagoon:

img_3656

Part of what makes the lagoon famous is the silica mud on the bottom, which they scoop up (and maybe process) and put in bowls at the side. The idea is to make a mask of it which is supposedly good for your skin. Personally, I think it made me look more like a swamp creature:

img_3662

Ramzi and Jason, however, decided it made them look absolutely fabulous:

img_3666

This is also a good place to mention that you get a bracelet which has an RFID chip in it, and is used to track all your purchases inside the lagoon. Our first drinks were included, and there was a maximum of three drinks per person for safety reasons.

There was also a photographer off to the side taking pictures and e-mailing them, and the most shocking part of it was that they didn’t even ask you to pay for them. Pic of a part of the group:

img_3667

When you leave the lagoon, you have to stop by the cashier before you can get out. They scan your bracelet, collect any payment due, and they you have to scan your bracelet with a zero balance again to get out the turnstyle. It’s all rather well organized and efficient, and we had a great time spending a couple of hours there relaxing away the jetlag.

Then it was back on the bus to the hotel, where it was already late afternoon. After a short rest a group of us met up to head to the largest church in town, the Hallgrimskirkja:

img_3669

It’s a fully-functioning church, but also functions as a tourist attraction with an observation desk that provides a nice view of Reykjavik. For a price, of course.

img_3671

After taking in the views, we headed off to find somewhere with happy hour to have a few drinks before dinner. Unfortunately, this was also the one time on the trip that it decided to rain, so we ducked into the nearest bar with seats. After drinks, the group split up a bit to try and find something to eat. Getting increasingly frustrated that everywhere seemed to have no open tables, the group continued to splinter further and further, and eventually our smaller group of eight ended up at Steikhúsið – or steakhouse. They were able to seat all eight of us, and looked to have an interesting menu, and it was still pouring rain, so was an easy choice…until we got the bill, of course.

Starter of reindeer samosas….

img_3673

The surf and turf platter of horse and minke whale steak…along with fried sweet potato tots. Yum!

img_3674

Group shot at dinner:

img_3675

After a delicious meal fortunately the rain had reduced to a light drizzle/mist, and the 1.5 km walk back to the hotel wasn’t that bad. When we got back, some of us met up in the lobby bar where we discovered one of the Fosshotel’s hidden treasures – Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. You just had to give him an idea what you want “something with gin and an icelandic twist” and he’d come up with craft cocktails featuring local spirits, herbs, berries, you name it. Plus, he was really fun and chatty and added a great ambiance. If it wasn’t for the group of 30 geriatric german tourists all ordering Irish Coffees, where each espresso shot had to be pulled by hand, it would have been an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Then, it was off to bed, since our big tour day left early the next morning.

Sep 162016
 

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Fosshotel Reykjavik, a little before 3am after the bus drama, and check-in was reasonably efficient given the hour. Only one problem – they couldn’t find one of the reservations. Fortunately my check-in didn’t take too long, and it was up to the room by around 3am. Found out the next morning that Garrett had to wait another 30 minutes for them to figure out his room. Ugh!

I decided I was going to sleep in and stay closer to east coast time for a day, since if I tried to operate on 4-5 hours of sleep it wasn’t going to get the trip off to a great start. Being around 11pm east coast time when I finally got to sleep I slept very soundly, finally waking up around 11a local time. When I did finally wake up, I took a look out my window and had a great view of the city:

img_3591

img_3592

We (the group that arrived late) had made plans to meet at 11a to find some food and more importantly coffee, so set out on a walk. Found a nice little coffee shop where we grabbed coffee and tried to wake up. We still had plenty of time before the group was meeting for the planned tour, so walked back to the hotel via a longer route along the water:

img_3594

When I did get back to my room, there was a nice vase of flowers from the hotel as a congratulations (thanks mom for guilting them into it!) which made the room much more festive. I think this was the first time outside a couple of work trips that I’d spent five nights in the same hotel room in a long time, so it was a very nice touch!

img_3595

At 2pm those of us staying in the hotel met up to walk to the meeting point for the walking tour of the city. It was about a 20 minute walk to the Parliament where the tour would kick off, and mostly downhill, so made for a nice walk. Unfortunately the angle of the sun was bad for getting pictures of the parliament, but in the square – known as Austurvöllur – was a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, a leader of Iceland’s independence movement:

img_3596

We soon found our tour guide Marteinn from CityWalk Reykjavik, who had agreed to lead a private tour for us. The first piece of the tour was about the parliament itself which was built in 1881, long before Iceland’s independence. The square was also the site of many protests, including a 1949 protest against NATO and the 2009 protests which brought down the government after the financial crisis. Apparently Icelanders are rather polite when they protest, preferring to bang wooden spoons on anything that makes noise.

From there we walked just around the corner of the square to the statue of Skuli Magnusson who lived in the 1700s and was largely responsible for the founding of Reykjavik as a city…such as it was in those times with just a couple dozen people:

img_3597

From there we walked through the old part of the city where there was a marker of the year 874 which is when a Norwegian chief named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife arrived in Iceland. According to the Landnámabók he threw two pillars over the side of his ship and vowed to settle the land wherever they landed. When he found them again, he set up home there and named the place something along the likes of Reykjavik, which he translated as “smokey cove” – although it’s questionable what he really meant to call it. The pipe attached to the pillar is venting steam from the underground thermal pools:

img_3599

We walked a bit more in the downtown of the city, and Marteinn told us about Iceland’s most famous traditional dish – the hot dog. He was just kidding, but we passed the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand, home of Reykjavik’s most famous hotdogs…and where tourists and locals alike form a massive queue to get one of these treats. Seriously, I don’t know why, but Icelanders seem to love hot dogs. Marteinn also educated us that what are viewed as “traditional” Icelandic foods such as whale, horse, and puffin, are really not eaten much anymore…except by tourists.

He also told us about Brennivín, also known as the “black death.” It got its name because shortly after prohibition ended they put a skull and crossbones on the bottle to warn against drinking it…and the name apparently stuck. It’s apparently best enjoyed with fermented shark, which Icelanders do apparently still eat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a stop to try it…

From there we walked up the Arnarhóll, which is located next to Iceland’s Supreme Court. It was a good place for the first of many group pictures…

img_3603

From there we continued to a monument to the women of Iceland, where Marteinn again comment on the suspicious underrepresentation of women in our group. He noted that Icelandic women were famous for many inventions, and I was also shown a famous Icelandic invention – the beer mitten. Unfortunately, no beer was provided with it, but there was a nice Icelandic orange soda to enjoy:

img_4428

From there, we walked towards the City Hall and the lake that sits in the middle of the city centre:

img_3606

This is where we learned a couple of very important facts about dating in Iceland. Apparently there’s a website called the “Book of Iceland” where you can put in your name and the name of the person you’re thinking of dating, and learn just how distant of relatives you are. In a county with only a couple hundred thousand people apparently this is important….

Marteinn also pointed out that because Icelanders are very big on gender equality, having even had a lesbian Prime Minister recently, they had recently erected a new display in the city hall. Since the city has a penis museum, they felt it was also important to have a giant vagina painting hanging in the City Hall. No, I’m not making this up.

After showing us around for a few hours, Marteinn left us to explore on our own, and naturally several people went to find the painting…unfortunately, the City Hall had just closed and they were left disappointed. I can’t recommend Marteinn and CityWalk Reykjavik enough. It was a fantastic introduction to the city and to Icelandic history, and also a wonderful chance to walk off some jetlag.

Next up was celebrating visiting every country with a celebration beverage, but first, a few of us circled back to the hot dog wagon for a snack:

img_3607

There really wasn’t anything special about the hotdog, but “everything” included ketchup, mustard, remoulade, crispy fried onions, and raw onions. It was definitely tasty!

It was just warm enough to sit outside and enjoy some happy hour two for one drinks:

img_3608

After happy hour ended it was back to the Fosshotel where the sun was just setting over the city. View from my room:

img_3609

A short while later, a group of us met up in the hotel’s beer garden for dinner and more celebration drinks. The beer garden has 22 beers on draft, and offers them all in a tasting flight. Phil and I were up for the challenge, and although it took a bit of time to get through them all, I’m proud to say we defeated the giant towers of beer:

img_3612

This was polished off with some tasty fish and chips before calling it a relatively early night. We had to be up early the next morning to head out on our tour, and I wanted to make sure I was up early enough to get some breakfast beforehand!

Aug 092016
 

Up early, enjoyed a bit of breakfast (and of course some Starbucks) and checked out of the hotel. The St Regis Mumbai was absolutely fantastic, went above and beyond for me as a platinum member. However, when checking out, like at many hotels, they asked if I wanted to be billed in my card’s home currency (US Dollars) or Indian Rupees. I replied rupees, and received a receipt showing the same. However, the charge posted in US dollars, with an exchange rate nearly 7% off from the market rate. This has taken a chain of 22 emails to correct, and has marred my impression of this property. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but correcting something so easy shouldn’t take such effort. Sure, it was only about $35 on the exchange loss, but it’s also the principle. Now, waiting to see if they’ll comp some Starpoints for the annoyance of 22 emails…

Decided to take Uber Black to the airport, and the nearly 40 minute drive was very comfortable with a friendly driver and was less than $8. Definitely recommended as a way to get to the airport. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t awful and made it to the airport ahead of plan. Picked up my boarding pass from Jet Airways and headed to immigration where things got…interesting.

Upon not being able to find my visa, the immigration agent asked how they had let me in the country. I explained that on previous trips I was told I didn’t need to show the visa because it is in the computer, and how upon showing a digital copy this time I was allowed in. I also mentioned that I will of course carry the physical visa on future trips just in case it is required. He wasn’t going to have any of this, and escorted me to the supervisor’s room, who was equally incredulous, and told me there was no way they could stamp me out of India without seeing the physical visa.

Eventually, I asked: “ok, so you won’t let me out of India because I don’t have the visa, and without leaving India, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to physically produce the visa. So…I assume you’ll be granting me a permanent resident visa since you’ll refusing to ever let me leave the country?” This seemed to confuse them even further as the mental gymnastics became more and more difficult. They couldn’t make logical sense of what they should do next…so eventually relented and told me to make sure to have the visa next time!

That sorted, I had time to stop by the lounge very briefly for a bit of planespotting and a glass of wine. The lounge was rather nice, and had waiter service at the tables. They were probably some of the friendliest lounge waiters I’ve ever encountered too and seemed very disappointed when I declined a refill of the already generous pour of wine:

IMG_2411

Off to the gate, where the crew was just arriving 30 minutes before departure. Looked like we would depart slightly late…

Jet Airways flight 60
Mumbai, India (BOM) to Bangkok, Thailand (BKK)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 18:50, Flight Time: 4:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration VT-JGV, Manufactured 2007, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 125,356
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,314,493

I had actually purchased the last seat in business, and coach was full as well. It would be a very packed flight to Bangkok. Printed menu for the flight:

IMG_2414

IMG_2415

IMG_2416

No pre-departure beverages were offered, but nuts in perhaps the most festive bowl I’ve ever seen in 737 business class and wine were offered shortly after takeoff:

IMG_2418

The salad was quite unusual with beans and onions in it, but rather tasty. Nice mini salt and pepper shakers too:

IMG_2421

IMG_2422

Went with the Murgh main (since we got the lunch menu) and it was extremely tasty, and served with plentiful sides:

IMG_2423

Cheese plate was decent, but I really wonder what the point of that sad little piece of lettuce is:

IMG_2424

Finally an orange yogurt mousse for desert, which was very tasty:

IMG_2425

Other than that, a nice uneventful flight. There was hourly water service after lunch, and flight attendants were happy to help whenever asked. Overall, it left me with a good impression of Jet Airways as a very solid choice for a short regional flight. It’s too bad they don’t do much longhaul any more, as it looks like they would likely offer a competitive product based on this short flight.

Relatively short walk to immigration upon arrival in Bangkok, and decided to use the AOT taxi service to get to the hotel. I hadn’t been to Bangkok in over 5 years until this past year, and now this was my fifth time this year. It’s funny how things seem to go in cycles! No traffic at all, and arrived at the W Bangkok in a bit under 30 minutes. I had had several good stays here earlier in the year, and was looking forward to this one. No upgrade this time because they were full, and when I arrived in the room it was extremely warm:

IMG_2427

While the room cooled down, I headed out to meet a friend for a delicious dinner of extra spicy pad thai:

IMG_2429

…finished with even tastier mango and sticky rice:

IMG_2430

Unfortunately, when I got back to the room it was still 23.8 degrees, and wouldn’t cool further. I went to the front desk and asked to be moved, and was informed they were completely sold out at that would not be possible. They did send maintenance to the room to look, but they informed me it was working just fine. Based on the fact that all my previous rooms in this hotel had been much cooler, that couldn’t be the case. It was 23.2 by the time I woke up – barely cool enough for sleeping – so clearly something was wrong.

At least I had the amazing breakfast buffet to look forward to. On all my previous stays the breakfast room had been empty to maybe 50% full, but for some reason this time the place was absolutely packed, with most of the guests speaking Mandarin. It appeared there was a large group/package tour staying in the hotel, and it was not a group of frequent international travelers. Witnessed people using hands to pick from the buffet, children running around, and one man spitting on the floor in the middle of the buffet area. I pointed it out to the staff, who in the usual Thai fashion smiled and said they would see what they could do…but nothing was done.

Added to this, the quality of the buffet was also down significantly in just the past few months. Very limited fresh fruit (which had been plentiful before) and a reduced variety of dishes overall. Not sure if this was due to the large package group picking things over, or the hotel actually cutting back, but it was a major disappointment when I used to consider this the world’s best breakfast buffet. Oh well, things change… I’m not sure if I’ll choose the W again my next trip, as Bangkok has so many fantastic hotels that I don’t see any reason to stay in one that is disappointing in any way.

…that was easily fixed by grabbing Starbucks next door with some work colleaguers, where apparently asking my name is more difficult than just writing the Under Armour logo on my cup to identify me:

IMG_2432

After coffee my all too short stop in Bangkok was over, and it was time to head on to Malaysia to begin the trek home…

Aug 022016
 

After breakfast, I decided to give Uber a try for the ride to the airport. This allowed me to use one of my favourite tips for international travel: if you know how much your travel to the airport will cost you, spend all the rest of your local cash on your hotel bill if you don’t see coming back to the country any time soon. This ensures you don’t get stuck with any currency which may be hard to get rid of, but I usually keep some small coins for my coin jar.

That said, Uber worked like a charm. The car didn’t have AC, but it wasn’t warm in the morning and the driver (although he didn’t speak English) was super friend and excited to talk about how much Novosibirsk had changed in his lifetime. I was impressed someone going on 60, who’d grown up in Soviet times, was so in touch was modern technology that he was driving for Uber. Turned out to be a great experience, and only about $7 for the 30+ minute ride.

Gorgeous blue skies above Tolmachevo Airport:

IMG_2001

After checking in, I was told that “international VIP passengers can use Door #1” so back outside I went. Turned out the VIP Terminal was for all International Business Passengers. Sure, it’s no Lufthansa First Terminal, but for a small airport like Novosibirsk it was pretty cool having a separate terminal. My lounging area:

IMG_2003

Stand-up view from my lounge cubicle:

IMG_2005

More views of the lounge. It was empty except for three of us:

IMG_2007

IMG_2008

30 minutes before flight time, all three of us were escorted out of the terminal from the back door…which led into another waiting lounge complete with security. X-ray done, all three of us were loaded into the van for the drive to the plane. However, the other two were going to Frankfurt so I was beginning to wonder if I was the only passenger to Almaty. When we arrived at my plane, the driver said “no, it’s hot, you wait here. Business class does not wait in lines!” So, I got to admire the peasants from afar:

IMG_2010

As soon as everyone was on board, except me, it was time to board.

S7 Airlines flight 3298
Novosibirsk, Russia (OVB) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 13:20, Flight Time: 2:30
Airbus A320, Registration VQ-BDM, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 120,424
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,309,561

Pre-departure beverage of water was offered…to go with the bottle of water which was already at my seat:

IMG_2016

There did end up being three other people in business, no idea why they weren’t in the terminal with me, but the seat next to me was open so I moved to the window to do a bit of plane spotting:

IMG_2018

The amenity kit is something even United would be embarassed of. It was essentially a folded brown paper bag with some art on it. There was also nothing of any real use inside:

IMG_2091

Even for this relatively short flight, a printed menu was on offer:

IMG_2019

In addition to a breakfast menu, there was a lunch menu. I almost thought we might have a choice…but nope, we got lunch:

IMG_2020

A little red wine to start, and no 10 year old seated next to me to steal it this flight:

IMG_2021

The meal looked nice, but the self-described “meat starter” looked to be way too much processed meat product for my taste. Salmon on a plane is a dicey choice, so I enjoyed the olives, and decided to at least have the chicken for some protein…

IMG_2022

…or maybe not. It was without a doubt the driest most-overcooked bird I’ve ever seen. Completely inedible…and on plain pasta to top it off.

IMG_2023

Desert…I managed one bite. It was the most sickeningly sweet cake I’ve ever tasted. I swear it was 99% sugar and 1% flour….

IMG_2024

Although the meal was a huge let-down, we were arriving nearly 45 minutes early! Almaty from above:

IMG_2025

Super old aircraft on the tarmac:

IMG_2027

Immigration was quick and painless, and the fixed-price taxi line was super convenient for getting to my hotel, the Ritz Carlton Almaty. I can’t remember the last time I’d stayed at a Ritz Carlton, but had some hopes they would give some perks for Marriott Platinum status, but nope, nothing at all beyond a 2pm checkout. The room was very small, but comfortable:

IMG_2028

Nice wood paneling:

IMG_2029

Nice marble bathroom with heated floors:

IMG_2030

One of the best parts of the hotel was the view. The lobby is on the top floor (30th or so) and the whole hotel is like 8 floors going down from there. The rest is an apartment building I believe. It was a bit annoying having to take the elevator from the lobby up to 30, and then catch another elevator down to your room, but the views made up for it:

IMG_2036

IMG_2038

I had to go attend a few meetings, so walked out the front door to the main road, held my hand out, and had no problem negotiating a driver to take me for a 25 minute drive for barely $2. Taxis in this part of the world are very informal, and anyone who has the time will offer to drive you where you’re going, usually for very little money as long as you speak the language.

So, apparently, Kazakhstan had heard I was coming, because the first Starbucks in the country had opened this year! So yeah, apparently I’m Jon:

IMG_2039

After wrapping up my meetings, it was back to the hotel, where the Almaty Ski jump was very visible on the nice clear day with the mountains in the background:

IMG_2044

Went for a walk to check out the super upscale mall next door, which was practically empty but was full of pretty much every international luxury brand you could imagine…including Kazakhstan Cola of course:

IMG_2045

When I left the mall, there was a huge musical performance going on outside with hundreds of people watching performers on stage. Turns out it was an offshoot of the Kazakh Idol competition and some sort of a local talent event. I watched for a bit, and the strangest part was that most of the songs were in French. According to one lady I asked French songs are very trendy in Kazakhstan now, so everyone was trying to imitate the style. Maybe it was just one person’s impression, but…

It was evening by this point and the 100+ Fahrenheit temperatures had dropped a little (but, given it was a dry heat it wasn’t too bad) so I headed to the hotel’s bar/cafe for something to eat. Turns out, apparently, the cafe is sponsored by Veuve Cliquot. While I was tempted to get a bottle to enjoy but decided to exercise at least a little restraint this trip:

IMG_2048

Theemed right down to the VC  bicycle, umbrellas, and aprons on the wait staff:

IMG_2073

Three of the largest “sliders” I’ve ever seen made for a very tasty dinner:

IMG_2085

Slept in the next morning, and as tempting as it was to grab a taxi to Starbucks for some coffee, I wasn’t in the mood for a 50 minute roundtrip taxi just for coffee when the luxury mall next door had a Paul which served up a very tasty croque madame:

IMG_2088

Which went well with a pain au raisin and a iced coffee. They couldn’t however, understand the concept of either a triple espresso or an iced coffee, so I did have to order three espressos and a big glass of ice. They seemed very puzzled by this behaviour, but were more than happy to provide it:

IMG_2089

After a relaxing breakfast it was time to head to the airport, and continue the trip onward to Abu Dhabi.

Jul 312016
 

Upon arrival, I looked for the driver who had my name on a sign board, but couldn’t find him. Not knowing the taxi situation in Novosibirsk, coupled with the fact we were supposed to arrive just after midnight, I ordered the “business sedan transfer” offered on the S7 website when I booked. For 12 euros a driver was supposed to meet me, and take me to my hotel. Finally found him after 10 minutes (he was slightly late) and we were off through very dark roads to the city.

One thing that immediately struck me, was that for the third biggest city in Russia (according to some sources) and definitely the largest east of  the Urals, it was dark. Very dark. There were a good number of buildings, but it just struck me as very very dark. Arrived at my hotel just after midnight, the Marriott Novosibirsk. They wanted a bit over $100 a night for the stay, but I got it for an absolute steal on points. This hotel is a fantastic value!

Check in was quick and polite with decent English spoken, but the weirdest part was the insistance that they had to photocopy every page of my passport for “local border region security services.” Definitely a new one – I’ve never experienced this anywhere else in Russia – but I didn’t really have any room to complain. Fortunately, this passport was filled with relatively boring stamps. 😉

The hotel had reached out to me a few days before the stay to ask if there was anything they could do to make the stay extra special, so I mentioned I was coming back for the first time in over 25 years, and looked forward to seeing how the city had changed. Oh, and any upgrade they could give would be appreciated 😉 I certainly didn’t expect this huge corner suite:

IMG_1958

Odd layout with bed on the middle of the room, with a mini wall separating it from the living room area:

IMG_1959

Huge shower cube:

IMG_1960

Plus a tub and double sink:

IMG_1961

IMG_1962

To top it off, they had left some brownie bites, chocolates, macarons, tea service, and a bottle of wine for me, well done!

IMG_1965

Didn’t end up making it to bed until nearly 2:30 given the time change, but no problem. I slept in until nearly 11, and then grabbed tea in the lobby (included with the suite upgrade) before heading out for a walk around the city. First stop was right near the hotel, the Novosibirsk Opera House. It’s the largest Opera House in Russia (bigger than the Bolshoi in Moscow) but unfortunately, there were no performances going on while I was there:

IMG_1966

The opera is located on the Lenin Square, which still has not been renamed, and has great statues:

IMG_1967

…including Lenin himself:

IMG_1968

Workers of the world, unite!

IMG_1969

I then headed down Krasnij Prospekt, or Red Avenue…surprisingly still quite a number of symbols and names from Soviet days remaining in Novosibirsk. Stopped at the Chapel of St Nicholas, which is said to sit at the geographic centre of the old Soviet Union:

IMG_1970

After walking another hour or so, I decided to stop for lunch when I came upon a place called “Pivofactory” – literally translated as beer factory. I had a seat and asked for a menu, and was told “nope, we only have the business lunch menu now.” Sure, why not…when in Novosibirsk…

I was asked if I wanted dark or light beer, and I went with the dark. First the schci (cold soup) came out with cilantro, radishes, potatoes, cabbage in broth along with a salad of shredded cabbage, cucumbers, more radishes and vinegar along with the beer in a mini boot and a bag of bread. This was a ton of food!

IMG_1973

Basket of bread:

IMG_1974

…but wait, there’s more! Mystery steak (somewhat like salisbury steak) with a BBQ sauce and mixed vegetables…and a nicely garnished plate sprinkled with paprika: …I also asked to try the light beer, which they were happy to bring:

IMG_1975

Grand total for all that food plus the second beer? Just over US$7. What a bargain! Kept walking, and was surprised at an intersection to see another of my favourite Washingtonians…Alex Ovechkin, peering down from a billboard:

IMG_1978

You can see how wet the ground is. There were periodic sprinkles and downpours all afternoon, in between which there would be sunny skies. During one downpour I decided it was a good time to check out the metro system. Took a ride to the end of the line, and found out the KHL Sibir hockey rink wasn’t far away. Thanks to google maps I managed to figure out which bus would take me there, and piece of cake I was able to get on. I had no idea how the busses worked but it was a piece of cake. Each stop a lady would come around selling tickets, super easy!

According to the website the rink had a fan shop, so I did a walk around looking for it. First, came upon the team bus. Given the location of Novosibirsk, I can’t imagine they drive to too many games:

IMG_1981

After a bit of wandering, someone finally asked what I was looking for. Told him, and it turned out he was the team equipment manager. He brought me inside, and showed me around the rink. It was much smaller than I expected:

IMG_1982

IMG_1983

The “team store” turned out to be a glass display case with a few pieces of merchandise in it, but I did manage to pick up a t-shirt and hat at least. Banner outside the rink – you can see it sits right in the middle of a residential neighbourhood – “Sibir Hockey Club – Novosibirsk State”

IMG_1985

Full view of the rink:

IMG_1986

Then, it was time to head back into the metro and ride a bit more. It wasn’t as fancy as the Moscow metro, but still really cool to see:

IMG_1988

There was a station called Gagarinskaya – after Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin, so I had to get off and take a themed pic of the station. You can’t see it well in the picture, but it’s a lit up pic of Gargarin in the circle:

IMG_1989

Got off at the station near the Ob river, and walked out onto the bridge. Unfortunately, there was really no good place to take a picture, but this was the best I was able to do:

IMG_1990

After a bit more walking around, I was getting really warm (it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit and humid!) I headed back into the metro. Note the murals of Lenin still in the station:

IMG_1992

I guess that was fitting, since the station near the hotel was called Lenin Square:

IMG_1993

After a bit of a rest at the hotel (the hotel doesn’t have a lounge, but has this weird arrangement where half the lobby cafe/bar is set aside for breakfasts and happy hour for club room guests. They had several snacks, and the staff was quite pleased to see I was willing to eat local pickled fish and other local foods along with a couple of rather poor local beers.

Finally headed out for some dinner. Many years ago, when I studied near Novosibirsk in high school, there was a pelmeni eating contest sponsored by the local Young Pioneers chapter. Pelmeni are a dumpling that is common in the region, filled with diced mixed meats. Needless to say, given the fact I won the championship 25 years and there was a whole restaurant for pelmeni, I had to go there. On top of it, it was called Beerman and Pelmeni…how could I go wrong!

They had several different kinds on the menu, but I decided to go with the “pick any three” sampler. I have to say the beer menu was a bit of a let down, but the pelmeni were great. I had one that was mixed beef and lamb, the black ones are squid ink filled with calamari, and the final one I think was called the Novosibirsk with onions and lamb, it was delicious, but unfortunately I’ve lost a bit of my touch – wasn’t able to finish them all:

IMG_1997

After a good night’s sleep, headed down for breakfast in the lobby. Lots of fresh fruit, croissant and nutella, boiled eggs, local cheese, and pickled mushrooms with fish. Quite tasty!

IMG_1999

Unfortunately my visit to Novosibirsk could only be for two nights due to the change in plans. With one more night I would have loved to go out to the small town of Akademgorodok where I studied and see how things have changed. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have recognized anything at all! All too soon it was time to head off to the airport, and begin the onward trip…