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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

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

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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:

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

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Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

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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.

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Outside the Kongresshalle:

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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:

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Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

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

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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:

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

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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:

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Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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Walked for a while and came upon the main square:

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…and Frankfurt Dom/Cathedral:

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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:

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Bacon wrapped dates…which were absolutely amazing!

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

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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!

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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….

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

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

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Bridge selfie:

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Harbour panorama:

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Opera House just before dusk:

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Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

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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:

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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:

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

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After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

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Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

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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:

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Looking back towards Coogee:

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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:

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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.

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Path right through the cemetery:

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Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

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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.

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Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

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

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Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

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Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

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Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

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Bondi Beach:

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Great view of Bondi:

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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.

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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:

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

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Sunset:

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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:

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

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Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

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

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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!

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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…

Feb 242017
 

It was already late when we landed in Hong Kong, and by the time I took the airport express into the city and checked into my hotel – the W Hong Kong – I was still full enough from eating on the plane that I wasn’t really feeling dinner. Decided instead to go have a good walk around to stretch out the legs and grab a few drinks before checking in for the night.

The W had upgraded to me to a nice suite with ice cold air conditioning, but even with this the jetlag was catching up to me and I was up nice and early in the morning. I went to bed telling myself I wasn’t going to set an alarm just to get up and see the sunrise, but jetlag conspired to wake me up early anyways, so off I went.

I had seen on FlyerTalk from someone who did a similar trip to mine just a couple weeks before that sunrise on The Peak could be awesome, so I caught an Uber up to the top to see if I could see it. Unfortunately, my Uber got slightly lost, so by the time I found the path, the first signs of sunrise were already out. Still was a very dark walk for the first part down to the observation point.

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Sun just moments away from breaking the horizon, with a great view of Hong Kong Harbour.

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Sunrise over Hong Kong, framed by a small tree.

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It’s a beautiful day….

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The sunrise cast a nice glow over some of the skyscrapers.

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Pro tip from Google – ask your taxi/Uber to take you to the top of Lugard Road, and follow it to the observation point.

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Rather than head back the way I came, I decided to walk down from the Peak. I would regret this the next day, with extremely sore calves and glutes from all the downhill.

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Part of the “Morning Trail” down from the Peak.

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Fortunately, we were heading downhill, because I was really starting to feel it in my legs. Just about when I was realizing I wasn’t 21 any more, we passed the Fitness Corner for the Elderly. All these flavours Hong Kong and you had to choose to be salty?!

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Trail eventually ended at the University of Hong Kong, where I had a nice wander through the campus.

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Sun Yat Sen meditation pond.

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Seniors doing Tai Chi in the middle of campus.

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…and I found Starbucks. Perfect end to a nice hike, sitting outside in the cool weather enjoying some coffee.

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After this decided a bit more walking was in order, so walked for another hour or so all the way to the Star Ferry pier. I hadn’t taken the Star Ferry in years, so figured since I was out playing tourist I might as well make the most of it.

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After the ferry docked I ended up taking a short nap while the iDevices recharged, and then it was off for some lunch. I wanted to go back to the Island for lunch, and debated taking the train, but it was so nice out that I decided another ride on the Star Ferry was in order. Heading back to Tsim Sha Tsui:

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Grabbed lunch a fun little brewpub I like called The Roundhouse which serves amazing brisket, then, a bit of wandering the chaotic streets of Hong Kong:

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Taking the mid-levels elevators:

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Typical Hong Kong street scene:

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After a couple more hours of walking, it was back on the crammed rush hour subway to my hotel:

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Met up with a friend for dinner near the hotel before crashing relatively early. It had been a really early morning, and I had to be up very early again the next morning to catch my flight to Singapore. It had been a wonderfully active day, and I forgot how much I’ve missed visiting destinations where you can just spend the entire day walking around. You can’t really do that in Afghanistan, Congo, etc…

Next up, Singapore First Class to Australia!

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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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 262016
 

After lunch it was back into the SuperJeeps, and off to explore more. Next stop was the Langjokull Glacier, but first, our drivers took great pleasure in charging the jeeps across progressively deeper rivers:

Eventually, we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we stopped for a break before heading onto the worst road I’ve been on anywhere in the world. Africa included. This was some serious off-roading over volcanic rock to get to the glacier. A panoramic with the glacier up ahead on the horizon:

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Heading up onto the glacier. The black is from the volcano which blew a few years back, spewing ash all over the glacier. This is actually a really bad thing because the black ash concentrates the sun, and melts the glacier at a faster pace:

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Deep crevice in the glacier…many of these go down as much as 100 meters….and there’s no telling where they end up. Possibly in an underground lake under the glacier, from which there would be no way out. Talk about a horrifying way to die!

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View across the edge of the glacier:

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Standing by one of the ash piles against the bright blue sky:

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View down the glacier towards the SuperJeeps:

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Melt from the glacier headed down into one of the deep crevices….I keep being terrified the ground would give way and we would tumble down…

After the glacier, we headed off to the Gulfoss waterfall. This is one of the prime attractions on the golden circle, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Hundreds of people, to the point it wasn’t possible to enjoy the natural beauty. This was really the one place in Iceland I felt the tourist crowds, and it was the one place I would avoid next time. That said, look at that view:

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Video of the falls:

Amazing:

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Selfie with Phil in front of Gullfoss:

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On the way out of the falls, we were treated to not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow. Even nature decided to be a part of this big celebratory trip!

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Rainbow selfie!

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Amazingly, we were able to even see both ends of the rainbow:

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Then, for our final stop, it was off to the Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland and is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains with some participation by ordinary people. As the site of the first parliament in Iceland, it’s seen as the place where Iceland really became a country. Did I mention it was also gorgeous?

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Panoramic shot after a 30 minute hike through the park:

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When we got to the jeeps at the end of the hike, our driver and guide Omar was just chilling with the jeep:

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One last group selfie from an amazing day on the Golden Circle and Glacier…with Omar chilling out on the left:

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After we got back to the hotel, got this amazing handmade wall hanging from mom. The best gifts really are those that people you care about put thought and effort into:

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Then, it was off to Kirsten’s Air BnB across the street, where it was time for drinks to celebrate being to every country. Celebratory Veuve with Dewon, Phil, Greg, and Clint:

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…because Kirsten and I are classy like that:

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Late dinner, and then back to the Foss for more awesome craft beers and craft cocktails with Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. Unfortunately, many people were leaving in the morning and lots of goodbyes were said. It was so amazing having so many people care enough to join me in Iceland for the final country, and was a real testament to the awesome people I have in my life! Off to bed, because there was still one more day in Iceland to enjoy…

Sep 232016
 

Up early the next morning to head out on our Golden Circle tour. When looking for tour companies to arrange the Golden Circle tour, I’ll be honest that I wasn’t totally sure what all the different options were. I know the Golden Circle has some of Iceland’s “must see” sights, and pretty much all the tours seemed the same. When Iceland Travel suggested the “SuperJeep Golden Circle Tour with Langjokull Glacier Add-On” the price was more than double the other options, but it promised a full day of fun place a chance to visit a glacier, so, I went with it. This was going to be our big splurge tour of the trip.

SuperJeep is a separate company, it turns out, and Iceland Travel merely did the booking for us. When they showed up to pick us up, I was thrilled. Each SuperJeep seated five of us comfortably, and we had five jeeps for the day. The drivers were absolutely hysterical, and had a radio system so they could chat between the jeeps all day. We headed out of Reykjavik, and soon we were already seriously off-road. One of the worst trails of they day, we were getting thrown around pretty seriously as we headed up the trail, but the SuperJeep was handling it like a champ. I was a bit nervous that once we got to the top a few people in the group might not have been really thrilled with the pretty serious off-roading. Fortunately, everyone loved it. Our driver, Omar, loved getting a bit crazy, and made no attempt at all to avoid rough spots of the trail!

Eventually we stopped, for a short hike up the rest of the hill for a vantage point over Reykjavik. I hung back to get a shot of the group hiking up the hill against the blue sky:

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View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:

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First group shot of the day. I love how the bright colours stand out in contrast to the sky and ground!

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We drove a bit longer, and stopped to take in another valley:

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I love how this shot of Ted against the green hills turned out:

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Picture with mom and my brother:

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Part of the group enjoying the view:

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Done admiring the view, we continued on and stopped by a lake. I love how this pic of Jen checking how cold the water is turned out:

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The lake:

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Next stop was at the Faxi waterfall. Most Golden Circle tours don’t do this, and there was almost nobody there. It was another huge plus of booking with SuperJeep that they kept adding stops that a big bus full of people wouldn’t have time for. Kirsten posing with the SuperJeep:

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Faxi Waterfall:

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Faxi waterfall selfie:

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We walked the path down towards the falls, and got this shot from below:

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Shot with John, Kirsten, and Ted by the Faxi waterfall:

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There was a salmon ladder next to the falls, so we walked up the narrow sides of it. Love this shot of Kirsten on the way up:

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Jen and Ingo taking a rest at the top of the falls, I love how the colours just jump out in this pic:

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Getting read to leave Faxi, group pic in the SuperJeep:

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Final stop before lunch was the Geysir hot springs area. Geysir is mostly dormant now, the the Strokkur geyser still regularly erupts every 5-10 minutes:

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Srokkur erupting:

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The great thing about the Geysir area is that all the tour busses stop here along the Golden Circle tour, so there’s a great rest stop with lots of restaurants in it and great places to grab lunch. We stopped for about 30 minutes at this point until our drivers started herding us back to the SuperJeeps. We still had much more to see in the afternoon and needed to get a jump on it! The afternoon of the SuperJeep tour in the next post…

Aug 112016
 

Ended up sleeping in a bit…so much that I actually missed breakfast in the Le Meridien lounge. That was no problem, however, because in KL Sentral Station just across the street there was a…you guessed it…Starbucks which did a great job of fueling me.

Grabbed a super inexpensive Uber and headed over to the Petronas Twin Towers…and got there just as the sky was about to open up and dump rain:

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Wandered the mall a bit as the rain let up, and then grabbed another Uber X out to the Batu Caves. The Ubers were so inexpensive in KL that I didn’t mind asking the driver to wait 30-60 minutes while I explored, and he was more than happy to do so. The roundtrip plus nearly 40 minutes of waiting time was still less than $30. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pictures I was really happy with, so I’m going to recycle some from a trip about ten years ago. The long staircase up to the caves:

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The one thing that struck me in the ten years since I’d been there was the complete absence of the monkeys. The place used to be crawling with wild monkeys:

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To the point they would sell you bananas to feed the little guys, who were not in the least afraid of humans:

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After getting back to the hotel with Uber, I head to pack up for my trip to Penang. On my original itinerary (as booked when I left the US) I had planned an overnight in Penang in case I misconnected. I didn’t want to miss the start of my ticket home. However, I found out that all the flights to Penang were out and back, so wasn’t too worried. Plus, with the originally planned detour to Australia, and now detour to Mumbai, I really didn’t have time for this.

Fortunately, I booked a two night stay in KL, and on the full day it would be easy to fly up to Penang and then turn almost right around. Packed a small daybag with essentials like passport, phone charger, etc, and caught the KLIA Ekspres back to the airport. Security was super quick, and the domestic gates are a short walk away…through the duty free shops of course. I’m not sure I understand the point of duty free shops for a domestic concourse, but it is what it is.

First stop was the domestic Malaysian lounge, which was a sad, sad place. A small buffet that looked like the food had been sitting there for hours, and several kids running around loudly screeching. I opted instead to walk around the rather small (but long) concourse plane and people spotting. At least the view of our plane for Penang from the lounge was fantastic:

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No spitting in the drinking fountain!

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At the end of the terminal two 747s were parked. Malaysia has been “hunting” for the owners of these abandoned planes since December, 2015! SWIFT Air claimed to own them, but apparently Malaysia doesn’t believe them, and now 8 or more months later, they still sit. I mean really, how do you forget you own a 747?

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Back towards our gate, the thunderstorms were rolling in, and things were looking ugly for an on-time departure.

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Torrential rain, thunder, and lightening started shortly thereafter. Of course, neither rain, nor snow, nor other mysterious circumstances shall stop Malaysia Airlines, so we boarded and pushed back right on time!

Malaysia Airways flight 1152
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL) to Penang, Malaysia (PEN)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 17:20, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,311
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,448

Flight was completely full in both classes, but fantastic flight attendant in business offered a pre-departure of anything you’d like. Including nice warm Diet Coke…

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After a super turbulent climb out there was even a meal on the short flight! It wasn’t anything special, but those bread rolls were super addictive!

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Landed in Penang right on time, and went straight to the gate agent to ask about changing my reservation. My flight back to KL was scheduled about 3.5 hours later, and was the turnaround of the next flight. He was super helpful, could see me checked in on the next flight, and was happy to move me to the one leaving in 40 minutes…but did remind me that there wasn’t a meal catered for me, haha! Score, I could arrive back to KL three hours earlier and get more sleep before my early flight!

The domestic departures hall in Penang:

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Our gate today B1 was apparently a fragrance and cosmetic wonderland:

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There was a crew change in Penang, so unfortunately didn’t get to go back with the same wonderful crew.

Malaysia Airways flight 1155
Penang, Malaysia (PEN) to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (KUL)
Depart 17:55, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 9M-MSG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 126,512
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,315,649

Who needs a catered meal when right next to your gate there’s a Starbucks! I like Penang Airport already!

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Even better, there were only two passengers in business class on the return flight so I had an empty seat next to me:

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With that, there’s not much to tell. Super uneventful flight, and I even made it back to the Le Meridien with ten minutes to spare before happy hour ended in the lounge. Even better, the super friendly agents kept the lounge going an extra thirty minutes since there were so many people still around. I have to give high marks to the lounge staff, they really made this hotel extra welcoming.

Everything had worked out well with the side trip to Penang, and now the trip was coming to an end. Next morning, early morning flight to Hong Kong with Cathay followed by a long lounge break and flight to JFK in first…

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:

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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:

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Stand-up view from my lounge cubicle:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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

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

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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…

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…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.

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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….

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

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Super old aircraft on the tarmac:

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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:

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Nice wood paneling:

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Nice marble bathroom with heated floors:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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Huge shower cube:

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Plus a tub and double sink:

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

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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:

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

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…including Lenin himself:

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Workers of the world, unite!

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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:

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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!

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Basket of bread:

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…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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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”

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Full view of the rink:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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!

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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…