Mar 152019
 


As regular readers will know, I’ve been to Moscow many times going back all the way to 1988 when it was still the capital of the USSR. When I went back for the first time post-Soviet Union about 10 years ago, it was hard to believe it was the same country…but in some ways it still was. The familiar sites were still there: Red Square, the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, GUM, etc, but all the western stores and hotels made it feel the same…just more globalized.

In the years since then, I’ve traveled all around Moscow, seeing all the major sites many times. This trip, we really wanted to take the advantage of having a long period and explore some of the more out of the way and less usual site, starting with the Central Air Force Museum way out in Monino.

Now, saying “way out” is a bit relative, given the museum is only 40km east of Moscow, but it’s nowhere near a metro or train station, so this means either multiple bus and tram connections or taking a taxi. I checked Yandex and it was only about 1200 rubles (less than $20) so we opted for convenience. Unfortunately, the traffic was brutal that morning and it took us nearly two hours to get to the museum!

The Central Air Force Museum in Monino is absolutely huge, with over 170 aircraft on display, some indoors in two large hangers, and many outdoors. There are also over 100 engines and other aircraft related memorabilia on display. It was an absolute airplane geek’s paradise.

Few words if you’re considering it: the staff speak absolutely no english at all (though I’m guessing if you speak no Russian they can do the basics like toilet, go here, etc) but that said, they were some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered at a tourist venue in Russia. More on that as I go along.

After purchasing our tickets, the first stop was the hanger with older WWI and WWII aircraft. Upon entering, the ticket taker very helpfully explained the layout of the museum to us, and gave us all the details about the layout of the museum. She clearly loved her job, and slowed down her speech speaking very clearly so we could understand every word. I was impressed – it’s not common that non-English speakers in Russia make an attempt to make it easier on tourists, and she gave a super positive first impression!

An Ilyushin 10M from World War II – 1944. The displays (mostly in Russian only, although some had English as well) not only had details on the plane, but on the types of missions they flew, and often about Hero Pilots who had flown them. Really cool!

After spending about 45 minutes wandering the two large indoor hangers, it was outside and maybe a 200 meter walk until we got to the outdoor part of the museum. Sure, it was a little cold, maybe about -15C and super windy, but how bad could/would it be. Wrong thing to question…

After walking the first part of the outdoor section, there was another non-climate controlled hanger with some larger pieces. Like this “Volga Stratospheric Balloon Car.”

Back outside, and an Aeroflot Mi-2 Helicopter:

Myasischev M-17 Stratophera – aka what happens when you forget to de-ice the plane before takeoff…mainly took this photo because I loved the look of the plane with huge sheets of ice hanging off the wings.

Posing in front of a Tupolev Tu-144 aka Concordeski…it was cool to see this given I had just seen another one in Germany the month before. 17 were built in total, two suffered fatal crashes, and only five every saw passenger service. At this point I was absolutely freezing, and it was “take hands out of pockets for two seconds, snap quick pick, and move on.”

Mi-12 Heavy Transport Helicopter…one of the most unique looking aircraft on display :

After walking around outside and freezing (dozens of more photos I didn’t share here) it was time to head inside and check what I expected would be a very dangerous giftshop. But first, I had to take a flight…

Fortunately, the gift shop wasn’t too dangerous, although the proprietor was quite a character. She was extremely chatty, impressed by Americans who spoke Russian, and wanted to make sure she showed us every possible thing in the gift shop, as well as telling us all about upcoming special events at the museum. She even encouraged us to come back in the summer when we might enjoy it even more!

Overall, a super cool experience, and if you’re an aviation geek at all I recommend it very highly!

That night, out for more delicious Georgian food. Starting with a jug of house wine…which apparently is poured into a bowl for drinking! Chug, chug, chug!

Khatchapuri again, this one being way more delicious than the previous restaurant.

We decided to branch out for after-dinner drinks, and found another pretty cool pub. Craft Republic was kind of in the basement of a building, but they had a Pac-Man machine, awesome beer list, and even some Cypress Hill blasting from the speakers!

The next day, it was off to Bunker 42 to see where the Soviet Missile Command would retreat to if Moscow was under nuclear attack in the Cold War days. I’ve been to Canada’s version, the Diefenbunker, but figured the Soviet one being right in the middle of Moscow would be super cool. But first, you walk down 16 flights of stairs to get to the depth which engineers calculated could withstand a direct hit from the earliest nuclear weapons:

At the bottom, through a metal-clad corridor into the bunker itself:

Guard-post at the entrance to the bunker complex:

The Anteroom to Stalin’s personal chambers in the bunker. I was cracking up at all the mannequins:

Da. Comrade Stalin is right upstairs:

Oh, hey Joseph! Ironically, Stalin never even ended up visiting the bunker, as its construction wasn’t complete until after he died. Oh well!

Meeting room for officials in case of nuclear attack. The room was only used one time, however, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

A mock-up of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb…although our guide assured us it was real…

Missile command center…we even got to press the button and then watch a simulation film of missiles screaming towards the US…it was the ONLY time on the tour we weren’t allowed to take pictures…supposedly the consoles were the original ones, although the electronics were not.

After the launch room, we were told to go down the next corridor while the guide closed the doors behind us. Of course, he locked the door, turned out all the lights, and the red lighting came on while air raid sirens blasted. It was a pretty cool thing to see!

Standing outside the Bunker.

We ran into the metro right at rush hour, where it was packed…yet orderly in that way that people looking out for everyone else is. In DC, the metro is a disorderly mess with people stopping at the bottom of escalators, cutting each other off, and generally having no communal motivation at all. There’s a reason why it’s at capacity at a much lower point than Moscow, Tokyo, etc…

Next up our last few days in Moscow!

Mar 142019
 


It was pretty nice to wake up with no big plans for our full day in Murmansk, so we were able to sleep in a bit and take the morning slowly. Walking to the elevator to go down to breakfast, past the big neon sign that didn’t let us forget which floor we were on:

Look out the windows while waiting for the lifts…it was -18 with a wind temp of -26, and looked pretty cold and barren:

We had passed on breakfast, not sure if we’d wake up on time…and oddly enough when we got to the restaurant they were not able to charge it to our rooms…and insisted we pay by credit card. I think that’s a first for a hotel breakfast buffet!

Back up to the rooms to get ready to head out into the freezing temps, another view from my room onto cold, cold Murmansk:


There was no Uber in Murmansk, but I chatted with the front desk and they called Yandex Taxi (which is basically the Uber of Russia) and arranged an hourly rate with them. It wasn’t all that far – we would probably walk five miles or so in total, but in these temperatures a car would be a must. First stop, the Alyosha statue – a 42 meter tall commemoration of the Soviet defence of the Arctic during World War II:

Supposedly it is common for wedding parties to visit and leave flowers, but in the arctic chill today there were none.

Looking back towards the city. You know it’s freezing when you see the steam layer turning to frozen mist over the city:

Memorial wall of the Hero Cities of the Soviet Union:

Anti-aircraft gun at the Aloysha Statue…soooo…cold….

Praise to the wartime workers of Murmansk!

It was actually still before noon, but the sun was still low in the sky when we visited the Monument to the Waiting Women, dedicated to the spouses of the Soviet Arctic Fleet awaiting the return of their sailors.

Lovers locks on a fence near the Monument to the Waiting Women:

Looks. So. Cold.

Getting artsy with the Monument to the Waiting Women

Church of Our Saviour on Waters….are you catching the theme in Murmansk? Everything was focused around the navy.

Lighthouse at the Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime. It was closed today, but contains artifacts and memorabilia from those soldiers.

Memorial to the Sailors and Seamen who Died in Peacetime, many of whom died on the Kursk in 2009, it’s become a bit more of a memorial to submariners as well. Again….so much snow and ice…

Yes, it was THAT cold…on the hill next to the memorial.

Looking back towards the lighthouse, with groundcrew trying to keep up with the snow that was somehow falling from a blue sky:

We were frozen after a couple of hours of touring, despite the car. The driver was wonderful, and chatty despite speaking zero English. All those years of Russian lessons came in handy, however, because we got between all the sites we wanted to see in about two hours, and then even made it back to the place we had dinner the night before to have some lunch. Yup, hot apricot brandy drink sounded (and was) wonderful:

The super tasty Tundra pizza with venison, wild mushrooms, and northern berries. Yum!

…and what better on a cold day than some more lingonberry vodka along with pistachio and vanilla ice cream! Seriously, this city is a delicious foodie paradise!

After lunch, back to the hotel for a bit, before walking the mile or so in the freezing wind and snow to the Nuclear Icebreaker Lenin. Unfortunately, tours were fully booked, so they told us to try back in an hour. Fortunately, Ian spotted a cafe where we could get some hot tea and wait, and when we went back in an hour, it took a bit of pushing and shoving to maintain our spots in line, but finally we were let in:

Guided tour, Russian only, but was able to get the gist of most things. When you have a boat that big, and you’re away from shore that long, you have to be prepared for everything. Operating Room in the medical clinic:

The reactor room with a mockup of the previous nuclear reactor that powered the ship…complete with mock

Inspirational words from Lenin himself…it IS his icebreaker after all!

View from the deck onto the port of Murmansk.

View of the deck – I love how the snow made little “pillows” and there’s still a Soviet flag on the side of the ship:

Ian, hanging out on the bridge:

I decided to get a very cold picture outside, instead:

Port of Murmansk building. I love this blue colour, which you seem to only find on buildings in Russia:

Port of Murmansk, 68+ degrees north and 33+ degrees east:

Walk back to the hotel from the Lenin was past the train station….even the train station looked barren and frozen:

Of course I had to pose in front of the northernmost McDonalds in the world as well:

Found a little antique and souvenir shop in our hotel, where I found 10 Ruble notes with Putin on them. What an amazing souvenir!

So, Tunda Restaurant the night before was amazing, but there was another restaurant that looked just as good, the “Tsar’s Hunting Lodge” – so we grabbed a Yandex Taxi there (seriously, the app is just as easy to use as Uber) and were rewarded with a homemade vodka sampler! Lingonberry, cloudberry, and I think blackberry?

Starter of Pelmeni – siberian dumplings – filled with meat and served with sour cream:

Venison leg meatballs with wild mushroom spelt – this was absolutely amazing!

Yeah, there were giant, random stuffed bears in the restaurant:

…and some sort of other critter pelts sitting above our table:

Yeah, the guy working the coatcheck made me take a picture with this awkward bear display in the lobby:

For dessert, a “Murmansk Charcoal” – a cheesecake made with black currants and bog whartleberries. Don’t ask what a whartleberry is – I have no idea either – but it was delicious with the homemade honey vodka.

An absolutely amazing meal, and I was thrilled how interesting Murmansk was. I’m sure it would be amazing in the summer as well, but there was something extra-special about seeing it in the winter. Off to bed, because we were off to Moscow the next day…fortunately not TOO early!

Mar 102019
 


So, wait, you’ve never heard of Kirkenes? I mean, I’ve been to Norway before, so why am I going back?

Well, you see, Kirkenes is in the extreme northeast of Norway, just minutes from the Russian border. It’s well above the Arctic Circle, and the border crossing with Russia is also the northernmost staffed regular border crossing in the world. How could I skip that.

Just to put it in perspective, Kirkenes is circled below, and you can see Murmansk, Russia just to the east:

Fun sign in the gate area at Tegel Airport…yes, Berlin, you were wonderful and I really enjoyed my week. Actually sad to be leaving!

SAS flight 1674
Berlin, Tegel (TXL) to Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH)
Depart 13:30, Arrive:14:30, flight time: 1:00
Airbus A319, Registration OY-KBP, Manufactured 2006, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,637
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,225

So, in general, I do my best to avoid flying SAS. They have the same awful economy class seating as other airlines, but they don’t even block the middle seat! In fairness, they do call it “Plus” and not business, but if you redeem miles for it from United, it’s the same number of miles as business class. I was curious to see what the benefits were, other than sitting in the first row.

This flight was completely full with every seat taken, so thankfully the flight time would only be 40 minutes. Service consisted of a “snack” which was a wrap…either cheese or salmon were on offer. Only choice to go with it was water. Again, short flight so won’t complain too much, but there was absolutely nothing “premium” about this flight at all.

Arrived into Copenhagen and had 1:10 between flights due to an early arrival, so I set out on a mission to find the airport Starbucks. One, because I needed caffeine, but more importantly, I wanted to check the prices. I’m still putting together a listing of the price of a grande filter coffee around the world, and expected Copenhagen to be up there. At 31 kroner ($4.67) it was the third most expensive in the world that I’ve seen behind Geneva and Zurich, which comes in at $5.21 lately. Feel free to send me datapoints!

Walking away from Starbucks, it’s a good thing I didn’t have any longer….a Mikkeller Tap Room right in the airport? This could be seriously dangerous. I did stop for one 2dl beer, which turned into two because they poured the wrong one the first time, and at over $9 for a small pour it’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for two!

SAS flight 1460
Copenhagen, Denmark (CPH) to Oslo, Norway (OSL)
Depart 15:25, Arrive:16:40, flight time: 1:15
Airbus A321, Registration OY-KBB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 8E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,959
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,702,547

In contrast to the flight from Berlin to Copenhagen, this flight was absolutely empty. Sure, the seven rows in front of me seemed to have all seats full except middles, but rows 9-21 behind me? Yes, 21 rows of “plus” class….and nobody at all in those 10 rows! Strange to see 10 completely empty rows! You’ll note I was also in 8E…a middle seat! Mainly to avoid people in front of me reclining into me…and site the seats on both sides of me were empty it worked just swell!

Beautiful views on takeoff:

Even better, I discovered on this flight that their beer was a nice Mikkeller IPA, which marked a very rare occasion for me of having a beer in flight. Pretty sure the last time I did was when I flew Brussels Airlines and their fantastic beer menu!

Short flight, only an hour, and was time to find the lounge and wait for Ian, who was meeting me there to continue the trip in Norway and Russia. Since Norway is in the Schengen Zone like most of Europe, no passport control at all, however, Norwegian domestic flights were in another terminal since there IS customs between Europe and Norway since Norway is NOT a member of the EU. For anyone who’s confused how this whole Schengen, EU, oh and don’t forget the countries that use the Euro, work, I love this diagram:

Right, so, through customs (so weird to clear customs but NOT passport control or security, and into the lounge. SAS lounges are weird in that they have a “business” lounge which you get into if you’re in “plus” or international business class, but then there’s a gold lounge in the back…which is even nicer…that you can get into as a frequent flier.

I hadn’t had a real meal al day, so decided on some Norwegian nibbles…..tuna, shredded cheese, olives, potatoes and pickles….odd, but did the trick and was tasty.

Ian showed up after a short bit, riding the struggle bus after flying Newark-Frankfurt-Stockholm-Oslo up until this point, so it was kind of nice to not be the one suffering jetlag for once! Off to our gate where boarding was just about to start for the two hour trek up to Kirkenes.

SAS flight 4478
Oslo, Norway (OSL) to Kirkenes, Norway (KKN)
Depart 17:55, Arrive:20:05, flight time: 2:10
Boeing 737-700, Registration LN-TUM, Manufactured 2002, Seat 3D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,812
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,703,400

I was determined to put “Plus” service to the test on this flight, so asked the flight attendant when she came around with my THIRD cheese wrap of the day, what else as on offer. Seems Plus means you can have ANYTHING from the buy-on-board menu, and don’t have to pay for it. So, I got some chips and another Mikkeller to go with the cheese wrap, and some high-quality iPad entertainment:

Unfortunately “anything” is a misnomer. When I asked for a second beer, I was told no. Apparently “by Norwegian law” they can only serve one complimentary alcoholic beverage on domestic flights. Seriously?! If I wanted to pay $8 for another I was welcome to it, but nope, only one complimentary. Way to go SAS, you are officially the cheapest non-budget airline in the world.

Disembarking in Kirkenes was at a remote stand. Doesn’t it just LOOK cold:

The Kirkenes Airport…looks more like an ice rink from the outside to me!

Bears at baggage claim! Oh no!

We went to find the bus into town, which was supposed to be like $10 a person, but when we boarded the driver told us it was free! Apparently, we’d arrived during some major festival – the biggest festival of the year in Kirkenes – and this year China was sponsoring the festival. That included paying for the bus during the festival. Whoah – finally – saved by China in all my travels!

After checking into my hotel, the Scandic Kirkenes, I was still pretty alert so went for a bit of a cold nighttime stroll. Getting artsy with snow-covered trees:

Outdoor ice rink! Turns out as part of the festival there was a big tournament of the “Bering League” the next day, but unfortunately we’d leave too early to see it. Bummer!

Sooooo much snow everywhere!

I found the library. You can tell you’re getting close to Russia when the signs are in Russian as well!

Oh look, a sign. Taking selfies to prove I was there!

World War II Memorial. Kirkenes was actually a major front in the war, where the Russians and Nazis faced off.

I found the local pub, which was absolutely packed due to the festival. So packed, that I ended up having to share my table with a local couple who spoke maybe 100 words of English (seriously, which Norwegians don’t speak English?! Ones that have lived their entire lives in Kirkenes, apparently) and a Russian truck driver who spoke no Norwegian OR English. I got to attempt to play translator from Russian to English…and then try English words until we found ones they knew. “Tax” and “expensive” and “price” were popular topics, and we had a great chat about driving across the border for cheap gas and booze. Great cultural moment!

Right outside the pub? Yup, a Chinese gate. Definitely the theme of the festival. Kirkenes was shaping up to be just as unusual as I’d hoped, and I looked forward to the next morning!

Back to the hotel, which was perfectly comfortable, and off for eight solid hours of sleep. Next up, day in Kirkenes and bus to Murmansk, Russia!

Mar 092019
 


So, continuing with my week in Berlin, the next day when I had a long lunch I decided to venture even further out into the former East Berlin, and visit the main prison of the Stasi which is now a museum. The Gedenkstätte Hohenschönhausen is a museum on what was once the site of the Stati’s most notorious prison. Tours are relatively infrequent – at least public ones – and when I called I couldn’t get anyone who understood English…but based on my limited German there would be a tour today, so I made the long trek by tram out to Lichtenberg.

Fortunately, the tour happened right on schedule, but unfortunately, our guide would be a young Czech lady. While she was excellent, the majority of guides are former prisoners, and it would have been much more interesting to hear their perspective.

We started with a 25 minute movie which was a fantastic introduction to the complex, and then it was off to the original prison building, and its cells. At the time, like Robben Island or other former prisons, it was just another site, but looking back today it’s much easier for me to see the terror in the site…even decades later.

After touring the old cellblock, it was out into the main yard to walk to the “newer” building which was built once it was clear the DDR was going to be a thing, and the Cold War was going to split Germany for quite some time.

Inside the new cellblock, the door to a cell. Note the wire running over the top of the door? See how to the right of the door there is what looks like connectors? This is because guards were unarmed, and if shit went down they could loosely yank on the wire, which would pull the connectors apart, and set off an alarm. The entire complex was wired this way.

Inside of an interrogation room. Prisoners were never interrogated right away – they waited several days or weeks until they were sufficiently disoriented first and ready to talk.

Metal grates on the stairwells between floors.

Barbed wire on the ends of the complex.

Another day, I took the U-Bahn out to Friedrichshain, a now trendy and gentrifying part of former East Berlin, and decided to go for a long walk back to my hotel to appreciate how the city was laid out. With a subway, it’s often hard to appreciate how all the parts of a city fit together, so I figured this would be a great way to do it – plus – I love long urban walks. A very colourful street in Friedrichshain:

Funky mural – not entirely sure what it’s supposed to depict:

Even the Germans aren’t big fans of the Cheeto in Chief:

A short way through the walk, I was hungry and cold, so stopped into Ostbahnhof which for some reason I really like, and had my favourite German snack….a Bretzelsnack and caramel macchiato – perfect on a cold winter day.

Crossing the river and looking west towards Alexanderplatz:

St. Michael’s Church:

One of the best street names in the world – under water street! Wonder if Spongebob Squarepants is around…

…and after the long walk, nearly 12km, I rewarded myself with a currywürst and beer. I mean, when in Berlin…

One of the weirder parts of Berlinale, on top of all the fru fru people in my hotel in silk scarves, was the pop-up make-up booth in the middle of Potsdamer Platz. I very tempted to poke my head in and see if I could get my makeup did…

Another day, I went for a long walk through the Tiergarten. Seeing the Siegessäule brought back memories of U2, and I think I was humming “Stay – Faraway So Close” for the rest of the trip.

Just the bang…and the clatter…as an angel…hits the ground.

Another evening, walking back to my hotel, I stopped by the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Very moving, lots of slabs of concrete, and catching it at sunset made it extra-reflective.

Walking through the memorial. Unfortunately, lots of young people acting disrespectfully – I really hope the future holds better than a lot of these kids were displaying, or history will be doomed to repeat itself.

From there, I wandered back to the Brandenburger Tor, which looked awesome with the sun setting behind it:

Apparently, there were multiple protests/demonstrations going on….including this colourful character…the “Kaiser”

A short video of his…interesting…spiel…

One final walk on my last night in Berlin, and the L’Oreal people were still out in Potsdamer Platz doing makeup…incredibly odd.

Last morning, before heading to the airport, decided to go for one final long walk through the Tiergarten. Pond partially frozen over:

Statue of Albert Lortzing, a German composer:

I love how this picture captured the reflection of the trees on the partially-frozen pond:

One final stop by the Siegessäule. I was going to climb to the top, but was running short on time to get to the airport, so decided to skip it so I’d have an “excuse” to come back again.

…and with that, my week in Berlin was over. Definitely confirmed my feeling that it’s an amazing world-class city, and somewhere I’d love the opportunity to live. So if you know anyone there who’s looking to hire… 😉

Next up, off to Norway!

Mar 032019
 


Due to the way schedules worked out, and the fact it made no sense to go back to Washington for five nights and then turn around to head straight to Norway….combined with some client meetings in Germany I needed to take care of, I decided on spending six nights in Berlin. I can’t remember the last time I’ve spent six nights in one place that wasn’t for a work trip, so I was definitely looking forward to it!

…looking forward, that is, until I got to my hotel. Now, I’m not really a movie person, and I can probably count the number of movies I’ve seen in the last ten years on one hand, but I was about to very quickly get an introduction to the world of “movie people.” It seems I had arrived right in the middle of Berlinale, one of the biggest film festivals in the world. To make matters worse, apparently my hotel was one of the host hotels, and a huge chunk of the rooms were taken over as makeshift offices by various film studios:

I will give the hotel high marks for how they managed the huge crowds. Other than the lobby being a teeming mass of people from sunrise until midnight, the floors themselves were actually reasonably quiet. Despite half the rooms on my floor having their doors open all day to entertain visitors, the hotel had security posted at the elevator so the only people who could come to the rooms were those who were authorized. Given how big the event was, I was impressed how little impact it had on my stay. Except all the silk scarves in the executive lounge, it was fascinating listening to the conversations.

Right, so most days were filled with nonstop work, partly from my room and partly going on to meet with clients. However, I still had a lot of work to take care of back in the US, which meant working long hours into the evening. That did mean, however, sneaking out for long lunches to see things was totally possible. I’ll post the first couple here, then follow up with another post covering the next couple of days.

Having arrived on a weekend, I had a full day, and after several failures on previous trips I finally managed to book on the Tempelhof Airport tour. One pro tip: despite being sold out online for a couple of weeks, I witnessed several people arrive without tickets, and they were all accommodated. So even if it shows up not available online you might want to chance showing up well in advance and seeing about tickets. Standing at the meeting point outside the old general aviation terminal:

First stop was out on the apron, the first in the world where planes pulled up to the terminal under a covered roof so that passengers could board/deplane regardless of rain:

Main check-in and baggage hall. Supposedly the roof used to be twice as high, but after World War Two the victorious powered had it lowered. Why? Because, and I roughly quote our tour guide, “walking into such a grand hall with high ceilings would invoke visions of German might and power, and arms might inadvertently snap up into a Nazi salute.” Thus, it was lowered, to make it less grand after the war…

You just knew I’d find the VIP waiting room…

Under the checkin hall, a couple stories down, were lots of bomb shelter rooms. This one, apparently, after the war was re-purposed by Lufthansa as a storage room.

Inside many of the bomb shelters, painted on the wall, were passages from common German fairy tales. According to our guide, this was because people would often be sheltered here with complete strangers, and this would give them something common to talk about until the all clear signal was given.

Top floor of the airport was…a basketball court?! After the war, the airport was in the American Sector of Berlin, and the airport was split 50-50 between civilian use and US military base. The two sides were strictly separated, but the American side had a basketball court and other rec facilities added.

From there, we climbed more stairs to the roof of the building, looking down on the apron. Great view, although I could have down without the howling wind and the stinging rain:

Outside the airport, the Berlin Airlift Memorial:

Apparently, not everyone is a big fan of capitalism.  …and, no thanks, too high in fat.

The next day, I made the trek way out to Lichtenberg deep in eastern Berlin to see the Stasi Museum, located in the former Stasi (secret police) headquarters building:

The main building in the complex is where the museum is housed. The whole complex was several dozen buildings, many of which have now been leased out to various companies and businesses.

In the entranceway of the museum was a statue of (I believe) Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Checka, predecessor to the KGB and FSB in Russia.

Behind the office of Eric Mielke (head of the Statsi’s) was a room where he could retire for small private meetings, or as you can see from the bed in the corner, a nap. Rumour was that he would often sleep here at night in the final days, fearing assassination attempts if he left the building.

Waiting room in the executive area of the Stasi headquarters building.

Boardroom where high ranking members of the Stasi held many of their meetings:

Interesting exhibit on “the use of scent differentiation to fight crime” – supposedly when they arrested people, they would place this cloth under the chair of the person being interrogated. Idea was that it would collect their “scent” and that when they had enough of these collected they might be able to predict future criminals. I kid you not…

The “red suitcase” where Mielke kept secret documents that reportedly could bring down Erich Honecker, the President of the GDR. The suitcase allegedly contained evidence of Honecker’s cooperation with the Nazis, although to this day German authorities deny that. Even in East Germany, the head of the secret police keeping a blackmail file on the President would have been….sketchy at best.

The receptionist’s telephone outside Mielke’s office.

Panoramic view of Mielke’s office, with his desk on the far side, a large table for meetings, and chairs around a table for what I assume were smaller meetings?

Transit bear in the U-Bahn station at Alexanderplatz. DC did donkeys and elephants several years back, and Berlin did bears. What other cities have done a collection of statues around the city?

World Clock outside at Alexanderplatz with the Berliner Fernsehturm in the background. I’ve never been up to the viewing gallery at the top, but it’s supposed to have amazing views of Berlin.

Loved this shot of the station at Alexanderplatz.

With that, the first couple of days were over. Many more things to see, which I’ll detail in the next blog!

Mar 022019
 


So, this trip wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had a nice vacation planned with a friend to Norway and Russia. Then, as happens, a work trip to Switzerland fell into place…with an awkward six days until I had to be in Norway to start my vacation. Then, work in Germany conveniently popped up in the middle. Upside: saving a lot of jetlag. Downside: more than three weeks away from home! Focusing on the positive, I moved straight ahead! Let’s start out this first post with Switzerland.

Not really anything to say about the trip there, but I do have to give a nod to United. This dish, known as the “spicy chicken” is absolutely delicious, and pretty unique for an inflight meal. …despite the fact the crew tried to tell me there “probably wouldn’t be enough for you” – um, since United prioritizes meals by status, I highly doubt this. A side note, a walk through the galley later and at least two different crew members were eating it. Plus ça change…

While waiting on my train, I reacquainted myself with one of the most fabulous fast food items in Switzerland, the five cheese toastie:

Given it was a work trip, I spent most of it cooped up indoors doing work. Of course, during coffee breaks, I walked out the door and had this view. Miserable I tell you. Actually the worst part was the big windows in the conference room which pretty much had the same view. How were we supposed to focus on work!  (Spoiler: tons of work actually did get done)

One of the trip’s highlights was a traditional Swiss fondue at a colleague’s house prepared by her partner. These are always my favourite moments of travel…spending time with the people that live there, and taking time to enjoy traditions as locals enjoy them as opposed to how a restaurant might serve it up to you in a quasi-realistic atmosphere. Very fortunate to have such amazing and hospitable clients!

After finishing up with work, I had about 24 hours in Zurich on a Friday night / Saturday morning to see the city. Most times when I come through Zurich, it’s in transit to/from somewhere, so I was really looking forward to having a full 24 hours to actually see just a little bit. Despite the -10C temperatures, wind, and snow….anyways….

I loved this ad for Swiss milk and their strong cows….

After a fun and freezing night of grabbing several craft beers outdoors in the freezing temperatures, I got up and had about four hours to see the city. I decided a long walk was the best way to do it, so I headed out from my hotel, towards the old town of Zurich, which I’d never seen before. Beautiful view across the Limmat:

Murals by Giacometti on the side of a building in the old town:

Another gorgeous view across the Limmat. Even on a cloudy day the city looks magical:

I got a new phone right before the trip (iPhone XS) and love how even when zoomed in, I got super clear views:

The pictures above were taken from Lindenhof, a park on the top of a small hill in the old town. From there, down the winding alleys towards the river. One thing that struck me on a Saturday morning was the fact that Chinese tourists outnumbers locals by a factor of at least 10:1. I’m really happy more people are traveling these days, but also really concerned with the impact mass tourism is having. Especially on the major cities in Europe.

Looking across the river at the Grossmünster church. Trying to get all artsy with the seagull in the pic:

So many birds. Everywhere.

Again, trying to be artsy:

Group of Chinese tourists on the water, getting absolutely swarmed by a flock of seagulls. It was like a cross between a bad 80s band and a Hitchcock novel. I was getting a little nervous at this point, so I ran. I ran so far away…

With that, it was time to head to the airport and fly off to Berlin for the next stage of the trip. One little thought from that. Got to fly for the second time on an A220-300 from Zurich to Berlin, and I love that on a flight of one hour Swiss can still serve a tasty little snack….with refills on drinks! In the US, we get “due to the length of this flight, no service will be provided.” Next up – a week in Berlin!

Jan 242019
 


Slept in quite a bit and didn’t make it down to breakfast until just after 10am…which was fine…because strangely the hotel was only serving breakfast starting at 10am. I guess they figured everyone was out past midnight, and nobody would want breakfast at a regular time? Served me perfectly, but if I was the more bah humbug type about New Years Eve, I can see being frustrated.

Regardless, when I got to breakfast at 10:30 or so, I was one of only four or five people in the restaurant. Good breakfast, and had another two hours or so to explore, so I took an Uber about 7km to the train station and decided to walk back to my hotel via the Old Town.

The train station was a good place to start, but unfortunately I got a bit distracted looking at time tables on the wall. I love train travel, and really need to make some time to do Vladivostok to London by train some time soon….with lots of one night stops along the way. I think it would be an epic three week trip!

Right, I finally got undistracted, then headed to the reason I chose the train station to start: a block full of really fun murals.

First up, the Dirty Mexican Wall!  (who knew when I took this three weeks ago there would still be a government shutdown over the wall….) but hey….

…gotta keep out those bad hombres!  (Don’t even get me started on the nasty women!)

The best mural of all….Trump and Putin sharing a joint and shotgunning some smoke. The mural originally showed them sharing a kiss, but I guess that was too controversial and it got vandalized immediately, so now…this is supposedly less controversial?

Hitler, Stalin, and Belarus president Lukashenko….let’s roll the highest joint, not build the highest wall!

Wandering through the streets of old town Vilnius…I really enjoyed the chill and laid-back feeling of the city

The Church of St. Casomir:

Back to Cathedral Square, don’t remember who was on this statue…

Vilnius Cathedral

Bridge over the River Neris, which led back north to the Courtyard Hotel:

Looking back south towards Cathedral Square from the bridge. The snow was picking up pretty heavily at this point, and I decided to head back to the hotel and seek refuge, hoping there would be no flight delays.

Memorial at the Old Jewish Cemetery of Vilnius.

Everything looked on time – one thing I love about traveling in northern climates during winter is that the airports know how to deal with snow! Although my time in Latvia and Lithuania was brief, it was far more than my previous visits, and I felt I could honestly count them as visited now. I definitely want to go back to Lithuania, however, because Vilnius seemed really cool and I wanted to check out the country a bit more.

Contact lens vending machine at the airport. I’ve only seen these things in Russia before. Odd! Just in case, you know, you’re at the airport and somehow forgot your contacts.

So, it’s been quite a while since I’ve blogged a flight, mainly because it’s been a lot of my usual routes and airlines, but I figured this one might be interesting!

LOT flight 780
Vilnius, Lithuania (VNO) to Warsaw, Poland (WAW)
Depart 16:00, Arrive:16:05, flight time: 1:05
Embraer ERJ-195, Registration SP-LNH, Manufactured 2008, Seat 3A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 247 (first flight of 2019!)
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,692,835

Prior to the flight to Kiev, I hadn’t flown LOT in like ten years, so I partly took this route because I was curious. Plus, what better way to get a big enough sample size for opinion. I was, however, very nervous about my Rimowa bag because one half of the handle was stuck in the “up” position, and wouldn’t go down, so I was worried if it would still fit in the overhead bins. No problem on this flight!  The ERJ-195s are 2×2 seating, and in business class LOT only puts 1 person in each set of two, which works out quite nicely. As far as EuroBusiness goes, this is as good as it gets.

Here’s where it got weird, however. Flight attendant serves the four people in row one and two, then says to me and guy across from me “we do not have enough food, so buy you this from airport” – um, a giant cheese plate, a cold cut tray, a salad, roll, and a dessert? Crazy – that’s a ton of food for a 50 minute flight…plus a decent South African red wine – overall, I was glad they had run out of food! I wasn’t that hungry, so mainly just finished the cheese, double bread, and dessert, but I was impressed. (No, you can’t ask how many bottles of wine….)

Got to Poland, gate was still in the Schengen Zone, so I headed to the LOT lounge briefly to check it out. It was really hard to figure out with multiple rooms, including one “hidden” room that was for some sort of priority something only, but there was nobody manning the desk so I went in there. It didn’t look nicer, but was slightly quieter. Except the bathroom, with this helpful sign. Felt just like my last trip to Poland circa 2002 when they were still modernizing after the communist era….

Next up, the flight I was really worried about with my gimpy bag….a Dash 8 to Berlin!  I almost booked SAS via Norway to avoid this routing, but the time savings was too tempting. What would they do? Force me to check my bag and break it more? I figure it was worth the risk.

EuroLOT flight 389
Warsaw, Poland (WAW) to Berlin, Tegel (TXL)
Depart 17:25, Arrive:18:50, flight time: 1:25
Bombardier Dash 8 Q400, Registration SP-EQK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 573
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,693,161

Good news – apparently the Q400s have pretty large overhead bins – roughly the same size as the ERJ-195, so getting the bag to fit was no problem. Like the ERJ-195 the seating was 2×2 which meant that business again was one person in each set of two so plenty of room.

Impressed that we got a meal (albeit cold) on a Q400, and it was the same meal from a few days prior on the Warsaw to Kiev flight. Overall, perfectly nice for such a short flight on a propeller plane!

Seats were reasonable…especially because you get two!

Deplaning at Tegel…major the worst capital city airport in the developed world! What a nightmare!

…and with that, I was set to enjoy/work several days in Berlin!

Jan 222019
 


Woke up nice and early the next morning, but fortunately not too early since I wanted to still get breakfast before what promised to be a very long day. Years ago when I did both Lithuania and Latvia, thanks to a delayed flight, I got only the briefest glimpse of both of them. Thanks to my friend Naomi who had recently done a similar trip, I found out that a bus or taxi (3-4 hours) wasn’t the only way from Riga to Vilnius…you could actually take a full day tour that stopped at interesting places along the way. Absolutely perfect!

The company was called Traveller Tours, and I booked the Riga to Vilnius Sightseeing Tour Bus. Good thing was, we didn’t depart until 9am, which was good because not only do I hate early mornings, but it was still dark until 9am and I wanted breakfast. Everything worked out though, and at just before 9am I found myself limping to a hostel in Riga’s old town to begin the tour. Yes, the fact it began at a hostel should have been my first warning, but in for a penny in for a pound, and I was ready for adventure.

Limping to the hostel? See, on day one of this trip, way back in Frankfurt, the handle of my suitcase snapped. It was one of those rolling backs with a handle that’s connected to the bag by two telescoping “rods” for lack of a better word….and the handle cracked and came apart….and one of the rods fell into the bag never to be seen again. So I was dealing with a rolling bag that I had to steer with one thin post….on cobblestones…for about 700m. Yeah, now you see how this trip was getting super interesting…

Anyways, got to the hostel, and there were like a dozen people waiting around…but the vans only seated eight people, so it was all very strange, especially since when I booked they told me I got the last seat. Turns out there were two busses today, however, and since six of the people were a family it ended up being eight in the other van and only five in ours…which meant plenty of space! The downside to being with people for 12 hours is that if you have nothing in common it makes for a very long day, but I was fortunately that at least everyone in my van was nice to each other and it all worked out.

With that…we were off! First stop was the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble. Salaspils is a town maybe 30 minutes from Riga where first the Nazis ran a smallish concentration camp (at least compared to others) and then during Soviet times and especially under Stalin lots of people were shipped off to Gulags, many never to be seen again. According to our guide, everyone in Latvia has stories in their family of people who were shipped off during one of these two periods, and this memorial park was meant to commemorate both.

We got there as a light snow was falling, which only added to the solemnity of the site:

Beautiful, but also cold and foreboding…

A large gate that you enter by walking under, and an inscription that translates as “beyond these gates, the land groans”

Seven concrete structures dot the fields, known as  “Mother”, “The Unbroken”, “The humiliated”, “Protest”, “Red Front”, “Solidarity”, and “The Oath”.

More statues…the cold, grey, snow, and wind really added to a contemplative feel about the place…and I could swear I heard a heart beating. Turns out, there was a speaker somewhere playing a heartbeat, but it was just subtle enough that it wasn’t obvious. Eerie…

Close-up of the entrance gate. Seeing the people underneath, you get an idea of just how massive it was…

After that rather solemn start, it was back in the bus and off to our next stop – Rundāle Palace – which was about a 60-90 minute drive from Salaspils, and just north of the Lithuanian border. I’m not much of a museum person, but have to admit it was pretty interesting. Rundāle was originally the home of the Duke of Courland – an independent dukedom. It was built in the mid-1700s, and I had to wonder: why couldn’t it still be independent – I could count it as a new country!

During Soviet times, it was first used as grain storage, and then as a school, and eventually a local history museum. It was extensively renovated after Latvian independence and restored to its 1700s-splendor. From the outside, it certainly looked grand:

Fortunately, the self-guided walking tour with audioguide was only billed as 30-60 minutes – finally a museum that is appropriate for my attention span! A ballroom:

Loved this study – I’m still not sure what the thing in the corner was, but if I recall correctly it was brought to Latvia from China in the 1700s:

The Duke’s bedroom… I always wonder in these old palaces, who wants to sleep somewhere that fancy? When I go to bed, the idea of having “staff” around tending to things gives me the creeps…

After the palace, we drove the short distance to the border, and less than five seconds after crossing into Lithuania, a police car came up behind us…sirens flashing. Seems that despite the Schengen Area having open borders now, the police were conducting random checks, and picked us. First, they went through passports, and decided one of the younger backpacker couples in our van was a bit suspicious…so there was a luggage inspection as well that resulted in…some contraband being found and people being detained. I won’t give details here, but suffice to say some people learned the hard way that just because there’s no mandatory border inspections doesn’t mean you can cross internal schengen borders with whatever you want.

Police detour over, it was on to lunch!

Before the palace, a menu was passed around the van, and we were told to give our order to the driver so it could be ready when we got to the restaurant. Lunch was just over the Lithuanian Border at Audruvus – a restaurant, inn (I think?), and horse club / racing place/ not quite sure but there was a lot of horse-related memorabilia around. I went with the “Lithuanian cheese plate” as an appetizer, because you know I can’t resist cheese, and have to admit I didn’t really expect a platter of cheese cubes. Oh well, when in Lithuania!

Venison was very prominent on the menu, and my venison shashlik was pretty tasty:

Onwards another hour or so, to the Hill of Crosses. Short version, nobody knows just how it came to be that there were thousands or maybe even millions of crosses planted on this hill. Legend says the Soviets would bulldoze it, and every time they did by the next day it was back – with even more crosses. Many people think the number is now well over a million:

Crosses of every shape, size, and type:

There were just a few narrow paths through the crosses, and at my height I frequently found myself ducking to get around them.

About halfway up the hill, I stopped to take this picture towards that bottom that shows just how many there are:

After about 45 minutes at the Hill of Crosses, it was onwards to our final stop – the town of Kaunas – where we were given 45 minutes to walk around and explore the old town. Except it was cold. And windy. And New Years Eve so lots of places were closing up…and dark. But was still fun to walk around and see #Kaunas. By this point, it had already been a long day, and I’d had enough, so was kind of hoping we would hurry up and get to Vilnius. I wanted to get there in time to get some dinner before everything was closed and mobbed for New Years, but tried to make the best of it, and enjoy the stroll.

Christmas tree in the main square of Kaunas:

The old Town Hall:

With that, the tour was at an end, and we had about a 90 minute drive to Vilnius, where we were finally dropped off at about 8pm right on Cathedral Square and Gediminas Castle Tower right by the National Museum:

Grabbing an Uber to my hotel – the Courtyard Marriott was no problem. If it wasn’t getting late, and my bag wasn’t gimpy, I would have just walked the 900m or so, but I really didn’t feel up to strugglebussing with my bag over cobblestones. Uber worked like a charm in Vilnius (unlike Riga) and once again the lingua franca with my Uber driver was Russian. I was pretty surprised by the fact everyone my age or older still used Russian to communicate, and even many younger people I observed speaking it with what I assumed were Russian (or maybe even Latvian?) tourists.

Dropped off my bags, headed out to get dinner, and in Cathedral Square passed by a Christmas tree and market, just getting ready for New Years Eve celebrations:

I ended up at Beerhouse & Craft Kitchen, which was a super cool restaurant in the basement of an old building. But, it wasn’t just one room in the basement, it was like 10. Wandering about to try and find somewhere to sit was an adventure, and I finally found a room in the back with an actual bar I could sit at. Super cool staff who I asked for a recommendation, and I ended up with the schnitzel burger. Tasty, and definitely unique:

After dinner, and a few tasty beers, it was nearly 11pm, so back to Cathedral Square, where the crowds were starting to thicken for the show, which I expected would include fireworks.

The tower all lit up…at 11:55 they started a countdown on the side of the tower…it was super cool.

Another view of the square, and museum in the background:

Happy 2019!

With that, it was back to my hotel to pass out. It had already been a super, super long day, and I had another one ahead! It was off to Berlin the next day in the afternoon, and I wanted to pack in as much sightseeing as I could with the holiday before heading to the airport!

Jan 192019
 


After landing, I discovered the first unpleasant fact about Riga: no Uber. This meant getting semi-fleeced by an airport taxi on the ride into town, but end of the day it was vacation, and I made a point not to stress about it. The first time I was in Latvia on my every country in the world quest my flight was delayed by 12 hours, meaning that I lost all my time in Latvia, and immediately upon landing the airline had to drive me to Vilnius. I wanted to see more than I did, so was really excited to be coming back for a bit longer!

Hotel was the Radisson Blu Elizabete, which overall was very solid. Nice big rooms, helpful, but not overly warm staff. Overall I’d definitely stay there again because it was a nice location out of the Old Town, but a nice easy walk to it, so overall it was exactly what I expected.

It was already getting a little late, so immediately after checking into my hotel I made a beeline walk into the Old Town of Riga to get some dinner at Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs…partly because they claimed to have a good craft beer list, and partly because on many sites I had seen it was described as a really fun mix of tourists and locals.

What I didn’t expect was just how crowded it would be. The restaurant was several large underground rooms, and was super crowded and noisy – boring it wasn’t! Found a seat at the bar right away, and asked the bartender what she recommended to eat, and the Royal Stroganoff got her nod…it was pretty tasty:

I was super exhausted at this point, and all the travel of the past two months was really taking a toll on me, so it was back to the hotel and early to bed. I wanted to hit the Riga Free Walking Tour the next morning, so in bed by 11 and I thought I’d have no trouble since it didn’t start until 2pm. I chose the “alternative tour” instead of the old town tour, figuring I could always walk the old town myself, but seeing more residential parts was more difficult.

…except breakfast at the hotel ended at 11am, and I woke up at 10:55 haha. Quick breakfast and and getting ready, and figuring out where the tour actually started from, and finally made it just in time to meet up with the tour. Crossing the picturesque river on the way to the walk:

Amazingly, over 100 people showed up for the tour, but fortunately there were two guides, and I decided to go with Kaspars, who just seemed to be really energetic and a fun guide. Off we go, with the first stop being the central market:

The fish section of the market:

Caviar….this is how I knew I was in the right place!

After continuing on, we walked through some much more residential areas, which was cool. I always enjoy getting out of touristy areas and more into areas where people actually live life on a day to day basis. In the short time I’d been in Riga, one thing that had bothered me was just how overrun the old town was with tourists, so I was enjoying getting out of that area. Unfortunately after the market our first major site was a rather somber Holocaust memorial:

The other site of the memorial. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, there was really no recognition of the Holocaust in Latvia, but very quickly after independence many memorials went up.

Next up, the same building you seem to see in Warsaw and every other former eastern bloc city…this time, it’s now the Latvian National Academy of Sciences:

Cool Orthodox church right across the street:

We continued on to the train station, where we took a short break for people to warm up. I really liked the tower with a clock on the front of the station:

After the tour eventually ended, I wandered back to where we started at Saint Peter’s Church for this Brother’s Grimm sculpture:

After a long walk, I was hungry and ready for some dinner, so was off to a place called “Easy Beer” for dinner and some beers. Very ominously named beer called “Do I Have a Contact in Moscow?”

As our president says….

There was a venison burger on the menu, so I had to give it a try when I was told it was good. It certainly looked tasty:

Ok, I totally don’t get this, but just like in Kiev the day prior, my burger came with black gloves. Not one to judge, and when in Rome and all that, I decided to give it a go….since when I looked around lots of other people were. Is this a Ukrainian and Latvian thing? I’ve seriously never seen it anywhere else in the world!

Since the evening was already adventurous, I decided to check out a bar called the Armoury, which supposedly had cases full of guns you could play with while enjoying their extensive beer selection. Went in, sat down, ordered a beer, and it definitely did not disappoint. Who knows what this is?

Two beers later, and the real fun came out. Breaking the cardinal rule of “don’t drink and play with MANPADs…” But hey, when in Latvia….nothing says amazing Sunday like beer, rockets, and freedom!

Ok, fine, you talked me into one last drink….but let me put this down first…

So, Riga (especially the Old Town) was cool, buy way too touristy for my tastes. I’m glad I came back, and I’d especially like to come back and see some smaller towns in Latvia, but it was time to get some sleep, I had a very long 12 hour day the next day of going from Riga to Vilnius via a full day tour!

Jan 122019
 


So, you’ve already seen the Chernobyl Post, but what else did I get up to in Kiev? Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get to see nearly as much as I’d like. However, since this was my first visit in 30 years, I did accomplish my two goals of seeing Chernobyl and getting a feel for the place. I’ll be right up front with that: Kiev was absolutely awesome, exceeded all my expectations, and I can’t wait to go back for a longer trip!

Finally!  I’ve been to every country in the world post-independence! Move over Ukrainian SSR, I’ve now been to Ukraine!

Found a great craft beer bar called Punkraft with an amazing selection of beers – I wouldn’t have expected that in Kiev!

Tasty burger with dinner too – see the shot glass behind the burger? I assumed the black thing inside was a wet nap for after the burger…nope….it turned out to be a rubber glove. Ok, that’s….odd.

Statue at Maidan Nezalezhnosti Square – Independence Square – where in 2014 protests were finally successful at toppling the government and instituting true democratic rule for the first time.

Monument on Maidan Square:

Monument to the “Facebook Revolution” – Facebook was largely crediting for helping to organize the protests which eventually brought down the government.

Looking the other direction onto Independence Square. There was a strong wind as you can see with the Ukrainian flaga, and light snow was falling….you can see on the building it was also -2 out. Brrrr!

Thanks to google, I found some of the more artistic subway stations to visit. I love just popping around to subway stations in Moscow to see the grand Soviet architecture, so wanted to see what Kiev had to offer. Teatralna station, where the national theatre is:

Zolotoy Vorota Station – Michael the Archangel and Patron Saint of Kiev. Can you imagine religious figures in a US subway station?

More from Zolotoy Vorota, note in the upper left that all the arches are covered in mosaics:

Yaropolk II of Kiev – Grand Prince of Kiev in the early 1100s:

Slavutych Station – it’s supposed to symbolize the river. It looks more like a space odyssey:

See, very sci-fi space odyssey:

I loved the futuristic look of this station with the shiny pillars and the tiled walls and floor:

View of the Palace of Sports. Next time I’m here I definitely want to catch a hockey game:

On the way out, information board at Kiev airport. The price for business class on the way out was outrageous, so I settled for economy once I saw that if there were remaining business seats you could buy them at the airport. It was a bit of a protracted negotiation, but I finally managed to buy one for about $130. The website said $95 – so end of day it was fine.

Still Christmas in Kiev Airport!

Turned out when I got on the plane, I was the only person in business class! Made the upgrade totally worth it! It would have been empty without me, and the crew was super friendly and attentive. Bit of pre-departure champagne and a newspaper:

Three choices of snacks! Not bad! It was like my own private jet. Some smoked beef with potatoes and peas. The chocolate tort was super tasty tho…and a bit of champagne in very stylish glasses:

Sunset on the way to Riga:

Fantastic sunset tonight:

Deplaning at Riga:

Unfortunately immigration at Riga took more than an hour, due to a sour and suspicious immigration drone who decided my passport must be fake with all the stamps and “too many Russia visa.” Ugh. Eventually allowed into the Schengen Area (which is 100x easier in Frankfurt) and off to explore Latvia for the first time in 20 years!