Oct 092017
 

Since I would be sitting on the train for a good part of the day, and my train wasn’t scheduled to leave until nearly 4pm, I decided to go for another walk around St. Petersburg in the morning. It was also an excuse to stop by Starbucks and get some decent coffee to wake up. Ended up walking nearly 3 miles down Nevsky Prospekt before heading back to the W to pack up and head to the train station.

I think the thing that surprised me the most was just how small the international departures area of Finlandsky Station was. It was basically one large medium sized room with a couple small kiosks. Compared to the station in Moscow which I had departed from it felt positively tiny. When it was time to board, both Finnish and Russian train personnel were on hand to check IDs and tickets.



If there was any question I’d already done enough walking, the business class car was located at the very far end of the platform. The nice thing was, this allowed time to get a great picture of the Allegro train:

Inside seating was in a comfortable 2-1 configuration, but compared to the SAPSAN trains between Moscow and St. Petersburg it felt quite cramped. Granted, this is business class instead of first class, but still…

2-1 seating was nice, as it meant nobody to climb over or have climb over you.

Well, that would be the case if anyone was actually on the train. There were a grand total of three people in business class today!

Almost as soon as we left the station, the “menu tray” came out.

Despite the menu tray promising five options, today there would be onto two choices…both sandwiches. To drink? Two little cups of water. Very strange “meal” for a “business class.”

Oh wait…the cabin attendant came back a few minutes later. Apparently, he’d forgotten to give us the cheese course as well…

Perhaps the “coolest” part of the journey was crossing the Schengen border by train – something quite difficult to do these days. First the Russians stamped you out of the country, and then the Finns came by and stamped you into Finland and the Schengen. Many fewer points these days where you can get Schengen train stamps, but I remember the days when you would get them on the train even going between Germany and France.

Near the end of the ride, I was getting a little hungry, so headed to the dining car to see about a snack. Gotta love that the beer comes with a custom glass…

Welcome to Helsinki station!

I had booked the Radisson Blu Plaza right across the plaza from the train station which was a quick five minute walk from the train at most. The corridors certainly had some very funky lighting, and the room numbers were projected on the floor:

My train had arrived over an hour late, meaning it was already late when I got in so I went straight to grab a bite to eat. Sori Brewing right around the corner from the hotel was recommended to me, so I started out with their five beer taster. Sori is actually brewed in Estonia, and from what I understand it’s still cheaper to import than it is to get the licensing to brew craft beers in Finland. I know this is changing, but…

They also had a fantastic burger, and it hit the spot. Tomorrow would be a very long travel day, and I wanted to make sure to get lots of rest with four flight segments coming up! I really need to make time to get back to Helsinki and Finland in general soon for a proper visit – perhaps in the summer for the white nights.

Oct 052017
 

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

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



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

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

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

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

Extremely spacious seating in a 1-2 configuration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arkha Glavnova Gate:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jun 182017
 

After a fantastic 24 hours at home, it was time to head back to the airport and head off to Spain. Staying home for a night was definitely the right call as it allowed me to relax, and just enjoy some downtime after a hectic week. Back off to Dulles, where check-in and security were completely uneventful. Went to the United lounge, where a fantastic bartender looked after me. Make no mistake, United is no Lufthansa, and the rather sad cheese and crackers and mass production chips and dips along with the $5 bottles of wine are quite sad, and it often feels like a bit of an all you can eat buffet restaurant, but at the same time, there’s something “familiar” about it.

My routing today was DC to Newark, and then onto Madrid, with nearly a three hour connection in Newark. That’s why I wasn’t too worried when my phone buzzed and notified me of a one hour delay for air traffic control. I got slightly more concerned an hour later when that stretched to 90 minutes. I began to get really concerned when it became two hours, leaving me around 40-45 minutes in Newark. I began to explore options.

The super late Dulles to Frankfurt and Dulles to London flights were out, as they were completely sold out in business. I tried multiple phone agents and lounge agents to get on the late Frankfurt flight in first, but that was a non-starter. They absolutely refused to consider it. The late Dulles to Munich flight on Lufthansa was available, but it wouldn’t get me into Madrid until nearly 7pm the next day – way too late to make my connection to Marrakech (separate ticket) and would cost me my entire first day in Marrakech.

When my Newark connection was down to 15 minutes, I pulled the trigger and switched to the Lufthansa option. Absolute worst case scenario would be getting stranded in Newark overnight, so I wasn’t willing to risk a tight connection there, even though the DC to Newark flight started boarding. The flight to Madrid was booked completely full in business, with another 15 plus on the waitlist, so I couldn’t see them holding the flight for me if anything went tits up.

(Side note: by the time DC to Newark landed there was 8 minutes to make the connection based on the door closing, and it was nearly one end of the C terminal to the other – I suspect strongly I wouldn’t have made it)

Rebooked via Munich, I decided one last Hail Mary was in order. I headed to the gate for the United flight to Frankfurt, and asked the agent if there was any way they could get me on this flight – I was even willing to use one of my Global Upgrades to get into first. “I can only put you in economy – and all we have left are middles near the back.” Uh, no thanks. That’s way worse than losing my whole day in Madrid.

Off to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge next, where I began trying to rebuild my trip. This entire time, Ian had been stranded at JFK as well, awaiting a severely delayed flight to Madrid, where he was afraid he was going to misconnect to Marrakech as well. Worst case, we would lose our 24 hours in Marrakech, take a full day delay in Madrid, and only have a short overnight in Marrakech before heading to Western Sahara.

We both started boarding at this time, and promised to reconnect in Europe and see where life took us.

Lufthansa flight 415
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Munich, Germany (MUC)
Depart 22:30, Arrive 12:45 next day, Flight Time: 8:15
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKJ, Manufactured 2005, Seat 10G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 60,428
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,437,405

It had been barely 24 hours since I’d gotten off of a Lufthansa A340 Frankfurt to DC, and here I was boarding a Lufthansa A330 to Munich. Something felt, familiar…although very strangely, we had one of the most disappointing Lufthansa crews I’ve ever had. No personal touch, didn’t seem to enjoy their jobs, and no smiles to be found anywhere. It was like I was flying on United or something! Mixed nuts and a glass of the same wine from the day before…

Due to the late departure, the entire meal was served on one tray. Blech. Not impressed. That said, it was one of the better business class salads I’ve had in a long time. I went with the “seared beef filet, béarnaise sauce, root vegetables and whipped potatoes.” As expected, the beef was severely overcooked and disappointing. Overall, this is a meal I would expect from United, not Lufthansa.

Even the cheese course was sad. Is that one sad lettuce leaf supposed to class it up?

Ice cream…in a container. It was tasty, but seriously…in business class?

After dinner I passed out, and slept a solid six hours. It was nice having nobody next to me, so extra pillows and plenty of space. Woke up just about 15 minutes from landing, made myself barely presentable, and checked my phone. Ian had misconnected as expected, and was spending the night in Madrid. Thus, there was no need to find a way to Marrakech today, so I was a bit more leisurely.

Headed over to the Senator Lounge in the international gates, and they tried to steer me to the Schengen gates since I was going on to Madrid in a few hours. Told them I preferred to stay here for now, and they were happy to let me in. Delicious breakfast of cheese pretzel and potato salad. When in Germany…

Started looking for ways to Marrakech, and realized it would actually be $50 cheaper to fly Frankfurt-Marrakech the next day instead of Madrid-Marrakech. On top of that, my preferred hotel in Frankfurt is more than $100 cheaper than the one in Madrid, so it was an easy choice. I’d overnight in Frankfurt today. I will totally admit that choice was driven largely by the opportunity this presented to do one of my favourite things in Europe – a long ICE trip.

I didn’t actually realize that Munchen Hbf was so far from the airport when I bought the ticket, so it was a huge rush to get on a train to the central station so I could catch my train to Frankfurt. I maade it though:

A couple hours into the journey I was getting a bit hungry, so I ordered a beer and some Flamkuchen. Yum!

Checked into my hotel – the usual Frankfurt Airport Sheraton that you’ve all become very familiar with this year from my frequent stays, so I’ll say it was just perfect like the last stay. I requested in my reservation (and got) the exact same room as a few weeks prior, and just like that stay it was ice cold and fantastic.

Caught the S-Bahn to the city, and had my favourite bacon-wrapped dates and a few beers before taking a late night walk and enjoying the fact that at 930pm it was still light out.

When I got back to the hotel, the drama that this trip was turning into notched itself up another level. Royal Air Maroc e-mailed me that my flight had been “modified” the next day:

Um, a zero minute connection in Casablanca now?! I called Royal Air Maroc, and they refused to put us on an earlier flight from Marrakech to Casablanca, claiming they were “all full” and “you will make your connection – no worry.” Um, with zero minutes and a terminal change? I don’t think so. This was not good. Not good at all.  Our choice was to risk getting stranded overnight in Casablanca, but the only problem was the flights to Dakhla don’t go every day. This was becoming a right proper mess.

We decided (virtually) to cut our losses and not risk going just to Morocco and missing out on Western Sahara. We decided we would rather do the back half/islands part of the trip with extra days to really enjoy each of the islands, and come back to Western Sahara another time. Of course, Royal Air Maroc refused refunding us. The dispute is still pending with AmEx, but I have no doubt the outcome…because I also have screenshots showing that the connection in Casablanca actually became negative 15 minutes…and we would have been stuck.

Before going to bed we decided the plan would be to meet up in Barcelona the next day, and from there we would find a way to get to Las Palmas to continue the trip. The added bonus was instead of one night each in Las Palmas and Madeira, we could now do two nights in each, as well as having a night in Barcelona. Silver lining!

Off to bed, wake up, and oh…I have to get to Barcelona today. Let’s check the options. Ticket prices are pretty high on Lufthansa, even in economy, and looks like flights are super full. Not good. End of the day I decided to splurge on a business class award, which while not cheap made things more comfortable…which after the mess was welcome.

Enjoyed the Senator Lounge, where I had a right proper German lunch of sausages, potato salad, pretzel, and beer:

Boarding was one gate down from the lounge, and right on time.

Lufthansa flight 1134
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 16:00, Flight Time: 2:00
Airbus A321, Registration D-AISK, Manufactured 2008, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,108
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,438,085

Pretty generic flight in EuroBusiness, but for a two hour 2pm snack flight, how can you complain about this meal?!

Landed right on time and Ian was waiting in the arrivals hall. We grabbed a coffee, figured out thanks to Google Maps how to get to the hotel I had booked (took the bus – it actually would have been slightly easier taking the subway) and then it was off to the hotel to buy the final flights to put this trip back together…and enjoy an unplanned night in Barcelona!

Mar 192017
 

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3045

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

IMG_3046

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

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

IMG_3047

aa

IMG_3049

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

 

IMG_3051

Looking out from the top of the grandstand:

IMG_3053

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

IMG_3056

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

IMG_3060

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

IMG_3063

Danger! Crazy-long German word ahead!

IMG_3064

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

IMG_3066

Outside the Kongresshalle:

IMG_3067

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

IMG_3068

IMG_3069

Statue of Albrecht Durer, a renaissance painter from Nürnberg:

IMG_3070

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

IMG_3077

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

IMG_3079

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

IMG_3082

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

IMG_3083

Selfie on the Königstraße heading towards the train station:

IMG_3084

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

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

Dec 202014
 

After dinner at the Dancing Camel brewpub I headed back to my room to wind down since it was going to be another semi-early morning, especially because I had to change hotels. I’d had enough points for three nights at the Orchid Park Plaza and one night at the Sheraton, so would be changing for my last night before heading out to Jerusalem for our day tour. Unfortunately, the hotel had other ideas.

It started with loud noise in the room next to me. Then, I smelled cigarette smoke. The went on for 30+ minutes at 10pm, so I went to the front desk to complain. They said they’d look into it, but made it clear I was annoying them, and no, there were no other rooms. 30 minutes later it was still going, so I went down to complain again. They were more annoyed. Finally, they decided the best strategy was to get rid of me, so they offered me a smoking suite in the other tower. Told them I’d check it out first, because hey, one of the things I’m complaining about here is that people are smoking in the room next to me. Suite didn’t smell at all of smoke, and was a bit bigger and much quieter, so was worth the late night move.

Headed back to my original room to get my bags packed up, which took about 10 minutes, and was I was walking out a woman was walking out of the room next door. She screamed loudly at the people in the room “you still owe me 100 shekels” in Russian. Um, wait, there’s hookers in the room? Way to keep it classy Park Plaza! Fortunately, got to the new room and absolutely passed out, so no further drama.

Next day was another early morning fueled by canned coffee from the convenience store. Our tour left from the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem at 11am, so I had a bit of time to make my way there. Unfortunately, this still meant getting up early to switch hotels before heading to the train station to catch the train to Jerusalem. The bus would have been faster, but I figured the extra hour in order to have the train experience would be worth it. I was definitely right.

Got to the Sheraton around 7am, and they were almost as surly as the Park Plaza, until they realized I was an SPG Platinum Member at which point they perked up a bit. They “supposed” they could give me a room early, but it would only be a high floor standard renovated room instead of a junior suite. It was one night, and would be somewhere to put my bags, so I went with it. The room was nice and modern, and as soon as I dropped my bags I hopped a cab to the train station.

The train station was packed, with military everywhere. Being Sunday, I assume everyone was heading back to assignments from visiting friends/family over the weekend so the trains were packed. My train was absolutely packed with military, dozens of them in my car. At one point I felt something poking into my leg, and realized it was the barrel of the guy seated next to me’s gun.

gun

Upon getting off at Jerusalem, it definitely seemed like the entirety of the IDF was on my train:

IMG_6161 IMG_6163

When I exited the station I realized I was still 5+ miles from the Jaffa Gate. Hmmm, expensive taxi or try and figure out the bus. Decided to try the bus. Got on google maps on my phone, it told me the right bus number, and it was easy to find and a piece of cake. It was a good public transit experience, and what did we do before we had google maps to plan such things?!

Got to Damascus Gate with an hour to spare, so while waiting on Ian decided to have a light late breakfast:

IMG_6164

We had booked our tour through Sandeman’s Tours, and they had two options. A three hour free tour, or a much longer 19 euro paid tour. I figured the free tour would be full of annoying cheap people, and Jerusalem had a ton to see, so we went with the paid tour. It was a great decision on our part. Our tour guide was Ryan, an American who’d moved to Israel over ten years ago and was outgoing, friendly, gregarious, and full of knowledge on Jerusalem. We were about 10 people in our group, and first task was the group photo:

10805689_10152854883275729_7210432195158987390_n

That’s Ryan in the lower right in front of Ian and I. First stop was the Armenian Quarter of the Old City, where there wasn’t terribly much to see. We stopped a few times to talk and get a bit of history, but other than that it was a pretty quick stop through this part of the Old City. Cool buildings as we walked:

IMG_6166

Continue reading »

Nov 232014
 

I should subtitle this entry “because there hasn’t been enough drama already” but I’ll resist. Woke up to an email…my Virgin Australia flight had been canceled. For some reason, the inbound was canceled so might flight was canceled as well. Called Virgin, and they said “no problem, you’ve been rebooked for tomorrow.” Um, I don’t want to go tomorrow, I want to go today. Ugh.

Fortunately, my good friends at Solomons Air also had a flight that day…but Virgin wouldn’t rebook me on it. It actually took nearly 30 minutes of fighting to get them to agree to give me a refund. Ugh. There was an upside though – the new flight on Solomons wasn’t actually about $100 cheaper booked day of…so in the end, things actually worked out well!

Got to the airport only about an hour before the flight after all the drama, but no problems at all. Checked in, got the exit row again, and life was grand.

IMG_5208

Oh look, same plane as a couple days prior! That’s because Solomons only has one jet…

IMG_5210

Welkam on board!

IMG_5211

Solomons Airlines flight 700
Honiara, Solomon Islands (HIR) to Brisbane, Australia (BNE)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:15, Flight Time 3:15
Airbus A320, Registration H4-BUS (ex Air Canada) Manufactured 1992, Seat 15C

The flight was only about half full today, which meant I had the entire exit row to myself. Score! Double score…there was no sketchy sandwiich on this flight but a proper meal. It was described as “beef” and was actually reasonably tasty:

IMG_5212

Quick shot how the “other half” lives on the way out.

IMG_5215

Landed right on time, and decided to give the eGates at Australian immigration a try, not wanting a repeat of my experience coming into Darwin. It worked like a charm, and soon I was on the airport express train downtown and back to the Four Points hotel. The downtown area was an absolute security nightmare, with the G20 set to happen in a couple of days.

Checked in, had a quick shower, and headed out to get some dinner. While I was talking to the front desk lady about something, I heard a loud popping sound, kind of like if someone had popped a giant piece of bubble wrap. I looked around expecting to see something broken, on fire, something. What I didn’t expect to see is a giant flying creature that apparently I had stepped on.

IMG_5219

Quiet evening, caught up on sleep a bit, and then had another full day to decide what to do. With the giant security mess, I decided I would get out of dodge for the day and see something new. Caught the train down to the Gold Coast…or at least attempted to. It took me like three tries to figure out the trains…because not every train goes to every station. Then you need to take a bus. Then, your iPhone decides to die when the bus drops you off, so you have no idea where anything is in town. Yeah, that.

Grabbed some lunch, and my iPhone decided to come back to life. I had an email from my hotel…note this was about 2pm. The email told me they were sorry, but needed me to move out of my upgraded room to my original room no later than 4pm. Um, you told me at check-in I had the room for both nights. Replied that I’m sorry, at the beach for the day, but happy to discuss with them when I return. This was followed up by an email instructing me if I couldn’t move on time, I would have to pay for the upgraded room. Uh, you expect people to sit around their hotel all day waiting? Then, they offered to pack up my belongings and move them for me. Um, no. That’s a recipe  for things to get lost and the blame game to start.

Finally, sent them an email saying I was really disappointed in the way they were treating a platinum member over what is a $50 a night upgrade. (It was just a high floor room.) They went silent. When I got back later, the new manager on duty was very apologetic, offered Starpoints in compensation, said I could keep the room, and said “this whole situation could have been handled much better.” Ok, apology accepted.

Back to enjoying the beach. Wandered around for a bit, and what do we have here:

IMG_5235

Couldn’t resist, and had a very fun hour or so trying! Sometimes, the most fun travel experiences are the ones that are totally unplanned. I went down to the Gold Coast with no plans what so ever, and ended up having an unexpected great time.

A few shots of the beach at Surfers Paradise:

IMG_5237

IMG_5238

IMG_5240

Post-surfing lesson reward. Mmmm…

IMG_5243

Surfers Paradise has this meter maid thing down. I think I’m going to suggest to DC that they make this the meter maid uniform in DC as well:

IMG_5245

Caught the train back in time to get some quick dinner before crashing early. It had been an unexpectedly busy day going down to the beach (rough life, I know) and was going to be an even earlier morning with the flight to Auckland!

Jan 222014
 

Up at the crack of dawn, checked out of the hotel, and grabbed a cab to the train station. Picked up Jordan along the way, and we were there at about 5:15am for the 7am train. We’d been sternly warned that we had to be there two hours in advance…which turned out to be quite a joke. A picture of the station, waiting to get inside.  Unfortunately poor quality because of the lighting, but enough to get the idea:

IMG_2554

A shot of the ticket window, courtesy of Jordan. He got much better pictures than I did of several parts of the train ride, and several of the pictures in this post were taken by him.

1657571_1388955803506

As the sun started to rise while we waited, a picture looking back onto the town from the front of the station:

IMG_2555

…and the vendors were out in full force, selling food for the journey.  Bottled water, bread, fruit, cookies, and gum seemed to be the most common items for sale.

IMG_2557

IMG_2560

Soon it was 6:15, and finally time to Board.  A quick passport/ID check inside the station, and we found the car that would be our home for approximately the next 13 hours – Car #111 in First Class:

IMG_2561

1657571_13889558044498

Continue reading »

Jun 112013
 

This post is going to be very heavy on the pictures, since you can read the history online.  Reflecting back on it now as I put this together, I’m absolutely amazed at how much I managed to see in just over six hours!

After a filling lunch, it was off to the next sight, the Gur-Amir or Tamerlane Mausoleum. This was built in the early 1400s and contains the tombs of not only Tamerlane/Timur, but also his sons and grandsons, including Ulug Begh whose observator I’d seen that morning.

A couple photos outside the mausoleum, with and without me and random tourists:

IMG_6538 IMG_6539

…and a couple of artsy shots inside the complex.  I don’t know why, but for some reason Samarkand seemed to really lend itself to getting artsy shots with the iPhone.

IMG_6541 IMG_6545 Continue reading »

Jun 102013
 

When I got into this part of the trip, I realized there are a ton of pics and details from this day, so I’ll be splitting my daytrip to Samarkand into two parts.  This is part one, covering the train to Samarkand, a morning of touring, and lunch.  I was lucky to have a day off from work this weekend, and wanted to make the most of it!

Had to get up super early this morning, because I’d been booked on the 7am train from Tashkent to Samarkand.  I had hoped to be on the 8am so I could at least get a little sleep, but unfortunately there was confusion, and my driver picked me up at 6am to go to the train station, leaving me operating only about 5 hours of sleep.  And no breakfast.  And no caffeine.  Well, actually a little caffeine…I’d found a bottle of water the night before, but it was sparkling so I used the gross in-room water kettle to boil some up and make a little instant coffee that was in the room.  Better than nothing!

The drive to the train station was only about 10 minutes, and security was tight.  There were at least three security checkpoints to get into the station checking tickets and passport, but by the time I got it they were already letting people onto the train.  I’d booked the new-ish highspeed train, which made the trip in just a little over two hours, traveling in excess of 200 kph!  There were three classes on the train – regular economy, first class, and “VIP class.”  The price difference really wasn’t that much, so I booked the VIP!  I was too curious not too!

A few shots of the seats:

IMG_6452 IMG_6453

 

One thing that became clear quickly.  There were carriage numbers printed on the tickets, but no seat numbers.  It was first come, first served, with the attendants trying to sit groups somewhat together.  It all worked out on the trip down, but the trip back was a hot mess!

I won’t talk too much about the train trip, since I got many more details on the return when I was more awake.  There was a food and drink cart, and it had Red Bull, so that helped to wake me up a little bit.  I really should have had a second one…and just like that, a little after 9am we pulled into Samarkand station.

I’d debated if I wanted to hire a guide/car before arriving, and in the end, I’m glad I did . The sights were a bit spread out, and I got a good amount of history.  Plus, a car and guide for an 8 hour day for $80 (or so I thought) was pretty reasonable.  He was waiting for me at the station with a sign with my name on it, and we were off.  He asked what I wanted to see….and I said all the historic sights.  Isn’t that what people come here for?  “No club?  No sexy lady?” Uh no, and yes, I had to spend several hours getting grilled about girlfriends…him cracking jokes about “only 3 kids, that I know of, I have girlfriends in many countries.”  It was irritating, but I tuned it out more or less.

After convincing him I really wanted to see all the typical boring historic sights, we were off.    The first stop was the Ulugh Beg Observatory.   It was built in the 1420s in order to determine the midday point.  The most annoying part of this site were the two giant tourbusses full of Korean tourists.  No idea why they seem to come to Uzbekistan in such large numbers, but they apparently do.

IMG_6469

Anyways, back to the Observatory.  A picture of the outside:

IMG_6459

Continue reading »

Mar 142013
 

We purchased our tickets from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes (the town at the foot of the mountain Machu Picchu sits on) about three weeks in advance on the PeruRail website, which was quite easy and straightforward, although knowing which train you want takes a bit of research.   There were three options:

1)  The “Hiram Bingham” train – a super luxury train that (as far as we could tell) only had the advantage that it served you a gourmet meal on the way.  Price was around $300-350 return.

2)  The “Vistadome” train (which we took) that was said to be comfortable with great viewing.  About $75-100 return.  Reviewed below.

3)  A local commuter train, which if I remember right was like $50 return, but was said to be quite slow (at least an extra hour) and unreliable.  Everything I read in advance said it was well worth paying the small amount extra for the Vistadome.

It wasn’t completely clear that we needed to print the tickets or anything, so the day before the train when we arrived in Cuzco we went to the PeruRail office (easy to find on the Plaza de las Armas) to see what the story was.

It was a good thing we went, because we found out not only that we needed a printout, but that heavy rains had washed out part of the track from Cuzco, so the first roughly half of the journey would be replaced by a bus.  The only upside is that the bus would leave from a station in downtown Cuzco, only a 5 minute taxi ride, instead of the normal train station well outside Cuzco maybe a 30 minute taxi ride away.  Small miracles I guess?

The busses seated around 25-30 people, but for some reason when we got on the bus there were only 6 of us total.  On the way back, however, when the train unloaded straight to the busses our bus was full.  Either way, it was a bit over an hour ride and decently comfortable.  There wasn’t a ton of legroom, but there was enough that we didn’t feel squashed.

One important note, you are only allowed one small carry-on on the train, no more than 5kg in weight.  We never saw anyone checking them, but this is because basically there’s nowhere to put any luggage.  Lots of people are on daytrips so it’s not a big deal, but if you’re planning on an overnight stay (or two nights like we were) this could be a bit inconvenient.

On the way to Aguas Calientes and back the train was almost completely full.  They seem to add cars as needed – on the way there there was only one car, but on the way back there were six or seven.  This ensures most of them are full, if not almost full.  Still, for the barely 90 minute journey it was plenty comfortable.  A few fews from the train on the way to Aguas Calientes:

IMG_5206 IMG_5207 IMG_5209 Continue reading »