A Travellerspoint blog

Olympic Fever

Porto-Lisbon-Madrid-Guatemala City-Panama City-Mexico City-Vancouver-New York-Toronto-Chicago-Los Angeles

all seasons in one day


It was a lazy start before heading down to the metro station for the quick trip to the main heavy rail station. Upon boarding the regular service to lisboa (not the more expensive high speed one) I was very impressed with the second-class carriage and this was enhanced by the dismal ridership. Trip was surprisingly smooth through the rolling Portuguese countryside and we arrived at the famous (expo 98) oriente station right on time where I transferred to the public bus for the 15 minute ride to the airport. Checked in and waited for my low-cost flight to depart. Lisbon airport does is best until the brand new airport is finished much further out of town in a couple more years. The incoming vueling flight was late so we departed late but managed to arrive on time in Madrid due to the incredibly short airtime; the crew didn’t even get up to flog their wares. I was glad for the short flight time as the seat pitch was very painful. I was at my airport hotel shortly after.

Headed back to the airport first thing and had a fantastic buffet breakfast at Iberia’s Velázquez lounge in the non-shengen satellite terminal. The amazing food and wine offerings made up for the deplorable lack of wifi. Again I scored the furthest gate possible so I left the lounge a little early. We left quite late due to some very late passengers so we missed our runway slot, which severely compounded the delay, as it was now the middle of the LatAm rush hour. Eventually we got in the air on my first non PTV longhaul flight in quite a while. Also quite a change of scenery from my last Atlantic crossing, which was in seat 1A on Iberia. They showed 4 movies during the very circuitous route travelling directly over New York, Miami, Habana and Cancun before getting to Guatemala about two hours late. Luckily it was still light so I could enjoy the unique challenging sole approach to the airport, with many high green mountains requiring precise turns before a steep decent to the short runway. Upon leaving it became even cooler seeing the huge drop right at the other end of the runway. 90 minutes later we made it to panama and I ended up at my lodging just after midnight.

The location of where I was staying was peculiar with a dodgy neighbourhood between it and downtown, but it was literally right on the canal so it was a good place to watch global trade go by. After a quick breakfast, where I was the youngest person by about 50 years, I walked to the mouth of the Panama Canal where good views could be had of the massive urban skyline. Then I headed to the rainforest where the humidity was even more oppressive. It was kind of like Kings Park if it was a tropical rainforest, and it was devoid of people but full of animals. I saw some lemurs, butterflies and some crazy armies of huge ants forming impressively long supply chains. There were also good views of the pacific from some of the higher points in the park. I was covered in perspiration by then so I took a cheap cab back to the canal.

Early ride to the airport past the eerily pitch black CBD. My first taste of Mexicana was pretty disappointing. Seats are designed for Mexican midgets and food was crap, and this is coming from someone that usually likes plane food. This experience was the same on the flight from Mexico City to Vancouver. The airports are the exact opposite of each other. My history with Canadian immigration continued and I was eventually allowed into the country, despite already having my onward boarding pass. The new skytrain was unfortunately not directly connected to the terminal so had to brave the rain to get there. It has been designed with way too pessimistic ridership estimates as the platforms and trains are tiny, even given the Olympics they will need to think about upgrades. Was downtown in no time and I headed straight for the official downtown IOC complex, this had serious lines for security so a further few blocks away was the more dynamic BC government set up which was much better. There was a great vibe with many permanent live broadcasts going on, and people and screens everywhere despite the lacklustre weather. There was also a good range of activities on offer. Before long it was time to head back to the airport where I picked up my bag from storage, checked in and raided the nice food selections of the Cathay lounge. Everywhere in the airport people were watching the semi-final ice hockey game. Down to the gate and my first trip to the US since the Xmas day incident. Had all my carryon stuff manually searched, which was annoying, and very time consuming. I was the first person to board one of the only Boeing flights of the trip and was very happy with the low loading so I had a whole row to myself. De-icing (unnecessary in my opinion on this occasion) took a long time but due to quick boarding we still made it on time. StudioCX satisfied as usual as did the catering. We arrived at JFK and I had the opposite immigration experience to Canada; I have never had any problems with US immigration. Got my bag and took the skytrain to t4 and was shocked to find a massive queue for LAN check in stretching almost the whole building. I soon learnt of the massive earthquake in Chile which was requiring large scale reroutings for most passengers. Fortunately I was on the final leg of a flight from Santiago and the plane took off from Chile hours before the disaster. Thankfully the business class check in line was still functioning well and I was pleasantly notified of a free upgrade. T4 was built just months before September 11 so there is no inline baggage screening which requires lining up to dump your bag at the screening point after checking in. This line was also humongous due to the reliably hopeless TSA. Headed to the third party lounge LAN use and was very impressed by it, which is very unusual to find a decent 3rd party lounge. Boarded my classe executivo seat to find the business cabin very empty, which made the 1 hour flight even more pleasant. I managed a quick test of the full-flat bed, my first 180-degree experience whilst enjoying a great Chilean SBS. My immigration experience was a little better than last time entering Canada and I was on the airport express bus soon after. Dumped my stuff at the hotel and went about exploring Toronto, which I was deprived of last time I try to visit due to weather, flight and baggage delays. I enjoyed the sights and can imagine the waterfront and islands being nice places to be in summer.

Woke early for a very good buffet brekkie and then went to the main train station to pick up my rental car for the day. The main goal was to get to Niagara Falls, and this was the cheapest way thanks to the sorry-its-a-toyota discount. It was weird driving for the first time in a month, especially on the wrong side of the road. I successfully navigated my way onto the highway where it soon started snowing. Traffic still moved well and the speed limit was routinely ignored by everyone. Made it to the border and located the hidden free car park. There is a lot of Vegas style development on both sides of the falls but I was just interested in the natural attraction. Just as I happened to be leaving did the sun chose to come out of the dreariness. Anyways it was back along the horseshoe coastline of lake Ontario to Toronto. En route I enjoyed some typical North American cultural activities such as the mall and drive through, things that can only be accessed with a vehicle. The radio stations were abundant (one every .2 MHz) but the quality was abysmal across the board, seems there are no rock channels and anything remotely electronic is banned. Also it was strange to get interference on FM channels as they are so close together. I also did my first proper laundry of the trip and timed it quite well, just before the game that stopped a nation, the gold medal ice hockey game against the US. Unfortunately as it was also a Sunday there were still some unpatriotic Canadians around doing their entire wardrobes worth of washing, sometimes with their curtains and doonas as well. Dumped my newly washed clothes at the hotel and then dumped the car. On walk back through downtown people all of a sudden erupted out of nowhere yelling and screaming, I guessed that the Canadians had won. The level of pandemonium rose quickly to the level where horns were honking nonstop and there was beer flowing freely in the streets. It was going to be a long night with everyone overjoyed.

Back on the airport express bus I took advantage of their free wifi during the peak hour traffic. At the airport I “entered” the US at the preclearance facility and again endured the manual carryon baggage search, which was taxing in an airport space that clearly was not designed with this sort of rigmarole n mind. Hopped on the CRJ for the short flight across lake Michigan and was on the shuttle to my airport hotel in no time.

Began my long journey back to the lucky country with the first sleep-in in ages. Checked in and was over the moon to find my upgrade on the a380 had cleared. Chilled in the admirals club until boarding the 767 to LAX where they showed Up in the Air, what a shock. After arriving in LA I made my way to “gate” 44 where all the busses are to other terminals. Upon arrival at the International terminal I couldn’t believe it was below my already low expectations. I can see why the crazy German bus lady was encouraging people to stay at T4 until the last minute, especially according to her Wednesdays are the busiest days due to 2 Qantas a380s departing. Made my way to the new oneworld lounge, which was nice but too small for the level of patronage, think Perth circa 5am. However the food and beverages on offer were great and it was nice to be in a lounge where there is free wifi for all (are you listening AA?). Boarding shortly to Sydney…

Posted by paceway 19:29 Tagged air_travel Comments (0)

TIA: This is Africa

Helsinki-Amsterdam-Amman-Alexandria-Cairo-Luxor-Brussels-Madrid-Porto


View 2010 on paceway's travel map.

Another Helsinki bus gate to the rather full a320. I really don't understand the logic of who gets a proper gate here as I see e-jets at the terminal. Slightly delayed flight but I had a long connection anyway. Being on enemy (skyteam) territory at Amsterdam was a big difference, oneworld transfer facilities were non-existent, so no boarding pass for me until boarding time. It’s handy that the “transfer” facilities are after going through immigration so I couldn’t go and get my boarding pass at regular checkin. This meant no lounge access and the rent-a-lounge people were useless in terms of getting me a boarding pass. To soothe my anxieties there was plenty of walking to do in this overly large and inefficient transit airport. Schipol is pretty much a stock standard “average” big airport, though the small Rijksmuseum was a nice diversion. Bought some Egyptian pounds and headed to my gate, which was at the very end of a long pier. They do security at the gates (like SIN) which annoys me to no end, plus when the gate staff finally turned up the boarding pass printer was broken so mine was handwritten on a bit of paper; good luck claiming FF points! Also that meant another transit desk experience when in Jordan, at least its firmly on Oneworld territory. The first Royal Jordanian flight of this trip was surprisingly full, unfortunately the IFE died shortly after takeoff which is normally quite good AVOD particularly on an a319. The food was great with 3 choices and oddly for an Arab airline alcohol was flowing like it was going out of fashion. Wine was served generously from the bottle and spirits likewise had no pourers so everyone was kept very happy during the 5 hour flight; maybe this was to compensate for the lack of IFE? Thankfully we arrived on time jut after dusk in Amman and my transit desk experience was painless so I was in the fantastic crown lounge in no time. It was only a brief 15 minute recharge but very useful to stock up on numerous prepackaged items. I headed down to the bus gate for my Alexandria flight where it was chaos, 3 flights at the same time with the same gate. Staff haphazardly updating the gate “signs” (powerpoint) made it difficult to know who was to go where and when. Luckily got on the right bus and was on the E75 after a longish bus ride which showed how far the new terminal construction has come along in the 12 months since I was here last. It is desperately needed. Another full flight but it was only a short hop to Egypt so not too bad. I didn’t understand the catering though, a roll with a single lonely slice of cheese and then another roll with a single slice of ham; hey guys why don’t you put them together? Arrived in Alexandria where it was immediately apparent that the airport is due to close within weeks; a brand new airport has just been finished much further out of town. The visa on arrival “process” was a big reminder I was in Africa. After procuring one and then being amazed that my bag made the connections I was in a 50 year old merc heading towards my coastal downtown accommodation, sans seatbelts and smelling like diesel. Pleasantly surprised by my very colonial hotel and was soon deeply sleeping after a long day of travel.

My first full day in Africa was spent checking out the city sights on foot. First stop was the train station where I needed to buy a ticket to Cairo for later. This was difficult with my limited Arabic and no western numerals. There are different windows for different classes and destinations. Eventually found out that there were no tickets available to meet my needs, travelling on the equivalent of a Monday morning for commuters. This was frustrating after spending time and baksheesh. Plan B was the bus, which I ended up getting a ticket for later that afternoon. I headed back to the corniche along the med and walked to the impressive Alexandria library which was packed with locals. I walked back to the centre of town near the tramline that had bizarre (Nothing like HK) double deck trams joined with standard single deck. Like the service taxis here, they don’t really stop, you just get on. I went the opposite way down the corniche in the afternoon past some impressive mosques to the old fort on a point packed with family groups and fishermen. Had some kebabesque food for dinner.

Time to head to the bus station just a little out of town. Pleasantly located next to a tip it was a challenge to find the “right” bus. Despite practicing my Arabic the night before. It was handy most were going to Cairo but I had to find one who would take me with my prepaid ticket. Strangely they take allocated seating very seriously, unlike my previous bus experiences in the baltics. The bus was slow but cheap and I was a novelty as the only foreigner. I surprised myself by getting off the bus in Cairo right where I wanted, walking distance to my hostel. Traffic is Vietnam style just with cars instead of motorbikes, which makes negotiating traffic as a pedestrian slightly easier, you still just cross as the few traffic lights here are just for decoration. The hostel is on the top floor of a large apartment block so good views of the very smoggy skyline. Non-functioning air con was an annoyance but I was only staying the one night. Hit the crazy streets to Islamic Cairo (actually no more Islamic than the rest of Cairo) where the most elaborate mosque is and also the citadel providing good views of the Nile. Walking back to the hostel I really enjoyed just watching the everyday street life play out around me. The mosque next door to the hostel was a major hassle blaring prayers for much of the evening and then at dawn again.

Next day I began with an Egyptian breakfast and then was on my way to the pyramids across the river. I hired a driver for half a day so we left early. Despite this the 24/7 bad traffic slowed us but we still managed to reach the Giza pyramids (the famous ones) before most tour busses. On the way we passed a petrol station where a bus was majorly on fire, but no one seemed to care much. I was very impressed that my student card worked at all the sights I visited so half price admission, which really added up. The sphinx was a little underwhelming but the pyramids themselves were much larger than I imagined and were amazing to see. As expected touts were everywhere but I didn’t really fit their typical demographic so didn’t get too much hassle. Baksheesh was the order of the day to gain access to “closed” tombs etc. It was awesome to satisfy my inner Indiana Jones and actually go into some of the pyramids and their strange designs. All my primary school Egypt project stuff came flooding back. Next was the Saqqara site where lesser know older pyramids where located, including the very first one that started this weird craze thousands of years ago. The best interior was here complete with traps and all. Then down the road to Memphis where the main attraction was statue of Ramses in a “garden”. After this it was back up the road and across the Nile to the city. I spent the afternoon checking out Coptic (Christian) Cairo and then also had a look at the island suburb in the middle of the river, home of the very minaret looking Cairo tower. Got chatting to some locals in a park and went and had some tea on the street. Back at the hostel had a bit of time to kill before heading to the airport and got talking to some Canadians that just arrived from Jordan. Made it through the peak hour (not much difference) traffic to the new terminal 3 exclusively for Egypt air. Checked in and didn’t know what to do with myself on my first star alliance flight for a long time. The airport was relatively quiet, I guess they actually built it with room for growth, so had lots of space to chill, which was good after the hustle and bustle of a city with the population of my country. Bussed to yet another full E70 and had a brief chat with the pilots who were having a preflight smoke on the stairs. Straightforward 50min flight however the luggage took ages to appear and I was pretty tired by the time I reached the hotel at about midnight. After they finally found my reservation I slept very well.

Luxor was like a tiny country town compared to Cairo and it is clearly very dependent on tourism. After a late start and dodgy Egyptian brekkie it was time to check out the rive droit sights starting with Karnak temple, the largest such in existence. I ambled my way through town and randomly ran into a Japanese guy looking for Karnak aswell. We soon found the entrance and toured the site together, alas my student getup failed in this hardy tourist town. We then headed down the corniche along the Nile to the Luxor temple. My new friend was amused at locals always assuming he was chinese, of which there were many, though Europeans were ubiquitous. The sun was going down and bright coloured lights lit up the monuments. We parted ways as my touring companion had to sort out some accommodation issues after being taken for a ride earlier. I felt sorry for him as a typical Japanese person his English wasn’t great and the Egyptians are always trying to scam some cash out of foreigners, especially in Luxor. Hopefully I helped him regain his faith in non-group travel, as a Japanese I was shocked to find him on his own, but then again his circumstances were very similar to mine. Had a self catering disaster with some tinned Russian fish product turning out to be fish brains not tuna as I was hoping. But bringing bulk bottled water with me was still a good idea.

Next day it was across the river on a felucca to the left bank where the attractions where more distant so I hired a taxi for a half day. My itinerary began at the Valley of the Kings where most pharoic royalty is buried, including Tutankhamen. With the entry ticket you got 3 tomb entries of your choice so headed to the most distant and difficult ones. Despite my legs being sore from a lot of archaeology of recent days they were still very satisfying as they were still quite well preserved and devoid of other older fatter tourists. I was surprised by how hot some were despite going down quite deep. Then it was around the (rather large) corner to the valley of the queens which featured an impressive temple complex. I couldn’t get over the people mover craze taking American tourists 500m up a sealed flat road from the ticket office to the actual site for an exorbitant fee that is rampant down in south Egypt. Finally we stopped by the Habu temple, which is massively underrated, and has some fantastically preserved hieroglyphics and towers. Then it was back across the river, this time by a kid no older than 8. I was pretty buggered after a lot of climbing and walking so headed straight back to the hotel after getting back to the city side of the Nile. On the walk back I witnessed a fatal motorbike/car accident, which was a telling reminder of the daily carnage on the roads here, and made me glad I had travel insurance. Caved and plumped for maccas which is a big deal here.

Time to leave the third world and headed to the airport, with full knowledge (free wifi) that I had a long day ahead of me as the inbound was late leaving Europe. Managed to find the right checkin desk amongst the sea of Air Berlin flights, 5 in 90 mins. Got told the flight was gonna be late and got some paltry refreshment vouchers which would be sufficient downtown but not at airport prices. Though was surprised to see my boarding pass not for the seat I had paid for (3 euro) but a K seat indicating a wide body which was puzzling. All was revealed once we finally boarded to find a Qantas era 767-300 instead of the anticipated new 737-800, as it went tech in Brussels so they subbed this last minute instead. My first semi-charter/scheduled “holiday” type flight was not something I will be rushing to do again, it’s the Europe equivalent of a package flight to bali. The all economy plane flew 20 minutes to the coastal resort of marsa alam before heading to Brussels to complete the triangular route. Interesting that seating is arranged into meal (prepaid) and no-meal sections. Immigration was surprisingly robust for Europe; I guess the only non-eu passport on the entire flight does stand out. Despite this the baggage service was excruciatingly slow. Due to arriving 3 hours late the free shuttle to my airport hotel had finished for the night so I was stuck with getting a taxi at the welcome-back-to-the-first-world price of 20 euro for 5 kms.

Got as much sleep as I could before having to get up and head back to the airport. Brussels airport is way better than schipol and was pleasantly surprised to find Iberia have their own lounge here (not rent-a-lounge) with plenty of cans of stella just begging to be taken to Portugal. The food was a bit lacking so I had a Quick breakfast (get it?). The A321 left on time and it was nice to be on a flight that wasn’t full for a change. I was disappointed to find on my first Iberia shorthaul flight that not even water is free! 2.5 hours later was at the lovely Barajas airport t4, the Dali lounge to be exact. A quick 15 minute plundering was all I could afford, as my gate was a regional gate it was at a far corner of the spacious terminal. I was grateful an airline had confidence in my legs as I didn’t have to endure an insultingly inefficient 100m bus ride like at some airports. Boarded the CRJ900 for the 50min and 50% full flight to Porto. I love that the regional flight attendants everywhere are always way younger and enthusiastic than their older craggier mainline counterparts. Flew in with a great view of the city and touched down right on time at the modern terminal. Bags were prompt and I was on the impressive metro in no time. Interesting ticketing system with cardboard chip cards that cost 50 cents but are reloadable. Was at my lodging in 30mins flat, despite the hilly city centre. The metro system only in existence for less than 10 years was a good spend of 3.5 billion euro in my opinion.

First proper day back on the continent and I headed out to the casa do musica a very contemporary concert hall and tried in vain to get tickets for the evenings cello recital but it was all sold out. Then I strolled down to the river Douro past some old churches and laneways. Porto is the home of many cool Port caves, which people drink heaps of here (surprise) and it’s cheap as chips with some budget stuff at about one euro per litre, which makes goon look expensive. I think I've been in Europe too long as I found the 15 degree sun a little warm. But I still enjoyed walking down along the river then up the steep hillside and across the many bridges, including some designed by gustav Eiffel’s protégés. Can definitely see why it makes such a great location for the red bull air race. Decided to explore this more residential side of the river and ended up semi lost on some farm. I eventually made it back to the river and tried to cross but the nearest bridges were a train only and freeway only bridge, pedestrians apparently aren’t meant to exist here. Back down to the river I went and bush bashed my way along the muddy shore along an old path with some missing bridges and vicious spiky vines, so much so that they tore my jeans, but it was fun. I finally got back on the beaten track and made it to the main side of town and back to my hotel right on one of the main squares. I love Portugal because proper restaurants here are cheaper than fast food (actually everything is cheap on the euro scale) and there is this cool reverse colonial influence. Can definitely see why our German friends have their holiday house in Portugal.

The rain that caused the deadly floods in Madeira has arrived today, but here it is only light intermittent drizzle. I head out to see the main stadium in town at the end of the metro and also spot a UFO type dome structure, which apparently is the basketball stadium. The rain lends itself to indoor pursuits so I am glad I covered so much ground yesterday; though I did check the forecast. Porto is like Perth on a Sunday, dead. Though some shops are open and there are some tourists around it does get slippery on some of the steep streets here. I’m still loving not having to buy bottled water every few days. Do a bit of laundry in the bidet and watch some subtitled trash on the public broadcaster. Nice lazy Sunday before the final hectic fortnight; will be flying on everyday but two.

Posted by paceway 21.02.2010 14:17 Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Return to HEL

Riga-Tallinn-Helsinki

sunny -10 °C
View 2010 on paceway's travel map.

Today was time to check out the rive gauche. Walked over the river with the aim of getting to the imposing TV tower on an island in the river. My intentionally circuitous route took me past the ferry terminal where there were no vessels but many people trying their luck ice fishing. Some were armed with huge corkscrew type drills and all seemed quite happy just sitting there waiting. Got stuck walking along a highway due to the lack of bridges, and also bridges that lacked any facilities for pedestrians. I decided to go down to the iced over river instead which got me where I wanted way faster and also much more peacefully. On my way I saw some crazy guy cut a whole in the ice to take a quick dip. The TV tower ended up being closed, and only open for tours anyways. On my way home I exchanged my remaining Lats for Kroons, which is a great currency in that it is pretty much all note based so very easy to exchange.

Geared up for my last long distance bus trip and arrived at the bus station to wait for the bus. I was pleased to find it was actually the type I paid for with wifi for most of the journey, which was quite slow due to a full load of passengers. There were also video screens blaring a bizarre combination of music videos, though very much 80’s focussed. Again we had to stop at the border. A kiwi backpacker sporting the jesus look got the third degree from the authorities but we were eventually on our way again. I successfully managed to get to me lodgings via the Tallinn tram network in peak hour. Located at the port, everything was closed so I briskly walked into town for supplies. The accommodation is a steal, cheaper than some hostels I walked past, plus the wifi is superb.

Tallinn’s old town was the main target today and I arrived to find it the touristiest place in the baltics. I was surprised to see touts and even asian tourists in the low season. I’m glad I came in winter, as this place would be absolutely overrun in summer. That said it is quite nice and I did manage to find some quiet streets to myself. Up the top where the pink parliament building is there were some decent views out across the Baltic sea and to the city. I was again satisfied by Hesburger and also the largest regular beer can I have ever seen.

My final day in the Baltics I hit up the museums that were now open, as in winter their hours are very limited. First up was the Estonian maritime museum located on a corner of the old town in a tower along the old city wall. Aptly named Fat Margaret’s tower, the museum was deceptively large and with decent amount of English. The place was deserted so people missed out on the great views from the open-air roof six floors up. It was interesting to see the large number of wrecks recently located off the coast, with connections to the HMAS Sydney team. Next stop was the east side of town where there is an old castle and park which had many ice and snow sculptures. It was cool to see a snow sculpture being made right there by a local pro. On the other side of the park was the flagship Estonian art museum, the kumu. This building was the most expensive public building in the country to build. The collection starts out with classics at the bottom and then as you work your way up through the building the pieces become more contemporary. The vast majority of the works were Estonian, however most studied and worked overseas at some point in their lives. There was a temporary Finnish pop art exhibition which was a good laugh. The shop was closed for “commercial reasons” and I was intrigued to see people getting wedding photos taken in the building. I guess it does stand out in architecturally bland Tallinn. That said there is definitely a more Scandinavian feel about this country with Finnish heard a fair bit, also their language is related. Walked home via the strange abandoned heliport just next to my hotel, which is now a great tobogganing spot.

Off to the ferry terminal this morning where I arrived to find check in had stalled due to technical problems. Getting the manual procedures happening took some time and I eventually got my boarding pass and made the long walk to the fluoro coloured Superstar. We left slightly late due to the additional manual processing time. Unfortunately the huge ship is designed for sleeping, shopping and eating, not short trips so it was difficult to find some corner where you could sit without having to buy something. I found somewhere and found that the boat wifi was slower than the terminal wifi. A young businessman sat down at my booth and we got talking about the woes of the European economy. He was on his way to pitch to investors in Finland for capital. The voyage grew more turbulent (and noisy) due to ice and this caused further delay to our arrival time. We disembarked and I scored a free taxi ride to the main station as my new acquaintance was heading nearby anyways. It was strange seeing Helsinki blanketed in snow, as when I was here last it was autumn and still green and sunny. I resisted the temptation of the Finnair bus right where I got out of the cab and went across the station to the public bus for half the price. It took longer but it was interesting to go through the dormitory suburbs and then through Vantaa itself. Got to the airport and walked to my hotel to find a package waiting for me, just like the last time I rocked up at a Helsinki hotel; weird. Very Finnish room and loads of info promoting the sauna. Bought supplies with me from Tallinn, as airports aren’t known for cheap food, especially in Finland. It’s also good to be able to confidently drink tap water again.

I write from the silver wings lounge after a very quick checkin and security, thank you sapphire. The lounge is thankfully much emptier now than my last peak hour visit, so I can actually see out the windows to the dark runway plus there is abundant food. Wifi also way better now. Got my bags checked through to Alexandria but will have to get boarding passes in Amsterdam. Boarding in 10mins.

Posted by paceway 11.02.2010 21:15 Comments (0)

Not quite Russia

Vilnius-Riga

sunny -10 °C
View 2010 on paceway's travel map.

Press play for Regurgitator's 2 minute take on the baltics.

My last day in Lithuania began in the main public park in town, Vingis park. It was a nice stroll to the opposite side of town to where I spent the previous day. The snow-blanketed park was deserted. I wandered through trails of various size and also went off-piste bravely walking on the frozen Negris river. This abruptly came to an end where I saw some footprints followed by a person sized whole in the ice. The cracking sound was starting to annoy me anyways. Made my way around to the botanic gardens and passed a rugby field and a soccer pitch. Then I hit a huge clearing with a weird shell structure, which I later found was a concert venue. Decided to make my own path across it, but was stuffed when I got to the middle and it was almost upto my waist, had to keep going. On my way out of the park was deafened by some woodpeckers and also spotted a squirrel. Walked back through more residential area and continued to be surprised by the amount of Lukoil petrol stations. Statoil pretty much had all the others. Returned just at the sun was calling it a day. Appreciated some English-language TV (absent in Nagoya) before heading out later. Also polish Viva was good for a laugh. I went down to the lobby to meet a Lithuanian friend of a friend where I was soon whisked away to a waiting taxi in which was also his jovial girlfriend. We were quickly at a nice little steak house down in the old town where I devoured a great piece of meat which was my first proper meal in ages. I was also reacquainted with the most well known local beer, Syvturas, which I had had before courtesy of Dan Murphy’s. It was good to get the real lowdown on the country from locals, who comprehensively answered all my random questions. Next stop was the Tamsta rock club I had noticed on my previous explorings in the old town where they were holding a charity gig for Haiti. I gave my donation to the red cross to get in and found the place was packed, which was surprising for so early on a weeknight. I later found out they raised about AU$2000 on the night which is a pretty good effort! The local bands that played were pretty good, but the setup up with half chairs and tables and half standing, gave the place a weird atmosphere. Sank some more syvturas and was amused by the bong-looking beer towers, kinda like a yard glass with a tap, being brought out to the tables at a cracking pace. After a while it was time to move on to somewhere quieter where we could talk. It took me a while to get used to cloaking at every venue on a night out again. We walked down to what was expected to be a jazz club to find it blaring hippity hop to an audience of 3 or so people. Instead we went to the cool semi cave like Bix bar playing indie/rock tunes where we remained until closing time, which was thankfully much later than at home. Regardless it came round all of sudden and we were the last ones to leave. My hosts took care of me superbly and I was saying farewell back at my hotel in no time. I had a fantastic time with my new Lithuanian friends and wished I could have stayed longer in this cool country. I really hope to see them again either in Europe or in Australia soon.

The next day was a very late start to complement the late night. It was pretty much straight to the bus station which was conveniently adjacent to the nearby main train station. Luckily I checked the website as the timetable had moved an hour earlier from when I booked online. When the bus rocked up it was a much lower quality one than originally booked aswell, great communication guys. Disappointing as this was at least it wasn’t full, as I hate bus trips at the best of times. Please Baltics get your intercity passenger rail links together. The trip was slow on a one lane highway for most of the trip crammed with trucks, and was capped off with a lengthy border stop; despite being in the schengen zone I was perplexed. Another passenger had to be taken off and interviewed for half an hour before we could continue. We still managed to make it into Riga just on time to the midst of Friday night peak hour. The sweeping flat fields of snow where replaced with a large city on a wide river that seemed to come out of nowhere, or maybe I just fell asleep along the way. My accommodation was through the hangars of the central market which was filled with an amazing variety of produce and merchandise of the legal and not so legal variety. This place is a step up from the last joint and even cheaper, go figure. Weird window shutters in place of curtains but at last I wasn’t next to any noisy lifts this time. Went out to firstly change money, which took ages, as apparently it’s what all the cool Latvian kids also do on Friday nights. The valuation of the currency is unusual in that most things cost cents not whole units (Lats). Dunno if they recently knocked some zeroes off it or something? Supermarket dinner to compensate for the previous nights extravagance and decided to make it exciting and take advantage of the huge amount of Russian goods (probably 50%) on the shelves. Due to my lack of Cyrillic reading skills I cant tell you exactly what I ate but it tasted OK and was cheap. Onto the important stuff, saw my first Australian bar of the trip and what a doozy it was. Called “Bumberang” it was a massive bummer, but at least there was very little mention of fosters in this underground hole. Also found a place called Steam, which is apparently all powered by steam. It billed itself as a” futuristic night venue” but instead looked like they had bought all the left over props/sets from the 90’s Will Smith movie the Wild West.

Commenced with a decent buffet at the hotel pub, the Baltic pancakes were a big hit. Then hit the streets, crossing through the large central station to the old part of town. Full of a combination of architectural styles it was interesting to compare against the hillier, smaller and more cohesive Vilnius version. It was nice to have the streets pretty much to myself due to the area being subject to a congestion tax, which could be paid via SMS. Also there were surprisingly few other tourists around. I expected that during the week, but thought people would take weekend visits bring a ryanair hub and all. Anyways this allowed me to have Hesburger all to myself at lunch, it’s the Finnish version of Quick (which is the French answer to le macdo) with dill being the answer to everything, which I totally agree with. The variety of languages around confuses me greatly at times, with probably half the people speaking Russian, another large chunk Latvian and then there are visitors from other Baltic states as well. The Russian influence here is immense compared to Lithuania, for example the Stalinist-style academy of sciences building is exactly like the ministry of culture building in Warsaw, just a bit shorter. Though there are a lot of German art-nouveau inspired buildings the Russian standard designs are even more plentiful. One of the bridges is also the same as the main one the soviets built to cross the Danube in Bratislava. All the Russian I learned from all the 60’s bond movies is finally coming in handy here, as I figure I’ve got a better chance getting by with that than Latvian. The city is biggest in the baltics, and reflects the highly central urbanised nature of the country. I was impressed by the Riga castle, where the current president resides, which also manages to squeeze enough space to also be the home of two museums. No photos today as the weather was brilliant, the first blue sunny skies for some times. This caused the temperature to be chillier than previously, the high was -10. Tonight just chilling enjoying the worlds greatest tv channel, deutsch mtv.

Posted by paceway 06.02.2010 10:17 Comments (0)

Back on the Road

Perth-Hong Kong-Taipei-Nagoya-Helsinki-Vilnius

all seasons in one day
View 2010 on paceway's travel map.


I have quickly learned that 30 minutes of prep for a 5 week trip is less than satisfactory.

But I left regardless due to having to drop someone else off at the domestic airport at the same time. Due to the lack of love between Qantas and Cathay all their ground handling is done by Toll Dnata (Emirates subsidiary). Due to the absence of Amadeus they couldn’t see my whole itinerary so some annoyingly unnecessary questions about visa one way tickets etc, in the end they just gave up and believed me when I said I had a RTW ticket.

The QF pub was packed with snooty South Africans; most were of the living dead, with 15 wheelchairs preboarding the Joburg flight alone! There were also some cashed up bogans waiting for a much delayed jetstar flight to bali. There was a very noticeable difference after walking the length of the terminal to the gate (again no qf loving) where they’re some fellow solo white male travellers to pepper the sea of yellow. Boarding was the usual Perth shambles with the check in peeps running up to do the departure stuff. There was only a token effort made at boarding by status and row. Regardless we impressively managed to get away on time, with the almost full plane only on the ground for a total of 75 mins. Forgot how much I love the CX Olympus economy product, awesome legroom and guaranteed no recline. Great uncensored entertainment options and 3 menu choices for meals. However I did have too good a view of the mini business cabin ahead which was distracting with its mood lighting etc.

Record flight time of just over 7 hours, was pissed they did the window shade nazi approach which almost denied me a great sunrise. Connecting gate info displayed promptly with about half the pax connecting. Our plane did another lean mean turnaround and was off to Sydney 90mins later. My next flight was only 2 gates away but I still had to suss out the brand new Qantas pub. It was very different to the old open-air setup but much improved falling under the QF global design scheme. Unfortunately its a bunker, but barista service was welcome addition and on demand pancakes. The things we sacrifice for views. I was disappointed I had to share the now much larger pub with a delayed Melbourne flight but gorged myself anyways, as part of my feast and famine regime. That means stuff yourself at the free lounges, scam as much prepacked stuff as your bag can take and then that has to last until the next airport lounge visit. At least the new Qantas offering provides a passable back-up option to the wing/pier (CX) should they be full.

Jumped on the plane to find the regional seats unfortunately as planed. They didn’t even bother turning on the video options on the 1st gen studio cx system for the 1 hour to Taipei. Despite the short fight (didn’t get above 32,000 feet) we got decent refreshment. I was pleased to be offered the option of remaining onboard for the layover but chose to set foot in Taiwan instead. Mistake, Taipei airport gives manila a good run for the title of worst Asian capital city airport. 50’s lino, wood and asbestos was the order of the day, plus I swear I was the only white person in the entire joint. No escalators only stairs, whiteboards and magnets for flight info signs, pretty poor. One benefit though the security screen was a breeze, they didn’t even care we were there as everyone beeped, no need to take out LAGS or laptops, it was great. Anyways soon back on the plane with a new cockpit crew but same cabin crew. Cathay still, despite recent cutbacks due to improving politics, still has a significant operation there, saw 4 other CX planes moving around in the 80 minutes we were on the ground.

Got stuck into the loop video options and found the Australia network channel which was good. Coffee must have worn off as I Fell asleep without realising. Thankfully the staff woke me for lunch, then a few asahi's later I was asleep again. The audacious island airport appeared and unfortunately was a ghost town, only one other plane in sight dwarfed by the large terminal complex. I think they should tow the island to Taipei where it might actually be used at more than 10% of its capacity. However there were an abnormally high number of people on the viewing deck. So many that I considered a celebrity arrival imminent or some such because I don’t think there would school excursions or group tours to an airport on a Saturday. I was done with immigration in 5 seconds due to me being the only one in the foreigner line. Bag was quick and then I was over the bridge to the transit centre in 2mins. Hit an atm, then the train ticket machine and waited a few mins for the next express. Was a typical soulless but functional Japanese affair but platform barrier gates were unusual. Also driver cam with speed was a nice touch. 30 mins later was in the heart of town and found my lodgings with ease. Room is standard Japanese, tiny. The establishment is a bit trippy in general as its sort of round building with really small (5 foot) doors everywhere. Japan is not for the claustrophobic. Don’t get me started about the bathroom. Was knackered with no sleep for 36 hours and only 5 showers in the past 10 days. Quickly went 100m back to the jr station for maccdonaroo setto. Enjoyed a prawn burger but didn’t enjoy the pain emanating from my knees after trying to sit at the kid size tables. Did enjoy Japanese TV, plastic surgery ads, text everywhere and the ultra-slow news cycle. Toyota recalls still big news and yokazuna (sumo) dodginess. Always keen to hit up one of the literally millions of vending machines, got a "Pocket Juicer Stand" which is a bizarre white peach/jelly drink thing. Also a Blendy, which was a decent iced cofffee. The beer wars are in full swing now that Kirin and Asahi own everything. There was a massive advertising push to get people drinking alcohol free beer for breakfast and also for young hipster chicks to drink beer. Desperatation in a declining market methinks.

Hit up the streets of Nagoya, taking advantage of my almost 100% functioning feet and weather just begging to rain (explained later). First stop was Oasis 21, or really just a fancy bus station. Roof top pond pumping out Christina Aguilera amongst others, great family fun. Next door went to the Aichi Trienalle at the Aichi art precinct. Good stuff on offer with nice western and Japanese selections, particularly my favourite, 20th century stuff. Then followed Central Park (original huh?) up to the main park in town, forgot its name. This park had evidence of the sister city relationship with LA in the form of 5% of the Hollywood walk of fame being replicated! Walked past the half asian/euro town hall and then onwards to the main event, Nagoya castle. Bombed in the dying moments of WWII it was rebuilt, as all old Japanese shit is anyways, in 1959. The benefit of the bombing was you can actually go in this one! Got jumped at the entrance by some volunteer “guides”. Deal was free tour in exchange for an English lesson, I took it. We both struggled but I think it was worth it, just. We eventually made it through the grounds stopping at every statute, tearoom etc, where they would spend a minute trying to put together a sentence. We finally made it to the castle, which was a little tacky but each floor has exhibitions models etc. The view from the top was quite good and I was surprised to learn that it was a “quiet” day, looked pretty busy to me. Once we exited the main bit the drizzle was apparent but I showed my true gaijin colours by surviving without an umbrella. I managed to get rid of my guides, who handed me business cards in parting, despite my “I’m just a student” getup. Darkness was approaching so I got a little lost but eventually made my way home on foot just as it started to pour. Got home soaked and had a fantastic dinner courtesy of the nextdoor Lawson. Had no idea what I ate. Also if you're in Nagoya check out the aptly named "Asian Bar"..

Next morning got a JR ticket to Ise, the holiest (Shinto) place in Japan. Splashed out for a reserved seat and all so my bit of the 2-car train was quiet. Weird little diesel railcar thing, can see why JR want to close the line. 90 mins later was in Iseshi and heading to the temple. I love how you can go 90 mins and be somewhere in the fifties destroying the image of advanced Japan. Good to know it’s all bought on public credit. Liberated sans map I made it and found the domestic tourist focus, as unlike most of Japan there was no English signage. I just went down any path that looked good. Found the main bit, which you can’t actually go in unless you are related to the Emperor, but it has a cool thatched fence with many police around. The hills and grounds were extremely green (did I mention it was drizzling the whole time?), and lakes and bridges very Japanese garden serene. After seeing the outer and inner shrine (well all meer mortals could see) and the accompanying mini temples I went two stops down the line to the coast. Furutami, home of the wedded rocks. The rain got worse as we approached the coast and I was shocked to find a Japanese train station with no fare gates, I just wasted 250 yen! Walked to the famous rocks, actually got my camera out (big effort given the weather) then headed back to the station to buy my return ticket from an 80 year Japanese dude. Got the local, changed later to an express and finally hit the rapid some stations later. Was home just before dark, but was stuffed from some serious foot mileage.

Today was off to Europe! Got up hugely excited and went straight to the Meitessu (private) station. Actually I stoped off at the passport photo booth just ext to where I was staying for my Egyptian visa later. Anyway got caught in the last remnants of peak hour people traffic. Meitstsu have a bigger operation than JR here but with only a quarter of the platforms, Trains every 30 seconds, utilising the Spanish Solution (Wikipedia that shit). Got to the airport, checked in, where the contractors (swissport) struggled with getting me checking to Vilnius as it involved two separate tickets, the supervisor got it together in the end. Then to the amazingly huge observation deck. It was through the skyplaza, great bit of airport shopping, stupidly all landside. Anyways the ob deck, no security, no fees, great vies. Plus café and it many enthusiasts and day trippers. Got some good snaps before freezing and then headed airside. A little worried my inbound was 30mins late due to my 1 hour connection in Helsinki, but credit to the ground crew we manage to leave a few minutes early. Flight was great (80% full, no-one next to me), had a nice regular supply of Lapin Kulta’s (the other alternative was called Koff, sound healthy?) and enough on demand content to get me though. Landed 15 mins early, this made all the difference at rush hour in Helsinki as 5 mins after I got in the then short security queue erupted with literally thousands of people queuing to who knows where. Plus the dumbest security people I have seen for a while. Maybe because they looked like they just came from a heavy metal gig, Mohawk, piercings everywhere and all under 25; at least I knew I wasn’t in Asia anymore. Stopped by the finnair schengen lounge for 5 minutes which was shit, one tiny room and was packed. Then ran to my gate far far away and hopped on the bus just before it left, stopping to get the latest Economist was worth it as it was impossible to get at Nagoya. The Fincomm flight was uneventful and perfectly on time. My first Embraer flight was only 50% full. Finally got my freezing cold bag and hit the traino. Single track, 2 car affair but private service and never got more than 55km/h. Cost me a whole aussie dollar. Easily found my place to crash and that I did.

Woke early the next day (go time difference) and went to the free brekkie. Kinda felt like that bit in the movie Eurotrip in “eastern europe” as I paid didley squat but the brekkie was full buffet and then they ask what hot stud you want made to order, got a very decent omelette full table service with my own personal plate of cold meats and massive bread basket. Anyways then it was time to hit the street of Vilnius. Armed with a dodgy hotel map I head off to the places I could see from my room, which was quite a lot. It was awesome just walking the quite snow filled streets on a clear sunny day with great old architecture everywhere. Climbed a few hills for some nice views and then paid a visit to the KGB museum. I am gonna try on the student thing as far as it will get me. It liked to call itself the genocide museum but that was a abit of long bow in my book. It was very similar to the one in Budapest, another unfortunate soviet outpost invade by the germans and Russians. But the torture and execution rooms were quite graphic. Water boarding has been popular for a while it seems. Very impressed with the level of English on the displays, with every single item captioned in both languages. Only disappointment was the sometimes overly subjective language used. Then crossed the river and stopped by a supermarket. The beer prices reminded me why I love Europe, a six pack of 500ml cans for $2. Also saw beer in PET bottles, which I had heard about from friends back home; maybe it was always there I just never noticed it was actually beer? Managed to retrace my steps back to where I was staying, which was unfortunately all uphill. Darkness soon fell and I got my tech in order.

More to come. Photos are on facebook.

Posted by paceway 03.02.2010 07:31 Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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