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ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Across Siberia to Southeast Asia, Fiji and the American West

ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Across Siberia to Southeast Asia, Fiji and the American West

Old Jun 14, 17, 2:26 pm
  #1  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,628
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: Across Siberia to Southeast Asia, Fiji and the American West

In retrospect, it seems like only yesterday that I was hit by the sudden notion that it might be a good idea to check United’s Mileage Plus website to see if they had any good mileage sales going on. In reality it was about six months ago on a blustery November afternoon in northern Colorado. At the time I was sitting in the downstairs living room at my sister’s house watching highlights from the previous Sunday’s football action.

Who knows why thoughts like this come to mind when they do – especially during football highlights - but the important thing is that when they do I generally act on them quickly - even though I may have nowhere in particular I’m looking forward to visiting. My subsequent investigations don’t always come to fruition but, much like a gold miner exploring a new claim, there’s always the potential to strike it rich (Which for me translates to a new adventure) and I’m always up for that. More often than not, the ultimate destination has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the airlines and the airplanes.

I have loved commercial jetliners since the day I first ever saw one, much less flew upon one. I was fortunate to grow up in an age when air travel, particularly jet travel, was still a novelty and flying anywhere was treated as a special event. Pretty much everyone dressed nicely and even adults seemed excited about the flight ahead. More often than not, boarding involved walking out onto the tarmac and climbing up a portable air stair into the aircraft. The sights, sounds and smells of the airport were much more pronounced outside than what we experience today from the confines of the terminal. Walking up to your waiting 707 past those big, low slung fanjets and then climbing up the stairway was far more dramatic than the comparatively sterile entrance via jetway that most airports provide today. Walk up close to any modern jetliner and it’s much easier to appreciate it as the magnificent flying machine that it is. Look at that same jetliner from the gate lounge and - it’s just an airplane.

By the time I was 12 years old I’d only flown fifteen times, but each and every one of those flights was indelibly etched into my memory. Six years of flying back and forth to school in New York and California along with miscellaneous summer excursions added another 82 flights and by the time I entered college I’d flown 102 flights on eleven airlines for a grand total of 74,530 miles.

I was about fifteen years old when I first discovered OAGs or Official Airline Guides. These were telephone directory sized books published bi-monthly that provided schedules for every airline flight operating in North America or Worldwide. Schedules, class of service, aircraft type and even meals were listed. In the days before computerization, OAGs were rightfully referred to as the Bible of the airline industry and no airline ticket counter or travel agency could operate without one or more of them.

I used to go down to local travel agencies and ask for their old OAGs. Returning home with my newfound treasure, I’d then pore over them page by page and chart things like where every one of the new wide-bodied jets was operating or where the remaining Convair 880s were flying. Additionally, I’d make up dream itineraries where I’d travel all over the world aboard the likes of British Caledonian VC10s, Air Mauritius 707s or Suriname Airways DC-8s – always in First Class. Destinations had nothing to do with it. It was always about the airplanes.

Now - many years later, nothing has changed insofar as my desire to travel far flung routings aboard exotic airlines. Any of you who’ve read some or all of my trip reports will know that more than a few of my travels have been decided on not so much by the destination but rather by the means of getting there. A good example of this would be last year’s split second decision to fly from Alaska to Australia via New York and Singapore, all so that I could celebrate attaining my 5 millionth mile flown while sat in First Class aboard an Emirates A380. Those of you unfamiliar with that five day, 35000 mile First Class adventure can read all about it right HERE. The bottom line is that for me at least, if the right combination of trains, planes, boats, busses and/or ferries comes up – who cares where I’m going! The great affair is to move!

But I digress.

At some point every year United’s Mileage Plus program has a mileage sale promotion. Truth be known, they probably have more than one but the best of them offer a 50% bonus on mileage purchases of 40,000 miles or more. I honestly had no idea whether that day back in November was a good time for a sale or not. It just seemed like a good time to check. At the time I had a grand total of 565 miles in my account – not even enough to cash in for a magazine subscription. It was time to add more miles.


* * *  * * *  * * *


As many of you are well aware, the beauty of award mileage redemption on United is that as a member of the Star Alliance, routings are often available utilizing the services of multiple Star Alliance member carriers. Some of the routings are quite geographically diverse. Here are three examples from First or Business Class awards that I’ve redeemed over the past four years. As an added bonus, if you click on each highlighted link, you’ll be delivered to the trip report detailing that trip.


Seattle, WA to Port Elizabeth, SA:
Business Class Award

United: SEA-SFO-JFK
Austrian: JFK-VIE-ATH
Turkish: ATH-IST-KLI-EBB
South African: EBE-JNB-PLZ

Buenos Aires, AR to Kuala Lumpur, MA:
First Class Award

Lufthansa: EZE-FRA
Asiana: FRA-ICN
Thai: ICN-BKK-KUL

Santiago, CH to Cape Town, SA:
Business Class Award

Avianca Colombia: SCL-BOG-PTY
COPA Panama: PTY-GRU
South African: GRU-JNB-CPT


As it turned out, my timing was downright prescient. Mileage Plus was indeed offering its 50% bonus sale and at prices I found to be quite amenable. For the tidy sum of just $1,505.00 USD I was able to buy 40000 miles including an additional 20000 bonus miles, thereby enriching my Mileage Plus account by 60,000 miles. That’s enough mileage to go from anywhere to pretty much anywhere else on the planet in Business Class.

Now then, where to go? South America, the far north of Canada… what about the South Pacific? There were so many options! Truth be known, when I purchased the miles I was initially thinking along the lines of finding my way back down to South Africa via South America. The Star Alliance has some great award routings between South America and South Africa and there was a train in Bolivia that I wanted to ride before the service is cancelled in a couple of years. Additionally I had been considering the possibility of a trip by boat from Cape Town to the islands of St. Helena and Ascension. So South America to South Africa awards seemed like a good starting point.

That said, I was equally open to the possibility of other destinations as well. As I mentioned a few paragraphs back, a big part of the fun for me in these situations is in finding routings that offer an exciting combination of airlines, aircraft and routes. Of particular importance are flights aboard new airlines, flights aboard new aircraft and flights over new routes. Should I inadvertently stumble across the right combination of one or all these three features, I am generally open to significantly altering my original plans including the destination in order to take advantage of the favored flight plans.

I know, I know… all you straight-laced pragmatics are probably doing double takes over that last statement. Most normal people settle on a destination and then choose an airline because it is best suited to get them there. What kind of whack-o would pick his destination because of the airlines and routings involved in getting there? Me! That’s right, me – the guy up in seat 2A. I’m your friendly neighborhood whack-o and have been for many years. Not all of my travels are determined in this seemingly crazy manner but a significant percentage of them have been. What can I say? In today’s terminology I’m a world class Av-Geek and have been for many years. How many other people do you know of who have flown over 5 million miles aboard 190 different airlines and care enough about it all to write the occasional 40-50,000 word trip report for your reading pleasure?

Anyway, when it comes to exotic airlines and routings, I love shopping around and so I happily spent the next hour or so checking out various point to point itineraries. Hmm… What about Fiji or Tahiti? Back in the 80s I made numerous trips to both places. I love that South Pacific vibe and I have particularly fond memories of the three weeks I spent in the spring of 1984 camping out with friends under the stately coconut palms on the island of Moorea’s North Shore.




My Campsite on Moorea



The View From My Tent


That was over thirty years ago, though… A lot has changed in and around Tahiti since then. There are way more visitors resulting in way more development. Perhaps worst of all is that the prices for everything from accommodations to basic needs are waaaay higher than the 30 year adjustment for inflation suggests they ought to be.

A lot has changed for me, too. I can no longer haul a 74lb backpack around the South Pacific like I used to. Additionally, though I’m better off financially than I was back then, I am still by nature a budget traveler. Though my days of renting out someone’s back yard on Moorea are long past, there’s no way I’d be willing to pay the exorbitant prices now being charged by Tahitian hotels, not to mention your everyday Starwood property.

So then, what about Fiji? I had made a couple of trips down there back in the eighties, staying about a week to ten days each time. It’s a lot more affordable than Tahiti and almost as pretty. Yeah, I could definitely do Fiji again. Let’s check out some routings…

The routings I found between North America and Fiji were either fairly direct (Alaska’s Mileage Plan) or fairly costly and mostly unavailable (United’s Mileage Plus). Well alright then – who says I have to start my award travel to Fiji from the U.S.? How about Asia? I could use my Alaska miles to get me a First Class ticket on Cathay Pacific or a Business Class ticket on China’s highly regarded Hainan Airlines to anywhere from Beijing to Bangkok, and then employ my Mileage Plus award points from there. I set to work exploring the possibilities…

Tap-Tap-Tap Click-Click Tap-Tappity-Tap-Tap-Tap…
Ohmygod! Check this out! Between Taipei, Taiwan and Nadi, Fiji Mileage Plus is offering a fantastic Business Class award routing involving four flights on three airlines covering 8,780 miles for just 30,000 miles!


April 3: Taipei to Seoul Thai Airways 1250p – 415p A330-300 Luncheon
April 3: Seoul to Sydney Asiana 800p – 740a 777-200 Dinner / Breakfast
April 4: Sydney to Auckland Air New Zealand 1150a – 455p 787-9 Luncheon
April 5: Auckland to Nadi Air New Zealand 945a – 1245p 777-200 Luncheon

The 8900 mile return routing, also available at 30000 miles, looked equally alluring…

April 11: Nadi to Auckland Air New Zealand 200p – 505p 777-300 Luncheon
April 11: Auckland to Beijing Air China 700p – 410a 787-9 Dinner / Breakfast
April 12: Beijing to Shanghai Air China 800a – 1015a A330-300 Breakfast
April 12: Shanghai To Taipei EVA Air 110p – 400p 747-400 Luncheon


It’s worth noting here that all of the above dates reflect the only ones that were available in early April for roundtrip travel between Taipei and Nadi. That they just happened to allow for a week in Fiji was a most fortuitous bonus indeed! Equally alluring were the airlines, the aircraft and the routes. Although only Air China represented a new airline for me, the Asiana 777 and all three of the Air New Zealand jets were types I’d not yet flown in those carriers’ liveries. The EVA 747 was an added bonus as is any flight aboard a 747 these days, and finally the Seoul to Sydney leg along with the Auckland to Beijing route would make nice additions to my international route map.

As I sat there staring at the computer screen, I could already see myself aboard each and every one of those flights; seat comfortably reclined with a tasty cocktail and a bowl of mixed nuts at hand while out my window the late afternoon sunlight highlighted a colorful tapestry of Pacific beauty gliding slowly by beneath us.




Gin & Tonic at 35000’


Once those mental images start forming, it’s hard to turn back. Not only was I looking at a great routing but best of all I had the means to make it happen right then and there. Now that, my friends, is a great feeling. Even better is the satisfaction that comes as you steadfastly type in all the relevant information, double check to make sure it’s all correct and then click the CONFIRM button.

Right on! We’re going to Fiji!


* * *  * * *  * * *


Now then, how to get to Taipei?

My original plan was to use a First Class award on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong to Taipei. To that end I went ahead and booked one. I even scored a window seat aboard the midday departure out of LAX connecting to a flight the next day aboard Cathay’s new A350 into Taipei.

I love Cathay’s midday departure out of the West Coast for two reasons:

One: If I’m going to treat myself to a First Class flight the caliber of Cathay Pacific’s, I’d prefer to remain conscious for as much of the flight as possible. A full luncheon and a decently sized dinner are served on this fifteen hour flight, and in between there’s enough time to enjoy a bowl of one of Cathay’s excellent noodle soups. And perhaps even a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue. Or two. On the other hand, if like so many travelers all I wanted to do was sleep the flight away, I might as well have purchased a seat in Economy and taken an Ambien right after takeoff.

Two: Because of its midday departure and westbound routing, this entire flight is flown in daylight and – if the weather cooperates – it offers some spectacular views of Alaska and the mountainous Kamchatka Peninsula. For a guy who still enjoys the view out my window, flights don’t get much better than this.

Then again, it’s not every day I get to fly over to Asia. I have plenty of time on my hands and – as one who truly enjoys everything about flying from cruising the troposphere to experiencing the inflight service of new airlines – I have a great opportunity here to to do just that. Prior to this trip I’d logged flights aboard 180 different airlines. Why not add a few more?

Therein lies one of the major differences between me and most normal people, including a significant percentage of FlyerTalkers. I actually enjoy everything about commercial flight – not just the premium class service. When I board an Ethiopian 787 for the first time, I’m really looking forward to seeing what the plane looks like on the inside, what color the seats are, what the general cabin ambience is like, and yes, what the service is like, even if I’m in Economy Class. Where the plane is going has very little to do with it.

So, using Cathay’s midday trans-Pacific flight as my starting point, I started playing around with a few different itineraries around Asia prior to commencing my Star Alliance award flights from Taipei. What fueled each itinerary was not the destination but rather the airline and/or the aircraft. As such, in one instance I booked Cathay’s A350 from Hong Kong down to Manila not only because that represented my first flight aboard the A350 but also because it positioned me for my first flight aboard Cebu Pacific. That would take me to Kuala Lumpur where I’d board Malindo Air’s 737-900 down to Jakarta. From there I could make my way up to Taipei on KLM and Scoot Airlines via Singapore.

And on it went like this to the point where I eventually came up with four or five good itineraries I could work with.

One thing I had yet to figure out was how I was going to get home from Taipei once I’d completed my roundtrip from Fiji. My first instinct had been to book a Business Class seat aboard China’s Hainan Airlines. It has the distinction of being the only airline without an international First Class product to be awarded Skytrax’s coveted 5-Star rating. In terms of inflight service, its Business Class looks comparable to what you might expect in First Class aboard a U.S. airline. With one way awards going for only 50000 miles via Alaska’s Mileage Plan, it was also a great value.

Another attractive option was to fly home in First Class aboard either Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines. JAL recently joined Alaska’s impressive list of partner airlines and was doubly alluring as I’d never flown it before.

Hmm… so many options…


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


I don’t remember exactly how or when the idea first came to me but hey – as long as I’m over in Asia and I don’t have to be home in any great hurry – why not look into riding the Trans-Siberian Railway across Asia to Moscow and then making my way home from there?

Any of you who’ve kept up with my trip reports over the years know that train travel is another passion of mine and the Trans-Siberian Railway has been on my radar for a good many years now. Honestly, what railfan would not want to ride the Trans-Siberian? It’s one of the Holy Grails of railroading! It is considered by many to be the world’s ultimate long distance train trip, a view that is hard to contest given the 5767 miles it travels from Vladivostok to Moscow.

So how about a train ride across Asia? Could I possibly make that happen as part of this trip?

Why not?

When most people think of the Trans-Siberian Railway, they usually think of the classic Russian train operating between Moscow and Vladivostok on Russia’s far eastern coast. What a lot of people don’t know however is that there’s also a branch that splits off at Irkutsk and heads down through Mongolia to Beijing, China. That train is often referred to as the Trans-Mongolian Railway and it is operated on different days and routes with either Russian or Chinese rolling stock. The deluxe First Class accommodations on the Chinese cars are by all accounts superior in both comfort and facilities to their Russian counterparts. That’s the train I wanted to ride.

When it comes to investigating train travel anywhere on the planet, I know of no finer destination on the internet than Seat61.com. It has an excellent and comprehensive section on riding the Trans-Siberian, complete with schedules, descriptions of the cars and classes of service offered, travelers’ reviews and a listing of the best places to book tickets.

A quick check of the schedules revealed a once weekly departure by the Chinese operated train out of Beijing. Unfortunately, it was scheduled to depart on the morning of the same day that I was scheduled to arrive in Taipei. Well dang!

Still, I wasn’t about to give up quite so easily. Although my original plan had been to fly across the Pacific and bop around Asia for a few days prior to heading for Fiji, there was no reason why I couldn’t reverse plans and do the Trans-Siberian first.

Herein lays one of the real benefits of traveling alone. When you’re as far along in trip planning as I was at this point, good luck trying to make this change when you’re traveling with one or more others. When you’re on your own however, you can do whatever you want. A friend of mine once pointed out how many well-known travelers and travel writers often traveled alone. Theroux, O’Hanlon, Stevenson, Danziger, Cahill, Bryson et al. Some of the crazy (and often impressive) things they did on their travels might never have been accomplished had they been obliged to arrive at a group consensus beforehand.

So then, how am I gonna get to Moscow?

I suppose I could launch into a few more paragraphs detailing how I worked it all out but this trip report is going to be long enough as it is, so why not just cut to the chase? Suffice it to say that my travels between Fairbanks and Moscow will involve ten flights aboard six different aircraft types built by five different manufacturers. Along the way I will utilize the services of seven different airlines. The longest of those flights – the trans-Atlantic sector – will of course be in First Class.

Although it didn’t start out that way, ultimately this will be an around the world trip traveling in an easterly direction but with a few zigs and zags along the way that will take me through places like Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and Taiwan – though not necessarily in that order. Oh yeah, I’ve also got that week in Fiji!




The Map


All told, this trip will involve just over 53000 miles of air travel aboard twenty-one different airlines. Additionally it will include just over 8000 miles of rail travel aboard the Trans-Mongolian as well as the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight. And oh yeah, there’s also a road trip driving a thousand miles or so between Phoenix and Denver.

A note of caution however –

Those of you looking forward to an incredible travelogue describing all the marvelous places I visited, the fantastic hotels I stayed in and the amazing things I did will be sorely disappointed. My specialty and indeed my real interest – my passion as it were – is writing about getting there, not being there. In this regard I offer neither apology nor much in the way of explanation.

Suffice it to say that once upon a time I used to write traditional travelogues and I was pretty good at it, too. Throughout it all however remains the underlying fact that I’ve always had an appetite for actually going somewhere, i.e. flying there, riding there on a train or driving there in a car. In particular I’ve always been fascinated with the style of travel - or perhaps more to the point – traveling there in style. Given my passion for the First Class travel experience, what I really enjoy writing about most is getting there. If I could be said to be any good at writing these trip reports, I think it’s primarily due to my passion for actually travelling – as in going somewhere. And so it is that I’m going to stick to what I enjoy writing about most. At least here at FlyerTalk. Friends and family back home get a more traditional narrative but one that’s nowhere near as enthralling or detailed as you’ll be treated to in the tale to follow.

As for the actual writing, well, aside from the compulsory English classes I had to take in elementary school and high school, I’ve never formally studied it. Perhaps I just picked it up by reading every day since I was about thirteen because by the time I got to college I was deemed to possess sufficiently decent writing skills that I never had to take another English class. Even so, I never particularly enjoyed writing reports in school or college. It’s different though when you’re writing about something you really enjoy. I'm not saying I'm a good writer but amongst the trip report submissions here at Flyertalk - most of which are predominantly photo reports - I'm about as good a writer as you're gonna get when the focus is air and rail travel and not Champagne or blizzards.

I write from the perspective of one who’s experienced literally millions of miles of travel from back in the days when airlines distinguished themselves from one another by providing distinctive service, not just more flights and lower fares. Often I tend to wander off down memory lane with a remembered experience or two that a photo report would simply never be able to convey. For the vast majority of our younger members this may be quite frustrating while for others who can relate to those times it may prove to be most enthralling. Either way, it’s too late to change the stripes on this old tiger, so you’ll just have to bear with me and hopefully you’ll find the odd diversion entertaining if not occasionally informative. If you don't - hit the back button and go look at someone else's report. Given the clear preferences of Flyertalk's mainstream audience as indicated by responses to trip reports here over the years, there are plenty of better photographed and vastly more entertaining reports in the Trip Report forum than I'll ever be capable of submitting. That's cool. If only a handful of you enjoy a report of this size and scope, that's fine by me. I'm thankful for your readership!

Anyway, enough of the preamble. Are you all ready to take to the skies with ol’ Seat 2A for another epic adventure? If so, you veteran readers know the drill by now. For those of you who don’t - go find yourselves a comfy chair, something tasty to nibble on and something even tastier to drink. Then sit back and settle in for what I think promises to be one of my best trip reports ever.


INDEX

To be added after complete report loaded
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Last edited by Seat 2A; Jun 16, 17 at 10:33 pm
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:30 pm
  #2  
Original Poster
 
Join Date: Apr 2001
Location: East Ester, Alaska
Programs: Alaska Airlines Million Miler, United Airlines Million Miler, Wyndham Rewards Diamond Level
Posts: 9,628
March 13, 2017
Alaska Airlines Fairbanks to Anchorage 200p – 255p Boeing 737-800 First Class
Alaska Airlines Anchorage to Seattle 610p – 1025p Boeing 737-900 First Class


When I stepped out onto my front porch this morning, the air was crisp, the skies were clear and thermometer read a chilly -22°F. Now you might think that blast of frigid air would have gotten me all the more excited to get this trip underway but in truth it elicited quite the opposite response. Here it was a fine spring morning in Alaska’s Interior and quite honestly, I wouldn’t have minded putting off this departure for another week or so.

It’s not that I suddenly get cold feet (Who, me? Mr. 5 Million Miler?) but it seems that whenever I’m on the precipice of an extended length of time away from Alaska, I can’t help but appreciate how much I love living here and how much I’m going to miss this place while I’m away. Alaska’s different – especially so for people like me who put a premium on nature’s beauty over mankind’s monuments. Alaska is so awesome and I am so fortunate to live the life I do here that sometimes it seems strange that I’d ever want to leave at all.

I’ve used his words before, but in his poem Question & Answer, the Chinese poet Li Bai describes my life in and love for Alaska perfectly…


Question & Answer

You ask me:

Why do I live
On this green mountain?

I smile
No answer

My heart serene

On flowing water
Peachblow
Quietly going
Far away

This is another earth
Another sky

No likeness
To that human world below



That said, I do enjoy the occasional foray out into that “human world below” more so than most Alaskans. On average I make about a dozen trips a year Outside. Since 2001 I’ve written over seventy trip reports detailing my travels around the U.S. and the world. The short trips (a couple of days to a week or two) don’t bother me. The longer ones always seem to pose that niggling question: What if something happens? What if I don’t come back?

The pragmatist in me is ultimately able to dismiss these fears without cause, but they still result in a twinge of regret every time I get ready to head out on a longer trip. I’m going to miss Alaska and, as excited as I am to begin this trip, I’ll be every bit as excited when a month and a half from today I step aboard my Fairbanks bound flight and return home.


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


By 12:45pm my bag was packed, my myriad of pre-departure chores was completed and I was ready to go. My neighbor Sharon – who has driven me to the airport on so many previous occasions – was ready and waiting out in my driveway. I turned down the heat, unplugged a few appliances, locked the door and bid farewell to my cabin in the woods. Happiness is leaving Alaska with a round trip ticket. I’ll be back on April 28th.




Home Sweet Home


My flight down to Anchorage this afternoon was aboard one of just two jets to serve this route each day. It wasn’t so many years ago that the Fairbanks to Anchorage route was served by five airlines (Alaska, Wien, Markair, Delta and United) offering over a dozen jet flights each day, including a daily 767 on United’s FAI-ANC-ORD service. These days, we’ve a choice of two airlines (Alaska and Ravn) that combine to offer a total of thirteen mostly daily flights, all but two of which are operated with DeHavilland Dash 8 turboprops.

Reclining my spacious First Class seat, I took another swig from of my Bloody Mary and fired off a shot of 20,310’ Denali while savoring the benefits of mainline jet versus commuter prop flight.




Afternoon delight between Anchorage and Fairbanks
Alaska actually uses a different vodka these days. This is a better photo though



Denali – 20,310’ / 6,191m
The highest peak in North America



Approach into Anchorage


With a three hour layover in Anchorage, I had plenty of time to meet with an old friend who used to work with me in Denali National Park. We reminisced over hot Thai food and cold Singha beer before returning to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport for my 6:10pm departure down to Seattle.

Wow! It must be spring break because this flight was totally full with about half the seats appearing to have been taken by families with children. Thankfully every last one of them filed obediently through the First Class cabin and on back to the nether regions of the airplane. Seatmate was on his cellphone when I arrived, then switched to his kindle shortly thereafter and said nary a word to me the entire flight. While some people take mild offense at the lack of even a perfunctory greeting, I really have no complaint. Airplanes still have quite a ways to go before devolving into the conversational awkwardness that defines elevator rides, but truth be known I rather enjoy a nice quiet flight, especially on flights like this where I’ve got a lot to do – namely, I’ve got to work on the preamble to this trip report.

Prior to pushback, our flight attendant took a moment to introduce herself to all of us and then read tonight’s dinner offering from off the catering sheet: a braised beef short-rib served atop orecchiette pasta accompanied by broccolini. Fair enough. I had this meal flying up to Fairbanks last week and found it to be pretty good.

Those of you fortunate enough to have ever flown out of Anchorage on a nice clear day know that the first twenty minutes offer some of the most spectacularly beautiful mountain scenery anywhere on the planet. This evening’s conditions were not optimal – I would describe the sunlight as diffused – but they were pretty enough to fire off a couple of photographs nonetheless. I particularly like the black and white effect on the first one.




Climbing out of Anchorage



Climbing out of Anchorage


A little bit later in the flight, the couple sat across from me got up to visit with friends sat behind the curtain. They were kind enough to allow me to borrow their window seat for this pretty sunset shot:




Sunset over the Gulf of Alaska


Flight time down to Seattle was three hours and thirteen minutes, plenty of time for a leisurely cocktail and a relaxed dinner service. The red wine, a blend from Washington State’s Browne Family Vineyards, paired nicely with the braised beef and pasta. The beef was tender, the flavor abundant and the portion decent. I give it a B+.




Braised beef short-rib served atop orecchiette pasta


We landed on a cool, rainy night in Seattle. I had a room booked at the Ramada SeaTac and forty minutes after landing I was resting on a large King sized bed catching the latest edition of Sports Center. This trip is off to a good start.


March 14, 2017
Alaska Airlines Seattle to San Diego 1000a – 1241p Boeing 737-900 First Class


One of – if not the first things - I do upon waking each morning is to throw open the curtains. For me at least there’s nothing like a good blast of morning light to welcome me back to consciousness. Today however, I was greeted by grey skies and a steady downpour. What a great day to fly to San Diego where the forecast called for sunny skies with temperatures projected to be in the mid-eighties.

Many of you are probably not old enough to remember those old Clairol hair coloring ads with the pitch line “Hate those greys, rinse them away!” but it came to mind for me today as our 737 climbed away from grey and dreary Seattle, broke through the thick cloud cover and powered on into clear blue skies and glorious sunshine. Hate those greys, fly them away!

The clouds diminished as we crossed into California airspace, eventually disappearing to reveal a pretty view of Lake Tahoe. Service aboard this two hour and twenty minute flight consisted of hot towels, a round of drinks and a cheese plate. The cheese plate is essentially the same as what Alaska sells behind the curtain for $7.50. They’ve simply removed the packaging and plated it.




First Class Cheese Plate



Lake Tahoe from on high


Landing in San Diego was on time and, with seven hours to burn until departure of my next flight, I decided to head into town and get a late lunch. Unfortunately there are no baggage storage facilities at the airport and of course it was too early to check in, so I had to take my suitcase and daypack with me.

The San Diego Metropolitan Transit System busses stop right out in front of the airport terminals. It doesn’t get any more convenient than that and thirty minutes later I was down in San Diego’s trendy Gaslamp Quarter enjoying a delicious Thai curry.

There are a lot of cool (and free) things to do in San Diego. Unfortunately, most of them are outdoors and, with temperatures hovering in the mid-eighties, it was not especially conducive to walking around somewhere nice like Mission Park while dragging a roll-a-bord and lugging a heavy daypack. I stopped in at a cool, air-conditioned bar where a tasty Grunion Pale Ale from San Diego’s highly regarded Ballast Point Brewing Company helped take some of the edge off the heat. I had a nice chat with the bartender about my upcoming travels and the San Diego sports scene which looks pretty bleak of late. The MLB Padres are in rebuilding mode while the NFL Chargers are relocating to Los Angeles, leaving San Diego without an NFL team for the first time in 56 years.

If I had this to do all over again, I’d try to arrange for a stopover of at least two or three days in San Diego. It’s an attractive city with arguably the best climate in America and, as I mentioned earlier, there are lots of interesting and entertaining things to do around the city and the region. I look forward to my next visit, which will likely be longer.

Returning to the airport at a little past 4:00pm, I was pleased to find that BA’s check-in counters were already open. As a First Class passenger, I was quickly checked in, provided with directions to the lounge, and then on my way to security.


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


It’s been nine years since I last flew with British Airways. Between 2002 and 2008 I logged forty-two flights totaling 205,550 miles with them. Thanks to mileage redemption from Alaska’s Mileage Plan, all but seven of those flights were flown in international First Class.

Now I recognize that amongst many of the cognoscenti here at FlyerTalk, BA’s First Class is not considered to be all that great. To be sure, it has been marked by occasional inconsistencies which – when you’re paying top dollar or redeeming a big chunk of mileage – can be both frustrating and disappointing.

That said, of the thirty-five flights on which I’ve been fortunate enough to have flown in First Class aboard British Airways, only two of those flights have been what I would call sub-standard – in both instances rather egregiously so. Of the other thirty-three, BA has provided a comfortable and enjoyable flight. From my experience, they’re a fine airline with a First Class product that, while not in the same league as the usual suspects (SQ, CX, EK et al) is still very good indeed.

So it is that despite the $521.00 I had to pay out in exorbitant taxes, security fees and fuel surcharges, I’ve been really looking forward to this flight. A lot has changed in the nine years since I last flew BA, not the least of which is a new First Class suite and interior installed across the long-distance fleet. Add to this the fact that tonight’s flight will be aboard the “Queen of the Skies” – Boeing’s 747-400 – and it would be fair to say that I’m almost giddy with anticipation.

Boarding is still another three hours away though, so let’s go visit the lounge for a couple of pre-flight drinks and perhaps a bite to eat.

BA utilizes the relatively new AirSpace Lounge here at San Diego’s Terminal 2. The terminal itself has undergone a number of renovations over the years and is certainly one of the more attractive airport facilities I’ve seen here in the U.S.




San Diego Terminal 2 Mezzanine Views



San Diego Terminal 2 Mezzanine Views



San Diego Terminal 2 Mezzanine Views


Upon entering the AirSpace Lounge, I was immediately taken by the impressive floor to ceiling windows that flood the lounge with cherished natural light and provide an excellent, unobstructed view of the tarmac. This lounge doubles as American’s Admirals Club and as such provides an admirable view of American’s jets parked just outside and below the windows.

The lounge itself is not particularly large, nor could it be described as plush. Its offers a basic collection of comfortable seats with a few tables located over by the bar. While I suspect the bar area is designed in some minimalist, chic style that may be considered trendy amongst the hip and with it crowd these days, to a guy like me who prefers brass and wood, I found the area to be a bit bleak looking.



AirSpace Lounge


AirSpace Lounge Bar Area


In addition to the usual complimentary snack items found in most any airline lounge, the AirSpace Lounge offers an impressive selection of foods ranging from snacks to light meals available for purchase. However, British Airways Premium Class patrons are given a special menu of foods and wines – all complimentary – from which to enjoy during their stay. Here are the offerings:



AirSpace Lounge BA Food Menu


AirSpace Lounge BA Beverage Menu


It had been about three and a half hours since I’d eaten lunch and, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly hungry. Still, I have a real problem with turning down complimentary food, particularly when it’s part of a First Class travel experience. As such, I ordered the Cucumber Tuna Sandwich with Pasta Salad. The server assured me that the sandwich was not very large – more along the lines of a reception sandwich – and that the accompanying soup was served in a very small cup. And indeed it was.



Cucumber Tuna Sandwich with Pasta Salad


The best part of this little snack was the wine, a delicious glass of Stags Leap Hands of Time Red Blend. Oenophiles may recall that in 1976 a Stags Leap 1973 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon won first place among ten top French and California red wines in a blind taste test by leading French wine experts. The competition included two first-growth and other renowned wines of Bordeaux and the win was significant because it effectively shattered the long held belief that only the French could produce a first rate red wine. Indeed, it opened the doors of reception to not only the United States but also most notably Australia, South America and South Africa as legitimate sources of potentially superior wines.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:32 pm
  #3  
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March 14, 2017
British Airways San Diego to London 800p – 120p Boeing 747-400 First Class


When boarding was called at 7:30pm, I was packed and ready to go. Gate 20 was only a couple minutes’ walk from the lounge, but once you’d cleared passport and boarding pass inspection it was quite a long walk from there down to the waiting aircraft. Along the way I paused briefly to photograph The Queen.



The Queen Awaits


Most passengers are fairly oblivious to what kind of plane they’re flying upon. Not me. I remember clearly my first flight aboard a 747 back in June of 1971. It was a Continental Airlines bird wearing the beautiful red, orange and gold livery that graced that airline’s planes from 1968 through the early 1990s. Since then I’ve logged a further 145 flights totaling 495,000+ miles aboard 747s from 19 different airlines from six continents. It has been my incredible good fortune – combined with some smart money and mileage accrual and management on my part – which has allowed me to fly most of those flights in First Class.

From the 747’s introduction in 1970 through to the present, plenty of wide-body jets have come and gone. The DC-10, the L1011, the A300 family, the A380 and the 777 - I have flown up front upon them all and yet to this day I have never flown aboard an aircraft better suited to First Class travel than the 747. The unique ambiance found up in the nose with its tapered cabin and slightly forward facing windows is for me unmatched amongst contemporary aircraft. To this day I find a flight aboard a 747 every bit as exciting and marvelous as I did on that first flight 46 years ago.

Boarding from gate 20 was via a single jetway and the going was slow as a hundred or so of us from all classes of service slowly made our way down to the waiting plane. At the doorway was a full-on reception committee of well turned out BA ladies and one BA lad. They all looked quite dapper in their dark blue uniforms which harkened back to a style more commonly seen in the 1970s. Handing my boarding pass to the first one I met, I was greeted warmly by name and requested to follow another flight attendant who would show me to my seat.

That flight attendant would be Kate, who just so happened to be working the First Class cabin on my side. From showing me to my suite to bidding me goodbye at flight’s end, she was First Class in every respect delivering a level of service that would do BA proud – not to mention all flight attendants regardless of airline.

As this was my first time flying with BA since 2008, I was unfamiliar with the new suites. Kate took a moment to point out some of the differences. Unlike the old suites, these include a small closet with a stowage area for shoes and other small items. The seat recline is via a dial rather than a button and inflight entertainment s via the vastly improved Rockwell Collins TES Inflight Entertainment System. That is to say it is vastly improved over the small and clunky pop-up screens of the nineties and early two thousands. The gold standard – at least for BA – is the Panasonic eX3 in-flight entertainment system which offers a choice of over 1,300 hours of entertainment including more than 130 movies and 400 TV programs on larger, hi-resolution screens. It has been re-fitted aboard 18 of the airline’s 37 remaining 747-400s, but unfortunately not this one. That’s all right. I’m sure I’ll be able to find something suitably entertaining after dinner.

The suite itself looks quite modern and stylish – perhaps a bit too modern and stylish for my tastes. When it comes to comfort and travel, I tend to prefer warm and soft colors and fabrics. BA’s cabin – by my tastes – is more cold, hard and blue. Mind you, it looks nice enough in a kind of cool, modernistic way but when it comes to luxury, I guess I’m just rather old school with a preference for old fashioned sumptuousness over modern day style and flair. See for yourselves:



BA’s 747 First Class Cabin


BA’s 747 First Class Suite


Once I’d gotten my jacket hung, shoes stored and carry-on luggage properly stowed away, the other First Class flight attendant, Samantha, stopped by to inquire if I’d care for a preflight libation. A flute of Champagne, perhaps?

But of course! Please, bring it on!

Ah… Is there a nicer way to start a long international flight in First Class than with a glass of exquisitely chilled Champagne? Certainly there is none more traditional. Tonight’s glass of Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, while considered by many here to be a lesser quaff than Krug or Salon, was perfectly acceptable and quite tasty indeed.

The parade of pre-flight swag continued with the delivery of pajamas, an amenity kit and a pair of slippers, all of which found a home on the built in ottoman facing my seat.



BA’s First Class Amenity Kit


BA’s First Class Amenity Kit Contents


Returning to the inspection of my new home for the next ten hours, I stepped into the suite and took a seat. My first impressions weren’t very good.

Oh my God! This is like sitting in a sports car, and just about as uncomfortable. Unbeknownst to me at the time however was that the required seat position for takeoff and landing leaves the seat quite low slung and uncomfortably reclined. Regardless, it’s very awkward to sit down in and worse, to stand up from. Although I wasn’t allowed to readjust the seat position for takeoff and landing, I was allowed to utilize cushions and pillows to make it more comfortable. With only four of us booked into the fourteen seat First Class cabin this evening, I had plenty of extra pillows at my disposal and I used them to build a higher seating surface and better back support.

The seat itself is 22” wide and reasonably well padded but otherwise the suite as a whole feels like a Business Class suite. It’s not very large and the side walls are right up there on you. Additionally, the area down by the feet is quite narrow and small. According to the crew, these factors constitute a design “flaw” unique to the 747 due to the narrowing of the cabin up toward the nose. Apparently, suites aboard the 787 and A380 are considerably more spacious.



BA’s 747 First Class Suite looking forward


The windows have this futuristic look to them with a tinted glass panel covering a single pair of blue backlit windows. Or maybe it’s the blinds that are backlit. They are themselves unique in that they’re electrically powered, operated by a single up/down button housed in the seat control panel. Cool as that may be, unfortunately you practically have to unbuckle your seatbelt and scoot forward to be able to see out of the windows.

I did like the luminous ambiance provided by stylish little lamp mounted in the sidewall above my left shoulder, though.

Menus were presented and a topping off of Champagne was offered. I politely declined as I was saving room for some Johnnie Walker Blue and a couple of glasses of wine.

These menus were smaller than any previous First Class menus I’d previously encountered on BA, but the foods and drinks offered within looked to be quite varied and appealing. More on that later, though. It’s time for the classic Champagne and Menu photo!



The classic Champagne and Menu photo!


The classic Champagne and Passport photo!


The captain came on over the PA to give his traditional welcoming announcement as well as provide us with a bit of information about the flight ahead. Without the prevailing tailwinds usually encountered when flying to London, tonight’s flight would be a bit longer than usual at just over ten hours in length. Route of flight would take us over – yada yada…

At this point I tuned the announcement out because aside from flight length, I really don’t care what altitude we’re flying at. As for route of flight, I’ll check that out later via the Sky Map function of the IFE. I do appreciate the captain being thorough, but even as a fairly rabid Av-Geek there are limits to my level of interest in the minutiae of the flight.

As I savored the last sips of my Champagne, I heard the distinctive sound of the tractor revving up beneath us in order to push us back from the gate. A fully loaded 747-400 has a maximum takeoff weight of about 850,000 pounds. That generally requires quite a substantial and throaty rev from the tractor which sits only fifteen feet below. By contrast, when sitting up in the nose of a 747 you are so far ahead of the engines that when they spool up prior to departure, you can barely hear them. And so it was for me as we pushed back from the gate, uncoupled from the tractor, fired up that quartet of trusty Rolls Royce RB-211--524Gs and then commenced the long and stately taxi out to the runway.

BA operates the only 747 service into San Diego, and I have to imagine that passengers who noticed us while sitting aboard their collection of smaller everyday 737s and A320s couldn’t help but experience a brief twinge of envy at the sight of the graceful old queen as she passed by.

Truth be known, this airplane (G-BYGE) which took its first flight on January 24, 1999, is relatively young by 747 standards. She’s only just had her 18th birthday!

Each Rolls Royce RB-211--524G engine powering this airplane is capable of generating 58,000 lbf of thrust. Multiply that by four and consider the amount of noise attendant to generating such massive amounts of power and you’d think even up here in the First Class cabin take off would be a noisy event. But no – aside from the mild G-forces attendant to takeoffs in general, the only real sound way up here was a muted hum from somewhere back behind us. After a take-off roll of just 37 seconds, the captain pulled back on his yoke, the nose lifted and we thundered into the warm night sky above San Diego.

London was just ten hours and five minutes away.

Now we get to my favorite part of the flight - the inflight service. The service provided by Kate and Samantha on this flight was top notch from start to finish. From the initial drink order to a timely clearing of the breakfast plates before landing, both ladies were simply superb.

Drink orders came first. Although I knew what I wanted, I still enjoy looking over all the options. Who knows, maybe I’ll see something new I’d like to try out. As I opened the menu, I took note of the golden logo on its cover. It appears to be a winged waiter running to deliver a covered plate of food. I asked Kate about it and she thought it might be from the old days – as in Imperial Airways old. Does anybody know the story behind this logo?

Now then, let’s have a look at the beverages on offer:


WINE LIST

Champagnes and Sparkling Wine


Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle, Champagne, France
Bolnet Estate Vintage Blanc de Blancs, West Sussex, England
Jacquart Rosé Mosaïque NV, Champagne, France
Kir Royale


White Wines

Saint-Aubin Premier Cru La Chateniere 2014, Roux Père et Fils, Burgundy, France
Pouilly-Fumé 2015, André Dezat et Fils, Loire Valley, France
Marcella’s White Blend 2014, Fess Parker Winery, Santa Barbara County, California, USA


Red Wines

Château La Dominique 2008, Saint-Émilion Grande Cru Classé, Bordeaux, France
DeLoach Vineyards Pinot Noir 2014, Russian River Valley, California, USA
Acustic Cellar Ritme 2014, DOC Priorat, Spain


Dessert Wines

Château de Fesles Bonnezeaux 2011, Coteaux du Layon, Loire Valley, France
Warre’s 2000 Colheita Tawny Port



THE BAR

Apéritifs and Spirits

Ciroc Vodka
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch Whisky
Woodford Reserve Kentucky Bourbon
Tanqueray No. Ten Gin
Bacardi Carta Blanca


Liqueurs and Digestifs
Glenlivet Small Batch Malt Whisky
Drambuie 15 Year-old Speyside Malt Liqueur
Bailey’s Irish Cream
Otard XO Cognac
Cointreau


Beer
St. Austell Tribute Pale Ale
A selection of lagers including Heineken, Tiger or Amstel Light


Juices and Soft Drinks
Apple, orange, tomato, cranberry juice and a selection of traditional and modern drinks


Very nice. But since we’re departing from San Diego, shouldn’t there be some tequila on the menu?

I requested my old standby – Johnnie Walker Blue on the rocks. Truth be told, I just might like the Woodford Reserve a wee bit more but hey – JWB retails for over $200.00 a bottle back home so why not take advantage of the complimentary pour now?

My drink was delivered with a small bowl of mixed nuts but sadly, no canapés as was the standard on my previous flights with BA. I am a huge fan of canapés to the extent that if cuts must be made to the meal service, I’d rather see one or two less mains than the abolition of my beloved canapés. Remind me to make up and bring my own next time.

Kate said that she’d give me a few minutes to look over the menu before returning to take my dinner order. A quick glance out the windows revealed a lot of darkness and only a few sparse lights. Once you get out over the Cuyamaca Mountains east of the city and beyond, there’s not a lot to see at night. It’s basically the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert which continues on to the Arizona and Nevada borders. In between is some of the hottest and most desolate country on the planet. I’ve spent a lot of time down there and it’s one of my favorite places in the world, especially when speeding across it in a large, air-conditioned car. In fact, I’ll be down there myself in just a little over a month from now.

Excited at the prospect of that visit as much as anywhere else I’m visiting on this trip, I tugged the 15” IFE viewing screen from its housing and dialed up my favorite program, the Sky Map – or, as some people prefer to call it – the moving map.



Flight Information


Eastbound and down!


Route of flight between SAN and LHR


Reclining my seat a bit, I savored the deliciously chilled scotch, munched on a few almonds and reached for the dinner menu. At first glance it looked to offer a decent variety of foods. Now it was time to indulge in one of the great pleasures of international First Class air travel – deciding what to order from amongst the delicious sounding offerings. Let’s check out that menu, shall we?


DINNER
San Diego to London

STARTERS

Marinated prawn and chorizo salad with Castelvetrano olives
Spicy courgette arancini with roasted garlic tomato sauce
Creamy harissa soup with purple potato crisps
Fresh salad leaves with your choice of balsamic vinaigrette or avocado ranch dressing


MAIN COURSES

Prune and Gorgonzola Stuffed Chicken

With celery root purée, broccolini and natural chicken jus

Chilean Seabass
With Yukon potato, Spanish smoked chorizo and Goan-style coconut curry

Pan-roasted Fillet of Beef
With herb roasted new potatoes, mini vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and gravy

Goat’s Cheese Ravioli
With mini vegetables, baby Swiss chard and charred leek consommé

Herb-roasted Shrimp
With baby arugula, Tuscan kale, grilled avocado, sweet otato and crispy quinoa


DESSERTS

Malted Chocolate Financier
Tart Lemon Pudding
Vanilla Ice Cream


CHEESE PLATE

Stilton Blue

An English cheese, semi-soft, crumbly and creamy

Truffle Cheddar
An aged, pasteurized Cheddar flavoured with black truffle salt

Bouchevrette
Made using pasteurized goat’s milk resulting in a sweeter, milder and richer cheese. This soft ripened cheese has a velvety texture

Fresh Fruit

A selection of biscuits




It wasn’t hard to come up with a plan. I’ll start with a plate of the marinated prawn and chorizo salad, followed by a bowl of the harissa soup. Harissa is a North African hot chili pepper paste, so I was curious what the main vehicle for the paste would be. Kate headed back to the galley for a moment and then returned to inform me that BA’s version was a bean soup flavored with harissa. Sounds good to me. Now, for the main course… Over the years I’ve had bad luck with beef and good luck with chicken from BA’s galleys so for my main course I’ll go with the Prune and Gorgonzola Stuffed Chicken.

Kate dutifully recorded each of my selections and then asked if I’d care for any cheese or dessert. It depends upon how full I am after the main course, I replied. Thirty years ago I could have eaten everything I just ordered and come back for seconds on each course. Not so today. I tend to like my meals a bit smaller. And yet still, I often end up eating more while traveling in First Class aboard planes and trains because I want to try it all.

About ten minutes had passed before Kate returned with my table settings. Crisp white linen, two knives, two forks, a bread plate with separate butter dish and a set of salt and pepper grinders completed the ensemble. A nice selection of rolls was offered from a wicker basket, followed by the delivery of my appetizer.

Whoa! Did Hawaiian Airlines’ flight kitchen do the catering for this flight? What a beautiful presentation!



Marinated prawn and chorizo salad


One more time! Closer!


Although you can only just barely make them out, this appetizer also included an assortment of spicy, julienned red and green peppers. In combination with the flavorful prawns and spicy chorizo, this was one of the tastiest and certainly most colorful appetizers that I’ve ever been served aloft.

The Harissa Bean soup was delivered next. At the time I placed my order I was hemming and hawing over whether I should go with either the soup or the salad. The salad was a real tough call because I’m a big fan of BA’s balsamic vinaigrette. Of course, I could have had them both had I so desired but as I said, my appetite isn’t what it used to be. In any event, the soup turned out to be an excellent choice – rich, thick and full of flavor. ¡Qué sabroso!



Harissa Bean Soup


Alright then, bring on the chicken! This Kate did, delivering a nicely symmetric portion with the chicken resting comfortably atop a bed of celery root purée.



Prune and Gorgonzola Stuffed Chicken


The chicken was actually quite nice and tender but alas, the stuffing, which had read off the menu so deliciously, was hardly in evidence. I mean, there was enough to see that something was smeared into the middle of the chicken but not nearly enough to provide any distinctive or engaging flavor. Certainly there was not enough to warrant employing the word “stuffed”. Worse, the white burgundy I selected to accompany this meal was so mild as to be almost flavorless. Some wines don’t fly well. This would seem to have been one of them. I replaced it with a glass of the Marcella’s White Blend from Fess Parker’s Winery up in Santa Barbara. Ah… much nicer.

Plates were cleared and I took a few minutes to savor the last of my wine before deciding that as long as I’m flying in First Class, I might as well have dessert.

“What have you got that’s small?” I asked.
Aside from a scoop of ice cream, Kate opined that the Chocolate Financier didn’t appear to be all that large.
I was tempted to ask her just what exactly a Chocolate Financier was but decided to be adventurous and hopefully be pleasantly surprised. Here is what I was served:



Malted Chocolate Financier


It was actually quite good. Delicious really, especially with a cup of surprisingly good decaffeinated coffee that Kate rustled up from the galley at the last minute.

Now thoroughly sated, I reclined my seat and turned my attention to the IFE. There were still a little more than eight hours left in the flight and as I wasn’t all that tired just yet, I thought I’d check out the television offerings since they were shorter than a movie. After all, I had a long day ahead tomorrow and wanted to be conscious for as much of it as possible.

In the interim, Kate and I had talked about my bedtime plans and I had asked if I might be relocated to suite 1A for sleeping purposes. Its primary nighttime benefit was that it had a larger area down by the feet. That won’t be a problem, replied Kate. We’ll have the suite made up and waiting for you when you’re ready.

Ultimately I settled on BBC’s excellent documentary Planet Earth II. I have the first version and had seen favorable reporting on the second. It was every bit as good as expected – and I only watched the section about the desert. By the time it wrapped up there were only about seven hours left in the flight. If I could just knock off a good five hours or so, I’d not only wake up with enough energy to get me through the day but if I were luck, I might just wake up with enough time left for a full breakfast service. Ultimately, a good sleep was the most important however and so I figured I’d roll the dice and wake up when I woke up. If breakfast were still available, so much the better. If not, I’d just gotten that much more sleep. Either way, win-win.

Rather amazingly, I slept for five and a half hours solid (With my back, I don’t even do that at home!) and awoke naturally with another hour and a half left in the flight. How bloody awesome is that?! Like it was meant to be. And here we were about twenty minutes off the west coast of Ireland.



Good Morning Map


I remember my first ever flight on BA, in First Class between LA and London. As with today, I awoke naturally in time to see the beautiful green shores of Ireland meet the deep blue indigo of the North Atlantic Ocean. It was a cloudless day and that impressive and exciting view remains burned indelibly into my flight memories. Unfortunately, grey clouds covered everything beneath us today but at least I had a full breakfast service to look forward to.

Following a quick visit to the loo – mainly to take full advantage of the window provided there – I returned to my original seat and located the menu from the seat side storage container. Kate delivered coffee and a pastry while I perused the options…


BREAKFAST
San Diego to London

STARTERS

Chilled fruit juice
An energizing fruit smoothie of blood orange and vanilla
A selection of yogurts
Bircher muesli
Fresh seasonal fruit appetizer
A wide selection of breakfast pastries and rolls


MAIN COURSES

Traditional English Breakfast

Scrambled eggs, pork sausage, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and hash-brown potatoes

Scrambled Eggs with Bacon
Grilled herb tomato, charred sourdough crostini and Kalamata olive Hollandaise

Belgian Waffles
With fresh caramelized figs, pecans and maple syrup


This was a pretty easy choice for me. I’m a big fan of breakfast, totally buying into the idea that it’s the most important meal of the day. At home, I usually eat something comparatively healthy – oatmeal, cold cereal or yogurt. When I eat out however, I want the Full Monte. Aboard BA’s London bound 747, this translated into a Full English breakfast with a healthy fruit appetizer. And a smoothie!

My table was efficiently set and soon I was presented with one of the best looking starter sets I’d seen in recent memory. Highlighted by a good looking fruit bowl and accented nicely by the coffee and the smoothie, if this collection of starters wouldn’t get you excited about eating breakfast, nothing will.



Fresh Fruit Appetizer

Plates were cleared and the main course was delivered. Ahh… smell those eggs! Beautifully scrambled - still moist, not dry – with a delicious collection of breakfast accoutrements not always seen on American breakfast plates. Why don’t we serve broiled tomatoes and sautéed mushrooms more often with our breakfasts? Replace the fried potatoes with them and we might actually become a bit thinner as a nation.



Traditional English Breakfast


By the time the last of my plates were cleared, we were just commencing our descent into Heathrow. Despite the lack of tailwinds, we were still looking at an on time arrival into Terminal 5. That is until the local ATC tossed a go-around at us resulting in a 1:30pm arrival time. No worries. My next flight doesn’t depart until 3:45pm, so I should be in good shape time wise.

We landed on an unseasonably warm and sunny day in London – it was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit according to our captain. Despite the overall size of London Heathrow, our taxi into the gate at Terminal 5 was surprisingly short. Thankfully two jet bridges were connected to doors 1 and 2L, allowing those of us in First Class to egress that much more quickly. Kate and Samantha were at the door and I bid them a fond farewell along with heartfelt thanks for their fine service. BA is fortunate to have those two in its employ.

As for me, it could be awhile before I fly with BA again. This trip was an affordable extravagance but not one that I can afford to make a habit out of. The primary attraction was first and foremost another flight in First Class aboard the 747 and I am thankful to have received a very good flight at that. The 747s are not scheduled to be retired from BA’s fleet until 2020-22, so who knows – maybe we’ll meet again someday.

I certainly hope so.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:35 pm
  #4  
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March 15, 2017
KLM Royal Dutch London to Amsterdam 345p – 600p Fokker 70 Economy Class
Air Baltic Amsterdam to Riga 655p – 1010p Bombardier CS300 Economy Class


Once I’d made the decision to ride the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing rather than the other way around, I needed to find a way to get myself from London to Moscow. Rail travel from London all the way to Moscow was more convoluted and expensive than I desired and so my plan was to fly from London and Helsinki and then catch the overnight train to Moscow from there.

It was during the process of examining my options between London and Helsinki that I began to take notice of how affordable airfares had become throughout Europe and how this subsequently presented me with an opportunity to fly aboard some new airlines and/or aircraft along the way.

This is going to be a long trip report, so I’m not going to walk you through the convoluted process I went through to arrive at my ultimate travel plans. Let’s just cut to the chase.

While I had plans to visit with a friend who lives about an hour outside of London, I also had time enough to take a quick side trip from London to most any European city and back. The purpose of this side trip was not tourism related. It was strictly about flying out and back aboard what for me would be hitherto unflown airlines and aircraft. Those of you who may find yourselves snorting in contempt at this logic should remember that I am a huge fan of airlines and airliners – what in the modern vernacular would be referred to as an “Av-Geek”. I didn’t get to fly 192 different airlines by behaving normally like everybody else. Besides, my real destinations on this trip are the Trans-Mongolian Railway and Fiji.

I hadn’t researched the issue long before I came across a great opportunity to fly on a couple of new airlines while at the same time flying aboard a couple of jets that I’d never before flown upon – the older Fokker 70 and the brand new Bombardier CS300. KLM was offering a one way fare between London and Riga, Latvia for just $156.00 USD. KLM’s Fokker 70 would do the honors between London and Amsterdam, connecting to Air Baltic’s codeshare flight aboard the CS300.

Many people might look at a Fokker 70 and think they were looking at the more widely known F.28, which was introduced into service back in 1969 and has been operated widely throughout Europe, Africa and even the United States. The -70, which first flew in 1993, incorporates a number of improvements which aren’t readily noticeable to the untrained eye. Most notably, the Fokker 70 and it’s larger brother the Fokker 100, have more modern avionics, a pair of new-generation Rolls-Royce Tay turbofan engines and a redesigned wing that is said to be 30 per cent more efficient at cruise speeds. For all that however, the Fokker 70 – with a passenger capacity of about 80 depending upon seat pitch – never attracted many customers. Only 48 of them were built before Fokker went bankrupt in 1996.

Not surprisingly, the world’s largest operator of the Fokker 70 is Holland’s KLM CityHopper with a current fleet numbering thirteen. Although Fokker’s F100 sold well in North America (American, Midway, US Airways, Intair, Jetsgo, Aviacsa, Mexicana), the F70 didn’t with only two having been delivered to Mesa Airways who operated them briefly on behalf of America West Express before deeming them unprofitable for its operation and sending them back to Europe.

In any event, I missed my chance to fly upon the Fokker 70 during its brief time with America West Express and had pretty much written off my chances of flying on it what with KLM phasing out its final Fokker 70 at the end of October this year. KLM began flying F70s in 1996 but its fleet is now 20 years old, with each aircraft having performed around 38,000 flight hours. KLM is already beginning to replace its -70s with comparatively pedestrian (but cost-efficient!) Embraer E175s and E190s.

So then, you can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw a chance to log a flight aboard the hitherto elusive F70 along with the brand new CS300 for what I deemed to be a very affordable price.

Fast forward to London’s Heathrow Airport where I needed to get myself from BA’s Terminal 5 over to Terminal 4 from whence KLM now operates. I had about two hours to do so. Complicating matters was the fact that I’d decided to store my roll-a-bord at Heathrow rather than risk having it misplaced during the 55 minute connection at Amsterdam or having to pay for it while flying LOT back to London. In every regard, it was cheaper to pay the £18.50 baggage fee at LHR.

Moving along, by the time I’d located left luggage, checked in, cleared security and walked the quarter mile down to the gate, there was no time to enjoy either of the two lounges I had available to me through Priority Pass. I did however manage to get off a decent shot of my attractive two-tone blue and white Fokker 70 waiting at the gate.



KLM’s Fokker 70 Awaits


This being a new plane for me, you’d think I’d be Johnny-On-The-Spot and be first in line to board. Nope. That was reserved for Business Class and SkyTeam Elite passengers. By the time boarding was announced for the rest of us heathen, a sizeable line had already developed and by the time I took my spot at its rear I was amongst the last to board. Forty years ago I probably would have been amongst those early boarders but these days, some 5,150 some odd flights later, I just can’t be bothered. It’s not that I’m not excited to get on and check this airplane out but these days it’s just not in my make-up to be so anxious and hurried.

That said, when I do finally make my way down the jetway for that first flight, there’s always a bit of excitement and anticipation as I’m looking forward to seeing what this plane looks like inside – not just the physical cabin but the furnishings as well. What’s Business Class look like? What color is the carpet? What color are the seats? I know, I know what you’re thinking. Still, I am unrepentant. This is exciting stuff!

Sadly, in the post-deregulation era that we’ve all lived in for some time now, homogeneity is all the rage. Once you’ve been in one narrow bodied jet you’ve pretty much been in them all. 737s, A320s, Fokkers, Embraers – there may be some minor differences in the physical cabin but in terms of seating and ambience they’re all pretty much the same – dark blue or grey seats with plain white sidewalls . Anybody remember when BOAC had checkerboard patterned fabric covering some of its economy class seats or when TWA’s sidewalls had hot air balloons and European scenes. Continental must have employed twenty different colored and patterned fabrics in the back of its DC-10s while United – always more conservative – employed at least three different solid colored fabrics aboard its DC-8s and 727s. First Class seats were always solid red while behind the curtain you’d see a mix of white, beige or turquoise.

By today’s more conservative standards, KLM’s little F70 looked quite fetching with 78 dark blue patterned seats arranged in a 2-3 configuration. A small curtain divided Business Class from the rest of the aircraft but other than that there was little to differentiate the product, for which you pay a whopping $290.00 USD more on the 230 mile LHR-AMS run. All seats were exactly the same throughout the aircraft with possibly a couple inches more inches more leg room up front. Other than that, Business Class clientele are offered a slightly nicer meal and free booze.

As things turned out I wasn’t quite the last passenger to board, but once the last of the stragglers had taken their seats the crew buttoned us up, dispensed with the pre-flight safety announcements and sat down for take-off. The captain throttled up his twin Rolls-Royce Tays, released the brakes and off we went – thundering down the runway until taking to the air just 22 seconds later.

Seated up in 7A, I must say the F70 is a relatively quiet airplane inside. No doubt those sat closer to the hum of those Rolls-Royce Tays might have a different opinion but overall I was impressed. Equally impressive was the beautiful English countryside, downright verdant after what must have been a warm and possibly rainy winter. It looked like summer down there.

A 230 mile flight doesn’t allow much time for service – indeed, some airlines wouldn’t even bother – but KLM’s crew rolled out the trolley and passed out tasty falafel and vegetable wraps to all who so desired. The wraps were housed in a blue delft patterned box and came with a container of water.

Flight time was just 41 minutes, so it wasn’t long before we were making our descent over the North Sea while on our way into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. We parked remotely amidst a flock of other CityHopper jets, including one of the new Embraer E-190s. The bus took us on quite a circuitous ride around the airport, finally depositing us in the bowels of the D concourse, which appeared to be KLM’s main base of operations.

This was my first time flying through Schiphol and I was curious to get a feel for the place. Always considered a people-friendly airport dating from its reconstruction back in the 1970s, I think it still is. Its corridors are generally spacious and well-lit while its commons areas offer an attractive variety of shops and restaurants. Too bad I only have 55 minutes here. Less really, given that I’ve got to hustle from the D across to the B concourse and then down its entire length to gate B-14 where my CS-300 awaited.



Air Baltic’s new CS300 awaiting departure to Riga


It is always exciting to fly upon a new aircraft - especially so for me, even after 5,272 flights. My mom played a big role in my early interest. She loved to travel but unlike most women, she also took a real interest in the mechanisms of travel. Be it a train or a plane, she was well aware of what she was traveling upon and she always looked forward to getting there as well as being there. Suffice to say, her enthusiasm was infectious. To me at least. I have three sisters who could care less about “getting there”. My dad, by the way, was an early member of United’s Million Miler Club but aside from sending me neat postcards of airliners he’d flown upon, his personal interest in flying was otherwise minimal.

It should be noted that the early and mid-1960s were a very exciting time for aviation enthusiasts. Jets had only been flying around America for less than ten years and, with the introduction of the 727, DC-9, BAC-111 and Caravelle, many small and medium sized airports were seeing jet service for the first time ever. Jets were exciting and on the whole, so was a significant percentage of the American public. Many airports had viewing decks and it was not at all uncommon for people to drive out to their local airport to experience the sights and sounds of these new jetliners, even if they weren’t personally flying anywhere.

As a kid, I remember afternoon trips out to Denver’s Stapleton International Airport where a parking area was located alongside the east-west runway. The predominant jets of the early 1960s were 707s and DC-8s, big four engine jetliners that made a lot of noise and left big trails of smoky exhaust during takeoff and climb out. It was always a thrill to hear one of United’s noisy DC-8s take off or watch as a smoky Convair 880 approached from afar. Wow! Here comes a red Braniff 707! Afterwards, we would often visit the airport restaurant where I remember remarkably tasty club sandwiches and excellent views of the tarmac.

Today, lo many years later, that excitement is still there if a bit muted from my earliest days. I’ve been reading about the development and production of Bombardier’s C series for a few years now. After a number of starts and stops in the development phase, sales and production began in earnest in 2008. The sales pitch highlighted that the new Pratt & Whitney geared turbofan engines should provide 12 percent better fuel economy than existing engines while also being quieter. Further improvements to the airplane’s aerodynamics and the use of lightweight composite materials should also contribute up to 15% better operating costs than similarly sized jets.

In terms of production, the C-series jets employ technology and manufacturing expertise from all over the world. The wings are developed and manufactured in Belfast, Ireland while much of the fuselage is built in China. The aft fuselage and cockpit are manufactured in Saint-Laurent, Quebec and the final assembly of the aircraft is done at Bombardier’s plant at Mirabel Airport outside Montreal. Many other companies from around Europe and America also contribute to this aircraft’s design.

Two C-Series models are currently flying. Swiss Air Lines launched the CS100 back in July of 2016, while Air Baltic launched the larger CS300 just three months ago in December of 2016. Other airlines that have ordered the CS series include Air Canada, Delta, Gulf Air and Lufthansa. Delta gave the program a huge boost when it ordered 75 CS100s.

When boarding was called, I was amongst the first 30 or so to board, a considerable improvement from my usual laggardly style. I’d requested seat 7A, a window seat on the two-seat side of the aircraft. The first thing I noticed upon entering the cabin was its width. Air Baltic’s CS300 is configured to seat 145 configured 2-3. Aside from the 2-3 layout in Business Class, the cabin looked clean and uncluttered with all seats being upholstered in pleasing cream colored leather. A green tint emanated from atop the sidewalls next to each row. Seat pitch was fairly generous at about 31” and the seat – definitely not a slimline model – felt pretty comfortable as well. I immediately liked the larger windows – on par with those found on Embraer’s family of jets. The overhead storage bins were also surprisingly spacious for a regional aircraft. I had no problem stowing my 21” roll-a-bord wheels in first.

My seatmate, Dmitri, was a Latvian national who spoke flawless English thanks to three years as an exchange student in California some years ago. Married with two children, his job had him flying regularly between Riga and London. He too was quite pleased with Air Baltic’s new jet, especially after flying aboard the airline’s ‘crappy old” 737-500s, which he described as being rundown and long overdue for retirement.



Sunset on the Amsterdam ramp


Air Baltic’s new CS300 cabin ambiance


Takeoff was typically swift and exciting as we leapt into the heavens with what felt like an impressive angle of climb-out. Flight time on this 830 mile flight to Riga was projected to be about two hours and ten minutes, plenty of time for the crew to provide a leisurely service – which they did, though perhaps a bit too leisurely by my experience. Service commenced about 30 minutes into the flight with the meal and beverage cart. There was only one pass, so unless you wanted to go back and bother the flight attendants in the galley as I did, you needed to place your order on the one and only go round.

Air Baltic offers a decent inflight menu that includes full hot meals which can be ordered and purchased in advance of the flight. Nothing is complimentary, however. Water, coffee, sodas – all came at a cost. I shelled out €2.00 for a coffee and later, another €2.50 for a bottle of water. During that trip back to the galley, I also paid a visit to the lav, far and away the largest I have ever seen on a single aisle aircraft, approximate in size to the First Class lavs on Cathay Pacific’s old 747-400s.

Time flew by as Dmitri and I enjoyed chatting throughout the flight. Touchdown at Riga International was nicely executed and we taxied briskly up to our gate, parking next to one of the aforementioned “crappy old” 737-500s. Funny thing is, you’d never know it from the outside. The airplane looked as clean and shiny as if it had been delivered by Boeing last month, not 25 years earlier as a check of its registration revealed.

My home for the night was the Rixwell Elefant Hotel. The name comes from the fact that there’s an elephant in the lobby. Well, kind of one. It’s made of bronze or something that looks bronze and is about 4 feet high at the shoulder. As for my room however, it was every bit as nice as the pictures on the website from which I’d purchased it. How often does that happen?!



Deluxe King Room at the Rixwell Elefant Hotel in Riga, Latvia


My room rate of €53.20 included an exceptional full breakfast buffet, of which I took full advantage prior to catching a taxi back to the airport.

I didn’t get to see much of Riga, but what I did see and experience makes me want to come back here again for a longer stay.


March 16, 2017
LOT Polish Riga to Warsaw 150p – 205p Embraer ERJ-175 Economy Class
LOT Polish Warsaw to London 330p – 520p Boeing 737-400 Economy Class


Once upon a time, flying upon eastern European airlines like LOT was considered to be quite an adventure – and I don’t mean the good kind. We used to joke that LOT stood for Look Out Tower! Over the years however, most all of the old communist bloc country airlines have divested themselves of their aging Soviet era jets and transitioned to newer, more reliable western models from Boeing, Airbus and Embraer.

A search on Skyscanner revealed a plethora of possibilities for air travel between Riga and London. Connections through countries like Hungary, Czech Republic and even Turkey were available at decent prices. I briefly considered routing through Prague on a pair of second tier Czech airlines but ultimately didn’t like the connection time and so decided to go with LOT through Warsaw. Total cost: $115.00 USD.

Riga’s airport is not very large, but once you get past security it opens into a bright, spacious concourse with plenty of shops, eateries and my favorite – lots of natural light. At the entrance to the concourse is the Primeclass Business Lounge, which so far as I know is the only Business Lounge available at RIX.

The receptionist ran my Priority Pass card and then provided a brief tour of the facility. She had time to do this since there was only one other person in the lounge. I found a nice collection of seats over by the windows and then headed over to have a look at the food and beverage area. I wasn’t all that hungry, having just had breakfast two hours earlier, but I can always make room for coffee and a biscuit. Had I so desired, a broad range of foods ranging from pastries to sandwiches all the way up to hot beef stroganoff and rice was also available. A tall glass door refrigerator offered a decent selection of juices, sodas, beers and water.



Primeclass Business Lounge


Primeclass Business Lounge Offerings


It was about 1:15pm when I made my way up to gate 5. Along the way I stopped at a duty free shop to check out their plug adaptors as it seems my adaptor kit was somehow missing its European plug. Oh my God! The prices were extortionate! €28.50 for a simple plug adaptor? No thanks! I’ll have a look in Warsaw. Besides, I won’t really need one again until I arrive in Helsinki in a couple of days.

LOT’s sharp looking little ERJ-170 was just taxiing up to the gate as I arrived. It was a nice day, so I paused to take a picture.



LOT’S ERJ-170 at the gate in Riga


One could argue that if you’ve been on one regional jet, you’ve pretty much been on them all. To be sure, that argument generally works – except amongst those of us with an eye for detail. The first thing I noticed was the three rows of Business Class seats with signs on the headrests reading “This seat has been blocked for your comfort”. Other than that they appeared to be the same as those in economy, including seat pitch.

Moving on to my economy seat in row 11, I sat down and was immediately impressed. Decent legroom, comfortable padding – I like it. The guy across from me had somehow managed to get a large bag past the gate agents but the ERJ-170 was having none of it. It wasn’t long before a flight attendant showed up to have the bag checked.

Flight time to Warsaw was just 50 minutes – time enough for a quick pass with the beverage cart and little else. Well, there was something else – a Kit-Kat style candy bar doled out by the flight attendants. I threw it in my daypack for later.

It was cool and overcast when we landed at Warsaw’s Frederick Chopin International Airport. Lined up on one concourse were five LOT 787s. The fleet’s all in! Almost. LOT currently operates six Dreamliners. We parked remotely amidst three or four other regional jets, then bussed into the terminal.

A check of my lounge options prior to departure revealed two Priority Pass affiliated lounges available to me here. As I made my way through the airport I took notice of the LOT Business Lounge. Hmm… usually the best lounge in any airport is that operated by the hometown airline. As a lifetime member of the United Club - and travelling aboard a fellow Star Alliance carrier today – I wondered if my club card would grant me access. It did!

LOT’s Business Lounge is surprisingly small for serving the airline’s hub. Turning my attention to the food island, I took note of a delicious smelling cabbage and sausage soup. Also available was a hot goulash looking dish and some good looking pastries. I still wasn’t all that hungry but after watching a guy ladle himself a bowl of that delicious smelling soup, I couldn’t resist. Mmmm! Yah mon! Good stuff!



LOT’s Business Class Lounge at Warsaw


LOT’s Business Class Lounge at Warsaw


A check of the departures board revealed that those 787s were headed everywhere from New York and Chicago to Beijing and Bangkok. One flight that caught my eye was a TUI charter operating from Warsaw down to Montego Bay. What a wonderfully exotic routing – from a grey and dreary day in Warsaw to sunshine and Planters Punch on the beach in Montego later tonight. I wondered if TUI had a premium class product… No way am I doing that flight crammed into the standard European charter configuration.

Leaving the lounge, I headed down to the end of the concourse where I checked out a good looking Belavia 737-500 while awaiting the boarding call for my flight. When it came, I dutifully took my place at the end of the line and slooowly made my way down through the jetway. Dang! Whatever could be taking these people so long? I’ve stood in a lot of jetways in my time but this crowd moved like molasses in January. Maybe LOT should have its flight attendants double as barkers to encourage those arguing over seats or taking forever and a day to put stuff in the overhead to speed it up.

I’m reasonably patient to a fault but I’ve addressed the issue a couple of times while stuck behind some inattentive or uncaring passenger(s) who seem oblivious to the fact that this isn’t their private jet and/or seem to have no situational awareness. “Hey Knuckleheads! (You guys!), we got about 90 people waiting behind you here. You wanna finish it up there?” I know, I know… shocking and rude, but I’m more than up to the task when the situation warrants it.

When I finally did step aboard the 20 year old 737, I was at once impressed by the stylish two-tone blue interior which gave it the look of a much younger airplane. At the same time I was amazed at how thin those thin line seats were. I kid you not when I say that they were only a little more than an inch and a half thick at their top third.

The flight itself was fairly nondescript. The advertised snack turned out to be another Kit-Kat type bar with coffee or water though I vaguely recall that there was an inflight menu from which one could purchase the usual inflight goodies. Landing at Heathrow was a few minutes early and Bob’s Your Uncle!


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *

Had I known then what I know now, I just might have risked checking my bag on to Riga rather than storing it at Terminal 4. Instead, upon deplaning at Terminal 2, my back and legs sore from two hours in those cheap slimline seats, I commenced to following a tortuous and convoluted path around and under what seemed like the entire airport. It began with a long walk out of the T2 gate area through customs and immigration, which thankfully was near deserted. I then continued on through a never ending series of walkways eventually leading me out to the Heathrow Express train, which provides free shuttle service over to T-4 and 5. Of course after the long walk just to get to the train, I then had to wait a further 18 minutes for it! Arriving at T4, I then made my way upstairs and all the way across the terminal to the baggage storage place, where I was then informed that I could get to the Central Bus Terminal by simply catching the Underground. It’s free, and the escalator leading to it was just outside and to the right. Roight! Off I go, though I should have known that getting to the Underground could never have been quite so easy as just riding down an escalator. No, there were more corridors to be walked, though thankfully not so many as at T2. Arriving at the Underground, I then find out that although it’s free, I’ll need to purchase something called an Oyster Card to ride it. “How much is that?” I ask. It’s a £5.00 minimum was the reply. Just to get to Terminal 2/3? No, that’s free. But you’ll have to buy the £5.00 Oyster Card to ride the Underground.

Sigh… You know though, I didn’t get to a point where I can afford to take trips like this by just casually chucking money around, even amounts as small as £5.00 (most of the time) and I wasn’t in the mood to do so now. So – I turned around and made my way back up the corridors, back up the escalator, back across Terminal 4 and down to the Heathrow Express where I discovered I’d have to wait another 13 minutes for the next train. Hhhhhh.. whatever…

Of course, it’s no short stroll from the Heathrow Express to the CBT, so off I set. At this point mere discomfort has morphed into outright pain that left me questioning whether I was quite ready to have undertaken a trip of this scope. Mentally, I’m always ready! Physically, ah… well, here I am so keep pounding! When I get to the bus terminal I’ll take something for the pain.

I didn’t have long to wait for the bus to Reading and two hours later I was enjoying burgers and brews with my friend at a nice little pub in Wokingham. What a day!

The next afternoon I caught the train from Wokingham out to Heathrow, then a taxi to the Ramada Inn where a small but comfortable room could be had for just £39.20. The room was necessary due to my early departure up to Helsinki the next morning.


March 18, 2017
Norwegian Airlines London to Helsinki 910a – 210p Boeing 737-800 Economy Class


I’ll bet if someone had told the average Londoner back in 1977 that they could one day fly 1,150 miles from London to Helsinki for the equivalent of just $74.00 USD one way, they’d have told you that you were dreaming. Well, dream on because in this day and age of deregulated airfares, those ridiculously cheap fares are a reality.

Of course, they often entail putting up with long lines, ridiculous baggage restrictions, uncomfortably tight seating and surly flight attendants. Not so when flying aboard up and coming Norwegian Airlines. The airline has won multiple awards for its fine, overall product including SkyTrax’s coveted Best Discount Airline in Europe and World’s Best Discount Airline.

Well, they certainly had the Discount Airline part covered, because to pay just $74.00 USD to fly 1,150 miles anywhere on the planet is one heckuva good deal. As for the airplane and the service – well, more on that in a moment. First, let’s check out the lounge scene here in Gatwick’s South Terminal.

As has been my experience with London’s two largest airports, getting from point A to point B is rarely as simple as it would seem. Notwithstanding, I actually made my way through security and on to the lounge without too much fuss. The lounge, named the No. 1 Lounge, provided a comfortable and well-staffed place to while away an hour and a half in advance of my flight. It was bright and welcoming, with a nice selection of foods and beverages on offer – not to mention killer views of the Gatwick tarmac and runway. I ordered something called a kedgeree, fixed myself up a cup of latte from the coffee machine and then put in a bit of time on this trip report. Overall, the No. 1 Lounge was as nice a lounge outside of the Concorde Room and Emirate’s T3 Lounge as I’ve ever visited in London.



Premier No. 1 Lounge at Gatwick


Tarmac view from the lounge


Tarmac view from the lounge


Kedgeree and Coffee


Getting from the lounge down to the airplane was a typically convoluted affair that I’ll spare describing for you all. Never having flown Norwegian, I was not only looking forward to the flight experience but also seeing which famous Norwegian would be emblazoned upon the 737-800’s tail. Alas, it seems we got the one aircraft in the fleet that had a plain white tail. This being my 5,276th flight and Norwegian being my 184th airline flown, it occurred to me that perhaps I could grace some airliner’s tail someday but, not being Norwegian, I guess it won’t be this one.



Would you put this guy on an airliner’s tail?
Yours truly - twenty years ago


Norwegian’s 737-800s are outfitted with 186 red and grey seats, all in a single class configuration. The seat pitch is quite generous by European discount airline standards - not to mention most any other airline standards. The crew was friendly and attentive, helping people stow their bags as needed and generally doing a god job of expediting the boarding process through their alertness and assistance.

Once in the air, service was prompt and efficient. Norwegian offers a fairly extensive inflight menu with a nice variety of sandwiches, wraps, snacks and even a hot meal if so desired. I shelled out €8.00 for a sandwich combo and received a fairly skimpy but otherwise tasty sandwich with a can of coke. The inflight magazine had a couple of entertaining articles and otherwise my laptop kept me entertained through the rest of the flight.

If only based upon my experience aboard this flight, it’s easy to see why Norwegian is doing so well and is justifiably deserving of its many awards and accolades. I would not hesitate to fly with them within Europe the next time I get the opportunity. Indeed, were I not so spoiled when it comes to premium class travel across vast expanses, I’d have no qualms with giving Norwegian a go across the Atlantic. In the meantime, should they ever consider gracing one of their tails with a non-Norwegian of French Huguenot and Scottish descent, I’m volunteering right now. Well done, Norwegian!


* * *  * * *  * * *


I’ve been to Helsinki before. In fact, this is my fifth visit. Long time readers of my trip reports may recall that back in December of 2002, British Airways issued what we can only imagine was a major mistake fare allowing for roundtrip travel between any of its western U.S. gateways and anywhere in Western Europe for just $75.00 plus tax. Perhaps equally shocking in this day and age of excessive taxes and fuel surcharges is that all taxes and fees totaled out to just $20.00 all in. And oh yeah – the travel class wasn’t economy. It was World Traveler Plus with 2-4-2 seating on the 777s with 38” seat pitch. Amazing! I was able to buy two roundtrips before the fare was pulled. Off I went to Helsinki in the dead of winter, only to discover that I like Helsinki more in the winter than I do in the spring - which is pretty nice in its own right.

But enough of the past for now. Suffice it to say I know Helsinki, I like Helsinki and one day it would be nice to honor all of the wonderful Finnish people I’ve met by becoming conversational – if only at a rudimentary level – in their language. In the meantime, this trip allowed me a day and a half in Helsinki which I used to visit some old haunts such as the National Museum and the Katajannoka section where one of my favorite restaurants from past visits – just an old pub, really – was still serving reindeer with lingonberry sauce atop mashed potatoes. Ah… the memories transformed once again to reality… Delicious!



My home in Helsinki


Only $62.50 per night! With a balcony!


As the saying so aptly goes, though - time flies when you’re having fun – and so it was that after locating a suburban laundromat (thank God for Google Maps and Directions!) I emerged with a suitcase full of clean clothes, primed and ready for my upcoming ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway.


March 20, 2017
Aeroflot Helsinki to Moscow 910p – 1145p Airbus A320-200 Economy Class


The extension of light rail out to Helsinki Vantaa International Airport is a wonderful development since my last visit here in 2003. The inexpensive (€5.00) trains depart every 15-20 minutes from the main downtown railway station and take about a half hour to get to the airport.

By the time I arrived at the Aeroflot check-in counter, a sizeable line had developed for economy class passengers. As a longtime top tier elite in my own airline’s program in addition to doing most of my international travel in First or Business Class, I’m not used to standing very long in lines and, as you might imagine, don’t particularly care for to do so. That said, barring SkyTeam elite status my only way out of this line would have been to upgrade to a Business Class ticket at a cost of over $400.00 USD - this for a 540 mile, hour and twenty minute flight. Thankfully, the line moved along at a decent pace and I was through it and checked in within forty minutes.

Before starting out on this trip, I consulted Priority Pass and printed out a listing in order, by airport, of all the lounges and their locations that I’d have access to. In Helsinki, I had a choice of two lounges depending upon which side of the Schengen zone I wanted to be on. I want the lounge closest to my gate and so it was that after clearing immigration and purchasing a single bottle of Jack Daniels at the Duty Free store, I was soon relaxing over a glass of passable white wine, a plate of falafel salad and a bowl of creamy parsnip soup in the Almost Home Lounge. A plaque indicated that this lounge had been awarded European Airport Lounge of the Year by Priority Pass. Hmmm… okay. This wasn’t a very big lounge but it was nicely furnished with a nice selection of foods and beverages available. For my part, I can only offer Lounge of the Trip consideration and thus far I’d have to give that honor to the Premium No. 1 Lounge at London Gatwick, with this lounge and Riga’s rating a very close second.

Down at the gate a fair sized crowd had amassed. I set down my daypack and headed over to the windows to have a look at my Aeroflot jet. This was my first ever flight with Aeroflot, and while an old-timer like me would have preferred to have flown aboard a Soviet era Ilyushin IL-62 or at the very least a speedy Tupolov TU-154, those days have long since been relegated to the dustbin of history. These days, Aeroflot operates a mostly western fleet comprised of Boeing and Airbus equipment. I believe there may still be an IL-96 or two out there, perhaps plying the route between Moscow and say – Havana, Cuba – but for the most part Aeroflot’s long distance fleet is of western manufacture. Tonight’s aircraft was VP-BKY, a nine year old Airbus A320-200. Even through the dark of night, it looked quite handsome in Aeroflot’s attractive “new” silver, blue, red and orange livery.



Aeroflot’s Airbus A320-200
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia


No boarding announcement was ever made. I looked up from my magazine and lo and behold, boarding was in process. Indeed, it was almost complete! Grabbing my gear, I was quickly scanned by the gate agent and then set off down the jetway. Russia, here I come!

I know Russian women are very pretty but the flight attendant standing at the doorway of the A320 this evening was beyond beautiful - pretty enough to induce lycanthropy in a boy scout! Her face, her eyes and hair… absolutely drop dead gorgeous! Her pretty face remained impassive however as I lumbered past and she didn’t appear to offer much in the way of a smile to me or anyone else at any point during the flight. Hmm…

As I made my way into the aircraft cabin, I was pleased to see that Aeroflot had outfitted its A320 with proper Business Class seating. That meant larger, more spacious seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration. There were 20 blue leather clad recliners with a pitch that looked to be about 40”.

Now in using the term “proper”, some may say that I’m guilty of being nationalistic – seeing and appreciating these seats from only an American perspective – but I fervently believe that given the fares that European airlines are charging their Business Class passengers, they should provide better than lounge access and a slightly better meal. Why Europeans are so accepting of the lousy Business Class seating being offered by most of their airlines is beyond me. I know, I know – the flights are often shorter than those in the U.S. but from what I’ve seen, the pricing certainly isn’t commensurate with the length of the flights relative to what’s charged back in economy.

At check-in I had asked for an aisle seat and surprisingly was assigned an exit-row aisle – the reclining row, no less! Although my back is often sore, I can now handle the weight of an over wing exit door and – though I don’t speak Russian – I can still shout and point pretty well if need be. Still, I was surprised that a non-Russian (or at the very least, Finnish) speaker would be allowed to occupy an exit seat on this flight.

Another thing I noticed – the overhead bins. For an airline with supposed restrictions affecting carry-on luggage, I have never seen the overhead bins stuffed with so much stuff. I was thankful that a spot was arranged for my daypack three rows back. I would have happily put it under the seat in front of me but of course that is not allowed in the exit row.

Back home in the United States – and even on many flights in Europe these days – you would not expect to be fed on a 540 mile, one hour and twenty minute flight, especially one departing at 9:10pm. Not so on Aeroflot where we were presented with an Aeroflot embossed bag containing a decently sized chicken sandwich accompanied by a tangerine and a small fruit bar. I provided the packet of Grey Poupon.



Snack time on Aeroflot


Perhaps even more amazing - I watched through the open divider as the Business Class flight attendant smiled and graciously presented menus to each of her passengers. Menus! On a 540 mile flight! Actually, now that I think of it, I recall getting a menu and a very nice meal while flying aboard Turkish Airlines between Athens and Istanbul – a flight of one hour and 340 miles.

In any event, I was very pleased with the service I received on this flight – even from the beautiful but stern-faced flight attendant noted earlier at the door. Where Aeroflot used to inspire unpleasant visions of lackluster service aboard aging Soviet era equipment, if this flight is any indication it would seem they’ve improved their product significantly.

Nicely done, Aeroflot! I look forward to my next flight – hopefully in Business Class.


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


I grew up in America during the Cold War years. Add to that all the stuff we’ve been hearing about Russia lately and I couldn’t help but have a little twinge of anxiety on this - my very first visit to Russia. A number of “What ifs” circulated through my mind.

What if my Visa isn’t in order?
What if they search my bag and find something they deem questionable?
What if they demand to see my train ticket? (It’s waiting for me at the hotel)
What if they just want to give me a hard time - for whatever reason?

Countering those concerns was the fact that Americans – in ever increasing numbers – have been visiting Russia for years, and returning home with generally good experiences to relate. So – while the concerns were perhaps understandable given my inculcation past and present, I generally cast them aside and presented myself to the immigration officer with a neutral expression and no particular expectations aside from being granted entry into the country.

Which I was, although the lady who took my passport was every bit as stern in countenance as the border guards we see depicted in old espionage movies. She gave me the quick once over, scanned my passport, typed some things into her computer, said not a word and never smiled before stamping my passport and waving on the next person in line.

Welcome to Russia.

The real headache came in dealing with the Russian cabbies that congregate outside the arrivals area with all the persistence of mosquitoes on a hot summer day in the Alaska Bush. Having been informed by the Information kiosk that the bus for my hotel – the Park Inn by Radisson – came around every half hour, I then had to run the gauntlet of aggressive cab drivers, fending off a number of them enroute to the hotel bus pick-up point.

My interaction with one of them went like this:

Cabbie: You need taxi?
Me: No thanks. I’m catching a bus to a hotel
Cabbie: What hotel you stay at?
Me: The Radisson
Cabbie: Oh! That bus just leave 5 minutes ago! The next one won’t be for hour.
Me: I was told they run every half hour
Cabbie: Not this late at night. Next bus one hour. I drive you to hotel in few minutes!
Me: No thanks, I’ll just wait.
Cabbie: Serious! In few minutes you be sleeping in room!
Me: That’s alright – I’ll wait.
Cabbie: I give you special rate. You be sleeping in room soon!
Me: How much?
Cabbie: 700 rubles (About $12.00 USD)
Me: That’s okay. I’ll wait.
Cabbie: Sometimes bus is late.
Me: I’m a patient guy. See ya.

I’m sure that “bus just left 5 minutes ago” routine has worked on plenty of Ma & Pa Kettle types at 12:30am. As for me though – well, let’s just say this ain’t my first rodeo.

Truth be known, the cabbie was probably correct in his assertion that the hotel bus had left 5 minutes earlier because I did indeed have to wait until a little after 1:00am (about a half hour) but the bus did indeed show and it cost me nothing to get to the hotel.

I’m guessing that despite its 4-star rating on most travel sites, the Park Inn by Radisson is a lesser brand akin to Fairfield by Marriott. For some odd reason, that line from the movie “Fargo” comes to mind… “It’s a Radisson, you know, so… it’s pretty good.” That said, the lobby was bright and attractive, the receptionists spoke excellent English, check-in went smoothly and best of all, my train tickets had arrived by courier earlier in the day. The receptionist handed them to me with my key card. I was able to arrange a late check out and then headed up to my room – a standard double – located up on the 8th floor.

Upon opening my door I was a bit surprised to see two single beds or what we call “twin beds” back in the states. The only time I’ve ever seen them in a U.S. hotel or even motel was if the room was set up for families or triple occupancy. To see them here in a $94.00/night room at a Radisson was a bit of a surprise. Still, I can sleep just fine in a single bed. Of more immediate concern was that the room was very warm. Thankfully I was able to crack open a window where the sub-freezing night air did a nice job of quickly cooling the room down. I slept well and slept late, took a leisurely morning of puttering about my room and working on this trip report and then headed down to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch.



Aeroflot’s Terminal D at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport
As seen from my hotel room]


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Prior to departing on this trip I did a bit of research on getting from Sheremetyevo to the Yaroslavsky Railway Station. The city of Moscow is served by five railway stations – three of them all congregated around one square. The least expensive way to get from the airport to Yaroslavsky Station involved catching the AeroExpress train to the Belorusskiy Station. From there you just follow the signs to the metro and take the Circular Line (It’s colored brown on the system wide map) to the Komsomolskaya Metro Station. Total cost was under $10.00 USD. The only tough part is that all of the signage is in Cyrillic so I also printed up the various names I’d need to look out for in Cyrillic and enlarged them. They weren’t hard to identify. Once I got upstairs into the square above the Komsomolskaya Metro Station, there was no mistaking the Yaroslavsky Railway Station. It’s a very distinctive building.



Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Terminal


Entering the station, I couldn’t help but let out a big sigh of relief. It’s been quite a journey so far but here I am, on the precipice of commencing one of the world’s great railway journeys. Now all I have to do is watch for my track to come up on the departures board and then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

If I may, I’d like to suggest that now might be a good time to refill those drinks and restock those snack plates. We’ve got a long ride ahead of us - 4,735 miles (7621 km) to be exact.

All aboard!
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Seat 2A is offline  
Old Jun 14, 17, 2:37 pm
  #5  
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March 21, 2017
Russian Railways Moscow to Beijing 1155p – 1140a Train 4: The Trans-Mongolian First Class Sleeper


With five long hours to hang out before the departure of this train, let’s take a moment to examine just what the Trans-Siberian Railway is. Most people – including myself – are unaware that it comprises three different routes and each route has a differently named train. All three trains travel along the same main line between Moscow and Irkutsk, a distance of 3,200 miles or 5152 kilometers. At Irkutsk, the Trans-Siberian routes divide three ways:

The Trans-Siberian Route: Moscow – Irkutsk – Vladivostok: This is the original Trans-Siberian railway. Starting in Moscow, the route goes through Yaroslavl, Kirov and Perm to Ekaterinburg and continues through Siberia to Irkutsk and on to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

Actually, I stand corrected on my above statement about all three trains using the main line between Moscow and Irkutsk because on certain days of the week there is another train – also branded the “Trans-Siberian” that takes a southern route through Kazan and onwards to Ekaterinburg where it then joins the main route on to Irkutsk and beyond to Vladivostok.

The Trans-Mongolian Route: Moscow – Irkutsk - Ulan-Bataar – Beijing: This train passes through the Siberian plains and forests along the main line between Moscow and Irkutsk, after which it heads southeast through the Mongolian steppe and part of the Gobi desert as it journeys through Mongolia to China.

The Trans-Manchurian Route: Moscow – Irkutsk – Beijing: The difference between this route and that of the “Trans-Mongolian” is that it goes around the Eastern border of Mongolia rather than crossing through it. From Irkutsk, the Trans-Manchurian Line continues along the Trans-Siberian line as far as Tarskaya, which is a few hundred miles east of Baikal. From Tarskaya, the line heads southeast into China near Zabaikalsk and makes its way down to Beijing. This is the long way to Beijing, checking in at 5590 miles (9001 km) long.



Map of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian Routes


For most people, the classic Trans-Siberian train is the 5,767 mile (9288 km) run between Moscow and Vladivostok. The train I am riding and reporting upon is the Trans—Mongolian, a bit shorter at only 4,735 miles (7621 km), but arguably the most interesting of the three Trans-Siberian routes to take, given the potential to see and/or visit Mongolia along the way.

Regardless of their name, each of these trains is a trans-Siberian train as they all cross a major portion of Siberia on the 3,200 mile stretch between Moscow and Irkutsk.


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Well that didn’t take long! How ‘bout a bit of history? Both the railroad’s and mine, if you will…

The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway is one of the world’s more remarkable engineering feats, especially given the times during which it was built. The route had been in the planning stages for 25 years with many foreign companies ready to bid on and begin construction earlier, but Emperor Alexander III wanted full ownership of the railroad with no foreign influence - thus the quarter of a century delay in getting started. The railroad was completely funded and built by Russians.

Construction on what was then called "The Great Siberian Way" began in February 1891, starting simultaneously from Chelyabinsk and Vladivostok. The thousands of common workers who took part in the construction came mostly from the ranks of exiled prisoners and soldiers. With no modern equipment, the majority of the work was carried out by hand using shovels, axes, crowbars and saws. As on who’s lived and worked in Alaska for many years, I can appreciate some of the difficulties faced by those folks in building this railroad. Alaska and Siberia have similar landforms and climates and there’s little doubt that the harsh conditions made the job that much more difficult. Most of the tracks were built through thinly-populated areas where permafrost and large rivers presented major challenges. In the Baikal region mountains had to be blasted or tunneled through while bridges had to be built to cross the canyons of the many large rivers that flowed from the mountains down into Lake Baikal – the world’s largest fresh water lake.

Despite all of the difficulties described above, an average of 430 miles or 700 km. of tracks were laid each year. That’s a remarkable figure even by modern construction standards.

One of the most impressive aspects of this railroad’s completion was the construction of its bridges over the many large Siberian rivers it encountered. The Khabarovsk Bridge across the Amur River is the largest bridge on the railroad and was the last to be completed. It was built between 1913 and 1916 and measures 200 feet high (64 meters) by 1.6 miles (2.6km) long. Its completion also marked the completion of the railroad.

These days the entire length of the main line between Moscow and Vladivostok is double tracked and electrified. It remains the world's longest railway providing access on its eastern end to the rail networks of North Korea, China and Mongolia while in the West it connects through Russian ports and border crossings with a host of European countries.

The Trans-Mongolian Line was built from 1940 to 1956 between Ulan-Ude at Lake Baikal's eastern shore on through to Beijing. From Ulan-Ude the tracks go southeast through Mongolia, crossing the Gobi desert until finally arriving in Beijing.


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


Prior to this trip, the longest single train ride I’d ever taken was back in 1994 aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited between Miami and Los Angeles – a three day 71 hour journey covering 3,160 miles. Just last spring I took a five night, six day rail journey traveling 5,700 miles from Lafayette, Indiana to Lafayette, Louisiana along the following routing:

DAY 1: Depart Lafayette, IN for Chicago at 730am. Arrive Chicago at 1015a and depart for Portland, OR at 300pm
DAY 2: Enroute through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho
DAY 3: Arrive Portland at 1025am and depart for Los Angeles, CA at 230pm
DAY 4: Arrive Los Angeles at 845pm and depart for Lafayette, LA at 1000pm
DAY 5: Enroute through Arizona, New Mexico and Texas
DAY 6: Arrive Lafayette, LA at 515pm

So, clearly I’m no stranger to long distance train travel. Even so, this ride aboard the Trans-Mongolian will be an entirely different type of train trip. Here’s why:

This journey covers six nights and seven days aboard the same train, all the way through. There are no connections along the way that allow for a few hours off the train.

• There is no lounge car aboard this train, so a great source of mingling with my fellow travelers is not available.

• Many of my fellow travelers will not speak English. Many of the train’s onboard staff will also not speak English.

• To me, all of the above factors combine to make this trip all the more alluring.

So the question I seem to have gotten most often from friends and acquaintances who are at least vaguely aware that there is a train across Russia is this: Why aren’t you riding the long one? The actual Trans-Siberian. It’s a good question, given my passion for trains and long train rides. I have two answers.

First, given my overall itinerary and the availability of certain award flights, riding the Trans-Mongolian from Moscow to Beijing made the most sense from the perspective of both time and money.

Second, I can always come back and ride the classic Trans-Siberian another time. Indeed, what I’d really like to do is complete the trifecta and ride both the Trans-Siberian and the Trans-Manchurian.

There is one other factor as well. The Chinese train that operates the Trans-Mongolian is said to have better First Class accommodations than its Russian counterpart. Additionally, it benefits from better and more varied dining in the form of Mongolian and Chinese dining cars that travel with it through their respective countries.


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


So then, let’s return to the present where I’ve recently arrived at Yaroslavsky Station with five hours until train time. If I had it to do all over, I’d have booked myself a half-day Moscow City tour and checked out some of the sights in this fascinating city. Then again, I am thankful for all the extra sleep I got last night as I’ve got a long day ahead of me today.

As I mentioned earlier, Moscow’s served by an incredible five different railroad stations. As Yaroslavsky’s the only one I’ve been in, I can’t compare it to the others. However, based upon stations that I have been in, I would call Yaroslavsky a mid-sized station, about the size of London’s Euston.



Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Terminal


The main hall is ringed by shops – most of them selling cheesy souvenirs and snack foods. I did however notice a nice looking book store and a large stand that sold “Crap Dogs”. I’m assuming – indeed hoping – that “crap” has a different meaning in Russian. On two corners of the station were Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. One of their best features was that they had plenty of tables with nearby electrical outlets. I resolved to visit one before the night was over.

In the center of the main hall are a set of escalators – one up, one down. Heading upstairs I found a large number of seats (150-200) and more shops similar to their competitors downstairs. The Crap Dog’s competitor was a nice looking sandwich shop with a nice looking variety of meats, cheeses and breads all out on display.

Continuing along on my tour, I sauntered over to the far corner where a sign above a set of double doors indicated V.I.P. Lounge. Hmm. I like lounges. Let’s go check it out.

In retrospect, it was perhaps a bit naïve of me to expect anything along the lines of say… the Virgin Trains lounges operated at various stations across the U.K. For the uninitiated, those Virgin lounges are – from my experience with the one in Euston at least - similar to a basic U.S. airline lounge offering light snacks, a few complimentary beverages and a cash bar. It would be really great if Virgin could operate one at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Station because the facility that was billed as a V.I.P. Lounge here was nothing more than a large room with five rows of large, comfortable looking black leather loungers. On the wall facing the chairs was an approximately 50” flat screen television tuned into what appeared to be a Russian news talk show. I looked over when I heard the word “Trump” and lo and behold there he was – our leader - (key the harp glissando and the chorus from the heavens) scowling magnificently if not a tad petulantly into the camera. Aside from the television, the only other amenity was separate men’s and women’s toilets. There was no water or coffee, no tables, no newspapers or magazines. There was however a lounge receptionist who informed me by writing it down that the entry fee to this V.I.P. lounge was $200.00 Rubles – or about $3.50 USD. Yes ma’am! Sign me up!



V.I.P. Lounge at Moscow’s Yaroslavsky Railway Terminal


Over the next five hours I plugged in and got some work done on this report, purchased a few bottles of drinking water and a sleeve of cookies to have with my coffee in the morning. I then paid a visit to the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet downstairs while the lounge receptionist was kind enough to keep an eye on my gear upstairs.

With two exceptions, all of the employees at KFC appeared to be from far eastern Russia, perhaps somewhere near the Mongolia or China border. They were all very polite and efficient at taking orders, even mine which involved me pointing to one of the many items pictured in a group on the menu board and then writing down the price of it.

Out in the main hall there is a departures board that showed about 7 or 8 trains departing Yaroslavski. All of the writing was Cyrillic but it was easy enough to locate my train by its number (4) and its departure time (2355). Tracks are not posted until about 40 minutes prior to departure and I assume that once that happens, you are free to board. I was up in the lounge at the time when the receptionist alerted me to the track update.

Train 4, track 4. Keep it simple. I like it. Getting out to the train was simple, too. No need to first stop and check with a guard or conductor. Just walk out through the door marked “To Tracks”, locate track 4 (easily done – just follow the numbers) and walk down to your car. Each car has its number posted in large numbers in the window by the door. The first car I came to – the one at the end of the train – was #3. Only seven more cars to go!



Ah… Car 10!


Car attendants and/or conductors were positioned at the entrance to each car. This is a Chinese train and with the exception of the Russian dining car staff, all of the crew are Chinese. I must say they all looked quite smart in their navy blue airline pilot style uniforms, complete with the peaked pilot’s style hat.

Li was my car attendant and thank goodness he spoke at least basic English. Seeing that I walk with a bit of a limp, he was very helpful in assisting me aboard the train by taking both my bag and my day pack and delivering them and me to my room. Upon boarding, I was at once impressed by the wooden paneled hallway and the deep pile carpet. It’s a well-known fact that neither the Chinese nor Russian trains comprise a classic luxury experience but these small touches definitely made for a good first impression.



The wood paneled hallways are much nicer than the ones in the First Class cars


I am booked into suite 3 on car 10. My accommodation is what is known in Chinese railroad terminology as a Deluxe Soft Sleeper. Suite 3 comes with an upper and lower berth, a table, a separate seat across from the table and a shower and wash basin which are shared with the suite next door. It’s a fairly sizeable compartment by railroad standards, measuring about 9 feet deep by 7 feet wide (2.75 x 2.15 meters) with the ceiling close to 9 feet above. It’s well-lit with a single large fluorescent light and a couple of smaller wall mounted reading lights beside the bed and chair. In the center is a large window measuring about 3 ½ feet square. The table is decently sized with more than enough space for working and/or meals. All of the walls are wood paneled against which the beds and chair are upholstered in red and gold patterned fabric. It’s an attractive combination and in terms of overall ambience looks like a compartment I’ll be happy to inhabit for the next six days.



Deluxe Soft Sleeper Compartment


Deluxe Soft Sleeper Compartment


Not everything was perfect however. Sitting down on the bed, I was surprised at how hard it was. If this is a deluxe “soft” sleeper, I’d hate to see what the second class “hard” sleepers are like! I can only imagine they must be bare metal! The mattress on the bed as well as the padding on the chair had the consistency of the hard thin padding you’d find transit bus seats. Indeed, I’ve sat on a few transit busses that were more comfortable. These beds need some memory foam in the worst way! In the interim, I’ll have to make do with using most of the four blankets provided to fashion a little softer sleeping surface.

As for the ensuite wash room, it contains only a small sink along with a shower head attached to a 3 foot long metal hose. Any visions of luxuriant showers a la the Emirates A380 were quickly dashed. The water pressure is minimal, as is truly hot water. It does make it to the warm side of tepid, but no warmer. But hey – at least it isn’t cold.



Washroom with Shower Head


When purchasing this ticket, I had paid extra to ensure that I would have the suite to myself for the entire trip. Based upon tonight’s load, I probably could have gotten away with rolling the dice on a suite for two and taken my chances with whether or not I’d have a roommate. When we pulled out of the station, I was the only passenger in this car. As I type this now five days later, sitting here at the Russian border checkpoint at Naushki, I remain the only person in this car. There is one more Deluxe First Class car just behind me and as of tonight there is just one man in that car as well. Indeed, there’s hardly anybody on this train! More on that later though.

Right now I’m just excited to finally be aboard the train! No more concerns about having any paperwork hassles along the way or finding my way from the airport to the station or even wondering what I’m going to do for five hours in the station. Now I can just sit back, relax and get into the groove of watching Asia roll past my window on this six day, 4,740 mile train trip.

First things first though. We were fifteen minutes away from departure, so there was still plenty of time to get some platform photos of my car and train against a backdrop of the Yaroslavsky Station. In the distance you can make out the big neon lighted “MOCKBA” (MOSCOW in Cyrillic) sign on the backside of the station. The red and grey passenger train next to us is Train #002, [b]The Rossiya[/i], also known as the “Trans-Siberian Express”. It’s bound for Vladivostok and leaves 10 minutes before we do. We’ll be shadowing this train for much of the journey.



The Trans-Mongolian alongside the Trans-Siberian in Moscow


As much as I would like to have heard the Chinese version of it, there was no call for “All Aboard!” Li simply indicated to me that we were ready to go and that was that. I stepped back aboard, not knowing at the time that this would be the last time on this trip that I’d be able to do this. At all future stops I’d have to clamber up of down a steep and narrow set of metal steps.

Departure from Moscow commenced with a loud jolt and a screech of protesting metal as we lurched into motion and slowly accelerated out of the station. I watched for a while as the lights of Moscow glided past my window. Moscow is a huge city (population 12 million) and it took a good long while to get out of the city. Add to this the fact that it was dark and the city lights began to lose their entertainment value pretty quickly.

Even though it was past midnight, I was up and excited to be underway so I decided to take a walk back through the train. Li informed me that the diner was six cars back, but he wasn’t sure if they’d be open. In fact, he relayed an interesting story to me.

At one time, the dining car, which you’ll recall is Russian owned and operated - used to be staffed by men. Unfortunately a significant number of the men had a bit of a problem with drinking during their off hours. This occasionally resulted in the dining car being closed and out of service when it should have been open. Additionally, when it was open, some of the staff – still hungover – did not provide the best of service in either food preparation or presentation. The solution to this problem was that the dining car is now staffed exclusively by women.

Making my way back toward the diner, I discovered some interesting things about this train. First, all of the cars are heated with coal. In the vestibule of each car is a pile of coal and, behind a medium sized door a coal burning stove. During the trip it is each car attendant’s duty to keep the fires stoked lest we freeze while rumbling across the frigid expanses of Siberia. The smell of burning coal can be prominent in some cars (though thankfully not mine) so even though a diesel electric engine pulls this 11-car train, it smells like a coal-fired steam engine is up front.



The coal-fired stove heating my car


Unisex toilets are located at the end of each car. These are very basic affairs – essentially a toilet and a sink. There are no lady’s powder rooms or men’s dressing rooms.



The Toilet


Each car has two doors at each end. Upon stepping out of the passenger compartment or hallway, you’ll go through a door that leads to a vestibule. From there another door opens into the space between cars. It is dark, dirty and noisy in there. There are no pneumatic doors as found on Amtrak or most decent European trains. Continuing on, you’ll open a door into the vestibule of the next car, then another into its passenger hallway and so on and so on. Over the course of passing through five cars and into the diner I had to open and close 22 separate doors!

Directly behind me was another Deluxe “Soft” Sleeper, followed by four First Class “Soft” Sleepers. The difference between Deluxe and First Class was immediately apparent upon entering the unadorned hallways with their off white metal walls.



First Class 4-Berth Soft Sleeper Hallway
This one was very smoky from the coal burning stove


Each compartment in these cars comprised four berths, an upper and lower arranged two to a side. The décor was similarly Spartan to the hallway. Plain white walls, dark blue mattresses and a stack of bedding. These compartments appeared to be similar dimensions to mine but with no ensuite washroom and no separate chair. The lighting was stark, fluorescent white. As with the two Deluxe Soft Sleepers, these cars appeared similarly sparsely populated.



First Class 4-Berth Soft Sleeper


I’ve heard that Second Class Hard Sleeper accommodations are also available on this train though my journey back to the dining car didn’t take me through any sections that looked overtly Second Class. There is another car behind the diner but its livery is clearly Russian and I’m thinking it may serve as accommodations for the Russian dining car staff.

After having passed through five cars, the process of opening and shutting all of those doors plus grabbing onto the handrails mounted in the dark coupling passage between cars resulted in my hands getting really dirty. Over time those coal burning stoves put out a lot of soot and it accumulates on all the handles in the vicinity as well as in the passageway between vestibules. I would recommend bringing a pair of gloves.

On the door leading into the dining car was a sign indicating that its operating hours were from 900am to 1100pm, Moscow time. Therein lays another interesting aspect of riding this train. While traveling through Russia, all service aboard the train is operated on Moscow time. This extends to the stations along the route where all timetables including station clocks – regardless of their local time zone - remain in Moscow time. So - even though on day 4 you may be traveling through a region that’s four or five time zones later, you’ll need to be aware of the time in Moscow. In Mongolia and China everything reverts to local time.

In any event, given that the time was about 12:30am, I didn’t expect the diner to be open. Even so, I thought I’d give the door a try just to see what it looked like. The door was open and – surprise, surprise! – so was the diner! A waitress beckoned me in and motioned for me to take a seat at a table across from two other diners. She handed me a menu and – in Russian – probably indicated that she’d be right back. She did not speak any English and I did not speak any Russian but by now I had gotten pretty good at making my basic needs and desires understood.

The menu looked nothing like the pictures of menus I’d seen on the Seat61 website. Those menus were modern, colorful affairs with pictures of the food printed on glossy plastic. This menu was printed entirely on weathered olive green pages. Thankfully descriptions of the foods offered were provided in Russian, English and Chinese. There were quite a variety of items listed ranging from hot and cold appetizers to salads to sandwiches to full plated main courses and desserts. As I would soon learn however, not everything on the menu was available. In fact, quite a lot of it wasn’t.

At this hour of night I wasn’t particularly hungry but since the dining car was open and the waitress - a middle aged woman clad in a classic 1950s era yellow and green waitress uniform – seemed so eager to serve, I thought “Why not?”

I don’t remember the first two items I attempted to order. It doesn’t matter – they weren’t available anyway. At some point in our communications the waitress determined that I’d probably like a beer even though I’d never pointed to anything of the kind. She left and soon returned with a thankfully unopened 16oz can of local lager that from its feel was at room temperature. I might have drunk it if it were cold but as it was not I sent it back.

I could sense that the waitress was beginning to get a bit frustrated but then we finally managed to connect when she pointed at the sandwich section of the menu. I pointed at a sausage sandwich and she responded positively so we were good to go. What she brought out however was unlike any sandwich I’ve ever seen. Unlike the menu description it contained no tomato or cucumber, and it included only one small piece of bread. I had always thought the concept of a sandwich included two slices of bread but – after all we’d gone through to arrive at this point – now did not seem like a good time to quibble. I did however manage to successfully get across that I’d like that “sandwich” to take away, which was accomplished by wrapping it in a napkin. I handed over 150 Rubles (about $2.50 USD) and commenced the long journey back to my car. Upon arriving, the first thing I did was give my hands a thorough scrubbing.



Sausage Sandwich Russian Diner Style
The glasses are placed to provide scale, but instead the make the bread look larger


I stayed up quite late that first night, organizing items I’d brought along that would come in useful during the trip. We’re talking headlamp, books, magazines, mp3 players and headphones, food items such as coffee and creamer for the mornings and water bottles. There’s no really proper storage area for things like these but the empty upper bunk did the job nicely. I laid out three of the heavy wool blankets atop my “soft” mattress, but they did little to improve the softness of the sleeping surface. Oh well. I’m just going to have to live with it, I reckon.

One thing I really liked about my compartment was the ambient lighting at night. The large fluorescent light was available in two strengths. At its weaker setting, in combination with the smaller wall mounted reading lamps, the room took on a much warmer and cozier ambience. I read for an hour or so and then called it a night.



Evening lighting in my compartment

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jun 16, 17 at 12:35 am
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:42 pm
  #6  
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DAY 2
March 22nd, 2017


Despite such a less than ideal bed, I slept surprisingly well. I must’ve knocked off about seven hours, more than enough to leave me energized and ready to take on the day. As with every day at home, the first thing I do is open the window. On the train car this means raising the blind as the window itself doesn’t open.

It was a spectacularly sunny morning and the sunshine highlighted beautifully the snowy landscape we were traveling through. Although the land was mostly flat with the occasional low rise, it was also nicely forested with a collection of white birch, spruce and some other type of coniferous tree. In this regard it was not much different from my home scenery back in Alaska except for the lack of mountains. Between the sunlight dancing off the sparkling white snow and creating pretty shadows amongst the trees, I thought it looked downright bucolic. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this type of forested landscape would comprise the bulk of the scenery over the next three days.



Day 2 scenery


Day 2 scenery


Day 2 scenery


For some people this would be a problem. Over three days of it and they would get bored with this type of scenery. To be sure, it’s not the type of scenery that’ll leave you glued to your window oohing and ahhing as it passes by. Then again, there is a kind of quiet and reliable beauty to it that – as a continuous backdrop – I found rather pleasing. The fact that this entire trip was made under sunny skies only contributed to making this landscape that much more enjoyable. Just as kind eyes and a friendly smile can make even an otherwise plain looking person look beautiful, so it is for me with this landscape. Those who require the constant drama of ever changing landscapes with mountains and rivers and valleys and whatever else tickles their fancy would need to either readjust their values in this regard or travel somewhere else.

So here it is a beautiful morning outside - What’s next on the agenda?

Coffee!

Prior to the trip I’d purchased a bag of instant coffee, a jar of powdered creamer and a bag of sugar. These I redistributed into zip-loc baggies that I carry along for just such purposes. I’d also purchased a few packets of instant soup and a cheap cup while saving a couple of sturdy plastic spoons from a fast food restaurant. At this point, all I really needed was hot water.

One of the nicer features of these Trans-Siberian trains is the addition of a samovar at one end of each car. A samovar is essentially a large urn and aboard the Trans-Siberians, a seemingly never ending supply of boiling hot water is always available. The First Class rooms are also equipped with thermoses that’ll keep water pretty darned hot for six or seven hours. If it’s no longer hot enough, just dump it out and refill it at the samovar.



Onboard Samovar available on all cars


Soon I was sipping good, hot coffee while munching tasty Russian cream biscuits. Not exactly the breakfast of champions but a tasty start to the day nonetheless.

So then, including today we’ve got five whole days to spend on this train, riding through the Russian taiga as we make our way across Siberia. What is there to do along the way?

The answer to this question depends a lot upon the individual traveler. Speaking for myself as a solo traveler, I’m perfectly content to spend my time reading, listening to music, working on this trip report, checking out the scenery now and then, taking the occasional foray around the train and occasionally visiting the dining car. Along the way the train makes stops at a variety of towns and cities and at each of those stops is an opportunity to get off, enjoy some fresh air and stretch a bit. Trackside merchants that sell mostly snack foods and souvenirs will meet the train at some of the larger stations.

Those of you who’ve read my past reports covering travel aboard Amtrak will know that for me one of the most enjoyable aspects of train travel is the chance to meet and interact with your fellow passengers either at meal times or in the lounge car. Unfortunately neither of those opportunities presented themselves in abundance on this trip because for 1.) there were very few people riding this train and 2.) even fewer English speaking passengers. I did meet a couple but more on them later.

The point I’m trying to make here is that when it came to entertainment on this train, for the most part I was on my own. The diner was sparsely populated at the best of times and there was no commons area such as a lounge. For some people, especially those travelling alone, this could become a real problem. The lack of social interaction, of someone to “share the experience” with, would just drive them crazy.

People like this have two choices: Travel with others or book a shared sleeper and hope for the best.

Now shared sleepers – there’s a whole different experience in its own right. On some Russian trains there are cars called Platzkarts that are essentially rolling dormitories. They consist of row upon row of two-tiered bunks with perhaps 40-50 people sharing a single car. In these situations you get to know your neighbors pretty well – even if you don’t speak the same language. The forced intimacy of proximity forces you to get to know and/or deal with your fellow travelers. On a positive side, many people spend the trip chatting, playing cards, eating, drinking or just taking a moment to enjoy the landscape once in a while. It’s a shared experience. On the other hand, some people drink too much, talk too loud, play their radios or video games without headphones, snore loudly while they sleep or fail to practice good personal hygiene. Again, it’s a shared experience – for better or worse.


Although there were no platzkart cars on this train, here is a link to a photo of one:

http://travel.davidmbyrne.com/wp-con...age-Russia.jpg

When I was younger, the platzkart cars are where you would have found me. Back then I didn’t have enough money to travel otherwise and even if I did, my mindset at the time would never have allowed me to spend the extra money on nicer accommodations. Years of stretching a meager $1-5.00 per week allowance had inculcated in me a real appreciation for the value of a dollar and a real talent for budgeting my expenses. Additionally, I was a lot more tolerant to the vagaries of the human condition. Honestly, when you travel in this fashion you really don’t have a choice. You just learn to deal with it and ultimately in my experience nothing most people ever did for better or worse was all that big of a deal.

These days I’m a little different. I have a much greater appreciation for peace and quiet and uncrowded, uncluttered situations – even when I’m not traveling. Whereas back in my younger days I was so excited to simply be going anywhere that I would have been happy to ride in the back of a wagon with ten other people, these days, with 6 million miles of travel under my belt and a lifetime of varied travel experiences – for better or worse – my tastes have become a bit more discerning. Then again, perhaps they’ve become a lot more discerning. These days, I wouldn’t have ridden on this train if I couldn’t have booked the Deluxe First Class accommodations that I currently hold. Though it’s been quite a few years since I last bunked down in a hostel, I still exercise restraint when booking overnight accommodations. On this trip however, I’m staying in some of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed in – at least amongst those that I’ve personally paid for.

As for the social interaction, I enjoy and appreciate its value to a quality travel experience every bit as much as the next person but – failing an abundance of that as experienced aboard this train – I am very well prepared for and suited to a temporary life of quiet solitude if need be. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got books to read, music to enjoy, a trip report to work on and 4,700 miles of never before seen scenery to enjoy. Life is good.

The scenery is a big one for me. From the time I was young, I’ve always been fond of the different landscapes seen around the state, the country, the planet. When I was a kid I used to collect Colorado postcards – just for the scenery. I was always fascinated with the west and southwest, starting with the Rampart Range out my window to the southwest and extending into the deserts of the American Southwest and beyond across the Pacific to places like Tahiti, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. Have a look at my International Routes Flown map and you’ll see I’ve covered the Pacific Rim countries more thoroughly than most.



International Routes Flown


So getting back to life onboard this train for the next five days, I guess I’m saying I’m psychologically about as well suited as you can be for a solo traveler. Whereas some people might be groaning about now “Five. More. Dayyyyyyyyyyyys”, I’m looking at it as five more days! Right on!

As I mentioned earlier, I was the only passenger in car 10, so a little later in the morning I decided to take a stroll to the next car up – also a Deluxe Soft Sleeper – to see if there were any fellow fat cats up there. I was dressed in my flannel lounge pants and a Denver Broncos t-shirt, a bit casual by some standards but hey, it’s 2017 and we’re on a six-day train ride.

As I rounded the corner into the long straight hallway, I heard English being spoken with a decided rural American accent. Then I heard a British inflected reply. Say hello to Steve and Wendy from Mexico by way of Missouri and Andy from England. As fate would have it they were assigned adjoining rooms in car number 9 even though they had never met before and were the only persons traveling in that car.

The hallways of the sleeper cars are outfitted with these neat little single seats that fold down out of the wall and as such make the hallways convivial places to get together. We chatted for a bit about their travels and mine – we all boarded in Moscow, Steve and Wendy were detraining in Irkutsk and Andy was going all the way through to Beijing. Everybody was a bit taken aback at my roundabout routing to Fiji but all agreed – if only diplomatically so – that it sounded like a great trip.

One thing I noticed was breakfast plates on the table in Steve and Wendy’s room, whereupon I discovered that room service was available on this train. Apparently they never even had to ask in advance; the lady simply stopped by earlier this morning and took their orders. Well dang! I wonder why she didn’t stop by my room? Maybe she didn’t know I was there.

After a bit we bid our adieus with every expectation that over the next four days our paths would cross again. I headed back to my room and, with plenty of time on my hands, did what any responsible FlyerTalk trip reporter should do: I put in some work on this report!

It was about 1:00pm when I decided to head back to the dining car for a bite to eat. Upon arrival the same waitress from the night before greeted me and handed me a menu. Only I and one other man were having lunch at the time.



Russian Dining Car Ambiance


Russian Dining Car Ambiance


Russian Dining Car Ambiance


Perusing the menu, I knew this time to avoid sandwiches. When the waitress returned to take my order, I said a small prayer and pointed to an item titled as a Sicilian Schnitzel. Hallelujah! She concurred enthusiastically! We both spoke the same language when she asked if I wanted bread and coffee. Yes to both, please.

When my meal was delivered, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the presentation or the flavor. A nicely pounded out fillet of veal had been smothered in mushrooms, onions, tomato sauce, sour cream and melted cheese, then accompanied by deliciously fried and seasoned potatoes with freshly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. The chef had even taken a moment to apply a little artistry in the form of a paprika garnish around the edges of the plate. Best of all, it tasted every bit as good as it looked. Nicely done, chef!



Sicilian Schnitzel


The veal was good enough that I decided to splurge and have some dessert. I ordered something called “Peaches and Snow” with a refill on my coffee. Alas, this was a bit of a disappointment as it consisted of a serving of canned cling peaches dusted with powdered sugar. They took me for the equivalent of $4.50 on that one.



Peaches and Snow


In fact, they took me for a little more than that. Over the course of the meal, I’d requested some butter for my bread and some milk for my coffee. Those two items were reflected on my check bringing the total for this meal to $19.00 USD. I resolved to live and learn from the experience.

While I was in the dining car, I had an interesting encounter with the other diner – an older man who was having trouble making his needs understood to the waitress. Like me, he didn’t speak Russian and so the waitress looked to me to see if I could be of any help.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.
“No” he replied.
“Habla Español?” I asked in the more formal third person.
“¡Sí, Sí!” he responded excitedly. Spanish was not his first language but at least we were able to then understand each other. In all the excitement I forgot to ask him where he was from but if I had to guess, the French sounding inflections in his speech might have suggested somewhere in the Pyrenees region – possibly even Andorra.

From then on it was smooth sailing as we determined that he was interested in room service, which I was able to convey to the waitress by making eating motions and then pointing to the sleeper cars behind me.

And what the heck – since it’s available, I’d like to order in too, please. An attractive younger waitress named Irina was summoned who took both of our orders and then, since we were unable to convey our car and room numbers to her, she followed us all the way back to our respective rooms so she’d know where to deliver the food. That’s nice service. For the rest of the trip – or at least the portion with a Russian dining car – she came back to our rooms in advance of each meal to take our orders. This was really appreciated because the Russian dining car was not a very exciting or pleasant place to spend time in.

Every day we’d stop in at least one or two big cities. Most of the stops were about 15-20 minutes long, more than enough time to step off, stretch your legs and catch a little fresh air. Some of these cities like Novosibirsk were quite large with modern city centers and populations exceeding one million people. Depending upon the time of day, some – but not all of the stops - had manned kiosks selling various foods and trinkets. I get the sense that you’d see a lot more of this if you rode the train during the busier summer months.



Station at Glazov


End of day 2



DAY 3
March 23rd, 2017


One of the things that make a long train ride like this more bearable for me than most is that I’ve essentially lived onboard trains for long periods of time before. Back in the early 1980s, Amtrak used to sell what it called an All-Aboard America Pass. The national route system was divided into three zones and you could purchase a pass through one, two or all three zones. Each pass would allow you to visit any three destinations within the chosen zone(s). You were allowed to backtrack once (exception for returning to your start point at the end of the trip), and you had up to a month to complete your travels. A one zone pass cost just $125.00. A two zone pass cost $225.00. I used to buy a pass or two and just move onboard the train for a couple of weeks – kind of like a well to do hobo. The destination wasn’t nearly so important as the ride itself.

As an example, back in autumn of 1984 I purchased back to back rail passes – one for the western zone, the other for the central and eastern zones. Again, the idea was to see as much of the country as I could while also maximizing my time on the rails. This I achieved by picking three destinations that were as far from each other by rail as I could. Over the next five weeks I logged 22000 miles aboard 27 separate trains.



Amtrak’s National Map – Three Zones


For those of you wondering how the math works out here, let’s consider just the western zone portion of that trip. Starting from Denver, my three destinations were - in order - Havre, Montana; Deming, New Mexico and Las Vegas, New Mexico. As you can see from the map above, there are no trains from Denver directly to Montana, nor from Montana to New Mexico, etc. The itinerary worked out like this:

DAY 1: Depart Denver, Colorado on the California Zephyr
DAY 2: Arrive Oakland, California at 5:00pm. Connect to the northbound Coast Starlight at 10:00pm
DAY 3: Arrive Portland, Oregon at 1:50pm. Connect to the eastbound Empire Builder at 4:00pm
DAY 4: Arrive Havre, Montana at 12:00n. Connect to the westbound Empire Builder at 3:00pm
DAY 5: Arrive Portland, Oregon at 10:00am. Connect to the southbound Pioneer at 11:30am
DAY 6: Arrive Salt Lake City at 5:00am. Connect to the southbound Desert Wind at 11:30pm
DAY 7: Arrive Los Angeles at 2:00pm. Connect to the eastbound Sunset Limited at 10:00pm
DAY 8: Arrive Deming, New Mexico at 12:00n. Connect to the westbound Sunset Limited at 3:00pm
DAY 9: Arrive Los Angeles, California at 7:00am. Connect to the eastbound Southwest Chief at 6:30p
DAY 10: Arrive Las Vegas, New Mexico at 1:00pm. Connect to the westbound Southwest Chief at 3:00p
DAY 11: Arrive Los Angeles, California at 7:00am. Connect to the eastbound Desert Wind at 12:00n.
DAY 12: Arrive Denver, Colorado at 7:30pm

I didn’t get off to visit in any of those cities. That would’ve cost money that could better be used to purchase food onboard the trains. This was all about riding trains and nothing else. I spent twelve straight days and eleven nights aboard trains covering over 10000 miles on 11 separate trains. And that was just the western zone. Following a five day break back home in Colorado, I commenced an even longer journey where I spent fifteen days and fourteen straight nights aboard a collection of 12 separate trains covering another 12000+ miles.

And here’s the kicker: All of that travel was done in Economy Class or “Coach” as we call it in America. I spent each night curled up on a pair of coach railroad seats.

And for those of you squeaky clean types who can’t imagine traveling without your daily shower and change of pristine underwear, it’s still possible to keep relatively clean under such circumstances. I’m a pro at sponge bathing and washing my hair over a sink if need be. But no, I did not change underwear daily. A couple of layovers were long enough to allow me to get to a coin laundry and in Salt Lake I caught a city transit bus out to a truck stop where I got an actual shower! More to the point – I had a great time! When I stepped off that last train at Albuquerque, New Mexico, the only thing keeping me from doing it all over again was the perception that it wouldn’t be fiscally responsible to do so.

So instead, when I arrived home to find in my mail a challenge from United Airlines’ Mileage Plus to participate in a promotion called the 50 State Marathon, I had to reassess my fiscal responsibilities. After all, a deal like this had never before been offered by a major airline and – to the best of my knowledge – never has since.

To wit: United, in an effort to promote the fact that it was the first airline ever to fly its own mainline jets into each of the 50 states, made the following offer to its Mileage Plus members: If you can fly into or out of each of the 50 states in a set 50 day period, United will award you with a pass good for an entire year of unlimited free First Class air travel anywhere within the 50 United States.

Are you kiddin’ me?!! Free First Class around the U.S. for an entire year?! Even to Alaska and Hawaii?! No way could I pass that up. I immediately set to work putting together this amazing itinerary involving short interstate segments on United combined with a one month Greyhound bus pass to connect me between various cities where needed. Additionally, I utilized the then generous routing rules to put together a great multi-connection New York to Honolulu round trip with a side trip to Alaska. All told that challenge involved 52 flights covering 32,570 miles and another 3200 miles of bus travel. I paid out just under $3500.00 for the airline tickets and bus pass and, upon receiving the pass at a special awards dinner at the O’Hare Westin, proceeded to then fly an additional 532,800 miles over the next twelve months. According to Lynn Swann – the manager of the Mileage Plus program at the time – I had set the all-time record for the most miles ever logged aboard United Airlines within a one year period. By far.

But I digress. Then again, I’ve got plenty of time. Honestly, it’s downright mind-boggling to consider just how long of a train trip this is. Most of the world’s longer train journeys would have already ended by now or would be arriving later today. Not so here on the Trans-Mongolian. When I woke up this morning, we had traveled a little more than 1400 miles from Moscow. We still have another three thousand, three hundred miles to go! That translates to all of today followed by three more full days and one half day before we finally pull into Beijing Railway Station on the 27th.

So then, as we roll along through the vast Siberian taiga here on the third day of this trip, it’s oh so easy for the mind to wander off on diverse tangents. I’ve got plenty of time though, so on with the digression!

First though, it’s time for breakfast. Irina has arrived with a tray bearing a cheese omelet, brown bread and coffee. Although she speaks not a word of English, she has a pretty smile and a friendly disposition. Between pointing at the menu and employing the occasional hand gesture, I’ve managed to do a fair job of conveying what I’d like to eat. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to figure out a way to get across the concept of “toasted bread”. Until I do, it’s plain brown bread for me.



Day three Cheese Omelet


I might add that although the bread you see in the photograph may look like a slice of soft wheat bread, it is actually fairly dense. I think from now on I’ll just have one piece. That’ll also come with a cost benefit as bread is billed by the slice.

As I’m sure you must know or at least strongly suspect by now, when it comes to travel I’m not like most people. I’m talking pure travel not in terms of countries visited but rather in the motion and distance sense of the word. I’m in a class of travelers (some might say weirdos) that very few others care to be part of. Obviously I don’t mean that in a negative or superior way but honestly, how many other people do you know who’ve done stuff like the air and rail marathons I’ve described above, not just once or twice but literally dozens of times including multiple mega-mileage runs written about here at FlyerTalk. Although I truly appreciate the status gleaned and mileage accrued from such trips, at the root of it I still enjoy the pure enjoyment of just going somewhere. Traveling for travel’s sake or, as Robert Louis Stevenson so succinctly put it:

”The great affair is to move.”

Even so, my hobby – my passion as it were – is just eclectic enough to mean absolutely nothing in the great scheme of things other than to the person most involved in it - me. Few of my friends and none of my family have even the slightest interest in any of it. Indeed, if God forbid if I should perish in a fiery train wreck tomorrow, all of my travel “accomplishments” will simply vanish with me. All of the thousands and thousands of hours spent painstakingly handwriting the 5,297 entries and compiling the multiple statistics that highlight my personal flight log won’t mean a thing to whoever comes across it and has to decide what to do with it. It’ll just get thrown out. As for my having flown five million miles flown aboard 192 airlines, ridden 250,000 miles aboard trains on six continents or driven through every single county in eleven western states… yeah, yeah, whatever. None of these things have any intrinsic value except to me.

In a way it’s kind of sad, but hey – I knew the score going into this when I was just a kid and couldn’t find anyone with similar interests. Regardless, I have continued to pursue it to the utmost. And the bottom line is that I’ve had and continue to have a great time while flying all those planes and riding all these trains. As an added bonus, every once in a while, I stop long enough to spend a week or two in somewhere beautiful like Fiji or South Africa or New Zealand.

That’s right, I do run a bit deeper than just simple transport highs – I actually have on many occasions spent multiple days or even weeks truly enjoying my destination for its people, its culture, its attractions, its food, for just simply being there and staying long enough to become one with the country and its people. I used to write well detailed and – if you don’t mind me saying so – well written travelogues describing all the great people I’d met and fun things I’d done over the course of my travels. Then I discovered FlyerTalk. Finally, a chance to write about my real passion – getting there in a stylish and/or entertaining way. As for the travelogues, those have been relegated to postcards and verbal accounts amongst friends and family when I get home.

Anyway, I suppose the point of all this extraneous dialogue while ostensibly describing Day 3 on the Trans-Mongolian is to give you a better sense of who I am and what I’ve done travel wise with regard to how that’s prepared me to undertake a “marathon” train journey such as this. I have every confidence that I could do one twice as long and still look forward to every day of it.

So – rather than looking at the prospect of four more whole days of train travel and half of the fifth as something to be endured (Are we there, yet?) I’m instead looking forward to each and every day of it while focusing on the simple pleasures of the here and now such as the beautiful sunny day out my window, stepping off the train at the various stops made along the way, visiting with Steve and Wendy and Andy in the next car up as well as whoever else I may meet along the way, having a couple of cold beers later this afternoon and last but not least, putting in some work on this trip report.

That’s right – what better environment to get caught up on this report than here in my comfy compartment while occasionally glancing up to check out the landscape of Siberia rolling by outside my window.



Day three scenery - village


Crossing one of many large Siberian rivers


Over time, as I’ve settled in for the journey, I’ve learned through trial and error a few adjustments I can make to my bed and seat to make them more comfortable. On my seat, two pillows placed in a particular way makes for a most comfortable accommodation from which to write. On the bed, I’ve found that my personal wool blanket is much softer and more comfortable to lie atop than the warm but dense Chinese blankets, one of which I instead use to stay warm at night.

Speaking of warmth – every car is different in regard to its ambient temperature. Thankfully, my attendant Li likes things on the cool side – especially at night – which allows me to sleep much better than I would if my car were as warm as the First Class sleeper three cars back. Who knows though – maybe it’s not the car attendant so much as it is the heat distribution system on these old cars. Either way I’m thankful to have a car which is comfortable to travel in throughout the day.

Amazingly, nobody else has boarded and I continue to have this entire car to myself – well, just me and Li. Li mentioned early on that during the winter months this train doesn’t always see a lot of riders. Based upon the people I’ve seen wandering around at various station stops, we might not have any more than 20-25 passengers on board. Apparently, the Russian operated Rossiya sees a lot more patronage on its journey to Vladivostok.

For lunch today I decided to try out what was listed on the menu as “The Businessman’s Lunch”. This was a complete fixed price meal with a main course of a seasoned pork cutlet served with a side of rice and the standard garnish of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. Also included was a bowl of borsht, a tomato salad and a beer. A cold beer.



The Businessman’s Lunch


Outside my window, nothing had changed. A bright sunny day illuminated a continuation of the landscape from the day before. Siberia is hardly the barren wasteland it is so often depicted as outside of Russia. For those of you familiar with the American Midwest, imagine central Illinois or Nebraska but with less roads and people. Then, dot it with the occasional Peoria or Omaha sized city – placed a few hundred miles apart. There are plenty of trees but hardly what you’d call a dense forest. There are plenty of open spaces that were either cleared or are naturally occurring. Now extend this landscape for a couple of thousand miles.



Day 3 scenery


The big blue railroad station at Omsk


The entire line between Moscow and Vladivostok is electrified


One of the highlights for me on this day – or night as it were – was our arrival in Novosibirsk, a city of approximately 1.4 million people located 2000 miles east of Moscow. The attractive downtown district had numerous modern and tall buildings, many of them bearing bright colorful titles. How nice it would have been to have viewed them from the vantage point of a dome car. Alas, that marvel of railroad car engineering never really caught on outside of the U.S.

One of the other things I learned during the trip is that Li has a small refrigerator. He was kind enough to offer to keep my bottle of Jack Daniels (purchased at Duty Free in Helsinki) in his fridge but when I saw on day three that his fridge included a small freezer, I got an idea.

I like my whiskey on the rocks. I tried it refrigerated last night and it was not particularly to my liking. However, I always carry with me a supply of zip-loc baggies and it occurred to me that if I were to pour some water into the baggie and seat it, then freeze it, I could later break it up into smaller pieces and have my whiskey on the rocks. So it is that on night three, as we eased out of Novosibirsk, I closed out the day while savoring a glass of perfectly chilled Jack Daniels.
Seat 2A is offline  
Old Jun 14, 17, 2:44 pm
  #7  
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Day 4
March 24, 2017


I awoke at 4:30am Moscow time. Outside however it was bright and sunny. Remember, while traveling through Russia, everything on this train operates on Moscow time. We had now traveled 2,500 miles from Moscow and the local time was four hours later at 8:30am.

One thing I read about this train and have since experienced firsthand is that within Russia, it operates with all the punctuality of that longtime standard of railroad reliability – the Swiss train. At every station we were either on time or a few minutes early.

Our first stop this morning was Krasnoyarsk, the third largest city in Siberia with a population just over 1 million. As I mentioned earlier, we were shadowing the Russian train to Vladivostok which had departed Moscow ten minutes ahead of us. Over the first four days we usually saw it parked beside us at our various station stops enroute. Here it is as seen at Krasnoyarsk.



Vladivostok bound Train 2 – the Rossiya – parked beside us


Old steam engine at Ilanskaya


Breakfast this morning was a plate of “scrambled eggs” with ham. Though nicely presented, they were hardly scrambled. Additionally, they didn’t appear to be cooked as thoroughly as I generally like. I ate all the cooked parts and avoided the rest but when later I began to develop a minor stomach ache, concerns about food borne illnesses and undercooked eggs really hit home. The last thing I need is a case of food poisoning and so I took advantage of the only remedy available to me – three good slugs from my bottle of Jack Daniels. It seemed to work because I felt better within the hour. In the meantime, I resolved to be more careful with what I ate.



Questionably cooked scrambled eggs


It should be noted here that on the whole, I thought the food on this train was very good in both preparation and presentation. My favorite dish was the Sicilian Schnitzel which I ordered three times during the trip. Another one I liked was this chicken cutlet luncheon. They must’ve pounded the hell out of that chicken to get it to look like that but it sure tasted good. I also appreciated the switch to Denmark’s Tuborg Beer.



Day 4 Chicken Cutlet Lunch


I spent the afternoon listening to music, reading and finally – that’s right – putting in some work on this report. Though I’ve always found writing these reports to be an enjoyable pursuit, the words don’t always come easily. I continually go back and reread things and often find myself making minor and sometimes major adjustments. By the time I finally get a report of this length written, the vB code written and the photographs installed to where it’s finally ready to “publish” on FlyerTalk, I expect I’ve invested at least a couple hundred hours in it.



Where great trip reports get written aboard the Trans-Mongolian


Over the years, some readers have asked why I don’t publish these trip reports as a book. I would love to see some of my best and most extensive trips published in softcover 9” x 12” format complete with all or most of the color pictures. Unfortunately, the costs of doing so on a larger scale – say one hundred books - especially with color photography - are quite high.

Simply put, amongst mainstream readers I don’t think the level of interest in my style of writing would be sufficient to cover the costs of publication. For whatever reasons, most people don’t have much interest in planes and trains and would instead prefer to read about the destination. Go figure. As for magazines – my stories are way too long for that format. Nope, when it comes to writing my style of “travelogue”, the only viable option I have is FlyerTalk where intelligent, informed, well-traveled readers such as yourselves find my writing worth your while. Thank you!

By the way, if you want a FlyerTalker whose writing could easily succeed out in the mainstream press, I would nominate our very own eightblack. The man’s got a great sense of humor and writes like a seasoned pro. He could definitely make a living with his writing.

And with photo reports being far and away the preferred medium here, I would think DanielW and SFO777 are two reporters whose style and content would definitely be appreciated outside the realm of FlyerTalk. My apologies to the many others here I didn’t name but whose efforts are also worthy of accolade.

As for me, I was suffering from a bit of writer’s block that afternoon so when we pulled into Ilanskaya, it was a great opportunity to close down the laptop and step off the train for a bit of fresh air. While I was at it I snapped a shot of the China Railways logo that adorned the side of each car.



China Railways Logo


During that station stop, I met up with Steve and Wendy and we agreed to get together for dinner in the dining car. Neither of us had ventured up there since the second day when we discovered that room service was available. I’ve never taken room service on an Amtrak train mainly because meals in the communal diner are such a truly enjoyable way to meet your fellow travelers.

By contrast, on this train the dining car is bland, boring and mostly empty. Much of that is no doubt due to the paucity of riders during the winter season. It’s certainly not because of poor quality food. With the exception of the sausage “sandwich” I was served on my first night, all of the meals I’ve been served onboard have tasted great – even the undercooked eggs. On the other hand, it’s difficult to give the service a good overall grade when the Russian staff – on this train at least - speak no English, much less any language other than Russian. Additionally, a good number of the items listed in the menu are not available.

It was no surprise then that when we arrived in the dining car at 7:00pm, we had a wide choice of tables available. All of them, in fact. Unfortunately the ever smiling and cheerful Irina was not in attendance. I get the feeling it was as frustrating for our waitress as it was for us – not only the language barrier but also having to say “nyet” to so many menu items. There were enough choices available to make do though and within a few minutes we all managed to find something acceptable. Steve and I started with a couple bottles of Tuborg’s, which by now were deliciously chilled. Wendy opted for tea.

Steve and Wendy had been married for 46 years and had travelled seemingly everywhere. They’d done the backpacking scene when they were younger and now had reached a point where a little more space, privacy and comfort were de rigueur. My personal experiences were similar though I mentioned that I’m still not averse to bunking down in the odd airport now and then. In fact, I’ll be bedding down at Singapore’s Changi next week.

They were riding this train as far as Irkutsk, which meant they’d be detraining tomorrow morning. Irkutsk is the stepping off point for Lake Baikal – the world’s largest fresh water lake – although this time of year, with the lake being completely frozen over, I should imagine it’s not so big an attraction - unless you’re into ice fishing.

That said, with a population of over 500,000, Irkutsk has plenty to offer regardless of the time of year. It’s home to eight universities and a number of smaller colleges as well as theaters, museums, organized sports, cultural festivals – in general all the ingredients you’d need for an interesting and enjoyable place to visit – or live. It is a common stopping off point for riders of the Trans-Siberian railroads and one that I definitely intend to visit the next time I ride this train.

We were about halfway through our meals when we were joined by two girls from England who were riding in the First Class sleepers. They took a seat at the table across from us and we made introductions. Meet Charlie and Katherine who, like Steve and Wendy, were also getting off in Irkutsk. They’d started from London with a ride on the Eurostar through Brussels before connecting through Berlin and Warsaw into Moscow. After continuing on to Beijing, they were headed for the beaches of Thailand. Nice trip!

I had put together a three hole binder with itinerary, train timetables, maps of my journey, printed copies of all my relevant reservations along the way and four pages of printed pictures showing where I live and work back home in Alaska. Additionally I’d printed up the currency exchange rates for each country I’d be visiting as well as the aforementioned list os airline lounges available to me along the way. The binder is about a half inch thick and is an impressive compilation if I do say so myself. My dinner companions were indeed suitably impressed, especially with all the First and Business Class travel.



Another day comes to an end on the Trans-Mongolian


Time flies when you’re having fun and eventually we all called it a night and headed back to our respective compartments. The girls were in a 4 berth compartment but had it to themselves. Their car included a couple of guys bunked down the hall plus another couple as well. That’s it though - another sparsely populated car. Between our three cars, each of which offered eight rooms and a total of 64 berths (16 each for the two Deluxe Sleepers and 32 for the First Class Sleeper) there were just 10 travelers.

I bid everyone goodnight as well as good bye in case I missed them during our early morning arrival in Irkutsk. Arriving back at my “private” car in which I was the sole inhabitant, I stopped by Li’s compartment to pick up my ice, poured myself a glass of Jack Daniels, put on my headphones and savored the memories of the journey thus far. Be it a First Class suite aboard British Airways’ 747, a flight on the new CS300, a night in Riga or a visit with my old friend in Wokingham, it’s been a great trip so far!

Arlo Guthrie’s “
” was my soundtrack as we rolled through my fourth night on the rails.


DAY 5
March 25th, 2017


Maybe it was the whiskey but for whatever reason I didn’t sleep so well last night. As a result I woke up late, about two hours after we’d departed Irkutsk. With all the stops and services being operated on Moscow time, I’d left my watch on Moscow time as well so when I glanced at it upon waking up, at least it felt early since it showed the time to be about 5:30am. In reality it was 10:30am and we’d now traveled about 3,300 miles and five time zones since departing Moscow on the 21st. There were still another 1,400 some odd miles to go…

Shortly after departing Irkutsk the train meets the shore of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake by volume in the world. Containing an amazing 20% of the world's unfrozen surface fresh water (glaciers don’t count), Lake Baikal has more water than all of America’s Great Lakes combined. At its deepest it measures an incredible 5,387 feet deep (1642m), making it the world’s deepest lake as well.

These impressive statistics are all well and good but I gotta tell you - on this cold, sunny day in late March, Lake Baikal looked like just another big, frozen lake. If you looked up the lake to the north, the frozen white surface went all the way to the horizon where the view dissolved into a hazy white mist rising up to join a pale blue sky. Keep in mind we were also down at the bottom end of the lake where it’s a bit narrower. I was looking at only a small fraction of its total area. I was also looking at real mountains for the first time on the journey.

From Irkutsk the railroad tracks follow the lake for 135 miles (217 km) so I had plenty of opportunity – even waking up late as I had – to take in some nice views of the lake. Here are a few of them:



Lake Baikal from above


Lake Baikal through the trees


The southern tip of Lake Baikal


Tracks along Lake Baikal


Train along Lake Baikal


That’s a lot of lake…


Paralleling the Trans-Siberian Highway…



Unfortunately, one thing I slept through was our stop at the Slyudyanka-1 station. Built in 1904, this station is built entirely of marble – the only one of its kind in the world. It was conceived not only as a station but also as a monument to commemorate the all the hard work that went into the construction of the portion of tracks known as the Circum-Baikal Railway. Next time…

After lunch I took a stroll to the car behind me and paid a visit to Andy. You remember Andy – the guy from England? That’s the one. Steve and Wendy had gotten off at Irkutsk leaving Andy, like me, as the sole occupant of his car. Also like me, he was riding all the way through to Beijing.

As you’ve no doubt surmised if you’ve read this far, it takes a certain level of commitment to ride this train all the way through from Moscow to Beijing. Most people prefer to break up the trip with enroute stopovers at places like Irkutsk or Ulan Baatar. This is completely understandable as for most people, this train ride is a one-time shot and they want to make the most of it.

Me on the other hand – I look at this trip as an appetizer. I expect to be back because I want to ride the Russian train to Vladivostok as well as the Trans-Manchurian that skirts the eastern border of Mongolia enroute to Beijing. In that regard I envision an early autumn ride from Moscow via the southern route to Irkutsk where I can get off and check out the city as well as Lake Baikal while it’s still in its liquid state – at least on the surface. From Irkutsk I’d take this train down to Ulaan Bataar for a visit, and then continue on to Beijing where I’d turn around and catch the Trans-Manchurian back up to Irkutsk. From there I’d board the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok thus completing the trifecta of trains and routes that comprise the “Trans-Siberian” Railway.

About now I imagine some of you are shaking your heads thinking this guy is completely bonkers to be considering a trip like this but hey, like I say, it takes a certain level of commitment to want to ride this train in the first place, especially all the way through. I am indeed committed. Then again, maybe I should be committed - but that’s a conversation for another day.

Andy is a recently retired banker from the London suburbs. He’s married and has six kids – all of whom are raised and off on their own. He said he took this trip because he’s always enjoyed the idea of train travel but hasn’t had a lot of practical experience with it – not to mention time for it - other than a few rides around England and Scotland. His wife is willing to join him on some more “normal” length train trips as she doesn’t like to fly. In fact, she just plain won’t fly.

Andy talked of wanting to travel to America and ride from coast to coast via the northern route on the Empire Builder. I went back to my compartment and retrieved my laptop on which is loaded 90% of the pictures I’ve taken over the past 20 years, including a lot from my many trips aboard the Empire Builder. I also got Andy’s email address so I could send him a couple of relevant trip reports. As his wife would be making that trip to the U.S. with him, they’d be sailing over to North America and back. That sounds like a great trip!

As we left Lake Baikal behind and the day turned to late afternoon, the land began to change from classic Siberian taiga to a much drier landscape. We passed through broad valleys, over wide rivers and past remote villages before beginning a long ever so gradual climb toward the Russian border and on into Mongolia.



One of the many large rivers we crossed


The climb begins…


The classic Trans-Siberian Railway is double tracked and electrified over its entire 5,767 mile route from Moscow to Vladivostok. That is not the case however once the line branches off east of Irkutsk and commences a southeasterly heading down into Mongolia. Following a late afternoon stop at the mid-sized town of Ulan Ude, we had to switch locomotive power from diesel electric to pure diesel as the line was no longer electrified. Note the electric wires as we come into Ulan Ude and then the lack of them as we continue the climb up into Mongolia.



Approaching the suburbs of Ulan Ude
Note the satellite dishes


The colorful railway station at Ulan Ude


A classic onion domed church at Ulan Ude…


Trackside living at its finest outside Ulan Ude…


Climbing out of Ulan Ude under our own power


Pure diesel is a bit smokier than diesel electric


I really enjoyed watching the change in the landscape as we transitioned from Siberian forest to the arid highlands of the southeastern Russian frontier. There was a stark beauty to the land, made all that much prettier with the late afternoon shadows.



This reminds me of South Park, Colorado off Highway 285 outside Fairplay


Looking forward on the big curve…


and looking behind.


Afternoon shadows


Lakeside village in southeastern Russia


The setting sun colors the high country


As I lie on my bed reading and getting up occasionally to watch the beautiful scenery pass by, I can’t help but think what a difference it’s made to have this big room to myself. The two things I enjoy most about these deluxe rooms are the huge amount of personal space they afford and the solitude I get as a solo traveler. Honestly, this trip would have seemed a lot longer and potentially less pleasant had I gone the cheap route, sharing a room of the same size with three other people. Worse yet would have been to travel in the platzkart packed in with 50 other riders and their assorted smells, sounds and behaviors. One of my coworkers did this about three weeks ago so when I get back it’ll be interesting to compare notes and photos with her.

Lying on my back in bed, when I look up I see space. I see a ceiling about 8 feet high, I see wood paneled walls about five feet away, I see my table and day chair over by the window and I see the door leading to my private washroom across from me. Were I in the First Class cabin sharing this accommodation with 1-3 others, I’d see their bunks about three feet away. Those bunks, so close up on you, definitely take away that wonderful sense of space

Space. I need it in the same way that a wolf requires a 300 square mile or larger territory. I can’t live cooped up in an apartment in the city or the suburbs. It’s why I live in Alaska and – living there – live not in the city but out in the forest outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.



Home Sweet Home - Again


Solitude is also an integral part of the enjoyment for me. Over the years it’d be fair to say that I’ve really come to cherish time to myself. In a broader sense, at this point in my life I require it. Mind you, nobody who’s ever met me would describe me as taciturn or reserved. Indeed, my job requires me to interact with, entertain and hopefully educate, enlighten and/or even inspire up to 52 of America’s most tenacious travelers over a 9 hour, 135 mile roundtrip journey into the wilds of Denali National Park. Were it not for that interpersonal interaction with my passengers, I would not enjoy my job at all. I’d just be driving a bus. The interaction makes both my day and hopefully my passengers’ day so much nicer.

So it goes here on the train as well but between shared meals or just chatting with fellow passengers, it is so nice to be able to come back to my oasis of calm and tranquility here in Compartment 3 and just recharge. I expect that I’m coming from a place that few of you share or would even want to as most of us have fulltime spouses, partners, whatever with whom we want to share our lives. It’s the fulltime part that’s kept me happily single over the past twenty years. That said, I have lived and traveled and traveled well with others. The shared enjoyment is a lot of fun. I’d love to do a trip like this with someone who’s independent enough that they didn’t require my company for every little activity. I know a few eligible individuals but more often than not they’ve neither the time nor the money to take a trip of this length and I’m not well off enough to where I can afford to squire anyone around the world with me carte blanche.

Anyway, it’s been wonderful to have this deluxe compartment to myself. It’s contributed greatly to my overall enjoyment of the journey and you know what they say about how time flies when you’re having fun. As I sit here typing away on day 5 with only two nights and one more full day to look forward to, I’m amazed at how fast and pleasantly the time has passed by on this “marathon” train ride. I mean, we’ve got all day tomorrow and then that’s it. We arrive in Beijing the next day and it’s all over. Honestly, having settled into this trip as nicely as I have, at this point I wouldn’t mind if we could spend another two or three days longer still. But that’s just me, of course. Your experience may vary!

It was about 9:00pm when we rolled into Naushki, the town where Russian border formalities take place. Preparations began well before we arrived with the crew unlocking and opening every compartment on the train. Additionally, Li came into my room and unlocked/unscrewed a large panel on the ceiling that opened into a space where pipes and wiring could be accessed. I assume he did this in the other compartments as well.

When the border guards came on, looking very officious in their drab green military style uniforms and hats, they did indeed have a look at that space up in the ceiling. They also lifted my bottom bunk and checked the space underneath it. They even walked a dog through the train. Surprisingly, they did not have me open my roll-a-bord or daypack for inspection. I was curious though – given that we were leaving Russia – as to what it was they could possibly be looking for. Drugs? Stolen antiquities? German Bearer Bonds? It seemed prudent however to hold my tongue and limit any interaction to answering their questions, which were few.

An hour or so down the tracks, we stopped at what I assume was the Mongolian border because there wasn’t a whole lot else out there. Officially the name of the “town” was Suhe Bator. The Mongolian border personnel performed roughly the same search that the Russians had – including the ceiling compartment – and they also had me open my roll-a-bord and daypack for a cursory inspection.

We spent about an hour and a half at the border while the guards did their thing and a Mongolian dining car was added to the train’s consist. The Russian diner and its staff had been left behind in Naushki. In that regard my only regret was not having been able to say goodbye to Irina who’d provided such nice room service over the past five days. On a positive note, the Mongolian diner was added to the front of the train, just one car up from me. Now, instead of having to pass through 24 doors to get to the diner, I had just four.

By the time we pulled out of the border stop and continued into Mongolia, it was approaching midnight and I was ready to call it a day. At this point we had traveled 3,656 miles from Moscow.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:46 pm
  #8  
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DAY 6
March 26th, 2017


We have been blessed with incredibly nice weather on this train trip. Every day has been mostly clear and sunny and while I can’t complain, I still wouldn’t have minded a good Siberian ground blizzard at some point during the journey.

The first thing I noticed that was different about riding the train through Mongolia was that the tracks were quite a bit rougher than the comparatively smooth ride we’d experienced through most of Russia. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that those tracks on the Trans-Siberian mainline were smoother than most of the rails I’ve ridden in the U.S.

Once we entered into Mongolia, schedules and services returned to local time. Thus, the craziness of the Russian system that enforced Moscow time regardless of the local time zone was now over. Before going to bed last night I re-set my watch five hours forward, so when we pulled into the smoky Mongolian capital city of Ulaan Baatar I looked at my watch and noted with satisfaction that we were running thirty minutes early. It was 7:00am.



The station at Ulaan Baatar


Most of the travelogues that you read about riding the Trans-Siberian mention the many vendors who come out to the station to sell their wares trackside. Typically we’re talking a variety of fresh and/or pre-packaged foods along with a variety of locally made crafts and clothing. For most passengers – especially those who’ve been on the train for a few days – these stops are a much appreciated opportunity to step off the train, stretch their legs and perhaps buy a fresh meal from one of the vendors. Ulaan Baatar is said to be one of the better stops to check out the vendors but when we arrived, there were no vendors to be seen. This was also the case at a number of other stops along the way.

Unfortunately, almost all of the travelogues that cover Trans-Siberian rail travel are written by people who’ve ridden the train during the more popular summer months when ridership on the trains is higher and the weather is nicer. At most of the stops on this trip, the vendors apparently didn’t feel it was worth their while to set up shop in 5°F weather for a train that probably had less than 25 passengers on board. Oh well. From my perspective it was nice enough just to step pff the train for a breath of fresh air.

Except in Ulaan Baatar where the air had a slightly smoky tang to it. I stayed trackside only long enough to check out the impressive façade of the train station (a quick look inside revealed nothing particularly noteworthy) and have a look at our newly added Mongolian dining car before climbing back aboard. From the outside the dining car didn’t look all that impressive but through its windows I could see an impressive wooden interior. I couldn’t wait to go in and check it out but upon arriving at its entrance I encountered this sign on the door:



Business hours for the Mongolian Dining Car


Thankfully Li kept the samovar in my car well stocked with boiling hot water, so I fixed myself a couple cups of coffee which I enjoyed with a couple of locally produced Oreo cookies that I’d purchased back in Russia. These Oreos had a chocolate cream center rather than the traditional white filling we see back home. Two a day – with a hot cup of coffee – was my standard start to the day on this journey. Although I already missed Irina’s smiling face and cheerful demeanor, I was really looking forward to checking out the options in our new dining car. Alas, I’d have to wait until 8:00.

Leaving Ulaan Baatar on time at 7:30am, we took about 15 minutes to clear the suburbs before heading out into the mostly barren, arid hills to the east of the city. A couple of big horseshoe curve assisted our climb.



Morning climb into the hills outside Ulaan Baatar


Out into the country beyond Ulaan Baatar


Telephone poles and powerline towers are a common site in the Mongolian steppes


Horseshoe curves were also common


Shortly after 8:00am I gathered my gear and headed up to the dining car.

Oh. My. God!

What an awesome interior! I’ve ridden aboard many dining cars all over the world and this one definitely ranks as the most unique. The walls and ceiling were inlaid with hand carved wood highlighted by a spectacularly ornate mid-car divider. Even the tables and seats had benefitted from the artist’s touch. I gotta get a picture of this!



Mongolian Dining Car


Midcar divider carving – a Mongolian Mandolin?


Andy arrived moments after I did and was similarly awestruck. Our enthusiasm was dimmed somewhat as we tried to squeeze into one of the fixed place wooden booths. In terms of seating comfort and accessibility, they reminded me of those one piece seat and desk units I used to see in elementary school – fine for an eight year old to sit in but quite another thing for a full grown adult. Still, it was either sit or stand, so we wrestled our collective bulks into each side of a booth and considered our breakfast options.



Mongolian Dining Car Menu


Aside from the tight seating, this Mongolian dining car had a number of advantages over its Russian counterpart, not the least of which was vastly improved overall ambience. All this wood and these cool carved walls gave it a ranch house type feel that lent itself well to a breakfast of coffee and eggs. Additionally the waitress spoke passable English and accepted Euros, US dollars, Russian Rubles and Chinese RMB as well as Mongolian currency. The prices were pretty good as well. Coffee and an omelet cost me only about $5.50 USD, about 30% less than I was paying for a similar meal from the Russian diner.



Mongolian Dining Car Ambience


Sausage and Cheese Omelet


The view from the breakfast table


As we continued on across the cold windswept Gobi Desert, I kept a sharp eye out for some of those famous two-humped camels native to this area. The rail corridor was dotted with distant ranches, livestock herds and endless telephone poles and powerline towers. Unfortunately for the purposes of this report, when I finally did see a small herd of distinctive two-humped bactrian camels, I didn’t have my camera handy. I did however manage a couple photos of the desolate Gobi landscape…



Climbing through the snowy Gobi


An afternoon rainstorm colors the horizon


Except for the snowy areas, the Gobi Desert reminded me quite a lot of the Atacama Desert which I traveled through while riding a train from Chile up to Peru some years ago. I’ve always thought there was an attractive desolation to desert landscapes so seeing the Gobi Desert from the comfort of a railroad car, well, it doesn’t get much better than that for me.

At dinner that evening I met George from Toronto, Canada. Like Andy he was also a banker but still a few years away from retirement. In the meantime he had been in Ulaan Baatar doing some volunteer work with a couple of banks there. I never did catch exactly what it was that he was doing but he was on his way home, fully expecting to return to Mongolia – this time for paid work – within a couple of weeks.

Dinner for me was a plate of Mongolian Beef. This has always been one of my favorites to order in Chinese restaurants back home. I never thought I’d ever order and eat some while actually in Mongolia though! It was very good, too – almost as good as the Mongolian Beef I always make a point of ordering at the Panda Garden restaurant in Needles, California. Almost.



Mongolian Beef – Mongolian diner style


It was about 9:00pm when we rolled into the Chinese border town of Erlian. This was a scheduled 4 hour and 20 minute stop, mainly because of the railway systems of Mongolia and Russia use a different size gauge than in China. In the old days our journey from Moscow would have ended here, necessitating a connection to a local Chinese train for the rest of the journey into Beijing.

Not so these days, however. The Chinese have come up with an ingenious method whereby each and every car on the train is lifted and its wheel bogies switched out to different ones with the Chinese gauge.



Cars are lifted here, and new wheel bogies installed beneath


It’d be great if the schedule were such that we could get off here and head into town while the wheels are switched out, but given the late hour of our arrival, nothing is open anyway. After the Chinese border guards returned my passport, I took a meaningless snapshot of the car lifting equipment and went to bed.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:48 pm
  #9  
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DAY 7
March 27th, 2017


My final morning on the Trans-Mongolian dawned bright and clear. The air was cool and crisp with a light dusting of snow having covered the fields surrounding the tracks. Two more things became immediately apparent – the tracks were much nicer than those in Mongolia – comparatively smooth as silk. The ride was much smoother and quieter that it felt and sounded as if we were merely gliding along the tops of the rails. Additionally, the rail corridor was once again electrified. I grabbed a couple of quick photos and then headed for the washroom in an attempt to clean up for the long day ahead.



Good Morning, China


Good Morning, China


Unfortunately, the water pressure in my handheld showerhead – never more than a large trickle at its best - was now so minimal as to be ridiculous. Oh well. It was the last day of the trip. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if this “shower” had ever spewed out a good satisfyingly warm stream of water. I know the poor pressure wasn’t limited to just my car because Andy had mentioned a similar situation in his car as well. I decided to put off showering until I’d arrived at the Air China lounge at Beijing’s Capitol International Airport later that afternoon. In the meantime I grabbed the minimal washcloth/towel provided and did the best I could with a sink bath.

The night before, Li had stopped by with two vouchers good for a complimentary breakfast and lunch in the Chinese dining car. Oh, goody! I’d heard that the Chinese dining cars were the best of the lot with an enticing selection of affordably priced Chinese dishes, each for around $3-$5.00 USD. That they were complimentary for Deluxe Sleeper passengers was an added bonus.

Ah… but not all was perfect in railroad dining car paradise. A closer inspection of my breakfast voucher indicated that breakfast was served only from 7:00am to 7:30am. It was almost 8 when I discovered this. Luncheon was available from 9:00am to 10:00am. Odd hours, yes, but no doubt the reason for this was due to our 11:40am arrival into Beijing. I’m sure the dining room staff wanted to have their car ship shape and ready for its next trip by the time we arrived in Beijing. So – I guess I’m doing brunch.

At 9:00am sharp I made my way up to the dining car. Andy was already there and beckoned me to join him. It wasn’t long before George also made his way into the diner. Unlike the Mongolian diner, this one was a standard railroad issue dining car, though it was still quite nice. There were even full table cloths! Only two other people were in the entire diner besides us, so there was plenty of room to spread out. George took the table across from us.



Chinese Dining Car


Andy mentioned that he had been in for breakfast. The single offering for that meal was a piece of toast and a boiled egg. Our luncheon offering was a couple of meatballs with a side of veggies and a small serving of rice. Well no wonder the meals are complimentary! Apparently all those tales of culinary excellence associated with these Chinese dining cars are based upon northbound departures out of Beijing where they’ve got the entire day and most of the next morning before closing down the car and switching out at Erlian.

The waitress/dining car manager was a brusque, no-nonsense woman who took our orders with all the charm and graciousness of a prison guard. Of course, the fact that there wasn’t really anything to order helped her cause considerably. She only took drink orders which were limited to water, tea or coffee.



Lunchtime on the Chinese Rails


Back to the present, our “host” made no bones about the fact that she wanted to get done with her job as quickly as possible. She seemed to serve us only grudgingly and then hurried us along when it appeared that normal mealtime conversation was delaying our food consumption.

“You eat now! We close soon!” she admonished us sternly.

Alright, alright already! Although the meal was only so-so, the service was so bad that it was actually more laughable than shocking. By the time we cleared out there were just two more hours left in our journey. In the event we didn’t cross paths in the railroad station upon arrival, I bid farewell to Andy and George, both of whom were spending the night in Beijing before continuing their travels the next day – George back to Toronto via an Air Canada 777 and Andy down to Hong Kong aboard the fast train.

As I mentioned earlier, time flies when you’re having fun. I have enjoyed this trip immensely – perhaps much more so than most people who might approach a train journey of this length from a more practical viewpoint. It’s all about the journey for me – the people I meet enroute, the scenery we pass through along the way, the ambience of just kicking back and relaxing in a large, comfortable room onboard. I love it all, and so it is that I approach the end of this incredible intercontinental rail journey with just a tinge of regret that it can’t go on another two or three days longer. And of course at the end of those two or three extra days, I’d probably want at least one more…

We were about an hour out of Beijing, rolling through rugged mountains when we came upon a large reservoir. It made for a dramatic landscape with the steep rock walls rising above the olive green waters of the lake. There was even a good looking cantilever bridge at one end. In between numerous tunnels, I took some photos.









This town was just below the dam. I’m thinking it was an employee town for the dam workers


Shortly thereafter, we emerged from the mountains and onto a broad plain. High snowcapped peaks could be seen in the distance. Not long after that we began to enter the Beijing suburbs proper. For me at least, the combined clutter of buildings, freeways and traffic against a backdrop of hazy skies was a bit depressing after having spent the past six days rolling through all that picturesque countryside.



Beijing Suburbs


Beijing Streets


At one point we passed through a modern suburban station in northern Beijing. Parked on one of the tracks was the fastest looking needle nosed train I’d ever seen. We definitely don’t have anything like that in North America. Perhaps someday I’ll have to come back here and ride it.

Easing into the massive Beijing Railway Station, it seemed as if the concrete passenger platform alongside the train went on for a good half mile or more. As long as it’s there when we stop! And indeed it was, making for a nice exit directly from floor level of my car onto the platform.

So there you have it gang – almost an entire week of train travel from European Russia to China across the Urals, on through Siberia and down across the barren Gobi Desert before finally arriving in Beijing after a journey of 4,740 miles. For my part, I feel good – excited to be commencing the next part of my journey yet a bit sad that this most enjoyable rail adventure across continents has passed so quickly. I’m already plotting how I’d like to come back and complete the rest of the Trans-Siberians. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed riding along with me on this one.



Beijing Railway Station
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia


I thanked Li for a job well done and – after getting my gear organized for a long walk – followed the arriving masses toward presumably the main hall. We went down a long walkway into a subterranean corridor where I continued to follow the crowd of people through the corridor and up another long ramp that emptied into an open area but certainly not the great hall.

All along the way, the signage was in Chinese only. Not that I’m complaining mind you – we certainly don’t offer anything but English and occasionally Spanish signage back home. In anticipation of this, I’d used Google’s translation page to print out some Mandarin questions that I expected to have, such as “Do you know where the Express Bus to Beijing Capitol Airport departs from?”. That phrase, shown to a ticket clerk near the station’s entrance, got me pointed in the right direction.

Walking outside onto a broad plaza, I headed across to the street out front whereupon I saw a blue sign with both Chinese and English lettering indicating the bus to the airport was a mere 240 meters away. Right on! A couple blocks down I came upon another sign with an arrow indicating the bus was 80 meters to the right. Alright. This was no major street that I’d turned onto however. It was more like a small side street not even wide enough for two way traffic. Not that that stopped anyone though. The drivers just worked it out. I walked past a couple of dirty looking restaurants and a pile of discarded construction materials before spying two blue and white busses parked in a lot just ahead of me. On their side was painted “Airport Express”. Well golly – that wasn’t so hard! I approached a man and pointed to one of the airport busses. Me standing there with my roll-a-bord, it wasn’t too hard to figure out what I wanted. He pointed me to a ticket booth behind me where I paid $24.00 RMB - about $3.50 USD - and boarded the bus I was pointed towards.

Now, as I sat in my comfortable bus seat speeding along through Beijing traffic enroute to Beijing’s Capitol International Airport, I breathed a big sigh of relief. Soon I’d be back in my second home – an airport – about to commence an exciting ten flight journey aboard nine airlines, five of which I’d never flown upon before. All but one of those flights would be in Business Class.

So then, might I suggest a short break? Take a nap, go refill your drinks, maybe make a sandwich or fix up a plate of lunch or dinner. As for me – after 2 hours of writing, I’m off to lunch here at Fiji’s Uprising Beach Resort, after which I’m going to rent a car and head over to the other side of the island. Bula!
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:50 pm
  #10  
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March 27,2017
Hainan Airlines Beijing to Bangkok 810p – 1240a Boeing 737-800 Economy Class


By the time the bus dropped me off at CIA’s Terminal 2, it was approaching 2:00pm. Early though I was, I was really looking forward to hitting the lounge for a shower and then maybe putting in a bit of work on this report. As ever, I’m a few days behind on my reporting. I may take a few notes at the time I’m flying but in terms of actually writing this report – I’ve never been current. Given the detail and the style in which I write, if I were to keep current with a report like this I’d be cutting into time better spent enjoying the actual experience. Additionally, when I’m at places like Fiji where I’ve got a few days of down time, I’m also fairly judicious as to how much time I invest in writing versus actually enjoying my destination.

In any event, despite the Hainan counter being open and staffed for a flight to somewhere, I was informed that I couldn’t check in for my 8:40pm departure to Bangkok until 3 hours out. Even though I’m not checking luggage? Yes. You go now! Come back at 6!

Thankfully there was a mezzanine level above the departures floor that was well stocked with a variety of attractive restaurants. I took an escalator upstairs and was almost immediately set upon by a nicely dressed young lady with a stack of menus. As I later found out, these women are posted near the tops of most terminal escalators in hopes of luring in business that might otherwise wander off to the competition. Still, upon review of the proffered menu, I did see a couple of good looking, agreeably priced items and so decided to eat right then and there.

After lunch, with another two and a half hours to go before check-in, I found an internet café. Thinking that perhaps I could check-in online and just print my boarding pass out, I went inside and bought the minimum block of time. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to discover that the issuance of a boarding pass for my Bangkok flight wasn’t going to happen.

At 6:00pm I made my way back down to departures level, through initial screening and then over to the Hainan counter. A fair sized line had gathered but no agents were in evidence. Finally, at about 6:15pm – two and a half hours out – a lady showed up with a big suitcase which she took behind the counter, opened and then proceeded to distribute the tools of her trade. Signs, tape, scissors, etc. Soon she was joined by four or five others, a couple of whom appeared to help get things organized while the rest stood around. By the time they were finally ready to accept passengers for check-in, it was 6:25pm.

Things didn’t get much better from this point on. At least, not in line. Local people were encouraging others from farther back in the line come forward and join them up front. In a couple of instances I wondered if the people involved even knew each other. The counter staff seemed aware of this happening but did nothing. When one guy brashly strode past us in line and positioned himself to be next, the non-Chinese girl he’d stepped in front of spoke up. That caused a domino effect resulting in a lot of us commenting negatively. It was brief but effective. The guy feigned ignorance and the agent kind of shrugged but pointed to the line and then indicated that she’d be serving the girl next. The guy left the area.

Throughout this all, I was rather amazed that Hainan Airlines had been deemed worthy of a coveted 5 star rating with SkyTrax. Awarded annually to airlines achieving the highest overall quality performances, a 5-Star Airline rating recognizes the highest standards of airport and onboard services provided by an airline to its customers, together with consistent and high standards of front-line staff service across the airport and onboard service environments. As of 2016 only nine airlines were deemed worthy of the 5--Star rating: Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Asiana Airlines, Hainan Airlines, ANA All Nippon Airways, Garuda Indonesia, EVA Air and Etihad Airways.

From that group of nine, Hainan is the only airline that doesn’t offer a proper International First Class service, so that’s pretty good company for it to be hanging hang with. So far at least, its ground service was lacking if only per the late arrival of its counter staff. Hopefully the airline will do more to demonstrate it’s worthy of its lofty rating once we take off. In the meantime, now armed with a boarding pass I quickly attended to the formalities of Security and immigration before making my way down to the Air China First & Business Class Lounge pavilion.

Beijing is Air China’s primary home base, so you’d expect that they’d have a pretty nice facility here, right? Over in the newer Terminal 3 they do. Here in the older Terminal 2, the facilities are much more basic. My Priority Pass granted me entrance to the Business Class lounge but when I asked about a shower, the receptionist indicated that it was only available in the First Class lounge. Besides, she added, there is no hot water, only cold. I don’t mind, I said. I’d just be happy to get a shower regardless. Are you sure, she asked. Oh yes, I said. After seven days of sponge bathing, I really wanted a real shower – even a cold one! I could tell she was leaning towards saying yes and, after a couple more seconds during which I gave her my best puppy dog eyes, she relented and indicated I should follow her into the First Class lounge.

Not one but two shower attendants were summoned. One of them was tasked with verifying that the shower room was indeed clean and ready for use. The other was sent to fetch a towel. She returned shortly with a hand towel. That’s right – a teeny tiny little towel about 16x24 inches. This was the same size as the towel I was provided on the train. What’s up with that?

Are these tiny little towels the norm for most Chinese citizens? To my American way of thinking, it just didn’t make the slightest bit of sense given the amount of hair and body mass needing to be dried on a typical average person. I pointed at the tiny towel, shook my head in a negative fashion and spread my arms wider in what was hopefully a broader interpretation of the size towel I was looking for. The original towel bearer stared back at me with deepening incomprehension while the other quickly grasped what I was getting at and soon returned with a proper bath towel. What are the odds that one of these women will move on to greater things someday while the other will likely remain a shower attendant in perpetuity?

Alright then, the one and only shower… where do I start? First, the shower door was broken. The shower itself was comprised of a large sunflower style showerhead along with a handheld sprayer attached to a reticulated metallic hose. Neither of those worked correctly either. The overhead sunflower showerhead, normally one of my favorites for the serious deluge of water it delivers, provided a good sized dribble out one side of it. The handheld sprayer had similar problems to the larger overhead showerhead, but mainly due to a ruptured hose. These problems notwithstanding, the handheld sprayer still offered a better flow than its pitiful counterpart aboard the Chinese Deluxe Sleeper. As for the water, it felt every bit as cold as a glacial stream. My legs practically buckled when I first doused my head under it. As such I limited myself to a good shampoo along with a crotch and armpit wash. And thank God for that larger towel. It not only dried me off but also helped warm me up after my near hypothermia inducing shower.

Freshly attired and feeling much better, I headed over to the Business Class side to check out the food offerings. I should note here that the First Class Lounge was essentially just a smaller version of the Business Class Lounge. Before leaving it, I took a quick peek at the food offered on the buffet line. It was the same as we had available to us on the Business Class side.

Food offerings in both lounges ranged from a decent variety of packaged snacks including sandwiches and noodle bowls to hot buffet offerings that included egg fried rice, braised mushrooms, some kind of grilled potato and onion mix, some filled rolls and of course that old staple of Chinese airline lounge offerings – the ubiquitous dumpling.



Air China’s Terminal 2 Business Class Lounge


Air China’s Terminal 2 Business Class Lounge Snack & Beverage Area


Air China’s Lounge Grub


A display refrigerator held a nice variety of local beers including one of my favorites – Tsingtao Lager. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised however to discover that the beer was cool but hardly cold. A bowl of ice was available though, so I poured myself a Coca Cola over ice and was good to go.

When 8:00pm arrived, I gathered my gear, waved so long to the friendly receptionist and headed out. Gate 15 was just down the corridor, then turn left and proceed another 150 yards. Arriving at the gate lounge, I headed over to a bank of big floor to ceiling windows where I could check out our attractive red, yellow and white liveried 737-800. This is always an exciting moment for me – looking over the airplane of an airline that I’ve never before flown, secure in the knowledge that soon I’ll be flying upon it myself.

The root cause of my excitement dates back to the 1970s when I used to bicycle 13 miles out to Denver’s Stapleton International Airport, lock up my bike and spend the next few hours roaming the concourses and pestering the ticket agents for thigs like ticket jackets and used OAGs. Down on the concourses I used to watch as airplanes like North Central DC-9-30s, Braniff DC-8-50s, Texas International DC-9-10s and Western 720Bs would board their passengers and then taxi away, bound for the soft blue yonder with a marvelous service and meal to be anticipated enroute.

Now I know, I know – I’m dating myself here as many of you wouldn’t know a 720B if it landed in your back yard. Not that there’s any fault in that as the last revenue flight of a 720 here in the U.S. occurred back in 1977 or thereabouts. For me 1977 still feels like yesterday. However, many readers either hadn’t been born yet or were too young to care about such things. Unless you were like me who as a four year old savaged the family collection of National Geographic’s while cutting out any and all pictures that had an airliner or even part of an airliner in them. That wasn’t as bad as when I was playing gas station attendant and filled up the family station wagon using water from the garden hose, but it was close.

Getting back to my wistful moments on those airport concourses of yesteryear - I’d never flown most of those airlines and/or aircraft I was looking at and as a young lad with an active imagination and a burning desire to experience flying aboard all of those airlines, it was oh so easy to imagine myself as one of the lucky few who got to stroll down the jet bridge, take a seat in one of the plush well-padded armchairs that we called airline seats back in those days, and then jet off to exciting destinations like Amarillo, Texas aboard that Texas International DC-9 or Salt Lake City, Utah on that Western 720B. The difference between those days of old and now is that I don’t have to hope that I’ll be on that pretty red, yellow and white airplane someday. I’ll be on it within the hour. It’s a good feeling.

Truth be known, after having logged flights aboard 192 different airlines, I’m a little more composed nowadays than I used to be. That composure served me well as our departure time of 8:40pm came and went with nary a word spoken from the gate agents. It was about 8:50 when the crew arrived and promptly headed down the jet bridge and onto the aircraft. Well alright then, we ought to be boarding by about 9:15 or so, right? 9:15 came and went so at 9:20 I went up and inquired as to our status. I was told that our delay was due to ATC delays and that boarding would commence at 9:40p. ATC delays? At this hour of night? If anything, I suspect we incurred those ATC holds after our late arriving crew pushed us out of our normal slot.

Either way, the lack of any announcements about our delay – especially when it began to extend to over a half hour or more – was annoying to say the least. We’re not lambs being led to slaughter here. As paying passengers, we deserve to know when departure times deviate by more than 15 minutes. I’ve honestly got to say that based upon the service I’ve experienced from check-in to gate lounge here at Hainan’s home airport, I wouldn’t rate HU any better than a second rate start-up from some third world backwater. It’ll be interesting to see if they can achieve some measure of redemption once we get up in the air.

Boarding did indeed commence at 9:40pm. It wasn’t exactly orderly but given the late departure and the collectively accrued anxiety in the gate lounge, I reckon it could’ve been worse. Upon entering the 737-800, I was mildly taken aback by all the red. Red clad flight attendants, red upholstered seats, red carpeted bulkheads… With so many airlines choosing dark blue or grey for their interiors, the sea of red took a moment to adjust to.

I’ve flown aboard a lot of 737-800s – 461 of them at last count – and I don’t recall ever having seen such a small First Class section on a 737 of this size before. There were just two rows totaling 8 seats but although the cabin may have been small, the carpeted bulkheads, the well-padded seats and the generous seat pitch made it a very nice First Class cabin as 737s go.

Unfortunately, yours truly wasn’t sat in First Class on this flight. Nope, after looking longingly at those First Class seats I had to continue on through the curtained portal back into the nether regions of the aircraft where I located my seat at 35H and quickly settled in. By the way, on Hainan’s 737s row 35 isn’t as far back as it sounds since the first row of economy begins at row 31. Additionally, while the letter “H” as applied to seat assignments is traditionally associated with wide-bodied aircraft, Hainan designates seating on its 737s as ABC-HJK.

In this era of hard, skinny Slimline® seats, I was pleasantly surprised at the comfort of Hainan’s Economy Class seat. It was nicely padded to where it was soft and welcoming yet firm and supporting at the same time. Whoever designed this seat got it right. The last time I can recall sitting in an Economy Class seat this comfortable was aboard a dusty old Air Canada 767-300 still configured with the old Canadian Airlines seats.

Flight time was announced at “a little over 5 hours” – quite a long time for a 2000 mile long flight. Perhaps there are headwinds enroute. Unfortunately, while on the ground we incurred further ATC delays so by the time we took to the air it was nearly 10:45pm, making us two hours late right from the get go.

Service got underway in a timely manner with drinks followed by dinner. It’s been a long time since I was served a full dinner back in Economy Class – I’m thinking Royal Jordanian back in 2010 between Bangkok and Hong Kong. Tonight we were offered a choice between noodles and shrimp with bok choy and eggs or chicken and rice. The FA even took time to open and display both meals. I was sold the moment I saw the shrimp. It looked every bit as good as it ultimately tasted, and there was enough of it that I wasn’t left still feeling hungry. The meal tray also included cantaloupe, salad with fish meat, a roll with butter, hot sauce and a little sweet muffin for dessert.



Dinner aboard Hainan Airlines


The only downside to the early portion of this flight was the decision by the crew to play an annoying television show on the drop down videos. It would have been fine if cheap headphones had been distributed for those who chose to watch but no – instead the volume was turned up loud enough that we had to listen as two teenaged girls spent most of the show screaming as they rode around in a dune buggy.

One interesting thing I noticed – particularly from an American standpoint – was that the crew not only closed the curtains between Economy and First Class but also hung a sign expressly stating “First/Business Class Only”. Even so, some big stupid American guy (I had heard him carrying on earlier in the gate lounge) parted the curtains and went up there anyway; assumedly to use the lav. Moments later he was on his way back to the rear of the plane – properly run off by the First Class FAs. Welcome to China, pal. You’re not flying Alaska Airlines anymore.

Anybody who’s flown enough times knows that one flight in and of itself does not provide enough evidence to either glorify or condemn an airline. This is especially true if the service is not up to the advertised standard. Clearly this flight – aside from the meal service – did not rise to Hainan’s advertised standard. Regardless, I know SkyTrax doesn’t bestow those 5-Star ratings on a whim. Hainan is a partner in Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan and if you were to google a search for a review of its international Business Class product as experienced aboard its 787s, I think you’d agree that the airline is capable of providing a very good Business Class product. As such, I look forward to my next flight with Hainan Airlines – hopefully in trans-Pacific Business Class.

In Bangkok I stayed at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence. Everything about this property was – in a word – superb. I had an awesome one bedroom apartment cooled by an efficient and very quiet air-conditioner. The bed was extremely comfortable and the service – from reception to bell hop – was top flight. It’s nice to know I have a new home for my future visits to Bangkok.



Living Room at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence


Living Room at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence


Kitchen at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence


Bathroom at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence
This included a large walk-in shower


Lanai view at the Summit Windmill Golf Residence


March 29, 2017
Ethiopian Airlines Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur 220p – 525p 787-8 Economy Class


This is it – my last flight in Economy Class for a good long while. Over the next three weeks all of my flights will be in either First or Business Class. In the meantime I’ve no compunctions about hangin’ with “The Great Unwashed” once again for this 2 hour 20 minute flight down to Kuala Lumpur.

I’ve been looking forward to flying aboard Ethiopian Airlines for a good many years now. As African airlines go, Ethiopian is one of the few that – even back in the 1960s and 70s – had a reputation for reasonably well maintained equipment and good service. As an avid collector of airline postcards, I was especially taken with ET’s handsome gold, red and green livery with its Nittany lion leading the charge at the front of the fuselage.



Ethiopian’s 1960s era livery


Thanks to Priority Pass, I’ve got an enviable selection of lounges available to me here at Bangkok’s impressive new International Airport. Truth be known, this airport – known more popularly as Suvarnabhumi Airport - isn’t exactly “new”, having opened in late 2006. It just seems new to old timers like me after so many years of flying into musty old Don Mueang International Airport, which now serves as the Low Cost Carrier airport for Bangkok.

In addition to Priority Pass, I’ve also got a lifetime membership in the United Club. One of its better perks is that anytime I’m flying aboard a fellow Star Alliance carrier, I’ve got access to any member airlines’ lounges throughout the world, regardless of whether I’m traveling aboard that airline whose lounge I’m visiting. So it was that my flight aboard Ethiopian was all I needed to be granted access to Thai Airlines’ Royal Orchid Business Class Lounge. As an added bonus, there was a Royal Orchid Lounge located at gate D1 – just a short walk from where my Ethiopian flight was departing at D4.



Colorful artwork graces the airport concourses


Although the air is cooler inside Bangkok’s airport terminal, it is hardly dry. The humidity had me in a pretty good sweat by the time I reached the lounge. The D1 facility was only marginally cooler inside than out on the airport concourses, but cooler it was so I presented my United Club card to the receptionist and was warmly invited into the lounge.

From my experience, all of Thai’s lounges are at BKK superb facilities and this one was no different with plenty of comfortable seats and a bountiful spread of soups, sandwiches and other regional tidbits. I fixed myself up a plate of this and that and repaired to a seat near an air-conditioning vent.



Thai’s Royal Orchid Lounge at BKK D1


One of the multiple buffet areas in Thai’s Royal Orchid Lounge


Breakfast treats in Thai’s Royal Orchid Lounge


While I was still aboard the Trans-Mongolian, I had received an email from Ethiopian advising me that I could bid for a chance to upgrade to Business Class on my flight down to Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, by the time I was able to access that email after having gotten off the train, the offer had expired. So, when I arrived at D4, I asked the agents if it were possible to purchase an upgrade at the gate. Surprisingly, they didn’t know. I guess this just isn’t done all that often with Ethiopian in Bangkok.

In any event, I’d paid $83.00 USD for my one way ticket to KL and would have been willing to pay up to $100.00 to upgrade on this 2 hour flight. I was informed however that even if I could buy an upgrade, I wouldn’t be served a meal as catering had already serviced the flight.

Whaaaat?! No meal! For me at least, that’s 67% of the fun in flying premium class. I decided to rescind my request and remain in Economy which was just as well as it was subsequently made known that upgrades could only be arranged at the counter on day of departure. Oh well. While awaiting the call to board I fired off a not so great picture of the aircraft through a rain spattered window in the gate lounge.



Ethiopian’s 787 awaits departure to Kuala Lumpur


On a positive note, it was a great day to fly behind the curtain as only 44 people were booked in Economy on this leg down to Kuala Lumpur. Of those, only six of us were joining the flight at Bangkok. As I boarded and walked through the good looking Business Class cabin, I noted only two people were sat up there. Ethiopian’s 787s are configured for 24 Business Class seats, so I wish I’d been able to act on that emailed upgrade offer because with loads this low, who knows? – maybe ET would have accepted my lowball offer and I’d be settling into seat 2A right now.



Ethiopian’s attractive Business Class cabin on its 787
Photo courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines


Continuing on through the galley and into the first of two Economy Class cabins, I was pleased to see yet another airline with enough flair and originality to upholster its seats in something other than dark blue. In Ethiopian’s case we’re talking predominantly green offset by the occasional row of gold. I was immediately reminded of National Airlines’ mid-1970s era “Lemon-Lime” interiors which attempted to instill in its passengers a sense of having arrived in Florida the moment they stepped aboard one of National’s beautifully liveried jets.



Ethiopian’s attractive Economy Class cabin on its 787


As we pushed back and commenced our long taxi out to the runway, we settled in behind a beautiful Thai 787-8. What a good looking pair of aircraft we made! Airport perimeter photographers must’ve been drooling when we taxied past.

With such a light load in back, the flight attendants provided a relaxed yet efficient service. A “Hot Light Meal” was scheduled on this mid-afternoon departure down to Kuala Lumpur. We were offered a choice of two main courses – Chicken or Fish. In Hollywood disaster flicks, it’s always the fish that causes so much trouble for everyone, so I ordered the chicken.

The chicken appeared to be prepared in a Tikka Masala style, though I thought it tasted more like a mild creamy tomato sauce. It was good though, accompanied by wilted spinach leaves and a mushroom pasta mix. In addition to the chicken, the tray also included a carrot and cucumber salad, a roll with butter, a delicious five layer cake set in a custard base and a personal sized wedge of Camembert cheese with a packet of buttery cream crackers. I particularly enjoyed the addition of cheese and crackers to the meal. Even in what I think of as the “Golden Days” of inflight meal service on U.S. airlines (The 1970s) we rarely if ever saw cheese and crackers on Coach meal trays.



Ethiopian’s Light Meal - Chicken


BKK-KUL Route of Flight


All in all, this was a very nice flight for my first time aboard Ethiopian Airlines. The flight attendants were friendly and attentive, the meal was tasty and filling and the flight was smooth and operated in a timely fashion – especially important to me given my connection to another airline onwards from Kuala Lumpur.

Well done, Ethiopian Airlines! ^


* * * :-: * * * :-: * * *


Our on time arrival at Kuala Lumpur International Airport meant that I had plenty of time to explore the lounge options while awaiting my onward flight to Jakarta aboard Malindo Air. The best of the lounges here is the Plaza Premium Lounge, always a good choice from my experience. As a long time Priority Pass holder, I‘ve become quite familiar with Plaza Premium lounges at airports all over the world. Operated by the Plaza Premium Group, the Plaza Premium Lounge brand represents the largest independent airport lounge network in the world. I’ve visited their locations in a diverse collection of airports ranging from Vancouver to Hong Kong to London Heathrow to Brisbane to Singapore – and now Kuala Lumpur.

The lounge is located on the mezzanine level of the Satellite Terminal, easily accessed by escalator or elevator. However, when I arrived at the entrance I was surprised to find a line of people that stretched out into corridor outside the lounge. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a line for a lounge that extended outside its entrance. We’re talking about 10-12 people deep, of which I was the last one. At this point then, my biggest concern was getting shut out of the lounge and stuck in the muggy terminal.

Thankfully, people were exiting the lounge for their departing flights almost as fast as new arrivals were lining up outside to gain entry. After about a ten minute wait, I was signed in and – rather amazingly, given the crowded conditions – was able to find a soon to be unoccupied table whose occupants were just leaving. Quickly grabbing my camera, I headed over to the window to get a photo of the ramp against a backdrop of the setting sun. Unfortunately this photo really doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the moment, but I’ll post it anyway.



Sunset on the ramp at KLIA


While it’s great that there was enough space in this lounge that I was able to join the party, it was indeed packed to the gills. Few if any seats were open and I suspect we were fast approaching that point where people would actually have to start being denied entry.



The crowded lounge conditions at KLIA Plaza Premium Lounge


In the meantime, there was a good looking buffet area over along the far wall. Although I wasn’t particularly hungry, as a dedicated trip reporter just doing his job, I felt I should at least go over and check out the offerings. Oooo – noodles, ginger chicken, sautéed veggies… very nice, very nice… Maybe I’ll just have a small sampling…



A little snack between flights


At 7:45pm I gathered my gear and began the long trek down to gate C6, located at the very end of the concourse.
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Last edited by Seat 2A; Jun 14, 17 at 9:55 pm
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Old Jun 14, 17, 2:57 pm
  #11  
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March 29, 2017
Malindo Air Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta 830p – 925p 737-900 Business Class


How many of you have ever flown upon Malindo Air? Really? Alright then, how many of you have ever even heard of Malindo Air? Whaaaat?! Well let me bring you up to speed.

Malindo Air is a young Malaysian premium service airline that flew its first flight just four years ago on March 22nd, 2013. The name “Malindo” signifies a cooperative pact between Malaysia and Indonesia and is derived from the names of the two countries – Malaysia and Indonesia. Over the past four years, the airline has experienced rapid growth, having spread its wings from its twin bases at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Subang Skypark to regional destinations in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Singapore, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan. Having started out with just two aircraft 4 years ago, today it boasts a fleet of 23 Boeing 737-800s, 6 737-900s and 18 ATR-42-600s.

An appealing part of Malindo’s business model is its decision to provide affordable fares and premium service in both Business and Economy class. Based upon reviews I’d read, the service is similar to what you’d expect from a full-service airline.

Okay. I’ll bite. Back in the planning stages of this trip – once I’d decided I was going to take the Trans-Mongolian to Beijing and then make my way south initially, I found myself in Bangkok needing to get to Bali. Having already flown Thai and Malaysian as well as LCCs Air Asia, Tiger Air and JetStar, I was looking for something new. I knew that Ethiopian offered an affordable flight between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t know about Malindo Air until I did a search on Skyscanner.com.

Usually, when I come across airlines like Malindo on sites like Skyscanner, I then try to see if I can access the airline website directly rather than booking through the travel service links. It so turned out that Malindo has a very accessible and easy to navigate website. Initially I was looking for Economy Class travel but when I saw an ongoing promotion offering Business Class for just $30.00 USD more than Economy, I popped my eyeballs back in their sockets and immediately secured a booking. Unlike some Southeast Asian airlines, Malindo’s website had no problem accepting my U.S. credit card and, just like that I was in possession of a Business Class ticket on one of southeast Asia’s boutique airlines. Color me excited!

Fast forward to present and here I am awaiting the call to board at gate C6. There are a lot of people here and of course all of the available seats closest to the jet bridge are no longer available. No worries – I’ll just snatch a seat over there in the corner. Back by the far wall. About 30 yards from the entry to the jet bridge.

After years of traveling through Southeast Asia, I should have known better than to think anyone would actually respect and heed the call for families and children followed by Business Class passengers. No – the response was quite the opposite in fact. When the call rang out for “families and children” followed by Business Class passengers, pretty much everyone in the entire gate lounge rose in unison and surged toward the gate.

Tempting though it would be to grab my thunderbolt and holler “Out of my way, you heathen!” I respectfully nudged as close as I could while politely saying “Business Class, Business Class”. I might as well have been Woody Allen trying to run the ball against the Baltimore Ravens defense. Still, I pressed on and actually ended up boarding about halfway amidst the horde.

Upon arrival at the jet’s doorway I was greeted by a pair of flight attendants who verified my Business Class seat assignment and then did a great job of hanging my jacket and assisting me in stowing my roll-a-bord. I was pleased to see that Malindo’s Business Class cabin is every bit as spacious as advertised, complete with 12 leather clad loungers outfitted with leg rests and fluffy seat pillows. Here’s a photo of it, courtesy of Malindo Air:



Malindo Air’s Business Class cabin
Photograph courtesy of Malindo Air


Seat pitch - advertised at 45” – would seem to apply only to the new 737-900s. On these -800s I’d give it a bit less, perhaps 42”. It was still much better than anything you’d find aboard a U.S. airline’s 737, so I was a happy camper as I settled into seat 2C on the aisle. Seatmate was an Asian woman who acknowledged me briefly with a quick smile and then returned to the portfolio she was studying.

Pre-departure amenities included a choice of orange or apple juice, followed by cool towels that were actually made from quality wash cloths. Taking a look at my seat functions, I noted that there were four buttons affecting seat adjustment. These included seat recline, lumbar support, leg rest and footrest extend. Given the 42-43” seat pitch, I thought the leg and foot rests seemed a bit odd as you wouldn’t really be able to enjoy their full benefits unless you were shorter than about 5’6”. Then again, what’s the average height of Malaysians these days?

Continuing with my inspection, I discovered the tray table and a 10” IFE screen housed in the console between seats as well as a pair of universal power outlets. For a two hour, 740 mile flight I think this seat will work just fine. ^

I noted with satisfaction that pushback was every bit as punctual as a proverbial Swiss train – as in to the exact minute by my watch! Following a 32 second take off roll – rather long I thought for such a short flight – we soared into the warm night air above Kuala Lumpur, banked slightly once or twice and then bee-lined it on down to Jakarta. Here’s a breakdown of the early service timeline:

10 minutes in: A set of large bulky Phillips headphones were presented. They were more impressive in appearance than performance as they were not noise-cancelling and provided good but not great sound.

15 minutes in: Meal and drink orders were taken. Amazingly, FOUR entrée choices were offered:

NASI LEMAK KERANG
THAI GREEN CURRY
CHICKEN BIRYANI
MACARONI IN TOMATO SAUCE

What other airline offers four entrée choices on a one hour and fifty minute flight? Maybe Emirates but beyond them I can’t think of any others. The flight attendant patiently explained each choice to me and I ultimately selected the Nasi Lemak Kerang, a spicy meat dish served with rice and peppers. Alcohol is apparently limited to just red and white wine, neither of which appealed to me at the moment so I ordered a glass of ice water.

24 minutes in: Bag of mixed nuts with drinks delivered.

32 minutes in: Meal delivered.

Two flight attendants worked the Business Class cabin – one in the galley preparing the food and the other out in the cabin serving it. Service was gracious and attentive throughout the flight. After delivering my tray, the flight attendant returned with a fresh glass of ice and water.

As for the meal, I thought it was pretty good by today’s standards, those standards being the equivalent of Economy Class offerings back in the 1970s. The beef was spicy and the rice nicely cooked. My tray included a side salad accented colorfully with red, green and yellow pepper strips and not one but two dinner rolls. Dessert was a tasty fruit cake. For a flight of less than two hours, inflight meal service doesn’t get much better these days.



Malindo Air’s Nasi Lemak Kerang Dinner


After trays were cleared, I turned my attention to the entertainment system. I was impressed with both the screen size and the picture quality. The touch screen had extensive multi-lingual offerings from movies to TV shows to music to a Sky Map. At this point in the flight, with less than an hour remaining, the Sky Map is what I brought up.



Malindo Air’s Excellent 10” IFE Screen


On approach to Jakarta


As we began our descent into Jakarta, another round of towels was presented, this time steaming hot and nicely scented. I watched as the thousands of lights of Jakarta passed by beneath us, followed by the airport perimeter and finally the runway. We landed nicely enough but man oh man, that runway at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport really needs to be repaved. I’ve had smoother post landing roll outs on gravel runways in Alaska and, I can’t say for sure but I think we may have hit a pothole or two as well. Following a long wandering taxi, we finally located a spot at – oh no! – a remote parking stand.

My dismay at having parked remotely on this hot, humid Jakarta evening was assuaged considerably by the presence of two small vans designated especially for Business Class passengers. While everyone else was making their way onto crowded and stuffy busses, we Business Class passengers were whisked away in air-conditioned comfort to the main terminal, leaving us just a short walk from immigration and customs facilities. This alone was worth the cost of an upgrade!

In summary, Malindo Air provided an excellent overall service worthy of a much longer, not to mention more expensive flight. All in I paid $111.50 USD for this flight and based upon the service I experienced, I’d be willing to pay even more next time, which I sincerely hope there will be.

Two thumbs up to Malindo Air! ^^

My accommodations tonight were at the oddly named FM7 Resort Hotel. The hotel provides complimentary airport transfers and I had no problem locating their representative and riding over to the hotel in a blissfully air-conditioned shuttle van. I’d booked a deluxe king room through the Hotels.com website and was generally pleased with both the room and the quality of the bed. I set my alarm for 7:30am and arranged for an 8:30am transfer back to the airport.



My room at the FM7 Resort Hotel


March 30, 2017
Batik Air Jakarta to Denpasar 1055a – 155p 737-900 Business Class


Due to early morning traffic in and around the airport, the hotel shuttle van driver took me and a couple guys from Germany on a convoluted tour of back roads that - from what he indicated - saved us a good fifteen minutes worth of traffic jams had we taken the main road. It was quite the detour – we must have turned onto at least twenty different roads!

Along the way to the airport, I was fascinated by the sheer number of motorcycles accompanying us in traffic – which by the way was not all that light even on the side roads. Back home in Alaska I might see the occasional Harley or in the summer a Honda Goldwing or BMW that someone’s driven up from Outside, but on the whole motorcycle sightings are rare. Here in Indonesia, motorcycles are everywhere! At times we were surrounded by so many of them that from the inside of the shuttle van it looked as if we were in the middle of a motorcycle rally. After having seen a couple hundred or so I decided to start counting, curious to see if I’d see another 100 before we got to the airport. I stopped counting after having reached 300 with no end in sight. Amazing!

I and my fellow passengers were dropped off at Terminal 1C, essentially the Low Cost Domestic Airline Terminal for Suharto International Airport. It was hot and crowded outside the building and only marginally better inside. That said, Indonesia looks to have a thriving Low Coast Airline industry with a number of jet equipped airlines such as Kalstar, Citijet, Batik Air, Sriwijaya Air and Lion Air ready to fly you anywhere in the region at very affordable fares – at least by my western standards.

My original plan was to book a flight down to Bali aboard an aging Garuda A330. The price looked right at just $62.00 USD. A little further investigation however revealed that I could score a Business Class ticket on Indonesia’s boutique airline - Batik Air - for just $82.00 USD all in. Well then, I guess we’ll have to put off logging my first flight upon Garuda until my next trip down here.

Batik Air was created in May 2013 with a single 737-900ER leased from its parent airline Lion Air. It was established as a full-service airline to compete with Garuda and it currently operates a fleet of 11 737-800s and 6 -900s along with 31 Airbus A320s. All aircraft wear a variation of a beautiful Indonesian batik print on their tails. I think it’s one of the more attractive liveries in the industry.



Batik Air’s 737-900


I was especially thankful to see that Batik Air had a dedicated Business Class check-in counter. Only one person was in line ahead of me and he was just finishing up. Check-in was quick and efficient, my cabin bags were tagged and I was given directions to Batik’s Business Class Lounge.



Batik Air’s Business Class Lounge


Conveniently located adjacent to my departure gate at C-7, Batik Air’s lounge is the only one available in the terminal. A receptionist sitting at a plain unmarked desk outside the entrance checked my boarding pass and then waved me in. Ah… air-conditioning!

Aside from the excellent air-conditioning this lounge was a few notches below what you’d expect from say – a Plaza Premium facility. The room was pleasant enough with batik prints and paintings ringing the walls. I wish the seating were a bit more individualized than just three long rows of chairs though. I took a seat at the far end and sauntered down to check out the food offerings. They were … meager – a pan of fried rice and a collection of small muffins, cakes and candies. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and while I like fried rice, I wasn’t going to risk food borne illness by eating any of the non-heated rice that wasn’t even covered.

By American standards, many of the eateries I’ve seen around Asia would fail their food safety inspections with regard to safe storage and/or presentation of food. I understand this is Asia, not America; but as a onetime restaurant manager in another life, I believe in and support our food regulations so I reckon I’ll wait until I’m on the flight down to Bali where I’m reasonably confident that Batik Air’s inflight meal offerings should be at the very least a bit more safely stored.

Boarding announcements were made inside the lounge in both Indonesian and English. As I made my way down the corridor to the gate, a Batik Air employee noted my limp (On a good day I walk like Robert Shaw’s character Doyle Lonnigan in the movie “The Sting”) and quickly stepped up to assist with my bag, taking it right onto the airplane and stowing it in the overhead for me. It wasn’t necessary but it was a very nice touch nonetheless.

Although the flight looked pretty full back in Economy, only three of us were sat in the spacious Business Class cabin. As mentioned earlier, Batik Air is part of the Lion Air family and so the interior of this 737-900 was essentially identical to the Malindo Air 737-800 I’d flown into Jakarta on last night. The one noticeable difference was that on this airplane, the seat pitch really was 45”.



Business Class seating on Batik Air’s 737-900


Lots of room to spread out on this 737-900


Pre-departure welcome drink service


Pre-departure service commenced with the delivery of a delicious green fruit drink presented with a bag of almonds. Hot towels followed, after which our glasses were collected, the doors closed and the pre-departure safety announcements dispensed with. After last night’s bumpy taxi in, I was on guard for a rough take off but we must’ve used a different runway because nothing about our taxi or take off seemed inordinately out of line.

Flight time on the 610 mile run to Denpasar was an expeditious one hour and forty minutes, so our flight attendant began the luncheon service shortly after we’d leveled off. No alcohol is served aboard Batik Air, but I was more than happy to have another glass or two of whatever that green stuff was that we’d been served on the ground.

When it came time to take meal orders, our flight attendant went from seat to seat with a tray upon which she displayed both entrees. I asked which one was spicier and she indicated the chicken. Right on. I’ll take that, please.



In lieu of a menu on Batik Air


A nicely spiced chicken lunch on Batik Air


Dessert & Coffee


That chicken main course was a good choice, too. It’s rare to be served anything spicier than sausage on airline flights north of the equator, so when I tasted that first bite of chicken and sauce and experienced a satisfying but not overpowering burn, I took another sip from my green cocktail and counted my blessings.



A beautiful place to be aloft


Descending into Bali 1


Descending into Bali 2


And to think that just seven days ago I was sprawled comfortably aboard the Trans-Mongolian, rolling across Siberia in czar-like splendor. Seven days from now I’ll be in Fiji savoring the good life at a four star resort in Pacific Harbor, drinking cold Fiji Bitters or perhaps even a tropical cocktail or two while watching the sun set over the beautiful blue lagoon. Two weeks from now I’ll be rolling out of Chicago aboard the California Zephyr, bound for the Promised Land with a roomette and a bottle of Jack Daniels. It is indeed a small planet, isn’t it? I might as well enjoy traveling around it in style.

To that end, Batik Air delivered with yet another van waiting at the foot of the stairs. The air-conditioning was on full blast as we drove from our spot at the very end of the concourse all the way up to the main airport terminal. As this was a domestic flight, I had no immigration and customs checks to go through so I waited at my pre-arranged spot (the Information desk) for my ride to show up. Tonight and tomorrow night would be spent at the comfortable Alindra Villa Resort.



My bedroom at Bali’s Alindra Villa


Sitting room at Bali’s Alindra Villa


My balcony at Bali’s Alindra Villa


Balcony view at Bali’s Alindra Villa


A few of you may have noticed that I only spent one whole day in Bali – dubbed by some as “The World’s Most Beautiful Island”. It’s true – Bali was not a focus destination for me on this trip. Rather, my decision to go there was fueled more by the chance to log some inexpensive flights aboard a few airlines I’d never flown before.

“Sacrilege!” you shriek? Pffft! I’m sure there’re some spectacularly beautiful spots on Bali but one day isn’t really enough time to rush out from Denpasar to go and experience them properly. As such I just took a lazy day on the villa grounds, utilized its complimentary shuttle to head into town for a late lunch and took a massage at the villa spa later that afternoon. So - I had a great day.

As for Bali, it ain’t going anywhere – I can always come back here for a proper visit someday. That means a minimum of a week – as far away from Denpasar as I can possibly get! Honestly, I can’t help but wonder if I’m just a few years too late – as in forty or fifty years too late. To my way of thinking, any island with a population of over 4 million people is automatically disqualified from consideration as “The world’s most beautiful”. For my money that accolade would probably go to Bora Bora, but then it’s been 36 years since I last spent a few days there. Given the physical and cultural scars that we humans can’t help but inflict on our favorite tourism destinations through over development and excessive visitation, who knows what Bora Bora is like now?

But enough of my negative cogitations on modern day tourism when this trip report is right in the middle of a fantastic series of flights coming up over the next five days between Denpasar and Nadi, Fiji. Let’s head on out to Denpasar’s Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport for a flight in World Business Class aboard KLM’s 777-300 service up to Singapore.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 3:01 pm
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April 01, 2017
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Denpasar to Singapore 840p – 1115p Boeing 777-300 Business Class


As my ride approached the International departures terminal in the late afternoon sun, it was plain to see that this airport is absolutely stunning, inside and out. I wish I’d had my camera handy as we approached the terminal because it is certainly one of the most architecturally striking airport terminals I have ever seen.



Denpasar Airport Terminal from the outside


As I stepped inside, I paused to take a couple photos of the entrance area and some of its attractive shops and restaurants. I later learned that the new International Terminal building opened in November 2013, and that by 2015 it had been named by the Airports Council International as the third best airport terminal in the world among 30 airports with a passenger capacity of 15-25 million per year. That group includes such well-regarded airports as Kansai International Airport,, Auckland International Airport, San Diego International Airport, Helsinki-Vantaa Airport and Brisbane International Airport.



Denpasar Airport Terminal


Denpasar Airport Terminal


Denpasar Airport Terminal


I’d originally booked this flight in Economy Class for just $115.00 USD one way. Earlier this afternoon however, before leaving the Alindra Villa, I upgraded to Premium Economy for just $25.00 USD more. Now, at the check-in counter, I decided to double down. Upon discovering that a seat in World Business Class could be had for just $75.00 USD more, I handed over my credit card and selected seat 3K.

It sure would be nice if I could find a way to bottle the feeling that accompanies how you feel when you arrive at the airport thinking you were travelling in Economy and now you’ve been upgraded to Business or First Class. It doesn’t matter whether it was a comp or op upgrade or you paid for it out of hand. The main thing is – you’re now travelling in style with all of the requisite perks that accompany such indulgence

Chief amongst those perks – at least prior to departure - is admittance to the Premium Class lounge. In Denpasar’s case, there are two lounges in the International Departures Terminal – the TG Lounge and Premiere Lounge, the latter being associated with KLM as well as Priority Pass.

Upon entry to the lounge, I was immediately impressed with its design, furnishings and over all ambience. The attractive furnishings were arranged in small, intimate groups - often around a low table. The lighting was pleasant – not overly bright and the foods on offer were varied and tasty. I set my gear down at a nearby table and moseyed over to the buffet island for a look-see.



Premiere Lounge at Denpasar


Premiere Lounge at Denpasar


The buffet island was well stocked with Javanese rice, spicy noodles, two types of soup, a variety of sandwiches, coleslaw, quiche – all properly heated and/or chilled. The only downer was the beer which, while refrigerated, was cool, not cold. I’m beginning to think that maybe most people in Asia prefer their beer a bit warmer. I put together a nice little plate of hors d’oeuvres and accompanied it with a glass of juice – on ice.

I should note here that there was a bar but after a look at the offerings (Red and white wine, a quarter full bottle of rum, an eighth full bottle of vodka, an empty bottle of gin and a darker bottle that’s contents were undiscernible) I deduced that it was more for show than service.

It was about 7:30pm when I made my way down to the gate. The concourse was pleasantly illuminated (I’ve never cared for really bright artificial lighting) and well populated with a variety of shops ranging from the usual Duty Free to an ice cream store. The warm colors and fabrics reminded me a bit of Singapore’s Changi, making it that much easier to appreciate how this airport could garner such high regard amongst travelers and industry analysts alike.

With boarding still a few minutes away, I wandered over to the windows for a look at my bird…



KLM’s 777-306ER awaits departure at Denpasar


I’ve always liked KLM’s two-tone blue and white livery. This airplane had not yet benefitted from the latest iteration of the company livery but it looked quite inviting nonetheless. It was even named in honor of South America’s Tierra del Fuego National Park.

When boarding was called, I was ready to go. After having flown aboard so many smaller aircraft of late (even the 787 doesn’t seem all that wide to me) it sure was nice to step back aboard a proper wide bodied airliner. As one who grew up in the heyday of the 747, DC-10 and L1011, I really came to appreciate the spacious ambience aboard these airliners regardless of class flown. With a fuselage cross section measuring just over 19 feet, the 777 is one of the widest jetliners in service.

Back in 1970s America, these three wide bodies were commonly seen on routes that see nothing larger than a 737 these days. On Transcons and Hawaii flights their use was de rigueur. The Denver to Chicago route was once served by eleven mostly daily DC-10s from United and Continental. I’ve even flown aboard 747s on routes as short as Seattle to Portland and San Francisco to Los Angeles.

And here’s another rose to smell as long as we’re tripping down Memory Lane… does anyone here remember how plush those First and Business Class seats used to be? Back in pre-lie flat days, seats were designed for sitting in and - for the most part - they were all very comfortable. Once the industry made the switch to lie-flat seats, all that padding that felt so nice while sitting became a hindrance while trying to sleep. The response came in the form of stiffer cushioning that was supposed to feel better to sleep upon.

Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Often times it came to the detriment of actual sitting. I sat in a BA Club World seat circa 2003 that was hard as a rock. Thankfully I was just sampling that seat while taking a mid-flight wander from my comfortable digs up in First Class. Back in 2013 I had the misfortune of having to spend the night upon an Austrian Airlines’ Business Class seat. OMG! I’ve sat on park benches that were more comfortable!

So it was that I sat down in KLM’s World Business Class seat with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Ooooo – this is nice! These fabric upholstered seats were very nicely cushioned and felt as if they actually welcomed me into the seat rather than rejected me. Too bad this is only a two and a half hour night flight. I could very happily have sat around in this seat for a much longer flight. Perhaps someday I can score a KLM WBC seat on a westbound flight between Amsterdam and the U.S.



KLM’s World Business Class cabin aboard its 777-300


KLM’s World Business Class seats


Two flight attendants were working the Business Class cabin – both of them middle aged ladies. It was nice to see a couple of “older” gals after all the “kids” I’d seen aboard every flight since departing Beijing a few nights ago. Not that the kids did a bad job, mind you, but it’s nice to see a bit of parity amongst the generations for this job. I remember back when U.S. airlines didn’t allow their stewardesses to be married and worse, they had to retire or move on to a different position in the airline upon reaching their 30th or 35th birthdays.

Pre-departure drinks were offered in the form of water, orange juice or Champagne. I know this will sound like sacrilege to some of you but I’m just not that big a fan of Champagne. I’m certainly willing to try most of them though, especially when the Champagne proffered is some of the “good stuff” such as Krug, Pol Roger’s Churchill or Salon. Tonight however, I just wasn’t in the mood so I compromised with a Mimosa or a “Buck’s Fizz” to those of you outside of America. Mmmm. Now that was good!



KLM’s welcome aboard


Ground service continued with the presentation of amenity kits and menus. Sorry, amenity kit fans – I never even got around to opening my kit. After all, I was only going as far as Singapore. It felt pretty light, so I don’t imagine there was anything out of the ordinary in there.

As for the menu – now we’re talking! I always open that with all the anticipation of a child on Christmas day. Tonight we were presented with both a menu and a wine list. Let’s check ‘em out!


WINE LIST

Champagne

Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve, France

White Wine
Château Tour de Mirambeau 2015, Bordeaux, France
Viu Manent Chardonnay Reserva 2016, Valle de Colchagua, Chile


Red Wines
Domaine de Grangeneuve Tradition 2015, Grignan-les-Adhémar, France
Abadal Franc 2015, Pla des Bages, Spain
Viu Manent Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Valle de Colchagua, Chile


Dessert Wines
Taylor’s Late Bottled Vintage Port 2011
Lillypilly Sweet Harvest, Riverina, Australia



On the first page of the menu was a welcome note from the chef – Sumatran born Farah Quinn. I was happy to read that the dishes were regionally inspired and that locally sourced ingredients had been used whenever possible. I love Indonesian food, so it didn’t take me long to decide on what I’d like to order...


DINNER
Denpasar to Singapore

Appetizer
Farah Quinn’s vegetable salad – karedok sunda with banana leaf

MAIN COURSE

Grilled Chicken with Honey Mustard Sauce

Roasted fingerling potato, baked carrot, broccoli and red capsicum

Beef Semur Degang
With tumis carrot, baby corn and coconut rice by Farah Quinn

Dessert
Farah’s famous Nastar Cake – Indonesian pineapple crumble cake



Climbing out of Denpasar


Flight time for this 1120 mile flight was announced to be two hours and seventeen minutes, so when thirty minutes into the flight we were presented with our dinners – all in one tray – without any preliminary beverage service, I was a bit taken aback.

My flight attendant was a bit taken aback herself when I caught her coming down the aisle a few minutes later and requested a glass of 12 Year Old Chivas Regal. I had set my as yet untouched dinner off to the side on the tray table beside me.

“But your dinner will get cold” she protested.
“It can wait. I’d like to start with a cocktail.”
“We’ll be beginning our descent pretty soon” she responded.

I couldn’t believe how flimsy her responses were, doing nothing to mask the fact that she and her partner were apparently too lazy to provide a proper dinner service to this lightly loaded Business Class cabin (7 passengers). Far be it from me to lecture her on how to do her job, but given the amount of time left in the flight (at the time we were having this conversation I pointed at the Sky Map which indicated we still had another hour and thirty-eight minutes left in the flight) there was more than enough time for a cocktail before dinner. At least for me. As for my dinner, I suspected it would taste just as good in ten or fifteen minutes.

Eleven minutes later, (That’s right, 11 minutes had elapsed on the flight map – I take good notes when I want to…) I still didn’t have my drink. I could see my FA up in the galley and while she appeared to be doing something, she definitely wasn’t fixing my drink. So, I put down my newspaper, wandered on up to the galley and asked if I might get that drink now.

“Oh, sorry” she replied. “I’ll bring it back to your seat”
“That’s all right” I replied. “I’ll wait here. Besides, it’s good to get up and stretch a bit, especially on these longer flights.”

It was clear to see that she didn’t like her hand being forced – as if I cared at that point. I don’t much cotton to slackers and this woman was grade A in that department. We made small talk while she poured my drink, after which I returned to my seat to enjoy my pre-dinner cocktail. But first, being the dedicated trip reporter that I am, a set up a nice photo. After all, I worked hard for that drink.



Chivas on the rocks – a nice start to any flight
Even a two hour and seventeen minute one


Now it seems like there’re always a few of the more timid or laid back amongst us who will see my response to this situation as improper. Dude, just go with it and write in a complaint later on if you want after the flight. Pfffft! Contrary to what some mistakenly believe, the meek don’t inherit the earth. More often than not they just get trampled on and/or pushed out of the way. As such, I was polite but firm. There was plenty of time to have served drinks to the seven of us up front, but I never brought that up with her. I simply asked for a drink, after which I got a rasher of backtalk after which she then returned to the galley and forgot about it all. Maybe she’s lucky I don’t write her up but the incident didn’t rise to the level of a formal complaint in my book. It was merely annoying and frankly, I would’ve expected better from crews deemed worthy of serving international Business Class passengers aboard an airline as well regarded as KLM.

So no – I’m not one to scream and shout – that’s not my style – but given the amount of time left in the flight, I was definitely gonna get that drink and if the FA didn’t like the fact that I ordered it in the first place or that I came back and essentially stood by and ensured that she then did her job, well - too bad. That is my style when it comes to dealing with people who take a lazy or slovenly approach to their jobs.

As for the dinner that sat waiting at my seat, it was still warm enough to enjoy later and I thought it was superb. The salad was delicious, the beef nicely spiced and the rice nicely cooked. The pineapple crumble cake was one of the better airline desserts I’ve had in a while. All in all, a very nice meal.



Dinner on KLM Business Class – DPS to SIN


Close-up of Farah’s delicious dessert


We were just commencing our descent when the my flight attendant stopped by with a tray bearing five or six of the blue Delft Houses that KLM has become famous for over the years. They were originally offered as a souvenir to KLM’s Royal Class passengers starting back in 1952. There were about 50 or 60 different ones for a while but when KLM celebrated its 75th anniversary it commissioned enough to make 75 – one for each year of its existence. Since then, a new one is commissioned each year, bringing the total up to 98 if my math serves me well.

Royal Class has since been discontinued but the tradition of offering the blue delft houses still lives on for KLM’s Business Class passengers. At the backpacker place I like to stay at in Johannesburg, there’s a collection of about 25 of them on display behind the bar. Apparently the owner of the place – who lives in Holland and comes down to visit three or four times a year – always flies in on KLM, if only to add to her collection. If I don’t break mine in transit over the remainder of this trip, It’ll be my pleasure to add mine to her collection.


We landed on a typically hot and muggy night in Singapore. I felt a brief blast of the heat as I stepped off of the airplane before the air-conditioning in the jet bridge kicked in. Thankfully, the climate control at Singapore’s Changi Airport is amongst the best in Asia – so good in fact that given our late arrival, I decided to sleep in the airport.

Because of its quality climate control, SIN is the only Southeast Asian airport where I will sleep in the airport. Over the years I’ve spent a half dozen nights here – enough to have found a great spot under this stairway where a vent blows out cool air, it’s dark and I’m generally unnoticed as I’m out of the main airport traffic flow. I’ve got my wool blanket with me and tonight it served me well as the air blowing out that vent was a little cooler than I remembered.

The next morning I stopped in at the DNATA Lounge for breakfast before catching the train over to T2 where I caught a shower in the SATs Premium lounge. I should’ve switched this around and showered over at DNATA since the shower facilities at T2 SATS were very basic, but the SATS breakfast buffet offerings were superior. But hey – at least I was able to get a shower! Ain’t lounge memberships great?!



Garden in Changi Airport


DNATA Lounge


DNATA Lounge hot buffet area
Scrambled eggs, potatoes, Asian foods – a good breakfast buffet


SATS Lounge


The SATS Lounge hot buffet area
Even better than DNATA’s but with so-so shower facilities


April 02, 2017
Scoot Airlines Singapore to Taipei 1200n – 420p Boeing 787-9 Business Class


My flight up to Taipei today will be aboard Scoot Airlines – one of the Singapore Airlines family of subsidiary airlines that includes Silk Air and Tiger Air. Scoot got its start in 2012 flying from Singapore to Sydney and the Gold Coast. It has since expanded from its Singapore hub to 25 destinations throughout Asia and Australia including eight cities in China, four in Australia and three in India. It launches service to Athens – its first European destination – in June. It also recently joined the Value Alliance, the world’s largest low cost carrier alliance, and, with the August retirement of its last 777s became the world’s first all-787 operated airline. Scoot looks like one LCC that’s going to stick around for a while.

What attracted me to Scoot was its affordable Business Class fare of just $184.00 USD on the 2000 mile route between Singapore and Taipei. Indeed, the fact that Scoot even offers a Business Class cabin is worthy of note since most Asian discount carriers don’t.

Branded as ScootBiz, the product offers the usual Business Class perks such as extra baggage and early boarding. Of interest to me however were its 35 full leather seats, each of them 22” wide with a seat pitch of at least 38”. Scoot advertises leg rests as a perk but I just don’t see how you could enjoy legrests with only a 38” pitch to work with. As an aficionado of inflight catering, I was however pleased to see that a meal was included and could even be ordered in advance.

Above all, it’s important to recognize that ScootBiz is like a Business Class Lite. From reviews I read prior to booking my ticket, one shouldn’t expect legacy carrier service and attention. The main thing you’re getting is more space than you’d find in the back of the plane and a few extra perks that for a guy like me who’s mastered the art of travelling light don’t really mean that much.

So, come 11:40am I joined 30 or so of my fellow ScootBiz passengers – plus one hundred or so more from Economy who rose to clog boarding lanes when the call rang out for ScootBiz passengers to board – and made my way down the long jet bridge to 9V-OJC – a two year old white and yellow liveried 787-9 christened “Inspiring Spirit”.



Scoot’s new 787-9
Photo courtesy of Flyscoot.com


Seats were arranged in five rows configured 2-3-2 with a seat pitch of 38 inches. Taking a seat at 1K on the bulkhead, I waited for a flight attendant to relieve me of my jacket but none came so I folded it neatly and placed it in the bin above me. I’ve been lugging that jacket around since travelling through much cooler parts of the world a couple of weeks back. I was tempted to just leave it behind somewhere but as a fan of quality tweed jackets, I like it too much.

It didn’t take long to discover that these ScootBiz seats, though stylish in appearance with their black leather upholstery, are not particularly comfortable. It’s the usual problem – not enough padding and/or the wrong type of padding. I just keep telling myself – it beats sitting in the back.

Or does it? Forgive me a moment while I fast forward here but directly behind Biz is what appears to be an Economy Plus cabin with standard 3-3-3 seating. The seats are cloth upholstered and look to have a generous seat pitch in the neighborhood of 34-35 inches. When I sat down in one, I found it to be considerably softer and more comfortable than the comparatively stiff Biz seats. That said, there are a few more benefits to flying ScootBiz than just the big seat. More on that in a bit, though.

Savoring a welcome glass of water, I couldn’t help but think back to the last time I flew out of Singapore. That would’ve been just last year during a six day, 35000 mile jaunt I undertook in pursuit of my 5 millionth mile flown. I vividly recalled having been sat in considerably more opulent surroundings aboard an Emirates 777-300 bound for Brisbane. Click on the link here and you can relive those memories with me.

Taipei is 2000 miles north-northeast of Singapore, which translates to a flight time of just over four hours. We taxied rather sedately out to the runway with an inordinate number of brief stops, as if the flight crew wasn’t really sure if they wanted to fly to Taipei today. I watched as a pair of Singapore A330s thundered down the runway and then sat back and relaxed as we took our turn. The Captain spooled up his twin Rolls-Royce Trent 1000s while generating close to 140,000 pounds of thrust, more than enough to send us hurdling down the runway with sufficient speed and power to ultimately defeat the twin forces of gravity and drag, allowing us to then soar into the hazy blue skies above Singapore and climb steadily away toward the much more comfortable environs of the troposphere.

Promotional material for ScootBiz claims that passengers will receive one welcome beverage (water) plus one alcoholic beverage free of charge. Three types of beer and two types of wine were available but only one spirit, that being Johnnie Walker Black.



Liquor Selections


Believe it or not, the only Johnnie Walker product I’ve ever drunk is the Blue, courtesy of First Class air travel on the likes of Emirates, BA, Cathay, Asiana and Lufthansa. That’s a tradition I’d like to maintain as long as possible, so I settled for a can of ice cold Tiger Beer, which I accompanied with a packet of peanuts which I’d purchased in Bali a couple days earlier.

Scoot offers an impressive array of hot and cold meals, some of which are available on board and others which can be booked in advance.



Scoot Café Menu


Buy-On-Board Hot Meals


Pre-Order Meals


I took advantage of the latter, having pre-ordered my meal during the booking process. I think it was the Singapore Chicken but I’m not a hundred percent sure. Here’s a picture of it. See if you can figure it out…



Singapore Chicken?


The chicken was moist and delicious, made that much better with the addition of surprisingly good hot sauce, a small container of which was included with the meal. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a bad meal out of Singapore – granted, with few exceptions all of my flights out of there have been in First and Business class, but overall Changi’s flight kitchens have been superb by my tastes. I should also note that throughout the flight the service from the flight attendants was very good – attentive and even proactive in anticipating passenger needs. I was impressed.

After lunch I got up and took my customary lap around the airplane. This being my first flight aboard the longer 787-9, I was curious just how much longer it actually is. From a walking perspective, it’s noticeably longer than the 787-8. The aircraft specifications indicate the cabin is 20 feet longer. While I was on my stroll, I took a moment to note the seat pitch back in last class. It looked good – about 31 or possibly even 32 inches – much better than I’d encountered aboard the likes of fellow Asian discount carriers Tiger Air, Air Asia and Jetstar Asia.

In closing, though I would have liked a bit more comfortable seat and I missed some of the traditional whistles and bells offered in Business Class on the major carriers, overall I thought ScootBiz delivered excellent value relative to the money paid. It’s not too often that $184.00 USD will allow you to fly 2000 miles while sitting in anything better than an Economy Plus seat, so my hat’s off to Scoot – silly name and all. If and when I should find myself back in this region looking for an affordable daytime Business Class seat, I may very well be logging my second flight aboard a Scoot 787.

At Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport, we parked next to a beautiful new China Airlines A350-900. The A350 is a beautiful airplane in its own right, but it looked all the more fetching in China Airlines’ attractive blue and white livery.

My home for the night was a corner suite at the City Suites Gateway Hotel – a comfortable though otherwise ordinary property located just ten minutes and a $7.00 USD taxi ride from the airport. To be sure, nobody would ever confuse my corner suite with a similarly named room at a Starwood or Intercontinental hotel, but then they wouldn’t be paying just $71.00 USD per night either.



My bedroom at the City Suites Gateway Hotel in Taipei


The sitting room facing the television
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Old Jun 14, 17, 3:05 pm
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April 3, 2017
Thai Airways Taipei to Seoul 1250P – 415p Boeing 777-300 Business Class


My early afternoon departure up to Seoul allowed me to sleep in, take a leisurely shower and then head back to the airport – arriving at about 11:00am. Once I’d cleared security and immigration I had about an hour and a half to enjoy a late breakfast at one of the two Plaza Premium Lounges at Taoyuan Airport’s Terminal 1. Since Thai is a Star Alliance carrier, my United Club card would’ve gotten me into EVA’s larger and nicer lounge – something in retrospect I wish I’d done – but there was the Plaza Premium Lounge and there was I and that was that.

The lounge was small but pleasant with a good looking food station where an on-duty chef could cook up one of five different small meals on request. We’re talking fresh ingredients here, not reheating. I had a delicious pork and noodle soup along with a small finger sandwich. The newspaper rack held copies of the English language Taipei Times but no New York Times. No problem. I still had plenty to read from yesterday’s NYT.

Moving on to the gate, I arrived expecting to find boarding well underway but the reality was quite the opposite. The gate lounge was jam packed with all manner of humanity, many of them spread out with their luggage over multiple seats. I could find nowhere to sit.

More annoying to me however was that once it became obvious that the flight was going to be delayed, there were no announcements as to why or at the very least an update on a new projected departure time. I’ve already touched on this in reference to a previous flight so I won’t belabor the point again. Suffice it to say that I don’t care so much that the flight’s late – whatever the reason is beyond my control. But at least let us know what’s going on. All they had to say was something like “Due to the late arrival of the aircraft,” etc.

Once onboard, everything went smooth as silk. Thai has a couple different Business Class seating configurations on its 777-300s – one for long intercontinental flights and one for intra-Asia services. In terms of comfort and ambience, I like the latter much better. The international configuration does offer 180° lie-flat seats, but they’re ensconced in these claustrophobic pods where you’re surrounded by all this molded plastic that’s right up on you. There’s no sense of spaciousness.

Conversely, the seating on this “domestic” bird was arranged 2-3-2 but the seats themselves were large, comfortable and spacious. Already at my seat when I arrived was a large blanket, a decently sized pillow and a set of noise cancelling headphones. Despite the big crowd out in the gate lounge suggesting a pretty full flight, I was fortunate to have a pair of seats to myself.



Comfortable seating aboard Thai’s 777-300


Flight attendants made the rounds with trays of orange juice, water and a suspiciously bright colored local juice followed by the menu presentation. The menus were large and colorful and included a separate wine list. Quickly scanning the beverage selections, I was pleased to see that Thai still proffers the Jim Beam 8 Year Old Black Label. So many airlines – including some pretty decent international carriers – serve the white label which in my measured opinion is comparatively undrinkable. Jim Beam has such a nice line of small batch bourbons (Basil Hayden, Baker’s, Knob Creek and Bookers) that it’s a wonder they allow that white labeled swill to be exported beyond county lines.



Welcome Juice


Welcome Bourbon


No nuts were offered with the drink service but when I asked, a small plate of almonds was quickly delivered. Now then, let’s see what’s for lunch, shall we?


LUNCHEON
Taipei to Seoul

First Course
Smoked Halibut with Apricot and Fruit Salad


MAIN COURSE

Pan-Fried Cobbler Fish with Creamy Parsley Sauce

Roasted potatoes, green beans and carrots

Stir-Fried Chicken with Black Pepper and Onion Sauce
Steamed rice and vegetables

Stewed Pork with Turnip
Steamed rice and vegetables

Assorted bread, crackers, butter and cheese


Dessert
Lime Cheese Cake

Tea, Coffee, Espresso, Cappuccino




WINE LIST

Champagne

Veuve Clicquot Brut n.v.

White Wine
Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Les Baronnes 2014, Loire Valley, France
Chablis Premier Cru Seigneurie de Montigny 2013, Burgundy, France


Red Wine
Bourgogne Pinot Noir Pierre Gruber 2013, Burgundy, France
Château D’Arcins, Haut-Médoc 2012, Bordeaux, France


Dessert Wine
Cockburns Port


Three main courses… that’s pretty nice for a two hour flight. Alas, there was but one choice of appetizer. A few years ago I was served a chilled halibut appetizer while flying Business Class on Thai and I didn’t much care for it, mainly because I prefer the flavor of cooked halibut. Still, premium class airline catering and its presentation is my favorite form of inflight entertainment, so I brought a sense of adventure to lunch with me and requested the halibut appetizer followed by the stewed pork for my main.

Despite this being only a two hour flight, the meal was presented as a three course affair starting with the appetizer which was delivered upon a purple tray along with cheese, crackers and a nice looking set of porcelain salt and pepper shakers. Even better looking were Thai’s stylish new serving dishes, each of them delicately patterned around the edges and rimmed in silver. The cutlery is also new and distinctive, its dimpled design lending a classy touch to the meal tray.

As for the halibut, it was very good. It started with the presentation on the plate where everything had been arranged into a colorful assemblage of halibut, salsa and accoutrements. It continued with the surprisingly amenable taste of the halibut accented nicely by the apricot and mango salsa. So far, so good. Bring on the main course!



Halibut Appetizer Thai Style


If you haven’t already noticed, I’m generally omnivorous and for the most part pretty forgiving when it comes to airline food. That said, almost everything I’ve been served really does taste good to me – I don’t just write positively about it to provide a more upbeat trip report. If the meat served is tough, I’ll mention it but at the same time I’ll probably write that it tasted alright. As an example, I like my steak medium rare but if it should get served medium well, I still find it more than edible – particularly if it’s accompanied with a sauce or some moist accompaniments.

The stewed pork belly I was presented was a good choice in every respect. The meat was tender and flavorful, the rice moist and the veggies good. All that was missing was a good hot sauce. Adding to the enjoyment of the meal was an impressive bread basket which made its appearance shortly after the pork had been delivered. It contained three or four different types of rolls but my eyes were immediately drawn to the best choice of all – hot buttered garlic bread! It was actually toasted too, not just warmed over. The flight attendant generously served me a couple of slices.



Stewed Pork Belly Main


I accompanied dinner with a glass of the Bordeaux. This did not taste as good as the menu description would have had me believe. We all know by now that the pressurized, dry cabins of most airliners are not the optimal environments to enjoy wine at its best. From my experience, this is particularly true of red wines. By contrast, I’ve found white wines to be much more forgiving. As such, I traded out my glass of red for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc which paired quite nicely with the light meat pork.

A decadent portion of lemon cheesecake accompanied by hot black coffee and a glass of port brought this meal to a satisfying close. The Cockburn’s Port is not the finest port that I’ve ever been offered in Business Class (That honor would go to a glass of incredibly delicious KWV Classic Cape Tawny offered aboard South African Airways between Sao Paolo and Johannesburg a couple of years back) but it was more than serviceable and complimented the Camembert and crackers nicely.



Lemon Cheesecake with all the trimmings


Despite this being such a short flight, the course by course presentation as well as overall meal quality would have graded well on a much longer service. I’ll have to check out Thai’s First Class on a longer flight someday.

Following the meal, I took a look at the entertainment options – particularly the games since there wasn’t enough time left in the flight to watch any movies and none of the television shows held any interest for me (just like home!) I found a geography based trivia game that would list a famous site such as the Taj Mahal or Niagara Falls and then require the player to touch the map on the screen at approximately the point where the site in question was located. I’m pretty good with this kind of knowledge but apparently my fingers – which I think are normally sized – were not well suited to pinpoint accuracy. I’d touch right on an easy one like say – San Francisco Bay – and the response would come back that I’d “nailed it” having touched within 400 to 500km of the target. Once, I touched down within 58km of someplace! That was worthy of a refill on the Jim Beam. After that, I never got closer than 125km.

All too soon, the captain came on to announce that we were commencing our descent into Seoul. It was a hazy, muggy afternoon out my window – not particularly well suited for sightseeing much less human existence. And yet, Seoul is home to over 10 million souls, many of whom must have been decidedly uncomfortable on a sticky, humid day like this. I said a small prayer of thanks that I’ve been blessed to live in a land as cool and dry as Interior Alaska.

The flight attendants held back the hordes from behind the curtain while the favored few in Business Class were allowed to make their way off the plane first. If there weren’t so many people waiting, I would like to have paused and given each of our Business Class FAs a hug goodbye. They were wonderful from start to finish. Honestly, unless you’re in international First Class aboard the likes of Singapore or one of the Gulf carriers, I can’t imagine a 2 hour flight possibly being any nicer than this.

As I made my way up the jet bridge, there was a sign posted indicating passengers connecting on to Sydney aboard Asiana should proceed to transit desk C in the main terminal. Given that most people would not fly 920 miles north from Taipei to then fly 5180 miles south to Sydney, I suspect I may have been the only passenger that sign was intended for. It was a nice touch.

It took a while to walk the length of the separate concourse building, take the connecting train to the main terminal, clear security and then search out Transit Desk C but once I found the desk, everything went smoothly from that point on. Boarding passes were issued for both tonight’s flight as well as tomorrow’s connecting flight to Auckland and I was given directions to Asiana’s Business Class lounge located downstairs on the concourse level.

As I arrived at the bottom of the escalator, I saw a sign for the Sky Hub Lounge, apparently located back upstairs from whence I’d come. Noting that it accepted Priority Pass, I decided to go back up and check it out. This turned out to be a good call. Although this lounge was nowhere near as large or stylish as Asiana’s attractive Business Class lounge at Incheon, it had plenty of comfortable seats, many of them around tables with nearby electrical outlets – all the better to be able to put in some time on this increasingly burgeoning trip report.

A quick survey of the buffet area revealed a much nicer and more varied spread than I remember Asiana’s lounge having. I wasn’t particularly hungry having recently completed lunch on the inbound Thai flight, so I availed myself of a Coca Cola and a glass of ice. My preferred choice, a glass of beer, was warm both off the tap and in the well-stocked but otherwise room temperature “refrigerator”.



Sky Hub Lounge Seating


Sky Hub Lounge Accoutrements


Sky Hub Lounge Salad Bar


Sky Hub Lounge Hot Buffet Line


After a couple hours of transcribing menus, loading photos, reviewing this report and then writing and rewriting parts of it, I packed up my gear and relocated down to Asiana’s Business Class Lounge for a quick visit. On ambience alone this is one of my favorite Business Class lounges. I am particularly taken with the colors and the lighting – beige carpet, light gray chairs, lots of wooden fixtures and huge floor to ceiling windows that provide a superb view of the tarmac below. An entire wall of books and local pottery exhibits are a nice touch, as are the small potted trees interspersed amidst the seating areas.



Asiana’s Main Terminal Business Class Lounge at Incheon


Attractive Seating Areas


A great place to relax with a good book between flights


I grabbed a bottle of water, helped myself to a handful of peanuts and then commenced the long walk down to gate 36, the very last gate down the concourse from the main terminal. Along the way I couldn’t help but admire what an impressive and well laid out facility Incheon is. The signage is excellent and there is no shortage of shiny and attractive shops and restaurants to entertain travelers. Next to Changi, this might be my second favorite large Asian airport.

At the gate I strolled over to the windows to check out the view of my aircraft and then paused for a self-portrait of my reflection.



Seat 2A on glass


April 3, 2017
Asiana Airlines Seoul to Sydney 800p – 740a Boeing A330-300 Business Class


When I initially booked this reservation, Asiana’s flight down to Sydney was scheduled to be operated with a 777-200 featuring the carrier’s new Smartium Business Class product. I was really looking forward to checking out the Smartium suites with their well-regarded 180° lie-flat seats as well as logging a flight aboard Asiana’s 777-200, which would have been my sixth different airline flown aboard the shorter 777. Alas, it was not to be.

About a month ago I received a call from Asiana informing me that due to a maintenance situation, the 777-200 originally scheduled to operate my flight would be switched out for an A330. For many passengers, an announcement of this nature would carry no particular gravitas. Amongst those of us who know better however, it was like being told that your suite at the City Center Sheraton had just been substituted for a room at the La Quinta Inn out in the suburbs.

A bit harsh of an analogy, you think? Keep in mind we’re talking about a modern, spacious lie-flat suite versus a pair of angled sleep Business Class seats better suited to daytime runs between Seoul and Beijing than a ten hour overnight flight to Australia. It was a big letdown and I was more than a bit disappointed. Indeed, after that announcement I wasn’t feeling very good about Asiana at all. Two prior experiences with the carrier – including one in First Class between Frankfurt and Seoul - had been little better than average at best. It was hard to believe that Asiana was rated a 5-star airline by SkyTrax. This latest incident did nothing to improve my doubts about Asiana’s overall quality.

Those doubts began to devolve into real misgivings when it was announced that the flight would be thirty minutes late in boarding due to refueling. Grrrr…

When boarding was announced, the process was both orderly and civilized. Most of the passengers in the gate lounge seemed fairly relaxed as I specifically noted that the usual horde that tended to rise and surge at the first mention of boarding was appreciably absent tonight. There wasn’t even a mini-horde! They were all very well behaved. Good on ya, Seoul boarders! ^

I liked this boarding process at Incheon. Once cleared by the gate agents, we took an escalator down through a glassed in area with great views of our colorful A330 waiting for us below. At the door I was met by a cadre of beige clad flight attendants, one of whom split off and escorted me to seat 1G. Seating on Asiana’s A330 is configured 2-2-2 and the beige colored seats were reasonably wide and pleasantly comfortable – at least for sitting. Unfortunately there was no under-seat storage but there was a good 55” or so of seat pitch, more than enough room for my shoes.



Asiana A330 Business Class Seats


I guess I must not have been paying attention but alas, I have no notes as to pre-flight beverages or the usual pre-flight swag handed out by the FA’s. I can assure you though that amenity kits were provided and I’m pretty sure we were offered the usual juice or Champagne to drink. Seatmate showed up – a pleasant looking Asian gentleman who looked at me and sighed in resignation – no conversation to be had on this flight – and then promptly fired up his smart phone and ignored me the rest of the flight. Hey – no problem here – especially if language barriers inhibit any communication whatsoever. Then again, I got by pretty well with the Russian dining car staff!

Menu presentation started on left side of the cabin and by all appearances it looked as if I would be amongst the last to be served, but then – just before pushback – another flight attendant emerged from the galley and serviced our side of the cabin. The menus were quite large – akin to the size of many First Class menus - and featured colorful pictures of food, presumably of a style to be served aboard flights like this. The picture on my menu featured a breaded vegetable and meat something or other and looked sufficiently appetizing to cause me to open my menu right away and check out tonight’s offerings.


DINNER
Seoul to Sydney


KOREAN DELICACIES FROM 8 PROVINCES

Starter

Steamed scallop and mustard dressing
Shiitake mushroom and wild sesame porridge



MAIN COURSE

Grilled Pine Mushroom and Short Rib Patty

Accompanied by steamed rice
Assorted side dishes and soup



DESSERT
Preserved date with syrup “Daechucho” and sweet walnut cookie
Tiramisu cheese cake or fresh fruit

Coffee and Tea



~or~


WESTERN DINNER

Appetizer

Turkey ham with balsamic pearl and baby leaves

Soup
Tomato soup with basil pesto

MAIN COURSES

Grilled Beef Tenderloin Steak

Accented with horseradish sauce

Chorizo Paella and Grilled Prawns

Grilled Peppered Chicken Breast

Accented with blue cheese sauce


AFTERWARDS

Cheese

Blue, Gouda, Camembert

Dessert
Tiramisu, Cheesecake or Fresh Fruit

Coffee and Tea



Also on offer was a refreshments menu available at any time during the flight. For those who just can’t sleep and are still hungry, here ya go!


REFRESHMENTS
Provided upon request at any time during the flight

Sandwiches
Seasonal fresh fruit
Ramen noodles
Warm noodles



WINE LIST

Champagne

Laurent Perrier Brut

White Wine
Aaldering Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Champy Bourgogne Chardonnay 2014


Red Wine
Château Cissac 2012
Noble Vines 667 Pinot Noir 2013
Catena Cabernet Franc 2014


Dessert Wine
Taylor’s 20 year old Tawny Port
Sawmill Creek Vidal Icewine 2015



Spirits
Ballantine’s Scotch Whiskey 17 Years Old
Jack Daniels Whiskey
Smirnoff Vodka
Beefeater’s Gin


Cognac & Liqueur
Camus X.O.
Bailey’s Irish Cream


Beers
OB, Cass, Hite, Max
Heineken, Beck’s, Budweiser



Flight time for this five thousand one hundred and eighty mile long flight Down Under was announced as 10 hours and 3 minutes. Good! The longer, the better! I need my sleep. Our takeoff roll took a surprisingly long 43 seconds, but then we were carrying a lot of people and a lot of fuel.

I should note here that I time the flight duration including the takeoff roll on all of my flights regardless of what the crew initially announces. I’ve been doing it for years primarily because I want an accurate entry (rounded to the nearest 10 minutes ) for my personal flight log. As anyone who flies a lot knows, a lot of things can affect the projected flight time – routing diversions due to weather and holding patterns being two of the more common examples. And while it’s true the takeoff is not technically flight per se – as long as I’m timing, why not check out the takeoff roll as well? The results can sometimes be interesting, as in six seconds on a Twin Otter or twenty-one seconds aboard a DC-10 – out of mile high Denver no less!



Route of flight between Seoul and Sydney


We were 33 minutes into the flight before drink orders were taken. However, once the service began in earnest my doubts about Asiana began to evaporate as the service offered from that point on was very good indeed. This included crew with the ability to speak and understand English, a definite weak point from my two previous experiences with Asiana. Tonight, at least two of the crew spoke very passable English, one of them as well as if she’d been born and raised in the U.S.

Now before any of you get your knickers in a knot and go branding me the Ugly American who demands English be spoken well everywhere, remember that this is a flight operating to an English speaking nation that’s not particularly renowned for the ability of its citizenry to get by in languages other than English. Add to that the fact that English skills or lack thereof amongst Asiana’s premium class cabin crews has been noted in more than a couple of reviews. Who knows? Fifty years from now, Chinese may be the lingua franca amongst the world’s business and leisure travelers but for the time being it’s English and so it behooves any airline that strives to be considered amongst the world’s best to have a few cabin crew that are reasonably proficient.

I was fortunate. The gal working my side of the cabin sounded as if she’d been raised in Omaha. Thankfully she was also very patient as I vacillated a bit between the Korean dinner and the Western dinner. I have ordered Korean meals twice before inflight – in both cases a very tasty Bibimbap (a bit of everything mixed in a bowl with rice) – but tonight the idea of a meat patty for dinner did not prove sufficiently mouthwatering to sway me toward the local fare.

Were it earlier in the day I’d have chosen the tenderloin if only because of the horseradish sauce. I love horseradish! Still, red meat has a tendency to sit heavy in my stomach for a couple of hours after a meal, making sleep afterwards difficult. With the time approaching 9:00p, I decided to request the chicken with the blue cheese sauce instead.

Our tables were efficiently set with shockingly white linen, a triangular bread plate, a butter dish, salt and pepper shakers and a small bottle of oil and balsamic vinegar. As no proper salad was listed on the menu, I assumed this must’ve been for the bread – a good looking bolillo style roll. Drinks were delivered shortly thereafter, accompanied by a small dish of oddly crunchy nuts.

Jack Daniels isn’t my favorite whiskey – that’d be Bookers – but it’s been a reliable and good tasting fall back selection that I’ve enjoyed on airlines all over the world. Ah… it sure was nice to take that first icy cold pull, recline my seat a bit and settle in for the good looking meal soon to be served.



JD and mixed nuts – A tried and trusted start to many a flight


The appetizer was delivered shortly thereafter. While I can’t say that a few slices of turkey ham rates as one of my favorite appetizers, the plate as presented was certainly one of the most colorful with an artistically placed collection of bright green “baby leaves”, orange tangerine slices, black olives, whitish radishes and red cherry tomato halves. The balsamic vinaigrette added a nice tang to the flavors of it all.



Turkey ham with balsamic pearl and baby leaves


Who doesn’t like tomato soup? Add to that a dollop of pesto and you’ve got a real winner. My only complaint with this course was that the portion wasn’t larger. Delicious!



Tomato soup with basil pesto


Alright then… bring on the main course! Service had started a few minutes earlier on the other side of the cabin, so I watched with envy as several great looking meals passed by. Seatmate had ordered the Korean meal of which I thought the steamed scallop and mustard dressing appetizer was the best part. The mushroom and short rib patty looked pretty good too – it was a decently sized portion – but when my plate was delivered I was thankful I’d ordered the chicken.



Grilled Peppered Chicken Breast
Accented with blue cheese sauce


I like that Asiana serves its long distance Business Class meals on plates. In overall presentation this looks much more appetizing and stylish than having the meal squeezed into one of those little rectangular dishes much as you’d see were you seated somewhere behind the curtain.

For those who like their meat on the moist side, chicken is usually a pretty safe bet. I’ve had a couple exceptions – the worst having been served aboard an Ozark Airlines flight back in the late seventies. That “meal” is still burned into my memory like a recurring nightmare. It took actual strength to saw through the chicken with the little metal airline knife provided and then I had to chew really hard, much like a dog gnawing on a piece of rawhide. No amount of gravy could’ve helped that meat.

Tonight’s meal on the other hand was very nice with moist, tender chicken and a fairly tasty sauce that reminded me more of a mild Béchamel sauce than the more pungent flavor I’d been expecting from the blue cheese base. A few more vegetables would’ve also been nice but overall, a decent plate of food.

Asiana certainly deserves serious consideration for providing possibly the nicest Business Class cheese plate that I have ever been served. Not only were the cheeses varied and flavorful but they were accompanied by 20 Year Old Taylor’s Tawny Port. How many airlines offer 20 year old port to their passengers? First Class, Asiana! First Class!



Cheese service with Taylor’s 20 Year Old Port


Tiramisu Dessert


Tiramisu is a popular premium class dessert and – regardless of where it’s served – I must say I’ve never met a tiramisu I didn’t like. Tonight’s version as cooked up in Asiana’s Seoul flight kitchen was not as intricately constructed nor delicately flavored as some tiramisus I’ve been served aloft, but it went down well with a cup of surprisingly good decaf. I brought this meal to a satisfying close with a glass of 21 Year Old Chivas Regal.

And to think that some people don’t like to fly…

A glance at the sky map indicated that we had a little less than 8 hours left in the flight. Strange though it may sound, I wouldn’t mind if we had another couple of hours beyond that. The logic behind this seemingly illogical sentiment is this: I’ve just finished dinner; it’d be nice to have a couple of hours to digest, relax, maybe watch a movie... then try to knock off six or seven hours of sleep, awaking in time to take full advantage of a leisurely breakfast without having to rush it for cabin clean up.

As it is, food tends to energize me – at least initially – so I won’t be looking to sleep for another hour or so at least, which leaves about six to six and a half hours until we land. That’s assuming I fall asleep right away. If I want breakfast – which I do – then I’ll only have about four and a half to five hours to sleep. Mind you, we’re not talking Simmons Beautyrest® quality sleep here either. We’re talking older angled lie-flat seating “quality” sleep. These seats are definitely not the best for sleeping - unless you’re drunk. Maybe that’s what I ought to do! Nah – not my style. Plus, alcohol – particularly bourbon, has an odd effect on me with regard to sleep. Have a glass or two – no problem. Have three or four glasses and it affects the quality of my sleep. I’ve learned from past experience that this effect seems to be exacerbated on airplanes. So – it’s either be reasonable and have one or two drinks or go whole hog and have eight or nine, in which case I won’t have to worry about sleep because I’ll be unconscious. On a positive note however, I would be able to enjoy wheelchair assistance off the plane.

I started out on my back but woke numerous times to reposition myself. Finally I managed to turn on my side and that worked out the best, allowing me to knock off about three hours of pretty good sleep in addition to the two hours of fitful sleep I’d gotten on my back. It’s a good thing I was sat on the bulkhead at row 1. As a six footer, I really appreciated the few inches of extra space relative to the regular seats because my feet were right up against the wall.

Perhaps it was the distinctive sounds and smells of the breakfast service that awakened me from my slumber, but either way I was thankful to have awoken in time to check out Asiana’s breakfast service. I know, I know – it seems silly as I could just as easily get breakfast at the lounge in Sydney and sleep another hour or so. As a longtime aficionado of premium class inflight catering however, I hate to miss a main meal offering. I mean, I get to sleep every day. It’s not every day I get to fly in international Business Class aboard one of the world’s leading airlines. So, I’ll sleep in the airport or later today if I need it.

Now then, let’s have a look at that breakfast menu -


BREAKFAST

Fresh Fruit
Yogurt


MAIN COURSES

Cheese Ravioli and Sautéed Spinach

[i]With spicy tomato sauce

Scrambled Eggs with Tomatoes
Served with sausage

Korean Rice Porridge
With edible shoots of a fatsia and beef


Selection of Breakfast Bread
Croissant, Brioche and Danish
Butter and Jam

Coffee and Tea



I didn’t need to look over the menu for long. This was an easy choice for me. Rainforest Alliance Coffee and orange juice got the morning off to a good start followed by:



Fruit Plate starter


Scrambled Eggs



Though omelets and fried eggs would be my preferred choices, the scrambled egg plate was pretty good, especially with the addition of potatoes, asparagus, a mushroom and half a kielbasa. Even the croissant was as flaky as it was buttery. What’s not shown in the above picture is the packet of Cholula hot sauce that I employed to spice up the eggs.

No – Asiana does not provide Cholula on its flights. However, I always travel with a batch of condiments in a zip lock baggie. I started the practice a few years ago when we were served a sandwich without any mustard or mayonnaise. Since then, I’ve put together an enviable collection of meal enhancement packets such as Grey Poupon mustard, Boars Head Horseradish Sauce, Asian Hot Sauce, Tabasco Sauce, Cholula Hot Sauce, Soy Sauce, Salt & Pepper, Coffee Creamer and Sugar. The baggie takes up very little space and its contents occasionally contribute substantially to the quality of my inflight catering. Especially Bloody Mary’s. I like mine on the spicy side.

After breakfast I got up and took my customary lap around the plane. As unpleasant as I may make those angled lie-flat seats sound, my stroll back into the nether regions of the A330 clearly showed that many of my fellow passengers were ensconced in much less comfortable surroundings. Again, I was reminded of how easy it is to get caught up in the world of Premium Class travel, enjoying its comfort and service to the point where you so easily forget that only a mere twenty feet behind you sit a couple hundred of your fellow citizens in decidedly less comfortable surroundings.

Not that I’m feeling guilty, mind you. There’s a lot to be said for those who have either earned the requisite funds to afford such extravagance or – like me – have figured out how to get a seat up here for considerably less than the full fare charged. I take a small amount of solace in the fact that I am very likely the only guy sitting up in the pointy end of the plane who drives a bus for a living and lives in a cabin in the forest without running water. In Alaska.

It would have been a nice day for a window seat as our descent into Sydney was through clear blue skies and abundant sunshine. The flight crew brought our big A330 down soft as a feather, after which we made short work of the taxi to our gate. Flight time was two minutes off the original projection and our arrival time was spot on – right on time.

This was my third flight aboard Asiana – two in Business and one in First. In terms of overall service, this flight was the best of the three with the cabin crew doing a great job, fully deserving of Asiana’s 5-star ranking amongst the world’s best airlines. I look forward to flying with Asiana again – hopefully next time in the airline’s Smartium Business Class.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 3:12 pm
  #14  
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April 4, 2017
Air New Zealand Sydney to Auckland 1150a – 455p Boeing 787-9 Business Premier Class


With a four hour layover in Sydney, I was looking first and foremost for a shower. I live in a cool, dry climate and I must admit that my passages through these Asian airports have not been particularly comfortable. While my fellow travelers have never seemed all that bothered by the humidity, I definitely am.

You know those advertising cards you see in airports and hotels? You know the ones – they’re about 9” tall and 4” wide. I keep a couple of the stiffer ones in my jacket pocket with their primary purpose being as a fan. So, if you should see a good looking guy with a well-kept beard and a tweed cap furiously fanning himself in the gate lounge, c’mon over and say hello. I have a couple extra cards with me and if you wish, you’d be welcome to add to the breeze while we shoot the breeze.

I was well aware that Air New Zealand had a highly regarded Business Class lounge here at Sydney’s Kingsford-Smith International Airport, and my original intent was to head over there straightaway. As I followed the signs and approached the lounge complex however, I took note of the Singapore Airlines Silver Kris Lounge located right next door to Air New Zealand’s Business Class Lounge.

Well now, I’ve never met a Silver Kris Lounge I didn’t like and as my United Club Card would grant me access to any Star Alliance lounge so long as I was flying aboard a Star Alliance carrier that day, I figured why not pay a visit to the Silver Kris lounge first?

Why not indeed? Minutes later I was stripped down and enjoying a quality deluge underneath one of the Silver Kris lounge’s two available showers. The facility was small but well-furnished and perhaps most importantly had a good working fan that wicked most of the residual humidity out of the shower room. I’ll never forget last year’s debacle at Emirates’ Brisbane lounge where due to the lack of a fan combined with the residual humidity of Brisbane proper, I could never get completely dry after I stepped out of the shower!

Emerging from the shower suite – freshly attired in a bright yellow oxford button down and a pair of Dockers slacks - I strolled into the lounge, stowed my luggage and wandered over to the buffet area. Seating areas were abundant and the buffet island was well stocked with a variety of tasty looking food items. Check it out!



Singapore’s Silver Kris Lounge at Sydney


Buffet Island at Singapore Airlines’ SYD Lounge


Buffet Island at Singapore Airlines’ SYD Lounge


Salad Bar at Singapore Airlines’ SYD Lounge


It all looked so good but having just had breakfast on the inbound flight, I limited myself to coffee and a Danish along with a copy of that morning’s Australian. (Newspaper) After a half hour or so, I gathered my gear and headed next door to Air New Zealand’s lounge.

Now this lounge is quite a bit larger with an equally nice spread of foods - and – it included a bar! Truth be known, I’m sure alcohol was available somewhere in Singapore’s lounge, but there’s a lot to be said for a proper bar where you can take a stool and join your fellow passengers in a drink and perhaps even a bit of shared excitement over life and travels. Then again, it was 10:00am – a bit early for alcoholic entertainment – and so the bar sat empty. I’ll have to come back here at Happy Hour sometime.



Comfortable seating at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


The bar at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


The buffet at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


The buffet at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


The buffet at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


The buffet at Air New Zealand’s SYD Lounge


I have a real weakness for finger foods so when an announcement was made that boarding for NZ 104 to Auckland was delayed by 20 minutes, I figured what the heck - let’s go check out the buffet island. An enticing array of wraps was available, so I selected three – one of which I later wrapped in a napkin and stashed in my daypack – a decision that would prove costly upon arrival in New Zealand. More on that later…

At 11:45am I gathered my gear and made my way across the busy commons to the concourse where my 787-9 awaited. This is the third of five 787 flights that comprise this overall itinerary, each of them on different airlines. As with any new aircraft type upon which I’ve logged less than ten flights, I was excited to get on board and check out Air New Zealand’s version. Boarding was already in progress and, as there wasn’t a good view of the aircraft to be had from the gate, I made my way over to the Premium Class lane and headed onboard.

As I made my way to the pointy end of the plane, I passed through an attractive Premium Economy cabin. The good looking black leather recliners were arranged in a 2-3-2 configuration with a 41” pitch between seats. Scoot Airlines would do well to trade out its hard stiff seats and emulate this arrangement in its ScootBiz cabins. I was impressed!

Moving on into the Business Premier cabin, I was presented with a narrow pathway through molded seat pod ottomans that extended into the aisles. The 22 seats were arranged in a herringbone pattern, configured 1-1-1 with seats along the cabin walls facing inward – away from the windows. I was sat in 3K and, after stowing my roll-a-bord in the spacious overhead bin, handed off my jacket to a passing flight attendant, kicked off my shoes and settled into my new home for the next three hours.



Air New Zealand’s 787-9 Business Class seating
Photo courtesy of Australian Business Traveller


Air New Zealand’s 787-9 Business Class seating


Air New Zealand’s 787-9 Business Class seating


These seats are certainly comfortable enough but beyond that I can’t find much good to say about them. First off, there’s no sense of spaciousness to these seats because you’re surrounded by walls of molded off white plastic. These side walls are right up on you to the point where your left side arm rest is recessed right into the wall. The seat controls are at your side but literally right at your side, i.e. your torso, making their access a bit awkward. The only under seat storage is under the ottoman. It’s fine for a pair of shoes but a day pack with laptop, etc. will have to go in the overhead. Finally, these seats face way from the 787’s nice big windows. Even a casual turn of the head will not afford you a view out the windows. You must contort considerably at the waist or get up, turn around and then look out the window. Meanwhile, when you’re sat in your seat facing “forward”, you’ve got a clear view of multiple passengers across from you. I could see the faces of five different passengers from my seat and the complete bodies of three. Privacy is minimal.



”Communal Seating” aboard Air New Zealand’s 787-9 Business Class


In short, per my opinion at least, Air New Zealand has taken a perfectly good forward cabin and mucked it up quite poorly. Many other airlines such as Qatar Airways, Air Canada or Qantas offer nicer, more spacious seating in their 787 business class cabins.

Although I may not think highly of Air New Zealand’s new Business Premier seat, the same cannot be said for Air New Zealand’s service which – from check-in to baggage collection – has always been top flight in every respect. Today’s service was as good as ever, starting with a pre-flight offering of nicely chilled orange juice.



Orange juice welcome aboard Air New Zealand’s Business Class


Menus had been placed at each seat prior to our arrival, so as I sat and sipped my orange juice I took a moment to consider this flight’s luncheon offerings.


LUNCHEON
Sydney to Auckland

TO BEGIN

Seared Venison with Kumara Salad
Pickled red onion and hickory mayonnaise
~or~
Salmon Gravlax with Cucumber and Quinoa Salad
Horseradish and crème fraiche dressing

From The Bakery
Rosemary sourdough loaf, black and white sesame seed loaf, garlic bread and rye rolls


MAIN COURSES

Chinese Style Black Vinegar Prawns

With spicy bamboo shoots, pak choy rice, broccolini and black mushrooms

Slow Roasted Pork Belly
With caramelized red cabbage, mustard seed mash, sage and onion relish with apple cider jus

Sweet Paprika Chicken Salad
With toasted corn, kumara, cos lettuce and avocado chipotle mayonnaise


TO FINISH

Gourmet Affagato Ice Cream
Topped with chocolate sauce and chocolate crumbs

Kaffir Lime and Coconut Panna Cotta
Served with mango and gogi berry and macadamia praline

Fine New Zealand Cheese
served with quince paste and cracker selection


Hmm… very nice, very nice indeed… Interestingly, Air New Zealand does not provide a traditional wine list for its trans-Tasman flights. The Champagne is listed as either Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Reserve or NV Billecart-Salmon Brut. Beyond that, for further details on the wines served onboard today we are directed to ask the flight attendants

As I savored the rest of my juice, the remainder of my fellow passengers made their way onto the aircraft. By the time the doors were finally closed, we were full up in the forward cabin. The safety video – featuring a combination of Air New Zealand staff and well-known New Zealanders – was played and a casual glance about the cabin revealed that most of the passengers were actually watching it.

Once we’d leveled off at 36000’ above the Tasman Sea, the service began in earnest. The crew working the Business Premier cabin looked to have attained a good bit of seniority with the airline, the youngest appearing to be in her late 30s. Like a fine wine, they’d aged well however. Friendly, chipper and helpful in an anticipatory rather than responsive way – they were simply excellent throughout the flight.

Meal requests were taken in order of elite status, though everything was still available when it came my time to order. After the flight attendant assured me that the beer was always cold on Air New Zealand, I requested a Steinlager to start, followed by the salmon appetizer and the pork belly main. The beer was delivered in short order, accompanied by a small dish of roasted almonds. I’m so used to drinking Steinies out of the bottle that it felt a bit weird to drink this one from a glass but then we are in a quality Business Class where drinking beer straight from the bottle might be considered a tad gauche, not to mention potentially dangerous.

As I savored the fairly cold beer and awaited the start of the meal service, I took a moment to reminisce back to my very first flight with Air New Zealand. It was a warm July evening back in 1981 – thirty-six years ago. I had an industry discounted First Class ticket from Los Angeles to Papeete aboard Air New Zealand’s beautiful two-tone blue and white DC-10. Departure time was 8:00pm – the perfect time to jet off into the sunset headed for a South Pacific paradise. Add to that the fact that Air New Zealand’s First Class had developed a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest in the industry along with my traveling to Tahiti for the very first time and I could not have been more excited!

On board the DC-10, the big lamb’s wool covered seats looked wide and deep enough to take me to the moon. Although we were still a few years away from the introduction of 180° lie-flat seating, those big teal colored recliners still featured an impressive recline and a full length leg rest. They were exceptionally comfortable.

Dinner was a seven course affair starting with the presentation of canapés from atop a silver tray. Service was from the trolley and I remember the salad being tossed in a large glass bowl and the soup being served from a large colorful tureen. By the time I’d eaten my appetizer of John Dory in a mustard sauce, I was already starting to feel full. Chateaubriand for dinner, Baked Alaska for dessert, fine cheese and Port afterwards – that meal remains one of the best I’ve ever been served aloft.

Over the past 36 years I’ve been fortunate to have logged another 27 flights aboard Air New Zealand, including one in First Class aboard one of its early 747-219Bs with the wonderful first generation Recaro cradle recliners. Sadly, Air New Zealand discontinued its First Class service in the late 1990s but for those of us who were fortunate enough to have flown it, I think we’d all agree TE’s First Class was as classy as any in the industry and definitely better than most.

I was interrupted from my reverie by the arrival of the flight attendant bearing crisp white table linens in preparation for the meal service soon to follow. Service was from the cart and shortly I was presented a tray bearing my salmon and quinoa appetizer along with the usual meal related accoutrements. A bountiful bread basket was presented and soon I was in possession of two well-buttered slices of garlic bread.



Salmon gravlax with cucumber and quinoa salad, horseradish and crème fraiche dressing


It certainly didn’t take long to polish off the salmon, some of which I placed atop a slice of garlic bread with a generous spread of the horseradish cream. Sheer decadence! That’s an appetizer I’m going to have to make at home sometime. It was even better when I switched out my beer for a glass of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s famed Marlborough Sound.

Alright then – bring on the pork belly! While this dish may not sound all that appetizing to some, it is one of the few meat dishes that is hard (though not impossible) to overcook. This afternoon’s rendition was as tender as they come and what it lacked in presentation it more than made up for in texture and flavor. The sage and onion relish had a lot to do with that and the mustard seed mash made for a wonderful accompaniment to the flavor of the pork.



Pork Belly with caramelized red cabbage, mustard seed mash, sage and onion relish and apple cider jus


For dessert I chose the Kaffir lime and coconut panna cotta with mango and gogi berry and macadamia praline, a dessert that tasted every bit as good as it rolls off the tongue to say, much less read. Go ahead – read it again. Doesn’t that sound delicious? I assure you it was, as was the delightful glass of dessert wine that I accompanied it with.



Kaffir lime and coconut panna cotta with mango and gogi berry and macadamia praline


Flight time between Sydney and Auckland was a mere two hours and forty some odd minutes, so by the time the last of the luncheon trays were cleared off there wasn’t much more than an hour or so to check out the inflight entertainment offerings.

Air New Zealand’s 787s feature high-definition 11” touchscreens in Business Class that are very easy to understand and operate. My only complaint is that in the tight confines of the Business Class suite they are housed at your side – right beside your arm – so unless you’ve actually pulled the screen out and extended it, casual watching is difficult as you have to turn your head directly to your side and a tad behind. This became an issue when I tried to work on my laptop and have the screen out in front of me at the same time.

As for the content, there’s the usual impressive assortment of movies and music. Honestly, I’m probably not the best person to review content because when it comes to watching movies I’d rather wait until I get home to watch them on my big screen (although I’ll occasionally make an exception when flying First Class on Emirates with its 30” screens) and as for music, my own personal tastes so rarely mesh with any of the popular schlock offered on most airlines that I’d just as soon plug into my own laptop where a far more preferable assortment of songs are available.

One interesting aspect of the new IFE was the crew call button which not only allowed you to summon a flight attendant to your seat but also to specify what it was you’d like, such as food or drink directly from the onscreen menu.

The approach into Auckland can be pretty on a sunny day but alas, today was not one of them. Grey storm clouds blanketed the region making for a bumpy ride as we descended over the Tasman Sea. The pilots managed to bring our big bird in easily though, touching down softly and braking smoothly before turning on to a taxiway and heading for a spot in the remote parking lot.

I hate remote parking - except when flying on airlines like Malindo and Batik Air that have special vans waiting on the tarmac to whisk their Business Class passengers directly into the central terminal, well ahead of everyone else. Unfortunately, Air New Zealand does not provide this perk for its Premier Class passengers and so down the covered stairway we trod and through a steady rain onto a pair of waiting busses. Upon reaching the terminal we commenced the long walk to immigration and customs. If you’re going to be driven to the terminal off an international flight, why can’t they drop you off closer to immigration?

For most visitors, coming into New Zealand is no different nor any more challenging than arriving in most any other western country. One big difference however is New Zealand’s biological inspection criteria. New Zealand has real concerns about foreign organisms getting into New Zealand with the potential to wreak havoc with the local ecosystem. Arrival forms very clearly describe what can and cannot be brought into New Zealand. Visitors are required to tick all the appropriate boxes and then sign their name attesting to the fact that they’re not bringing any contraband foodstuffs or other organisms into the country.

I did all of this, and when asked at immigration if I was certain that I hadn’t brought any food into the country I said I had not. Upon passing through the Nothing to Declare lane, I turned in my signed arrivals form and my luggage was x-rayed. Then I was free to exit into the arrivals area – but not before rolling my luggage past a nice friendly looking dog specially trained to detect food and perhaps other items.

Oooh – what a nice looking doggie! Hmm… he seems to have taken an interest in my daypack. I wonder what’s got his attention? The uniformed Ministry for Primary Industries officer handling the dog escorted me over to a side table whereupon she commenced a thorough inspection of my daypack as well as my roll-a-bord.

A-HA! There it is! Remember that little beef and veggie wrap from the lounge in Sydney that I’d wrapped up earlier in the day to enjoy later on the flight? I had totally forgotten about it, both on the plane and at immigration and customs. Until now, that is. Unfortunately, now was a bit too late.

Stern faces abounded on everyone present and I was next escorted over to a small office and told to wait until another Ministry for Primary Industries officer showed up to speak with me. Meanwhile the contraband slice of beef and veggie wrap was taken over to a large, cumbersome looking machine where it was subjected to a variety of tests. I watched from a distance while awaiting the ministry official. When he did show up, he asked me why I’d not mentioned that I had any food with me.

“I’m sorry, I totally forgot.” I replied.
“Even though you filled out the form attesting otherwise and were then asked about it at least twice afterwards?” he pressed.
“Uh, yes… that’s right.” I replied sheepishly.

It would have been different had I actually purchased the food somewhere – I would have remembered that – but a spur of the moment decision to toss a 3/4 inch wide slice of a beef and veggie wrap into my pack simply didn’t register for some reason. I don’t usually have food in my pack except stuff that’s packaged such as some cookies from my airline meal or some crackers from an airline lounge. But in this instance, I’d just totally forgotten about it and had no real excuse except perhaps that I’d been traveling/flying over the past 25 hours with only about 4-5 hours of intermittent sleep - the result being that my normally razor sharp mental acuity had been rendered sluggish by it all. It did not occur to me to mention this last part to the ministries officer however.

In any event, the fact that I hadn’t mentioned the food – regardless of why or how small it was – was viewed as a false declaration on my arrivals card. That is punishable by a $400.00 NZD fine. That’s about $285.00 USD. As for excuses, I’m sure these Ministry officers have heard them all and they’re not particularly sympathetic – at least mine wasn’t. As such I was fined the $400.00 with the option of paying on the spot or paying within two weeks. I also had the option to appeal though I was informed by the Ministries officer that “forgetfulness” doesn’t generally carry much weight with the appeals board. I opted to pay the fine on the spot.

Though my transgression was totally innocent in nature, I totally agree with what New Zealand is trying to protect here. It’s a beautiful country with a unique and fragile ecosystem that I’ve enjoyed firsthand via many hikes along its scenic South Island tracks. With so many visitors coming in from all over the world, New Zealand is right to take steps to protect its resources - including fining forgetful visitors. So – while at the end of the day I wasn’t happy about the unplanned expense, I chalked it up as a lesson worth remembering. I’ll be a lot more careful next time I come into New Zealand or any other country with similar concerns.

Out in the arrivals area, I picked up some colorful New Zealand currency and caught a bus into the city. My hotel for the night was the Ramada City Suites, paid for with points from my burgeoning Wyndham Rewards account. As a Platinum level member well on my way to Diamond status, I really need to start redeeming some of those points.

As nice as it would have been to spend a bit of time in New Zealand, my award ticket didn’t allow it. As it was, I’ve been to New Zealand about a dozen times and while I look forward to future visits, the driving rain courtesy of Tropical Storm Debbie left me feeling fortunate that I’d be heading north to warm and sunny Fiji tomorrow.
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Old Jun 14, 17, 3:15 pm
  #15  
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Join Date: Apr 2001
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Posts: 9,628
April 5, 2017
Air New Zealand Auckland to Nadi 945a – 1245p Boeing 777-200 Business Premier Class


I generally like to employ public transit or inexpensive communal transport whenever feasible because the savings over taking a taxi are considerable and - on a long trip like this – it really pays to watch my budget. In Auckland a company called SkyBus provides transport between the city center and the airport for about $17.00 NZD. I remember when they used to do door-to-door service but alas, no more. Their drop off/pick-up point was about a ten block walk from my hotel. Due to the heavy rain last night, I took a taxi from there to the hotel. The idea of doing so again at 6:30 this morning and then waiting in the wind and rain for the bus held little appeal to me. The front desk clerk volunteered that he could get me a flat rate taxi to the airport for $45.00 NZD, allowing me to sleep in and depart the hotel an hour later. Book it, Danno! Sometimes convenience is worth the extra expense.

Air New Zealand has a special check in zone for its Business Premier passengers. It’s not a counter but rather a comfortable room staffed by a bevy of helpful ladies - one of whom greeted me warmly, processed my reservation and had me on my way through to security and immigration quickly and efficiently.

On my way to Air New Zealand’s lounge, I stopped by one of the many duty free stores to check out the price on a bottle of Jack Daniels. Oh My God! I can get this bottle for about $15.00 USD cheaper back home in Alaska! Okay, so we’re talking 1 liter versus 750 ml. but still… I held on to my wallet and decided to take my chances on a better price in Fiji.

As one would expect from an airline of Air New Zealand’s caliber, its International Business Class lounge at its home base in Auckland is very nice indeed for all the usual reasons – comfy seating, good selection of foods, a bar, showers, etc. I hadn’t had anything to eat yet, so I was thankful for the well-stocked breakfast buffet that included an impressive array of continental breakfast items as well as a hot buffet featuring scrambled eggs, sausage, beans and a couple other items I can’t recall at the moment, possibly because I limited myself to some fruit, muesli and a Danish in anticipation of the full luncheon service to be offered on the flight to Fiji.



Comfy seating in Air New Zealand’s Business Class lounge at Auckland


Food service area with buffet islands


Fruit & Muesli station


A nicely stocked but not very busy bar at 9:00am


Leaving the lounge a bit earlier than usual, I arrived at the gate with plenty of time to check out and admire the airplane doing the honors for our 1,340 mile flight north to Fiji this morning. Meet ZK-OKB, an eleven and a half year old 777-219ER that looked very nice in the blue and white livery it had worn since its delivery to Air New Zealand back in August of 2005.



Air New Zealand’s 777-219ER


Back in 2013 Air New Zealand unveiled a new black and white livery. The rear fuselage and tail are painted black with a large stylized fern leaf sweeping up from behind the wings. The famous koru logo, introduced in 1973, remains on the tail. The connection with the country’s famous “All Blacks” national rugby team is obvious and indeed, ANZ has in fact painted two aircraft in an “All Black" livery as a tribute to the team.



Air New Zealand’s new livery on a 787-9


While the current black and white livery is indeed eye-catching, I cannot say I am a fan of it. Just my personal tastes here, but when I think of colors that represent New Zealand the country as a whole; blue, green and white come to mind. White for Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand which translates to Land of the long white cloud. Blue for the Pacific Ocean that surrounds this island nation, and green for the country’s lush green rainforests that are home to the country’s iconic fern leaf logo. My favorite livery was the 1973 version that was introduced with the arrival of the DC-10s. Perhaps someday Air New Zealand might see fit to paint a retro-jet.

Onboard the 777, I settled in at seat 3A while sipping orange juice and perusing a copy of that morning’s New Zealand Herald. Though the Business Class seating configuration appears identical to that on the 787, for some reason this seat feels just a wee bit more spacious.



Seating aboard Air New Zealand’s 777-219ER


Following a short taxi out to Runway 5R, the captain put the coals to his pair of Rolls Royce Trent 892s and off we went, soaring into the mostly cloudy grey skies above Auckland, bound for the warm blue skies above Fiji.



Turning onto AKL’s Runway 05R


Two older gentlemen handled the service in the forward cabin this morning, and both could not have provided a more efficient and gracious service. Larry handled the duties on my side of the cabin and got things started with a delicious Bloody Mary. As for my luncheon order, let’s have a look at today’s menu:


LUNCHEON
Auckland to Nadi

TO BEGIN

Lemon Olive Oil Marinated Prawns

Presented with escabeche vegetable salad and saffron mayonnaise
~or~
Five Spiced Chicken with Yoghurt and Mango Dressing
Toasted coconut, grilled pineapple and radicchio salad

From The Bakery
Rosemary sourdough loaf, black and white sesame seed loaf, garlic bread and rye rolls


MAIN COURSES

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken Thigh

With parmesan polenta, roasted pumpkin and steamed spinach with salsa rossa

Slow Cooked Beef Cheek in Stout
With potato and cream gratin, honey rosemary carrots and gherkin Dijon mustard mash

Hot Smoked Salmon Salad
With cos, edamame, green peas and nam prik num dressing



I started with a plate of Five Spiced Chicken with Yoghurt and Mango Dressing. This dish tasted every bit as good as it looked, especially with the addition of a couple pieces of warmed garlic bread and a glass of New Zealand Chardonnay.



Five Spiced Chicken with Yoghurt and Mango Dressing


Next up came the main course of Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken Thigh. Talk about a good looking presentation - check this dish out!



Five Spiced Chicken with Yoghurt and Mango Dressing


As you might expect, this chicken was delicious! Moist, tender, flavorful – all of the catch words typically used to describe a well cooked meal could be checked off here. Nicely done, Air New Zealand!

Dessert? Why not? Larry took a moment to describe the two choices, but here’s how they were presented per the menu:


TO FINISH

Gourmet dessert of fig and honey ice cream

With wild berry and pistachio meringue

Callebaut white chocolate mousse cake
With dark cherry and vanilla compote

Fine New Zealand cheese
Served with quince paste and cracker selection


We’d never see these kinds of choices on a three hour flight in the U.S. Last month I flew First Class between Chicago and Seattle aboard a well-regarded U.S. airline and we received no appetizer, no choice of main course and only a pre-wrapped lemon brownie for dessert. That flight was about 400 miles longer and one hour longer than this one.

Of course I’m dating myself here when I say I grew up in an era where the quality of the meal was once commensurate to the length of the flight – especially in First Class. Now that approximately 65% of all passengers sitting in First Class on domestic U.S. flights are there due to inexpensive or complimentary upgrades, the meal quality – or lack thereof – is reflective of the drop in income once generated in the First Class cabin. Most of us quite literally are getting what we paid for. Loyalty has nothing to do with it. Those who pay full fare on U.S. airlines just have to suffer the consequences of this new reality.

I get the sense that most flyers in the U.S. market don’t really care one way or the other about airline food anymore. Certainly, that might not be true for those of you at a site like FlyerTalk who take the time to look at or read these trip reports of which food pictures and/or descriptions have always been a major component. Amongst American flyers as a whole however, surveys would seem to indicate that inflight meal service rates pretty low. Mostly we’re happy taking our free or reduced rate upgrades at the expense of a nicer meal service. Quite possibly so would flyers down in this part of the world if they had that choice. As it is, unless you’re on an award ticket, complimentary upgrades to Business Class are few and far between down here.

Larry waited patiently while I considered the options… I had the fancy dessert yesterday, so let’s keep it simple and go with the ice cream today. The potentially smaller size of this dessert might also allow me to check out the cheese plate afterwards. Which I did along with a cup of coffee and Baileys. Deeeee – licious!



Fig and honey ice cream


Fine New Zealand cheese
Served with quince paste and cracker selection


After the last detritus of the meal had been cleared away, I took a stroll back to the lav located behind the Business Premier cabin. These lavs are shared with the folks in the Premium Economy cabin, which on this flight was only about 25% occupied. Like the 787, the seating configuration was 2-3-2 and – unlike the herringbone arrangement that faced away from the windows in Business Premier, here one could enjoy a comfortable seat right alongside a window. As such, I took a moment to sit down in an empty seat and check out the view.

The first thing I noticed was that this seat was every bit as comfortable – if not more comfortable – than my suite up in Business Premier. True, it doesn’t go flat but for a three hour day time flight such as this little run up to Fiji, I think it’s the superior accommodation. It definitely offers a better view. The Pacific’s a big vast body of water and to look out over it on a warm autumn afternoon was a very calming and indeed pacific moment.



Afternoon delight over the Pacific


I so enjoyed the view and the moment that I asked the flight attendants if they’d mind if I relocated to one of the many empty window seats for the remainder of the flight. They seemed a bit taken aback at first but when I explained the logic behind my request particularly with regard to enjoying the view, they all concurred and couldn’t have been more helpful in asking if I’d like to relocate any of my personal carry-on items as well. Not necessary, I replied. I’m in no hurry once we get to Nadi. I’ll just head back up front to retrieve them after we land.

Touchdown at Nadi International was nice and smooth. As we taxied into the gate I took particular notice of a 737-800 wearing the good looking livery of Fiji Airways. That’s an airplane I’d like to fly aboard someday – in Business Class aboard the early evening departure between Nadi and Honolulu. Stay tuned for that in a future trip report…

As for Fiji, it was great to be back! After clearing customs, I stopped by the duty free store where a liter of Jack Daniels was priced at just $28.00 USD. Yes, Sir! I’ll take one to go! Making my way over to the International check-in area, I shelled out $14.00 USD for a bus ticket for the 140 mile ride to Pacific Harbour. I’d be spending the next six days there at the Uprising Beach Resort.

Last edited by Seat 2A; Jun 14, 17 at 3:42 pm
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