Mongolia, a land of contrasts and blue skies

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Last week I had the privilege to visit Mongolia, a country that I now know is blessed with beauty and kindness. I’m jumping ahead a bit, I have wonderful things to say about Punta Cana, Basel and Amsterdam as well, and stories to tell about Tunisia. I visited all of them before Mongolia but I’m so excited about this exotic destination, I just can’t hold it in. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is just one layover away from Helsinki, and many other European cities. The flight time wasn’t bad, 2+6,5 hours but with a 7-hour layover in Moscow – I’ll write more about my experiences with Aeroflot later…

Mongolia has never been on the top of my bucket list. I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the country was limited to the educational content in the Renny Harlin movie Skiptrace. The reason I traveled to this exotic destination was to attend a conference and oh am I happy I did. When I woke up in the plane somewhere over the Mongolian desert, I couldn’t help but gasp at the breathtaking landscapes. Soft-looking brownish hills, a few snow-capped mountains and numerous white yurts (portable, round tents covered with skins or felt used by nomads) that shone bright in the sparkling sunlight. With over 250 sunny days per year, Mongolia is known as the land of blue sky. Then out of nowhere, what seemed like a modern metropolis with buildings that puts many European cities to shame emerged as we approached Chinggis Khaan International Airport of Ulaanbaatar.

 

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The airport was small, but everything worked well, I got my baggage quickly and the passport control was painless. Right after entering the arrivals area there was an ATM, which worked great. During the 30 minute drive from the airport to Ulaanbaatar city centre we passed impressive mountains on the outskirts of the town, modern skyscrapers, camel statues, a lot of cashmere commercials, numerous what seemed to be half-finished buildings and old buildings in terrible shape. Really the city of contrasts: on one hand you see modern buildings that aren’t found in e.g. Helsinki and on the other you see people living in yurts with a disk on the roof and their horse and car parked next to it.

 

We stayed at Springs Hotel, which was a nice basic hotel, not the same standard as we are used to get for that price in Finland, but then neither are a lot of hotels in e.g. Amsterdam. Hotel sites offered a wide range of different accommodation choices at rates from a mere 36 euros up to 40.000 euros for the same period of five nights. So something for all tastes and levels of adventure lust. However tempting the 36 euros for five nights sounded after spending way too much on travel this spring, I’m too much a wuss to dare to try it. Much to my surprise, Ulaanbaatar turned out to be a modern capital with all the services that includes, from luxury brand stores and loud trendy night clubs to high-speed wifi. I’d like to say that I didn’t have any expectations, however, I have to admit that I did have some prejudices especially concerning hygiene, which were proven quite unnecessary. You manage quite well in English. Of course there are people who don’t speak a word of any language I’ve ever heard of. However, some people are extremely fluent in English, probably as a result of attending the British School of Ulaanbaatar. I understood that there are at least two international schools in Ulaanbaatar. Even paying by credit card worked better and in more places than in many Western countries. There are top-notch restaurants with everything from pasta, burgers and pizza to local Mongolian dishes. Globalization has reach Ulaanbaatar as well and if you feel like it you can indulge yourself in for example some KFC chicken wings. However, it truly is a city of contrasts and a lot of things need to improve before it could compare to European standard.

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Traffic was horrific during peak hours. You could be stuck for ages and overtaken by pedestrians. In general, the cars were fairly modern. It felt like almost every second car you saw was a Toyota Prius. I learnt that a lot of people import used cars from Japan and get tax reliefs for hybrid cars, hence the overload of Priuses. This also explained why every second car had the steering wheel on the right side, although the traffic is right-handed. I was told to be careful when hailing a taxi and only use clearly marked taxis. In Ulaanbaatar almost every car is some sort of taxi and hopefully slowing down for pedestrians. You should think twice before accepting a ride, especially at night.

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The traditional Mongolian cuisine primarily consists of dairy products, meat (a lot of mutton) and animal fats. I don’t mean to disrespect anyone, but there is a limit to what my western welfare palate can endure. A little too much stringy meat and vomit-tasting dairy products and too little vegetables and greens for my taste. I tried almost everything that was offered; fermented horse milk, abhorrent forms of cheese (and I love my cheese),  mutton in all forms and I mean all – lungs, stomach, intestines and many organs that I didn’t really recognize but also didn’t enjoy. And don’t get me started on the yogurt snacks, I feel a lump making its way up my throat just thinking about these sour pellet-like candies. And to someone who generally drinks cow milk, other types can taste quite vile. I shudder by the mere thought of lukewarm camel milk. Of course, Mongolians also like to drink their milk heated with a lot of salt, which doesn’t make it any less repulsive. Time to change the subject. To be fair, it wasn’t all bad. I did enjoy the Russian-like, mutton-filled dumplings and meat pies and the half of a potato I got with my mutton. And of course the better meat parts were fine, I’m just not used to all the tendons and bones on my plate. The vodka was surprisingly good as well. I usually don’t like my vodka straight up but the local brands I tried were really smooth and nicely cleansed the palate after tasting the local dishes.

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It’s kind of hard to refuse tasting an unidentified dish or drink, however repulsive, when a Mongolian person offers it to you with the kindest and most sincere smile you have ever seen. You can sense that they have the highest respect for you, and want to share with their guest of honor the best of what little they have got. The hospitality and willingness to help is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced anywhere. The conference I attended was sort of a big thing in Ulaanbaatar with its 3.500 participants from 51 countries. One of the participants had lost his wallet in a taxi during the conference. It contained a lot of important cards and around 3.000 euros. Can you imagine a local person found the wallet and returned it to the lost&found at the conference, with all the money and cards. Would this happen in your city?

Geographically Mongolia is a big country, according to Wikipedia 1,566,000 km2 big (for comparison Germany is almost 4,5 times smaller with its 357,168 km2). Luckily, I also had the chance to escape the city into the beautiful Mongolian countryside. I visited the 40 m tall statue of Genghis Khan on horseback, wrapped in 250 tons of gleaming stainless steel. This world’s biggest equestrian statue is located 54 km east of Ulaanbaatar on the bank of the Tuul River where, according to legend, Genghis Khan found a golden whip. You can take a really narrow staircase up to the head of the horse through its chest and neck, where you’ll have a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountainous landscapes and yurt-filled fields. The Genghis Khan Statue Complex was erected in 2008 and the cost of the complex is reported to be $4.1 million.

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From the statue our tour took us on a very bumpy ride (and I mean extremely bumpy) to the 13th century live museum, located approximately 100 km from Ulaanbatar. There was sort of a road through the dusty hills, but some parts were in extremely bad shape and the driver ended up taking all kinds of shortcuts and detours that made your heart jump. The live museum consists of different camps (educational, herder, shaman, craftsmen) and the king’s palace where we also had lunch or “the King’s Great Feast” where we got to devour a traditional feast just like Genghis Khan did. More warm milk and tendons for me, yay!

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The camps are clearly designed for tourists, obviously, but I was very pleased by the fact that it wasn’t your typical tourist rip-off. You get to enjoy the craftsmen’s art work, Mongolian calligraphy, practice archery, ride horses and camels or simply sit back and enjoy the beautiful landscapes and blue sky at no additional cost. The only thing I saw that wasn’t included was a cover for the complimentary stamped sheet with your name written in traditional Mongolian script (Hudum Mongol bichig). The cover was 10.000,  which is less than 5 euros. At the herder’s camp you could see barrows used by the nomads to transport their yurts. Our guide explained that before the barrows were pulled by oxen but obviously this isn’t the case anymore. Today they use camels! Ok, some even have motor vehicles.

 

The Mongolian winters can be extremely cold and harsh. I learnt that because there isn’t much wood to go around for heating purposes, they burn dried animal feces to heat up their yurts. Throat singing is also big part of the Mongolian culture. You should listen to some samples on youtube for example, it’s quite relaxing. I got to hear a modern version of throat singing with a groovy vibe, which I really enjoyed. I could even imagine myself listening to it outside of Mongolia. Protip: When visiting the camps, be sure to take advantage of every chance to use a toilet before the camps. There are sort of toilets at the camps but they really do offer the authentic 13th century experience…

 

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Voilà, two toilets at your disposal

The Mongolian nomadic way of life has had a big impact on the Mongolian culture. For millennia, the Mongolian people have adopted a pastoral way of life, moving in the search of the best pastures and campsites, and the yurts are still a big part of the Mongolian identity. Even today a large share of Mongolia’s population lives in in these comfortable tents, even in Ulaanbaatar. I even saw yurts on the balconies of apartment blocks in the city. The majority of Mongolians in rural areas live in yurts, some of them equipped with a variety of modern amenities. During my stay in Ulaanbaatar I had the opportunity to have dinner with Finland’s honorary consul of Mongolia and he told me that every citizen of Mongolia gets 700 square meters of land for living. When driving through the so called rural areas you could see areas of about this size, demarcated by fences. Inside the fence you’d see yurts, stock, dogs, sometimes cars or even houses. The consul also talked about rural poverty, which is a recent reality in Mongolia. Most rural poor people are herders, and herders are among the poorest of the poor in Mongolia. Poverty is a recent problem and a direct consequence of the transition to a market economy in the 1990s making the herders dependent of the public economy. Presently, one in three people in Mongolia are poor, and the number of poor people grows as the income gap widens.

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Summa summarum, I’m really happy I got to experience a piece of this beautiful country. The kindness I met was something I’ve never encountered anywhere else. The landscapes are impossible to put into words, you need to be there to really imbibe the beauty. The capital’s skyline is decorated by magnificent mountains and modern skyscrapers, at the same time tarnished by tangible poverty. To say I didn’t like the local cuisine would be an understatement, but I’m still very grateful of having experienced it. That’s what traveling and experiencing new things is all about. You don’t necessarily love everything you try but it gives you a wider world view and understanding of other cultures. I’d definitely go back to Mongolia if I was offered the chance, but not for purely touristic purposes. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, magical country that is worth visiting at least once.

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Gili islands, a brief love story

elisa-zanfi-109369In my last post I mentioned that I got a bit restless during my relaxing stay in Amed. I mean, I love my fiancé very much but at some point you reach the limit of how much romance you can handle. So we decided to go on an adventure to the Gili islands. The Gili islands are a group of three small islands near Lombok: Gili Trawangan, Gili Air and Gili Meno. These paradise refuges are just an hour’s boat ride away from Amed, three from Sanur (but make sure to choose the fast boat). Trawangan is the largest of the three known for it’s lively nightlife and numerous scuba schools. Meno is for people seeking a romantic escape and Air is a combination of the other two. As a romantic escape was the exact opposite of what we were seeking, we headed to Gili Trawangan, or just Gili T.

It really started out as an adventure. We had pre-booked our spot on the boat via our hotel and just had to pay in the “terminal”. Unfortunately I suffered from a shortage of local currency and naturally payment by card didn’t work. I asked for an ATM and the woman in the “terminal” pointed me to a very small man who would show me in the direction of an ATM. What I didn’t realize was that the ATM was located in the next village and I would have to endure a near death experience to get there. Imagine a scooter, me (not the smallest girl with a height of 176 cm) wearing a long skirt and flip-flops, indonesian traffic and a small indonesian man with a waist the size of my thigh. So the small indonesian guy jumped on a scooter and indicated I should get on behind him. I was afraid the front would tip over when I placed my western welfare tush on the seat behind him. I tried to hold on to the scooter but the guy kindly took my arms and placed them around his waist. I was no longer just afraid of falling off, I was also terrified of literally crushing this innocent man’s waist and killing him. But off we were and at a considerable speed at that, me holding on for dear life and the driver proudly waving to all his friends as we flew by the balinese jungle on the serpentine roads. But I survived and returned to the “terminal” feeling rich with four million in cash on my person.

So I paid our tickets and moved from the desk to the terminal area, which can also be called the beach. There were three signs in the sand indicating a place to leave your luggage depending on which island you were heading to. At departure, a group of local women, and not the youngest damsels either, grabbed the luggage and literally threw it up on their heads in a perfunctory manner, carrying it to the roof of the boat. The passengers embarked the vessel from the front by removing their shoes, walking through the warm turquoise ocean, climbing a ladder and carefully tip-toeing around the side of the boat to finally enter in the back. And off we were. On the way we even got to see a dolphin jump in the ocean!

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Gili T is the biggest and most lively of the three islands with an estimated permanent population of about 800. Still you can walk the sandy circumference of the island in around two hours. When arriving here, you cant help but to be amazed by the breath-taking view that welcomes you. The white sand sparkling in the soothing sun, the sound of turquoise waves slowly rolling ashore, the upbeat music, the cute little ponies with their cute carriages. Ponies are the only way to get around using some kind of horsepower, no motor vehicles are allowed on the island. This results in a relaxing and peaceful, since the noise pollution is minimal. We walked along the main road, passing numerous restaurants, scuba diving schools and massage parlors. If you’re into diving this is the place for you. Lonelyplanet ranks it as one of the world’s top 10 learn-to-dive destinations as the warm, clear waters around the island are home to more than 3500 marine species.

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We hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. January is low season and hence there very many rooms available. We found a nice little get away just a stone’s throw away from the main road but still somewhat cheaper. It felt like we were the only customers, even though you could see that some of the rooms were occupied. We were told that Gili T is a party island and even though the party scene isn’t really our thing, we chose this island after staring in each other’s eyes for days in Amed. And sure enough, we saw a fair share of party brats vacationing on daddy’s platinum card, but still it offered just what we needed after Amed: nightlife. We had a beautiful dinner followed by delicious cocktails on the beach admiring the breathtaking view of the warm sun slowly merging into the pinkish turquoise eternity.

Even though the tourism was very visible everywhere and the atmosphere was by no means genuine and authentic, I still fell head over heals in love with the island. It’s the prefect combination of chillaxing, interesting activities, breathtaking views, lovely weather and lively nightlife. I’m definitely going back some day to visit all of these magical little refuges.

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Amed, a first encounter to the Balinese serenity

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I wanted to escape the freezing, dark January-colored landscapes in Finland and headed to the Indonesian island Bali. It was my first time in Indonesia. I had heard and read a lot about the island before my trip and I wanted to experience as much as possible during my 10-day vacation. For this reason I decided to skip the tourist traps in Sanur, hoping to avoid the littered beaches and noisy nightclubs. Instead I started my stay in peaceful Amed in eastern Bali. January seemed to be a good time to travel to Bali, at least the eastern parts, because at times it felt like we were the only tourists on the island. Granted, it’s rain season. And sure enough it rained almost every day, but mostly it was just heavy showers that passed so you could wait them out. A few days we had more rain, but I can’t say it bothered us at any time. Mostly the rain brought a welcome breeze of fresh air. The landscape was so luscious and green, I wouldn’t trade that for endless dry sunshine. The temperature was around 33° during day and 28° during night, the water temperature in the ocean about 27°. Not too shabby!

Upon arrival in Denpasar, our driver greeted us in what seemed to be a budget version of an already cheapish Toyota, decorated with animal-print plush for an extra classy look. Amed is located about 70 kms from the airport in Denpasar, and to my surprise our driver told us this would mean a 3-hour drive. Luckily, we pulled up to our hotel after a bumpy two-ish-hour drive, including a quick stop to fill up. (I must admit, never before has a rooster walked up to me at a gas station.) It was raining hard and the narrow, winding roads made the trip feel even longer. Arriving at the hotel around 9.30 pm we were hungry and tired, so we didn’t have the energy to do more than eat a late supper and go right to sleep.

The following morning I woke up well-rested to the sound of crowing roosters in our pleasantly cool room. When I opened up the typical Balinese double doors to our porch, a wonderful view of Torajan architecture, palm trees and turquoise sea opened up and stepping out I was greeted by a wall of hot, humid air. To my delight, the hotel staff had brought a tray with hot coffee (in a thermos) to the porch of our Tongkonan (traditional ancestral house with a distinguishing boat-shaped and oversized saddleback roof). It’s hard to put that feeling into words; the landscapes, the temperature, the rising sun, the sounds of nature waking up, no obligations, no schedule, no musts.

Amed is a small town with limited activities, but nevertheless it offered me just what I sought at the time: sun, pool, gorgeous snorkeling, massages and other treatments and quality-time with my hubby. Granted, I am not the lay-in-the-sun-for-days-with-no-agenda kind of gal, and the bigger city Ubud was a welcome urban breeze at the end of our vacation. However, after months of cold, wet darkness, Amed seemed like paradise. But don’t expect a lively nightlife with a lot of bars and restaurants, relaxation and well-being are key in Amed.

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There are a lot of different hotel options for everyone in Amed. We stayed at Santai Bali, which is by no means a five-star resort, but a great budget option for modest needs. The staff was extremely friendly and their english was okay. Santai is indonesian for “relax”, and relaxation is exactly what the hotel offers. With just 10 bungalows, it’s a small hotel. At the beginning of our stay, we were the only guests and could enjoy the facilities all by ourselves. This was of course nice, but when other guests eventually arrived, it was hard to share the rainforest-like garden and refreshing pool with others. What I found a bit peculiar were the toilets. There was a roof, but it didn’t go all the way. So one day in the shower, I had a curious lizard watching me clean away the sand and saltwater from all the snorkeling. Creepy. There was a separate spa section where we enjoyed several treatments, among others a couple’s massage. I also tried a pedicure, facial and hair/scalp treatment. The massage was great, but frankly the other treatments left some to be desired.

Most nights and days we ate at the hotel, mostly because we were too lazy to search other options. There were some restaurants nearby, mainly other hotels, but it was convenient to just pull a dress over the bathing suit and go for lunch. The food at Santai Bali was ok, nice but nothing out of the ordinary. They offer a selection of indonesian dishes but also burgers and pizza. My favorite was the nasi goreng (fried rice) with seafood. At no point did we have any problems food-wise during our vacation in Indonesia, our bowels handled the trip just fine (I was a bit nervous at first). We tried the best ranked restaurant in Amed according to Tripadvisor, Galanga, and I loved it. It’s a sort of Indonesian-western fusion solution. Fresh flavors and kind, fast service. The hyped artisan coconut ice cream really is all that. Don’t miss it if you go to Amed! As for drinks, beer is fairly cheap even at hotels, around 2,5 euros for 0,5 liters. But wine-lovers beware, wine is expensive and to my experience not that good, at least not the house wines. There is a good selection of cocktails and of course mocktails and smoothies that are really worth a try.

As I mentioned, there’s is not much to do in Amed and a party destination it is not. For many, the main reason to travel here are the numerous shipwrecks haunting the seabed, which make Amed an interesting destination for snorkeling and diving. Located right by the ocean, the beautiful coral reef is literally just a stone’s throw away from Santai Bali. And I must say, wow! Snorkeling here was like swimming in an aquarium. All the exotic fish and mesmerizing colors… it’s no wonder Cousteau dreamed of underwater colonization. The beach in itself is dark and stony, so don’t expect long, white, sandy beaches. Swimming shoes are a must. But allegedly black sand makes for better snorkeling conditions, as it’s heavier and sets faster.  If you go a bit further down to the village there are great snorkeling and diving possibilities. The Japanese shipwreck site (a sunken wreck of a Japanese patrol ship sunk during the world war II) is at walking distance or a short drive from the hotel. Close by also lies the remains of the USS Liberty, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II. You can rent snorkeling equipment literally everywhere and there are a lot of diving courses in various languages.

You could rent scooters to get around, but we decided to walk and get a car+driver, because boy the traffic was, well, exciting at times! We went for a eastern Bali roundtrip through some authentic parts of the island, to a water palace and a local supermarket. Some of the houses that the people actually lived in wouldn’t even classify as sheds back home. But they seemed content, taking care of their daily chores. The roads through the local “jungle” were narrow and full of different obstacles. There were roosters and hens everywhere. At some places the road was almost cut off by a waterfall of some sort and next to the road in the water people would wash their motorbikes or cows and what not. I also met a cow on the beach once, just outside the hotel. It was standing in line to the washing point, waiting for its sibling to finish washing up. Anyways, our driver Jimbo (who also happened to be the brother to an employee at our hotel) skillfully weaved his budget Toyota with malfunctioning AC through the lush greenery and serpentine rocky roads.

After hours of zigzagging through the nature we arrived at what seemed to be a city of some sort. We visited a local market and I almost felt my stomach turn just by looking at the different fruits, vegetables, foods and produce that were sold, most of which I couldn’t even identify. I felt a bit awkward, not only did I not know what they were selling, I was also white-skinned and at least 30 cm taller than everybody. So we wriggled our way to Jimbos Toyota that quickly took us to the local supermarket. It was a normal supermarket with a lot of known global brands, but still so different to what we are used to here in Europe. For example, I wanted to buy some facial cream or body lotion and headed to the large shelf of Nivea and Dove products. But it was a wasted effort, because I didn’t want to cover  my skin in whitening cream, after having waited so long for at least a slight tan. With a new pair of slippers, some peanuts and a bottle of cold water we jumped into Jimbos un-airconditioned Toyota and continued our journey to – well we didn’t know to where at that time. Jimbo asked if he could make a quick stop at a garage and so we pulled up to what seemed to be a decayed old building. Jimbo stopped the car by the road, opened the hood and a few moments later: salvation! Ice cold air poured into the car and I could feel the sweat dripping down my forehead slowly dry. We started our trip back to the hotel. Before we plunged into the refreshing water in the hotel pool, Jimbo stopped at a restaurant where we had lunch and I got the feeling it was a place where a lot of drivers drop off tourists to eat…

On the subject of tourist scams, I got kind of a bad feeling at one place. On our way from Amed to Ubud, we asked Jimbo to make a few stops so we could see more during the trip. We wanted to see coffee plantations and on the way there he took us to this “traditional village”. You were asked to give a 100 000 IDR donation to enter the village where one of the locals guided you. At first I was like “aw, this is really cute”, but slowly my cynical side started taking over. Finally, when our guide explained to us about traditional balinese weaving and took us to a woman preforming said tradition, even the last thread of hope of this actually being authentic disappeared. Her alleged work space was filled with beautiful, exclusive scarfs. The exact same scarfs that I bought at a shady stand in Rome for 5 euros. The exact same scarfs that I saw at the souks in Dubai. The exact same scarfs being paddled in Paris, Istanbul, New York – everywhere I’ve been. I mean, I get it. Tourism is a business. But it still felt bad. And it wasn’t just this village, you saw it a lot on Bali.

On the whole, eastern Bali and Amed is a relaxing get-away for couples seeking some romantic we-time far away from anyone and anything. It’s also ideal for people interested in snorkeling or scuba diving and/or experiencing how the locals really live in the middle of the mountainous nature. However, I don’t think I’d go back there, at least not in the foreseeable future, but it was nice to have experienced it. To be frank, I got a bit bored there (which is why we went for a little excursion to Gili, but I’ll write about that in my next post). I missed the nightlife, and I don’t mean the umts-umts-umts-baby-party-party-yeah, but some nice bars and restaurants where you can snuggle with your beloved and enjoy some good food and drinks. The foodie-part of me was not really satisfied. January was a good time to travel despite the rain season, considering the very few other tourists. The rain didn’t bother me that much and I can imagine that it gets a great deal busier and even more tourist scammy during the peaks.

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Qatar airways and layover in Doha

 

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Taking off from Hamad International Airport, Doha’s skyline in the background.

In November 2016 Qatar airways started a new route between Doha and Helsinki, which opened up a completely new gateway from Finland to the East. This coincided with my plans of an exotic vacation around the end of the year. In addition, the prices were very competitive in comparison to other alternatives. So I booked a trip to Bali, Indonesia with a layover in Doha, Qatar. Qatar Airways has been voted best airline in the world several years and usually ranks among the top 3, so naturally I had high expectations. However, high expectations can be deceitful. You tend to expect too much and then be disappointed on the wrong grounds… I’ll sum up my experience in a pros and cons list as usual.

Checking in at Helsinki airport was so-so. There were no check-in machines, which meant that although you complete the check-in process online, you still have to wait for the check-in counter to open to drop your luggage off. Since there is only one Qatar Airways flight per day departing from Helsinki, the ground services are more limited than e.g. Finnair’s. Not living in the Helsinki area, we arrived at the airport in time just in case, thinking we could kill the extra time in an airport lounge. Instead we ended up waiting in the departures hall to get our bags checked in.

The plane between Helsinki and Doha was your standard Airbus 320-100 with rows of 3+3 seats. I was a bit disappointed that there was a bus transportation from the terminal to the aircraft, instead of gate departure. Same thing in Doha. The aircraft between Doha and Denpasar was bigger, a Boeing 777-300 with rows of 3+4+3 seats. We had the aisle and middle seats on the latter flight and window + middle on the former. Both aircrafts were modern with onboard entertainment systems with touch screen in each seat and wifi onboard. The return flight to Doha was operated by an Airbus 330-300 with less leg room, no wifi, and a remote control-operated entertainment system.

The service on board was friendly and efficient, and the selection of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages was excellent. For example you could choose from two different brands of beer (Fosters and Heineken), both complimentary. Snacks and hot meals were served regularly and you could choose between three different hot meals; white meat, red meat or vegetarian. On other airlines you usually you just get two choices, tops. With every meal the flight attendant also asked you to lift your seat as a courtesy to the person sitting behind you, even if you were sleeping. I think this is a nice gesture, it is crammed enough as it is, even without the eating part. I can’t say the food was good, but it was eatable, even for me (have I mentioned I’m squeamish about food?). The staff was extremely friendly and helpful, and patiently repeated the meal choices when I had a hard time understanding through the accent in my blurry post-nap state. (Oh, and a little protip: I like to cut the bun in half and then heat it up on the lid of the steaming hot meal before removing the lid to improve the experience a bit.)

The onboard entertainment was somewhat slow at occasions, in particular on the aircraft that hadn’t been updated to touch screens. The selection was okay, it could have been better but I was sufficiently entertained during my 2x (7+9) hour flights. You could choose between new releases and old classics, and even audiobooks which I liked (although the the selection audiobooks was a bit narrow). You could even read/listen to the Koran if you felt the urge and naturally there was a wide selection of Middle-East productions. At first I was royally annoyed by the “visit Qatar” commercials that you had to watch through every time you changed movie/series. Seriously, more or less five minutes of commercials – every time. I was a bit less annoyed when I discovered the possibility to fast forward through them, but still not pleased.

There was a USB-outlet for recharging your electronic devices in the back of the seat in front of you. Super! On 3/4 flights there was also wifi onboard. The first 15 minutes was complimentary and if you wanted to surf more you paid 5 dollars per hour or 20 dollars for the entire flight. It worked okay for onboard-wifi, no complaints.

As Icelandair’s safety video that I commended earlier, the Qatar airways safety video starring FC Barcelona also differed from what you’re normally used to seeing. It was fun and creative. I like that airlines are clearly thinking about how to make this, let’s face it, rather boring part of every flight, more attractive. Another thing that I, as a western agnostic, found peculiar was that in addition to showing the direction we were going, the interactive maps also indicated in which direction Mecca was located at all times. And the flight attendant reminded that it is advisable to keep your seatbelt fastened at all times, also when praying.

A big part of the layover experience is the airport. I found Hamad International airport to be modern, clean and logical, making the transit as painless as possible. Everything worked smoothly, the announcements were clear, the toilets clean (however, somewhat crowded) and the gates easy to find. It’s an impressive airport with a lot of interesting aspects. It is allegedly one of the most instagrammed airports in the world; everyone wants to photograph the enormous (in my opinion rather creepy) 6.8 million dollar, 7-metre, 16.000-kg teddy bear in the middle of the departures hall, with a lamp penetrating its head and back (come on, it’s a bit creepy, right?). In general, the spaces were creatively decorated by innovative artwork, some turned into practical solutions, which really was a nice addition to the otherwise sterile airport atmosphere. For example, there was a giant two-storey bronze sculpture that serves as a huge playground for kids. Another pleasant surprise were the outlets integrated in the seats (not all but enough), available for anyone. At no point of the whole layover experience did I have to worry about my phone battery dying, neither onboard the plane or on the ground. The airport also provides iMacs that anyone can use. The atmosphere was surprisingly quiet, relaxing and non-hectic for an airport. A great plus were the “quite rooms”, separate rooms for men and women of course, where you could lay down and doze off between flights.

If I needed to criticize something at the airport, and I’m really reaching now, it would be that when we arrived in the morning the toilet lines were quite long and the prices mainly being indicated in the local currency. I wanted to buy some snacks for the connecting flight and ended up buying a fancy bag of dates, without the slightest idea of how much they would set me back. Yes, I could have used the airport’s complimentary wifi to check the currency rate, but quite frankly, after traveling for x hours I really didn’t care. It turned out the airport rather pricy and the dates set me back more than I would have wanted, but they were good dates.

The flight times were actually quite ideal and the flights took off on time. Our flight departed around 5 pm local time from Helsinki and we landed in Doha around midnight. We had three hours to kill at Hamad International airport before the nine-hour trip to hot and humid Denpasar. We caught some z’s during the flight but we were still quite tired and weary when we started our descent to Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport around 6 pm local time. After a late dinner and a good night’s sleep, we woke up to the crowing roosters at dawn without any jet-lag to speak of.

So my overall experience? Well I can’t disagree, it’s a top class airline. It’s just got that “something extra”, like three hot meal choices – also for breakfast. Great onboard services, functional ground services, excellent onboard entertainment system and generous selection of drinks. And you’re allowed 30 kg checked in luggage. Just don’t fool yourself and expect business class service if you’re flying economy class. If you want an individual seat with business class perks, you’ll need to buy a business class ticket. Hamad International Airport is a modern hub in the Middle-East offering comfortable access to the East from Europe. The airport will exceed your expectations and your layover will be smooth, even though you’d have to spend several hours at the airport between flights. I definitely give the airport two thumbs up!

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Here are some pros and cons based on my experience:

Qatar Airways:

+ onboard services – limited ground services at HEL
+ modern fleet
+ food and drink selection
+ 30 kg luggage allowance
+ flight times
+ affordable tickets
+ modern entertainment system
+ attentive and friendly staff

Hamad International Airport:

+ well-arranged airport – um, crowded toilets?
+ innovative airport solutions
+ relaxing, non-hectic atmosphere
+ quiet rooms
+ complimentay use of iMacs
+ easily accessible power outlets
+ complimentary high-speed wifi

pitsipeppu

Almost@home lounge, HEL

As I’m writing this post, it’s 6 am on Bali. I’m sitting on my bungalow porch, watching the palm trees sway in the rhythm of the waves. But that’s a different post. Before departing on my journey to this paradise island, I had four hours to kill at Helsinki Airport. I rushed through the passport control and secured an outlet to charge my electronic devices near a quiet spot to finish my last work tasks before switching to vacation mode.

I travel quite a lot. That means I also work “on the move” a lot. At some point you grow tired of fighting over empty table space with the immense airport crowds, all in a hurry to buy that last beer/water bottle/magazine before their flight. My salvation: airport lounges. They offer a peaceful place for working and facilities for freshening up and showering at longer layovers. Often they are also cheaper than buying two glasses of wine and a sandwich at any bar in the terminal area.

I’m a Priority Pass member, which gives me access to broad network of airport lounges worldwide. I’m also allowed to bring a friend with me for a mere 20 euros. As a Finn, the lounges I use most frequently are located at Helsinki Airport (HEL): Aspire Lounge (Schengen area) and Almost@home lounge (non-Schengen area). My first destination being Qatar, I chose the lounge in the non-Schengen area. It can be hard to spot if you’re just rushing through the tax free store, since it is located almost right away after the passport control, in the middle of the store.

To be frank, I always thought of the name Almost@home to be somewhat dumb. But after a few visits I get it. The atmosphere is very homey. There are bookshelves and couches and TVs organized to resemble a living room. Cutlery and dishes are hidden in shelves and drawers like in any kitchen. There are bowls of fruit on the tables and if you want you can slouch back in a chic armchair and watch sports on TV or play playstation.

Almost@home offers a good selection of red, white and sparkling wines, two or three different brands of each kind. Stronger spirits are also available, however, they are subject to an additional fee, which I think is rather miserly. There is one beer brand available, Finnish Lapin Kulta. Personally I don’t drink beer, but this brand is one of the cheapest available and most of my beer-drinking friends wouldn’t buy it, referring to it as reindeer piss. The salad bar is nice, nothing too upscale but even a fastidious palate like mine finds something to appease its hunger. During my last visit they also served cerise tomato pasta for lunch. I was very impressed with it because the chef had succeeded to both over- and undercook it, and then leave it out to dry just in case. The dessert, however, was very pitsipeppu-approved: raspberry mousse with pistachios and dark chocolate, yum.

Unfortunately there is no toilet in the lounge and lounge guests are asked to use the airport’s public restrooms outside the lounge. Sure, they are located at the entrance, but still. You pay for service and you expect a certain standard also in regards of the restrooms.  Also, the view from the lounge is quite depressing. You’d expect to see a busy airport with departing planes but instead you see this:

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I was trying to decide which of the two Priority Pass lounges at Helsinki Airport I like better, but I honestly can’t say. It depends. Aspire is bigger, there are more seats, toilets, a broader beer selection and some spirits are included. However, the food is better in Almost@home and they serve dessert, unlike Aspire, even though you shouldn’t expect Ramsay standards. The atmosphere is homier and more intimate in Almost@home, which probably is due to Aspire being somewhat bigger. In my opinion Aspire is ofter more crowded and you’re more easily disturbed by other guests. A big plus for Almost@home is the generous bowl of Fazer chocolates, where as Aspire only offers a minuscule bowl next to the entry counter (not cool).

Overall I had a pleasant stay at the lounge. Sipping white wine, overeating raspberry mousse and finishing some last work-related crises before taking off, in a calm and quiet atmosphere away from crying children and loud charter travelers. In a nutshell:

+ calm, cosy and homey – view
+ warm meal – beer selection
+ dessert – spirits at additional fee
+ wine selection – no toilet
+ tv and entertainment

 

 

 

Another year behind, more life ahead

2017

So the year 2016 is coming to an end. Media describes it as a black year, claiming Carrie Fischer as its latest celebrity victim. Personally, 2016 has treated me well. Especially in comparison to 2015 that in many ways was the hardest year I’ve had to endure in my at the time 30 years. 2016 has mainly been smooth sailing. I counted 50 some nights spent abroad, which is less than the year before but still entails many an unforgettable experience. Among others a romantic week in Paris, an enlightening prolonged weekend in a small danish village, an entrepreneurial trip to Spain, an educational stay in Albania, a quick visit to our neighbor Sweden, an eye-opening and euphoric congressional week in Canada and a tasty stay the Ukraine. Happy times.

I’m kick-starting 2017 with a modest trip to Bali, Indonesia so stay tuned for my comments on Qatar Airlines and Bali in January. I’m also looking forward to experiencing Switzerland, Mongolia and the Dominican Republic next year and revisiting Germany and the Netherlands. In my younger days I lived a while in the Netherlands, so going back always gives me a homy feeling. I’m a bit nervous about Mongolia, especially the layover in Moscow, but life is all about new experiences and conquering your fears, right?

I wish you all the best for 2017, may it bring you a lot of new memories to reminisce about when you’re sitting in the rocking chair at the old people’s home. In a mere two weeks I’ll be watching this view, recharging my batteries with a probably mediocre book praised by critics. I hope that you too have the time to unwind some before taking 2017 by storm.

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Layover in Iceland

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I recently traveled from Finland to the French-speaking part of Canada, Quebec City to be exact. I was attending a congress there and decided to spend a few days touristing in Montreal before the official program started. There are no direct flights from Helsinki to Montreal so a layover was mandatory. Paris-CDG is out of the question, always. Seriously, a stopover at CDG is never an option, even if Paris is the final destination I try to select airlines that land at Orly. And sure enough, a friend of mine attending the same conference chose to fly via CDG and she ended up terribly delayed and forced to take a detour via Switzerland to Finland. If you look at a map you’ll see that this makes no sense.

However, what does make sense geographically is Iceland. I compared prices and flight times and after some hesitation I booked Helsinki-Montreal with one stop at Keflavik. I didn’t have any expectations towards the airline, but even so, the overall experience left me a bit disappointed.

On one hand, you can see that the airline has made a big effort to create a modern and attractive image. The safety video was brilliantly and innovatively realized, as you can see in the picture below. The entertainment system’s selection of movies was very limited, but did include some interesting nordic films. Coach tickets to and from North America also include two checked luggages à 23 kg and one cabin luggage à 10 kg. On the other hand, the aircrafts are old and tired, and the interiors are showing their age. My 1,76 meters fit well in the seat lengthwise, however, the width was a bigger inconvenience. The rows were extremely narrow compared to other airlines I’ve used. This was a problem especially when eating or trying to work on the laptop. The flight Helsinki-Reykjavik was fully booked. The connecting flight to Montreal was almost empty, which was a very welcome surprise since it was night and I got a whole row to myself to rest. Same thing on the way back.

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The food. Well what should I say? I, as so many others, am no fan of airplane food and I usually avoid subjecting myself to it. Icelandair did not convince me otherwise. You can read more about the in-flight selection here. But I can show you this picture of the expectations (left) you have of this 13 euro meal and what you actually get (right). Sure, the menu said “mini” but I didn’t expect teeny-tiny. The picture doesn’t lie, it literally was just a bite.

Keflavik is a fairly small airport, so the layover is quite painless, just be aware of the price level. However, I found boarding to be a bit chaotic. Prior to getting on the bus for boarding, everyone stood clueless of what was going on in a small area for quite a while, some were even forced to stand in stairs. On the plus side, the departure times are clearly optimized for layovers. There were a lot of flights departing to North America around the same time as our flight to Montreal, and a lot of flights arriving from Europe around the same time as our flight from Helsinki. But boarding didn’t start at the indicated time and the departure was delayed. I also find it rather disgraceful to make passengers go exposed through the icy rain and cold wind to the aircraft after first boarding a bus packed like sardines.

So in a nutshell, Icelandair won’t be my first choice in the future, mainly due to the onboard comfort and the outdated planes. But it’s no CDG. If the alternative is a more comfortable airline with a layover at CDG, Icelandair wins any day. I’d compare it to your average budget airline. If you have the chance to combine your stopover with a visit to Reykjavik or other parts of Iceland, I would definitely recommend it. Iceland is a beautiful destination and thanks to the island’s location the flight time is mostly tolerable.

+ Two checked bags – Outdated fleet
+ Departure/layover times – Price level (onboard/airport)
+ Ticket price – Boarding arrangements
– Comfort onboard

Kiev – a gem for the budget traveller

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A friend of mine was eager to escape the quotidian stress and this of course ignited the cosmopolitan in me. So we thought “yea, London: musicals, shopping! Then we checked our account balances and joked around that Ukraine seems to be more in our pre-yuletide budget range. Naturally, the headlines in the western media concerning the Russian war on Ukraine made us somewhat prejudiced and hesitant, but our urge to explore got the better of us – and oh boy am I glad it did!

We ended up spending four eye-opening, delightful and tasty days in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, without burdening our wallet too much. I’d like to share my experiences with you in the hopes of crushing at least a few prejudices against Kiev. The Ukraine is a big country. The prevailing conflict is far away from the capital and not once during our trip did we feel unsafe. People were mostly friendly, apart from the arrogant-ish slavic treatment and slow service, which can also be found in other slavic cultures.

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The direct, 2-hour Ukrainian International Airlines (UIA) flight from Helsinki to Kiev (and back) went smoothly. The plane and its interior were somewhat outdated (among other things you could distinguish the pixels on the safety cards) but the refreshments onboard were affordable and the service friendly. However, the UIA airport services were very poorly organized and ineffective. We ended up standing in line at the check-in desk for an unreasonable amount of time at both departure points.

The city in itself is enchanting. Just walking around, inhaling the stalinist and orthodox architecture and the breathtaking scenery is worth clambering up the steep hills, very steep never-ending hills. Note to self: when in Kiev, think twice before taking a shortcut through the park as “park” is equivalent to steep-ass slope. For this reason, the city map is also more of a guideline as the distances can be misleading. What seems like just a quick walk around the block can turn out to be a 60-minute cardio workout.

The local currency is hryvnia. In order to spend some hryvnia (UAH) you first have to get a hold of some. At least in Finland currency exchange offices and banks don’t trade Ukrainian currency due to the conflict in east Ukraine. Sooo… don’t rely on ATMs. Some of them work, most of them don’t, despite the clearly marked Visa and MasterCard logos. Cash is king, my friend. Bring some euros or dollars, just in case. There are several exchange offices around the city, so as long as you bring some cash, you’re in the clear. However, don’t exchange too much. When I finally found an ATM that spoke english and didn’t refuse my card, I withdrew 3.000 hryvnias which is about 107 euros (note that the maximal withdrawable amount was 4.000 hryvnias), and I had a hard time spending it all in four days. And believe me, I really tried to spend it. Most restaurants accept credit cards, however, smaller boutiques and cafés frown when you pull out your plastic money.

With around 3 million inhabitants, Kiev is a big city. To avoid blisters and save time, taxis are a good choice to get around. We read up on the taxi system in advance and always asked the hotel or restaurant to call us a taxi to our destination. This way we got the car’s license number and a price estimate in advance, and the driver always knew where we wanted to go (the language barrier was hard to penetrate at occasions). An even more affordable way to get around is the metro. For a mere song the three metro lines will take you all around the city. It’s crowded, it’s dirty but it’s cheap. A single ticket is 4 hryvnias. For reference 1 hryvnia is about 0,036 euros, so basically one ticket is less than 15 euro cents. The never-ending escalator ride down to the cars is an experience in itself, so definitely worth a visit even if you just choose to go one stop.

Speaking of affordable, we were still a bit bummed over missing the musicals in London so we checked out the culture selection in Kiev. Naturally we chose a Spanish opera preformed in French by Ukrainian artists with Ukrainian surtitles (Carmen). A bit of a challenge, I must admit, even though I am fairly fluent in French. We got the best seats (absolutely spectacular seats) for a mere 300 hryvnias, so less than 11 euros. I mean it’s the opera. In Finland the price would be the same 300 but the currency euros. Given, in Finland we would understand the surtitles and my non-French-speaking friend would probably not fall asleep during the first act…

Still on the subject of affordable, Kiev is a true paradise for foodies on a limited budget. Everything we ate was delicious. One of the best experiences was without a doubt the 12-course dinner at a restaurant named Kanapa. The whole menu including wine went for just 30 euros plus tips. I mean it just can’t be so, right? 12 courses. And wine. But it was so and it was one of the most excellent dinner experiences I have ever had. Overall the Ukrainian kitchen understandably has a lot of Russian influences. Don’t hesitate to try new things even though you might be unfamiliar with Russian flavors, you might be pleasantly surprised.

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So you can probably imagine that the hotel was, well yes, affordable as well, despite the jacuzzi. Of course this was in December, which is probably the cheapest period to travel to Kiev. The weather wasn’t the best. It was snowy, the streets were slippery and the wind icy – nothing a determined Finn can’t withstand. The temperature was around -2° to + 2° C. The snow clearance didn’t meet the same standards as we are used to in Finland. So if you’re traveling in the winter, even though you’re just staying a few days, bring an extra pair of shoes because your feet will get wet. The majority of the sidewalks were paved. This together with the loose snow was a very dangerous combination. I myself tried various telemark-landings, some of which would have rendered any old ski-jumper jealous. This being said, the city was oh so beautiful covered in snow. I can’t wait to see it covered in green.  img_5954

I’ve pointed out that Kiev offers great value for money concerning wining and dining, however, a shopping destination it is not. Certainly, you’ll find most of the international brands but the price is the same as in most western European cities, if not higher. In stead of shopping, I recommend using a few hryvnias on museum entry fees. It was ridiculously cheap, a little less cheap if you wish to photograph, but still ridiculously cheap. I was particularly impressed by the Great Patriotic War Museum (which we know as WWII), both the interior and the exterior. It’s probably the best-organized museum I have ever visited. I enjoyed it enormously, although all the signs and information was only available in Ukrainian. It’s located right next to the unique monastery complex Lavra, which is included in UNESCO world heritage list. Definitely worth experiencing!

So to sum it up, here are some pros and cons:

+ attractive price level – language barrier
+ breath-taking scenery – slavic “rudeness”
+ impressive architecture – mountainous city
+ high-quality museums
+ location/reachability
+ great value for money
+ quality food

pitsipeppu

Welcome

For a long time I’ve had the urge to share my life-changing epiphanies, however, I have convinced myself that I don’t have the time. The other day I was giving a friend a speech on time management and as a result of this heated discussion: voilà! I hope you enjoy my attempt to be more humorous than I actually am. And if you don’t, no need to read, right? Remember: time management.