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Interlude: Random shots in Japan

I’m desperately trying to catch up with my travel notes before the trip to Myanmar (Burma) actually starts, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, since we’re leaving to the airport in 3 hours; so the notes on Tottori will come at some point. Here are some other random shots from here and there in Japan, simply because they looked nice.

First, a few shots from Suma Rikyu Koen – a park not far away from where I was, which I have only discovered now, and wish I visited some more.

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A road nearby:

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Ever-present chains:

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My favourite donut chain in Japan:

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A still life in donuts“, 2014 (butter on canvas with sugar added)

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A bicycle in Osaka next to a bar that’s been under renovation for a little bit longer than expected… like, a year longer.

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A street in Chayamachi – all this area was under massive construction until last year, so it was a bit of a surprise to see it evolve into something so modern.

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A Duck Tour bus. No comment needed.

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An extremely scary looking Toyota.

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Shot with what? There are pretty much no guns in Japan…… also, for all the scariness, he correctly paid his parking spot.

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A street in Nihonbashi – “electric town” in Osaka.

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A guy who takes his Subaru branding VERY seriously…

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… except … wait … WHAT?

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That is a lot of WTF indeed. How do you like wednesday, indeed.

On a more serious note, this is one of my favourite spots, and views, of Osaka.

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I find this viewpoint quite surreal, and to this day, it feels like something out of a futuristic anime. I remember when I first came to Japan, I looked for spots that reminded me of what originally drew me to Japan, and this particular one was one of them.

But back to less serious things. Here’s a very concentrated man on a bicycle.

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Here’s a super-fat Mercedes S600 driven by a young kid:

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A cafe with way too much writing on the outside window:

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A few happily drunk old men celebrating …. life, I guess:

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Two people on a bench under a tree:

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A woman deep in thought over her mobile phone:

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And now that sakura season is starting, how to do without a few sakura trees (though more will come later, as these pictures are from a day or two before the trees fully opened up):

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That’s about it for the interlude. Next up … I discovered something in Japan that I thought I had to go to a rather…. different place to find in the world, which further proves my hypothesis (and for the sticklers, this is the correct usage of the word) that you can find anything in Japan if you look hard enough. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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Day 8: Japan – Oji Zoo

In keeping with a promise I made to a friend who complained that my writing was mostly about lounges, crusty airplane seats and wines at altitudes where no sane person can reasonably distinguish a Côte-de-Beaune from a grocery store-mixed one (as well as pretentious banter about supposedly belonging to a somehow different class of aluminium tube inhabitants simply because I sit closer to the front), I’ve been making a decent effort to vary the content by covering wider aspects of my travel (since contrary to common belief [and believe me, honestly, contrary to my desire] I spend time doing other things than sit in lounges and in planes).

So we made a small outing to Oji Dobutsuen (Oji Zoo, 王子動物園), a local attraction which features animals and a panda (which is how most Japanese know it – it’s the zoo that has a panda). It was fortunately far from sakura season still and it was still a few days too early for school holidays, so it was somewhat quiet. For those who care to know, sakura season floats year to year, and it’s usually extremely short – a few days at most – because anything outside of full bloom is considered less than desirable. I’ve not thought to document this, because I’m so used to it in a way, but there are “sakura forecasts”, where maps are made and posted in relevant locations (such as train stations, etc) which detail which locations a) have good sakura tree accumulations, and b) what phase of blooming they are in. These maps are religiously updated and people use the to go sakura-watching (hanami, 花見) and drinking copious amounts of alcohol under the trees; more latter than former, if anything.

So since it was far too early for sakura season, we got to look at some animals. Far be it to consider this anywhere close to the Singapore Zoo, which is the only zoo I have ever been to that has no cages (instead, animals are separated by distance and insurmountable barriers, like water, which seems perfectly logical), but it’s still a nice zoo to visit.

A wild Pantone swatch of flamingos welcomes you at the entrance:

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A somewhat bored peacock, who can’t even be bothered to open his tail because so few visitors are taking pictures of him:

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The key attraction of the park: the panda.

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The bear who almost could be the panda, but isn’t, and that does not make him a happy bear.

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This bear has accepted his fate that he will never be the panda, so he might as well just give up and go to sleep.

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A monkey that probably wishes it were somewhere else.

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A meditating gorilla (!) – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these.

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A thief caught in the act:

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A relic of the past, who nevertheless seems rather self-satisfied:

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A happily vegetarian inhabitant:

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A couple having a couple fight:

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And Australians do what Australians do best:

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And a benevolent-feeling inhabitant, who probably just ate someone, hence the general satisfied look.

????? Nada Ward, Kobe City, ??? Hyogo Prefecture, Japan

All in all, a nice quaint visit, and a good break from stories about disgruntled airport dwellers.

A parting shot of a nearby street:

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Stay tuned for more Japanese imagery!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 7: Cathay Pacific First Class Hong Kong – Osaka

So thus ended my (very) short stay in Hong Kong, and it was time to move onwards – to Japan, again. Much to look forward to there, since besides the usual dose of Japan, I had a few interesting side trips planned, plus, hey, it’s sakura season, so you can’t ever go wrong with that.

But that’s later. First, I had to get there, and my first trip on Cathay Pacific would take me there. When I was initially planning the trip, I had a few choices – instead of HK, I could have stopped by Seoul and used points to fly Korean Air in economy from Seoul to Korea… but after looking at my options, it occurred to me that only 30K of Avios points, which can pretty much be had with a single signup to an American Express card, would get me there from HK in first class. Since I consider points a currency with a limited shelf life, I figured, why not – plus, I’ve never flown CX before, and based on all I’ve heard, it’s truly a five-star airline. So I “splurged”, if that can be said of a free credit card and $50 in taxes.

Unfortunately, unlike Emirates, there is no chauffeur drive. More so, in Hong Kong, either based on some arcane fare non-discrimination law, or just general disarray (despite it being a really, really nice airport), your ground priority ends at the first class checkin counter. They have cool free-standing terminals for first class checkin, unlike the usual lanes and counters, but neither security nor immigraton has any priority lanes for elite or premium passengers.

The checkin process is incredibly smooth: there are far more counters than passengers (HELLO EMIRATES), and it actually feels “premium” to be there.photo 1 photo 2

The LCDs display your flight info and details as the agent checks you in, so that you’re well informed in case you’re about to fly somewhere you didn’t expect. :P In the meantime, someone comes to pick up your bags and you’re left with a boarding pass and a pleasant feeling.

That feeling pretty quickly evaporates once you get to the immigration line. Of course, I didn’t think of getting the e-channel fast track, which I’ve previously complained about, so I had to suck it up. Note to readers: before, you used to need something like 6 visits to Hong Kong within a calendar year to qualify, but these days, any elite status (in fact, some even don’t seem to require status, such as Swiss, where simply having a membership appears to be sufficient) with several participating airlines will allow you to get it. However, you can ONLY DO THIS after arrival. You pass immigration on entering, and then immediately go to the e-channel registration desk – before leaving the airport or even the secure area.

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I got lucky that a lane opened right next to mine, so in the ensuing chaos I managed to gain about an hour’s worth of queue time, so shortly after I was through, and faced this sign:

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The Wing has gone extensive renovations, and is now a very modern first class lounge. Sadly, since any pedestrian that has oneworld Emerald status is allowed to access it, it’s not as exclusive as, say, the Singapore Airlines Private Rooms or the Lufthansa First Class Terminal (though technically, LH allows its own Senator elites to access that one, but there really aren’t all that many of those), but it’s still far nicer than most regular lounges.

The entrance:

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The menu, so to say:

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The champagne bar (“the Haven Bar” in the above menu):

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I went on to the sit-down restaurant. Since I wasn’t able to get breakfast at the Intercontinental, I had to eat somewhere!

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The  menu was promising:

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The mimosa was quite good, too:

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The eggs Benedict was pretty good, but absolutely tiny:

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The buffet bar was pretty extensive:

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Overall, the service was pretty good, but felt like typical HK service, which means brusque, almost unfriendly, but efficient and proper. For instance, when I asked for orange juice, the waiter pointed at the bar and told me it was “over there”, and yet when I asked for a coffee, it showed up immediately (and it was good!).

Then, an annoying thing happened. I was trying to manipulate a newspaper, and being part of the Internet generation, I don’t know how to handle paper very well. So I was unfolding it when I heard a falling sound and the sound of broken glass. Crap. I knocked over my mimosa glass and it not only spilled, but broke. This is where the efficient service came in: a half dozen people immediately descended on me, one moved me to another table, one moved my bags, several cleaned the table, cleaned the broken glass, and another then returned with a replacement mimosa and coffee. Awesome. I felt like an idiot, but at least it was all pretty quickly hushed up.
I wanted to test their service a level further, though. I wanted a “ying-yang” – the tea+coffee mix that is a typical street drink in Hong Kong. It’s weird as hell, but *I* like it. I forgot to grab it somewhere this time, and I felt bad, since I don’t mix any good ones myself, and I really like it. So I asked the waiter for one. It took him a few minutes to understand: in a lounge where people drink Hennessy, Johnny Walker Black (or Blue in some cases), I was asking for a street drink. He looked at me like I fell off from Mars (recall that I just broke a glass, too) and said “Ying yang????? NOOOOOOOoooooooooo!”
So I left and went to the champagne bar to further get … relaxed before the (now 30 minutes delayed) flight. No Krug was being served (I’ve almost given up searching for this elusive animal), so I camped there for a bit and when the time came, I headed off to my flight (which I then realised was at the other end of the other terminal, so a train had to be taken).
When I arrived to my gate, my plane was parked there, which is always a good sign. I was flying one of my favourite planes, so this was looking like a good day:
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It looked like the fare non-discrimination act was in full force, once again, though. This is what I encountered:
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They were all lining up to a single boarding gate. No priority for anyone. Despite my general allowance for human cooperation, altruism and world peace, I was done with this. When boarding started, I just cut through the line and went to the head. The man behind me started demonstrably sighing, oohing and aahing, and waving his head around. Out of concern for his well-being (excessive head-waving and sighing tends to cause light-headedness, and eventually, during prolonged such actions, can cause brain damage), I turned to him and asked, “I’m sorry?”. He looked at me as if I were a descendant of the most evil representatives of the most evil of empires, and condescendingly said, “What, there is no concept of a line?” In the years of flying where not a single gate agent has questioned my belonging to the premium lanes, I wasn’t about to let another passenger do so, so I showed my boarding pass, and said, “Sorry, first class.” He shrunk back, crookedly apologised, and I went on to board. He should follow my blog more. :)
Onboard, I settled into my seat:
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(the flower was real!)
The LCD was pretty large…
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… and apparently ran Linux, since it crashed and was rebooted mid-flight :)
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My seat also featured a live mosquito which later became dead as we gained altitude. Hehehe.
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But I joke. So far, this was arguably one of the best first class seats I’ve ever been on. The armrest that is in the first picture folds up, and the ottoman on the other side is perfectly suitable for an adult to sit on during dinner, so for the first time ever, I found a better substitute for the Swiss seat: while the Swiss first class seat allows dining for two, the Cathay Pacific seat would comfortably allow dining for three if the third is a child (I’m not sure an adult would fit there). The ideal family vacation.
Leaving Hong Kong, I was reminded of just how far-reaching American airlines are:
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That’s right: three United planes! I still am impressed at how United flies the most random routes in the world, like some intra-middle-Eastern routes and so on, and of course between Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and such.
After we took off (and the mosquito in my window died), the food came out. Even though it was a short 3-hour flight, the food and wine were plentiful. Sadly, no Krug again (they were serving Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005, which isn’t terrible, but it is not Krug).
Entree was herb marinated smoked salmon, which went well with the Louis Jadot Meursault 2011:
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Then leek and potato soup, same wine:
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Main dish was pan-fried chicken, and here, I changed to their Saint-Emilions. Apparently, the someliers of Cathay Pacific have done the tours, and have sourced a few different varieties of Grand Crus that they’re serving on their flights:
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This flight was serving Château Haut Brisson. It seemed to pair reasonably well with the pan-fried chicken (as well as any food/wine do at 35,000 feet where you basically don’t really taste anything anyway).
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Then came the cheeses (Chaumes is what I was after, the others were more of a side benefit)…
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… and the apple strudel, which one can rarely go wrong with.
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All that put together, and the flight time just ebbed away pretty rapidly. All would be well, and this would be the end of this flight story, were I not to be greedy, and/or were I to be a bit more clueless (or ‘less’, depending on point of view, I suppose).
Background: because I stayed at Intercontinentals the entire way, I emptied the minibar every time, seeing as my Royal Ambassador status entitles me to free minibar contents. Whites, reds, whiskies – anything that was drinkable, I emptied into my suitcases, which progressively grew in weight. So by the end, I ended up with a pretty decent collection of everything. Except on this flight … I actually _read_ the customs declaration form for Japan, and it turned out I am allowed “3 bottles of 750mL”. This was going to be a problem, as I blew past that limit a long time ago with the wine bottles alone – let alone all the single-use whisky/bourbon/vodka/gin mini-bottles. I had to decide what to do. Getting a customs violation on entry to Japan wasn’t really part of my plans, so I had to improvise.

On arrival to Kansai, I had a wonderfully smart idea. I decided to dump the excess. So I picked up my suitcases at the baggage caroussel, and immediately went to the washroom. Conveniently, there was one for the disabled, with plenty of space to move around. I actually couldn’t remember how many bottles I brought back, so I took out 5 half-bottles of wine, and discreetly put them on the window ledge, then packed up all my suitcases and left. Passed through customs, joyfully answered all the questions, was waved through. Got to the parking lot, was about to pay for the parking space, when I reached for my wallet which was in my backpack… and had a distasteful realisation that in my brilliance at avoiding customs problems, I appear to have left my damn backpack in the very same toilet, right next to the damn abandoned wine bottles. FAIL.
So I parked my suitcases in the car and ran  back to the terminal. Obviously, my stuff was behind the doors that say “NO ENTRY AFTER EXIT”. Obviously, I wasn’t about to obey that, since, well, the longer I wait, the more unpredictable the situation would become. So I stood near the door (in front of all the waiting relatives and friends, who looked at me rather quizzically), and the moment someone exited the doors, I slid right in. I’d probably get shot for doing this in the USA, but I figured, this is Japan, so it can’t be all that terrible. There were obviously a number of security guards there, and I just held my passport in my hand (for some reason, as if that created more legitimacy for what I was doing) and told them I forgot something in the washroom (in Japanese, of course). They looked at me and said “oh sure, just go ahead, it’s that way”.
So I ran to the washroom, just fast enough to make it before the cleaners, but not so fast as to get anyone’s attention. Kind of a rapid duck walk. Got to the washroom…….. and it was clean as a whistle. No illicit alcohol, no backpack. Fail.
I went out and saw the cleaning ladies. I guess they go in after every guest, which is probably how it stays so clean in the first place; not that I cared about this at all at that moment (so I don’t even know why that idle thought came to mind). I asked, “sorry, but I forgot a backpack” – and she said “oh oh yeah yeah that policeman over there has it!”. Double fail.
So I went to him and feigned a look of utter joy on my face pointing at my backpack, and pointedly ignoring the paper bag he had in his hand with a bunch of wine in it. I said, “great! My backpack!!”; he looked at me with a glint in his eye, gave me my backpack, then asked to see my passport, which he immediately compared to the 55 elite status baggage tags I have hanging off it, like spaghetti. Then he held up the wine bag and said, “would this be yours, as well?” I looked him straight in the eye and said “Absolutely not. But what’s inside?”, and after looking in, “Ooooh! That looks tasty!!!” He just shook his head and walked away. I evacuated the premises as fast as I could.
Once again; this would have probably gone down very differently in the USA (to start, my backpack would have probably resulted in a bomb squad and locking down the whole airport……), so I guess I appreciate Japan for still being a normal country in many ways.
Next up … travel notes from inside Japan!
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Day 6: Macau

I arrived to Hong Kong late at night, and checked into the Intercontinental Grand Stanford. A very nice hotel that has extremely reasonable rates compared to the main Intercontinental on the harbour, and with some of the rooms, it even has somewhat of a harbour view! As mentioned in my NYC post, I had a limo scheduled from the Hong Kong airport to the Grand Stanford – a surprise to me, and a surprise to the limo driver (apparently) since he suggested I book it through the hotel, rather than the airline, from now on – since they “ceased service”. All I knew is it was back, and it was free, and that’s a wonderful deal since it basically adds 50 bucks to ticket value!

Checking in, I got the standard Royal Ambassador benefits, which included free minibar and a suite upgrade – but unfortunately, no club (and as a friend of mine later informed me, I should have negotiated for no suite access and club instead, since the Grand Stanford apparently has one of the best clubs in the Intercontinental chain – oops). The room was actually very nice, though being alone, it hardly made any difference; though to be fair, since I was meeting my friend, we were likely to have much better breakfast than the hotel would offer (and we did – more on that shortly). Continue reading

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Day 5: Burj Khalifa and Emirates Dubai to Hong Kong

Since I had very little time to actually visit anywhere, I packed my schedule to the gills (I think I keep mentioning this, but it’s important to understand that I neither had time for sleep, nor jetlag). I got home from yesterday’s trip at close to midnight, and I had to get up at 4am (!) to make it for my 5:30 tickets for Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, just in time for sunrise.

I left the hotel quite early to make sure I make it on time. I’ve mentioned before that the parking lot for the Dubai Mall is enormous, and here’s proof of that, listing the empty spaces at 5am in the morning:

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That’s 6,268 parking spaces only in the Cinema Zone. There are two other parking areas (Grand and Fashion), totaling to just over 14,000 parking spaces. This is in comparison to about 1,000 parking spaces in the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal, or about 67 spaces in the Montreal Trudeau Airport which always seem to be taken.

Of course, nobody comes at 5am, so here’s a shot of something you will likely never see unless you’re as insane as I am:

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Continue reading

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Day 4: Back to Dubai

On this day, more adventures awaited! Opulence of Dubai, more eating, more malls, and of course, what adventure would be complete without a visit to the Burj al-Arab for afternoon tea?

Leaving the Intercontinental Abu Dhabi, I headed off back to Dubai. I was resolved to follow my plan for this day, which had me visiting things more or less by the minute – with directions between each. Continue reading

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Interlude: the cars of the Emirates

Since my interests tend to revolve around cars, planes and watches, it should hardly be a surprise that any trip will discuss at least some, if not all, of these. I didn’t have time to explore watches in great detail on this trip, so it will just be a footnote, but cars in the Emirates definitely deserves its own post.

I should footnote this post by saying that it’s hard to justify posting any cars of the Emirates, because unlike any regular city, where you’d see something fancy and admire it, in the Emirates, anything less than $100,000 on a car (in North American pricing) seems to be pedestrian. As a result, there are so many “impressive” cars that it’s complicated to single any of them out – so I tried to go for ones that had at least something notable about them.

A Dodge Charger is one of these, seeing as Dodge does not sell this outside the USA:

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So is the Golf R, of which I saw literally at least half a dozen, despite it supposedly being a *RARE* car (sniff). On the upside, NONE was “Rising Blue“, and so I feel at least a little bit better. It seems that the entire Rising Blue production ended up in North America, since whenever I see Golf Rs, that’s the only colour I come across…

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The A45 AMG is the car I would buy in a split-second if they ever imported it (or the entire A-series range) into North America:

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Inexplicably, I have seen this a number of times, but people drive with plastic bags over their cars. Isn’t it … hot?

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Not all cars are outrageously expensive. Some are… incomprehensibly rustic.

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Renting a car? Why not a Maserati? “Thank you Dubai” indeed, it seems.

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A Ferrari California and a Porsche Carrera S side by side? Sure.

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I was driving by a store that was called “Exotic Cars Dubai”, and I felt obliged to get off the highway and come back to it, because I simply felt I had to understand – considering the context, what exactly is considered an “exotic” in Dubai?

As usual, Dubai does not disappoint.

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That pedestrian Bentley in the parking lot (probably the floor sweeper’s) is overshadowed by THREE (!!!!!!!!!!!) Aventadors, a gold Bentley Mulsanne, and a two-tone Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport.

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Driving onwards, I came across a few Phantoms…

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… had dinner in a hotel which had a few other Phantoms up front (those are DIFFERENT bordeaux coloured Phantoms, imagine the owner’s chagrin…), as well as a Maserati and an Aston Martin (and really, it looks like if your hotel doesn’t have at least one or two Phantoms at the entrance, you might as well shut the damn thing and go home)…

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… came across a sausage…

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(that blocked traffic for EVERYONE)

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… came across a few more Phantoms, of which one fully chrome one from a country ranked 150  out of 189 in GDP per capita, i.e. 40th poorest country in the world…) _MG_0710

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… came across a joyful Saudi family outing, with (likely) the younger, poorer brother driving with the license plate “3″…

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… the elder brother with “2″…

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… and papa with “1″…

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(another view):

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To be entirely fair, I should comment that despite the fact that there’s about $2-2.5 million dollars of cars in between these three pictures (and the Porsche in the background worth a little bit more than a replacement set of tires for the Bugatti), the license plates were likely worth significantly more than that, as based on what I know about Saudi Arabian (and other Middle Eastern) license plate allocations, single-digit plates can be worth as much as $14 million in some extreme cases. Considering these even come from the same series… yeah, the cars are just decorations to the plates.

After this, going back to the hotel and having the valet park my car next to a 458 Italia was hardly impressive anymore.

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Day 3: A day in Abu Dhabi (including Grand Mosque, Masdar City and others…)

Day 3 started on arrival to Dubai International Airport. Not to sound grumpy, but zero ground service was offered. No golf cart to pick me up. No welcoming. Nothing. The VIP on the flight got a military and UN welcome, but I got nothing. That’s relatively annoying. On the upside, immigration was ultra-quick – the security guard zealously guarding the gate marked “Fast Track – Business/First” looked at me suspiciously and asked, “Business?” and I replied, “First.” – he stepped aside, let me through, the immigration officer burped, “Welcome to the UAE” and I was on my way. Thanks to Steven Harper for allowing Emirates to fly to Toronto so that I can skip paying $92 for a two-day visa.

Exiting the terminal, I was excited to see my Sixt representative and see what car I’d be getting. Seeing as I am Sixt Diamond, I had high hopes. I exited, looked around, saw many men with placards with names on them … except mine. I looked around some more. Nothing.

I phoned Sixt. They asked me to go to across the street and wait 10 minutes in front of National Car Rental (?!). This was certainly profoundly annoying. Eventually, a man drove up and, apologising profusely, took me to the rental office (since Sixt is located in Terminal 1, and my arrival was to 3). Continue reading

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Day 2: Emirates First Class New York – Dubai

Since I’m flying premium on Emirates, I am entitled to their limo pickup service, which is excellent – considering my flight is out of JFK (Kennedy) airport, it’s easily a $65 ride from Manhattan. The only problem is … I assumed it worked like Uber where the guy calls when he is close by. So I was the good citizen – expecting a pickup at 8:20, I checked out around 8 and just camped in the lobby of the hotel for a good 20 minutes, progressively getting more and more irate because no driver showed up; when I finally went outside to look, I saw a Lincoln with my name on it. Apparently, the doorman was supposed to tell me but didn’t – and the driver sat there waiting for almost an hour. Wonderful.
As always, though, nothing bad ever happens without something good: when I was angrily browsing around Emirates’ website looking for the contact info of the service, I noticed that they reinstated their Hong Kong limo service which they suspended on Feb 28: so now, I will get limo pickup in Hong Kong, which is completely awesome.
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Day 1: New York and Intercontinental Times Square

And thus begins the trip.

First experience was in the airport, where I showed up very early for a change. But, as luck would have it, my flight was delayed by 1.5 hours. I already had barely an evening in NYC to meet some fellow travel hackers, so I inquired whether I could be put on a different flight… and to my great surprise, was told that they can put me on a Delta flight to JFK. I had no idea Air Canada even collaborated with Delta – much less be able to change my Aeroplan reward ticket to Delta, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain! In the end, I got into JFK just after 5pm, whereas the Air Canada flight only got into LaGuardia around 18:40pm, so I was far ahead in the game. Sadly, no Delta lounge in Montreal, so I had to slum it in Starbucks. Also apron position, so had to board the plane via the tarmac. Saw this interesting plane on the way out of the airport – it’s an all-business class Airbus A318 which flies London-JFK with a fuel stop in Shannon on the westbound. Continue reading