Monday, March 30, 2015

Finally on Our Way!

Greetings from Tashkent!

I am writing this post from seat 14G on a TransAero flight 2222 from JFK to Vnukovo Airport in Moscow. If you can't already tell from that sentence, today's the day we left NYC for Tashkent. Our flight out of JFK was at 2:25p so we didn't have to worry about getting up at the crack of dawn. We woke when we woke. I had to check the weather. Yep, it was 26 degrees this morning. It's suppose to be spring but it's obvious the weather gods did not get the memo!! I checked the weather for Tashkent for Tuesday, the day after we arrive.  It'll be in the 30's by the time we wake up.  Cold.....very glad I got my down jacket!

We had a light breakfast and then Pat had a few last minute things to take care of before we left for the airport.

She's like me in that I'd rather be at the airport early and wait there so we decided to head out around 10:15a. Yes, that's more than 4 hours before departure but neither of us was about to miss this flight!

Because of the weekend work that was being done, we couldn't catch the E Train from 8th Ave and 24th Street subway station as we would have. Instead, we took the train from 8th and 28th, downtown, to 8th Ave and 14th street stop. From the 14th street station it was on to the E Train to Sutphin Blvd where we transferred over to the AirTran. Even though our trip took us about an hour and fifteen minutes We arrived in to JFK with plenty of time to spare.


From Pat's place, it's just a block walk to the nearest subway station. With our wheeled luggage, it was an easy stroll. But I was a bit worried about how Pat would handle all the steps. Although she is 81, you would never, ever, ever know it. She easily carried her suitcase (which we later on found out weighed 12 kilos) up and down all the steps inside and outside the subway stations. There was no huffing or puffing.....the woman is amazing!! Should I be so lucky to be in such fantastic shape when I am in her age!!!

Waiting for the subway.
It was our lucky day today. As we got off the escalator, on the 2nd level of Terminal 4 at JFK, there was a TransAero ticket sales counter immediately in front of us. The lady pointed us to the TransAero check in counter which was barely 30 feet away. There was already long line of people and we took our spots. We had plenty of time to wait. But, no sooner had we got in line when a uniformed agent asked if we had any carry one baggage. We each pointed to our backpacks. He put a tag on each of our packs and moved on.

Next thing you know it, another uniformed agent approached us. She wanted to know where we were going and so we told her Tashkent. She asked to see our passports and then instructed us to follow her. She took us to a self check-in kiosk and we told her we were already checked in. We needed to get our seat assignments for the second leg of our journey as we already had the ones for our first leg to Moscow. She then asked to see our boarding passes which we gladly showed her. She nodded okay and then appeared to want to wave us back in line. Pat let out a small protest about having lost our spot in line and having to go to the back. With that, the agent took us up to the check in counter. We had jumped the line!! We patiently waited for the agent to finish taking care of another passenger and then we were next! Like I said, it was our lucky day! The agent got us checked in, our bags checked in and handed us a new set of boarding passes. We couldn't have been standing in front of the counter for more than 10 minutes. Looking around, I could see the mass of people we had somehow gotten ahead of. We were both puzzled why the woman picked us out of the line. Perhaps, we somehow stood out like sore thumbs?

Our luck continued at the security line. From the ticket counter, we ended up standing in front of a sign that clearly indicated the entry to the security line for TSA-Pre Check passengers, families traveling with young children and passengers over 75. Pat qualified to be in the line. I told her to go ahead. I would go and the line for *everyone else* and meet up with her at the gate. Instead, she convinced me to go along with her and so I did. Afterall, the worst thing that could happen is that I would be rejected and told to go in the other line.

I was fully prepared to be rejected but never was! This being the TSA Pre-Check line, we didn't have to take off our shoes, take the stuff out of our packs or go through the body scanner. The agent did ask us too take off our jackets which we gladly did. We both got through security in probably less than 15 minutes. Not bad considering this is JFK - one of the busiest airports in the US and we were flying out during prime travel hours.

Luckily, we didn't have to walk far to get to our departure gate either - we both joked it would be miles away from where the security check was.


On her iPad!
We had a couple hours to wait but both Pat and I were able to keep ourselves occupied. Pat has her Kindle and iPad - yes, she is very comfortable with using the latest technology. I think she was playing some sort of a word game on her Kindle. I kept busy with a game on my smartphone.

Our flight was delayed by 20 minutes but before we knew it, it was time to board. Looking at the people waiting in line, there's no doubt, we're on a flight where a large majority of the passengers are obviously Jewish. For a minute, I felt like I was back in Ben Gurion Airport. I think they are headed to Tel Aviv via Moscow as I recognized one of the passengers from when we were standing at the TransAero check in counter. He told me that he and his family were headed for a three week vacation to Israel; they're seated a few rows in front of me. As we watched the passengers board the plane, the one thing we both noticed was the number of families traveling with babies and young children. I've never seen so may strollers on a flight! As the families walked by us, we both had the same thought - I just hope I'm not seated next to a crying baby and/or noisy child!

Pat and I managed to get aisle seats - I'm sitting behind her. We're seated close to the front of the plane so we were in the last group of passengers to board. Pat is not seated next to any children though there is a screaming and I mean screaming baby just a few rows ahead of us. I have three kids next to me. It's been about an hour in to the flight and they are angels. Our travel luck continues and I am keeping my fingers crossed that it will be that way all the way to Tashkent!

The food cart has just arrived and not a minute too soon! I am starving! Food break.

The rest of the flight was uneventful. We did have in seat video but only three (?) channels. Nothing worth watching. It was a bunch of old movies - a couple of American ones; another looked like a Russian military movie of some sort....and then the obligatory cartoons for the kids. They kept cycling the shows over and over again. Unfortunately, I didn't find the complimentary headsets until it was too late to watch the shows. The games on my iPad kept me entertained.

I also flipped through the magazine. Except for two articles, it was all in Russian. Of course, one off the articles happened to be on Barcelona. A visit to Spain has been on my mind for quite some time. With the Euro at an all time low against the dollar - it was almost par with the dollar this past Thursday, my annual trip with Bro this year might just have to be somewhere in Europe. I take the article as a sign that it must be Spain :-)

Vnukovo Airport.  Cold as hell inside but we have free Wifi!
About two hours before landing, they served us breakfast. We'll be landing shortly so I'm putting the iPad away until we get to our departure gate in Vnukovo Airport.

We landed at Vnukovo Airport about an hour late which was not a problem for us. It cut our layover time down from 4 hours to just a little under 3. The airport looks relatively new and most of the jets parked outside were either TransAero or some company I didn't recognize the name of. This is an international airport but I suspect it mainly services flights to and from countries in the region with aa few further afar like the US and China.


Killing time at Vnukovo Airport.
We found ourselves a couple of seats and kept ourselves occupied until boarding time. The pilot announced that it was zero degrees Celcius when we landed and it felt just a few degrees warmer than that inside the terminal!! Pat was feeling chilly so I gave her my fleece jacket and I put on my newly purchased UNIQLO down jacket. Pat topped off her ensemble with her wool hat! We were both finally feeling a bit comfy.

By the time our flight took off, it was around 3am east coast time. I was ready to crash. Boarding here goes as follows. You see a mass of people crowded around the spot where the agent is collecting tickets and you just join in. If you're lucky, the mass moves forward in a nice way. If not, you find yourself getting nudged or even pushed. Today, the mass was a kind crowd.

Pat and I were seated near each other. Pretty much as soon as the plane took off and I was reaching into my backpack to get my eye mask and dozed off. I was awoken by the stewardess when it was time for lunch.....which was horrible. Pasta drowning in oil with a few bits of who knows what glomped together with a few minuscule pieces of melted cheese. I was too hungry not to eat so down the hatch it went. Thankfully, there was a wafer cookie that I could satisfy my tastebuds with. After that, it was back to napping until minutes before we were about to descend into Tashkent international Airport.

I always breathe a sigh of relief when we land. Today's wasn't the smoothest touchdown but hey, we made it!

The same mass that pushed me on to the plane made it difficult for me to get off the plane. Unlike the US, where folks who are in line to exit will pause to let folks in, here they ignore you. If you are already in the aisle you have right of way and there is no need to be courteous. As I patiently waited to find an opening in the line that I could squeeze into, I felt a push from the lady seated next to me. So in the line I went! From now on, I will just push my way in as everyone else does. Hopefully, I won't piss anyone off!

Pat and I were prepared for challenges getting through passport control and customs. It started when we didn't know if there was a special line for visitors vs. Uzbeks. We ended up picking a line that led to a counter that did not indicate it was for Uzbeks. Hopefully, that meant everyone else. As we stood in the line....and there was a bit of a line, eagle eyed Pat spotted a man holding up a piece of paper with my name on it. We figured he was sent by Advantour to meet us and help us through immigration and customs. When he raised the piece of paper, we waved our hands in the air to acknowledge we had seen him. The guy standing next to him did the same and for a few seconds, neither of the two guys knew which one of us belonged to which one of them so they did the paper raising thing again but this time in sequence so we could raise our hands accordingly. Once our guy connected with us, he wanted to know if we had our visas. We both opened our passports to the Uzbek visa page and raise them in unison to show him. We got this down now. It was just a matter of getting up to the counter and have the officer give us our entry stamps.

Pat had gone through immigration before me so when I finished up, I joined her and the guy who came to see us through all the paperwork. I did ask him his name and no sooner had he said it and I had already forgotten it. I will have to pay better attention to Uzbek names! I'll just call Immigration Guy.

Once we made it past immigration, it was on to customs. We had to fill in two copies of the declaration form. The most important section has to do with declaring our money. For some reason, I thought we also had to declare all our electronic goods but according to Immigration Guy, that was not necessary. When we were done, we handed him the forms and our passports, which he took over to some place for processing by someone while we waited for our luggage. Our luck of the day ended with the luggage. First off, every Uzbek who travels much travel with at least 15 bags.....I swear. Second of all, there are only two guys unloading all that luggage on to the carousel. The result is that we stood around the luggage carousel for far longer than it took for us to go through immigration and fill in our declaration forms. in fact, I got so tired of standing and waiting that I eventually took a seat. As Murphy's Law would have it, that's when our luggage finally made an appearance. I thanked the Suitcase God for seeing that my luggage made it safely all the way from JFK.

With luggage in hand, we then had to go through security check before we could exit. We followed Immigration Guy through the mass of people in the exit hall. There were so many people, I had to weave in and out to walk in a straight line, if you know what I mean. Immigration Guy went up to Security Check Officer Guy and exchanged a few words. Next thing you know, we had again jumped the line. We put our luggage on the belt to go through the scanner and nothing beeped which was a good thing. Although I don't think Security Check Officer Guy was really paying all that close attention to what was coming across on his monitor. No matter, we were finally cleared to enter Uzbekistan!

Greetings from Tashkent!! Immigration Guy had told us that his responsibility was to see us through immigration and customs and then hand us over to our driver who would take us to our hotel. So, after we cleared security, we followed Immigration Guy outside. It was a bright sunny day, late afternoon. It was chilly in Tashkent too. We walked by a bunch of men all asking, "Taxi?" before being introduced to our driver. We asked him his name. I think he said Marvlon.....or something like that. We asked him to repeat his name and once again, I thought I heard Marvlon so that's what I will call him until he corrects me or I ask him to write it down.

We followed Marvlon to his car.....a compact sized Chevy of all things. According to Marvlon, the GM cars are manufactured in Uzbekistan, a joint venture with some company or other. Marvlon's car was blocked on all sides by some other small cars. In the US, I would be upset. Here, no big deal. Marvlon literally just pushed one out of the way. Maybe they don't use their handbrakes here if they are blocking someone in??

Pat taking in the view from the front seat.

First glimpse of Tashkent.  It's got a lot of green spaces!

It was a short (15 minute?) drive to our hotel. Although it was prime rush hour, traffic was light by US capital city aka Washington, DC standards. Also, traffic seems well behaved - at least folks stay in their lanes and abide by the traffic lights. That's my initial impression. Another initial impression is just how green Tashkent is. There are indeed a lot of green spaces - large and small. Last impression is that there are a lot of Soviet style buildings here - those drab looking apartment buildings dot the streets here.

Our hotel, Shodlik Palace, is very centrally located on Pakhtakor Street, just across from the stadium by the same name.

The view from our room.
Marvlon pulled up to the front door, walked us in and helped us get started with getting our room. Before he left, he confirmed he would be back on Wednesday at 9a to pick us up - he will be our guide for the day.

Our room was on the 5th floor with a balcony overlooking the stadium. It's a good sized room with a nice bathroom. We'll be comfy here.

When we were checking in, I had asked the receptionist about whether or not there was an ATM on premises. Answer was No. I then asked if the hotel exchanges money. Answer was No. So, Pat and I decided we would worry about getting money tomorrow.

As we were settling into the room, the phone rang. I picked it up. It was the receptionist. She was offering us the opportunity to exchange money....let's call it "unofficially". She asked how much. I told her $400. She sounded a bit shocked. It was more than she expected. So, I dropped it to $200. That was doable. So we agreed we would exchange $200 today and $200 tomorrow. She stipulated we had to the exchange in our room. Okay, I replied. Someone would be up within the hour. Again, I replied okay.

I was in the bathroom when the guy showed up. Pat let him in. He had bundles and I mean bundles of cash on him. I started to laugh....that laugh when you see something so ridiculous that you simply don't know how to respond. But I held back. The guy looked like a decent person - even had a name badge on which I didn't look closely at as I didn't want him to think I was suspicious. But if I were a betting woman, I would say he worked close by. Let's leave it at that. I asked him how much cash he had and with his fingers, he was asking for something to write with. I pulled out my pen and got him a piece of paper. As he wrote the numbers *497,000*, he made a swirling motion with his fingers, hovering over the pile of bundles which were now neatly stacked on top of the small table in our room.

This is what $200 USD converted to in Uzbek som.  I either need a bigger wallet or a bodyguard!

 From that I could figure it out. $200 for 497,000 some. Definitely NOT an ideal exchange rate so I'm doubtful I will get the $200 tomorrow but at least we both now feel more comfortable that we each have some cash on us. I'm going to be keeping my eyes out for a bank tomorrow and if they have an ATM machine, will put cash from there.

Pat trying to count out the som.  I told her not to bother.  It was much too much effort to count to 497,000!

As all three of us stood around the table, Pat started to count out the bills. She got part way through one stack and had already lost count. I told her we had to just trust him and if we were short, I would call back the receptionist. Surprisingly, my gut told me he was honest about the accuracy of the bill count even if the exchange rate was a horrible one. Yes, on the one hand I laugh about the ridiculousness of a wad of money as thick as a ream of paper and shake my head in disbelief at how we got the money but on the other, I carry disappointed at myself for accepting the exchange rate. I think I was tired and well, there's the simply the convenience factor that I am willing to pay for - it's nice to not have to start off your trip in search of a place to get money in a country where getting local currency is not as easy as in many other countries.

After the guy left, Pat and I had to divvy up the pile into two - one for her and the other for me. We then subdivided each of our own piles into smaller bundles so on any given day, we're not carrying around a wad of money.



By the time we finished up with affairs of the money, it was dinner time. We had decided to simply eat in to day so just headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant. Despite the fact that we're staying in a supposed 4 star hotel, the prices were really reasonable. We agreed to leave Uzbek food for tomorrow going forward so we opted for pizza - we shared one mushroom pizza and one pizza marrgherita. We also got a bottle of water. As you well know, Uzbekistan is not known for its pizza.. So, when two thin crust pizzas were delivered to our table, we dove in to them with that expectation. We were right. They were okay. Surprisingly, we were hungry enough to each devour 10" sized pizza! The bill totaled up to 37,000 som. I took my opportunity to start ditching 1,000 bills!

Two pizzas for two weary travelers.

After dinner, it was a quick shower before getting into bed and writing up this post. Pat stayed up as late as she could but by 9:30p, she was ready to finally call it a day. It had most certainly been a very long day for us. Tomorrow, we have the day to ourselves and will work out our itinerary over breakfast. I too am starting to fade so I will sign off for the day.

Goodnight from Tashkent!