Nineteen Days

19 days. 3 continents. 9 cities. 10 flight segments (including the world’s 9th longest flight from Dubai to San Francisco). 6 airlines. 35,600 km. Many memorable moments and much learning.

On 28th February 2015, Ben and Linda embarked on the most ambitious travel journey they had ever been brave enough to attempt. Their itinerary (reservations records mostly) extended over 11 pages. Linda will say that Ben was intoxicated by the complexity of it all, and Ben would reluctantly admit that there was probably much truth in that. Nevertheless the genesis of the trip lay, quite simply, in the desire to visit old friends, and reconnect with Istanbul, a city Linda and Ben had spent time in 3 decades ago. It was the perfect excuse for Ben to develop a zany itinerary!

Their journey to Stockholm was on Norwegian Air. It is an interesting budget airline with a nice but affordable premium cabin. The airline manages its costs by using a Thai cabin crew that was very professional (perhaps they hired them from Thai International). If you fly coach they bill you for everything! But fares are really low for coach although seats are extremely tight – so if one is young and slender, the product is great. The premium cabin is great if you need a little more room. If Norwegian is allowed to expand in North America, it could become really popular.

Upon arrival in Stockholm, Sweden, the Arlanda Express swiftly and efficiently conveyed Ben and Linda into town. So before long they were comfortably settled in their ultra-contemporary budget-priced hotel, the HTL Kungsgatan. The minimalist rooms were tastefully laid out, clearly designed with function and convenience in mind. It was even possible to wirelessly sync one’s mobile device with the television. Entirely self-service, the hotel probably operated at a fraction of the cost of comparable hotels.

In an interesting juxtaposition, Ben and Linda’s hotel was situated close to Konditori Vete-katten, a bakery/cafe that had been in operation since the 1920s. Jet-lagged they awoke very early their first morning in Stockholm and were first in line when the bakery opened its doors. They were rewarded with great pastries, sandwiches and coffee.

Teashop 3 (1 of 1)

Over the next couple of days Ben and Linda would visit Gamla Stam, the old city, Djurgarden park and the ghostly Vasamuseet, as well as attempt some shopping. The temptation of a pilgrimage to IKEA was resisted, although perhaps a visit might have been interesting. There is commercial/industrial sprawl outside Stockholm but there was no time to explore the areas.

After Stockholm, Ben and Linda headed for London. Ben has a long history with London visiting it for the first time in 1972, over 40 years ago. Peering out the airplane window as the aircraft approached Gatwick Airport, Ben could feel the familiar appeal of the lush rolling landscape. As before, he was excited by the prospect of meeting his old family friends. This time though the visit had a special significance because his friends were about to move to Hong Kong, for health reasons. Time has taken its toll. Regrettably, it tolls for everyone!

Anyhow, Ben and Linda were treated exceptionally well in London. Lunch at Ting in Shangri-la Hotel, located at The Shard (the tallest building in Europe), was quite the experience. Another evening they were guests at a corporate banquet held by their hosts, and they proceeded to enjoy a massive dinner at The Grosvenor Hotel. During a stay at the same hotel 40 years earlier, Ben was certain he had heard strange noises in the night that he speculated might not have had human origins. Meeting dear friends was wonderful but the piece de resistance was very nearly the gorgeous penthouse they were accommodated in.

View of Tower Bridge from the apartment.
Apt bridge view

View of the Thames from Ting.
Thames river from Shard (1 of 1)

London today is obviously not what it was 40 years ago. Yes, it is more crowded or more technologically advanced (though it continues to lag) than before. However, demographically it has undergone massive change. Conceivably one could eat at a whole bunch of restaurants and cafes and never be attended to by a British person (or a person born in Britain) – reminiscent of Vancouver if you like. Whole swathes of London (and many British brands), are owned by foreigners (non-British). Iconic Harrod’s ceased to be British owned a long time ago. The Grosvenor Hotel where the banquet was held, is now a Guoman property (managed by a Singapore/Hong Kong based group). In the tiny square mile that is the official “City of London”, only 48% is British owned. The “real” Britain though is not far away and as we departed, Ben was left wondering how London differed from other cities/areas in Britain.

The next stop was Istanbul. A massive city packed with people constantly on the move, Linda and Ben had traveled to Istanbul in 1986, nearly 30 years earlier. Then, the people of that city seemed never to have seen an ethnically Chinese person before. Linda would tell people we were “Eskimoes” (no offence intended to anyone). During that first visit Ben discovered the Turkish Doner (similar to the Greek Gyro) and he considered quitting university to establish a Doner stand in Singapore.

Josh joined Ben and Linda in Istanbul and that made the trip there a particularly meaningful one. They stayed in a hotel in the touristy but atmospheric Sultanahmet area.

Ben and Josh in Sultanahmet
Josh & Ben (1 of 1)

Linda and Ben attempted to visit their old “haunts” but they were either no longer in existence, had moved, or had undergone radical transformation. In the 80s there was a bakery near the hotel Ben and LInda stayed at, that they had visited regularly; their favourite late night activity was to descend to the bakery for tavuk, cay and simit. Tavuk is an amazing pudding made from chicken breast (yes!), Cay is tea and simit is something like a turkish pretzel. That bakery since has been transformed into an upscale konditorei with stores in several key spots in Istanbul. Yes, the store is much nicer today but Ben and Linda miss some of the “romance” of the old place.

Hafiz Mustafa (1 of 1)

In the 1980s, Istanbul was a badly polluted city; the air was so bad, Ben had fallen ill within days of his arrival in Istanbul. He (or his lungs) adapted, but the air was still tough to breath. Istanbul today is very different – the air is clean and breathable and road traffic in the old city is strictly controlled. Other touches of modernity – clean toilets of a very high standard everywhere we went. The transit system is not bad.

What has not changed are the 7 hills the city is sprawled over. Ben had never walked so many hills in so few days. Up steep streets, down narrow alleys packed with small stores on the side.

The existence of tourist traps is another feature of the Istanbul experience. Attracted by the gozleme (see the picture), we walked into a restaurant before realizing it was a tourist trap. Annoyed by its “scammy” feel and high prices, we walked out boldly and left without ordering any food. We did not consume any gozleme in Istanbul but were able to sample it at a Turkish market in Berlin, our next stop! Linda’s wish came true.

To say that Istanbul can be crowded is probably an understatement.

Here is a picture of Istikal Cadessi packed end-to-end with people heading toward Taksim Square.
Taksim crowd (1 of 1)

On their last day in Istanbul, Ben and Linda walked across the famous Galata Bridge, running a gauntlet of restaurant touts. Then all of a sudden, in the Karakoy area they encounter a beautiful café serving great food, coffee and jazz! Ben was happy!

Berlin was next. The day began with a visit to the usual tourist sites such as the Brandenburger Tor. Accommodating Ben, Linda and Josh in Berlin was Ben’s classmate from law school and her husband, a German professor of economics. We stayed in much of the following day so Linda could rest, and Josh could catch up with some work. Then it was off to our first true Bavarian meal at Zum Haxenwirt, a Bavarian restaurant specializing in Schweinhaxen or roast pork legs. In fact orders have to be placed in advance. Throwing caution to the wind (not!) a “small” order had been requested. It was not a wise decision as they finished dinner wishing for more of the crackly pork roast!

Berlin was interesting to Ben because he had first visited the city forty years ago. Then, Berlin was “divided” into British, French, American and Russian zones. Ben only vaguely recalls crossing “Checkpoint Charlie”. However he definitely remembers observing soldiers patrolling the Berlin Wall.

A short video about the Berlin Wall.

Here is a photo Joshua took of one of the remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall:

Berlin wall 1 (1 of 1)

In Berlin, the party joined a fascinating tour of Street Art and Graffiti.

Ben in street art (1 of 1)

All over Berlin though, there are references to its political history. One cannot help but feel that the city remains in a transition. The best part about the trip to Berlin though was the opportunity to reconnect with old friends – and the extended conversations that ensued over long breakfasts and dinners.

Dubai was Ben and Linda’s very last stopover. Unfortunately they have no photos of Dubai (because Josh took the camera with him). The operating model of the city is however fascinating in the extreme. Emiratis comprise 12% of the workforce with foreigners making up the rest. Despite its modernity, the city feels like one massive bazaar (a Las Vegas for shopping). The difference between London and Dubai is that whilst the former is owned and operated by foreigners, the latter is only operated by foreigners. Dubai International Airport, essentially a refueling stop in the 1970s, recently overtook London’s Heathrow Airport as the world’s busiest international airport. It will be interesting to follow the fates of the two cities in the years ahead. Emirates, the Dubai based airline, is the world’s largest international airline boasting the world’s largest fleet of “wide-body” airplanes including 58 (89 on order) of the Airbus A380, the world’s largest aircraft.

If one thing was clear from their survey of cities, it is the inevitability of change – or more accurately discontinuous change. The lesson is clear; one should not assume that things will stay the same or extrapolate a future from the past.

“The wheel of change moves on, and those who were down go up and those who were up go down”
Jawarhalal Nehru