November 7, 2010

Russian visa…have someone who reads Russian check your visa. Will save you money, stress and time.

I now have something in common with William Browder (CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, the largest foreign investor in the Russian stock market and the adviser to the award-winning Hermitage Fund), Michel Jean Legrand (French Oscar-winning composer, arranger, conductor, and pianist, famous for conducting the music for Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and the Dalai Lama (Tibet’s spiritual leader). We have all been refused entry into Russia.

If you’re traveling to Russia, you will most likely need a Russian visa. Many people think that it’s super complicated but it’s not true. However, when you get your visa it is necessary to check all information….even though everything is in Russian. You can’t imagine how much money, stress and time you can save by doing just that.

I got my Russian visa in the Russian consulate in Singapore. The error they made was they indicated my nationality as “Singaporean” on my Malaysian passport though I had completed the application form correctly.

I was denied entry when I arrived at passport control in Domodedovo airport in Moscow. They brought me to the consular office where the officer cancelled my visa and re-issued me a new one for US$10. The error he made was that he issued me a single-entry visa instead of a double-entry one which I had originally paid for and obtained in Singapore. Double-whammy. Once again, everything was written in  Russian and I couldn’t understand even if I checked.

A week later, when I boarded a  train in Helsinki at 6.30pm heading to Moscow. Four hours into the journey, when we’d passed the Russian border, customs and immigration officials came on board the train and found that my visa was not valid. Being a single-entry visa, meant that my visa had been used up when I left Moscow the week before. I was asked to disembark from the train at Vyborg, a Russian town, 38 kilometers south from the Russian border with Finland at 11.45pm near midnight. There I was instructed to wait for a taxi on the roadside and leave Russia.

I got into a taxi after almost an hour’s wait and was driven to the checkpoint on the Russian-Finnish frontier. I’ve got to be honest…the movie “Hostel” did flashed through my mind at this point as we shuttled down gravely silent, dark and deserted countryside road for over 40 minutes. The Russian officials at the checkpoint stopped a passing car and instructed the lone driver to fetch me to wherever he was going. I climbed into his car and went with him to Lappeenranta – a Finnish city some 25km from the checkpoint. The driver, Vesa is a big blond Finn who drives a Mercedes Benz ASF959, has a heart of gold. He dropped me at a hotel called Cumulus at 3.00am  and offered to pick me up the next day to Helsinki if I needed a ride.

However, I managed to get a flight on Air Baltic flight BT1384 from Lappenranta to Riga, Latvia at 0745hours and then onwards to Frankfurt on Air Baltic flight BT241 at 1305hours.

Those couple of errors on my visa, resulted in denial of my entry and totally screwed up my  plans. Therefore it is helpful to have someone who reads Russian check your visa prior to your departure from your home country.

Oh by the way, there apart from the visa lesson, a few other things I learned from this adventure:

1. Never again shall I train in this Orient Express (not. More like Ordeal Express)  from Helsinki to Moscow. The food is pathetic and the sleeping cabins are fully remote control….that is I can do everything from my bed (see photo)

2. I now know that Lappeenranta’s airport is the oldest airport in Finland.

This is the true truth and I say it as it is…

November 3, 2010

Kauppatori Market, Helsinki…worth a look and DO NOT miss the delicious food

This Kauppatori market square in Helsinki is certainly worth a look. It is beautifully set right on the harbour front with lots of outdoor market stalls.

DO NOT miss the delicious food! You will get delicious food with small money. We had our lunch there – Finnish traditional food –  lohi (fish) and makkara (sausage). A word of warning though: watch the seagulls, they are fearless and after your food portion!

When walking more towards the east end of the market square when the food stuff end, you find the booths selling postcards, T-shirts, fur, handicraft and other souvenir. Many of them hand made in Finland. In most places you can buy with credit card too.

This is the true truth because I say it as it is…

November 2, 2010

Ravintola Sea Horse, Helsinki…Unimpressive

Let me start with the bad news: Both our main courses were unimpressive, however tempting they might have sounded. Sea Horse offers traditional Finnish cuisine. I had the traditional finnish meetballs complete with brown sauce, brown sauce and pickled beetroot. I should have tried the fillet of reindeer with cranberry redwine sauce with smashed potato with onion-potato mash.

This is not a fancy place, but neat with white tablecloths etc. The walls are a pleasant green, with the far wall painted with a mural of seahorses. Possibly due to the fact it was Sunday and the restaurant was fairly empty. The advantage of the place being mostly empty was that BeRt and I we ended up at a four-person table, so there was plenty of elbow room.

This is the true truth as I say it as it is…

November 1, 2010

Cafe Ursula, Helsinki…lovely setting

9.45am Sunday morning, BeRt and I walked along the coast down to the southern tip of the city and went to the Cafe Ursula in the park of Kaivopuisto which over looked the island of Soumenlina – lovely setting from which you can admire the wonderful sight of the Gulf of Finland.

There is a wide selection of pastries and local bakeries to choose from to go along with your coffee. Their pastries are quite tasty and sandwiches and cakes are good too. I watched with keen interest at a couple had champagne breakfast on a neighbouring table. (the tables are quite close to one another). The round shape of the main room is interesting and makes observing the view pleasant. The sun shines directly onto the front of the café, and the outdoor terrace would be great to lounge around during the summer months.

I hear this place was first set up as a temporary facility for the 1952 Olympic games. It is still here. This has to be one of the classic coffee houses in Helsinki.This is still the true truth as I still say it as it is…

October 31, 2010

Tallink Silja Superstar, Ferry Tallinn-Helsinki…business lounge was great stuff

Filed under: Estonia, Ferry, Finland, Travel — Tags: , , , , , — PEr @ 2:45 pm

Tallink Silja M/S Superstar line provides the fast ferry connection between Tallinn and Helsinki South harbour.  The travel time is slightly over 2 hours as Helsinki and Tallinn are only 80km apart.

Embarkation starts 30 minutes before departure, and there was a mad rush to board the vessel. They could have got assigned a different gangway for passengers on business class, I feel. Disembarkation in Helsinki was a straightforward affair, due partly to that fact that there is no passport control. I still felt that business class passengers should have priority of a different gangway.

Superstar has a well-equipped business lounge for 138 passengers. It offers wifi all the way! And comfortable seating. We had complimentary buffet dinner, and free drinks included in the price of the ticket. Great stuff.

This is the true truth an I say it as it is…

October 30, 2010

Hotel Kamp, Helsnki…opulence reigns but service does not match product

The best thing about Hotel Kamp is that the rooms and bathroom are very spacious and that it’s situated at a lovely cobbled street in the heart  of the CBD and 5 minutes walk to the harbour and the central station is only slightly further. Right off the main shopping street, Hotel Kamp is literally a two minute walk from a large, beautifully landscaped park that is populated by Finns enjoying the autumn days. This fabulous (and clean) park had dozens of park benches, wide expanses of lawn for relaxing, and numerous outdoor cafes perfect for a quick espresso and some people watching. Don’t miss the beautiful Helsinki Cathedral, which is just around the corner from the hotel.

Opulence reigns – outfitted in plush carpets, draperies, and upholstered furniture reflected vividly in the sparkling chandeliers and spectacular mirrors.

Often a hotel website paints an unrealistic image of the rooms and facilities. There are photographers who can make a puddle look like an Olympic sized swimming pool but there had been no trick photography at Hotel Kamp. The hotel room looked exactly like the one in the pictures on the website and is breath-takingly beautiful. Mind you,the massive king-sized bed was so wide that if I had a partner, my partner would be in a different time zone.

The bathroom – a huge marble room decorated in subtle greys and taupes, this was a bather’s delight. There was a huge tub with a grey marble surround. Behind the tub, the heated towel rack was piled with plush white cotton towels that tempted me to thievery (don’t worry, I didn’t succumb!). Perched jauntily next to the tub was a green rubber ducky, a sweet touch! There was an oversized shower stall with two shower heads. The water pressure was fabulous and the controls had a specific setting for heat, allowing you to set the heat of the water to a precise setting. The marble toped vanity had two large sinks and the entire wall behind the sinks was a large mirror. The toilet was discretely tucked into a nice sized room to the side, separated from the rest of the bathroom with a frosted glass panel and door.

If I sound like I am a big fan of this hotel, I am.  However, for the room rates they charge, they should have got some service touches right:

The pillows were extremely soft. You literally feel that there were no pillows a all,despite the fact that I had piled two of them on top of on another. There was a pillow menu but when I called for harder ones, they brought up the same ones I already had. Housekeeping left me two bottles of body lotion but no shower gel. When I called guest services from my room, nobody answered the phone and I was forced to walk to the lobby to request for my shower gel. Upon check in, they upgraded BeRt to  suite  when both of us had paid for similar room type. The front desk lady offered to send me a bottle of wine when I inquired why I was not offered an upgrade. I told her a wanted white wine but they sent me red wine instead. In fact, they sent me the wine two days later, after I called and reminded them 3 times.

Long story short, the service does not match the product and certainly does not justify the sky high prices. This is the true truth because I say it as it is…

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