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Oktoberfest, September 2008

A weekend of Absinthe and beer

There’s really little more to say- this is the beerfest to end all beerfests. For two weeks in Munich in late September, the city swells with visitors from everywhere who quaff expensive, stronger than normal 1 L denominations of beer. I’m one of them.

I arrived on Friday night, the day before the keg was tapped, to catch the premiere of the new Absinthe snowboarding flick, Ready, but aside from seeing plenty of kids there primarily to get trashed, it was a mellow, though late evening for me. I did get to meet a number of the cast and crew, which included some of my favorite pro riders. It’s also clearly not as much fun going on your own.

some of the cast and crew

some of the cast and crew

But now a bit about the main event, I went twice, actually, the day of the opening, and then for much of Sunday afternoon. Didn’t get a seat inside, so I stood outside on a chilly, overcast September day and had my high quality Augustiner brew.

YES!

YES!

boyzone. . .

boyzone. . .

crazy aussies

crazy aussies

the 8000 person tent. . .

the 8000 person tent. . .

And then Sunday I went with some friends and six hours later, I didn’t even recall shooting off 270 photos, was too drunk to catch my train back, and ended up staying the night before taking the 6 AM train back to the office.

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Weekend in the Arlberg

First trip here this season, after I took the plunge on the steep train fare and took the 7-hour journey to meet up with my buddy Michael in Lech. I’d love to go more often, but I just live too far away. After relaxing in the evening, and still staying up way past my bedtime (1 AM), I managed to get some sleep, never enough, though. It had been a roller-coaster week at work, and I had not been riding in three weeks. 

 

chillin' in a "chilliges Abteil"

chillin' in a "chilliges Abteil"

Here we go, this is what happens when it puked a bunch of snow during the week, and when you put an old guy with a bunch of early 20-somethings. You get a powder day on steroids, in a clockwise loop from Lech to Zuers and back. And plenty of that indecipherable Vorarlberg dialect.

 

gonna be an excellent day

gonna be an excellent day

9:30 AM, off to the races, and the first of many extended powder runs. It’s this undulating terrain with numerous gullies, cliffs of different sizes, and all sorts of natural terrain features. So off we went, taking the usual set of chairlifts and surface lifts to get to Zuers, and then gradually back to Lech. They knew the way, I just did my best to follow them around.

2 PM, time for a quick lunch with a view. And a brief check of our transceivers for safety’s sake.

 

lunch with a view

lunch with a view

4 PM,  a long-ish hike out of bounds, that hour when you start to feel the temperature falling, and when the light on the mountain starts to take a slight pinkish glow. What a view, what a day.

 

last steps, way out of bounds

last steps, way out of bounds

 

the crew

the crew

 

 

The flat spots, however, really got me. Despite pointing it, I found that I had to skate or unstrap to get going, so I probably irritated everyone. To all of them, danke fuer deine Geduld, thanks for your patience, and sorry!

I’ve been to the Arlberg several times now, but I think this trip took the cake with regards to quality. The sun came out for just one day, the temperatures still stayed below freezing, and hooking up with a bunch of locals, they knew where to go.

Now it was harder to get up early the next morning, crawl out of bed, and pull on the clothes and my still-damp, slimy boots. I had a long journey back to the flatlands of Germany after riding, and I decided on another loop of Lech / Zuers, albeit this time it was a solo mission, and abbreviated.

 

weather moving in, a 60+ cm dump is on its way

weather moving in, a 60+ cm dump is on its way

I revisited some spots from the day before, some of which had become suncrusted and choppy, but ended it on a happy solo run to the Lech tunnel. And then it was a breathless set of bus and train connections, a postbus to Langen and on to Feldkirch, a six minute connection, a standing-room only train to Lindau, another six minute connection, a delayed train to Ulm, a two minute dash to the bullet train, and a growling stomach from not eating quite enough over the past couple of days. 

A few lessons I picked up out of this:

I’m old and out of shape. My abilities are headed south, but I can still do a mean powder turn. Safety first. Still among the best days of the year so far.

eyewitness Pristina, February 2008

One year ago, on February 17, 2008. . .

How often does a person witness a country’s leaders declaring independence? I missed the American version by a couple hundred years.

The news reports had been hinting at a possible declaration of independence by Kosovo, and after following the reports for a couple of weeks, it became Europe’s worst-kept secret that the weekend of February 16-18 would be the date. So out of curiosity and general fascination with the Balkans since my first visit to the region in 2002, I snagged a last-minute biz class ticket on my Star Alliance miles and headed for Pristina. And then I booked a room in one of the last hotels to have any space available, the Hotel Begolli, and I was set to go.

Friday night, I flew to Vienna after work, which was a short hop on Austrian Airlines, followed by a train that pretty much took me to within 100 m of my hotel. Not much to say for Vienna, except that it isn’t my favorite European city, and that I’ve been there a few times and not really liked it so much.

 

biz class!

biz class!

Saturday, I did a bit of sightseeing in the morning, mostly around the old town and Stephansdom, and then headed for the airport again. As expected, it was rather chaotic near the departure gate for Pristina, with plenty of news crews, a lot of soldiers, probably some Kosovans, and a few regular folks like me. The gate agent was asking for volunteers to fly the next day, which was met mostly with chuckles from the crowd. They were certainly aware that it would be a historic weekend in Pristina.

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I sat next to a fellow named David Phillips, who was working at Columbia University and serving as a Clinton campaign advisor for foreign policy. He was going to miss the actual declaration, which he surmised would be on Sunday, but said that he was headed to Prime Minister Hashim Thaci’s place for drinks in the evening.

A celebratory mood greeted me when I arrived at the Pristina Airport. Now I should first mention that the plane’s routing from Vienna was unusual, skirting all of Serbia and flying in a semicircle, first over Bratislava and Budapest, before turning towards Sofia, and finally arriving into Pristina from the south, passing over Skopje. I’m not sure if this is air traffic, or on purpose to stay over (mostly) EU airspace.

I stood outside the airport for a while, listening to an impromptu musical performance, punctuated by car horns, and plenty of Albanian flags waving around. I hooked up with a chain-smoking Dutch reporter, and we split the taxi fare into town. The road in was a surreal sight, a mere two hours from the hypermodernity and order of Frankfurt and Vienna was this corner of Europe, where a clash of cultures in this hotly contested piece of real estate, in this pregnant corner of the world, had caused a lot of misery. The most recent wars had been broadcast on CNN and the Internet, and so I had to see for myself what this place, mythical to many, a name synonymous with conflict, was like.

 

Approaching town, " Independence, we are ready!"

Approaching town, " Independence, we are ready!"

I made it to my hotel, located on the perimeter of the central city, on a battered street that was clearly still under construction. The driver manipulated his way between the piles of bricks and then stopped partially on the sidewalk. And so my trip officially began. It was already growing dark, and so I wandered around to try to get my bearings straight, unsuccessfully, before eating a simple meal in a nearby restaurant and then retiring to my hotel room. There were already celebrations going on, but I was exhausted and still jet-lagged from a previous business trip to California, and it was pretty darn cold out there.

I was up early the next day, which started with a prayer call from the mosque 50 meters down the street, and it turned out to be a sunny, although still very cold day. It began just like any other day, pretty sluggish in the morning, but with a steady stream of people walking around, and a huge gathering of reporters and news vehicles at the Grand Hotel Pristina downtown. 

View from my hotel room, February 17, 2008

View from my hotel room, February 17, 2008

Along Mother Theresa Boulevard

Along Mother Teresa Boulevard

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Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, first president of Kosovo

Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, first president of Kosovo

The crowd grew into a compress of people by mid-afternoon, with a celebratory air. There was no public announcement made, only a rough idea of the hour that independence would be declared. Amidst this massive crowd of people, I found myself pressed up against a couple in their 40’s who had lived for years in Vienna before returning, and we ended up chatting for a while in German as I waited for the crowds to lessen a bit. 

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The partying went on clear into the night. I had some dinner at the local fancy restaurant and spoke with some Finnish reporters who were clearly jaded on the whole affair, while they were slamming down liquor shots. It was at least for the time being, Europe’s biggest party, with folks from everywhere descending on the Kosovan capital.

The scene the next day returned quickly to normal in most of Pristina, except for the media circus at the Grand Hotel. The new Kosovan flag was raised next to the hotel, and I headed to the new sculpture unveiled the night before, reading NEWBORN in yellow. It had been signed wth thousands of names of people who were there the night before. And indeed, it was a fitting word for this part of the world, which saw the split of Yugoslavia into separate countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

Newborn!

Newborn!

The scenic landscape of Pristina

The scenic landscape of Pristina

There’s plenty of very kooky stuff in Pristina. Buses with their destination signs in German. A Route 66 diner across from UN headquarters, where I had a hamburger, fries, and a Coke. A car with New York license plates. Bill Clinton Boulevard. And in a time when George Bush was one of the most reviled people in the world, tons of American flags adorning the buildings in town. Add to that a wacky, socialist-era library, an unfinished Serbian Orthodox church next to it, and a smattering of Ottoman-style mosques. And on February 17, 2008, it was the center of the world, where I could watch CNN coverage of events taking place a few hundred meters down the road.

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Bill Clinton Boulevard

Back to regularly scheduled bus service. . .

Back to regularly scheduled bus service. . .

The library, beautiful or ugly, or just socialist?

The library, beautiful or ugly, or just socialist?

. . . and next door, the unfinished Serbian church

. . . and next door, the unfinished Serbian church

Understandable in any language.

Understandable in any language.

It’s hard to say how things will turn out in Kosovo, the road ahead remains unclear and uncertain, with a massive number of problems to be resolved. But at least on that weekend, there was plenty of optimism mixed in with a collective sobering memory of the conflicts of the 1990’s.

And perhaps the future?

And perhaps the future?

The last days of Tempelhof Airport, October 2008

Historic Tempelhof Airport, of Berlin airlift fame, closed on October 30, 2008. 

I snagged one of the last cheap tickets flying between Mannheim and Tempelhof, and spent a beautiful warm fall weekend in Berlin. In fact, in spite of living a few hours away by train, I had never been there.

The airport was clearly barely running, but what a glorious structure it is, a Third Reich-era structure that was finished in the 1950’s by the Americans. Still, the lack of flights gave it a haunted, sadly dignified character to the structure. The flights were down to only intra-European flights on regional jets, with a single baggage claim sitting next to the check-in counters, and a handful of concessions. There was still more than a hint of the glory days of air travel, with the large roof shielding passengers from the weather, the enormous size and graceful curve of the building, and the cooly elegant main hall. Indeed, this was a busy airport up to the 1970’s, and benefited from a very central location, accessible by subway from the city center in less than 20 minutes.

The structure is also multipurpose, not just a terminal building, but also an integrated hangar, with enormous spaces for housing aircraft on the periphery. On a more psychological level, it served as a grand and central gateway to the city of Berlin, with its monumental roof, the stairways leading to the main hall, leaving one with the feeling of having arrived in town. 

So I give you the last days of Tempelhof Airport.

 

check-in counters

check-in counters


very 1960's style restaurant, but alas, closed.

very 1960's style restaurant, but alas, closed.


taxi stand and neon sign

taxi stand and neon sign


main hall, during the rush hour

main hall and the single baggage claim, during rush hour


gate access

gate access


the roof, and the raisin bomber

the roof, and the raisin bomber


departing for Mannheim

departing for Mannheim


goodbye Berlin

goodbye Berlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taos, December 2008

First installment of a few writeups of more memorable trips I’ve taken recently, here goes. . .

This is the first full season Taos has been open to snowboarding. Being the stuff of skiing legend, for its isolation, snow quality, and difficulty, I decided to check it out, since it was a 90 minute drive from where I had been on business. Originally I had intended on flying up to Colorado or Wyoming for a few days, but work-related issues put an end to that, and also allowed me to avoid the bitterly cold temperatures. It was comparatively mild in Taos, and here are some of my observations from a couple days spent in the area.

So is snowboarding welcome? Well, from the people I spoke to on the lift, it was a necessary move, the story was that for the investors to pump in money to keep the place running, that the owners had to agree to allow snowboarding. It’s still a 70-80 % skier / rider ratio, so it will probably be some time (if ever) that snowboarding catches up to the ratio nationwide. At least for right now, it’s a rather awkward relationship. 

The terrain and snow? It’s everything that it’s stacked up to be, luckily the snow for December has been generous, so I got to sample some very nice, but still early season, powder. It’s indeed good, light and dry. This is the blower stuff, you puff on a pile of snow, and it just scatters. The terrain is the very steep stuff, the closest parallel I’ve experienced is Snowbird or Kirkwood. But the double diamonds are relatively short vertical drops, but on the challenging side. Half the mountain was still not open yet, and this included the ridgeline hike beyond the Juarez trail.

 

Feeling good at 12000 feet

Feeling good at 12000 feet

 

Ridgeline view

Ridgeline view

 

Wheeler Peak (13167', 4013 m), one long, difficult hike.

Wheeler Peak (13167', 4013 m), one long, difficult hike.

 

 

 

I briefly demoed the 2009 Custom X with the EST, C60 bindings, and tried out the Ozones (okay, a park boot, but I wanted to give them a test drive). The board is excellent and responsive, the boots were quite comfortable, despite being a bit icky from sitting outside all day in the cold. Putting on my own boots afterwards was even ickier. 

I spent one day mixing it up, snowboarding in the morning, skiing in the afternoon, and had the chance to speak with a couple of the instructors. One voiced her opinion, paraphrased- ” This is a skier’s mountain, lots of flat spots and narrow lanes that are difficult for a snowboard.” What’s a “skier’s mountain”? I found that to be far from the truth, Heavenly is considerably worse in terms of bad traverses, and it is not all that narrow in general. Plus the overall lack of crowds makes it ideal for snowboards and skis. No high-speed lifts, though, a bit like Kirkwood used to be. 

Had one bad set of attitude from the one of the rental staff, who was a bit of an ass about letting me stash my snowboard while I was out skiing. But generally they’ve been pretty mellow about snowboarding, if not completely welcoming. 

 

Looking towards Colorado

Looking towards Colorado

 

I was hoping for another day, but very high winds and lift closures ended that, despite a foot of snow overnight. So I played tourist instead and braved the terrible roads to explore for the day before returning to Santa Fe. Alas, next time. The price for lift tickets, incidentally, is $66 / day, which is good value, although no real discounts are offered. The resort’s rather isolated, being 150 miles from the nearest major airport and 4.5 hours from Denver. 

The town and atmosphere is special. I’ve been here several times before, and have always approached it from the Low Road, it’s an incomparable view once the road veers away from the Rio Grande and you have an airplane-like view of the town and the Wheeler Peak wilderness. Winter is also special, with that mix of fluffy snow and the pervasive smell of pinyon smoke. It’s one of the most spectacular natural settings, mixed in with the distinctive Southwest mix of cultures and people. Plenty of chile, good food, adobe buildings, nifty architecture, endless views, and a special quality to the light. 

 

Low road to Taos. . .

Low road to Taos. . .

San Francisco de Asis, Rancho de Taos

San Francisco de Asis, Rancho de Taos

 

 

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo

 

The hotel / B+B I stayed at was excellent as well, so I’ll give a plug for the San Jeronimo Lodge, located about 2 miles east of the plaza off of U.S. 64. Hard to find, but good lodging, and the price was right. The green chile breakfast casserole was delicious, my only minor gripe was that breakfast started a bit late to make it up to the hill by opening time. 

I’ll hopefully be back.