Archive for the ‘General Travel’ Category

Yep, this is as good as it gets at DYU.

I’ve decided to do a new feature here at Friejose in TJ & Zimbabwe, Friejose’s Duty Free Review.  I fly enough now that I see plenty of duty free stores, so why not share my impressions with all of you?  (That’s a rhetorical question.)  The idea is to post a photo or two of the various duty free stores I see while traveling back and forth to Tajikistan and share a few thoughts about them as well.  Preferably, these thoughts will be cutting and funny, but one shouldn’t hope for too much.

But before I start with the inaugural post of Friejose’s Duty Free Review, let me say a few words for our readers who don’t travel much internationally or, conversely, happen not to live in a place with shitty alcohol options.  You folks may wonder: who cares about duty free stores?  When I lived in the U.S., I often had this thought — namely, what the hell? — whenever I saw people salivating over dusty bottles of Glenfiddich or ogling cartons of Kents in duty free shops.  Let me tell you, when your best wine options are the choice between terrible Moldovan or awful Georgian wine (which is doubly depressing because wines from both countries have the potential to be quite good), you start to appreciate duty free shops and their delectable variety and surprisingly reasonable prices.  And there’s Toblerone!

At the end, I’ll give a letter grade for the duty free options in the airport in question, based on the American school grading system.

So, without further ado, my review of the duty free shop at the Dushanbe International Airport (DYU).

Number of Options:  One.  You see it pictured above, and it’s located in the sole departure hall at DYU.

Quality: Sad.  International options for alcohol, candy, and the like are very sparse and that isn’t even alleviated by a good selection of local products.

Prices: Pointlessly high.  I mean, what is the point of a duty free stores that has significantly higher prices than the shops in town?  I suppose there’s less of a chance of the customs guys hassling you for having alcohol in your checked luggage, which has happened to me several times, if you buy at the duty free post-customs check.  Which raises a more important question: why in heaven’s name do the customs guys care how many bottles of terrible, $5 Tajik vodka you’re taking out of the country?  Yeah, I know, it’s an easy way to shakedown foreigners taking home silly gifts for their lush friends at home, but it is also profoundly uncool.

Convenience:  Very low.  Dushanbe’s duty free is often closed when flights are departing at night or in early morning, and since that’s when the vast majority of flights leave, it means that the duty free is pretty much worthless.  An added bonus is that since the one duty free shop is located in the departures hall, arriving passengers have no access to it at all.  So there’s that.

Overall Grade:  D-.  At least it exists, stocks some products, and is occasionally open; that counts for something in my book, but not much.

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Not exactly.  I received a response from Qatar Airways following my complaint letter that I published here a few weeks ago.  I found it unsatisfactory.  Here is the letter from Qatar Airways:

Date: 18 August 2011

This has reference to your email dated 15 August 2011 with regard to the problems you encountered at Johannesburg

We appreciate this opportunity to address your concerns rose in your letter.

Qatar Airways has not published the overweight fees  on their websites as there is a variance of calculation from one sector to another. Passengers are requested to call the local Qatar Airways office to find the applicable rates.

For further details about the checked in  baggage allowance you may visit our web-site

Baggage in excess of the free allowance is charged according to the rates listed in the traffic covering the specific journey based on ‘weight’ and ‘ piece ‘ concept depending from which destinations the passenger travels. The excess baggage rates were rightly collected from you.

With regard to the upgrading of your ticket, the staff member had advised you that even after upgrading the ticket you would still need to pay the excess baggage charges.

Rudeness is definitely not something that we condone and we view this as a serious lapse in service standards. A great
deal of emphasis is placed on training our staff but obviously in this case we apologize that our delivery did not provide you the right experience with Qatar Airways

Since you have reported that the telephone lines in Johannesburg were unattended and a piece concept rate was provided to you from America, kindly advise us the time you had called in Johannesburg along with the phone number and the staff whom you communicated in America to enable us to investigate further.

We are very pleased to receive your comments about the excellent service you received from our crew members. Your
satisfaction is certainly worth all our best efforts.

On behalf of Qatar Airways, please accept our appreciation of your feedback and sincerest apologies for any inconvenience caused. We are ready to be of service to you as always.

We thank you for taking the time to write to us and look forward to your support and patronage of Qatar Airways.

Sincerely yours

Queenie Dantas
Officer Customer Care

I also received a brief e-mail from Qatar Airways’s US office, so I responded to both Ms. Dantas and Ms. Costeira from the US office in the following e-mail that I sent today, we’ll see where it gets me:

Dear Ms. Dantas and Ms. Costeira:

I apologize for my delay in responding.  As I said in my previous correspondence to Ms. Dantas on 27 August 2011, I have been traveling for work and I have been unable to respond in the fashion I would like to before now.  Let me start by thanking both of you for responding on behalf of Qatar Airways.  After my difficult and disheartening experience flying with Qatar Airways from Johannesburg to Doha on 13 and 14 August 2011, I appreciate that you both responded in a timely fashion to my letter of complaint.

I would like to answer the questions Ms. Dantas posed to me in her previous e-mail of 18 August 2011.  She asked in particular when I called Qatar Airways in Johannesburg and in New York.  I called Johannesburg on 12 August at 16.35 local time to the number +27 11 267 7700.  As I said in my original letter, I did not speak to anyone in the Johannesburg office because no one answered my call.  I called New York on 12 August at 17.38 Zimbabwe time (or approximately 11.38 EDT) to the number +1 877 777 2827.  I spoke to a gentleman at the office in New York, but I do not recall his name and I did not write it down.  I hope this answers your questions fully and please do not hesitate to ask for more information if needed.

Ms. Dantas also made several statements in her prior e-mail that I found unsatisfactory, and that I wish to contest.  I will quote her statements below in purple text and then respond after them:

“Qatar Airways has not published the overweight fees  on their websites as there is a variance of calculation from one sector to another. Passengers are requested to call the local Qatar Airways office to find the applicable rates.”

I understand that this is Qatar Airways’s policy, but this is inexplicable to me.  The rates should be easily ascertainable in advance to enable customers to determine what their potential overweight luggage costs will be.  In this age of detailed and frequently updated airline websites, I cannot understand why Qatar Airways would force a customer to make a phone call to get a piece of information that is important and could result and significant charges.  Indeed, most companies actively request that customers get their information from the website.  Even with the number of routes flown by Qatar Airways, it should be possible with the computing power available currently to calculate overweight luggage fees online.  Might I suggest that if Qatar Airways’s fee system is so complex that it cannot be displayed in real-time on its website, then perhaps the system is too complex.  Most airlines have consistent luggage fees for all or most of their routes, and I fail to see why Qatar Airways cannot as well.

“The excess baggage rates were rightly collected from you.”

It depends what you mean by “rightly”.  If you mean according to the rates charged by Menzies, Qatar Airways’s agent in Johannesburg, then yes, Menzies charged me the rates they charge everyone.  If, however, you mean “fairly” by using “rightly”, then I would say that is not true.  I was charged $41 USD per kilo of overweight luggage.  This is more than the $38 USD IATA general rate for overweight luggage and far more than the $50 USD per overweight piece that Qatar Airways itself charges on US departing flights.  $41 per kilo is not a fair rate, it is especially unfair when it is not published on the website.  Ms. Dantas’s e-mail did provide any financial justification for such an exorbitant rate for the Johannesburg to Doha route, so I can only assume that the high rate for overweight luggage is simply a way to gouge customers already at the airport with overweight luggage and without other options.  That may seems an unfair thing to say, but I have not been shown why such a rate is necessary or proper.  It may be “rightful” in the sense that this is the rate that is typically charged but is a very long way from “right”.

“Rudeness is definitely not something that we condone and we view this as a serious lapse in service standards. A great deal of emphasis is placed on training our staff but obviously in this case we apologize that our delivery did not provide you the right experience with Qatar Airways[.]”

Thank you for this acknowledgment that I was treated poorly.  Unfortunately, nowhere did Ms. Dantas’s e-mail state what corrective steps will be taken as a result of this serious lapse in service standards.  I requested in my initial letter to Qatar Airways that the employee involved be officially reprimanded and forced to undergo additional customer service training.  I reiterate this request and I ask that I be provided with information regarding what Qatar Airways will do, or has done, to address this inappropriate behavior by members of its staff.

In sum, I thank you both for your correspondence, but I hope that the e-mails are just the beginning of a conversation and not the end of one.  I look forward to your further responses to this e-mail of mine.

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So, I heard something from Qatar Airways.  Certainly nothing definitive, but at least a start:

CC Ref: US________

Date: 18August  2011

This is to acknowledge with thanks the receipt of your queries rose in your email dated 15 August 2011.

Kindly be rest assured that we will thoroughly investigate the issues rose in your email and will revert to you with our findings in due course.

Thank you for your understanding and continued patience.

Sincerely yours,

Queenie Dantas
Customer Care Officer

I’ll keep everyone informed as to their continuing response, but I’m heartened that at least I got an acknowledgement relatively quickly from them.

And yes, I promise something about coming back to Dushanbe soon.

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My trip back to Dushanbe was by-and-large uneventful and not too bad.  There was one big exception, which is described below, at length, in the letter I sent to Qatar Airways today.  Let’s see if they respond to this (and if they do, I will provide updates and Qatar Airways’s response(s) verbatim here):

Via Web Form and U.S. Mail

15 August 2011

Qatar Airways
Qatar Airways Tower
(Next to Al Manna Building)
Airport Road
Doha, Qatar

To Whom It May Concern:

I write in great disappointment and distress following my wholly unsatisfactory experience with Qatar Airways.  After seeing so many television commercials proclaiming Qatar Airways to be the “World’s 5-Star Airline” and then reading in the Oryx in-flight magazine that Qatar Airways describes itself as the “World’s Best Airline”, I am frankly stunned that an airlines that sees itself that way would treat me, as a paying customer, so poorly.

I have three complaints with Qatar Airways arising out of my trip with the airline on 13 and 14 August 2011 from Johannesburg to Istanbul via Doha on ticket number XXXXXXX: (1) the opacity of the Qatar Airways website regarding overweight baggage charges, (2) the extortionate rate charged in Johannesburg for overweight baggage, and (3) the surly and rude behavior of Qatar Airways staff and agents at check-in in Johannesburg.

First, Qatar Airways’s website is mostly silent on the cost of checking-in overweight baggage.  As you may be aware, the website lists no prices, or even price ranges, but instead states that different charges will be levied for overweight baggage depending on the route traveled and that a customer has to check with the local Qatar Airways office.  A key word search of the website revealed some prices for overweight baggage for some routes, but was silent regarding routes originating in South Africa.  Knowing that I would like to bring overweight baggage as I was flying to take a new job in a new city, I tried calling the Johannesburg ticket office for Qatar Airways and I was placed on hold for a lengthy period and my call was never answered.  As I could not reach anyone in Johannesburg, I called the Qatar Airways ticket office in New York, as I am an American.  After I told the agent in New York my flight routing (Johannesburg-Doha-Istanbul), he indicated that excess baggage over 23 kg up to 32 kg was charged at a flat rate of $50 USD.  Relieved at that price, I brought two bags, one weighing 17 kg and my overweight bag, which weighed 30.5 kg, to Johannesburg.

Unfortunately for me, I subsequently learned that the $50 flat rate only applies to flights originating in the United States.  Instead of a $50 flat rate, Qatar Airways’s agents in Johannesburg, Menzies, charged me 290 South African rand (approximately $41 USD) per extra kilogram for overweight baggage.  Since I had two bags that cumulatively weighted 48 kg, which was 23 kg over my apparent 25 kg allowance, I was charged a total of 6,670 rand (or about $953 USD) to check my overweight baggage in Johannesburg (23 kg x 290 rand = 6,670).  Because I had flown to Johannesburg that day from Harare, Zimbabwe to connect to my Qatar Airways flight on a separate ticket, and as I was flying alone, I had no option but to pay that exorbitant fee or leave 23 kg of my belongings on the floor of Terminal A in Johannesburg.

I understand that Qatar Airways has chosen to charge for overweight baggage and I am happy to take responsibility for paying if I have overweight baggage.  What I find utterly unfair is for Qatar Airways to make it difficult or impossible for me to determine what rate I will have to pay for overweight baggage on my flight and then to charge a preposterously high amount for overweight baggage.  It is mind-boggling that Qatar Airways charges a $50 flat rate for overweight baggage in the United States, but that it is almost the same amount of money to bring just one extra kilogram in Johannesburg.  It is my understanding that the rate I was charged in Johannesburg is even more expensive than the very high rack rate set by IATA for overweight baggage charges on separately ticketed flights on non-aligned carriers, which is about $38 USD per extra kilogram.  What makes this discrepancy in overweight baggage pricing worse is that Qatar Airways does not have the courage or the decency to honestly list its overweight baggage charges on its website and that its telephone agents are either unreachable or ignorant.  I can think of no legitimate business reason for Qatar Airways to charge this much for overweight baggage in Johannesburg other than greed, and to compound this avarice with hiding the true price of checking-in overweight baggage is simply a form of extortion, putting Qatar Airways customers in the unenviable position of either paying a rate 20 times more than it should be or discarding their possessions at an airport far from home.

What added salt to this wound was the mean-spirited and uncooperative behavior of Qatar Airways’s staff member supervising the check-in counter in Johannesburg and of the representative of Menzies, Qatar Airways’s agent, to whom I had to pay my overweight baggage fees.  When I queried the Qatar Airways manager at check-in about my options since I had overweight baggage, she was extremely rude and dismissive.  She stated to me numerous times that she could make no exceptions regarding overweight baggage because the flight to Doha was full.  Upon boarding that flight (QR583) later, I learned that she had lied to me, as the flight had several empty seats, including one next to me (I was sitting in 31H).  It is clear that she lied simply to keep me quiet and make me go away.  When I tried to ask if it was possible to ship my overweight baggage by freight, upgrade my ticket to business, or if there was a post office in the airport that I could use to mail my excess weight, the Qatar Airways manager did not assist me, turned on her heel, and walked away.  At the gate later, I saw this same woman denigrating other passengers to the flight crew and complaining about her job.  She was the only Qatar Airways representative dressed as a flight attendant and acting in a supervisory role at the check-in in Terminal A for the flight to Doha on 13 August, so she should be easy to identify.

Again, I understand that being a check-in agent is a difficult job, but I did not deserve to be treated with the scorn I received from Qatar Airways in Johannesburg.  At all times, I tried to keep a calm and respectful demeanor, and I used no inappropriate language or gestures, despite being faced with a difficult situation.  Nevertheless, I received no help from Qatar Airways, all I received was a brusque brush-off.  This woman is obviously overwhelmed in her job and has lost any sense of her customer service role, if she ever felt it.  In my opinion, she should be reprimanded and sent for retraining in putting the customer first.  I would expect no less from the alleged “World’s 5-Star Airline”.

While the Menzies representative was somewhat more appropriate in her manner, she also failed to provide me with any options other than discarding my belongings or paying almost $1,000 USD, even upon repeated request.  She also had no explanation for the reasoning behind the high rate for overweight baggage and could not explain why the rate was so much higher than what I had been told on the phone by the agent in the United States.  Furthermore, when I asked how I could complain about the poor service I had received and if she had a complaint book, she told me that she had no way for me to register a complaint and curtly informed me that I could look for that on the Qatar Airways website.  To me, it is completely unacceptable that a representative of Qatar Airways cannot even provide me with the means to express my disappointment, but again simply tried to get rid of me and my problems as quickly as possible.  This is not the type of customer service I was expecting on Qatar Airways to say the least.

Even the excellent service that was provided by the flight attendants and the easy connection in Doha cannot salvage this trip on Qatar Airways for me.  I had been very much looking forward to taking my first flight with Qatar Airways as I had heard positive reviews from friends and colleagues who had flown with Qatar in the past.  The scales, however, fallen from my eyes about Qatar Airways.  If Qatar Airways will hide the truth about overweight baggage fees and their agent will lie to my face about a flight being full, what else will they do?

I have been flying regularly since I became an adult, and my work in international development means that I fly even more frequently now, and I am sad to say that the terrible experience I had on Qatar Airways this August is one of the worst I have encountered in 20 years of flying commercially.  As of now, I would rather fly to Dubai on a competitor and hitch-hike across the desert to Doha rather than ever fly Qatar Airways again.  I am not sure what Qatar Airways can do to make this right, but at a minimum, I hope that it posts true and accurate rates for overweight baggage for all its routes on the Qatar Airways website as soon as possible and that the staff members in Johannesburg receive the customer service training they so desperately need.  I also hope that a representative of Qatar Airways customer service contacts me at his or her earliest convenience to discuss this matter further.

cc:     Akbar Al Baker, Chief Executive Officer, Qatar Airways / via U.S. Mail
Qatar Airways, New York Office / via Facsimile +1 212 588 1273

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Just passed the one week point of my stay in Zimbabwe and everything is spectacular in my new locale and with my lady.  We’ve been super-busy exploring Harare and environs together (stunning), drinking South African wine (a mixed bag, but great to have lots to choose from), watching the World Cup (congrats to Ghana, they deserved it), and buying home furnishings (shoe rack!).

What I haven’t done is gone through all my photos from the Pamirs yet, or at least, I haven’t picked and resized the ones for the blog yet.  Bad me.

Above the town of Roshtkala in the Pamirs

But I do have lots to share of the Pamirs, photos and anecdotes especially, so it will come soon.  Fingers crossed.

And thanks to U.’s photographic prowess (and awesome camera), lots too to share of Africa.  Finger crossed for that too.

At Domboshawa National Park, just outside of Harare

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Seen at the shrine in Langar

Ended up being 980 or so photos that I took during the Pamirs trip last week, and don’t you worry your pretty little selves, they will be shared on here.  Well, not all of them, but you’ll get the idea.  To get us in the mood, take a look at the photo to the left.  This was an inscription painted outside an Ismaili shrine outside of the village of Langar, which the last settlement on the eastern side of the Wakhan Valley in the Tajik Pamirs.  If you can’t read Farsi, here’s the English translation:

The greatest sin is fear.

I thought that was good, and it was something I kept in mind when I was hiking on inclines at altitude.

And I’ll share one other photo.  I had Asal, my traveling companion for the Pamirs trip, take lots of pictures of me in what I imagined were dashing poses.  Many weren’t.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t show one such photo here.

Notice the hipster Afghan scarf and my "tan"

Cool petroglyphs, huh?  They range in age from the Bronze Age to about last year.  More soon of the ‘glyphs and the Pamirs.

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First off, let me apologize for being so bad about posting on this blog.  Part of the reason is that I was trying to wrap up everything at my job in Dushanbe in anticipation of the end of my contract on 1 June.  Another part is related to the new blog I’ve started about wine auctions (niche, I know) sucking my time — I’d be chuffed, as the Brits say, if you’d check it out at http://www.wineauctionspy.com.  Finally, I’ve been a bit preoccupied about moving to Africa in a couple of weeks (how’s that drop a bombshell as an aside) to be with my girl.  I promise, plenty more on that and my last days in TJ are to come.

But right now I’m on vacation in the Pamir Mountains in the Gorno-Badashan Autonomous Oblast (“GBAO”) of Tajikistan.  This is the famous mountainous eastern half of the country that I’ve been meaning to visit ever since I came here, and I was damned if I’d leave Tajikistan without coming.  So now I’m tapping this out from an internet cafe in the capital of GBAO, Khorog, a pleasant, leafy city surrounded by majestic peaks on all sides.

Getting here took some doing though.  Twenty-one hours by a beaten-up Land Cruiser to be exact.  That’s a long day of driving my friends, and it was a bit more intense than the yearly car trips my family took from Boston to South Florida at Christmastime when I was a kid. The trip included, in no particular order:

  • Three stops by the Tajik traffic police (not that many actually);
  • Two flat tires, one on our car and the other on another car in our convoy;
  • Two bowls of shurbo, one each for lunch and dinner;
  • Two tea cups full of fine, fine Tajik vodka;
  • One mini-medical emergency solved by pepto and/or zantac;
  • One mudslide blocking the road for over an hour until it was bulldozed out of the way; and
  • A partridge in a pear tree (well, not really, but I felt like we had to include it).

Photos to follow at some point, though possibly not until I get back to Dushanbe in 10 days or so.  Off to Ishkashim and the Wakhan Corridor tomorrow.

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From my weekend in Istravashan:

On the moonlit shore of a silent lake . . .

Happy Persian New Year to everyone!

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The road to Gharm from Dushanbe divides naturally into three parts: good, bad, then good again.

From the capital to Obi Garm, the spa town, the road is paved, has guard rails, and is generally quite civilized.  Once you get beyond the Obi Garm town limits, however, it is a different story.  Pavement gives way to dirt gives way to mud.  And pot holes, don’t forget the pot holes.  There are also, in fairness, quite a few stones along the route, ranging in size from pebble to boulder.   Complicating matters, or maybe simplifying them depending on your point-of-view, are the sheer drops from the edge of the road into a stunning gorge through which the Surhob River flows.  No guard rails, remember.

Then there are the mud- and rock-slides that apparently occur with regularity to block the way.  This leads to back-ups until the road can be cleared.

The back-up following a mudslide near Nurabad

And sometimes, vehicles, like say our Prado, doesn’t wait for the blockage to be removed.

Backhoe? Who needs a stinking backhoe?

Sometimes on the rough part of the Dushanbe-to-Gharm road, streams decline to respect the boundary between nature and man.

Bridge? Who needs a stinking bridge?

The bad part of the journey lasts for 55 km, or an hour and a half.  On the way out to Gharm, I was in the way back of the SUV, so this wasn’t super-fantastic.  But eventually, you do clear the mountains and come into the Rasht Valley proper, which is where Gharm is situated.  And once you do, the dirt track miraculously transforms into an shockingly straight piece of tarmac all the way to Gharm town.  Thank you Chinese development aid!  (Well, it’s actually loans and most of the work is done by Chinese convicts trying to reduce their sentences through labor so not too many local jobs are created and who knows what the PRC will ask for when Tajikistan defaults on these loans as is probably inevitable, but hey, this was supposed to be a light little travel post, so I’ll leave it to someone else to cogitate on these issues.)

Just before you reach Gharm there’s a natural spring, a place for travelers to sip some water and be refreshed before traveling on.  We took the opportunity to pose as a group, the sistrabrathood of the trip to Gharm for buzkashi.

Polarizer? Who needs a stinking polarizer?

Now, for the buzkashi.

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This weekend I was in Gharm, 200 km east of Dushanbe along a river valley in a gorge carved from soft rock, to watch buzkashi.  Buzkashi, of course, is the crazy Tajik game where a goat carcass stuffed full with sand is the “ball” and 50 to 100 mounted riders battle to pick up the goat and then throw it into the “goal”, in this case, a tire.  Obviously.

Anyway, lots and lots of pictures and anecdotes to share about the trip, but that’s for later.  For now, take a gander at this:

English is a more difficult language that we might think

Putting aside for a moment that this small SUV that I saw on the road to Gharm is not a Toyota Rav4, thus making the tire cover incongruous, look at the text on the thing.  It is a small wonder of language.  An amazing assemblage of words that when strung together is on the wrong side of coherent.

It’s an outdoor sport that has recently started to shine.  Outdoor sport is the science to raise spirits.

To choose sports for fashion or your personality.  The basic idea is to enjoy yourself.  That is important.

At some point, when I’m less tired, I think I’d like to do a textual analysis of this poem.  For let’s be honest, this is practically (but for the syllable count) a haiku in its simplicity, mystery, and inscrutibility.  And it’s on a tire cover!

I only had the pleasure of seeing this due to a mudslide that blocked the road, forcing us to wait while people kicked dirt aside with their boots to clear the way.  That, friends, is serendipity.

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