I don't know if you've heard, but Ulaanbaatar is cold. We're spending a lot of our time indoors. And while I'm sure you'd love to read endless posts on our descent into stir-crazy madness, instead we're going to write about our vacation. For the next month and a half, we'll be bringing you stories of our trip to Italy. After which, we will return to our regularly scheduled coverage of Mongolia. So sit back, relax, and get ready for some pasta. Also? Prego. But first, a little drama.
We woke up with that nervous feeling of excitement. It was early, well before six. Our flight to Rome didn't leave until 10, but we wanted to be sure we got to the airport with plenty of time. We'd checked our tickets the night before, straightened out the apartment, and even finished packing. We were about as organized as we'd ever been for a major trip. No last minute flinging of underwear into bags. No frantic scramble to find lost passports. We were ready.
And then I opened my email and saw it, waiting for me. A message from Turkish Airlines.
"Your flight has been cancelled."
No explanation. No "Sorry about that." Just a few terse words. The timestamp was two hours old, arriving in the middle of our night. For a very, very long minute, all I could do was stare at it. Then I handed the computer to Erin.
She read the note and blinked. Then she shook her head. "Nope."
I stared at her. "What do you mean, nope?"
"I mean, I'm going to f*****g Rome today." She threw the blankets off and stalked to the closet, pulling on pants like a viking strapping on armor.
I took the computer back and browsed around. "Huh. That's weird. The airline's website says our flight is scheduled to depart on time."
Erin looked back with cautious hope. "Maybe the email was spam? Some kind of phishing?"
I checked. "Looks official. And it's not asking us to click a link or anything." I clicked back to the airline site. Then my heart sank. "Oh, crap. There's a weather warning for Istanbul Airport. A massive snowstorm just hit."
"In Istanbul?" Erin demanded, incredulous.
I shrugged. "Yeah. Here, look. The Weather Channel confirms it."
She stared at the screen. Then she threw a pile of clothes at me. "Come on."
"Where are we going?" I asked. It was too early, and too much to take in first thing. I wasn't yet thinking clearly, and my addled brain had already decided we'd be spending the next two weeks staring at our walls, trying to stave off dreary sadness with TV and delivery food.
But Erin was way too angry to be depressed. "We're going to the airport. And they're going to put us on a plane."
She interrupted. "They're going to put us on a plane, Sam." She looked like someone contemplating violence.
So I merely nodded. "Okay."
Chinggis Khan International Airport seethed with angry passengers when we arrived. Dozens crowded the Turkish Airlines offices, trying to get their flights rebooked, their tickets refunded... anything. There were no lines, just a mob clamoring for the attention of a few harried clerks hunched over their computers.
Erin and I shouldered our way to the front (sometimes, it helps to be big).
"Yes?" the clerk asked.
"We're going to Rome today," Erin replied.
The woman just nodded, already exhausted. Her fingers did a dance on the keyboard. "I could put you on an Air China flight instead. You'd have to go through Beijing, though." Then she frowned. "No. that one's full. Maybe Korean Air through Seoul..."
And so it went. Our flights were cancelled, rebooked, cancelled, rebooked, and cancelled again. We were potentially flying through a dizzying array of cities: Tokyo, Cagliari, Naples, Moscow, Frankfurt. Ultimately, we just had to wait and see which replacement tickets could actually be confirmed.
So we did, fidgeting in the airport coffee shop. And after about four hours with no news, no texts, no updates, we trudged back up to the office. The seething crowd had vanished. The room was almost empty.
Our harried clerk looked up when we entered, and smiled. She remembered us. "Hello! Good news! You've been rebooked onto your original flight. It's just been delayed. And we had to change your connecting flight. You'll be going to Istanbul, then on through Paris, and then Rome."
That wasn't remotely convenient or logical, but I wasn't up for arguing. "Okay, when do we leave?"
The clerk glanced at the clock on her phone. "4:30." It was just past noon now.
"That doesn't sound too bad," I replied. "We'd only have to wait a few more hours."
The clerk smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry. I meant 4:30 in the morning. It would technically be tomorrow."
If Erin could have set the room on fire with her eyes, she would have. But we trudged home, took a nap, and waited it out.
And to illustrate this next part of our story, I'll be using a series of selfies. Sorry they're a bit grainy.
It was 1:00 am and we were back at Chinggis Khan International, just a bit early in case there was any more weirdness with our flights. (SPOILER WARNING, there was). Still, you can just feel our optimism, can't you?
4:15 am. We were just past security and waiting at the gate. Our flights changed an additional three times in the last three hours. Erin took this selfie after a Turkish Airlines clerk showed up and confiscated our tickets. We were half-convinced they weren't going to let us board at this point. (Thankfully, the clerk just wanted to change our seats.)
8:23... or 5:23 local... or who even knows? We were waiting on our layover, in Bishkek, of all places. That's in Kyrgyzstan. Why did we have a layover in Bishkek? No idea. Also, it was possible lack of sleep and profound irritation may have conspired to make us a little crazed at this point.
Sadly, I don't have a photo of our arrival in Istanbul. WHERE TWO BLOODY INCHES OF SNOW LIGHTLY DUSTED THE GROUND. We staggered off the plane and checked the departure board for our transfer flight. We were supposed to fly to Paris after a six hour layover, and then backtrack to Rome. Our total remaining travel time was about 12 hours.
Then Erin grabbed my arm. "There's a Turkish Air flight to Rome."
"Huh?" I blinked stupidly. "I thought they said all the direct flights between Rome and Istanbul had been cancelled."
She pointed to the departures board. "Well, they rescheduled one, and it's leaving in an hour. Come on!"
She sprinted off down the concourse, backpack bouncing. I did my best to keep up. We found the gate and gave the attendants our best sleep-deprived Bambi eyes. After thirty hours of traveling, I was pretty sure we looked like lunatic hobos. But for some reason, the airline personnel took pity on us. I'm sure it helped that all the scheduling weirdness had left their flight half empty.
Twenty minutes later, we were on a plane for Rome. Our marathon of idiotic connections had just been reduced to a single two hour flight. It felt like sweet, sweet victory. As did our first glimpse of the city as the plane descended for landing.
See how happy we look? How dazed and tired and just... stupidly happy?
After a brief nap, we set out to explore our neighborhood. We were near Piazza Navona, right in the heart of old downtown. Narrow streets curled around us. The Pantheon was ten minutes from our door. And the Vatican? Right around the corner. I could go on, but instead I'll just share some pictures of our first, glorious encounter with The Eternal City.