Monday, December 22, 2008

London Trip, 2008: Part III - local trips

The first day I spent mostly in getting to know the underground network. By the time i reached the hostel from airport, it was already 2pm and have only 1 more hour of sunlight left. So, after relaxing for 5 min and taking a relaxed shower, I visited St. Pancras - a kind of Central station with a great architecture and then after hanging out a bit, I directly went on to Royal Opera near Covent Garden. I had already booked a premiere show for "Thief of Baghdad" - a dance theatre. I got a good seat in the front for just 16 pounds and that is lucky. This is the first dance theatre I'm visiting, and there were no songs and not much emphasis on music. It was focused more on choreography and aerobics. I will explain more on the art elements, in another dedicated post. The theatre ran between 7:30 to 9:30, and then hunted for restaurants. Couple of restaurants turned me away as it was a crowded time and finally found an Italian pizza place.

The second day, I started my day with London School of Economics near Holbourn station. I reached the school by around 10:30 and walked around the campus. The campus was not too impressive given the fact that it is the world's central place for humanities education, but it was right at the center of London. I went around the facilities a bit, talked for a few minutes with an admission consultant. At around 12:15 I left there and headed off to the railway station to go to Oxford. I went to the wrong station - St. Pancras, and then had to detour to Paddington that connects to other places in Southern England.The train to Oxford was late and after waiting for an hour (for 1 hour long trip), I finally boarded the express train at 2pm and reached Oxford at 3. I was immediately welcomed by a cold rain (around -5C) with strong gusts of wind and a setting sun, and it was pretty uncomfortable. And to add insult to injury, I couldn't find a way to reach the university. As usual I went under-prepared with no address and was walking randomly. Finally, one guy pointed me to the Said Business school and reached there at 3:30. The admissions officer took me around the school and I was very impressed with the facilities. Of all the MBA schools that I have visited - Yale, Columbia, LSE and Oxford, Oxford impressed me the most.

I boarded the train from Oxford at 4:30 and it was a slooooow train. I reached London at 6:30 and headed to British national opera, for the Ballet - "Sleeping beauty". This is the first ballet I visited and it was incredible. It was so brilliantly choreographed with a dozens of hot chicks in varied movement playing the traditional story of sleeping beauty. It was a very long show at 3 hours with 2 interval breaks, but they conveyed the entire fairly tale with no song or dialogue or voice of any kind. After the show, I quickly finished a Pizza and headed home.

The third day started with rain and cold winds and pretty much usual London weather. But, I still braved for a walking tour around London guided by New Europe tours. This is a free tour conducted in many parts of Europe and next time I visit a European city, I will make it a point to find them. We started near the Hyde Park Corner at 11am with the memorial for Lord Wellington, an Army general who faced Napolean and started walking to Buckingham palace, then stopped outside Prince Charles' house, proceeded to St. James' place - an old palace for royal family where visiting ambassadors take their briefs, and walked through Pall Mall - a famous residential area. We then saw Florence Nightingale's memorial, the famous Trafalar square (where Londoners gather for any celebration), Victoria memorial and then the Big ben, Parliament house and WestMinister Abbey (where the royals are crowned and buried for last 1000 years and also housing the graves of Darwin, Newton, etc). We went all the walking (in total more than 2.5 miles) and the guide was giving us history lessons about royals and wars and all the way.

The tour ended at 2 and I was frozen by then. I went to a souvenir shop to buy trinkets to folks back home, and then went to war interiors of National Art Gallery near trafalgar square. I went around the exhibits to see Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir and few other great Painter's famous works. After about 1.5 hours, I took the train to British Museum. I wanted to see Peacock throne, Kohinoor diamond and other precious Indian treasures stolen from India. Unfortunately their Indian gallery was closed the week I visited for renovation :(. So, I walked around Egyptian mummies, some European artifacts, and pieces of historical work from Nicobar, Central America and elsewhere. I had just 1.5 hours to visite the museum and was tired from whole day of walking. So, I didn't see enough stuff. From the museum, I directly proceeded on to Queen's theatre near Piccadilly circus station for the famous musical - "Les Miserables". On the way, I had my portrait drawn by a painter.

Les Miserables was the most incredible theatre performances I have ever seen. It was set with the background as French revolution with emphasis on class differences and sufferings suffered by common people, including young children. I will do a detailed post on this.

The last day of the tour, I spent on a walking tour in old London. I walked around River Thames, spending time near London Tower Bridge, London Bridge, Tate Modern art museum, St. Paul's cathedral. At the end, I visited Trafalgar square and Big ben to take pictures (the previous day I could not, because of the rain).. I planned to go for a Jack the Ripper tour to see the poor part of London, but didnt do as I wanted to conserve energy for the next day's journey to India.

London Trip, 2008: Part II - Astor Hyde Park Hostel

I came to London on the 11th of December 2008 with the BA48 flight from Seattle. The flight landed at around noon, and within another 30 min I was out of the airport with the baggage and the immigration cleared. It was such a breeze. I was carrying a big backpack and small carry-on, all laden with souvenir, chocolates and perfumes, I was taking to my folks in India. I booked a bed at Astor Hyde Park hostel at the heart of the city. It was near Hyde Park with famous A-list addresses, and next to Natural History museum, a string of embassies and Imperial college of London, and just 400m from Gloucester road underground station that connects with Heathrow and other parts of the city.

Unlike a hotel, here you share the room with 5 other people - both boys and girls. The first three days I had roomies as a Singapore couple, an European girl and guys from US and Hong Kong. The last day, my roomies were guys from Italy, Mexico and Germany. If you think 6 is too much for a room with a bathroom, wait till I tell you about my Netherlands experience, rooming with 18 other people and a bathroom shared between 2 such rooms! The hostels are mainly made for backpackers under 35, but more preferably students in their undergrad, and typically bursts with life (and of course there are a lot of hot chicks out there).

Among the hostels I researched, this hostel received the highest ratings and deservingly so. The room and bathrooms were relatively clean, the food was good, it was well accessible to public transportation and the place secure, and that is what you pretty much need.

For those of you who have not stayed in such youth hostels, here is some info:

Similarities to a hotel:

  1. You get Wi-Fi Internet access, a sumptuous breakfast (with a lot more variety), a reception like central place to control access inside (unlike a motel), a laundry service, a public refrigerator and access to iron box.


+ Hostels come with a kitchen and you can cook food, and save money on eating out. Though this time I didnt make use of this, the previous time when I visited Netherlands in 2005, I cooked during most of my stay for 8 days. I carried rice, yogurt, pickles, rotis, etc and that was more than enough to cook decent food to supplement the morning breakfast there.

+ It is very cheap. A good hotel in central London costs minimum of 60-80 pounds and near the Hyde park it is typically more than 150/day. I paid 65 pounds for the entire trip (4 days)

+ It has incredible diversity. Almost everybody who comes to such hostlers are either moving on to other places or coming after touring other places, so you get to meet people who travel a lot. This allows you to see a wider portion of the world through them.

+ Youth hostels are readily accessible to public transportation, since it is for people who won't afford cars.

- You get to share the room, and in many cases members of opposite sex. It is not for all people. You won't have too much privacy, sleep might get disturbed as people keep coming in and out of the room and have to put up with a limited space and need to be careful of your belongings.

London trip 2008: Part I

My first impression of London was of a confusing place, with a lack of basic facilities drinking water fountains and trash bins, aggressive/horrible drivers who knows not to yield to pedestrians and wet, cold, windy, cloudy weather. But, once I learnt to saw beyond these, a brilliant city emerges - one that is truly an international city with immense diversity, a people with more respect for each other, a city that is super-connected by a network of underground trains and most importantly a city with incredible historical heritage. You have such a continued history that you can keep walking around and say what happened to the place you are standing in, in say 1600 or for that matter 1200. And given the propensity of the Londoners to maintain their traditions, more likely the system is not too different from those of the yesteryears. Even when the great fire of 1600's burnt down the city and a brilliant architect gave a modern city plan with grids and nice layouts, King Charles II preferred to rebuild the city just as it was.

The London Bridge (not the more iconic London Tower Bridge) was burnt down 'n' number of times ("London bridge is falling down, falling down"), and various parts of the city destroyed by wars for the past 2000 years, from the Romans, from the people of Normandy (in Northern France), the Vikings, the French with whom Brits have fought wars for so long including the famous 7 year war and the Napoleonic wars, and of course the brutal world wars with Germany and rest of Europe. Fires have raged and burnt down the city multiple times, plague has ravaged the city and financial crisis like those that followed the World Wars, the 1929 Great Depression and the current depression have stung the heart of the city. But, after all this London is still thriving, still energetic and still hopeful. This incredible resolve of the Londoners is what keeping them alive and is what going to take them through the current depression.

I came to London to see if I could move to this city, in case I get admitted to a school here, and so far I'm extremely pleased. I always fall in love with history, and this is a place with such a quality and will also give me access to Continental Europe with equally long history. I will cover the details in the next part.