Posts Tagged ‘tourists’

Well, not so much a mystery actually, but it was a little magical. Last week Sea-Sick Friend and I took the day off and headed for The Smoke to pose as tourists again. You may remember that SSF valiantly accompanied me on a trip last year down the Thames to see the Barrier, dosed up to the eyeballs with tablets to quell her queasiness on the water. This time though we were on dry land lurching along with the wind and the sun on our faces aboard an open-topped bus, taking a tour of our capital city.

All aboard! This is how we whizzed around London for the day …

You might think it odd that a pair of once hardened London commuters would want to voluntarily spend time on public transport – even I find it hard to believe – however, we found out that we’d both harboured a desire to take one of these tours one day, so we did. I maybe should add here that I first met SSF on a broken-down train at Waterloo Station some twenty-six years ago. You must understand that there is a golden rule amongst London bound workers: commuters never speak to one another unless there is a problem with the transport. That evening there was so we struck up a whinging conversation about British Rail and have been friends ever since.

There are several companies running tours – we chose The Original Tour only because they seemed to run a more extensive route around the City of London, and that was the bit that we particularly wanted to see. There are three colour-coded routes to choose from and once you’ve bought your 24 hour day pass (£29 – or slightly cheaper on-line), you are allowed to hop on and off the bus as often as you like and swap between the routes. The buses are frequent – around every ten minutes, so there’s no real hanging around if you do alight. There is a “live” guide on every bus – that is, a real person in a very smart uniform as opposed to a recorded commentary accessed through ear-phones – another reason to avoid other tours as far as I’m concerned: I can’t bear ear-phones.

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The London Eye, seen from Westminster Bridge

We picked up our first bus near Waterloo Station, in front of the London Eye, chose the yellow route and headed straight for the City. Now, my memories of the rumbling old Route Master buses I used in my commuting life was that they were full of folk desperate to get to their destination in as little time as possible and being frequently disappointed. We should have all joined a tour bus. Ours set off at a cracking pace which we were to discover would be the default speed of the day. We simply WHIZZED around London. I’ve never seen the streets so traffic-free. There’s something to be said for this Congestion Charge malarkey we all moan about.

Even with the quick pace of the bus, the yellow route would take us around two and a half hours to complete. The calibre of guides differed from bus to bus – they were all pretty knowledgeable given that they were probably working from a script and some were definitely more theatrical than others but we were impressed that they all regularly reminded us passengers that a walking tour would be starting from the next official stop (for instance – The Jack the Ripper Tour would be commencing at Tower Hill) or that to swap routes we’d need to change buses in two stops time. The linking up of all the different sight-seeing opportunities was very well organised.

We decided fairly early on that we’d stick to the one route and that any walking tours would be another excuse to spend the day in London.

Because of the bus’s velocity and bearing in mind that I was on the top deck swaying around, I was not able to snap away taking as many pictures as I’d hoped. Here are a few, taken either from the ground during a hop-off spot or when the bus slowed slightly to allow pedestrians to use a crossing.

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A fleeting glimpse of St Paul’s Cathedral

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View of Tower Bridge with HMS Belfast in the foreground

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The Shard – London’s tallest building and Europe’s first ‘vertical city.’

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A coffee and hand-made chocolate shop in Borough Market near London Bridge. What’s not to like?

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The Tower of London with the Shard in the background. If I was being earnestly pretentious I might use the word juxtaposition somewhere in this caption.

As we left the City and headed for Westminster, we decided to hop off at Big Ben,  walk up Whitehall for some lunch and meet the bus again in Trafalgar Square.

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Well, you can’t go to London and not take a picture of this, can you?

I was interested to see the Monument to the Women of World War Two just north of the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Sculpted by John W Mills, it was unveiled in 2005 by Queen Elizabeth, two days after the 7/7 bombings.

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I wonder if those young ladies in the background realised the significance of what they were walking past …

Feeling replete after a couple of Panini’s (not each), we re-joined the bus and toured around the city of Westminster. This is familiar territory to me; nevertheless, it was fun to view it from on high. As we hit Piccadilly Circus SSF spied a celebrity being interviewed by a film crew. She’s good at that. See if you can spot who on earth she’s talking about. I was none the wiser.

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Spot the celeb in Piccadilly Circus. Answer at the bottom of the post. Clue: It’s not Bruno Mars or Prince Harry.

 We shot along Piccadilly, around Hyde Park Corner, up Park Lane and around Marble Arch, which we sailed around like Ben Ainslie sniffing a gold medal. Back in the day, this circumnavigation alone could take up to half an hour.

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Marble Arch – traffic used to crawl around here, nose to tail …

As we looped back past the Houses of Parliament, I couldn’t resist this final snap of a Henry Moore sculpture, ‘Knife Edge Two Piece’ on the lawn opposite the House of Commons and often used as a back drop for interviewing our politicians on the BBC news.

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Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece. Good grief – is that Cameron and Clegg in the background? How could we tell – they all look the same.

Our bus swiftly dropped us back at the London Eye and we called it a day, anxious to head for home before the main crush. Was it worth it? Yes, it was – and would have been more so if we had stayed for longer and joined the blue route which takes in all the Kensington Museums or the red route which goes to Regent’s Park.

Watch this space for a possible walking tour at some point – for now I’m content that I’ve crossed the bus tour off my list.

Celebrity Answer: Olly Murs

More Original Tour information here.

 

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I’ve been inspired to write about distant holiday memories by fellow blogger, Jane Fritz, who recently posted a wonderful piece on her travels to the Soviet Union in the 70’s. It got me thinking about the travelling my husband and I did, BC. (Before Children). We didn’t have relaxing holidays in those days – we had experiences. Some of our exploits were endurance tests, like the time we took a tour to a mountainous place called World’s End in Sri Lanka, during monsoon season in a leaky jeep with bald tyres. Another hair-raising adventure occurred slightly nearer to home – in the Adriatic when we took a hydrofoil trip from what was then Yugoslavia to Venice for the day and we hit a storm on the way back. The journey, normally achieved in less than an hour, took more than four in very rough seas. You don’t forget events like that.

However, one of the most memorable weeks away we had was in 1986 when we joined a tour party of around twenty people – Americans and British – travelling to Peking (Beijing) as ‘invited guests’ of the China Travel Service.

We flew from London in early March, armed with two tomes of Sunday newspapers, prepared for the long flight eastwards. Heading into daybreak over the Kun Lun Mountains, on the edge of the Gobi Desert was spectacular. Alighting from the plane in bright sunshine wearing the suggested padded fleece jacket, and full of food that the delightful staff of CAAC airlines plied us with during the never-ending journey, I waddled towards the terminal building like Michelin man.

There was a lot of form filling before we were allowed through customs; our man in Peking, Bill Jones, told us that even the Chinese don’t fully understand them but best fill in as comprehensively as possible!

We were then whisked away by coach with our Chinese guide, Ma Lan, to our newly built hotel, some way out of the city centre and which smelled of mothballs. I remember being impressed by the silk bed covers and amazed that we had a TV and a bathroom. There was a thermos of hot water, a wooden box of tea leaves and two delicate porcelain cups with lids: tea making facilities. Opposite the hotel, people were living in shacks with their animals.

My diary reports that we were allowed exactly half an hour to change traveller’s cheques into tourist Yuan and catch a drink from the bar where the young girl who served us, continually spat into the sink. This was a habit we noticed more and more during our week, although the Chinese were obviously mindful of this practise upsetting their guests as there were plenty of signs around which read “No spittings allowed and no litterings.”

Rush hour in Tiananmen Square

Rush hour in Tiananmen Square

Over the week, Ma Lan kept us to a very tight schedule. She had an itinerary and we were going to stick to it. We were allowed a certain amount of freedom once we were dropped off at Tiananmen Square, full of bicycles, kite fliers and very few cars.  Those we saw tended to be either Mercedes or Toyota’s. Most people were wearing the androgynous blue Mao suits although western fashions were beginning to self-consciously emerge.Ma Lan took us to the main sights in Peking: The Forbidden City, where curious Chinese people latched onto our group. One man told us he had learned his English from the BBC World Service and asked us searching questions – how much did it cost for us to get here; how much did we earn; were we married; how many children did we have; why didn’t we have any children.

Bear one, get one free?

Bear one, get one free?

The implementation  in 1979 of the Chinese one-child policy prompted many people to ask us questions about the size of our families, so these twins, whom I snapped while on the visit to Peking Zoo to see their unproductive Pandas, were their parents prized possession.

We went to the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heavenly Peace; we were shown the Yonghe Buddhist Temple –the only working lamasery in Peking – orange clad monks went about their daily routine apparently unaware of their audience; we visited the Great Hall of the People and saw Mao lying in state.

One evening was spent at the Chinese Theatre – a variety show of magicians, contortionists and trapeze artists after which we ate at the Super Duck Restaurant – a massive building catering for 5000 covers. Our table was on the fourth floor and we had red wine with our Peking Duck dinner.  On the whole, the food during our stay was ok – quite bland and with a high monosodium-glutamate content. We were, however, introduced to the Mac Attack – a concept dreamed up by our American friends who were hallucinating over the lack of fast food. I remember we spent one evening discussing the merits of pepperoni pizzas and chocolate fudge sundaes.

The Great Wall and the Ming Tombs provided another day of sight-seeing as well as the opportunity to mix with curious locals. The part of the Wall we were taken to was very much set up for western tourists, with haphazardly erected t-shirt stalls proclaiming “I’ve Climbed the Great Wall of China.” The climbing we did was more like a gentle, uphill stroll, but at least I can say I‘ve been there.

The mountain resort Summer Palace, Chengde

The mountain resort Summer Palace, Chengde

Part of our week was spent out of Peking, in a town far away to the north, called Chengde.  This was the site of the Emperor’s Summer Palace , (not to be confused with the one in Peking), also known as the Mountain Resort. It took fifteen days to get there travelling by sedan chair in those days. It took us five hours by train from Peking Central Station. Our seats were in ‘soft class.’ The compartments had room for six sleeping passengers. The bunks were covered in white, pleated edged cotton with embroidery. There were lace curtains at the window, in front of which was a tiny table containing china cups and a large thermos for our tea, which was constantly topped up by the young girl in charge of our carriage.The scenery changed dramatically as we headed further north; flat plains soon gave rise to more mountainous terrain. The skies were clear: it became much colder; rivers and even waterfalls were frozen solid. The landscape was much more rural – we saw small peasant farms, the houses and animal shelters were one of the same.

It was the coal smoke that hit us in Chengde, as well as its residual dirt.  The chimneys came out of the buildings sideways, belching out the stuff into the atmosphere and adhering to our clothes. We stayed overnight in the town’s only hotel – more primitive but with very friendly staff. They provided stone hot water bottles for our huge feather beds but no running hot water in the sink. We forewent tea from the ubiquitous thermos the following morning and used the water for washing.

The Emperor’s summer palace could have been the inspiration for the Willow Pattern Plate. It was beautiful – made even more so by the frozen lake and clear blue skies. In addition to this we were taken to Puning Si – the Temple of Universal Peace and the Pu Tuo Zhong Cheng Temple, modelled on the Potala Temple in Lhasa.

Buying chickens in Chengde

Buying chickens in Chengde

Downtown Chengde was a lively market place: live chickens, their feet strung together waiting for the pot; banks of brightly coloured fresh vegetables, tumbling in piles to the dusty street; a road side tailor’s – a production line drew, cut and sewed a pair of trousers in a matter of minutes, the customer waited and walked off, satisfied.

We were encouraged by Ma Lan to off-load our tourist Yuan at Friendship Stores. Set up especially for China’s burgeoning tourist trade, these shops were full of fabulous silks, ‘antique’ artefacts, ivory carvings, scrolls, guide-books and paintings, all at incredibly low prices. A traditional medicine counter selling tablets for ‘herculean potency’ caused great mirth amongst our tour party.  It was a shock to wander off into the Chinese department store a few doors away to discover the shelves there virtually empty.

Our week in Peking and its environs was packed with seeing the sights chosen for us by the tourist service and it was certainly a glimpse into an extraordinary country and its people. I never got rid of the smell of coal smoke from my Arran-knit jumper and the smell of mothballs always takes me right back to that hotel in Peking. Who would have thought that only three years later, the world would be witnessing the terrible events unfolding in Tiananmen Square. Would we have predicted the giant leap forward the country would make in terms of becoming a capitalist society? Maybe, but in so short a time span – I’m not so sure. A few years ago I worked with a young Chinese person, who would have been about three or four in 1989. When I asked him what he knew about the Tiananmen Square massacre his expression was inscrutable. I think the word pretty much sums up the whole fascinating Chinese culture.

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