Layover Guide: Beijing. Part 2: Beijing on Speed

We once went to Toronto for the weekend. Our friends teased us mercilessly for this, and now every Friday when my husband leaves work one of his colleagues will inevitably pipe up “what you up to this weekend? Off to Buenos Aires?” (Ahh, office banter…)

So we upped our game a bit on the way back from Japan and popped to Beijing for 24 hours. Like you do.

If you’re flying somewhere via China you can usually do this these days without having to go through an arduous and expensive visa process. But how on earth do you make the most of such a short stay in such a major city? You’ll need to accept it’s going to be a snapshot at best – a whistlestop tour or taster for a future visit. How you do it also depends on when you’re arriving and how long the layover is – if you’re arriving early in the morning there are lots of pre-organised day trips and tours ranging from as little as four hours in length which you could go on, which are probably the easiest and least stressful way of seeing a bit of China, and will take you as far as the Great Wall. We arrived in the early evening and left the following day in the late afternoon, so, feeling intrepid, we did the following.

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We booked a hotel very close to the areas we wanted to see (a ten-minute walk from the Forbidden City) – there are loads of hotels around here, and we opted for the mid-range Hotel Kapok, which turned out to be a delight, with very obliging front desk staff  with good English skills (a plaque above the desk proclaims that they have an award for “Managing of Foreigner”) and beautiful rooms on a relatively quiet street (this is impressive for Beijing.) We got out of the airport relatively quickly and negotiated the subway, which turned out to be a breeze because everything is bilingual – at the airport you can buy a smartcard and pre-load it with money, take the Airport Express and get off at the last station, then make your way from there. Unlike London, where the lines have incomprehensible names (the only logical one is the Circle Line, and even that has ceased to be a circle following redevelopment a few years back) the lines in Beijing are called 1, 2, 3 etc. We got off at Wangfujing, in the centre, where you can choose from a dazzling array of eateries (we went to McDonald’s, but don’t tell anyone.) Most restaurants will have some degree of English menu (though interestingly McDonald’s did not), though the accuracy is questionable – I’m still not sure what chiclcen feet are!)

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If you’re short on time, a tip would be to buy something for breakfast the night before or on the way the next day – there’s no shortage of amazing pastries in and around Wangfujing – so you’re not spending time eating an overpriced, dubious attempt at breakfast when you could be sightseeing. The major sites in Beijing get ridiculously crowded, so getting up early to explore has the additional benefit that you’re slightly less likely to get run over by Chinese tour groups, whose response to having someone in their way seems to just be to plough on determinedly until you move or are physically removed as an obstacle (after 2 weeks in Japan, arguably the politest nation on earth, being doggedly shoved and elbowed because you were where someone else wanted to be came as a bit of a shock.)

We walked to the Forbidden City first. If you want to go inside you should book tickets in advance (and can do so easily through Viator, Tripadvisor and a huge number of other go-betweens) to allow you to jump the chaotic queues. Aware we only had about two thirds of a single day we opted not to go inside (this has nothing to do with us having booked tickets for the wrong day and only realising this fact as our flight took off… nothing at all…) as the guide books advise that a visit can take all day. We walked alongside what was, basically, a tranquil inner-city pond to the imposing and ornate gates of the Forbidden City. We then walked all the way up to the entrance to Tiananmen Square only to discover that a completely unsigned one-way system meant that it was now the exit FROM Tiananmen Square, so we walked back around the pond, down a couple of streets and into it the other way. The authorities in Beijing have a frustrating habit of fencing off vast areas, so if you find yourself on the wrong side of a road huge iron rails down the middle could mean a 200m detour to get over to the correct side.

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Tiananmen Square is impressive, almost menacing, smouldering with the events of 1989 which the Chinese don’t talk about, but which must inevitably push themselves to the front of every tourist’s mind as they walk through the vast square, peppered with sombre-faced soldiers at every interval, standing so still that we thought one was a particularly life-like statue until he blinked. On the other side from the gate back into the Forbidden City, iconic largely for the enormous image of Mao’s face which adorns it, is Mao’s Mausoleum, looming, austere, grandiose, and at 8am already surrounded by an enormous queue stretching probably 3-400metres around it – thousands of Chinese citizens waiting patiently to view the embalmed body of the founder of modern China, whose Great Leap Forward led to the starvation of millions, but whose supporters credit with unifying and rapidly industrialising China.

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Out of Tiananmen Square (my advice is to make use of subway tunnels and avoid trying to cross roads as much as possible) it’s about a half-hour walk down to the Temple of Heaven Park. After the frenetic pandemonium of Tiananmen Square this is both a haven of tranquility but also a window onto more normal Chinese life, away from the rampaging tour groups and the pilgrimage-like reverie down the road. The park is vast, with the famous Temple itself in the centre (you need to pay to enter the park, and pay extra to enter the temple – you can do both at the West Gate). I could have spent hours here. Upon entering we had only walked a little way when we found what looked like a ballroom dancing session for pensioners, serenely waltzing their way between the trees as people walked their dogs and pushed their children in buggies around then. Further into the park an enormous group of elderly people were engaged in unison tai chi, a mesmerizing mass of elegant, deliberate and precise movements, like slow-motion ballet. Almost directly opposite them a group of teenagers were break dancing, and a few feet away a couple of women of working age were playing a sort of free-form game of ping pong without the table.

So absorbed was I in this glorious display of Beijing life that I almost didn’t notice the gentleman trying to earnestly attract my attention. “American?” he was saying, with a sense of urgency.” “English,” I replied. He beamed at me and pointed to an immaculately groomed, miniature creature at his ankles and announced, carefully and slowly, yet with some pride, “This is my dog!” I wasn’t sure what the response to this should be, so I bent down and said “Ni Hao” (hello) to the little dog, who looked back at me with a sort of apologetic resignation that seemed to say “don’t bring me into this”. “It’s a lovely dog,” I said, and he nodded vigorously and repeated enthusiastically “thank you. It is a lovely dog. Yes. Thank you. It is my dog,” then went on his way.

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A snapshot of Beijing life

Exiting from the East Gate it was an easy subway journey back to the hotel, and from there a longer journey back to the airport. It may have been a flying visit, but I felt we’d been able to create at least part of a picture of what makes this city so great – its people, its culture, its astounding historic architecture combined with its modern feats of engineering that make it more efficient than many cities I’ve visited. While the overt and persistent presence of so many military and police made it feel a little sinister at times, it was nonetheless friendly, accessible and varied, with its mix of local stores and international brands. I would go back again, but definitely for more than 24 hours.

 

Layover guide: Beijing. Part One: How it works

Modest to the last, I like to consider myself something of a queen – or at the very least minor royal – of layovers, and after this week I feel I have truly earned that title. After a gradual build-up via more commonly-frequented layover destinations such as Dubai and KL we went for the ultimate Asian layover – Beijing.

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China is a notoriously bureaucratic and authoritative nation. It has (amongst other sobering statistics) the highest use of the death penalty in the world, executing more people per year than all other countries combined. It’s not a country into whose bad books you’d wish to fall. It’s also the fourth largest country in the world by surface area and the largest by population. It does not, then, immediately spring to mind as somewhere you could pop into for a mini-break, and yet that is exactly what we did.

In an attempt to encourage more tourists to come to China, it’s now possible to enter the country without a visa for a set period of time, (known as Travel Without Visa – TWOV), but this is not as simple as it sounds. Some cities allow a period of up to 144 hours, but the maximum you can apply for depends on which country you’re from; some require that you stay within a very limited region, others allow you to travel farther afield. Rules are subject to change, and the exact way that this entry permit can be obtained seems shrouded in unnecessary mystery. Anyway, we navigated it successfully so that, subject to arbitrary changes, of course, you can do the same.

We were transiting through Beijing en route to Tokyo, and planned a layover on the way back. Our experience at Beijing Capital Airport on the way there did not fill us with confidence, and anxiety about having to spend our planned layover trapped in an underwhelming airport was at the back of our minds throughout the holiday. On the way there we had two hours for a connection that was reduced to one hour due to an Air China delay (this seems common – on the way back my husband and I were inexplicably seated one place apart from one another, with an exhausted and sweaty Northerner sat between us – he was supposed to be on a flight that left 18 hours before, but missed this due to his flight from Bangkok being delayed. On asking when the next flight was, he was apparently told that Air China didn’t fly to London and that he would need to go home via Dusseldorf, before being handed a ticket and directed to our flight to Heathrow). Beijing Capital is illogical to navigate at best – it’s a beautiful airport, with its newest terminal opened in time for the 2008 Olympics, but unfortunately it feels a bit as though someone has sent them a lovely flat-packed airport but forgotten to enclose the instructions. Nothing quite works, and many of the processes haven’t been thought through. To transfer flights we had to go all the way out along with all the people who were leaving the airport, then back around and through the world’s slowest security queue, where the staff were seemingly obsessed with whether or not you had any lighters in your hand luggage. It’s also the first place I’ve visited where you had to take batteries (including portable chargers) out of your bag and put the into the tray separately. You are then patted down with rather too much familiarity and a lot of inexplicable shouting. There are signs that say that if you have a short connection time, but when we urgently told them we had just 45 minutes to make our flight we were sent to the back of the queue with a smirk and told “you will miss flight.” We made flight with just 5 minutes to spare, and only then because it was delayed. Again.

So, coming back, we were not filled with confidence. But we were wrong. The TWOV system was actually easy, but could have done with a bit of explanation. So, here it is:

  1. When you arrive the first thing you will need to do is give your fingerprints. There are lots of little and very efficient machines to do this, and they will give instructions in English if you choose that option. You’ll get a tiny little receipt confirming you did it – hang onto this!
  2. Next you’ll see some yellow immigration forms. We diligently filled these out, only to find that, in this form-loving country, there is actually a different, blue form that you need to complete if you want to apply for the TWOV. These are nowhere to be seen. We went to the TWOV desk but it was empty. Don’t worry – there is another one, but it involves doubling back on yourself once you are into the immigration part of the hall and going what feels like the wrong way through some desks whose purpose remains unclear. Tucked away in a corner is another TWOV desk, complete with the elusive blue forms and a lot of staff fulfilling the role of Standing Around Looking Important.
  3. Complete the blue form and join the queue of confused foreigners trying to obtain a TWOV from the one person behind the desk whose job is to Not Look Very Important At All But To Do The Actual Work. You should have with you evidence of a hotel booking (they are very suspicious if you say you’re staying with friends or family) and, most importantly, your onward ticket (i.e. a flight out of Beijing to somewhere else.)
  4. A few words of Chinese are helpful, especially Xièxiè (thank you).
  5. When you come back, make sure you have with you the other half of your blue form. Once again, there will be yellow forms for exiting the country and people will tell you that you must fill one of these out. You don’t need to – the blue form is your equivalent of this.
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Beijing Capital Airport – vast yet uninspiring

Beijing Capital looks nice, but it’s something of a facade. Unfortunately, it probably is worth coming back earlier than you think you’ll need to due to the chaos and general unpredictability of the security arrangements (the immigration, to our surprise, was the easy bit). We found the international departures area to be fairly calming, as it was vast and almost entirely devoid of people. Unfortunately it was also devoid of anything to do, with rows or vacant shops with optimistic signs assuring you that a new store would be there soon. We were doubtful if this was true. It’s good if you want to buy international luxury brands or, bizarrely, go to Pizza Hut, but if you want to buy tacky souvenirs (usually the highlight of my airport experience) it’s best to do it in the city. But, in summary, the TWOV process, as long as it stays in place, is impressive, and, hopefully, the more people who use it the less likely we are to lose it.

 

Pisa

While many cities draw in tourists with just one or two world-famous sites, Pisa is perhaps unique in that its continuing success as a must-see destination is based solely on fortuitously bad architectural engineering. Thanks to a combination of inappropriately soft ground and a poor grasp of physics, the economy of this small and otherwise unremarkable Tuscan city can rely almost exclusively on a steady flow of tourists from around the world, who flock enthusiastically to its famous square where they stand grinning inanely with their arms at an angle, while the relative holding the camera says “left a bit…now down a bit…” in a quest for the perfect picture where they hilariously look as though they’re propping up the tower.

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Left a bit…now up a bit…

Of course, if anyone had ever succeeded in propping up the tower it would probably having damaged Pisa’s economy instantly and irreparably. There are lots of beautiful cities in Italy, and most who currently come on day-trips are staying in bigger and arguably more romantic Florence nearby. Would this university city of less than 500,000 people be worth the trip without it?

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The sun sets over the Baptistery

Well, we liked Pisa. We visited for an obscure conference, giving us (as I’ve often found) evenings and a single morning to snatch a glance at our host destination, and Pisa didn’t disappoint. The Cathedral square, as you’d expect, was a relentless, hot tangle of tourist groups so focused on their cameras and their tour guides holding aloft brightly-coloured umbrellas that they didn’t look where they were going. And the square, of course, is worth not only a visit, but a good couple of hours. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and aside from the tower itself the Duomo and baptistery are astounding examples of Romanesque architecture both inside and out, with their dazzling, wedding-cake facades and elaborate, intricate mosaics. You can go up the tower (for a fee) if you want, but there’s something more than a little disconcerting about standing at an angle and looking down, even though it isn’t really all that high.

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One of Pisa’s many belltowers

But I’d recommend doing what many tourists do not: stay in Pisa. We watched as hot, sweaty crowds scrambled back onto their buses for onward/return trips to Florence, and where that city is undeniably worth a visit too, it’s a shame not to stick around in Pisa a little while longer. Like any city in Tuscany, Pisa is beautiful, with endless streets and alleyways of pink and orange buildings and crumbling belltowers. And once you’re a hundred yards or so from the square, it’s practically deserted. It’s one of those cities where you could eat in a new restaurant every night and never have a bad meal, where you can stumble upon an ancient church on almost any street corner, enjoy gelato in almost any flavour imaginable, and watch the sun set from a rooftop terrace (I recommend the bar at the Hotel Grand Duomo, though I wouldn’t recommend staying there unless you have a fetish for 1970s decor and amenities).

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View from the roof terrace of the Hotel Duomo

With budget flights taking just over two hours from a range of UK airports, compact, friendly Pisa is the perfect city for a weekend break, where you can feel you’ve seen everything and still had time to relax.

Miami Vice

We ended a recent epic East-coast jaunt in Miami, because why not? It was the beginning of December and the draw of somewhere with a temperature persistently over 25 degrees won over damp and chilly north London without there being much of a contest.

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Miami, like much of the US cities we’ve visited, is full of contrasts. Known for being an upmarket retirement hot spot populated by affluent Betty White lookalikes, it is also home to devastatingly beautiful, hip young things baring their tanned torsos as they effortlessly whack volleyballs at one another and rollerblade along the boardwalks. Very much a southern city, at least geographically (after all, it’s home to the most southern spot on mainland USA) it nonetheless lacks much of the conservative overtones of cities in neighbouring states. Famous for its thriving gay scene and awash with unabashed hedonism, “reactionary” isn’t a word you’d use about Miami.

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Some might argue otherwise, but Miami Beach is really the place to go, unless you have some sort of phobia of Art Deco architecture, in which case I’d recommend you try a different city altogether. The downtown part of the city is great – buzzing and impressive – but it’s sticky-hot and there arguably isn’t a lot to separate it from many other US cities. Miami Beach, on the other hand, feels like a film set: miles and miles of Art Deco brilliance, miles of fine, sandy beaches and a deluge of plush hotels and chic dining spots. I clogged up my phone memory in the first half hour there, my husband patiently suggesting to me that I might not want to take pictures of every building.

The drawback of all of this is that it comes at a price, and after a week ambling around the backwaters of Virginia this was a bit of a shock. We checked into a bland chain hotel conspicuous by its modern, faceless facade in a row of otherwise elegant perfection, and vowed to spend as little time there as possible. Instead we went to the nearby Fontainbleu for dinner – twice – and pretended we were actually staying there, and in the daytime sashayed along the boardwalk, taking in the elaborately-decorated beach huts and dazzling blue sea and luxuriating in the late Autumn heat.

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The bar at the Fontainbleu

Miami is friendly, too. Everyone we met had a certain southern easiness, a natural friendliness that made each encounter a snapshot of joy, and all without the underlying tensions of the other states that we’d visited, still very much, at this time, in the shadow of the Charlottesville protests and the dangerously simmering racism that had bubbled to the surface there. Florida, physically on a limb as well as, perhaps, metaphorically, was safely removed enough from all this, a microcosm of charm and comfort and self-assuredness. Yes, of course, there are pockets of the city that are unsafe; there are areas the hotel would earnestly warn you against visiting; there is petty crime, as there is in any other major city, both in the US and elsewhere. But there is Key West a short drive away; there are the Everglades in the other direction, with their airboat tours and guides delighting the thrill-seekers daily in their dalliances with the local reptilian inhabitants, rousing huge, prehistoric creatures from their natural, murky habitats for the purposes of a decent selfie to show the folks back home.

Then there is cutting-edge street art to go with street food of such quality that in London it would be sold for three times the price by a chap with a beard out of an old, brightly-painted shipping container in Shoreditch – Cuban food, Colombian food, prawns so implausibly big you fear they might be the result of some catastrophic scientific experiment. There are museums, galleries, walks and wildlife – Miami is the only place I’ve been where I have looked down to find an iguana more than a foot long walking alongside me, who, when I paused, paused too, and looked up at me as if to say, “yes? Can I help you?”

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My iguana – I called him Ian

I have been to a lot of places in the US, from the blizzard-swept north to the deep south, I’ve experienced the unforgiving buzz of New York, the intellectual babble of Boston and the lazy hum of Savannah. But the confident, chic, contradictory fizzle of Miami?

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Yes. It did it for me this time, and I’m certain it would do it for me again and again.

 

 

 

 

Pining for the Fjords

I didn’t go all the way to Bergen just so I could update my Facebook status to “pining for the fjords”. OK, a bit. I mean, it was an added bonus. But I’d also never been to Norway, despite its proximity, plus the flights were cheap. So I headed off for a weekend in Bergen.

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We stood out in Bergen. Unlike much of Eastern Europe, where their impression of the Typical Brit probably comes from the stag weekender, stumbling around the main square at 2am in a “Ladz On Tour” t-shirt with “Mental Dave” on the back, bursting into random snippets of 80s disco classics at an impressive volume while simultaneously wondering where his trousers have got to, the average Bergen resident probably thinks all Brits are over 65, shop in John Lewis and have a penchant for waterways. Every British couple (and they were all couples) were well into retirement and had either just returned from a cruise or were about to go on one, and looked at us with a mixture of pity and confusion when we said we were just there for a weekend jaunt.

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Pining for the fjords?

Yet Bergen is worth a weekend jaunt. In fact, you wouldn’t want to stay very much longer, unless your premium bonds had just come up trumps for you or you were willing to remortgage your house. A “quick drink” before dinner came to £10 each for just less than a pint (though admittedly a nice pint), and a bottle of wine in a restaurant was considered at the lower end of the expenditure scale at a mere £59. Our livers had an even more successful holiday than we did.

You can still do the fjords on a day or half day cruise, with the originally-named Fjord Cruises nipping you up and down on a catamaran and back in time for lovely £14 gin and tonic. And the fjords are glorious – majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring and all those other words you’d choose to describe a snow-capped, green natural phenomenon. Oh, and bloody cold in March – take a coat. The weather was stunning when we were there, pootling from Bergen to Mostraumen and back in glorious sunshine.

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A lot of the Fjorders probably miss Bergen itself, viewing it purely as a drop-off point, but this is a mistake. There are loads of things to do, from the Hanseatic Wharf (a world heritage site) to the funicular up to the top of the city’s very own mountain, with its stunning views and snowy walks and general loveliness, alongside the usual art galleries (amongst other things the pieces of Munch they presumably didn’t want in Oslo) and museums.

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The port, photographed from Mount Floyen

Less than two hours away by the predictably efficient Norwegian Air, this was a wonderful break. And if you’re still not convinced, well, in what other country could you buy a chocolate bar called Plopp?

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Delve into the District

I have developed a bit of an obsession with Washington, D.C. OK, actually that’s not quite true. What I actually have is a HUGE obsession with the award-winning and utterly fabulous TV show The West Wing, and consequently when I’m in D.C. I live in secret hope that I’m going to bump into Bradley Whitford jogging along the Potomac. But, aside from this, D.C. is a great city to visit, and I could go back again and again and still not grow tired of it. Having been once on business and once on pleasure it’s now very near the top of my list, and has the rare distinction of being a city in which both my husband and I enjoyed staying.

I like D.C. for many of the same reasons I like Canberra. It’s not, comparatively, a huge city (i.e. it’s not New York.) There is an element to which it’s a planned city rather than one that’s grown organically, and as a result you have wide streets and plenty of green. As the national capital it has, like Canberra, the national museums and monuments, and as the home of the political elite it’s over-provided with excellent restaurants and drinking spots.

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Unlike other major American cities such as New York it’s also remarkably friendly. New York, for me, ranks alongside London and Hong Kong (you might disagree) where the locals are always in a hurry and are somewhat resentful of any idiot in their city that doesn’t know where they’re going and has the audacity to slow down or come to a halt to look at a map or show any sort of weakness at all – I consider myself a very friendly person, yet I have heard myself tut loudly behind the person on the London tube who waits until they are standing by the exit gates to then dig around and find their Oyster card. D.C. lies on the cusp between the north and the south. It incorporates southern friendliness with east coast confidence and sophistication. By the time we got off the metro on the day we arrived in the city we had been adopted by not one but two solicitous locals keen to ensure we made it safely to our destination, while telling us everything about themselves (the one who had adopted me was from St Louis and had visited London ten years ago for a period of study abroad, the one who had adopted my classically British, reserved husband probably had a less interactive experience and so sadly I know nothing about him). While they argued with one another about which crossing we should use we skulked off with Googlemaps and found our own way.

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The Lincoln Memorial

There is of course a plethora of hotels ranging from the positively primitive to the gloriously opulent. We chose the Watergate Hotel, wonderful for Georgetown and convenient for all the major sites, which are walkable if you’re keen. It overlooks the Potomac, with Arlington Cemetery on the opposite side, and, of course, you have the added joy of being able to tell your friends you stayed at the Watergate. It remains one of the smartest and friendliest hotels I’ve stayed at, with a huge pool and fitness centre, rooftop bar and fabulous rooms, and I can’t recommend it enough.

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Sunset from our room in the Watergate Hotel

There is more to do in D.C. than one can write in a blog post. In two trips we have done just a fraction, and I am planning a third trip as soon as I can cobble the money together. I’m yet to visit Newseum or the Library of Congress, which both appear in many “top 10s” of the city. I would however recommend the following:

The National Museum of American History

This is the museum that tells you how the Second World War was a war between the US and Evil that the US ultimately won. There was so little mention of the UK that it caused me to raise my eyebrows. However, it’s an excellent introduction into US history from the country that unashamedly considers itself to be the best in the world.

 

The National Mall

Photo opportunities abound, but you have to admit that the Americans are very good at monuments. Be warned – it’s a far longer walk than it looks on the map. However it’s really worth it for those sites you’ve seen so often on TV.

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National Zoo

Having been to New York and found all the museums there eye-wateringly expensive it seemed bizarre yet delightful that everything in Washington, the zoo included, seemed to be free. You can see pandas here. Go on, go and see the pandas.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Washington is a city of memorials and it’s impossible to pick the best one. However, I think if I had to then it would be this one. The controversy of the Vietnam War still hasn’t faded all these years later, and many soldiers who came back found themselves the target of abuse and even hatred. The memorial, winner of a national competition that was opposed by many at the time for what was considered its brutal lack of ornamentation, brings home with its painful simplicity the sheer scale of the toll on American lives – more than 58,000 young Americans lost to a war that many now agree was at best futile, and at worst a national shame.

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The scale of war in the simplest of formats

Arlington National Cemetery

Technically in Virginia, on the other side of the Potomac, this continues to remind us just how well the US does memorials. I’ve blogged about this in another post, but want to stress again how glad I was to have visited.

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The permanently-guarded tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The National Cathedral

Again, any West Wing fan will tell you, whether you care to listen or not, of the importance of this building in that show, and the episode Two Cathedrals rightly won multiple awards. But it’s also a stunning building, and one that many tourists don’t visit on account of its being slightly outside the city centre. We were lucky enough to go there after hours with friends who were bell-ringers there and watched the sun setting from its bell tower. I’d highly recommend a visit – it’s grand, elegant and everything a great cathedral should be, separation of church and state aside!

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The National Cathedral at night, flanked by cherry blossom

So, if you’re looking for a long weekend somewhere, or a week somewhere, I cannot recommend D.C. enough.

And if you’re looking to get into West Wing, it’s better late than never! Hey, why not combine the two? My recommendation for some great images of Washington, and possibly the finest episode they ever made (it rightly won several awards) see In Excelsis Deo.

Everyone Has The Right To Idle

Of all the things we saw in Vilnius – the remaining Baltic capital that was still on my list – this stood out the most. In the midst of yet another beautiful city with a tumultuous, often somber history stands the self-proclaimed Republic of Uzupis, on the banks of the river Vilnia River. It’s a community of artists and Bohemians – the type who in Britain would by now have opened their own backyard gin distillery and would be stroking their goatee beards and soaking their cashew nuts ready for the next vegan Macaroni “cheese” whilst simultaneously trying to save the whales – and they have transformed what used to be a run-down, no-go area into a little corner of quirky solace from an increasingly unstable and negative world. Their constitution – translated into over 20 languages on a series of mirrors along it’s outer wall, is one of the most joyous, uplifting things I have ever read.

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Everyone should have the right, as they would say, to read this every day, and realise, maybe, that life has the potential to be bright after all, if only we choose to make that happen.

To the Republic of Uzupis: I hope you last forever.