Sunday, March 7, 2010

Did you know...

that it's a lot easier to find your way around a city in China and Taiwan (and certainly in obsessively user-friendly Japan) than it is in England? It's certainly true! England suffers from a few problems (not including the current frigid temperatures) - first of all, none of the streets are ever straight; they wind, they twist, the loop and circle - they are beautiful, scenic, picturesque, and ... difficult to keep a bearing on! And then, there's the street signs - places like chaotic Buenos Aires have very clear street signs (Shanghai's are the best actually - they are not just in English, but they also give you compass points - N/S, E/W, so you know which way to go). Here in England? Well, they do have some street signs. They are never lit up or anything, and are never in a consistent spot. And they seem to really be just reserved for the tiny small streets - the big ones have been here for seven hundred years - everyone knows where this one goes! Oh, tourists... Raaiiight...

So, British streets annoy me a little. No matter, I took a few scenic detours around the towns, and managed to find my friends here in England, and take in a few sights. No thanks to the tourist information offices either - I've seen a few so far, but none that were open as of yet. Union-mandated smoking break, I can only assume... At least the people are happy to help, and speak something that passes for English.

After a day of decompressing back in London, the first stop was Bristol, the home of the intrepid adventurists, as in the people who organize the Mongol Rally and the Rickshaw Run. I did manage to find their office (which wasn't honestly interesting enough to merit any photography...), then headed off to see a bit of the rest of the old town. And to their credit, the English towns (with their winding streets and all) are very pretty - surrounded by rolling green plains of the countryside, and with Gothic steeples of churches and cathedrals poking up all over the place:

The massive center building of the University of Bristol

The Bristol Cathedral in the evening

Bristol seems fairly proud of its Suspension Bridge. Definitely a prime location. Probably an engineering marvel of some sorts too

The following morning, it was time to head back to London, but instead of taking the direct train line there, I figured I'd make a small detour through Salisbury

Salisbury sits in the middle of the afore-mentioned tranquil English countryside

And in the middle of all this countryside sit the 5,000 year old stones that make up mysterious Stonehenge. We still haven't quite figured out why it's here, but it's a cool site to see. Met a tourist from Japan there - we both complained about how cold it is in England!

Back to London, and on to the Tower Bridge

They say it's the most famous bridge in the world - I say San Francisco's Golden Gate could give it a run for its money, but certainly top two!

Just outside of London is Canterbury, home of the Canterbury Cathedral, the home base of the Anglican Church.

The rest of the time here in London has been all about catching up with friends, since most people you meet traveling are apparently Brits. (I can't blame them - it's freezing here!). Lucy patiently explained to me that the Canterbury Cathedral isn't as nice as the cathedral in her home town of Lincolnshire. I felt she may have been exaggerating a bit, and proceeded to explain that I tried to convert the Canterbury arch-bishop to Buddhism...

Re-visiting the Mongol Rally adventures, I visited with Dom and Laurel, whom we had met in Mongolia, while they were driving around the world in a much-too-sensible Toyota Hilux, and Zoran, who made the mini functional enough to, at least, get her on the way towards Mongolia. He was pleased to hear my updates on the poor car's whereabouts.

Dom and Laurel are about (literally within the week) to have an addition to their family. The Hilux is now for sale...

Zoran, the master, is still his rather stern, yet happy self!

And one final takeaway about life in Britain is that the whole country is ... well, apparently in therapy. Or just neurotic, as Jamie puts it. Everything apologizes to me. And no, that's not a typo, I did mean everything, not everyone. When the Underground train gets stuck, a soothing lady comes on saying she's sorry, and we're waiting for a red signal. You are not sorry at all, you are just a recording that's pre-programmed to come on after three minutes to try and make me feel better! At that, by the way, you have failed! On the elevator, in my hostel in Bristol (a nice, if rather sterile and soul-less place):

- doors closing
- car traveling up
- floor three

<by my fourth time riding the lift>: You do realize, recording lady, I will have to strangle you if we ever meet!?

- doors opening

There was also this sign at Stonehenge, which made me burst out laughing (and take a picture), but somebody must have taken all this quite seriously at some point when the sign was conceived:

Well, I suppose, it could be a problem if the shoes you were wearing had nails in place of heels... with the sharp end of the nail pointing down!

Before, we get all smug and over-confident, I'm pretty sure the US is heading down the same over-therapized path, we are just not quite as far along as our Old World ancestors!

By the way, one more thing about London - the underground, the tube, whatever you want to call it. Easily my least favorite of any public transit systems around the world. Not only is there no semblance of trains running on a schedule of any sort, but the trains are constantly stuck in the tunnels, and seemingly half the system is closed for repairs every weekend. Fortunately, half the stations appear to be redundant, so you can still get places (slowly), it's just a bit more crowded.

The standard explanation is always, well, it's the oldest and largest system in the world - it's very difficult to maintain. Pity us! So, I decided to look up some numbers - wikipedia to the rescue:

It is the certainly the oldest system in the world:
#1. London, 1863
I couldn't find a comprehensive list for this (you are dropping the ball here, wikipedia!), but a few relevant ones that I did come across:
#2. Istanbul, 1871, even though that wasn't really a metro line, and bears no resemblance to today's lines
#3. Budapest, 1896 (#'s 2 and 3 were a bit of a surprise for me as well)
#4. Paris, 1900
#5. New York, 1904
Tokyo: 1927
Moscow: 1935

But is it the largest? No, not by any measure:
By Length of Rail:
#1. New York: 1056km
#2. Berlin: 483km
#3. London: 415km
#4. Moscow: 340km
#5. Tokyo: 281km
#6. Paris: 211km

By number of stops:
#1. New York: 468
#2. Paris: 368
#3. Berlin: 354
#4. London: 275
#5. Tokyo: 274

By number of passengers (annually):
#1. Tokyo: 3.174 Billion
#2. Moscow: 2.392 Billion (a decline of almost a billion from 1997?)
#3. Seoul: 2.047 Billion
#4. New York; 1.624 Billion
#5. Mexico City: 1.467 Billion
#6. Beijing: 1.457 Billion
#7. Paris: 1.388 Billion
#8. Hong Kong: 1.323 Billion
#9. Shanghai: 1.3 Billion
#10 (finally). London: 1.197

(passenger figures from, statistics from 2007-2009)

So, London is the oldest, but is neither the largest, nor the most heavily used. Nor is it open 24 hours a day, like New York's. And while it is the oldest, you can't exactly call New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Moscow brand new either. It may very well be the most expensive, and it has to be the least efficient, with long wait times, constant interruptions, and frequent line closures. By my count, I've used subway/light rail systems in about 40 cities around the world. London's probably better than Manila... well, during Manila's rush hour anyway! But, it's got some nice decorations in places:

A clock at the Waterloo Station. Not Moscow Metro nice decorations, mind you, but pretty good

Ok, ok, I'm picking on England a little bit (but it is kind of fun, considering she is a little neurotic), but overall, I'm having a very good time seeing friends here in the UK. The weather has even been un-London-like sunny (still freezing cold though), making for some nice photos. The Underground does still annoy me though. A few pictures from the afore-mentioned sunny days to serve as an addendum:

The Houses of Parliament over the river Thames

Big Ben sitting above Parliament, and the new addition, the London Eye (that's the big ferris wheel) behind it. I took a ride on the Eye - interesting, but I got better pictures from ground level

Dusk falls over the river...

No comments: