London, September 19 - 21, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

My West Africa trip began in almost the exact same way as my Silk Road trip in 2006, only 18 months later.  Again I took a New Jersey Transit train to Newark Liberty Airport to catch a flight to London Heathrow.  Combined with my two journeys through Central Asia over the last two years, this trip to West Africa would fulfill my travel goals to the two very remote regions of the world that have most intrigued me for many years.   
This time I was flying British Airways, such a civilized airline compared with most American carriers.  BA's standards may not quite be at the level of EVA or Cathay Pacific, but I don't think I've ever been on a plane on which the flight attendants pass out the booze so freely, first as desperately thirsty passengers charged forward for immediate alcohol as soon as the drink carts were wheeled out and then as the attendants wandered up and down the aisles during and after dinner with hands full of little wine bottles calling out "would you like another wine?"  Contrast this with having to pay $5 for a small bottle of wine or a beer on an international flight with an American carrier.  Anyway, I don't really recall what dinner was like but was feeling quite happy and sleepy after four little bottles of wine and managed to nab two extras for my bag for those upcoming Dragoman nights in the desert.  And as I was dozing off in my seat all I recall hearing was, "Would you like another wine?  Would you like an after dinner drink?"  I think I love British Airways! 
Arriving jet-lagged at 6:00 A.M. in one of Heathrow Airport's crowded terminals is always one foreign travel experiences I enjoy least.  Fortunately, though, Heathrow is served by London's Underground (The Tube), relatively economical even at 4 pounds (about $8) for a single fare, but I won't ever complain again about paying $2 to ride the New York subway.  Arriving at Heathrow at 6:00 A.M. enables you to ride the tube into town right in the midst of rush hour on packed trains full of coughing, sneezing people giving you the evil eye because of all the room in the corner your backpack/luggage is taking up. 
London's outrageous costs don't stop with the tube, though.  On each visit I've made to London over the last few years prices of most things seem to have spiraled upwards by more than can be explained by the falling dollar and the rather low overall rate of inflation in Britain.  London prices clearly reflect the foreign money and resident pouring into the city in recent years as it has become a preeminent financial center
One example of this trend in London is the very nice hostel near Saint Pancras Station I stayed in on several previous visits where a bed in a 4-bed dorm room now goes for the equivalent of $65.  That's quite a lot for a bunk in a shared room with three to five other smelly, snoring people, even if full English breakfast is included in the price.  I decided this time to take a risk and book ahead at someplace new.  At about half the price, the Astor Hostel, conveniently located just off Bayswater Road near Kensington Gardens, was still no steal as far as I'm concerned.  I settled in for two nights in this Aussie backpacker ghetto full of loud, rowdy right-off-the-plane types starting their gap year in London and partying heartily.  I'm sure I could have learned the locations of all the weekend's best raves had I been interested. 
On each visit to London I am struck by how international the city has become and how little about it beyond the historic buildings and attractions seems English.  I hear far less English spoken on the streets and Underground than even in New York, let alone finding speakers with those cool Cockney accents like the Gecko's in GEICO commercials in America.  And not all those people seeking a better life in London are poor migrants from developing countries; I was amazed by much Italian and Scandinavian and Slavic languages I was hearing from people who can now freely enter the U.K. for better wages and professional opportunities because of open migration within the European Union. 
After napping to recover from my jetlag I met up in the evening with two friends for a few pints at a pub and that now most traditional of London meals - Indian food.  I met Alistair on my Silk Road trip with Dragoman in 2006 and Gordon back in 2003 on my Vaquero trip with Dragoman in South America.  It's always nice to catch up with old travel buddies and reminisce about good times on the road. 
This was my sixth time in London within the last five years.  Two of those were visits were true visits to London to take in the sights and experiences but even the other times I've passed through I've tried to take in a couple extra sights in and around London on a free day or two.  With a full free day to play I was now trying to come up with something new to do, since I feel quite "been there, seen that, done that" with most of London's major tourist sights.  The forecast was for characteristically cloudy skies and drizzle, so the Imperial War Museum won out over Kew Palace and the Royal Botanic Gardens. 
While on my circuitous route on foot to the museum I walked past the House of Parliament and noticed something different.  "Ooooh, it says 'Open for Tours'.  I think I'll do that!"  On my other visits to London I was there in the winter or spring months when parliament was in session and closed to tour groups.  Victorian Neo-Gothic style Westminster Palace (it's proper name) was even more spectacular on the inside than out, and the 75 minute trip through the major chambers of the royals, lords, and commons was probably the most educational hour-plus guided tour I have ever been on.  So if you're even in London when the House of Parliament is open for tours, just fork out your 10 pounds and do it! 
My general impression of London has often been one of a not very pretty city, and when considered as a whole I still think this is true.  While such major European capitals as Paris, Madrid, and Vienna are themselves graceful and architecturally unified works of art with most of their late 20th century buildings sited on their outskirts, London is a jumble of architectural eras and styles, modern besides ancient and a victim of 20th century ideas about urban design as well as Nazi bombing raids, and home to some of the worst Brutalist architectural eyesores anywhere.  The view of the cityscape below from the London Eye bears no comparison with that from the Eiffel Tower.  London looks entirely different, however, when viewed up close as individual blocks and buildings, with gorgeous Georgian and Edwardian facades, low rise buildings on an intimate scale, and neighborhood terraces surrounding small parks.  The lobbies of the classy hotels are great to walk through too to see what luxuries others (or their employers) are willing to pay for.  Perhaps I missed some of this side of London on previous visits as I rushed between sights to museums without fully appreciating some of what is in between.

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