In this journal:
a haunted Victorian graveyard;
a few castles, Game of Thrones style;
a mission failed so badly that the monument is a guy face-palming.
Ahhh, London, the megapolis that never fails to amaze me about how many things are hidden in plain sight. Unlike New York with its grandeur and Tokyo with its hectic scenes, London seems to be a well-aged English gentleman sipping tea in an afternoon cafe, savouring every drop of the day. The classy city always have another trick up the sleeves, however, as this time I discovered a lot of things different from the typical tourist sites that I visited last time during Round’aWorld 2016.
Of course, since the last time here in the capital of the empire, I had grown quite a lot as a traveller, especially in my knowledge of a place as well as how to research for places to go. This time, armed with new tools and discovery methods, I began walking around the familiar sites looking for secrets. However, if you are here for a more introductory journal, I recommend the first piece I wrote about this impressive city.
For example, there was a nose hidden on one of the columns underneath Admiralty Arch, which was a series of strange art installations scattered around London. In the beginning, it baffled everyone from mayor to turtles living in the sewers to no end. It turned out to be a protest against the government since UK has the highest ratio of surveillance camera per capita. The “nosy” government had its bronze noses everywhere to sniff out any problem with the citizens. Coming from China, I simply laughed at the amateur skills employed by the British government to keep an eye on the citizens. I barely have a readership, yet my blog is proactively being blocked by most Chinese browsers! That is how 21st century monitoring is done, so take notes, UK.
After strolling through the important parts, it was time to make up to myself to the promise from last time. I told myself that it would be crucial to pay a visit to the world-renown British Museum, yet I had no time in 2016. Now I am back, and the museum definitely could not escape my list this time around. However, due to the lack of time, I had to constrain myself to just an afternoon in the gigantic hallways sprawling across 4 floors and hundreds of rooms. No doubt that I had barely enough time to explore 1/50 of the museum, but just like last time, I knew I would come back yet again.
Astonishingly, the museum is free to enter, but a donation is strongly encouraged. A long line always forms in front of the gates as many tourists and students alike clogged the entrance, as well as due to a security search mandated by the heightened tension in Europe. After gaining entry, the welcoming atrium filled me with natural light, leading me towards dozens of rooms with different themes. For this visit, I chose to start with Mesopotamian, namely, Assyrian culture.
The Assyrians built an empire lasting from 2500BC all the way to 700BC, signifying itself as one of the earliest civilizations on this planet. The mighty kings ruled fertile irrigatable lands stretching from modern day Turkey to Iraq. They also adopted one of the earliest forms of writings, the cuneiform, with its distinct stroke shapes coming from the material used as the pen: reed.
The most important item, arguably, in the entire museum is the Rosetta Stone. It is definitely the cornerstone of linguistics and our understanding of ancient cultures. Carved around 2nd century BC in Memphis, Egypt, it was a decree for Ptolemy V’s divine cult. It was eventually discovered by the invading French soldier in 1799 in Rosetta as part of the castle wall. After the Brits took over in 1802, it had been in exhibition ever since. What made this stone unique was the fact that it had 3 languages of the same decree transcribed, namely, Egyptian hieroglyph, Demotic text, and ancient Greek. Ancient Greek was very well understood at the time, so the scholars quickly produced relatively accurate translations to all major languages within months, thanks to the section being relatively intact. At that time, Demotic texts were extremely rare, and a careful examination revealed that it was mostly phonetic, meaning that you can compare it to the Greek words and figure out an alphabet. The hard part was ancient hieroglyph, since we had a lot of examples from Egypt but nobody could decipher anything from this cryptic language. Why, you ask? Well, as it later turned out, Egyptian hieroglyph is not like any language we have nowadays, as it is simultaneously a phonogram (alphabets that you read out to form a word that is attributed a meaning, such as if a drawing of an eye means “I” because it pronounces the same in English), a logogram (alphabets, or letters, that inherently mean something, but does not mean what it looks like, only surviving logogram-based language is Chinese, think about a water sprouting emoji now commonly associated with ejaculation, as it is something that one has to learn from the contemporary culture), or an ideogram (the word itself conveys the meaning, such as a red cross on cigarette means no smoking, or Chinese words that are simple indications such as 三 for 3, or semantic compounds such as 休, rest, comprising of 人, human, next to 木, tree). Let’s examine some examples, just to hammer home how hard it is to decipher ancient Egyptian if you are looking inside this dark box called “linguistics”.
This word, technically a pintail duck, can mean the word “son” under certain circumstances, because it sounds similar, thus making hieroglyph a phonetic language, and they have about 2 dozen of these letters. Of course, this word can also mean the idea of a pintail duck, making it an ideogram.
and this one means sun. This is a pictogram-ish character, as anyone from any time could have guessed it means the sun. Even the way we write sun in Chinese nowadays, 日, looks strikingly similar.
and think about this one:
No, it is not what you think. This is the character for soul. Yes, logogramic languages usually have letters that have very specific definitions. It comes from Ba, the human-headed bird that is in charge of souls, so it is metonymic, meaning that you have to associate a little in order to attribute the meaning to the letter. As you can see, this is insanely difficult for anyone to decipher, adding in the large amount of irrelevant texts scribes put in to make the texts aesthetically pleasing, and the fact that the language can be written left-to-right, right-to-left, or top-to-bottom. No wonder it took painstaking work after the discovery of this stone in order to understand it. After taking notes from a Chinese student about how we translate foreign names in Chinese, Silvestre de Sacy started looking for foreign names that should be translated purely phonetically. (e.g.: Rosetta Stone is translated as 罗(luo)塞(sai)塔(ta)石碑(stone monument) in Chinese, since we lack the specific letters to properly replicate the sounds, so if you figure out base on the position of the texts that 罗塞塔 means Rosetta, then it should not take a genius to figure out each character’s sound). Finally, he found the word for “Ptolemy”, and quickly, the word for “Cleopatra” was identified somewhere else, and the alphabet was flushed out, along with the rest of the mystery.
This is how you write Cleopatra’s name. Thanks to all these folks and the Rosetta Stone, I can now write my name below in hieroglyph!
This bronze statue, on the other hand, was a relic dedicated to the goddess named Bastet, as one can see the scarab symbolizing rebirth on the forehead and chest. According to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, over 700000 people each year visited the northern Egypt town of Bubastis in Bastet’s honor.
In the grand hall leading to Asiatic corridors stood a giant Moai called Hoa Hakananai’a, meaning “lost friend”. It is rather ironic because it is the only Moai statue that I did not manage to see on Easter Island because it was stolen by the Brits during an expedition in 1868, making it a literal “lost friend”. What makes this statue special is that there are numerous carvings at the back symbolizing its importance in the “birdman” culture. One thing to take note is that it was found in the village of Orongo, giving it more credibility as a special statue. If you want to learn more about Easter Island history, the enigmatic birdman competitions, and many other intriguing details, please refer to my Easter Island journal.
In Mesoamerica halls, a beautifully carved lintel caught my eyes. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of arts I have ever laid eyes on. The protagonist, Lady X’ab’al Xook, one of the most powerful people in Mayan Yaxchilan during 7th century, is seen in a bloodletting ritual (bottom right), and right in front of her, she conjured an image of the mighty Teotihuacan serpent. The snake opens its mouth wide, and the founding spirit of Yaxchilan dynasty, Yat-Balam, is seen poking out of the gaping hole wielding a shield and a spear. It is very rare to see females depicted in mythological panels in Mayan culture, so Xook’s must had an absolutely iconic status. If you want to know more about the Teotihuacan or Mayan culture, you can try the following journals I have compiled for my visits to Mexico.
–Nicaragua/Mexico City journal for other Mayan relics
–Mexico City journal for the ancient capital Teotihuacan
–Tulum journal for another Mayan ruin
In the Chinese section, a rare example of Chinese word evolution popped into my view. This is 鐘鼎字源, a collection of ancient texts documenting the origins of even more ancient words in order to keep track of how they evolved. Most of these words were sourced from now-lost bells (鐘) and tripod-pots (鼎). For example, on the fourth row of the left page, the word 雨, meaning rain, has almost not changed since its original version as a drawing of raindrops falling from the sky.
Up next is a national-treasure level statue of a 羅漢/Luohan, Buddha’s disciple, found in Yixian, Hebei Province. It is made during the Tang dynasty using unparalleled technologies at the time. To make this style of ceramic statue, called Sancai (三彩, 3 colors), one has to mold a very sturdy statue and then apply extreme heat (1000+°C) to biscuit bake till semi-crisp, and finally, apply the lead-based paint with precision and bake again at controlled temperatures slightly lower than the previous bake. This kind of arts had been long considered the peak of Chinese ceramic technology.
Lights had started to fade when I was kicked out of the gigantic museum, having just seen 5% of the rooms on display. There were whole floors of European, African, Oceanic and American rooms that I did not have time to peruse. However, that was almost guaranteed, because in order to properly view every artifact on display here in British Museum, one needs more than a few months! I am not worried, however, since I will simply view it part by part, every time I pass by London in the future.
In front of Trafalgar Square, a large group of people dressed up in Santa hats and boots, each holding some kind of alcoholic drink, creating a raucous commotion in a sea of red. Last time I saw this kind of epic event full of red was the 50th birthday of Marx, ahhhh, good times, good times. Nothing brings out the festivity of Christmas more than a good seizure of means of production, uh I mean Santa party.
I crossed the river, and headed towards the south bank, where a line of lights illuminated the sky. A bustling Christmas market tempted my taste buds, so I uncontrollably drifted towards the smell, like a moth seeking death in the heat of a lämp.
A night cannot be complete until a walk back across the Thames on London’s iconic Tower Bridge to London Tower. I have visited both last time, but it still gives me shivers when I see them light up in different colors (definitely not because it was freaking freezing at the time).
A large ice ring was set up in front of the tower, so I got myself a pair of skating blades, and slowly went around, and around, and around the small circle of ice. Life is a bit different when you are on the road. As you wake up, you don’t know whether this would be a good day or a bad day, if there is surprise of joy, or sadness, love, or solitude. You can never tell. But I prefer it to a life of stability. A river may have bumps, waterfalls, bends and torrents, but it beats a puddle of dead water. I collected my thoughts, as the winds were blowing into my jacket. It was time, to meet an old friend.
I hopped onto the remaining few Heritage route Routemaster Buses, which still needs a conductor to ring the bells in specific patterns to tell the driver “wait” or “go”. Most importantly, due to it being so crowded, I did not have to pay at all since it is not equipped with Oyster card reader to preserve historic values, and the conductor seemed too lazy to walk around collecting fares.
Remember Benita? We met in the doya-inn in Osaka during Voyager 1.5(boy was that a trip!), and she was the best buddy to ever share a bento with: she does not eat much! We had to have a drink together in her hometown, and she decided to pick a Colombian restaurant. It had been seemingly forever, but Osaka was actually earlier that year, can you believe that? Compared to me, Benita has all her life lined up: nice job, great apartments with good friends, a loving boyfriend and a nice weekend schedule, which makes me wonder if I could ever do the same if I just stopped traveling for one damn time.
After bidding goodbye to Benita, it was time to adjust to normal life in the bustling capital of the empire. One interesting thing about the city is that it actually is the inventor of these so-called Blue Plaques. The first one was put up more than 150 years ago in London, as an initiative to protect and commemorate special people and their accommodations in London. Now it has spread across every corner in the city with nearly a thousand ranging from Ian Flemming to John Lennon.
Another noteworthy place of interest is the National Portrait Gallery, which, to my great surprise again, is free of charge. However, due to the lack of words that I can use to describe medieval portrait arts, as well as the fact that this journal is on the path to becoming my longest one yet, I will spare you the pain. If you want more stories about the royal family squabble between Mary, Queen of Scots and her sister Anne, you can read all about it in my Scotland journal.
The place also has a contemprary exhibition for people who are still living, such as the official portrait for the royal family after their big wedding just a few years ago, and for Ed Sheeran. Yeah it is a bit hard to know what exactly was going on in the selection process.
But of course, being the megapolis of Europe, London held way too much for me to explore, so I went to the trustworthy guide of bizarre things: Atlas Obscura. There is a world of alternative options when you go to almost anywhere in the world to find insane, unorthodox, or even neglected sights. One of the top picks for London is this cemetery to the north called Highgate Cemetery. I was curious as what can lead it to become a popular place on the site, with over 3000 people wishing to go. I booked a small tour on the afternoon and hopped onto the tube.
After a short walk up the hills from Archway station, I arrived at the east portion of the creepy, overgrown graveyard. The entrance was guarded by a sweet old lady as if she was inviting me to the mansion of a vampire family. Eerily, the sun began to disappear the moment I stepped inside the vine-covered resting place.
I shuddered uncontrollably, and sheepishly ventured deeper. I was looking for a special grave, one that became the reason for many people to come visit: Karl Marx’s grave. He was buried here after his death in the city, and nowadays, many people come to pay tribute for the man who started a different ideology that seemed to never work well in practice.
However, his body had been exhumed from the original resting place since the volume of visitors traversing the grounds was so big that it started disturbing other souls. He has now been moved to a different spot in the cemetery for more readily worshipping. The new, more gigantic gravestone, served as a stark contrast to the Communist Menifestos put in the front, and a large line of “Workers from all lands unite” stretchered across the surface.
After paying respect for the one person who changed 20th century history, it was time for the real deal: west side. The western portion of the graveyard is completely unorganized, resulting in a large hilly area of overgrown vines and decomposing organic materials. The sun barely penetrates through the thick jungle plastering the slopes, and it was once rumoured a vampire was prowling about during the Victorian eras. And many wizards used to congregate after nightfall for spiritual battles that supposedly trained each other to defeat the vampire.
The “adventure” squad consisted of our guide, and 6 visitors. We were let into the slightly damp western plaza, and the gate was slammed shut behind us. The guide, an old volunteer who seemed to have experienced the trauma of WWII, took us up the hill along a narrow path paved in concrete. It was a cold afternoon, and the sun was nowhere to be found, perhaps due to the opaque mist surrounding this hill constantly that seemed to have come from nowhere.
A few dozen minutes later, we finally reached a large tunnel-like area, where the more expensive slots used to be sold. Nowadays, most of the slots were completely empty, due to hundreds of years of natural elements, as well as the facts that most of these families had died out with nobody to take care of the remains. The whole slew of dark crypts were made in an Egyptian style, as it was all the rage when this hill was opened as a cemetery. A large obelisk had shown many cracks, and the gates had some gibberish hieroglyphics.
At the top of the hill, hundreds of mausoleums were cramped together along a tree as old as time itself. Its branches were so heavy that they had to be supported by concrete bars in order to prevent it from destroying the graveyards around.
The piles of leaves, roots and other materials were piled from corner to corner, and many dangerous holes were lurking in the shadows, so we had to traverse with extra vigilance. And maybe, perhaps, the extra vigilance was also necessary for other things that we could sense in this godforsaken dune. None of us were relaxed enough to chit chat, and all lowered their heads while following the guide quietly.
We eventually were invited into one of these dark crypts, which was surprisingly large. Built into the hills, the crypt seemed to go on forever into the depths of darkness. The guide’s tiny flashlight was our only source of hope against the creeping shadows, yet it was never enough. Wherever the light touched, a coffin jarringly popped out of thin air. From floor to ceiling, the entire tunnel was stuffed with boxes of dead Victorians, and unsurprisingly, some of them were completely empty, leaving just the half open lid swinging about in the gusts that raided the narrow spaces from time to time.
After escaping from what seemed like to be my final resting place, I specifically requested the guide to take me to another famous person’s grave. It was even deeper in the midst of nowhere, and we two just traversed the trippy vines for many minutes before arriving at the tomb of Michael Faraday. Yes, he is the one responsible for ruining my university physics class with his law on electromagnetism. At the tomb, we met an old lady, dressed in very ragged and baggy clothes with hair that had not been washed since last millennia, who apparently was a big fan of his, yet she kept spewing nonsense like how Faraday was the smartest person ever, and how he predicted the future of humanity, etc. I just wondered: how did she get there? It was a locked out cemetery with restricted access, and his tomb was one hidden amongst thousands. However, that was likely the least creepy thing we saw that afternoon.
After escaping from the netherworld, I decided the only way to calm my nerves was to have a nice meal with good food. It is like the panacea for all my problems, even for running away from what certainly looked like death. Nothing beats a good Sunday roast on a Sunday, so who am I to say no?
I also witnessed a large protest of sorts going on, but it more looked like a celebration, because it was a far right protest supporting UKIP for a no-deal Brexit. It was rather well-organized and peaceful, and since I am not a European politics expert, I will not comment any further.
I decided to explore Greenwich for the full day next day, and yes, it is that Greenwich, the one with the time. A quick DLR ride took me to the Island Gardens, where a nice view over Thames was completely unspoiled by the thousands of tourists roaming around city center a few miles upstream. It was so quiet that I could hear the flights of nearby London City airport taking off. From there, a little glass dome led to one of the least well-known methods to cross the river: Greenwich Foot Tunnel. It was so obscure that it took me a while to confirm whether it would be open at the time of my visit.
Originally built in 1902, the steel tube was used by the dockyard workers living in Greenwich to commute to Isle of Dogs, covering a distance over 1200ft. During WWII, the Blitz on 7th of September, 1940, damaged part of the tunnel, so you can see the beige reinforcement right at this end. This proved to be important to the war effort, as it was one of the most secure ways of crossing the river. Today it serves the handful of residents 24 hours a day, and even comes with a lift!
On the other side, along Thames in Greenwich, stood a mighty British Clipper called Cutty Sark. It is the only remaining fully preserved ship of its type, with the unique iron frame and wooden planks. Built right before steamships took over the world, this tea boat was the culmination of centuries of sailing technology so it was no surprise that it was the fastest too. At the time after the Opium War, it was a hobby amongst mariners to compete sailing as fast as one can from Fuzhou in China to London transporting tea. Sadly, I did not have too much time to enter the museum, but just seeing her mighty sails made me stutter, next time I bet!
For it being a weekend, the town center market had a bustling flea scene going on. However, just like everything gentrified, the little handicrafts as well as churros costs more than I could even bare witness. Damn you middle class! I proceeded without my routine 3rd morning snack, arriving at the beautiful campus of Royal Naval College. The best sailors of the kingdom used to run the fields here early during ungodly hours back in the days, but now it just offers a beautiful view both up the Greenwich hills and down to Thames River. I, however, was there to do more than just aimless sightseeing: I was looking for a joke in history.
In the beautiful marble chapel of the college stood an out-of-place memorial, serving as one of the lasting memories of the ill-fated John Franklin expedition. The 1845 expedition was supposed to be a success as this famed captain took on the Canadian northwest passage in two ships, Erebus and Terror, both armored with steel plates and propelled by steam engines, pinnacle of Victorian era technology. However, by 1847, it was clear that the men were not making it back. It turned out to be a 150-year search. Most of the Inuit accounts painted a horrific picture: the ships were trapped in ice that would never melt, and they were forced to abandon ship. The 20000 tinned food was contaminated by lead, and the cold was just simply too unbearable. By that time, most of the crew were severely malnourished, and they started eating each other. Everyone died, and the two ships were not found until 2014. I believe it would take quite some effort to fail so spectacularly that the memorial features a man face-palming, though.
For lunch, it would not be a proper trip to London without some jellied eels. Wait what? You never heard of it? Oh it is the standard staple in 1800s when London had no Chinese take out or very unauthentic Thai restaurants. Thames was crawling with these slimy bois and as an old fishmonger says:”They basically catch themselves!” A quick meal at the time was as pictured above, with the eels as a nutritious protein source, but now, sadly, it has dwindled into a hard-to-find delicacy, with almost no more fishermen on the east side of the town. I took a bite of the eels: it tasted… unorthodox. Slimy, soggy, soft white flesh with vinegar and gelatin, that definitely would not be a popular food in direct competition of kungpao chicken, but I would take it over raw kale with sunflower seed butter any day of the week!
Next stop after filling my tummy with slimy jelly is the National Maritime Museum, which housed some of the most impressive items related to seafaring. Being a naval superpower in the past 500 years, Britain has its premier maritime museum decked out. Above is a Type 23 frigate propeller made of nikalium, an alloy of nickel, copper, aluminium and manganese, designed in a specific angle to minimize noise since this was equipped to surface warships during WWII. During the war, over 22000 of these giants were made!
The other gem that captured my curiosity is this speedboat named Miss Britian III made by Hubert Scott-Paine. He had been eyeing the American Harmsworth Trophy that the US boat Miss America X had held for a while, and issued a challenge in 1933. He secretly devised a different plan: a small boat with just 1000 horsepower rather than the American design of an enormous boat with over 7800 horsepower. Hubert used 10 weeks to design and perfect his work, secretly testing it at ungodly hours so no filthy American could spy on his progress. Even every single one of those screws were lined up perfectly to the wind so the drag is minimized. Finally the day came and in Michigan, David and Goliath went face to face in a clash of the greatest speedboat competition. In true British fashion and honoring the tradition of this ancient empire, Miss Britain, lost… Yet Hubert still came back a champion as he later broke the speed record of 100 miles an hour, which this boat held for over 50 years. So… yay?
A short hike brought me to the peak of the famous hill upon which the Greenwich observatory sits. Just in front of its gates stood an old plaque that most tourists ignored. This is the Public Standards of Length, a royally accurate measurement of an inch, a yard and a foot. It was made almost 150 years ago as a response to people complaining the observatory cost too much taxpayers’ money. This was almost a holy site for anyone designing factories or machines since science was starting to gain traction in industries. Many would come here and adjust their sticks of measurements. In fact, it is considered only precise when it is 15.5°C outside as thermal expansion can wreck havoc on the accuracy.
The observatory itself was rather crowded, but it did not detract from the fact that today was another important day in my life: I was able to stand across the Prime Meridian itself! After standing on top of the equator in Ecuador, this is the only other imaginary “zero” line I needed to be on top of. I entered the museum, where many important historical instruments were displayed.
This is a Siderial Angle Clock, and it measures the time by Earth’s rotational angle relative to the average plane. Only one other clock of this type exists, because this design is very useless even in mathematical calculations and astronomy.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the greatest yet saddest underdog story of all time. In 1707, the British fleet suffered very heavy casualty from an unseen enemy: the Earth. Over 1500 soldiers died as 5 ships rammed into the Scilly Islands just off the coast of Cornwall due to lack of knowledge about the location, forcing the Parliament to ratify the Longitude Act: a bounty of £20000(equivalent to 4 million USD today) for anyone who can make a reliable longitude calculator that would prevent this kind of disaster from happening. You see, latitude is easy to calculate base on sunrise, but longitude is extremely difficult to know, as no natural feature could let one deduce his position.
This bounty sent the horology community into a frenzy, and out came John Harrison, a self-taught carpenter and watchmaker from Foulby, with his H1 prototype. This giant clock used counterweight to balance the motion instead of pendulums, which could easily be disturbed by the yaw of a ship. It proved to be insanely accurate, as at the time people would lose hours a day in their chronometer calculations, yet this thing does not deviate by any full second. He cracked what Issac Newton thought was “unsolvable”, the “longitude problem”, yet the Board of Longitude refused to give him the bounty, mostly because he was a little carpenter who is not even in the hyper-exclusive Worshipful Company of Clockmakers. Harrison would later spend 46 years of his life in 4 more marine chronometers, yet he was never awarded the official full prize, despite King George III’s personal intervention. A few days before he died, Captain Thomas Cook had just finished his first circumnavigation using his technology, which was praised repeatedly in the diaries. We may never know if Harrison got the news of not.
I left Greenwich a bit disheartened, so I decided to ride the ferry back to city center. The ride along the river on the public Thames Clipper ferries is unlike the free ones in Brisbane or minimal costs like in Hong Kong: these fuckers cost a full 10 pounds for the 20 minute ride! Why doesn’t Transport London go rob the banks instead? I zipped past the the high buildings of Canary Wharf, and then along the Kings Stairs Gardens, finally ending up in the beautiful City of London, but not before coming directly under Tower Bridge. Ahhhhh, what a sight!
Yet I had another mission in mind this time other than wasting my youth away in clocktowers in London: I had to waste my time away in the capital of Wales! I had never been to Wales before, and Emily as well as Luke, two Welsh locals who I met during Australia 2016, were more than kind enough to let me sleep on the floor, so why the heck not? I hopped onto a megabus heading towards the other country within this country (insane value, 3 hours ride for 5 pounds!), and enjoyed the scenery along the way. Before I knew it, Luke had picked me up from the bus stop in central Cardiff.
In general, my first impression was: I could not tell any difference from any other UK city except the large amount of Welsh flags and other symbols. Despite the fact that most road signs come in both English and Welsh, everyone spoke English to each other, and many do not comprehend the local tongue whatsoever. That is mostly due to the fact the northern parts of the country had much more Welsh speakers than the south, as well as the fact that the folks who speak Welsh as first language are slowly dying out. And trust me, not one single immigrant, no matter if he is from Newhampshire or Damascus, would be bothered to learn this obscure language! Think about it, they have a town with the elegant name that rolls off the tongue as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch for Christ sake!
Luke took me to the famed Cardiff Castle first as Emily was busy working. This piece of land situated smack in the middle of town had an important history. Built on top of an old Roman fort dating to 3rd century, whose walls one can still see on the northern edges, this place formally became a castle in 12th century. It lived through numerous Welsh V.S. Anglo-Norman battles, War of the Roses, and eventually Parliamentary War before ending up as a property of Marquess of Bute who belonged to Stuart dynasty.
The third Marquess got ridiculously rich via the coal mines in Wales in late 19th century, so he commissioned the famous architect William Burges to renovate the castle into his playground. What resulted was one of his best works called Arab room, modelled under numerous Islamic harem rooms from the medieval ages, a stark contrast to the rapid industrialization of art at the time. It was truly a stunning piece of art, with over 8 million pound sterling worth of gold leaves painstakingly applied by hand.
Another interesting detail can be found in the nursing room, which was adorned with depictions of numerous popular folk tales as well as bed-time stories. Can you find the Invidible Prince in the picture below?
(Clue: His head is wearing a wreath and his heart is where the bird is at.)
On the roof top, a large enclosed garden was made in the Jewish synagogue style. A lot of ancient tales were featured, and many words from sacred texts had been carefully arranged in tiles. However, one thing is sure: they never bothered to get any Jew to check their work, because just like the hilariously dysfunctional clock in Prague Jewish quarter, everything was made backwards! As a result, the Hebrew on the walls were simply illegible gibberish. But hey, at least they look very nice with these old fountains!
To reach Emily and Luke’s house from the center, one had to take the only local transportation in the city: a 1-mile long rail line run by a shuttle train every 12 minutes. The train seemed to come straight out of revolutionary era Russia and was incredibly slow. The 4-minute ride was a whopping 3 pounds, basically the most expensive transit by distance I have ever taken.
In the Cardiff Bay area, a newly-converted industrial zone, a lot of newer things were happening. One of the most prominent tourist sights that the citizens take great pride of is, uh, something called, uh, Ianto’s Shrine? Apparently Ianto is a character from Torchwood, a BBC spinoff show of Doctor Who, and he was the lover of our protagonist. In season 3, aired in 2009, he was killed off in episode 4. And the next day a shrine for him appeared at the place in Cardiff where this character was supposedly be working? What??? Upon a closer inspection, you would truly be amazed by the amount of work put into all of these memorials. Poems, photographs, homoerotic fan fictions, valentine’s day gifts, meme printouts, novel-length essays, and horribly photoshopped tributes plastered the wall where the entrance to their secret base was supposedly at. Many people wrote down the dates that they came and paid tribute, and yes, a lot of people from around the world came over multiple times and many items were clearly renewed many times. What the actual fuck is even going on???
Nevertheless, the Mermaid Quay area was very tranquil on this misty morning, where calm waves brushed through the mollusked piers. Dominating this beautiful view was the Senedd, which is the Welsh word for Senate, the local governmental power of the country. Interestingly, anyone, including a foreign visitor like me, could come in for a visit during sessions. One could even sit on top of the meeting hall where you can watch the politician debate live in both English and Welsh!
Emily and Luke were also more than kind enough to take me around the vicinity of the city, since a city that prides itself in a shrine for a fictional character kind-of tells you the level of tourism at the area. One of the stars of this region is Caerphilly Castle, another Bute property that dated way back to the Norman days of conflict. It was the first to utilize this much water features as defences, as it is surrounded by multiple artificial lakes and rivers to keep the keep unreachable.
It was situated on a picturesque rolling hill area, and the perfect weather made it an instant instagram hotspot. The castle was neglected for many years before the Butes restored the walls, as many locals loved its rocks for building, so most of the castle you see today date from the 1800s. Even the rivers were not flooded back until 1950. The remains now are mostly exhibitions of local history as well as educational content about medieval life, but the castle itself is still very impressive. A part of the walls had been eroding underneath, creating a unique tilted tower at the southwest side.
Another very bizarre point of interest in the region is the Newport Transporter Bridge. What is a transporter bridge, you ask? Well, there was a craze of building this kind of strange bridge in Europe around the later part of 20th century, and they are basically a gondola suspended on a much higher bridge. Compared to a regular bridge, this is highly inefficient to transport anything in a speedy manner, and it is definitely more costly to maintain than a ferry. Only 8 are now remaining, and this one at Newport, about 15 minutes drive from Cardiff, is the biggest one left.
The reason they put this bridge at the place is actually because of practical reasons too. Firstly, the water gets influenced by the tide here, and during low tide, ferries cannot operate at all. Secondly the banks of this river is rather low, so in order to let the ships pass through with ease, a traditional bridge would require miles of ramps just to get into the height. Thirdly at the time of construction there was not much demand for traffic across the river, so a slow transporter bridge fits the bill perfectly. However, now there are two bridges to each side and this transporter bridge is only open for touristic reasons, so that is a fluke after all.
And who can say no when you are presented with sausage rolls for cheap on a cold day out? No one, I tell you what! Greggs is the national staple bakery for anything savoury, and god damn do they make the food cheap and right! I could not have believed the effect of a warm sausage roll with cheesy soup can have on a human body on a cold day! It was absolutely fantastic, given you can ignore the zeros in the calorie sticker.
It was finally time to leave the country. I waved goodbye to my genuinely too nice of hosts Emily and Luke, and hopped back onto the megabus to London. The next day I was on my way to Stansted Airport. The train was expensive but necessary, and I checked in online the day before on Ryanair website without any hassle. Interestingly, by paying 6 pounds, one gets a carry on bag allowance and priority boarding, which seemed like a great deal but it appeared to me that not many had taken the offer as the normal boarding line was meandering all the way to the North Sea.
Surprisingly, the legroom was better than I last remembered, since the slimline seats gave me ample space, making my 39-dollar journey unexpectedly comfortable. (well the fact that I had 3 seats to myself did help a bit too.) The 150 minute flight passed by in no time, and I was approaching Lisbon in the early afternoon. I knew this time in UK I would get to know its people a lot better, and guess what, I aced it. I learned so much about the Victorian culture such as the Highgate cemetery wizard battleground and the fatal journey of early explorers. I experienced the funkier side of Wales as I explored the lesser-known places around Cardiff. I also reunited with good friends such as Benita, Luke and Emily. This is the goal of these annual EuroHop journeys: recuperate the lost friendship damaged by time, and get something new for a change. Mission accomplished!
The 737 started its 3-degree glide into Lisbon airport, and I wrapped my fingers around my only sausage roll left: this would be a lot fun, as there would be another special friend waiting for me on the other side of the jetbridge.
Portugal, what will this elegant lady look like?