[philiptellis] Walking the world in search of interestingness

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Vancouver StadiumSitting in a bus on the way from Toronto to Montreal, this seems like the only chance I'll get to update my blog.

Anyway, I know I have a long post about my US trip pending, but this one is going to be about my experience in Canada, more specifically Vancouver.

I entered the country on the 7th August from San Francisco. The United Airlines flight I flew didn't serve anything to eat, but I wasn't feeling too hungry anyway. The flight was pretty decent, and on time. We touched down in Vancouver at around 22:55, and I headed off to immigration. Had to fill out one of those customs forms before deplaning - the one that says that you're not carrying animal products, diseases, chemical weapons or case in excess of $10000. I wasn't.

The immigration official was really nice. He greeted me with a bonjour, and when I told him that I'd done some work with the Canada home page, he said that it was about time I'd visited Canada and let me go through.

My uncle and aunt met me outside the terminal and we drove home, but my uncle suggested that I try flying in to Bellingham in Washington the next time and drive in from there - that way I don't need to take an international flight, which is more expensive.

Black and YellowHeaded out the next day to explore the city of Vancouver. A few things stand out about it. It's on the coast - on several coasts actually, there are waterfronts on three sides. It has excellent public transport, though the frequency is lower during off peak hours. They can spell and measure correctly (apart from the word tyre which they spell tire), but that's true about all of Canada anyway. There are a lot of gay couples on the streets.

I took the SkyTrain into town. You can get a day pass from the station, and use that for all of TransLink's services which include the SkyTrain, the SeaBus and all the public transport buses in Vancouver and North Vancouver. This really cuts your costs down a lot. The day pass costs $8 and is valid for unlimited trips in a day. The SkyTrain gets you into the centre of town at the waterfront, from where you can take the SeaBus to cross the creek to Lonsdale Quay, but we'll get to that later.

You could instead get off earlier, at Science World, Stadium, Granville or Burrard and walk around those parts of town. There's stuff to do, mainly shopping, but also some sight seeing around there. If you go all the way to the Waterfront, you can start at the Vancouver Lookout.

Get out of Waterfront station, and cross the road to the Harbour centre. Get a ticket for $13 - valid for the entire day, and go up to the top to get a 360 degree view of Vancouver and surrounding towns. On a clear day you can see forever. You can also decide where you want to go from here, because there's loads of tourist brochures available at the top in case you missed them at the Waterfront station.

Steam ClockOnce you're done here, get out of the Harbour centre from the Hasting's St exit and turn left to head to Gas town. Gas town is the place where Vancouver was founded, and it still has old cobblestones and some old architecture. The stores in there are very modern though, for example, there's an Internet domain registry a few metres in. There also used to be a Vancouver history show in there, but they seem to have gone bankrupt and the whole place is being auctioned off sometime this August. Walking down Gastown, you'll come across the steam powered clock. You can't miss it. It's a clock about 10 feet tall, has steam coming out the top, and tourists waiting at its base. It lets out a steam whistle on the hour, which is what all the tourists wait for. I didn't.

Gassy JackHead further down to the end to find the statue of Captain Gassy Jack - the founder of Gas Town. As the story goes, the area was wilderness except for a solitary sawmill that processed wood from the nearby forests. The mill owner did not permit alcohol on his premises. Captain Jack promised the mill workers whiskey if they'd build him a saloon, and they built it and had it operational within a day. So, whiskey came to the land, and the economy flourished with Gas town - and later Vancouver growing around it. The town gets its name from captain Gassy Jack, who got his name because of the tall stories he told.

There are guided tours of gas town that start from the statue, but you'll have to find out the timings. You can leave Gas Town soon because you'll probably want to get back for dinner anyway.

The next thing you can do is take the SeaBus from Waterfront station to get across the creek and Down the wiretake bus number 129 or 130 from there down to Lynn Valley. The bus stops just outside the park, and hiking trails. Cross the road and look for sign boards. Lynn Valley has a suspension bridge and a couple of hiking trails that you can walk along. Alternately, just go down to the rocks and sit by the shallow stream. Be careful though because it gets rough as it goes along, and people have lost their lives here.

The suspension bridge itself is not as long as the Capillano Bridge which is where all the tourists head out to, but there's a huge difference in price as well. The Capillano bridge is $26.50 for people from outside British Columbia, while Lynn Valley is free for everyone. There's also fewer crowds at Lynn Valley.

I chose not to do the full trail - mainly because I had a laptop and tripod on my back, but many people did go through. I prefer hanging out near water, and it was very inviting. The water is cool and very clear. You'd feel like bottling some of it and carrying it with you. It's constantly flowing, and flowing fast, so my guess is that it would be fairly pure.

Once you're done with Lynn Valley, take the same bus back, and cross back to the Waterfront. You Sea planehave several choices here. I chose to take a right and walk down by the Sea wall. There's a little park by the waterfront and that's also the place where all the sea planes land. Quite an interesting audio-visual experience if you've never seen it before. There's also a few restaurants out here, but they look fairly expensive. While walking, I saw a very expensive looking BMW parked on the side of the road with the windows rolled down. The car was still there when I walked back a few hours later. I don't know what that says about the crime levels in Vancouver, but that same night there was a shootout at one of the local nightclubs.

I kept on, and reached the famous Stanley Park. Now, when I got in, I thought a park was a small thing. Central Park and Hyde Park were two of the largest parks I'd seen in the world, but I could easily walk across them in a short time. Stanley Park is nothing of the sorts. It has a couple of lakes, a pond, a Native American village, a couple of Hiking Trails, a forest, a boating club, an open air theatre, several gardens and a highway going through it. Grease - the musical - was playing at the theatre as I passed. It's easy to get lost in there, so keep your eye on the map and on the various landmarks around.

A second option would be to walk down from Waterfront to the Burrard bridge. You can cross the bridge on foot, or take a ferry across. You'll find the Vancouver Museum, the Maritime Museum and the space centre on Granville island. It's not really an island, but I'm guessing it was at some point.

Vancouver also has a bunch of farmer's markets that are open on weekends, so if you get a chance, go down there and mingle with the locals. I've been in love with farmer's markets ever since I visited Borough market in London. I'd also suggest looking up Upcoming for stuff to do in Vancouver on the days that you're there, and maybe even contact some of the locals on CouchSurfing and ask them. I've found both places very helpful.

Now, if you've been heading along at a good pace, you've probably still got a bit of daylight to go. That's assuming, of course, that you're travelling in summer, which is the best time, for various reasons. Let's talk about food first before we go further.

Vancouver is very multi cultural. You'll find every cuisine in the world here, but there is the Vancouver flavour added. This is where asking the locals on couchsurfing comes in handy. Many of the restaurants I saw were multi-cuisine, with flavours from Greece, South America, Lebanon and Asia all in one. There's also specialty Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Italian and Indian places. I lunched at a restaurant called Character's and had a Greek dish called Dolmates. This is vine leaves stuffed with mince and served with a thick white sauce, roasted potatoes and tsatsiki. Now tsatsiki is a special greek dressing that goes well with just about anything. I've had it with gyros before, and now with this. A must try. I can't say that there's any cuisine that's specifically Canadian, or a Vancouver speciality. They just add something with the blend.

As sunset approaches, head back to Gas town. The place is all lit up by night, so walk around again, and maybe get some dinner here. If you're willing to spend a lot on dinner, you may want to eat at the tower instead.

Head up to the Lookout and get a view of Vancouver by night. The ticket you bought earlier in the day is still valid, so you don't need to spend any more. If you're going to take pictures here, make sure you have a lens with Vibration Reduction, or use a tripod. Long exposures can really enhance Vancouver by night.
Science World - long exposure
When flying in, I spoke to a Chinese Canadian girl who was studying Japanese Literature History at U Vic. I asked her if there was a lot of French spoken here, and she said that it wasn't because it was full of Asians. What I saw was a little different. There were all kinds of Europeans around, and quite a bit of French was spoken. There was also German, Spanish, Italian

If you're spending more than a day in Vancouver, you could take one of the city tour buses. There's the grayline opentop buses and there's the green trolleys. They cost $12, and you can go around in 2 hours, or you can get off the bus at various stops to explore and stretch it over the entire day. They also sell tickets for various attractions on the bus itself.

On the way out of Vancouver, I decided to use public transport. I took the SkyTrain into the city, and had lunch with an old classmate of mine. Then headed down to Burrard station and caught bus number 491. The day pass works on this as well. The bus runs through most of downtown before it gets out of the city. It starts at Seymour and Davie, and heads to Hastings, then Burrard Station, then Nelson, Howe and Granville before heading south for the airport. Burrard was late enough in its route to avoid another city tour, but close enough to not make me walk too much.

Holy Rosary CathedralI walked a bit down Dunsmuir, Howe and Hornby before getting to the bus stop. The art gallery and court house are on Hornby, and there's a Roman Catholic Cathedral on Dunsmuir that's built in Gothic style. This is also the only church in Vancouver where the bells are rung by hand during Sunday mass.

Now bus number 491 won't take you all the way to the airport. It takes you to airport station, where you need to change buses. Cross the road from the bus stop, and walk into the bus terminus (there's also a few bus stops on the road, but these aren't what you're looking for). You need to find the stop for bus number 424. Route 424 heads to the airport terminal and then further on. You'll most likely find a lot of travellers around here, so just follow them. Make sure you get off at the right terminal. Visit the translink website (http://translink.bc.ca/) in advance to figure out what you want to do. This could also help you in planning your trips around the city and getting schedules.

After a while at the airport - there's no free wifi btw - I boarded Westjet flight 626 for Toronto. I'd already checked in online, so I only needed to pick up my boarding pass and check my luggage at the airport. Security was fairly painless. There's no concept of "Selected for Secondary Security Screening", better known as SSSS on your boarding pass, but you do need to scan your laptop separately.

Goodbye Vancouver, and I hope to visit again. I'm sure there's more for me to do, but I'll do that when I've planned well.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Lost in London

Outside of India London and New York are probably my two favourite cities in the world. They're both teeming with art, culture, fashion, food and commerce, all at the same time. London, more than anywhere else, boasts a mélange of peoples from around the world. Primarily Europeans, but quite a sizeable population of North African, Middle Eastern, Australian and East and South East Asian peoples. For a student of languages, I can't think of any place tastier.

LightsThe best way to get around a city like this is to get lost. Get lost intentionally as many times as you can. This isn't a largely planned city. It's an old city that's been rebuilt once, and the large number of lanes and alleys can find interesting squares. I'm a little partial towards the West End because that's the liveliest part of town. The areas around Picadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Oxford Street and Bond Street have the biggest department stores, theatres and restaurants. Then there's the uptown residential areas of Hyde Park and Notting Hill, with a few expensive restaurants and pubs. You'd need quite a bit of time to take it all in.Carriage

Local Londoners are a busy bunch. Always hurried, almost running. Perhaps it's because they always need to get somewhere, or perhaps it's to counter the cold. The thing that I've learnt is to not bother keeping pace with the crowd. Let them move on, just feel the whoosh as they go by.

Taking off from Mumbai and landing in London during the day is a strange experience. From the air, the roads and traffic look almost the same. Red buses, driving on the left, and traffic buoys. One can see immediately where Mumbai's architectural influence came from.

Not quite a Pink CadillacI've visited the UK a few times, three of them as an adult, and London's been on the cards on every occasion. I've been here at all times of the year, and I can't say that the weather changes much. It's sunny when it's sunny and it's rainy when it's rainy... and often it's both at the same time. For someone from the tropics, it's cold throughout the year, but in winter it's freezing.

Getting around is fairly easy. The tube will get you anywhere, and a day pass is valid on any train and bus throughout the day. There are travel zones from 1 to 6 depending on where you need to go and can get you all the way from Heathrow airport to the centre of town... which is a very convenient way to get from the airport to any place you need to get to — if you don't have too much luggage.

London Eye and Big BenThere are innumerable tourist booklets with lists of sights and places to see. What I recommend is to take one of those tourist buses that get you all around London in a day. For a little extra they throw in a boat ride down the Thames. I started out at Baker Street - the home of Sherlock Holmes. Walk down to the Sherlock Holmes museum, and then the Beatles museum. Get done with Madame Tussade's and the Planetarium. You may want to get a combined ticket and go into the Planetarium first. You'll avoid the long line for the wax museum. Then get onto a bus and take the tour. Get off anywhere and roam around.

Houses on Portobello RoadThe London Dungeon, Tower and Tower Bridge are all near each other, and a night walk by the Thames, and across London Bridge is lovely, especially if you have the right company. The London eye offers a complete view of the city, but it doesn't compare to actually being there.

VegetablesWalk around Hyde Park, and visit Portobello Road at Notting Hill for the antique market every Saturday. You might just find an interesting bargain. If farmer's markets are your thing, head down to the Borough market at London Bridge, also on Saturdays. Try the Ostrich or Kangaroo burgers. They're delicious.

If you already have your route planned, and have done some research on spots of interest, it may be cheaper to just get a Zone 4 or 5 travel card and take the red buses around. Traditional tourist locations include Westminster, Trafalgar Square, St. James' Park, Buckingham Palace and St. Paul's Cathedral, but be a little adventurous. Walk around and find places.

Westminster by twilightTake the tube down to Greenwich and have a look at Cutty Sark. Search for the prime meridien. Look for pubs with interesting names like The Pig's head or Trotting Horse. Step into the Roundabout and watch a local game of football or cricket. Walk down to the West side and go to the theatre, then stray into China Town and take in the aroma. Be part of life here, because there's a lot of it around.

There's much to choose from for the seasoned gourmand. Take your pick from Italian, French, Belgian, North African, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Caribbean, German, and whatever else you can find. There are restaurants everywhere serving every cuisine, and where there aren't, you'll find a host of pubs. Just explore.

Fashion. London is one of the big four cities for fashion, and heck there's a lot of it here. On the streets, in the department stores, in restaurants, in night clubs. Everywhere. I'm not an authority on fashion, heck, I don't have any dress sense, but fashion is hard to miss in London. If shopping's your thing, you won't be displeased. Go all out.

Whether its food, finance or fashion, art, history or language, music, movies or haberdashery, London has it all. Visit London, and visit often.

London Skyline

Monday, February 05, 2007

Six hours in Hong Kong

On my return from California to India, I flew via Hong Kong. The flight timings left me with about nine hours in Hong Kong, and little idea of what to do. I learned that I could take the airport express into the city, and if I returned on the same day, I only had to pay one way. I quickly grabbed some breakfast and a map of the city, and jumped onto a train.

Tower in the cloudsWhile on the train, I figured out the scale of the map, and realised that Hong Kong is really small - that's if you look at it area wise. Turn your head upwards, and small wouldn't quite fit.

I got into town, and found my way out of the station. The road is two or three levels up. It was still fairly early in the morning, around 6:30am or so, and there were low clouds all along. A light drizzle kept starting and stopping.

BayI walked down the road for a while trying to figure out where on the map I was. The cool thing about the map that I had, was that all major buildings were listed, so it was easy to figure out where I was once I saw the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and Bank of China. It was then easy to decide where I wanted to go and plan out my route for the next few hours.

Hong Kong is walkable for the most part. All department stores and office buildings are near each other, as is the Hong Kong park and Banks. It's also possible to get around without actually walking out into the open because all buildings are connected to each other.

TramHong Kong has good public transport. Bus services are run by various companies, but it's seldom necessary to take one. A popular form of transport is the city tram. These trams run along fixed rails across the city, and it's crazy how close each tram runs to the one in front.

I decided to start my day with a visit to The Peak and get a view of the whole of Hong Kong city. There are multiple ways to get up to the peak. There's the hiker's trail, a road for driving, and buses, but the most fun ride has to be the peak tram.

The Peak TramThe first thing you notice when you get into the tram is that the floor is made up of a series of concave sections. They look like steps, but they're all along the same horizontal level. Once the tram starts, you realise what they're for. The tram starts picking up elevation, and gets pretty close to a 45 degree incline. The steps on the floor are for people standing in the tram to hold their grip. The tram has wooden seats and no seat belts. Windows are largely open, and it's recommended that you keep your hands inside.

The greenery around is amazing. Don't miss the little streams of water and flowers growing on the side. It's very pretty.

Hong KongThe real view though, is from the top, when you see the entire city enveloped in clouds. It's a sight that will stay with me forever.

Hong Kong is really close to the equator, and the humidity is really high.The cloud cover should protect you from the sun, but you can lose a lot of water perspiring, so carry a bunch of juices with you.

Reaching the peak is just part of the adventure. Once you get up there, you get to the start of the peak trail - a common trail for morning walkers and runners. The trail is 2 kilometres long, with markers every hundred metres. It was about 7:15 when I got there, so I decided to do part of the trail. I walked down for half the distance. On the way you pass a little waterfall and a lot of great views.

Yellow-faced myna (Mino dumontii)After getting back down from the peak, I headed out to Hong Kong park. The park houses Hong Kong's walk-through aviary and the teaware museum.

The aviary is a large net with trees and a pond inside. A bunch of captive birds are allowed to fly free in there. They have several species of birds from South-east Asia including Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. I believe some of them are migratory and come from as far away as Siberia.

TeawareThe teaware museum in Hong Kong park walks you through the history of tea making in China. Different utensils and recipes are on show. They have a few videos in addition to all the models.

You can also access the Internet from here. Two Windows PCs sitting in the corridor are permanently connected to the net. You can only use Internet Explorer however, so if you need to chat, use a web based messenger, and if you need other services, forget it.

The last place on my list was Ocean Park. To get to ocean park, you need to take a bus from in between the Lippo Towers. You can buy bus tickets as well as entrance tickets for Ocean Park at the bus stop. The bus takes you all the way to Ocean Park, and brings you back. Once there you enter and go through on your own.

Take note that you can find discount booklets at the airport which offer you discounts to various places, Ocean Park included.

Panda munchingOcean park has several sights to see. For visitors from most other parts of the world, the Panda Habitat would probably be the biggest attraction. They have two Pandas - a male and a female. They aren't caged in, but are separated from visitors by a moat. The entrance to the panda habitat is accessible for people in wheelchairs and mothers with baby strollers. Try not to use the flash when taking pictures as this could disturb the animals. The same goes for other areas in Ocean Park. Near the Panda Habitat is the Butterfly house and a pool with flamingos.

Boats in the south china seaOcean Park is made in two parts - the upper area and the lower area. The lower area is connected by road to the rest of Hong Kong. The upper area isn't. The only way to access the upper area is via Cable Car from the lower area.

The cable car ride itself is slow and scenic, but if you're afraid of heights, it probably isn't for you. You can get a really good view of the South China sea from there.

Clown FishOn the other side, you can go for several shows if you have the time. I didn't, but I did have time to visit the aquarium and the shark enclosure. The aquarium is small, but pretty. They have a collection of Jellyfish, razor fish, clown fish, sea horses and more. There's a large tank with Sting rays and other fish, and they're really graceful gliding through.

The shark enclosure is nothing much to check out, and one can give it a miss.

Time was ticking on, and I had to head back to the city. I got on the next bus, but was stuck in traffic as soon as I got back into Hong Kong. It would probably have been better to walk once I'd gotten back, but the bus won't let you off before the end.

Now visiting parks in Hong Kong is nice for the morning, but really, that isn't what Hong Kong is about. Shopping and food are the primary attractions in Hong Kong, and if you have the time, seeking out good roadside eateries should be on your list. I didn't have much time, so walked into an office building and looked around for where most people were heading at lunch time.

I ended up at a food court with a wide range of local food. One meal really isn't enough to recommend something, so I'll refrain from giving any advice in that area. Walking around the same area brings you to some of the biggest department stores. You can walk from building to building without getting out, wading through a sea of stores. It's a shopper's delight.

Prices were a little beyond my budget, and my little back pack wasn't going to carry much. It was also getting pretty close to departure time, and had to head back to the airport.

I got onto the next train, and made it to the airport quite close to boarding time. I'd recommend getting back to the airport at least 45 minutes before boarding time which should give you enough time for a shower and a change of clothes before you board. You'll need it.

Hong Kong was hot, humid and a treat. I'd love to go back there and spend a little more time. I hear the night life is great and the night view from one of those tall buildings is breathtaking.

I've got many more photos up on flickr and some videos on youtube.


I've returned to Hong Kong a few times since my first trip, and I never stop liking it. I've also discovered that you can make it between the airport and the city for far less if you use public transport instead of the airport train. You need to take a bus from the airport to Tung Chung and then take the train in. If you're going to stay for more than a day, it's worth it to get an Oyster card. You need to put in a deposit for it, but you get it back along with your balance when you return the card at the end of your stay.

From Tung Chung, you can also take the cable car or a bus to head to the buddhist monastery at Ngong Ping. They have a very large bronze statue of the Buddha at the top of the peak. Another destination is the fishing village of Tai'O. There's a bus from Tung Chung to Tai'O. It's a long ride and there's just one or two stops on the way. Most of the village is actually built on the water with boats parked outside or under people's houses. They step out and sail away. It's quite interesting to just walk around the village and note how it's built. Just after dark we were looking around for a restaurant, and saw some people eating in an open area, so we walked in. It turned out to be someone's house and they didn't speak English. Then one of the kids from the house showed up and she spoke a little English and pointed us to the nearest restaurant.

At Tai'O you can also go on a little boat ride for HK$20. If you're lucky, you'll see pink dolphins, but even otherwise, the ride is quite nice. It's also a good place to watch the sunset.

For food, three things I recommend are the Dim Sum, the Custard Buns and the Cham — a drink of coffee and milk tea. The latter is guaranteed to help you through the worst jetlag.