31 July 2016

Great Wall of China at Huanghua Cheng

The Great Wall of China... one of China's, and indeed the world's most iconic testament to human ingenuity. This is no doubt visible to the visitor who witnesses the Wall snaking its way along rugged hillsides on and on.

It is of course a popular tourist sight and if you type in 'Great Wall crowds' into Google Images, you'll get a profound sense of the Wall's capability to handle the humongous masses. These images are a clear proof of China's burgeoning domestic tourist industry.

Believe me, you don't want an experience like that. One of the pleasures of the Wall is to look back at it snaking its way around empty countryside. Not to have a thousand people blocking the view you so dearly crave for.

There are a number of different sections of the Wall around Beijing and the most popular tend to be the sections at Badalling and Mutianyu. Fortunately there is another section not too far from Beijing,easily accessible as a day-trip, which sees far fewer crowds.

Welcome to Huanghua Cheng.

Why Huanghua Cheng?
The only section of the Wall by a reservoir, Huanghua Cheng provides a scenic and steep Wall first built about 1000 years ago by the Ming dynasty. There has been some restoration work done but there is enough of the rough, wild wall left.

This Wall does see fewer crowds, making it a pleasure to enjoy in serenity. I arrived on a Saturday morning around 9:30 am and had the Wall almost to myself for over a good half an hour before a few more arrived. I imagine it being even quieter during the weekdays.

How to get here?
You can hire a taxi but if you are like me- without the money for one (and in the mood for an adventure), take the bus, which requires some advance preparation. If you do choose a taxi, expect a round-trip to cost around 500-700 yuan (bargain!). Do not get a taxi one-way as you will not find one here for the way back. Ask yours to wait while you enjoy the Wall.

While taking the bus, it is best to get the IC Card (see here for more information), the card you can use for intra-city buses and subway. It is straightforward to load using a machine in any subway station. I am not sure how much the entire bus trip cost me, but it was in the range of 25 to 40 yuan. I recommend you to load more before leaving, just in case you get lost and end up somewhere else.

You have to take 2 buses to get to the Wall. First, take bus 916 express. (916). This begins from the hub at Dongzhimen, in Beijing's Chaoyang district. If you take the subway to Dongzhimen (lines 2, 13 and the Airport Express), follow signs to the bus terminal and then the North bus bays.

This bus will have a screen showing the next station in Chinese, with announcements in Chinese too. You need to get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu (南华园三区). Try to remember some of the characters of the name so you can tally it with the screen. This journey will take about 60-90 minutes, so you can just sit, relax and enjoy the views. A few minutes before reaching the stop, I (being the only tourist on the bus) was approached by a couple of touts who asked if I wanted to get on a minibus (presumably to Mutianyu), so beware of this (i.e. you do not need to get down until you reach the stop).

The street scene at Nanhuayuan Sanqu bus stop

Once you get down at Nanhuayuan Sanqu, walk straight for a few minutes, until you reach the next bus stop, called Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). The sign placards will only list a few bus routes, but there are many more which serve this stop, whose numbers are prefixed with 'H'. The bus you need is H14.

Before getting on this bus, make sure that you verify with the driver that the bus is taking you to Huanghua Cheng (黄花城) by having it written (or in a guidebook). The few people hanging around the bus stop hounded me to take their private car and were amused at me as I tried to find out the right bus. They will discourage you from taking the bus so stand your ground!

The bus H14 will not have a signboard so you need to ask the driver and the conductor where to get down. Bus stops along the route will look like those below- no name. This journey will take about another hour and the scenery becomes wilder and more beautiful as the ride progresses.

Along a particular curve of the road was a stop and a sign providing directions to something which read as "Lakeside Great Wall" or similar. The road cured to the right, while the sign led off to the left. I was informed that this was not my stop- I was told to get off at another stop a minute or two later, by the reservoir.

At the Wall
As you begin to walk towards the reservoir, you will be greeted by this sign. Yes, "officially" this section of the Wall is not open to the public but nobody seems to care really. A good number of tourists do come. A small stall providing basic food and snack items was set up, and is a good place to pick up some items though I would recommend you carry some food items from beforehand.

As you walk on the path over the reservoir, a local person may set up a small tent or such with a sign demanding a certain amount of money to proceed on the Wall. This is all unofficial of course, but I decided to pay to avoid any issues. I had to pay 5 yuan. The path would lead on and it would take you about 10 minutes to get to the Wall, while the majestic structure looms above you. On the path were also some shacks set up with what seemed like another small shop, and it seemed like people actually lived here.

The reservoir and the surrounding scenery

The Wall... breathtaking

Once you get to the Wall, you have to climb a ladder to actually get on it. Then, you can either go in the straight-ish direction or in the opposite direction. The straight-ish direction leads on to a steep walk without any steps or rails so be careful! The views are simply incredible and you can spend ages just admiring the landscapes.

However, soon you reach the impossibly steep section, which I decided not to try to climb after a hesitant attempt. I am not even sure if people do climb it or not, but I decided not to try. I then headed off in the opposite direction, past my starting point.

Looking back towards my starting point
Heading off in the opposite direction, I discovered that I was not going to be alone any longer. A few travellers, all presumably local, began their hike on the Wall. Solo travellers, groups of friends and families with young children- the demographics were pretty diverse. By their looks, I understood I stood out being a foreigner, signalling that few foreigners came to this part of the Wall. Interestingly, everyone did head off only in the opposite direction and not in the direction I initially went in.

Parts of this part of the wall seem to be restored.

Walk on, and you arrive at another watchtower, which has a rickety ladder to climb. A couple of rungs in, I was not confident in the sturdiness of the ladder.

Brave enough to try? (I wasn't.)
In this direction, the wall goes on and on, and can be walked for a while. I am not sure if it connects to another section of the Wall.

I decided to return back to my starting point. The only public toilets were on the main road (where the bus drops you).

The toilets- needless to say, you would like to keep
your contact with them at the bare minimum
How to get back?
There is no familiar-looking bus stop on the road to get a bus in the opposite direction. Instead, you will find this sign:

Wait here and flag down an H14 bus to take you back. Tell the conductor you want to get to Nanhuayuan Siqu (南华园四区). I was not dropped at the bus stop opposite to where I was picked up, so when you get dropped, find the nearest bus stop with the placard showing a 916 express bus back to Dongzhimen.

Once you get the 916 express, sit back and reflect on this action-packed day at the Wall.

If you have any feedback, questions, or if you have done this trip too, feel free to comment! 

18 January 2015


India's capital and one of the world's oldest cities, Delhi is undeniably rich for historical sights. Although many overlook it on the way to the other delights of North India, and while the city can be overwhelming at first, I recommend travellers to spend at least a few days in this massive metropolis.

Delhi is a sprawling city but the major sights of interest are located not too far from each other, in the grand scheme of things. Most places of interest are in New Delhi, Old Delhi and South Delhi.

Weather-wise, Delhi is a city of extremes by Indian standards. Winters can see mild, sunny afternoons with highs from 15 to 20 C, but winter mornings can be terribly foggy, resulting in transport disruptions and can dampen sightseeing excitement too (that's supposed to be the India Gate but I can't see a damn thing!). Summers from Apr to Jun are hot, with temps going to and beyond 40 C in the day. Monsoons from Jul to Sep are rainy and hot.

New Delhi
New Delhi is largely a green area with well maintained roads, roundabouts and important government buildings, as well as embassies of foreign countries.

In the heart of Delhi, Rajiv Chowk, formerly and still popularly known as Connaught Place is one of the capital's most popular eating and shopping destination. Consisting of three concentric circles, the area is divided into many blocks. Come here to catch a meal, look at the colonial architecture or just to people-watch.

Not far from Connaught Place, hidden in the leafy lanes of Central Delhi, is an old baoli (stepwell) called Agrasen ki Baoli, also known as Ugrasen ki Baoli, dating from the 14th century. There is no admission fee to visit.

Agrasen ki Baoli
From Connaught Place, walk down Sansad Marg to reach Jantar Mantar. Built in 1724, the Jantar Mantar complex consists of many architectural astronomy instruments.

An instrument at Jantar Mantar
The complex is typically open from sunrise to sunset. Entry fee is 5 Rs for Indians and 100 Rs for foreigners.

One major road to the west, on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, is the Sacred Heart Cathedral, one of the city's most popular. It was beautifully set up for Christmas.

Sacred Heart Cathedral
One of the main roads leading from Connaught Place to the area around Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) area is called Janpath. Walk south on Janpath, until you reach the Tibetan Market, a great place to shop for Tibetan handicrafts and textiles. 

Keep walking south, and on the junction of Janpath with Rajpath, the grand India Gate looms large on the left. A war memorial to the members of the Indian army who perished in World War 1 and and the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the India Gate is now a popular spot for locals in the evenings. 

India Gate
Keep going south on Janpath and you will come across the National Museum. While the presentation is hardly to write home about, the museum's collection includes priceless exhibits from the Indus Valley Civilisation (as old as 3000 BC), and then on chronologically, Buddhist and Jain works from the Mauryan, Shunga and Satavahana Periods. The museum is also home to the largest collection of Indian miniature paintings, as well as coin collections. 

The museum is open 10 am to 5 pm, and closed Mondays and holidays. Free 90 minute tours conducted by student volunteers are held so ask about these. Alternatively, you can check out the highlights by stopping at each exhibit with a sign saying 'The Museum in 90 Minutes'. While the student who led our tour was well informed, these tours try to cover a wide range of the museum and can be mentally taxing, as there's not much time to digest all the information, or to take a look at other exhibits alongside the ones covered in the tour. 

A section of a tusk depicting Buddha's life scenes at display
at the National Museum. Carved early 20th century
Slightly east of India Gate is Old Fort, better known as Purana Qila. The oldest known structure of any sort in Delhi, this fort is one brimming with legends- it is believed that this was the site of the Pandavas' capital, Indraprastha. What is known is that this fort was rebuilt by Sher Shah Suri, and it may have been incomplete even by his death in 1545, and rebuilt later by his son. Archaeological excavations have confirmed that the site has been continually inhabited from around 1000 BC. 

The fort is located close to the Delhi Zoo, entry is Rs 5 for Indians and Rs 100 for foreigners, and it is open from 9 am to 5 pm. Enter through the Bara Darwaza (Big Gate) and spend time in one of Delhi's less touristy historic attractions. 

Bara Darwaza, as viewed from inside the fort
One of the sights inside the fort is the Qila e Kunha Masjid, built in 1541.

The masjid
The mosque is remarkably well maintained. Next to it is a stepwell, be careful not to fall in it!

Other sights inside the fort include a hammam (bath house) which provided for hot and cold water, as well as steam rooms during the Mughal times. 

Across the Humayun Darwaza are the ruined parts of the fort. You can have a look at the ruins in the outside, but going inside is not permitted.

Some 4 km north of Old Fort is another of Delhi's historic forts, known as Feroz Shah Kotla. Ask Delhi residents about this fort, and they will point you to the more famous cricket stadium next door, which goes by the same name. And while the cricket stadium has some interesting historic feats to it, such as Indian bowler Anil Kumble's 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan, even this cricket fan admits that the fort is pretty amazing too.

Delhi has over the ages hosted 7 cities, and Feroz Shah Kotla was built to house the fifth city of Delhi, known as Ferozabad. Built in the mid 14th century by Sultan Feroz Shah Tughlaq, who was also a noted builder, who commissioned a number of mosques, forts etc across the Sultanate, the fort, now in ruins, is said to be haunted. Every Thursday a ceremony is held to please the djinns who are said to inhabit the place.

Looking around the fort
Today the ruins are expansive, with well-maintained gardens. You can see the mosque, as well as the ruins of the soldiers' quarters, stepwell and the jail. Look interested, and a guard will offer you a short tour around the place.

Feroz Shah Tughlaq was a cultured man and appreciated history. This is shown by the Ashokan Pillar, dating from the 3rd century BC which he meticulously brought from its original location in Ambala. This pillar rests on top of what was a pyramidal structure.

The Ashokan Pillar

The expansive jails... at least Feroz Shah Tughlaq reduced the
brutal punishments such  as flaying often meted out by this
predecessor, Muhammad bin Tughlaq.  
South of India Gate is Khan Market, another very popular shopping and dining destination in the city, with among the highest rents.

A bit further south are the Lodhi Gardens, which contain many tombs, most of them of the Lodhi dynasty. The garden, free to entry, is a popular walking area for locals and its 90 acres make it good for sightseeing too.

Interior of a tomb in Lodhi Garden
Just down the road from Lodhi Gardens' south western corner lies the complex of Safdarjung's Tomb, one of Delhi's lesser touristy but equally worth visiting sights. Built in 1754, this houses the tomb of Mirza Muqim Abul Mansur Khan (popularly known as Safdarjung), the ruler of Awadh. The layout of the compound is very similar to that of the more famous nearby Humayun's Tomb.

Safdarjung's Tomb
If you go east on Lodhi Road, you will come across the compound of Humayun's Tomb. A large complex, it has other tombs besides a mosque. One of Delhi's most popular sights, expect crowds and avoiding visiting on weekends and holidays, if you want to avoid crowds.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the perfect symmetry of the tomb and the sheer elegance makes it one of the most beautiful structure in Delhi. The surrounding lawns, which if you turn away from the main path can feel like a forest, are pleasant to stroll through.

The other monuments are accessible from gateways on the sides; continue straight to reach the main building of Humayun's Tomb.

Humayun's Tomb
Climb to the upper level to gain access to the tomb.

Some of the other sights in the compound include Isa Khan's Tomb and a mosque facing it.

Isa Khan's Tomb
Old Delhi
Located north of New Delhi, Old Delhi was founded by Mughal emperor Shahjahan (and known as Shahjahanbad) in 1639. The city was walled, with 14 gates. One of the pleasures is just roaming around and witnessing the chaos of the area, and you can do this by walking or from the top of a rickshaw, which are ubiquitous throughout Old Delhi.

One of Delhi's most famous attractions is the Red Fort (Lal Qila). Built by Shahjahan, the Red Fort was the home of the Mughal emperor for nearly 200 years. Majestic from the outside, I frankly found it a bit disappointing, with closed-off areas, and relatively poor maintenance. If you're visiting Agra too, the Agra Fort is much more extensive and in better shape.

Red Fort

Inside are some museums, such as Museum on India's Struggle for Freedom. Historical sights inside the fort include the Diwan-i-Aam, where the emperor gave public audiences. One of the more elaborate halls is the Khas Mahal, the emperor's private palace.

Detail in the Khas Mahal
Another of Old Delhi's sights is the Jama Masjid, one of India's most well known mosques, built in 1656.

Stairs leading to Jama Masjid
You have to remove your footwear to enter. Carrying cameras inside will entail a fee of Rs 300- most people just use their cellphones to take photos of the beautiful compound. 

One of Delhi's prime market areas, particularly for street food is Chandni Chowk, the centre of Old Delhi. A small lane branching off from the main road here, called Gali Paranthewali, is renowned for eateries serving paranthe.
Mehrauli is a district in south west Delhi, also known for its historical sights.

The most famous of them are clustered in the Qutub Archaeological Complex. Getting in can be a hassle- you buy your ticket from across the road, and then come back to join the entry queue- expect loads of crowds on weekends/holidays.

Qutub Minar

The complex is home to Qutub Minar, a minaret built in the end of the 12th century.

Detail on the Qutub Minar
Among other structures in the complex include gateways, mosques and tombs (yes, more tombs!).

If you want to escape to another historically-rich area nearby with very few crowds, visit the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Read a page on it by me here.

We have stayed in several hotels in Delhi including:

- Le Meridien Delhi. Located conveniently in New Delhi, walking distance to Jantar Mantar, India Gate and National Museum.

- Hilton Delhi. Not too close to any major attractions but close to the metro.

Undoubtedly North Indian cuisine is the best to try here. Go to Chandni Chowk for street food and paranthe. Connaught Place, Khan Market and Delhi's malls have options for sit-down, including fine dining restaurants.

One of Delhi's street food specialties is shakargandhi, which is nicely spiced up sweet potato. You can find this just about everywhere, such as in Janpath market.

Delhi has received a lot of bad press recently, however as a tourist, Delhi does not pose any extra risk provided you follow typical big-city precautions. The metro can get very crowded in rush hours, and as in any crowded place, watch your pockets and bag. Scams and touts can be the biggest annoyance.

Within Delhi, the metro is of some use to tourists. However, within a smaller area, autos (3 wheelers) or rickshaws are more useful. Taxis cannot be hailed.

19 December 2014

Washington, DC

Capital of the United States, and home to made-to-impress monuments and museums, Washington, DC is an obvious stop on any visitor's itinerary. And the city delivers.

Washington, DC is divided into four quadrants- north-west (NW, with the bulk of sights), north-east (NE), south-west (SW, the smallest quadrant) and south-east (SE). The Capitol is the center of DC, where all the quadrants meet.

The bulk of the attractions in Downtown are located between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, between Constitution Ave NW and Independence Ave SW.

Lincoln Memorial and around
Just a stone's throw from the Potomac river, the Lincoln Memorial forms the western boundary of sights in Downtown DC. Just across the river is the town of Arlington, Virginia, where the Arlington National Cemetery and Pentagon are located.

This section takes you anti-clockwise leading from Lincoln Memorial around the Reflecting Pool.

The Lincoln Memorial, built in the honour of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, stands grand by the Reflecting Pool.

Lincoln Memorial
You can go inside the memorial to see a statue of Abraham Lincoln as well as inscriptions of two of his famous speeches. Up there, one has great views of the Reflecting Pool leading to the Washington Monument.

Walking east (towards the Reflecting Pool), if you turn right to walk around the Reflecting Pool, you will find the Korean War Veterans Memorial ahead.

Statues of the Korean War Veterans Memorial
The memorial consists of 19 statues, which represent a squad on patrol. While walking around the memorial, don't forget to take a look at the wall.

Continue walking east and you will stumble upon the small DC War Memorial.

DC War Memorial
The memorial commemorates DC citizens who served in the World War 1.

Walking north again, returning to the Reflecting Pool, at its opposite end with respect to the Lincoln Memorial lies the World War 2 Memorial.

The floor at the entrance to the memorial
A quote on a wall in the memorial

From here, you have a perfect view of the Washington Monument. With nothing around to compare, the monument surprises visitors with its size as they come closer.

Washington Monument
Built to commemorate George Washington, America's first president.

Going back to Lincoln Memorial from the other side of the Reflecting Pool, north-east of the memorial, you will come across the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial.

Tidal Basin and around
While walking around the DC War Memorial, you will notice another body of water, this is known as the Tidal Basin. 

Very close to the DC War Memorial, on the Tidal Basin, is Martin Luther King Jr Memorial.

Entrance to the memorial

Check out the wall in the memorial with a list of his famous quotes.

From the memorial, you have a perfect view across the Tidal Basin to Jefferson Memorial.

An impressive structure modeled after Rome's Pantheon, the memorial is a fitting commemoration to Thomas Jefferson, one of America's Founding Fathers and the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and America's third president.

Jefferson Memorial
From the memorial, you have an unparalleled view out to Washington Monument. 

The White House and around
For foreigners who have never been to DC, the White House is among one of the best known buildings in DC. Home to America's President, the White House is located north of the Washington Monument. 

White House South Facade
The South side can be viewed from E St NW. You can walk around it anti-clockwise to go the north side. Interesting architecture includes the buildings of the Department of the Treasury and Department of Commerce. The north side is at Lafayette Park. 

There is also some worth-seeing architecture, including the buildings of SunTrust and Bank of America at the junction of New York Ave NW and 15th St NW. 

The SunTrust Building

The National Mall and around
The stretch leading from Washington Monument to the Capitol, bounded approximately by 14 St, Constitution Ave NW, 1st St and Independence Ave SW is known as the National Mall, a vast open swathe, jogging ground, protesting ground and tourist attraction all rolled into one. Surrounded by renowned museums, many of them free, and good views of the landmarks around, the Mall is worth a stroll.

Just south of the mall on 14th St SW lies the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (free entry, from 1000 to 1730, daily), a touching memorial and museum to one of the greatest human-caused tragedies of the 20th century. Its exhibitions (where photography is not allowed), with pictures of the victims, continuous film plays, videos and other objects, make for an enriching experience.

Next to the museum is the beautiful building of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Continuing east along the Mall, you'll encounter the National Archives at the corner of Constitution Ave NW and 7st St NW. Also free to visit, photography is not allowed. Start your visit by viewing the David M Rubenstein Gallery, housing the Record of Rights. With engaging interactive displays, the gallery shows the evolution of political rights and civil liberties in the United States, with original affidavits, letters etc which pushed for these. Move on to viewing the original Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. A fun and exciting place indeed. The souvenir shop has some nice, non-cheesy souvenirs and gifts. 

Behind the National Archives, on the opposite side of the corner of Pennsylvania Ave NW and 7th St NW is beautifully sculpted and detailed US Navy Memorial.

A section of the US Navy Memorial
On Madison Dr NW between 7th St and 4th St is the National Gallery of Art, also free to visit. 

Finally you arrive at the Capitol Reflecting Pool and right ahead looms the impressive structure of the US Capitol

The Capitol
Just south of the Capitol Reflecting Pool lies the US Botanic Garden.

Penn Quarter
North of the National Archives is the Penn Quarter, a bustling neighbourhood full of restaurants and shops. 

On 10th St NW between E St and F St is the house where Lincoln died.

North of Penn Quarter lies DC's Chinatown.

The beautiful Chinatown gate is located near the entrance of the Gallery Place-Chinatown metro station, at the corner of 7th St NW and H St NW. 

Mt Vernon Sq and around
The small pedestrian plaza at the corner of 10 St NW and I St NW is home to beautiful and well lit (at night) Christmas decorations during the season. 

Home to lovely architecture, affluent homes and a lively shopping district makes Georgetown worth visiting. West of the centre, Georgetown has no metro station so reaching there requires some planning.

Who says all free worth visiting museums are located around the Mall? On 32nd St NW between R St NW and S St NW is Dumbarton Oaks, Now a property of Harvard University, the research library, museum and gardens is a historic estate. For the visitor, the points of interest are the gardens and museum. We visited in winter so the gardens were not in full bloom, however, the museum, with a large Byzantine collection, is worth visiting. The museum also has ancient objects from Mesoamerica.

A room at Dumbarton Oaks
A block west of 32nd St NW is Wisconsin Ave NW, one of the major Georgetown arteries with lots of shops and restaurants. Walk south until you reach its junction with M St NW, which forms a focal point of the neighbourhood.

If you continue walking south on Wisconsin Ave NW, you will finally reach the bank of the Potomac, and the Georgetown Waterfront Park. There are good views of the skyline of Arlington, Virginia.

Arlington, VA as seen from Georgetown Waterfront Park
The waterfront is a popular eating out place, with an ice skating rink during winters.

We stayed at the Embassy Suites Washington DC- Convention Centre, located at the corner of 10 St NW and K St NW, near Mt Vernon Sq. Got a great deal for a 4-people room with breakfast and evening snacks/drinks included. Overall satisfied with the experience. 

Note that many restaurants in the Mt Vernon Sq area are closed on weekends. 

&Pizza- has several outlets across town, we went to the one at E St NW between 10th St NW and 11th St NW. Watch them make your own pizza. Choose from crust to cheese all the way to the finishing. Not very pricey too- less than $9 for a pizza. Good service, though seating is extremely limited- you may have to get a takeout. 

Thomas Sweet- on the corner of Wisconsin Ave NW and P St NW in Georgetown. Popular ice cream joint. 

Portion of the menu at Thomas Sweet
Native Foods Cafe- we went to the outlet of this vegan restaurant at Pennsylvania Ave NW near the National Archives. Found the food OK, though the drinks are interesting (example, a watermelon based juice) with free refills.

Standard big-city precautions apply in Washington, DC. While tourists are unlikely to stray into areas with the highest crime rates, and DC is no longer the murder capital, the area around Mt Vernon Sq becomes very quiet on nights and weekends when offices and even many restaurants and shops are closed. Although the area is not particularly dangerous, take particular care there. Watch out on the metro as you would on any public transport network- don't get engrossed in your phone/tablet etc and watch your bags and pockets. 

The metro will be mildly useful to travellers. Walking is the way though, along the Mall and the area around the memorials, to appreciate the architecture and setting. Signage in that area is quite helpful to locate various museums and memorials though having a map will be needed. You can pick up one from the information stands- there is one just south-east of the Lincoln Memorial.

Last visit- Dec 2014
No of visits- 1

18 December 2014

New York

Yes, the skyscrapers exist. And so do the yellow cabs, as well as the world-famous Brooklyn Bridge. New York is all that. However, New York is all that and more. You can come here for all the above, but also to visit a truly multicultural and diverse city, a city of neighbourhoods and pretty parks. Enjoy your visit, for the city is like no other.

This post will focus only on Manhattan, as I simply did not have the time to visit the other boroughs! However, that certainly does not mean that they have nothing to offer.

New York is a city of five boroughs, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. Two of the airports serving the area, JFK and LaGuardia (LGA), are located in Queens, the largest borough while the third, Newark Liberty airport (EWR) is located in New Jersey.

The island of Manhattan is long and thin, and can be broadly divided into Downtown (the southern part with the main financial district), Midtown and Uptown. These definitions are not precise, and are used here simply for the purpose of this post.

New York's downtown is home to some of the city's globally famous icons, such as the Statue of Liberty.

Statue of Liberty and Battery Park
"Liberty ... is one of the greatest blessings that Heaven has bestowed upon mankind"
                                                                                                 - Miguel de Cervantes

A supreme symbol of friendship, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France to the United States, the Statue of Liberty is the first sign many new immigrants saw of America- a symbol of freedom. A large proportion of newcomers arrived in these very waters, and were processed for entry at Ellis Island, where the immigration center now houses a museum.

Statue of Liberty
There is only one licensed operator which takes you by ferry to Liberty Island, where the statue is located. Tickets come in various classes, the tickets to the crown sell off months in advance, and even tickets to the pedestal level face a demand-supply mismatch. You can directly buy tickets over the web and turn up at the ferry terminal at South Ferry in Battery Park, or you can buy them on the spot (you can expect queues) at the nearby Castle Clinton.

Security is tight, and there will be a check just as you enter the island, and another one to go inside the statue (provided you have applicable tickets). Lockers ($2 per hour) are available at the second security check, where all food items and big backpacks must be stored, as only small personal bags and cameras are allowed in the statue. 

There is an interesting museum in the statue, which details the entire history and story of the statue, with models of the statue's foot and ear, as well as newspaper clippings showing the reactions of the statue. The pedestal level (where I went till) offers good views of the city. 

View of the city from the Statue of Liberty

The tours go until Ellis Island, however I didn't go there. 

Battery Park offers nice views of Statue of Liberty, as well as Downtown's skyline. It is home to Castle Clinton, America's first immigration station, now a national monument.

Battery Park to Wall St
If you walk north on Broadway as soon as you leave Battery Park, you will come across the beautiful facade of the National Museum of the American Indian. Continue walking straight and you will come across the Charging Bull, also known as the Bull of Wall Street. The bull is a symbol of financial optimism and this sculpture was installed following the 1987 stock market crash. Tourists are constantly huddled around the bull for photos.

The Charging Bull
At the junction of Broadway and Wall St is Trinity Church.

Interior of Trinity Church
Built in the Gothic Revival style, the Trinity Church has a small chapel with certain relics, such as the foundation stone of the church.

Wall Street
Center of global finance, with some of the most important financial institutions in the world, Wall Street has a large impact on the entire world. Some great architecture here includes the buildings of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) and the Federal Hall.

New York Stock Exchange
City Hall and around
The area around City Hall Park is home to some grand buildings which house major municipal institutions, such as the City Hall and Civic Centre.

Very nearby begins the Brooklyn Bridge, connecting the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Completed in 1883, the bridge was an engineering marvel of the time as it was the first steel-wire suspension bridge. Pedestrians and cyclists have a nice path offering good views over both the boroughs.

Brooklyn Bridge, looking towards Brooklyn
City Hall to Little Italy
New York is truly a multicultural city. You can experience this first-hand if you walk into, say, Mulberry St and enter Chinatown. There are a great number of Chinese and Vietnamese shops.

Along the way, Chinatown blends into Little Italy.

Washington Square and around
Around W 4th St in Greenwich Village is Washington Square Park, one of the city's most well-known parks. 

Washington Square Park
The surrounding neighbourhood is home to New York University.

Union Square to Madison Square
In the Flatiron district, Union Square is located at the junction of Broadway and W 14th St. It has a very popular Christmas market in December.

Walk north on Broadway until you reach Madison Square, another city park. The junction of 23rd St and Broadway is home to the Flatiron Building with its unique triangular shape, built in 1902, and one of New York's icons.

Flatiron Building
Midtown is home to a vast array of sights, from beautiful churches and busy street corners to famous skyscrapers. 

Herald Square and around
Herald Square, the corner of W 35th St, 6th Av and Broadway, home to Macy's flagship store. A block east, at the junction of W 34th St and 5th Av is the jaw-dropping Empire State Building, one of the world's most famous skyscrapers. 

Empire State Building
When completed in 1931, it was the world's tallest building, a title it held for around 40 years. 

A few blocks west, at W 33rd St and 8 Av is Madison Square Garden, a major indoor arena. At the same corner is the beautiful building of the United States Post Office. 

Walk further a couple of blocks west to 10 Av to reach the entrance of the High Line.

High Line
A glance at Manhattan's map would show you how precious any available space is. The High Line therefore is an ingenious plan- some greenery and jogging space above ground on disused rail tracks. It goes south till the Meatpacking District, at the corner of Gansevoort St and Washington St. There are great views of streets to be had from there. Definitely worth a stroll!
High Line
View of a Chelsea street from the High Line

Times Sq and around
Not a square in the usual sense of the word, the 'Crossroads of the World' is an X-shaped junction of Broadway and 7 Av in the heart of Midtown. Famous for its brilliant lighting day and night, Times Sq is effectively in the Theater District. 

Start your Times Sq adventure by taking in the views of the square from the staircase of the TKTS ticket booth at the junction of Broadway, 7 Av and W 46th St. 

View from the TKTS ticket booth
Walk to the heart of Times Sq at 42nd St and turn left. At the corner of E 42nd St and 6 Av, you will find Bryant Park, a piece of serenity in the buzz of Midtown. During Christmas, there is a beautiful Christmas tree and skating rink. There is also a nice view till the Empire State Building.

View from Bryant Park
Right next to Bryant Park is the New York Public Library.

New York Public Library
Walk down E 41st St from the library to have a look at some literary quotes.

At the corner of E 42nd St and Park Av South is the Grand Central Terminal. Now only serving trains to Upstate New York and Connecticut, this station used to serve the Amtrak too, until Amtrak train services were shifted to Penn station in 1991.

Grand Central Terminal
Visitors can enter the station to marvel at the interior.

Interior of the Grand Central Terminal
Only a block away, and easily visible from outside the Grand Central Terminal, is the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco skyscraper which was the tallest in the world when built in 1930, only to be surpassed 11 months later by the Empire State Building.

Rockefeller Plaza and around
This section considers the area between 6 Av, 51st St, Park Av and 49th St.

At Park Av between 50th and 51st St is St Bartholomew's Church, with a lovely neo-Byzantine interior.

St Bartholomew's Church
Interior of the church
At the corner of E 50 St and 5 Av is one of New York's most touristy and popular churches, St Patrick's Cathedral. Built in Gothic style, the cathedral is renowned for its stained glass. 

St Patrick's Cathedral
Interior of the cathedral
Rockefeller Plaza, bounded by 6 Av, 50th St, 5 Av and 49th St is a particularly festive place during the Christmas season, with a skating rink and an impressive Christmas tree. Home to the commercial buildings of Rockefeller Center, visitors can go up to the Top of the Rock observatory for amazing views over New York. 

View from the Top of the Rock
Columbus Circle and around
The south-western junction of Central Park, Columbus Circle is a large traffic circle, home to a Christmas market during the season. Also located around is the Maine Monument, to commemorate the 260 sailors who died when their battleship exploded in Havana in 1898.

Maine Monument

Home to the city's largest park, Central Park, Uptown too has a large range of sights to keep visitors interested.

Upper East Side
This area covers Uptown east of Central Park.

The area is home to some of the greatest museums in the city. Most are located on Museum Mile, the stretch of 5 Av between E 80th and E 92nd St.

Occupying a portion of Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art straddles 5 Av between 80th and 84th St. With an eclectic range, from ancient Egyptian to Byzantine to Renaissance, one can spend hours in the museum.

The suggested donation is $25 per adult but you are free to pay below that amount.

The highlight of the Egyptian section is the Temple of Dendur, moved from its Nile-side location to the museum.

Temple of Dendur
Other interesting sections include the Byzantine and medieval European art.

The Italian Renaissance section includes the studiolo walls from the Ducal palace at Gubbio. 

The studiolo walls

We stayed at The Lucerne Hotel, located in Upper West Side.

Rooms- 7/10 Good rooms, though small (yes, it is Manhattan). No minibar or kettle in the room was very surprising though.
Staff- 8/10 Helpful staff, no special comment here.
Location- 8/10 Great location- just a block from the subway, two blocks from Museum of Natural History and Central Park. Many dining options in the vicinity.
Overall- 23/30 Recommended.

With its stunning diversity, New York offers a large variety of cuisines.

Maoz Vegetarian- Get your sandwich and add any toppings from the salad bar for free. Very nice apple cider too.

Max Brenner- Very popular place for all things chocolate. A bit overpriced and overrated in my opinion, though.

TIMES SQ and around
Abitino's Pizzeria- At Broadway between 40th and 41st St. Tasty, if a bit too oily, pizzas by the slice.

Zabar's- A New York landmark, Zabar's is both a supermarket and a restaurant next to each other at the corner of W 80th St and Broadway. Good sandwiches, and the supermarket has interesting items too.

Cafe 71- At Broadway and W 71st St. Wide variety of sandwiches.

Within Manhattan, subway is generally a good way to get around. A single ride costs $2.75. If using the machines to buy, note that machines will not dispense more than $8 in change, and tickets can only be bought individually so if buying single-ride tickets, have coins (pennies are not accepted).

Walking is also a great way to get around the island.

If taking taxis, note that Midtown is especially prone to terrible rush-hour traffic.

The tourist areas of Manhattan are generally safe during the daytime and shouldn't cause problems while walking. As in any big city, trust your instincts.

The subway has become much safer and cleaner over the decades, but as always, watch your pockets and bags when the car is crowded.

Last visit- Dec 2014
No of visits- 2
First visit- May/Jun 2002