Howdy cowboys and cowgirls!
In this post I’ll talk about the trip I went on to UK this summer, which took place after the events chronicled in last time’s post “Hashtag Travels With Bae“. Since I am of a recycling nature, I wanted to reuse that title, hence this one is called “Travels with bae in UK“. The trip we took was about 10 days long and was a real Journey To the West: we first went to London for a night, then to Oxford, subsequently Bristol with a day trip to Bath, then to Cardiff and then back to London with an excursion to Cambridge. Here is our route on the map:
We took the Eurostar to London from Brussels-Midi (which is called Brussel-Zuid in Dutch — a very confusing nomenclature that must discourage tourists travelling to the Brussels region, if not for other reasons like peeing boys, peeing girls, or a giant building made of balls). It was my first time taking this train and it went really well; I was super surprised by how fast we made it to Lille in France (called Rijsel in Dutch). We arrived in the Pimlico neighbourhood of London where our hostel was situated and where we were to meet up with Joke and Katrin, well-known from my year in Suzhou (read about it on this blog by looking for posts tagged ‘Suzhou’). They were also trekking Westwards the next day, to go walking in Wales; we were eventually going there with some stops along the way. So after a hot night’s sleep (the Spanish guys in our dorm insisted on closing ‘the cold window’ but sleeping in his undies) we went to Paddington station.
From there we went to Oxford, which for the summer had been transformed into a prospective study tour for six-year-old Chinese children. I suppose the goal was familiarising them with all the different colleges and then somehow motivating them to study really hard to get into them. The children seemed more interested in playing we-chat games with each other on their brand-new iPhones though.
I was really excited to go to Oxford, actually, and I think we should have spent more time there than we did. However, we did get to see some really great things. One of these things is the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first university museum, established in 1683, when I was -308 years old. There are these futuristic dog sculptures guarding the door and inside there are many cool (yet old) things. Here are some pictures.
Of course, Oxford is most famous for its university, so we did try to do some ‘college hopping’. We did New College, Trinity and Balliol, among others. There ar two things that you must know about these places. 1) All colleges look very beautiful, but some look more beautiful than others. They all have the same colour as well. 2) There is some whacky pronunciation game going on with them. For instance, Magdalen College is pronounced /ˈmɔːdlɪn/, but that’s not what’s written there; and Balliol is /ˈbeɪliəl/.
Apart from the colleges, Oxford is also famous for J.R.R. Tolkien, who used to hang out with his bros in a pub called The Eagle And Child. We went there.
And semi-related to this: our hostel room was in Lord of the Rings-themed! This may have been the most important reason I wanted to go to Oxford in the first place, as I was semi-obsessed with Tolkien’s universe this summer.
After our trip to Oxford it was time to take the Great Western Railway to Bristol, ever the upcoming city of the UK. I knew nothing about this city and I don’t know if I know much more now. The city needs some time to grow on you but after three days I felt alright with it, though I doubt it will become my favourite place-to-be. As we found out, there is a lot of work in the city, if you’re a bit creative (think graffiti). There is also a lot of unemployment and many homeless people. It took a while to become immune to really kind requests for leftover change, because you want to help them but you know it’s an institutionalised problem that one person can’t change. On to better aspects of the city: the art of street artist Banksy — I couldn’t find a photo to put here ;‑) . But he did make some nice stencils and graffiti throughout Bristol.
Bristol is the perfect base to do a day trip to Bath, an ancient Roman spa that has been turned into a nice museum. It is worth going there, although the water doesn’t look very attractive. This is because the sunlight promotes the growth of algae in the hot spring (still hot!). This problem could be easily solved if they would put a roof over the baths and I really wish they would, to recreate the Roman experience (I’m not asking them to turn it in a modern spa but in an ancient one). The city itself is very nice to walk through. It reminds me a bit of my time in Brugge (good for a day but will you stay there longer?). That being said, it’s a bit more rural and full of old buildings that do remind you of the historicity of the city, in every corner. There’s also a really great coffee shop, Colonna and Smalls, that CJ took me to where we had a great afternoon coffee break. Bath deserves a visit!
After Bristolling and taking a Bath we ventured even more to the West, to the capital of Wales: Cardiff (or as is written everywhere there: Caerdydd). It is a bit strange that think that in the capital of Wales, the only Welsh you hear is in the train stations, but hardly on the streets. I felt a bit disappointed. But then again, for ‘the real Wales’ you should probably go more to the Northwest and go walking around (“Walking in Wales”, as Katrin and Joke were busy doing). After arriving in our air bnb, we took a trip to the National Museum of Cardiff (time constraints). We saw dinosaurs and Agatha Christies.
Portrait of Agatha Christie
That the Welsh are proud of their differences as compared to the English is very obvious though. You can see it in funny takes on literary classics for instance:
Another instance where you can see their Welshness is in their ability to smack a dragon on anything. The rainbow flag for instance:
In Cardiff you can also visit the beautiful Cardiff Castle, aptly named because it is a castle in Cardiff. The oldest parts have been there since Roman times, which then were improved upon in Mediaeval times and supplied with an extra 18th century castle later on.
When we went there, the weather was not cooperating. This is mainly due to the bad weather Wales gets in general. However, there is enough inside and outside sights to see on the castle site. You can go all the way up the old castle [built on a mound!], and you can explore the aristocratic lifestyle of the Bute family, which held the site for many a year.
After visiting the old castle and the new one, we did the last ‘attraction’: a walk through the tunnels that emulated what it was like during the WWII. We got all the way to the end of one tunnel and saw a poster talking about the benefits of handkerchiefs, so I of course tried to tell CJ about these benefits. I opened my mouth and all of a sudden a voice came from in around the corner: “Thomas???” (In perfect Flemish Dutch, even perfect recognisable sounds). We had run into Joke and Katrin. Their walking tour in Wales had taken them to Cardiff castle where they were walking through the dark tunnel. It was such a coincidence, but it’s always nice to meet your friends in this big world that at times seems very small.
Well, after a nice chit and a good chat we walked out of the castle and each group went its own ways. Joke and Katrin went on walking to the train station, where they would go to Bath (we recommended it), then to London. And in London they would see Aladdin the musical, do some day trips to Cambridge and Ipswich [they were very obsessed with the funny sounding name] and meet us again for Chinese hot pot when we got to London as well. Team Taiwan went on to the Dr. Who Experience, an experience that was very similar to the Harry Potter exhibition I visited last year in Brussels.
It was a nice and loooong walk to the harbour where the Experience was located in a hangar. But it was so worth it. Now, the Experience itself was this interactive play where we had to save the universe, following a guide in the ‘Gallifreyan museum’. He took us through some of the more famous monsters in the Dr. Who universe [called the ‘Whoniverse‘ with a very forced blended word]. And some people there were really excited about it. One girl was dressed as the TARDIS, the blue police box the Doctor travels in. Below I’ll just show some pictures from the exhibition part, because it was awesome!
We also did a small day trip from Cardiff to Saint Fagans, which can only be described as ‘the Bokrijk of Wales‘ and I urge them to start promoting themselves in this way. In this picturesque park you will see farms, barns and sheds, as well as some iron age reconstructions of huts.
You may (rightly?) think that you don’t feel like walking a whole day in this park, BUT apart from it being free, you also get to see a BEAUTIFUL castle. When I laid eyes upon it I knew the whole day trip had been worth my while. I mean, yes it’s nice to see sheds, farms, barns and huts, but we get them in Loenhout as well, you know. Castles (of this type) are a different thing.
So yeah, with this our adventure in Wales came to an end. We said our goodbyes to the neighbourhood we were living at and to the beautiful Welsh language, never spoken in Cardiff, only seen, as on the Millennium Centre.
Taking the Great Western Railway (I just find the name so imposing that I already wrote it twice in this update) back Eastwards to London. We arrived in Greenwich, where we had our air bnb, and it was a very nice host in a nice place. He told us about how you can take the ferry as part of the public transport system (something you can actually also do in Prague!!), so that’s what we did to go from Greenwich all the way to Westminster, the next day that is. The first evening we were having hot pot with Joke and Katrin, remember?? (If not look up)
After this water and road tour of touristy London, we went to National Portrait Gallery, where we were greeted by this era’s favourite redhead, Ed Sheeran.
Of course he was not the only VIP present. Here are some more:
Then we went to that other museum in London — the British Museum. Tip from my anglophile friend Cedric: Take the back entrance. So we did that, wrenching our way into the museum between all the Korean tour groups. And lo and behold, we were greeted by a Moai (Easter Island statue), whose name apparently is Hoa Hakananai’a.
Next we had some Meso-American thingies: some Maya stelae and Aztec artifacts. I was also thrilled that the Museum shop had Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya code, a book I had been wanting to read for some time now, and was even prepared to read a German version of it for, called Das Geheimnis der Maya-Schrift. Ein Code wird entschlüsselt. I wrote a review about the book:
This book fulfils what its title promises: it details how the maya glyphs were deciphered and the struggle it took the many Mayanists to get there. If you are looking for a detailed introduction to a Classical (or living) Maya language, this is not your book. Nor will you find all the glyphs that have been deciphered so far with all their variants. No, what you do get is more to the core and possibly more interesting: an introduction to how the system worked and how it was suited to its needs. We get a comparative chapter on other ancient writing systems, with special attention to Egyptian hieroglyphs and their decipherment in the 19th century, as well as an introduction to the Maya lifestyle. This is followed by the occasional good ideas and many more bad ideas that hindered decipherment. Many other reviewers seem to think that Coe is too severe on Thompson’s role in playing down inventive ideas in the 20th century, but it seems the reason why Coe is so negative towards him is well grounded. After all, it is not uncommon in different scholarly and scientific branches to have people who are so convinced of their own right that, even in the face of irrefutable proof, they will not give in but instead become more vehement in their self-righteousnesss. An excellent example of another field is for instance how Einstein was against the mere idea of the Big Bang, now well-accepted, because it did not fit in with his own theories. It took him many years to wrap his head around it (all the while discrediting the proponents of that theory) until he adapted his own brain stuff. So, to be short, this book that had been on my want-to-read list, was a really engaging semi-autobiographical book that was informative, fun, and often very sassy. Also makes me want to become a Mayanist, but I’m already a Sinologist 🙂
We passed the Sumerian and Akkadian section, all the way towards the Egyptian mummies. Passing by some pretty thingies, you really like the museum more with every room that is discovered. I wish more museums would be free to the public, because that is what they were meant for — inciting wonder and inspiring visitors.
Super old Sumerian game, owned by my friend Céline, who is a PhD student in Assyriology in Vienna. Read her blog here (but first finish mine).
This crooked horse also reminds me of one of the most vivid memories in the British Museum. In secondary school we went on a trip to London and even though we had bought all-day passes for the underground we did everything on foot. We had a fast-footed Latin teacher, whom I shall refer to as Mrs. Store, who was in love with her field and managed to install some of her passion into most of her students. I still keep in touch with her. However, as we had walked all day, we just wanted to have a small sitting break. Not much, just a minute or two. But she would not give in. “Allez joeng, we are at the Parthenon, how is it possible that you want to sit???” It would and did not happen. Nobody was sitting. But then we got at the next section, a small corridor with a small bench. And it so happened to be free. She saw the desperate look in our eyes and finally gave in. We all (about 22 people) managed to sit down on a bench that was not meant for this many people. But we did it. This is that bench.
So I don’t know if the British Museum knows about it, but that bench has become a museum piece itself.
On our penultimate day we went away for a day, to Cambridge, where CJ’s twin brother TJ is doing his PhD in glaciology, although he refers to it as geology to outsiders. Like Oxford, Cambridge (which was actually founded by people who left Oxford) is essentially a university town. And like Oxford, it was overrun with Chinese. And like Oxford, there are many colleges that can be visited. Especially if you have inside connections, which we just happened to have. We had lunch at Darwin’s, then visited King’s college (where there would be a ‘monumental stone written by the Great Xu Mozhi and visited by all Chinese speaking folk on this planet that found their way to Cambridge’ but the great Xu Mozhi’s poetry is very bad (not only in English but even more so in Chinese), and I can say so because I bought an anthology and want my pounds back), Trinity college, St. John’s, Jesus college and Pembroke college, where my anglophile friend Cedric was a visiting scholar. After a a nice 5-pound-pizza with CJ’s brother and his friends, we went to St. Edmund‘s college for a really interesting evening making new friends. I don’t know if it was this personal touch, but if I have to choose sides, my money now is on Cambridge rather than Oxford.
Punting is a thing here
London, Calais, Brussels
So that concluded the tour of the UK as we did it. I had a blast with CJ and Joke and Katrin, even when it was unplanned :). The last day in London we went to see a play, Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which was nice. And then it was time to go back home. So we went to Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross station and took the underground to the nearby St. Pancras station, to take the Eurostar express back home. One week was left in Belgium, during which we met up with some friends and family that I miss already. On the other hand, I had a great holiday and am ready for the new academic year. Allons-y!