Thursday, July 10, 2014

The UK and the Day From Hell

Well, I'm getting better: I think I kept this one under 3500 words. Also, if you want to see any of the pictures bigger, just click on them.

So, to recap, I didn’t sleep at all during my last night in Reykjavik. I left my hostel for the airport at 5am.

Once at the airport, I was met with a terrifyingly long line to check in, and since my bag (although carry-on-sized in the US) was slightly too big by European standards, I had to check it. The line took about 45 minutes, but I still made my flight comfortably. Why? Because my flight was delayed by over an hour. Eventually we boarded, and I was in Glasgow about two and a half hours later.

Final approach in Glasgow

Once in Glasgow I had to go through customs to enter the UK, and since I was a non-EU passport-holder, I yet again had to wait in a very long line. This time I spent over an hour waiting in line. By the time I got through, my bag had already been pulled off the baggage belt, so I had to wait in another line to find out what happened to it (hint: damned if they know!). Eventually I found it in some corner near the baggage office and caught a bus into the city. I took the bus to the train station, planning to leave my bags there while I wandered around the city for a few hours (now only about 4 hours instead of the 7 I had planned on). Of course the left luggage was closed -- Apparently they were on strike. I couldn’t find any lockers, so I had to carry my bags around with me. Remember, I also had gotten no sleep. I figured if anything could wake me up, it would be a lot of coffee and a spicy curry, so I found an Indian restaurant and had lunch before heading to Glasgow University to wander around for a few minutes with my bags in tow. I’m traveling light, but still lugging around a small suitcase and a heavy laptop backpack is the last thing you want to do when you are exhausted. I had made a list of things I hoped to do/see during my few hours in Glasgow, but I discarded nearly all of that as I was way too tired and nothing had worked at all that day yet.  Also, it had started raining. Of course. Undeterred, I finished up at the university and went to the Cathedral and walked around the city center for a few minutes. One the rain didn't stop though, I gave up and went to the train station to wait for my train. Sometimes you have to admit defeat.

Complete with the original medieval scaffolding!

I was just glad all this happened in Glasgow where there isn’t much to do anyway, and besides, by Murphy’s Law, things in Iceland went too well – This was the collection of almost a whole week of mostly good things happening, and it definitely came back to bite me. After 30 minutes of waiting, I boarded the train to Inverness and slept most of the way. I definitely needed it, and nothing too horrible could happen if I slept. Yes, I clutched my backpack to make sure it wasn't stolen -- I wouldn't have been surprised given how the day had went.


I got into Inverness around 9pm and made the 15 minute walk to my hostel. I had the entire hostel room to myself for the first night, so I slept like a rock for around 11 hours. I woke up the next day feeling much better, ready to explore Inverness. Unfortunately, one thing I hadn’t considered was that there was actually nothing to see in Inverness. Sure, it’s a charming town, but the castle isn’t open to the public, and one can only do so many churches (they have 50 of them supposedly!). I did a walking tour after having lunch at a cafĂ©, and upon this realization, I went back to my hostel to submit my Stanford forms which were due the next day.

The castle from across the river

Many church. Such gothic. So gargoyles. Very Jesus. Wow.
More churches, along with the River Ness. Taken from a small island in the river.

I spent a while working at the hostel, then looked for a daytrip out of Inverness for my second day. As luck would have it (surely something had to go right eventually!) there was availability on a full-day tour to Eilean Donan Castle and the Isle of Skye, and I booked it. Unfortunately the hostel was fairly dead, but I had plenty of work to do, so it wasn’t too bad. I went to bed early again, still recovering from the day before.

I woke up early the next morning to go on the tour. There were only 7 other people on the tour, and the guide had a very thick Scottish accent. I was glad to be spending a day truly in the Scottish Highlands… We started by driving past Loch Ness (and that was all I needed to do, honestly – I would have a better chance of being entertained by lighting my money on fire than doing a “Monster-search cruise”) and then continued past a couple castle ruins until reaching the Invermorrison waterfall. Waterfalls were getting to be like churches by this point (seriously, I had seen so many), but each one seemed to have its own interesting story or appearance.

Checking the box: Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle ruins

Invermorrison Waterfall
Bridge near the waterfall

We wandered around the waterfall for a short while before continuing to Loch Duich, where we stopped for a few minutes to stretch our legs before continuing to Eilean Donan castle. The castle is pretty much the perfectly picturesque Scottish castle, surrounded by water on three sides. While most tours of the area only do a photo-stop, we were given time to go through the castle and explore. As usual, I took selfies in the elaborate mirrors (by closely dodging the guards reprimanding anyone taking pictures), and the castle itself was quite interesting. Speaking of pictures, I took so many… At one point there was a bunch of mist rolling in off the water and it was just perfect.

Loch Duich
Loch Duich

Eilean Donan Castle!
I'm a panorama addict, I admit it.
We left the castle and continued making our way toward the Isle of Skye. Once we got there, we stopped for lunch at a hotel and, since I finished early, I wandered around for a little while in the area.

It was low tide at lunch

After lunch, we continued heading further onto the Isle of Skye, stopping a few times to take some pictures and wander around a bit.

One of our brief stops
Were there sheep, you ask? Of course there were, it's Scotland!

A lot of the roads on the Isle of Skye are all one-lane roads. They have "passing areas" where one car can pull in to allow a car going in the opposite direction to pass, but they don't have proper two-lane roads once outside of the main areas. We were on a rather large bus, so these one-lane roads were scary to watch, but eventually we reached a dramatic pebble beach with an extremely steep hill leading up to a coffee shop and some bathrooms. Most people went up to the coffee shop and bathrooms (or kissed the ground), but I spent most of my time on the "beach". Because the ground was all various sized rocks, it was very difficult to walk on:


Past the area in the far right of the previous panorama there was an area of flatter rocks which are submerged at high tide. There were numerous small tide pools with various snails and other small creatures.
This area was a particular challenge to walk on
I took a rocky nap
In the tide-pool area
Toward the bottom of the beach 

I spent so long exploring the beach that by the time I went up the hill, everything was already closed. Tired, hungry, and wanting to pee, I realized that I nearly missed my bus – It was struggling up the hill to meet me, and I stood in the middle of the road to make sure the driver couldn’t miss me, literally.

Taken just before the bus started struggling up the hill.
I was late for the bus because these wonderful sheep felt like posing for me.

Kindly he stopped, and we headed back toward Inverness, stopping at a scenic overlook at the top of one of the lochs and at a very cozy hotel/coffee shop.

Back in Inverness, although it wasn’t an expensive city at all, I continued my habit of eating at Indian Restaurants. This time I found a nice Southern Indian restaurant overlooking the river. After dinner, I packed and went to bed, ready to wake up the next morning for my train to Edinburgh.

Final thoughts on Inverness:

Lodging: Inverness Student Hostel – The facilities were reasonably good, although the showers left a lot to be desired. One of them was a small closet with nowhere to put clothes or towels or anything else, and several others were basically glorified cubbyholes with thin wooden boards on hinges as a “door”. There were a couple better showers downstairs which I discovered the last day, but I did have a few interesting showering experiences before that. Socially, the hostel didn’t have much going on. I talked with a few of the staff members, but very few other people were hanging out in the common area, and those who did were mostly just on their laptops. The location was pretty good, although there are few places with a bad location, since Inverness is such a compact town.

Duration: Seriously, there isn’t anything to do in Inverness. Their claim to fame is a kilt museum where you can try the kilts on. Inverness is a decent gateway to the highlands, but most worthwhile daytrips still require a lot of driving. I think it is a much better idea to pick a couple areas truly in the highlands (maybe the Black Isle and the Isle of Skye or something similar) and enjoy the local area instead of spending 2-3 hours driving each way just to reach your destination. Inverness is a nice town and it is convenient to Loch Ness, but it is not really ideal for anything else (except maybe a stop on the Great Glen Trail if you’re that kind of masochist).


The train to Edinburgh was rather scenic, and I did a bit of work along the way while enjoying the views. Arriving in Edinburgh, I got off the train one station before I was supposed to because Google Maps suggested it would be best for reaching my hotel, the Tune Hotel Haymarket. Indeed, the hotel was directly across the street from Edinburgh Haymarket station. I was looking at hostel and hotel options in another city and happened to stumble across this amazing deal at $30/night. The hotel is basic, sure, but the rate included WiFi, TV, and toiletries (roughly a $20 value, ha). The hotel itself was very clean, and being right across from Haymarket station was nice... It was a 20 minute walk to the Royal Mile or a 5-minute train ride. I paid $15 to check in early (leaving my luggage would have cost $5-10 anyway) and headed off to explore the city.

I started with St. Giles’ Cathederal, then walked most of the Royal Mile before taking shelter in the National Museum of Scotland when it started pouring rain. It is an impressive 7-story museum covering anything and everything one could possibly want to know about Scottish history. As usual, I stayed until I was kicked out at closing time. I would have wandered around the city more, but I had received an official Scottish welcome (also known as 36 hours of nonstop rain). I sought cover inside once again for dinner, then headed back to my hotel.
St. Giles on my very rainy first day
The interior
Some very old ivory chess pieces from the Scottish Museum
View from the top of the museum

The next day I met a friend (and he brought a friend), and we went to the Edinburgh Castle together. Before that, however, we had to find our way there. I wasn’t getting great cell-phone service, so we wandered aimlessly for a short while before ending up at the bottom of the Royal Mile. You might think it wouldn’t be so hard to find a giant castle on a hill in a city, but you’d be very wrong. The weather had begun to improve slightly, and by the time we walked up the Royal Mile and grabbed a bit to eat, it was midday and the views from the castle were excellent.

View from the castle

The museums in the castle were decently presented, and it was fun to wander around some of the various parts of the castle. The castle is pretty gigantic, and there are plenty of small rooms to visit.

Room housing various Scottish armor

After we finished at the castle we went to the Money Museum, which covers the history of Scottish Money and the importance of the National Bank of Scotland. A small museum of quirky objects and lots of money, it was a fun visit. We then met a third friend for a short while, and then I walked around the city a bit more before going back to my hotel.

Pounds and pounds of pounds

My last day in Edinburgh, I checked out of my hotel and brought my bags to the Edinburgh main train station so I could easily pick them up and catch my evening train to London. After dropping my bags off, I headed to the bottom of the Royal Mile to the Scottish Parliament. I wanted to do a guided tour, but was told none were available until the afternoon, so the timing worked out nicely to visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse across the street, since I was planning to do that anyway. It is a remarkable palace with a lot of interesting history. The Abbey Church ruins are impressive, and it was neat to see Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments (also, I don’t know why I even bother using adjectives anymore). By the time I finished at the palace, I had just enough time to get lunch (the restaurant’s bathroom had whiskey-flavored condoms) and head over for my tour of the Scottish Parliament.

Mary, Queen of Scots' bedchamber

Palace Mirror Selfie (as usual)

Holyrood Abbey ruins
The parliament itself is fairly new: It was only established in 1999, and the building is even newer. Of course there was a Scottish parliament hundreds of years ago, but it only recently restarted meetings. I thought the building itself was hideous, although they seemed quite proud of it. It is supposed to be like a tree growing out of Arthur’s Seat (the large hill nearby), and I get the symbolism and all, but I cannot get over the industrial-looking and downright weird design. Once I recovered from my initial disgust at the building, it seemed to serve its purpose as a modern house for parliament fairly well (and has a lot of neat technology). I enjoyed the tour, but I guess the building is too… deep… for me. Also, in the main meeting room of the parliament, there are cutouts in the wall that are supposed to look like people, however they looked far more like whiskey bottles.

The main meeting chamber

With a couple hours left to kill before my train, I stopped by the Edinburgh museum for a little while, which was kind-of boring but had a few interesting things. I then wandered around another graveyard before heading back to the train station to get my bags and catch my train to London.

Final thoughts on Edinburgh:

Lodging: Tune Hotel Haymarket – About a 20-minute walk from the Royal Mile, but directly across the street from Haymarket station, which is just a 5-minute train ride from Edinburgh Waverley. The hotel itself was nice enough, and their pricing approach matches nicely with my belief about most hotels when traveling: The bed and the toilet are included, and most other things are commonly considered extra: WiFi, toiletries, TV, housekeeping service daily, left luggage, early checkout, late checkout, etc… The base rate is very low because they know they can hit you with a bunch of additional fees, sort-of like a discount airline. I booked through and got my $30 rate with many of the extras included.  I’m pretty sure it was a mistake rate, since most other days the hotel was showing as $70-$100/night, but I managed to get it for 2 nights which was perfect.

Duration: Edinburgh seemed like a fun city, and I probably did myself a disservice by not staying in a hostel there. I technically was only in Edinburgh for one full day, although I had another half-day and almost full-day as well. I felt a little rushed at times, but overall was pretty happy with the amount of time I chose to spend there. I felt like I had seen a decent amount of the city while I was there, but I could have spent another day if I had it available.


I didn’t arrive in London until nearly midnight, but managed to catch the tube to get to my hotel, the Melia White House. They have toilet paper folded into fancy triangles, and probably a bunch of other cool amenities I didn’t try and also have absolutely no use for. So, why did I stay there? It was a short tube ride from King’s Cross, and I figured it’d be nice to have absurd amounts of luxury for one night, but in reality, I was too tired to enjoy much, and it mostly just felt unnecessary. To make matters even better/worse depending on your point of view, I was upgraded to a suite for the 9 hours I spent in the room. It was spacious and nice, although it’d have been nicer if the air conditioning worked properly: I boiled for most of the night.  I still haven’t answered the question though: The real reason I was staying there because Melia was giving away around 12000 hotel points per person sometime back in April, and those points were set to expire (since they were only part of the promo, and it was originally probably supposed to be targeted). I figured I didn’t want a hostel in London, so this was the next best option – I booked using a points and cash rate and saved about $125 off of the $225/night room.

My giant suite

I checked out just as quickly as I checked in, and after leaving my bags at the front desk, I headed over to the British Museum to meet a friend for the day. I checked on my favorite artifact in the museum, and I am happy to report it is still there:

If the text is too small to read, click the picture to enlarge it. I wonder if that'd work for their pieces of clay too.

We explored the museum for a while, and then decided to get lunch and just walk around. We spent a relaxing few hours walking around the city and chatting, and then he had to go, so I caught the tube back to the Melia to get my bags and switch to a cheaper hotel outside the city center, the Holiday Inn London-Bexley. It’s way out in the middle of fucking nowhere, and I cannot recommend it for anything other than a 60th wedding anniversary party (since that was what was going on there that night). Google Maps suggested it would take an hour and a half to reach St. Pancras station the next morning, so I left early enough to leave myself plenty of my time to make my train. I forgot about the 30-minute check-in for the Eurostar train, so I actually had significantly less time than I had thought. Construction work on the tube line I needed to take meant that I made the 30-minute check in by about 30 seconds after quite a bit of running, pushing, and shoving. After I calmed down, it was a pleasant 2 hour 15 minute ride to Paris, and I spent a while chatting with the American tourists sitting next to me who were in Europe for their first time. I was a bit surprised the Eurostar didn’t have WiFi access available, but it was otherwise a pleasant ride. I was just glad to be on the train instead of stuck on the platform with my nonrefundable ticket.

Final Thoughts on London:

Lodging: Melia White House (first night), Holiday Inn London-Bexley (second night): Both hotels weren’t great, but it felt good to have a bed to myself. The Melia was nice, but the air conditioning didn’t work, which was really annoying. I spent a total of 9 hours there though, so I can’t really say much more. The Holiday Inn was nice enough, but the fact that it has London in its name is misleading… In my opinion, it’d be better off calling itself the Holiday Inn Tokyo-Bexley… At least the name would be more accurate.

Duration: I really just stopped in London for a short relaxing break after my marathon first part of the trip. I definitely enjoyed having a rest, especially in a city I was already familiar with (from my trip last summer). Since I spent a week there last summer, I didn’t really want to spend much time there this time… It was just a good excuse to rest and take the Eurostar (which I wanted to try). Obviously if actually visiting London, it’d be nice to have much longer (I think 5-6 days is probably ideal, but it’s easy to occupy yourself for at least 10 days there without even going outside of the city).

Next up: Paris (complete with a charming Parisian welcome)

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