Airport Rating n/a
Reception of locals *****
Although the organisation that I am working for has offices in New York (where I am based), it has its headquarters in Washington DC, and it was a work related matter that gave me the excuse to check out the capital of the United States.
I decided to extend my stay over a weekend so I could get a chance to explore DC, and the city was unlike anything I had expected; both in terms of size and energy. I managed to see the majority of landmarks and attractions during my stay and I'm sure I'll get an opportunity to return during my time in the States, but for now, here are my thoughts.
There's two main ways to get from New York to DC; plane or train. A plane journey takes roughly 50 minutes but you have to arrive at the airport roughly 45-60 minutes before departure and the airport is further out of DC than the train station. In total flying can take anywhere between two and two and a half hours - that's if the plane isn't delayed or cancelled, which can be relatively common. In fact during my trip, a colleague who was supposed to fly in from NYC couldn't make it as his plane was cancelled.
The train journey is offered by Amtrak and offers a normal and express service. The regular service takes close to four hours but the express takes approximately three hours. I was given the option of taking the express train and the journey was very comfortable. The seats were open, modern with sockets to charge your phone on pretty much every seat. The train goes through a few large cities; Newark, Philadelphia and Baltimore before reaching DC. Walking out of Union Station I was surprised to see the US Capitol infront of me. It's an incredibly impressive looking building, but I quickly hopped into a taxi and headed towards my meetings with my boss.
The journey was relatively quick as DC is a planned city built relatively recently (1790) and the wide roads are designed perfectly for cars. DC has a low urban sprawl due to a law restricting the height of buildings and that made it feel completely different from the built up metropolis of New York I felt I could breathe a little easier and the streets were relatively quiet, much quieter than New York and most capital cities I had been to.
24 mile walk
After a day of meetings and presentations, I headed back to my hotel where I realised I had forgotten to pack my trainers. My head flashed back to the last time I brought the wrong footwear but just as before I decided to press on.
The nice thing about DC is that most of the major landmarks are based around the same location and a walk across the 2 mile long National Mall encompasses most of the memorials and museums. It reminded me in many ways of Paris, as did a lot of the city, although on a smaller scale. I found myself in the middle of the Mall when I walked from my hotel, which wasn't ideal but I decided to head toward the US Capitol and take a closer look at a building that I had seen many times before on TV.
Pretty much every time there is a Washington correspondent on a news programme, they always tend to have the US Capitol as a backdrop so I was excited to see the building close up and in person. The current building wasn't completed until after the US Civil War and as I walked closer I realised that the building was much larger than I imagined although the dome was perhaps a little smaller. Either way, it was a gorgeous building that reminded me of St Paul's Cathedral. It was too late in the evening to join a tour of the Capitol so I decided to walk around the grounds. I got right up to the stairs and spent a good few minutes taking in the view. From the front of the Capitol you can see straight across to the Washington Monument. The grounds cover over 1km squared so it takes a little bit of time to walk around all sides of the buildings, but its well worth doing.
As the sun began to set, the weather turned very cold very quickly. Washington is known for its cool and dry winters but hot and humid summers - I was definitely experiencing the colder part. It was a one mile walk to the Washington Monument, once the tallest man made structure in the world for a brief part of the 19th century and currently the tallest structure in Washington DC. Built in 1888 to commemorate George Washington, the obelisk can be seen from many parts of the city due to its low urban sprawl and the American Flags dotted around the structure make it look even more impressive. There are 50 flags in total, each representing an American state. Until 2016 it was possible to go inside the Monument and get an elevator to an observation deck to look over the city, however, reliability issues with the lifts mean that this is closed to public until 2019 at the earliest. Even though its considerably smaller than most buildings in New York, the fact that it doesnt have many large buildings of comparable height made this look impressive close up.
From the Washington Monument its a short walk to the Jefferson Memorial, dedicated to the memory of third US President and the main drafter of the Declaration of Independence. Its even newer than the other two landmarks, completed in the late 1940's but it was definitely one of my favourites. Built in a neoclassical style, it just seems like a perfectly proportioned building with a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson in the middle. Surrounding the statue, and written on the walls are famous quotes which seemed incredibly progressive, in fact they would still be considered quite progressive now. It gave me respect for a man I didn't actually know too much about which I suppose is what a memorial sets out to achieve. It also made me realise that as Sikhs, we have really neglected parts of our history.
At this point it was completely dark, and cold water from the tidal basin on which the memorial sits was being blown across the memorial from strong winds. My feet were beginning to feel the pain of walking in work shoes, but it wasn't something I dwelled on for too long, after all, I climbed a mountain in pumps, this was nothing - at least thats what I kept telling myself.
It was a fairly long walk to the Lincoln Memorial but on the way I got to see smaller memorials to Martin Luther King and Franklin Roosevelt. I thought both memorials were well done, the MLK one in particular had some of his most famous quotes as well as a very large statue of him.
Completed in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is perhaps the most spectacular of all and compared to the Jefferson, Roosevelt and MLK memorials, this was easily the busiest with hardly any space to move inside, even at 10pm at night. The memorial is in the style of Ancient Greek temples and inside is a 19 foot high seated statue of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States and amongst the most celebrated. Hundreds of people were jostling for a front and centre view to take pictures in front of the statue and I must admit I found myself staring in awe for a good few minutes. The actual building is split into three chambers, the left and right sides featuring famous speeches by the President and the central chamber houses the statue. It was one of the few statues that I had ever seen that seemed to have a personality. I stood there and I felt a sense of wisdom, contentment and a paternal protection given by the statue.
The final part of my walk took me past the beautiful Vietnam memorial towards the White House. Years of terrorism fears mean you can't get too close to the White House and the southern side in particular is pretty much pointless to see. When I see security like that, it makes me wonder who is actually winning the so called War on Terror. The view of the White House is better from the northern side. It's not a particularly large or beautiful building but it does represent something special and I can appreciate that. The current building is approximately 200 years old and in front of it, as with the Houses of Parliament were a number of protestors (although smaller in number). I thought the US Capitol and Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials were both aesthetically nicer.
By the time I reached my hotel, I had walked almost 15 miles on an empty stomach and I'd be walking just under 10 miles the next day. It's weird, anywhere I go somewhere new, I tend to forget to eat as I'm always out and about exploring. In fact, since my move to New York I have lost about 5kg which is a fair bit of weight considering everyone was convinced I would return to England much larger.
National Cherry Blossom Festival
I was pretty tired the next morning, but the sun had come out and the temperature had sky rocketed It way the day of the National Cherry Blossom parade. The festival dates back over 100 years to 1912 and celebrates Japanese culture when the Mayor of Tokyo gifted the Americans a couple of cherry trees. The festival has grown to become one of the busiest weekends in the DC calendar. By the time I walked towards the national mall, the parade was already underway. Float after float and balloon after balloon went past as marching bands played music. The whole area was absolutely packed and I saw my first Singh's in the city. I was surprised with how few Sikh's were in the area, but the parade seemed to bring a lot of them out and it was definitely comforting seeing people in dastaars.
I watched the parade for about an hour before going back toward the Washington Monument. After first seeing the White House in the daytime (which looked better) and then then World Bank, I began a long walk. I don't tend to plan things in advance, and sometimes its fun, but on this day I found myself wandering aimlessly for a good few hours. The amount of people meant that almost all museums had long queues. By the early afternoon, I had walked a few number of miles and still hadn't eaten breakfast. I walked toward the US Capitol where I had heard there was a pretty decent cafe but on reaching there found it closed for the weekend. I walked out and a Panjabi woman approached me asking if I knew where the langar (free Sikh kitchen was). I had no idea but now I knew there was food I decided to follow the dastaars. As I walked one of the main roads I saw an increasing number of Sikhs with orange turbans. I began following them and eventually after walking a couple of miles found myself at a stall and some vans. The stall was just packing up, I had missed the food although it made me happy to see langar in Washington DC.
I eventually found a small cafe, and after eating and resting I headed toward to museums again. Washington definitely doesnt seem to have the food or convenience factor that New York has. In fact, the way DC is spread out gives the city a strange feel. While New York feels like concentrated energy, DC is definitely quieter and doesnt seem to have any sort of comparable vibe.
In England all museums are free, so when I came to NYC and had to pay for museums, I was naturally a little disappointed. Museums in DC are (mostly) free which was a pleasant surprise. I first headed toward the imposing National Gallery of Art. Built in a neoclassical style, it fits in with its surroundings although it has just about enough to it to make it stand out.
It was a pleasant walk through the gallery, although as I jumped the 20 mile mark of walking in work shoes, my feet and legs were beginning to feel the pain. I like art, I don't completely understand the modern stuff, but classical painting in different styles are fairly fun to view so I visited a few floors and a few rooms but after a while I found myself wanting something different so headed across the grassy part of the national mall toward the National Air and Space Museum.
The Museum is newer than some of the others in the mall but its definitely one of my most favourite museums I have ever visited in any city. As soon as I went in I was surrounded by models of old planes and newer jets. I was staring up and I literally felt like the 6 year old version of me reading books on space. The museum is split into a number of sections, but the broad split is space on the left side and more traditional planes on the right side. The sections incorporate everything from a replica of the Wright Brothers plane, through to developments in Europe during the World Wars all the way to American domination in the post war period.
The space part of the museum traces the history of space exploration beginning with the rockets of the Second World War. I had read a lot about V2 rockets used by the Germans so to see one in real life was a personal highlight for me. In fact, even at my age, if I see a low flying plane in the sky I pretty much stop and look up, no matter where I am (it's got me in trouble many times). I have no idea why I'm so fascinated with this field, but its something that really does make me feel like a kid again and I absolutely loved this museum. I ended up spending a good 3-4 hours but I could have been there all day.
I decided to walk back to my hotel to pick up some bags and then walk the hour to Union Square train station. The walk took me through some of the more deprived areas of the city. Its strange, you have the national mall area which is packed with tourists, but just two blocks out the city changes completely. I was surprised at the homeless situation in the capital of the United States. The sheer number of homeless people surprised me, but the rundown areas being so close to the White House was a little strange. You can always measure a nation with how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable, and I'm afraid to say, the United States really fails on this.
An inoffensive city
It's hard to use a word to sum Washington DC up, but inoffensive is probably how I'd describe it. It's not particularly memorable, but its not the worst place either. The landmarks around the national mall are all very nice and to be in the political centre of essentially the western world is quite surreal.
However, the city is quiet and it feels almost sluggish and devoid of energy. Perhaps a part of that is because the population essentially changes every four years so there isn't an opportunity to create that lasting 'feeling'. the buildings, whilst individually very nice, can sometimes feel very 'samey'. It's probably not a place I'd spend more than a weekend, and I'd probably only go back out of necessity for work. There's certain area's that have a younger vibe, but even here the character feels fairly superficial. I'll probably be heading back in the next couple of months for work, and having done the main attractions I may try and find the areas that have a little something more about them.
Finally, I can't end without ending talking about the poverty of the city. Its the nation's capital, the seat of government yet just a stones throw away from the government buildings is the kind of poverty you would expect in developing countries. It's something the decision makers need to focus on. Instead of projecting influence and change thousands of miles away, its time they initiated change on their own front step.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.