All posts by Rob

Just another network engineer that enjoys motorcycles and travelling.

Hampton by Hilton, Belfast City Centre

This is a little review of the Hampton by Hilton Belfast City Centre, where I stayed for a couple of nights for work at the start of September 2019.

I’d flown into Belfast City airport (BHD) and caught bus 600 into the city centre, which dropped me off at the Europa Bus Centre, a journey costing the total of £2.60 (though I felt sorry for the driver who had to arrange a lot of large suitcases from students starting to arrive for the start of the new University year at Queen’s University), and handily on the same block as the Hampton and indeed the massive Europa Hotel itself.

The reception desks are straight in front of the door, and lead onto the bar and breakfast area.

Reception

Check-in was easy, and the pre-payment arranged by the travel agent was on file, which doesn’t always happen.  I had a room on the fifth floor out of eight.  As an aside, why does the sign in the lift (elevator) correctly refer to ‘G’ for ground floor, but the button is marked ‘0’?

Zero G

When I got to the room it was almost entirely made of bed.  For some reason they appear to have been expecting me to arrive en-masse and the sofa-bed was also made up.  I momentarily worried that a colleague from work had been booked into the same room too.  I could, and perhaps should, have called reception to ask them to stow the bed, but I wanted to get a couple of things done before heading out for dinner, so I didn’t bother (and so no fault lies with Hampton, though I was surprised to still see it there when I got back on the second day, but by that point it was too late to say anything — he said, Britishly).

I remember when this were nothing but Hilton bedding…

There was a large TV in the room which I could see well whilst lying on the bed, but as it was mounted on a narrow shelf could only be swivelled a small amount and so didn’t have a great angle to see from the desk.  It was the usual (for the UK) Freeview channels.  There were double sockets with a USB outlet either side of the bed, which is good news.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

As a minor issue, there was some tape that was flaking in one corner of the room.

The same door covers the bathroom and wardrobe in an interesting space-saving arrangement — if the door is closed to the bathroom then the wardrobe is open, and vice versa.  The shower is easy to operate, not something you can always say, especially in cases when hot water takes a little while to reach the shower head.  Toiletries are large pump-bottles mounted on the wall, but there was shampoo, shower gel and conditioner, plus a hand-wash next to the sink, all of which were full, and all of the pumps were working!

I slept well overnight, and headed down to the buffet breakfast in the morning.  There is the choice of a cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, baked beans, small potato bites, etc), toast, pastries, cereals, and a new one on me, DIY waffles, along with tea, coffee and fruit juices.  It was a reasonable way to set me up for the day, and after that I checked out and headed on home.

Breakfast time!

I’d be perfectly happy to stay there again, plus it means earning HHonors points if that’s your thing.

Manchester to South Wales (via the Welsh Marches Route)

There are two main routes between Manchester and South Wales. There is the “Heart of Wales” line, which is the very scenic route, and the Welsh Marches line, merely quite scenic. A few (ahem) times over the last couple of months my wife and I have taken the train from Manchester towards South Wales, and back again, and this is about the Welsh Marches line, not quite as scenic as the Heart of Wales line, but still an interesting journey.

The route runs through Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Leominster, Hereford, Abergavenny, Newport, Cardiff, Swansea and then through to Milford Haven or Carmarthen. It isn’t, however, all that quick — over three hours to Cardiff, over four to Swansea (which might test even Michael Portillo’s patience), and it could certainly do with a few upgrades.

Most of the times we have travelled on it, we’ve booked Advance tickets, which require that you travel on a specific service and usually come with seat reservations. Each time the booking form has asked for seat preferences (table / airline; aisle / window). However, each time we’ve picked the tickets up, they’ve been “Coach *, Seat ***”. However, I’ve seen “reserved” tickets in the back of some seats, so there must be some magic we’re missing.

You keep using that word (reservation), I do not think it means what you think it means.

Getting on at one of the major stations (e.g. Manchester Piccadilly or Cardiff), you need to be at the right part of the platform to be by the doors when the train arrives, or you’re likely to be standing. One time we got lucky and bagged a seat whilst others stood, another time we were standing for 30-40 minutes until the train reached Crewe and a few people got off. I’ve also seen people standing at Hereford just as the local college finishes (and presumably just before it starts), which makes the lack of definite seat reservations a worry if you really want to sit down, and particularly, sit down together.

The time we weren’t lucky.

The trains are “Class 175“, and it has varied as to whether the trains are two coach (175 0nn) or three (175 1nn). On one journey to Swansea there were people standing for quite a bit of time, and it wasn’t helped when we reached Shrewsbury to find another train had been cancelled and they were shuffled onto the train we were on to get down to Newport and change for another service.

I have to feel a bit sorry for these little trains, they run for almost six hours from Milford Haven or Carmarthen up to Manchester, then have about 15 minutes before they’re on the way back for another six hours. This does mean they don’t get a proper clean for twelve hours other than the Transport for Wales staff doing their best to clear loose items into rubbish bags. Which means, fellow passengers, when you leave the train, please take your rubbish with you, as someone else will almost certainly be sitting in your seat within a few minutes!

At a couple of points through the journey, as long as there’s room, a trolley service will pass through the train offering tea, coffee, snacks, beer, wine, gin, tonic, you know the drill. Sometimes they may ask you to pay cash if the machine isn’t working — or if the reception is bad.

Speaking of reception, there is free WiFi on the train, but the uplink speed isn’t great, and some sites, including Google Drive, are blocked, which might make working on the train a bit of a challenge. If you’ve got a signal and a generous data plan on your phone, you might be better off tethering to that.

Getting the negatives out of the way, the route itself passes through some historic towns on the borders between Wales and England.

Regardless of history, according to Wikipedia Ludlow apparently once featured three Michelin-starred restaurants in the not too distance past, but now has none. Leominster was the site of “one of” the last ordeals by ducking stool in England. The stool itself is on display in Leominster Priory and depicted on the town clock.

Leominster Town Clock, image from Likeaword at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Leominster_Town_Clock.jpg

Not forgetting larger towns of Shrewsbury, curiously twinned with the Royal Navy submarine of HMS Talent, which would have some trouble getting anywhere near the town, and Hereford, birthplace of King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne (I wonder if my new MP Andrew Gwynne is a descendent?).

Whilst we’ve been using this route for trips for work or family of late, we’ll have to use it to explore some of the historic towns on the route soon, and some of the scenery it passes through is really quite beautiful. Some longer trains, though, please TfW?

What’s going on with iPad apps?

Yesterday I received an email from American Express to say they were discontinuing their iPad app and recommending I migrate to the iPhone app.

I don’t have an iPhone, and using the iPhone app on the iPad is not a great use of screen real estate, nor does it work in landscape mode, whereas the current iPad app is useful — it shows me my outstanding balance, statements, card offers and all that.

The same day, my British Airways iPad app updated and has lost all useful functionality. Instead of showing upcoming flights, seats, upgrade options, account details, etc., it now just allows you to book flights, though not as flexibly as the previous version (and certainly not the website) which also allowed you to explore cheapest fares.

Neither of the iPhone apps are ‘universal’ apps that resize to use the iPad screen size.

Is this the result of two independent decisions that seem to ignore what a user wants from an app? A lack of development resource? Or due to something being imposed by Apple with the move to iOS 13 / iPadOS? I thought the aim was to have universal apps that would work across iPhone, iPad and Mac…

Dragon Hotel, Swansea

According to the hotel’s own website, the Dragon Hotel is “…this fully airconditioned lesisure [sic] hotel was featured as South West Wales’ premier 4-star hotel.”

As someone that was brought up with frequent trips to Swansea to visit family, the Dragon Hotel has always been around, though I’ve never had need to stay there, as I was always staying with family. The road outside the hotel has changed substantially since I was a child, it used to be a roundabout with pedestrian underpasses leading to an open area in the centre of the roundabout. That was filled in a couple of decades ago to make it more friendly to bendy buses, but it is in the middle of yet another regeneration as Swansea City Council tries another traffic management plan along The Kingsway.

As time has moved on, I’ve had more reason to find nearby hotels and my wife and I have stayed at the Dragon a few times. Most recently, towards the end of August 2019, I stayed in three different rooms on the sixth and seventh (out of seven) floors (due to three different bookings) during a week as I wasn’t sure how long I was staying around.

During the week there were some good deals to be had, between £50 and £60 per night, but that rose substantially for the weekend. The best deals were on twin rooms rather than doubles, but as I was staying by myself, that wasn’t a problem.

The rooms are functional, two single beds, a large TV with Freeview channels, a hospitality tray with the usual selection of teabags, instant coffee sachets and UHT milk. There are no in-room safes, nor a mini-bar.

Most of the rooms appear to have a mobile phone for complimentary use around the city, provided by “Handy.” I have no idea what sort of personal information those things hoovered up, which I assume they must to pay for themselves, so I haven’t used one, but it also looks like they might not be around for much longer.

The bathrooms are surfaced with white ceramic tiles, with a large illuminated mirror that has two vertical fluorescent tubes (though in one of the bathrooms, one of the tubes flickered). Toiletries are large pump-action soap dispensers.

One evening, as I got back to my room, I was greeted by a gentleman, wearing only his shorts, laying across the corridor on a speakerphone, but the hotel didn’t provide entertainment the other nights.

There is a comfortable bar on the ground floor with a few local beers, though I’ve tended to head into town for a drink when the urge takes me (particularly to “Copper” or “No Sign Wine Bar”).

All in all, it’s clean, slightly tired, and I wouldn’t describe it as South-West Wales’ Premier Four-Star Hotel, though I don’t know what would fit that description, but it’s very convenient for the centre of Swansea, as opposed to some of the others that are closer to the Marina, or slightly out of town, and what are you expecting for that sort of price?

Hotel Indigo, Cardiff

This will be a brief review, as I was only there for one night and didn’t take any photographs.

Hotel Indigo is part of the IHG chain (Holiday Inn etc), but as I type this, the Cardiff hotel is currently rated the #1 hotel in Cardiff on TripAdvisor. [Hotel’s website here.]

From Cardiff Central train station the hotel was about a 10 minute walk (not trailing any suitcases). The entry is quite well disguised in an arcade off Queen Street, which is in the pedestrianised shopping area in Cardiff, and within that the reception is quite small, just 2-3 desks in a cosy lobby, but the staff were friendly. There is a single lift (“elevator”) to the guest rooms and the hotel’s restaurant/bar — a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Bar. When I checked in we were offered a 15% discount voucher for the restaurant, but that is a limited time offer.

My room had frosted windows with no view, but the room and bathroom (with monsoon shower) were obviously relatively new and well-decorated. The hospitality tray had a selection of Welsh teas and coffees (as an aside, I grew up in Wales and don’t remember many tea tree and coffee plantations, but that must be global warming for you), and a small fridge.

A nice touch was the rocking chair with a “nos da” (“good night”) cushion, and Welsh decorations on the wall. A tea pot and tea cosy would have topped that image off to perfection!

The bed was firm, and quite high off the ground, which may or may not be to your preference. Whilst it was a busy weekend in Cardiff, and I could hear the occasional voice of someone walking down the corridor outside, it didn’t disturb my sleep.

All in all it was a nice hotel, in a very good location, and not too badly priced. Worth a shot.

A day at the rugby

I was lucky enough to go to the Wales v England warm-up match at the Principality Stadium last weekend. It wasn’t a pretty match, but the end result of that and the other matches on the weekend is that for the first time ever, heading into the Rugby World Cup starting next month in Japan, Wales just about top the World Rugby rankings. They’re not playing this coming weekend, but Ireland are (away at Twickenham), so I don’t know if they’ll stay there, but they’re there for now.

World Rugby rankings.

The stop/start nature of blogging

It has been a while since I blogged (how many blog entries start like that?), but I’m about to kick it off again, or so I hope.

The plan is to have a mix of travel (reviews, reports), tech (networking), and maybe something about my new home, Manchester.

My wife and I left Twickenham at the end of April 2019 and moved to Manchester on May 1st. After a couple of weeks in an AirBnB in Didsbury whilst the purchase of the new house completed, we now have a four bedroom house in Dane Bank, to the east of Manchester, just inside the M60.

I’ve traded the 10-car trains of South Western Railway with two (or if I’m lucky four) car pacers from the 1980s running on a track with no plans for electrification. All this just four miles from the Manchester city centre. I’ve started buying gardening gear as the previous owners of the house kept a lovely garden at both the front and rear. I’m still not certain what half the plants are, but the apples are tasting rather good.

My job is still the same, just in a different office.

Seventeen years ago

Following on from Simon Lockhart’s reminder of his ticket from September 11th 2001, this is the one that I was involved with:


Ticket Number: 20010912-2                  Ticket Status: UPDATE
Ticket Type  : Unscheduled                 Ticket Source: TEN-US NOC
Ticket Scope : Site                        Site/Line    : New York
Ticket Owner : TEN-US NOC                  Problem Fixer: Telehouse NY
Ticket Opened: 20010912 12:08 UTC          Problem Start: 20010911 20:35 UTC
Ticket Update: 20010918 05:13 UTC
Ticket Closed:                             Problem Ends :


Ticket Summary: Status of 25 Broadway

Problem Description:

This ticket is being issued to track the status of the infrastructure
at the DANTE World Services PoP in New York.  Individual circuits
will be dealt with separately.  Updates will be in the "actions" section
below.

Affected:

DANTE World Service

Actions:

cziarhe	20010918 05:13 UTC
Load was switched from the Con Ed generator to the critical generator
as planned.  Unfortunately, after about 45 minutes the generator
again began to overheat and the load was switched back.  This was
achieved without interruption to service.  It is now believed this
could be due to limescale build-up in the radiator.

This is to be rectified by using an acid wash through the cooling
system and again running the generator under load at 22:30 UTC
tonight (Tuesday).

A plan is also being developed to bring in a new generator should
the situation with the critical generator persist.



Time to Fix: (Hours:Mins)



Fix:



History:

cziarhe	20010917 21:53 UTC
Telehouse NY believe the problems with their "critical" generator
have been caused by faulty thermostats.  These have now been replaced
and the generator has been spun up for a basic test.  The next
step is to try a load test, which will begin at 22:30 UTC.  If
this is successful, then load from the "essential" generator, which
supplies the air conditioning will be transferred to the Con Ed
generator for maintainence to take place on this generator, which
has also been running overtemperature.

Assuming all this works successfully, Telehouse plan to run the
Con Ed generator in conjunction with either the essential (Air
Con) or critical (equipment) generator to make the best use of
available fuel.  Further fuel supply problems are not thought to
be likely as there are 17 tankers in the city, and a further 30
generators are available.

The IP NOC will monitor the initial switch to the critical generator
to ensure equipment remains in operation, and reinstall the workaround
with KPN should it be needed.

cziarhe	20010916 14:59 UTC
The latest update from Telehouse reports that an extra 2000 gallon
fuel tank is expected to be connected to the Con Ed generator soon
to allow for longer refuelling intervals.  in addition, Con Ed's
refuelling process to all buildings in the area has now settled
down, so it should be as reliable as possible in the circumstances.

An engineer is currently onsite investigating the problems with
Telehouse's own generator.

cziarhe	20010916 12:05 UTC
Regular fuel deliveries appear to have been secured for the Con
Ed generator.  There were deliveries at 02:00 UTC and 11:30 UTC,
and another is scheduled for 21:30 UTC.

The status of the Telehouse generator is currently unknown.

cziajom	20010915 20:16 UTC
Contacted Telehouse NY. Informed that Con Ed generator is now up,
with enough fuel until Tuesday (18 Sep). Engineers are still working
on the Telehouse generator. NY Routers are starting to come up.

cziarhe	20010915 18:25 UTC
Despite what we were informed of earlier, the Con Ed generator ran
out of fuel at 16:45 UTC.  Telehouse's generator then started up,
but overheated again.  There is a fuel truck just outside the cordoned
area, but it is not being allowed through, and unfortunately we
have no ETA for the fuel, or time-to-repair for the Telehouse generator.

cziarhe	20010915 18:15 UTC
Power was lost again at 17:45 UTC, we are contacting Telehouse for
information.

cziarhe	20010915 15:52 UTC
The current status relayed to us by Telehouse is as follows:

The Con Ed generator is monitored around the clock by Con Ed personnel,
who are responsible for refuelling it.  As of 15:00 UTC there was
approximately 15 hours worth of fuel remaining.

The water pump on Telehouse's own generator has been replaced and
the unit has been run for about 30 minutes to test.  Telehouse
are taking this opportunity to perform some routine maintenance
(changing oil and filters, pressure washing the radiator) to ensure
it is ready should it be needed for another extended run.

Fuel currently available onsite should last until Thursday at current
consumption rates.  Another delivery is being planned for Monday.

Engineer access is possible, but the procedure is slightly different
due to movement restrictions still in effect.

cziarhe	20010915 08:55 UTC
Power was returned via the Con Edison generator at approximately
02:45 UTC this morning (Saturday).  All DANTE World Service equipment
is functioning without any failed power supplies.  Telehouse also
expect their own generator to be fixed soon, so there will be two
sources of power again, as the Con Edison generator will remain
until grid power is restored.

cziarhe	20010914 18:06 UTC
Con Edison have delivered the transformer and connected it to be
building's power supply, they expect to have the generator itself
online by approximately 21:00 UTC this evening (Friday).

Unfortunately the water pump for Telehouse's own generator has
been difficult to source and is currently being shipped from Pennsylvania
with an expected arrival time at 25 Broadway of midnight tonight
UTC.  Installation is planned for tomorrow.

Hopefully the Con Edison generator should allow the DANTE World
Service to resume at some point this evening.

cziarhe	20010914 08:11 UTC
To clarify the previous entry, the generator from Con Edison was
expected onsite yesterday evening US time for connection this morning
their time, i.e. early to mid-afternoon European time.

cziaseo	20010914 06:16 UTC
The  generator failed because of the water pump. Estimated repair
time
is late tomorrow (Friday, 9/13). In the meantime, Con Ed has committed

to provide generator from the street and we expect delivery tonight.

Estimated connection is sometime tomorrow morning.


cziajom	20010914 04:57 UTC
An engineer is on-site to try and repair generator. However, still
not able to give any indication of a resolution time. Further information
will be given, as it becomes known to us.

cziarhe	20010914 01:50 UTC
Power failed again at 01:40 UTC.  Apparently there is a generator
technician onsite, and Telehouse are talking to Con Edison about
borrowing a generator in the event the current one cannot be fixed.

cziarhe	20010914 01:39 UTC
Power has returned at 01:30 UTC.  More information will be supplied
as we have it.

cziarhe	20010914 00:20 UTC
Have spoken to Telehouse Ops, they are waiting for an engineer for
the diesel generator and will let us know via email as soon as
they have more information.  This ticket will be updated when the
information reaches us.


cziajom	20010913 23:11 UTC
Received msg from M+ (23:06 BST) to contact WorldCom. Contacted
WorldCom. Engineer stated that generator had to be powered off
due to overheating .... and that if generator cannot be fixed,
then they will have to await the arrival of a new generator. Therefore
not possible to give any restoration time for power.

Ticket # 447111 issued by WC.

Asked WorldCom to contact us, as they get further information.

cziarhe	20010913 21:45 UTC
As of 21:40 UTC, Telehouse have been required to shut down the generator
due to a rapid increase in temperature, this has meant a loss of
power to all DANTE World Service equipment.  We currently have
no time for restoration of power.

cziarhe	20010913 16:24 UTC
Fuel has arrived on-site and is currently being transferred into
Telehouse's storage tanks.  Once this is complete there will be
sufficient diesel for another four days of generator power.

cziarhe	20010913 14:29 UTC
The fuel delivery truck is currently preparing to leave Staten Island
for 25 Broadway, however, progress is expected to be slow.

Should this fail, Con Edison are prepared to deliver fuel to 25
Broadway.  They are still unable to give an estimate as to when
utility power will be restored.

cziarhe	20010912 21:35 UTC
Commercial power to 25 Broadway was interrupted when debris from
WTC 7 (The Salomon building) fell on the substation.  It is not
expected to be restored before the weekend, so delivery of the
fuel mentioned in a previous update is being investigated.

Telehouse believe they will be able to allow personnel onto the
site at some point tomorrow (Thursday).

cziarhe	20010912 18:23 UTC
Telehouse have secured an additional 4500 gallons of diesel fuel
and are attempting to get permission from the Port Authority of
New York to transport it to 25 Broadway.

cziarhe	20010912 13:31 UTC
Telehouse have informed us that if commercial power is not restored,
it is unlikely that they will be able to replenish the fuel supply
when it becomes depleted.

In addition, the area in which 25 Broadway is located has been
evacuated.  Essential staff are remaining on-site, but should they
be forced to vacate the building, Telehouse say the ability to
continue to provide emergency power would be impacted.


cziarhe	20010912 12:17 UTC
Sorry, "18:35 UTC" in the previous entry should read "18:35 UTC
on Friday September 14th".

cziarhe	20010912 12:13 UTC
As of 20:35 UTC on September 11th, 25 Broadway is running on the
emergency diesel generator.  Initial information was that they
had 24 hours worth of fuel, but drain is currently much lower and
we have been informed that they could last up to 70 hours, which
takes service up to 18:35 UTC, although this is a maximum.

It is not clear whether refuelling will currently be possible,
or when commercial grid power will be restored.

Which mobile phone should I buy?

Getting on for two years ago I bought a Samsung Galaxy S5 tied to a contract with Three UK (so the phone had all of Three UK’s cruft on, as well as the Samsung TouchWiz). It was one of the flagship phones when I bought it, and it can still hold its own, but as the end of the contract approaches, I am trying to decide which phone to get next. Some of the considerations are…

  1. Software upgrades.

    This is one of the most significant ones. Once Google has released a new version of software, it has to be ported to the S5 by Samsung, adding all their bells and whistles, and then Three have to release it for the handset. I check for updates pretty regularly, and the latest for my S5 on Three is Android 5.0. Google may have released 6.0, but I haven’t even got 5.1.

    There have been minor security patches issued, but I’m not confident they cover everything that is in the newer software releases.

    When it comes to an Android phone, this will catch me out with just about anything other than the Google Nexus phones, which providers are best? I’ve heard OnePlus mentioned, and maybe the issue will be much better regardless of the phone provider as long as I get an unlocked.

  2. Earphones

    At the start of the year I bought a set of Bose QuietComfort 20 earphones. There are two models, one with a remote control that’s compatible with Android, the other with an iOS compatible control. I bought the iOS-compatible version, expecting at the time that I’d be getting an iPhone next.

    It’s a significant investment, and if that steers me towards an iPhone, then it means buying a 6S, as the rumours are that the 7 will no longer have a 3.5mm headphone jack. The problem with that, of course, is that the 6S is now six months old, and I’d like the phone to last a couple of years.

  3. Mail Client

    I hate all mobile mail clients. More to the point, I pretty much hate all mail clients. On my desktop I vacillate between Mac Mail, Outlook and, more often than not, ‘mutt’. I’ve never found a mobile mail client that works well. iOS Mail is the nearest there is, although ‘Nine’ on Android seems to be shaping up quite nicely too. I’ve tried quite a few — BlueMail, Type Mail, Gmail client, Outlook Mobile, the Samsung client on Android, K9.

  4. Ecosystem lock-in

    I have an iPhone for work, I use a MacBook Pro daily, and I’ve also got an iPad Air 2 and a Mac Mini at home. I’m therefore very wary about ending up locked in to the Apple ecosystem. My Galaxy S5 keeps me aware of this, and encourages me to use solutions that can work across platforms (Office 365, Evernote, Simplenote, Google Docs, Dropbox).

  5. Smart watch

    I don’t have an Apple Watch, I’ve (still) got a first generation Pebble. It works with both Apple and Android, and the battery lasts a week. Next.

  6. Price

    I can’t bring myself to pay too much money for a device that realistically doesn’t have a life of much more than two years and is susceptible to being stolen or dropped or subject to some other damage (whilst I haven’t yet cracked a phone screen or had one lost or stolen, I know it will happen some day, especially now that I’ve written this).

At the moment, the candidates are:

Phone Storage Screen Price (SIM-free)
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 32GB 5.5″ £639.99
Samsung Galaxy S7 32GB 5.1″ £519.99
Google Nexus 5X 32GB 5.2″ £339.00
Google Nexus 6P 32GB 5.7″ £449.00
64GB 5.7″ £499.00
HTC 10 32GB 5.2″ £569.99
iPhone 6S 64GB 4.7″ £619.00
iPhone 6S Plus 64GB 5.5″ £699.00
LG G5 32GB 5.3″ £499.95
Huawei P9 32GB 5.2″ £449.99

I’m sure I can get better prices than these, but this is just from a quick glance on Expansys, Carphone Warehouse, Google Shopping, or the Apple store. I’ve chosen more storage for the iPhone because unlike the other devices, there’s no room for an SD card (although the Nexus 5X also has this failing, there is no option for more storage). If I buy from the Google Store, there is also a £50 discount available on the 5X and a £70 discount on the 6P until 6th May.

It’s making the 6P look rather attractive, but it does have the previous generation of processor (Snapdragon 810 rather than 820), even if the camera is more modern (1.55um pixels, but no OIS).

Coffee cups — safer in a bag

Travelling back on Virgin Trains from a meeting in Birmingham, I popped to the on-board shop to buy a coffee for two pounds and five pence of our sovereign sterling monies.

As usual, the coffee comes in a cup with a lid which was firmly attached and requires tearing a plastic tab to drink from it. The assistant then placed the cup in a paper bag, to which I said that it wasn’t really necessary as I could carry it (I wasn’t getting anything else).

I was told that I couldn’t do that, due to “safety.” In retrospect I wonder what she’d have done if I’d just walked off and left the bag on the counter, but being the obedient member of the populace that I am, I just toddled off back down the carriage, coffee safely ensconced in a paper bag so that I couldn’t tell if it had fallen onto its side or not.

A note to Eleanor Laing, my Member of Parliament

This evening saw a vote in the House of Commons on allowing same-sex marriage. It passed, but my MP Eleanor Laing, the Shadow Minister for Women and Equality whilst the Tories were in opposition, did not vote for reasons she explained to the local media.

I decided to send her a message through the “Write to Them” website. I do feel a little self-conscious about noting my own gender orientation in the message, which should be irrelevant, but I wanted to point out that the measure is supported by others than those who want to marry their loved ones of the same sex.

Dear Eleanor Laing,

As a constituent, I am writing to let you know that I am disappointed by your choice to abstain from voting in this evening’s bill on same-sex marriage.

I am particularly disappointed by your publicised, but weak, reasoning. Are you in favour of same-sex marriage or not? You claim to be unwilling to vote against the bill, but due to the concerns of constituents you are unwilling to vote for it. As a former Shadow Minister for Women and Equality, I would have expected a more considered approach. I understand that there is a conflict between a Member’s requirements to represent their constituents and a Government’s requirements to lead the country, but on this occasion I believe you have misjudged that balance.

Whilst I realise that a “swing to the left” in politics in this region means the Conservatives gaining seats from the BNP, you appear to be cowed by local opinion rather than doing what you must surely believe is correct.

Yours sincerely,
Rob Evans
(For what it is worth, having no desire to enter into a
same-sex relationship.)

Spain gets a little bit Moorish.

The Alhambra. Just the name conjures up a mental image of the medieval clash between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam, a time of religious quests and bloody battles. These days, the tales of battles are limited to the legendary queues to obtain tickets to visit it, so after a particularly busy start to the year, I decided to do my duty as a Londoner during the Jubilee double-Bank Holiday weekend and get out of Dodge to make way for the tourists that were on the way in.

An extra day of leave booked either side meant I was heading out to Granada on Friday, then had all of Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and the best part of Wednesday out there before flying home that evening. I booked tickets to visit the palace on the Monday morning and a night-time visit on Tuesday evening, thinking that would be a perfect way to round off the trip, then waited until it was time to head out.

Granada airport is really rather small. Nothing so fancy as a jet-bridge, just steps down from the plane to the tarmac, and if you’re travelling without luggage, as I was, you’re out of the airport in a couple of minutes. I was ready to treat myself to a €20 taxi ride into town, but as I exited, the €3 coach was sitting there, which made the choice simple. I’d left a dull London that was about to head into a rain-soaked weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel a little smug as the sun hit my face.

I’d booked a single room at the hotel, but when I checked in they actually apologised that was all they had available, and promised that when it emptied out a little on Sunday I could move into a double. The single room was quite small, but no smaller than it is in many hotels, and it was very clean. I resisted the urge to head straight up to the palace and wandered around some of the older parts of the town, the Albaicin, for a little while instead, stealing the odd glance of the fort towering over the rest of the city, and trying to ignore the sounds of ‘Eloise’ blaring out of one of the jukeboxes that didn’t quite fit with the feeling of the whitewashed twisty, steep, narrow paths.

In retrospect, the t-shirt and shirt I’d needed at home was perhaps a little overkill for the south of Spain, and even at 9pm I was rather warm walking around, which meant I had to stop off at the odd bar for a cold beer, and in Granada almost every place that serves beer, serves a plate of tapas with it, frequently fried in lots of oil and not uncommonly covered in batter. This is not a place to come to lose weight.

On Saturday, I was prepared. I didn’t know what to expect on Monday, so I was heading up to the Alhambra to pick my tickets up. It was just a fifteen minute walk from the hotel to the ticket office, passing the dilapidated remains of the ‘Hotel Washington Irving,’ named after the American author that in the late nineteenth century spent some time living in the palace and wrote “Tales of the Alhambra.” He also wrote “Rip Van Winkle”, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and was later the US Minister to Spain, trivia fans.

My worst fears of the ticket office were far from realised. There was a queue, but that was simply a queue if you wanted to tickets with cash for entry that day. A short walk around the corner presented the machines for picking up tickets pre-booked with a credit card, or buying tickets with a credit card for that day, and there wasn’t a queue at a single one of them. Not that it mattered, it felt much better to know I had the tickets as otherwise I’d have known no more than the reputation and would have been worrying whether I’d have ended up paying for a trip to Granada and not having been able to visit the main reason for going there.

Given I’d gone to all the effort of climbing up the hill, I wasn’t in a rush to head back down, and had a wander around the parts of the fort that didn’t need a ticket. Starting with the “Justice Gate”, perhaps the most impressive of the entrances to the complex, the passage inside the gate doubles back on itself twice in an attempt to slow down invading armies that had breached the outer door.

Inside is the palace of Carlos V. An imposing, late addition to the Alhambra. Late in this context means the sixteenth century and it was designed by a pupil of Michaelangelo. Inside is a large circular courtyard and the palace houses two museums, one of the Alhambra and the other, the Museum of Fine Arts. I was pleased and surprised with how quiet it was inside.

Later in the afternoon I had another wander around the Albaicin. I was on the hunt for the Mirador de San Nicholas, supposedly the best place to get a view of the Alhambra, but after finding a small square with a reasonably good view, the Placeta Carvajales, I was confronted with a human traffic-jam. A human traffic-jam in their Sunday best. From the back, I could see a bunch of people, and in front of them a platform with the statue of the Virgin Mary towering 12-15 feet high.

However, I could only see the back, so there then began a slightly comical sequence of events where I’d dash through some back streets, trying to get ahead of the parade, only to end up out of breath and sweating slightly back at the end of the procession. Eventually I managed to pick the right choice of streets, and to be fair I think the procession paused in front of a couple of churches that allowed me to take the lead, and I emerged at a street that was cordoned off ready for the procession to hit it.

Leading the statue were two columns of people, mainly women, on either side of the road carrying large candles. Behind them a man was reading from a text, closely followed by a group of other people. I began to think this was a funeral procession and this must have been the family. Behind them, were some young men and women dressed in robes, swinging incense, and carrying more candles. Then there was the statue. If this was a funeral, perhaps there was a coffin underneath the statue, but it wasn’t obvious. It was borne by almost 20 men and looked heavy. It was moved for a few steps, they set it down and paused, and then moved it again.

Whilst I was standing out of the way to take a couple of photographs, and feeling self-conscious even with that, there were other that were getting much closer to the procession, and even wandering amongst it to take their photos. I’m not convinced that they were all tourists either.

Still not entirely sure what I’d just witnessed, I settled down for some food at the Paseo de los Tristes, the ‘Promenade of the Sad’. I ate here a few times, I’m not sure what that says. It was 9pm, so still on the early side for food in this part of the world. I was surprised it was still light given I was now considerably further south, but perhaps Spain cheats by being an hour ahead of where it should be based on longitude. As I sat there, a pretty good violin player was playing and a woman was writing her diary on the wall, with the Alhambra towering over all of us, as it has done for 800 years. I thought there could be few places on earth that I would rather be at that particular moment.

After dinner I crossed the river and walked up Cuesta del Rey Chico back to the Alhambra. This goes up the other side to the “main” road and is much quieter. It is overshadowed by the imposing stone walls, but like the rest of the Alhambra there is water everywhere. A stream follows the side of the road and at one point there is a drain one of the other parts of the complex pouring water out a short way up one of the walls. For the south of Spain the amount of water that is constantly flowing around the Alhambra is astonishing, and more than welcome. You are never far from the sound of running water.

I reached the top and turned around again, realising that the shallow steps were much easier to see on the way up in the dark than on the way down, so I ambled down, meeting a few more people than I’d met on the way up. Some of them were already pausing for breath, still much closer to the bottom than the top, I was hoping they weren’t going to ask me how much further it was as I wouldn’t have had the heart to tell them.

Following those exertions, a cerveza and tapas was in order, so I went to La Gran Taberna opposite the hotel. Given they come with every drink you buy, the tapas are delicious in some of the bars, as they were in this one. Some bars focus on seafood-based dishes, others meat, others mix them all. It was 11:20pm and there were still families out eating with young children. On the wall of the bar was, I thought, an old poster for some bullfighting. Then I checked the dates and realised it was a poster for this weekend’s bullfighting. I was momentarily tempted, but thought I still had enough to see before I was heading home.

Sunday was a quiet day. This time I was determined to find the Mirador de San Nicholas. It was much higher in Albaicin than I’d expected, and I’d not been as close to it when I was at Placeta Carvajela than I thought I’d been, but worth it for the view. It was busy, not just with tourists but also with its fair share of people selling tourist tat. The view of the Alhambra is fantastic, and I could see the Sierra Nevada in the distance, still with snow on some of north-facing slopes that look towards Granada.

Whilst the Mirador was busy, it was quiet only a street or two away, so I wandered down the side-streets to Fuente del Triunfo (Triumph Gardens, not named after a British motorcycle), and thence a spot of lunch whilst watching the final laps of the Catalunya MotoGP with some seafood tapas. Following the MotoGP there was quite a bit of coverage of the Jubilee celebrations from Britain, which looked rather wet.

Monday was the day I’d been looking forward to. This was the day I was visiting the Alcazabar, the Palacios Nazaries and the Generalife at the Alhambra, the day I’d been building up to. I had a morning ticket, which allows entry from 8:30am to the ‘untimed’ part of the Alhambra, and I had a timed 10:30 entry to the Palacios Nazaries. I decided to start at the Alcazabar, the oldest part of the Alhambra and the western-most part, looking out of the city. I was there at 8:20 waiting for it to open, and I was the third person in through the gates.

Looking out over the rest of the city and the valley stretching westwards, the views from the towers of the Alcazabar are fantastic, and all the better for getting there ahead of the crowds. When the Cross was first raised on the Torre de la Vela (Bell Tower) on January 2nd, 1492, the fleeing Boabdil (Muhammed XII of Granada) who was heading for exile, cried, and was admonished by his mother with “you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

Next was the Palacios Nazaries. You can only enter this within a 30 minute window printed on your ticket, but once inside you can stay as long as you want. You enter into the council chamber, and from there take a route through to the Hall of the Ambassadors, the largest room in the palace, the Court of the Myrtles, the Court of the Lions, the Hall of the Abencerrages, the Queen’s Tower, the Patio de la Lindaraja before exiting to the Partal Gardens.

Parts of the palace are undergoing renovation, but that doesn’t stop each new room from making your jaw drop. Not only are they impressive to see, but the history that has taken place in each of them. The Hall of the Abencerrages, for example, is beautifully intricate room with a eight-sided vaulted ceiling. It is also where according to legend, Boabdil’s father killed sixteen princes of the Abencerrage family after one of them had fallen in love with a woman of the royal family.

The Court of the Lions is nearing the end of a lengthy restoration and it’s centrepiece, a fountain mounted on the backs of lions, was half open from the protective wooden shroud that has been surrounding it for some time.

From the Partal Gardens, you walk to the gardens and the palace of the Generalife. This is a much more modest building, but surrounded by a number of gardens with trees, fountains and neatly tended flowerbeds.

Before heading back down the hill for a spot of lunch I dropped into the Palace of Carlos V again. A stage was being set up inside for some event or other, so I was glad I had taken some photos on Saturday. There was also a chap there employing what appeared to be the ‘blunderbuss’ method of photography. With a relatively expensive camera set to continuous shooting, he kept the shutter pressed down and waved it around. I know that at the end of the holiday I had trouble cutting down my 450 photos to under 200. I don’t know how long it would have taken him to edit his album. I presume he must have a mighty hard drive on his computer.

It had taken the better part of the morning to explore the palaces, but there was still the afternoon to fill, so I stayed on the cultural theme and headed to the Convento de San Jeronimo. You enter into a cloister that surrounds some orange trees, off which are a number of rooms — a refectory, a sacristy, and with the names of past abbots set in tiles in the floor. As you near the end of the cloister you enter the church and my eyes widened. You have to be a little bit insane to be the architect of a cathedral, and the architect of this one was certainly a few collonades short of a cloister.

A little bit of a walk north and I ended up at La Cartuja, another former monastery. Walking around the cloisters here, most of the rooms are now full of art related to martyrdom, but again as you get to the church at the end of the walk around the cloisters you have to pause for a few moments. The church is full of stucco ceilings and has a chapel that has columns on the wall that appear to be all capitals and no column.

At first glance the marble altarpiece is reflected in a series of mirrors behind it, then you realise that the mirrors don’t match the altarpiece, and they are actually windows into a room behind with another, much darker, altarpiece in complete contrast to the white and light church. Photographs are not permitted in La Cartuja.

Granada feels like a relatively small city, and several times wandering around I saw the same faces again and again. Some of those will have been tourists on the same path as I was, but others were definitely locals.

In one of the city squares whilst I ate a meal in the evening there was what appeared to be a flamenco competition or demonstration. On top of the procession I was starting to think I’ve been quite lucky.

Tuesday was my last full day in Granada and I started it off by heading to the remains of the Arab Bath House on Carrera del Darro, the road winding along the river that runs through Granada. Following this was a bit of walk to the Sacromonte Caves, a museum of the cave dwellings that were used until quite recently. They’re well preserved and there are detailed signs, in English as well as Spanish, telling the stories of life and industry in the area. Of course, it also has the obligatory panoramic view down the valley towards the Alhambra and the rest of the city. The caves weren’t the easiest to find, and as I got back to the city to the Paseo de los Tristes I overheard a couple of other tourists trying to find them, so I pointed them in the right direction.

In the afternoon I headed up to Carmen de los Martires, a nineteenth century stately home and ornamental gardens. I’d read there was a great view of the Alhambra from there (what, another one?), but when I reached what I thought was the viewing platform there were trees and grass blocking the view. Then I noticed another pathway that climbed further up. I followed it, zig-zagging as it wends its way up towards the top wall of the gardens and then I realised that was where the view was. If you’ve been to Granada and not found the way up to top of the gardens, you have missed another great view of the Alhambra. If you are going to Granada, don’t give up until you’ve reached the wall at the top of the hill in the garden for a view of the palace, the valley, and behind you, the Sierra Nevada.

When you get back down, don’t forget to have a walk around the rest of the gardens, filled with grottos, fountains, and a small lake with a keep in the centre of it.

As the day drew to a close, it was time for the second visit to the Palacios Nazaries, but this time by night. It follows much the same route as the daytime visit, but the floodlighting adds a different view. It is also much quieter, so I had more time to pause along the way. Alas, the amount of light means that photography with a compact camera is difficult and requires a steady hand.

Finally, Wednesday dawned. I checked out of the hotel, which had been very helpful and friendly throughout my stay. There was still much to see before I left for the flight though! Starting with the Royal Chapel, which contains the tomb and displays the coffins of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos) under whom other religions were expelled from Spain. One one hand, Ferdinand and Isabella approved Christopher Columbus’ journey to the New World. On the other hand, they segregated communities and created ghettos for Jewish people.

The altarpiece in the Royal Chapel continues the theme of martyrdom with scenes of John the Baptist being beheaded and John the Evangelist being boiled alive. Also in the chapel are a crown, sceptre and sword from the fifteenth century. They look simple, but it is evocative to think of them being used 600 years ago.

To round the visit off, the cathedral was the final stop I had planned. I had seen the cathedral from the Alhambra and it is large enough to dominate a fair part of the city from there, it appears even larger when I got inside. The organ has four banks of pipes that dominate the nave and lead up to another stunning altarpiece, this one several stories high covered with art.

So that was that. Lunch, coach and back home. Except when I left the cathedral there were queues of people lining the street. I might as well hang around and see what is going on. I say “see” what is going on, because I still have no idea what actually was going on. There was a procession of four large models, that looked perhaps like Ferdinand and Isabella, perhaps followed by two Moors? Following them was a dragon with a women in a white dress standing on its back, then people dressed in various costumes and at the end a number of people wearing papier-mache heads who were going around bashing kids on the head with paper balloons.

If anybody can fill me in on what this was, I’d be very grateful. Put together with the other procession and the flamenco event I either planned my trip very fortuitously, or this was just another random weekend in Granda.

I worried that the roads weren’t going to be open again in time for the coach to get me to the airport, because taxis were also pretty thin on the ground, but it all worked out.

From 35C at lunch, when I got back to Heathrow it was 12C or less, the tube was broken due to flooding at Stratford and I spent 25 minutes standing outside Walthamstow Central station until the last bus of the night arrived at 12:15am to get me home just before 1am (I’d landed just after 10pm), in time to watch the weather forecast with warnings of wind, rain, and possible localised flooding. Welcome home.

A Middle-Class Whinge

I’ve called this post a ‘Middle-Class Whinge’ for reasons that will become obvious as you read it. It isn’t about a matter of great importance, just a couple of disappointing instances of customer service at the end of a long week. I’m not asking for pity, I am just venting.

It was the end of the TERENA Networking Conference, which together with accompanying events meant I had been in meetings from Sunday lunchtime until Friday lunchtime. After a very pleasant stroll down from the CESNET offices in Prague, close to Dejvicka, through the Royal Gardens, the Castle, and the Old Town to my hotel near Florenc, I picked up my case and caught the metro and the bus back through the Friday afternoon traffic to the airport (paying little over £1 for the public transport, bargain!).

I checked my bag in, went through passport control and wandered around the airport for a little while before stopping by the “Pilsner Urquell Original Restaurant” at the ‘A’ gates for a beer and a bite to eat. Compared to the city, the beer was expensive — CZK145 per 500ml, which made the CZK100 for a grilled sausage with mustard and ketchup feel a bit of a bargain, especially when it also turned up with a pretzel as part of the trimmings. I ate and drank whilst trying to see if I could get any WiFi, then had a second glass of beer whilst waiting for my flight’s status to change to ‘Go To Gate.’ Table service was fairly efficient, but at no point did a bill turn up, so I went to the till to pay.

At the till the drinks came to the expected CZK290, but the food was CZK150. It appears the pretzel was an optional extra, included without asking for it. I whinged a bit to the barman, to no avail, but I was even further wound up when the sign at the till proudly displayed words to the effect of “if we don’t give you a bill, your meal is free.” Free, my arse. Almost £16 for a couple of pints of beer, a sausage and a pretzel. I’ll stick to a bottle of mineral water from the newsagent next time I’m in Prague Airport, or maybe just head to the KFC instead, I’m sure there is less chance of them charging me for things I didn’t order.

Never mind, at least after a last-minute schedule change to fit in an extra meeting or two I was flying home with British Airways. They pride themselves on customer service, right? That’s why they are still a “full-fare” airline.

On the way into Prague I had flown via Munich with Lufthansa. The Munich to Prague sector is only about 150 miles and takes half an hour with a small jet. Even so, Lufthansa managed to perform a full bar service to the entire plane. I was impressed.

BA was a different story. It was 45 minutes before the trolley even reached me, all the way back in the twelfth row of a 26-row Airbus A320. When they reached me they reported that they had not loaded any beer onto the plane in Prague. How is it possible not to load beer onto a plane leaving Prague?!?! I’d have thought the quantities of beer that reach the airport are only matched by the quantities of Jet A-1 (fuel).

Fine, some red wine and a packet of crisps, then. The red wine was possible, the crisps not so much. They’d also run out of those and only had biscuits left. By the time they reached the row behind me, I heard them telling another unfortunate passenger they had run out of something else too. Take note, BA, it isn’t poor industrial relations that are losing you passengers, it is your attitude to customer service that always tends to favour penny-pinching rather than treating your passengers with a modicum of dignity. I have two more trips to make over the next few weeks, one to Zurich and another to Munich. Swiss and Lufthansa it is, then.

I had shied away from British Airways towards Star Alliance lines recently for a few reasons. One is their poor ‘frequent flier’ rewards for anyone other than passengers on fully-flexible (i.e. expensive) tickets, another was the customer service, which has always tended towards “slow and haughty,” and the third was that it means using Terminal 5 at Heathrow.

I know that British Airports Authority will tell you all the problems that beset the birth of terminal 5 have been solved, and that may be true, but for me it almost always means that when I leave or arrive I will not be using a jet-bridge to cross from the airplane to the terminal, but a bus. When we arrived 20 minutes late at Heathrow, this was the inevitable news that greeted us.

I estimate 60-70% of the flights I take to and from T5 use a bus from/to the airplane. This means that instead of being able to walk at my rapid pace along the terminal, I have to head down some rickety stairs, into a bus with all the other passengers crowding around the doors, then a drive to the terminal building from some remote stand. This is time I could be going home, and time off being AT home. It is probably the extra five minutes that mean I just miss a Heathrow Express. It doesn’t end there either. The lottery of immigration queues is the next opportunity to be a winner or a loser.

The first choice is Iris or manual? The Iris queues are always shorter, but they can also be slow moving as people shuffle backwards and forwards in the booth to get the pictures of their eyes just right. If you decide to go for the manual check, then instead of a single, snaking queue which is strictly first-come, first-served, you have to choose which of the queues to join, just as if you were in a supermarket, except that instead of waiting for the checkout, you’re waiting to find out if you’ll have the dubious privilege of being let back into your own country. Of course, as with supermarkets, you’ll always have somebody ahead of you in your queue that should have been in one of the other queues, or for some other reason takes an inordinate amount of time.

How can this be so hard? We’re British! We are world-renowned for queuing. Surely we could come up with something more efficient. It reminds me of the long, slow queues to get through immigration in Cuba, where the officer at the head of the queue I was in decided to go on a break when I was just two people away from the front. Oh, and if I’m not mistaken, doesn’t the non-EU section at T5 use a single, snaking queue instead of the multiple lines?

Yes, this is all just whinging about small items, there are much bigger problems in the world and I don’t want to sound spoilt, but at the end of a long, tiring week, it was disappointing when a bit of customer service would have been oh-so-welcome.

Buzzwords

Buzzword: Cloud

Image: Light, fluffy, ethereal grouping of water vapour.

Reality: Secure building filled with steel, silicon and fibre-optics that consumes megawatts of power.

Villa Tinto

Just a quick plug for anyone looking to visit a small, family-run winery in the Barossa Valley, South Australia.

I can highly recommend Villa Tinto. Wine is obviously a passion for Albert, and I only wish my visit had coincided with one of his, apparently, near-legendary asados. They have two small vineyards, and the whole wine-making process takes place on site. Total turn-out is about 1,200 cases a year.

Of course, it is worth visiting a few of the larger ones too. Peter Lehmann does a really nice cheese platter for lunch with your wine tasting, and the smell as you enter the cellar where Seppeltsfield’s mature their port is wonderful (although they aren’t allowed to call it port as it isn’t made in Portugal, just “tawny”).

Train Ride through the Peak District.

Given I usually write about trips to far-flung places, this is just a quick mention of a train ride yesterday morning from Manchester to Sheffield. Straight through the Peak District and Hope Valley it had some spectacular views of snow-capped mountains and fields, and towards the end through one of the UK’s longest rail tunnels, the Totley Tunnel. As commutes to meetings to, it wasn’t a bad one at all.

War Memorial of Korea

November 1st, 2009.

This entry has taken a long time to publish. This is not because it is some great feat of literature, it is because I am no great blogger, and can rarely be bothered to upload two things that I managed to (mostly) write in consecutive days. On with the tale…

After yesterday’s trip to the DMZ, someone mentioned that the War Museum in Seoul was quite good, so my plan for the day was to arrive in Seoul Station and walk south to spend an hour or so there before walking back up past the station to Insa-dong and Palace district. I hadn’t read up anything on the museum beforehand – the Rough Guide has its location on the overview map of Seoul, but it isn’t mentioned in the index, and I couldn’t find anything in the city’s chapter in the book.

Memorial to the foreign forces killed in the Korean War
Memorial to the foreign forces killed in the Korean War

I arrived at the museum complex from the rear, which turned out to be fortunate, but I’ll explain why later. The first building I came across was the Museum Wedding Hall. Odd, but perhaps there’s some play on unification there. Next, I climbed the steps and was confronted with tablet after tablet of the names of US fallen. 33,642 US soldiers were killed in action in the Korean War, and all of their names are listed, state by state, on bronze plates. Towards one end of the hall are the plates with other nationalities, including 1,042 British, 724 Turkish and 516 Canadians. These are all outnumbered by the stone plaques listing the Korean dead from the war and other conflicts. 170,585 names in small gold letters carved into polished black stone.

War Memorial of Korea
War Memorial of Korea
Entering the museum that forms part of the memorial, the first things I saw were a dusty small plane, helicopter and a couple of mannequins with parachutes suspended from the rafters in a large atrium. Directly below them, on the basement floor, is a children’s play area with bouncy castles, and entertainers dressed up in colourful cartoon costumes from what I assume must be the Korean equivalent of the Teletubbies. Starting to think this was going to be a disappointment, I headed for the first of the three rooms covering the Korean War. It starts off with some astounding documents and gets better.
Japanese Surrender Document from 1945
Japanese Surrender Document from 1945
The Japanese surrender document from 1945 is where the story of the Korean war begins, and the exhibition does a splendid job of explaining how the Soviets took control of Korea north of the 38th parallel (38° north), whilst the US took control south of that line. Quite a bit of the explanatory text is only in Korean, but some is in English, as are the videos, and the displays contain a number of original documents that were written in English. There are also English audio guides. The displays then go on to give an account of the progress of the war, with several scenes reconstructed, and plenty of exhibits. The third room describes the role of the various UN participants. Whilst the US was by far the largest contributor, many other countries also had forces involved in the war. Greece, Ethiopia, Colombia to name but three.
Marking the participation of UN forces.
Marking the participation of UN forces.

'Teardrop' of dog-tags. Memorial to the UN soldiers killed in the Korean War.
'Teardrop' of dog-tags. Memorial to the UN soldiers killed in the Korean War.

Moving on from the Korean War, the museum describes the wars that have made up the history of the Korean peninsula, from the days of the Three Kingdoms, starting in 67 B.C. and continuing to the 7th Century A.D. They all have plenty of accompanying exhibits that would fascinate anyone interested in military history, from swords with constellations carved into the blade, through “cannon arrows” to parts of the “Tripitaka Koreana.” About this point I’d noted down “Excellent museum!” in my notebook.

Sword with the constellations embossed on the blade.
Sword with the constellations embossed on the blade.

The exhibits go on to tell the story of Republic of Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, before finishing off, as I thought, with displays to mark the UN roles that the ROK (Republic of Korea) forces have participated in. I thought that was a fitting end the museum, then I realised I hadn’t finished yet. As I walked around in an increasing state of bewilderment I came across a shooting rage with air rifles (I was a bit dazed, so I politely refused), models of Little Boy and Fat Man (the atomic bombs dropped on Japan), a reconstruction of some of the superstructure of a naval ship, and when I looked out of the window from the cafe on the third floor, I saw a huge array of military hardware outside – landing craft, helicopters, artillery, and a variety of aircraft from propeller-driven trainers through to a B-52 Stratofortress.

B-52 Stratofortress
B-52 Stratofortress

Military Hardware
Military Hardware

At this point I was feeling very disorientated. The museum had moved from being a fitting and sober memorial of the war to a show of military strength, then I remembered the Korean War is not over. There has been a ceasefire in operation since 1953, but the war is still ongoing and each side needs to demonstrate to the other how strong they are, but also perhaps to reassure their citizens that should the ceasefire fail, you will be safe, defended by the might of ROK armed forces.

The names of Korean war-dead.
The names of Korean war-dead.

Past most of the display of military hardware, and back toward the main entrance to the memorial that would have shown me what I was in for had I not decided to enter from the side door, are a number of statues and memorials including the Statue of Brothers, symbolising the division of Korea.

Statue of Brothers
Statue of Brothers

I didn’t get to the palace district until after sunset.

War Memorial of Korea
War Memorial of Korea

The Demilitarised Zone

October 31st, 2009.

Sign at Camp Kim, USO base in Seoul.
Sign at Camp Kim, USO base in Seoul.

My base in Korea was Daejeon, but as the “must-see” tourist trap, I mean trip, leaves from Seoul at 07:00, I’d stayed a night in the capital so I could be at Camp Kim, a US military base and home of USO Korea who arranged the tour that I joined, for the start. When I arrived at 6:45am there were already a dozen people assembled and two coaches waiting, so any thoughts I might have had that this was to be a bit of an adventure in the back of a troop truck were quickly disabused. I checked in at the USO office and boarded one of the buses, both of which filled up. The other clients appeared to be a mix of young travellers, veterans coming back for a visit with their family, and one US soldier on his final three weeks in country before heading home. The group was overwhelmingly American, but that could be explained by my choice of tour organiser.

Beating the morning traffic we were soon out of the city and travelling north along the banks of the River Han. The heavily fortified banks of the river Han. Tall barbed wire fences with manned guardposts every couple of hundred metres to prevent “infiltrators” heading downriver into the land of the free. On the way, the Korean tour guide told us some facts about the country. Of a population of 70 million, 48 million live in the South, and 22 million in the North. The average income in South Korea is US$20,000. In North Korea it is US$1,400. However, when it comes to the military, North Korea spends 30% of its GDP on it, and there are 1,200,000 active service members compared to 800,000 in the South. To travel beyond your own neighbourhood in North Korea you need permission, and houses only get electricity for 4-5 hours during the day. When the sun sets, the country goes dark.

As the Han River gives way to the Imjin River then the country on the other side of the border changes from the Republic of Korea, to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. At the same time, the single high fence topped with barbed wire changes into several layers of fence, all topped with barbed wire and with brightly coloured stones wedged between the links so guards can easily tell if the fence has been disturbed as the stones will fall out. The guard posts change from small towers, to wider, more substantial concrete buildings capable of holding more than just a couple of sentries.

Unification Bridge, although unification is not as close as it once may have been.
Unification Bridge, although unification is not as close as it once may have been.

Soon enough we reached the first checkpoint as we entered the demilitarised zone. This is off limits to most Koreans, with the exception of those that live and work there. After the checkpoint is the Unification Bridge. These days it is sorely misnamed as the bus has to weave its way through fences that are put there to slow down the little traffic that is allowed to use it. For a brief period earlier this decade there was also a Unification Train that ran from South Korea to an industrial city in the North. It used to head up in the morning with raw materials, and ship products south again in the evening. The service hasn’t been running since about this time last year.

Just after the bridge we have a rest stop for some coffee from a vending machine (which wasn’t all that bad), and a chance to buy some essentials. Dried sweet potatoes, Hershey bars, dried fish, scarves with a map of North Korea. The sort of thing you can find at your local corner store. Back on the bus and it is a short hop to Camp Bonifas. Camp Bonifas is named after a US soldier that was killed in what is referred to as the “Axe Murder Incident” of 1976.

In those days, the Joint Security Area, had guardposts for both sides located on either side of the actual border, the MDL (Military Demarcation Line). A large Poplar tree was blocking the view from one of the UN’s posts, so three soldiers were sent to trim it. They were attacked with axes by a number of North Korean soldiers and two of them were killed. One of those was a Captain Bonifas.

As we entered the camp, our bus was boarded by a US soldier, one of the UN force here, who checked our passports, although I’m not sure what he was looking for, except whether or not we were Korean. He introduced himself as Specialist Pollard who was to be our armed escort for the tour. “Armed” in this case means a handgun, as that is all that is allowed within the JSA (Joint Security Area).

Ballinger Hall, Camp Bonifas.
Ballinger Hall, Camp Bonifas.

The next stop was Ballinger Hall for our briefing on the history of the conflict and the formation of the JSA by Staff Sergeant Merill. This is where we were told about the Axe Murder Incident and about the competition between the sides for the tallest flagpost with the largest flag. The current holder is the North, which has a flagpole 150m high holding a flag that is 31m long.

The Axe Murder Incident
The Axe Murder Incident

Gijungdong
Gijungdong

The trip through the demilitarised zone from Camp Bonifas to the JSA takes us past the South Korean village of Daeseongdong. The farmers here have more land than most farmers in the rest of the country, but have to put up with being back in the village by sunset, and in their own homes by midnight. Why would they want to do this? Not only is the sale of their crop guaranteed by the government, but they earn US$80,000 to US$100,000 each. Needless to say that with a farming salary that large, only descendants of people living in the village are allowed to stay there and farm. Most of the farmers also have flats in Seoul where they go for the weekend.

Just before reaching the JSA we passed another handful of small buildings. This is the rapid response force, ready to jump into action should something happen. 24 hours a day, they are prepared and can be at the border within 90 seconds of being called. The record is 45 seconds. I can’t decide whether it would be a job as dull as dishwater, always being ready, but hopefully only rarely being called, or something that would drive you insane, always being tense, prepared, ready to drop whatever you were doing and run to the jeeps that would race up to who-knows-what.

When we reached the JSA, we were shepherded into Friendship Hall. Specialist Pollard told us that this was built by the South to allow families split across the border to meet, before being taken back to their own countries. However, the North never participated, so all it is used for is tour groups and a meeting room. The other side of the hall is the border. Steps lead down from Friendship Hall to a road that crosses in front of it. On the other side of the road are a number of single storey buildings called “Conference Row.” Two grey buildings on the western side are uninhabited, they used to be used by the Czech and Polish armies and monitored the JSA for North Korea. The next three are blue and under the control of the UN. The final building on the right is grey again, with tasteful net curtains in the window. This is the one we were told to keep an eye on, as now and again the North Koreans would pull the curtains to one side and point at us, or make throat-slitting actions. Running between the buildings, half-way along them, is a raised bit of concrete marking the MDL, the division between North and South. South of the line are pebbles, so the sound of footsteps can be heard, North it is sand.

Conference Row in the Joint Security Area.
Conference Row in the Joint Security Area.

It was across this line in 1984 that a Russian visitor to North Korea sprinted down to the sunken gardens south of the MDL, shouting that he wanted to defect, and causing a brief firefight that cost the life of one South Korean guard and three North Koreans. He was allowed to stay, as handing him back would have been a certain death penalty.

On the southern ends of the buildings, two South Korean soldiers stood, facing north, and half-obscured by the buildings to present less of a target. They were apparently there for our safety, and perhaps a bit of show too, but on a border with so much history of violence, I’d rather they were there than not. On the northern side a single soldier stood at the entrance to their equivalent of Friendship Hall, binoculars to his eyes. Several other pairs of eyes were assuredly watching us.

A bit of Sergio Leone music in the background wouldn't go amiss here.
A bit of Sergio Leone music in the background wouldn't go amiss here.

As Specialist Pollard told us some of the history and answered our questions, and whilst we were standing in two rows at the top of the steps leading down to the road, a handful of North Korean soldiers came down from the building on their side of the line and took it in turns to have their photograph taken with the South, and us, in the background. I assumed this was a fairly normal occurrence and the same soldiers do the same thing to each of the tour groups, perhaps mocking them. However, we were told it doesn’t happen all that often, and it could have been some soldiers towards the end of their 10 years of national service. Of course, perhaps they were allowed to do it on the condition they took the photographs when we were there too.

Say "kimchee!"
Say "kimchee!"

We then headed into the central building. Inside there are five polished tables, surrounded by chairs with leather upholstery, the sort of table and chairs you’d expect to find in a building that government ministers meet at. On the central table was a single, modestly sized UN flag. Above the southern door a frame with a collection of UN flags. This is all the national symbolism that is allowed in the room after previous episodes of meetings being held up whilst each side had to bring in a flag that was bigger than the other, and some instances of flags being defaced. At the far end of the room were two South Korean soliders, stock still, but looking like a taut spring, ready to strike. These soldiers are some of the cream of the South Korean army, experts in martial arts. They wear dark glasses to avoid eye contact with the enemy. After a barked order from Specialist Pollard, one of the soldiers moved to the head of the central table, and we had a few minutes to look around the room and cross the border into North Korea. It seems strange that walking from one side of a room to the other can feel so different, and perhaps the only reason it did was the build-up we’d been given, but there was a sense of being somewhere new, in an environment we weren’t fully in control of.

Conference room straddling the border between North and South Korea
Conference room straddling the border between North and South Korea

ROK Guard and the UN flag on the Military Demarcation Line (taken from North Korea)
ROK Guard and the UN flag on the Military Demarcation Line (taken from North Korea)

Next on the trip was supposed to be the Bridge of No Return. At the end of the war, both sides lined up prisoners of war, who were told they could go to either the north or the south, but once they chose, they could not go back. However, it was closed for renovation work.

The road to the next stop, Dora Observatory winds in a zig-zag up a hill. Either side of the road is fenced off with frequent signs warning of landmines. This is the place where we were supposed to have been able to glimpse into North Korea. At least, into the ‘propaganda’ village of Gijungdong, with its wide roads, 150m flagpole, and no inhabitants. Surely, if propaganda is your aim, then you’d build a town of narrow roads and flashing neon, like the centre of most Asian cities?

Some way back from the wall with a row binoculars (insert KRW500) is a yellow line that marks the limit at which you’re allowed to take photographs. Take any beyond that line and there are soldiers running backwards and forwards ensuring you delete them from your camera. Not that there was anything to take a photo of, the rain had started to pour down and fog had closed right in so all we could see was drab and grey. I didn’t know North Korea had such a command over the weather.

North Korea. So secretive they can even control the weather to stop you seeing in.
North Korea. So secretive they can even control the weather to stop you seeing in.

After lunch, the final stop on the tour was the “Third Tunnel,” so called because it was the third tunnel under the border to be discovered. So far four have been found, the first in 1974, another in 1975, the one we were visiting was found in 1978, and a fourth was discovered in 1990. They’re labelled “Infiltration Tunnels” by the South, as the suspicion is that they would have been used to bring an army into to the south. The suspicion is that there are more to be discovered.

Entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel
Entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel

The tunnel is another “no photography” zone. At the top I’d noticed other visitors emerging out of breath and dripping with sweat. The reason was less that the tunnel was stuffy and chlaustrophobic, but more to do with it being accessed through a 250m long passageway that descends 71m. Steep enough on the way down, never mind the return. The tunnels are much taller and wider than the ones I’d previously visited in Cu-Chi, outside Saigon, but I was still grateful for the hard hat, which I dinged on the supporting scaffolding and jagged roof several times.

Construction of the tunnels was an impressive feat, a two metre by two meter swathe cut through solid granite. If there had been seismic detectors deployed in the DMZ, they would certainly have picked up the amount of blasting that must have been necessary. We were told that through each of the tunnels the North would have been able to get 30,000 infiltrators an hour. That’s an impressive figure considering it means more than 8 per second. Even two by two, that is four rows of people passing a point every second.

After walking down the tunnel for about 170m we reached a steel door, with considerable amount of barbed wire in front of it, and a small window. All I saw through the window were more steel doors and more barbed wire.

To round off the trip we were shown a film that described the tunnels, their discovery, and the benfits of the DMZ as a wildlife resort and tourist destination. It played heavily on unification, something which may have felt within grasp when it was made a few years ago, but is temporarily further away. The train it was proud of, which I mentioned earlier, no longer runs.

Thank You for Visting the Demilitarised Zone.
Thank You for Visting the Demilitarised Zone.

On the bus back we were shown another film, “Korean War in Color” (their spelling). It spent about 75 minutes on the first two years, and the other 15 on the final two years, which might sound an odd balance, but seems to reflect on the progress of the war.