Arrival in the the UK
Crikey o'reiley! How on Earth can anyone afford to live in London?! 2 hours there has nearly bankrupt me! You know how much a single ticket on the underground costs? Let's do a comparison:
Beijing: about 21 pence
Moscow: 34 pence
Tokyo: 70 pence
London: FOUR POUNDS!!!
And they're trying to reduce congestion??? I think that is an absolute outrage, and as a mark of protest I shall not return to London unless absolutely vital. So naaaa. That'll hurt 'em!
And it's not just the tube. You know what the minimum charge from a public call box is now? 40p!!! That's DOUBLE what it was when I left last year!
OK, deep breath.
I don't really mind at all as I rarely use public phones and seldom visit London.
Talk about baptism of fire. London had some nice surprises in store for me, aside from ticket prices. Well, British Rail to be precise. It all started when I went to the ticket office at Waterloo station to renew my Young Person's Railcard. I'd bought my ticket from London to Hereford online in Tokyo, selecting the Young Person's Railcard option, thinking that when I got to London I could simply renew my old railcard. At that point, I had about an hour until my train departed.
Things seemed to be going ok, until the chap behind the counter noticed my date of birth.
"Ah, you're over twenty five".
"Yes, that's right. I'm a mature student".
"Ah, mature student. I'm afraid if you're a mature student you can't renew your railcard without additional ID."
"That's OK, I've got my student card here."
"I'm afraid I can't accept that. You either need your university's stamp on the form, or an International Student ID card. Without it, you can't renew your card, and without a railcard, you can't use your ticket. You'll need to buy a new one. It'll be £50."
After an initial reaction that I vocalised with a high pitched and fairly loud "WHAT?!!", I stopped, and took a deep breath. What had I been listening to this morning? Wasn't it a lesson in how to deal with frustrating situations?
Breathe Joseph, Breathe.
I smiled at the chap, and said, "OK, ok, so basically, if I can somehow get an ISIC card in the next 30 minutes, I'll be able to renew my railcard, and catch that train from Paddington with my existing ticket?"
"Well, theoretically. But I doubt you'll be able to do that. I have no idea where you could get one of them. Not round here."
I picked up my rucksacks (which suddenly seemed to have put rather a lot of weight on) and left the ticket office, wondering what on Earth I could do. Think, think. ISIC card. There's only one place I know you can get them, and that's STA travel, the student travel company. But where am I going to find one of them?
It was time to give British Telecom a pint of my blood (otherwise known as £1.00, or 100 pence, or 5 trips on the Shanghai subway), for the privilege of connecting to the internet for up to 15 minutes. That's even more expensive than that rip-off joint in Moscow! OK Joseph, calm down. We're not in Moscow now. This is London. I browse to STA's website and check out their store locater. Nearest one is... er, I haven't a clue. There's lots of places in London listed, but I haven't a clue where any of them are. Except one - Victoria, I've been to Victoria station, that's probably easiest.
Amputating my leg and giving it to London Underground PLC, I board a tube train. 10 minutes later I'm there, and looking to see where the sun is - according to STA's map the branch was to the south of the station. Rounding the corner of the next to the park I spy their office, career across the road in front of several taxis and a London Bus, slam through the front door and, gasping for breathe explain my plight to the man behind the counter. He'd been looking incredibly bored, but on hearing of my mission jumped up from his seat and said, "Ok, well usually you have to make an appointment, but this sounds like an emergency - we can't have you missing the last train of what sounds like an epic adventure!" With that he takes my details and sends me off to a photo booth in the nearby station; I return minutes later with a lovely selection of shots of one sweat-drenched boy looking somewhat uptight.
He is my hero, and within 5 minutes I'm seen running from the shop, ISIC card in hand. The clock is ticking away - I have 25 minutes until my train departs. In that time I have to donate my left arm to London Underground to get to Paddington, then beg with anyone in the queue at the ticket office to let me be a Russian and push in at the front. I rehearse my speech in my head, and picture myself on my knees in front of some suited businessman, pleading with him to let me go first.
As it happens, when I get to the office I see the First Class counter is free, the chap behind the glass looking half-asleep. I soon wake him up with my story, "PLEASE could you renew my railcard! You'd really save my bacon. Grudgingly he accepts my application form. When he tells me "Sorry, can't do it, you need your university stamp" I try not to look victorious and push my shiney new ISIC card through the slot. He's not impressed by my preparedness, and ignores me as I tell him what fun I've had to reach this point. A couple of minutes later he's done though - I have a new Young Person's Railcard, and a train waiting for me on Platform 4.
I shed a few more tears when walking the South Bank (prior to all the excitement). Tears of gratitude, tears of achievement. I'd actually done it! I'd made it all the way from Tokyo to London by train (and ferry, and car, and bus). A pretty amazing achievement really, even if I do say so myself. The longest journey I'd ever taken. It forms half of one of my long held life-long ambitions - to circumnavigate the globe without the use of planes.
It's funny being back in the UK. Or, more precisely, it's funny being back amongst British people. They're so proper! Personal space seems to be highly valued - when making my mad dash from Waterloo to Paddington via Victoria on the bankruptcy metro, I accidentally bumped into a couple of people. I apologised, but clearly this wasn't enough, they weren't at all happy.
Reintergrating is going to be interesting.
OK, enough for now. Time I looked out of the window.