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Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Europe Trip: London Calling

I was reminded by Facebook that it's been a year since I last visited London. It was a nice experience, though the preparation was quite a nightmare, especially for Indonesian passport holders who chose the free and easy option (funny that they come up with such term because nothing is free and easy here). Coming from that angle, I think it'll be an interesting topic for me to write.

First of all, let's get the right idea that London is very far from Asia. It's very important to acknowledge that, because 14 hours flight is definitely not a joke for those who dislike flying, me included. How I did it was, I intentionally chose the flights that stopped in Dubai. The flight duration was ideal, so I got a chance to walk on a solid ground after seven hours of flying, then boarded the plane and endured another seven hours in the air (as a comparison, seven hours is roughly the time needed for one to fly from Singapore to Tokyo). Emirates was a great choice. If I only got one word to describe it, then this is it: impressive.

Now, back to the Indonesian passport, we need tourist visas to enter almost all foreign countries and UK is not an exception. The UK visa application form was the most complicated and tedious one. It was so challenging with a lot of details to be filled up that, if not for the thought that I'd be visiting the world famous zebra crossing, I would have abandoned the whole plan. Once the forms were done, I did the online payment (this doesn't guarantee that you'll get the approval) and the next thing I knew, I was at the visa application center with a stack of documents comprised of payslips, marriage certificate, employment letter and many more. Once verified, the documents were collected together with our passports. Then we went to a room to get our photos taken.

As we walked away from Harrods...

After all the steps above are done, we're pretty much at the mercy of the immigration officers. To this day, I'm still not sure if this is some sort of dry British humour or not, but the confirmation email that was sent to me few days later didn't confirm anything at all! In my case, I just had to wait until I received my passport and opened it to figure out whether I obtained the visa or not. When I did that, I saw a visa that was issued by the British embassy in Manilla.

Unlike the single entry visa to China, UK visa is good for multiple entries and valid for six months, so this gives you the flexibility to plan your trip, ie. go to London, then explore Europe and travel back to UK again. Once visa was confirmed, I browsed and for flights and accommodation. Both websites are good and never give me any problem so far, so I'd say they are recommended.

My first impression of London was Heathrow airport. It had a long queue, cold and nowhere near to Singapore's efficiency, but the immigration officer did smile and was quite friendly. This being UK, he spoke with the eloquent British accent. It was good to hear that.

The gloomy London weather greeted us when we left Heathrow by the Tube. We changed to another train at South Kensington and, as we headed to Bayswater, the sun rose slowly. I couldn't help thinking about Here Comes the Sun and this, together with the pleasant encounter with old folks that talked to us, were just brilliant. Once we reached to our destination, the view there was quite similar with the scenes from Notting Hill. I fell in love with London immediately.

A different angle of Abbey Road...

Bayswater is a bustling place with convenience stores, post office, hotels, telco shops and a lot of good food. Now this may sound ridiculous, but of all the food worth trying there, the most famous one happens to be the Peking roast duck! Yes, a Chinese food, and we ordered ours at Gold Mine. We actually had to queue for it and, by sheer of luck, we had the last portion available for that night. A good place, Bayswater is. Right at the corner of the street, there's also another station called Queensway, so the area is very strategic.

Harrods is also only a few stations away, so we went there on our first evening in London. It looks like an old-fashioned Takashimaya, I think, and the price tags are not exactly friendly, haha. From there, we went to Hard Rock Cafe. It might be spring, but it was still very cold and my Uniqlo hoodie didn't offer much protection against the weather, so I picked up my first leather jacket ever in London. It did wonders and I wore it throughout the holiday.

By the way, the train system there is known as the London Underground, nicknamed the Tube. If you are used to Singapore's MRT, well... this one is nothing like it. The Tube, together with some of the stations, look rather ancient. It also has no fence between the platform and the railway, so if you ever fall down, God bless you, then. You may also want to watch out for the strikes, because there won't be any train operating for that particular line if that happens. I was lucky that I checked it out the night before our departure to Gatwick Airport. Oh, while in London, it makes sense to buy the Oyster card, too. It can be used not only for the trains, but also for the buses and ferry rides.

The musicals: Phantom of the Opera and LeMisérable.

If you look at the Tube map, you'll notice that it has some sort of numbering. Most of the tourist spots are inside zone 1, but Abbey Road (nearest train station is St. John's Wood) is within zone 2, so I guess we paid a higher fee to get there. It was worth the money, of course. I remember getting nervous as we approached the legendary studio where the Beatles recorded their music. It was like every step was bringing my dream nearer to reality. Finally, 47 years after the Beatles took the iconic picture at the zebra crossing in 1969 and inspired many fans around the world, I had my turn. It was a mixed feeling, really. As I crossed, I recall the day I was in my room, looking at the album cover 20 years ago. Little did I know then I would make it here one day.

From Abbey Road, we took a bus to Oxford Circus and had a stroll to Tottenham Court Road just to have a glimpse of Primark, the big store with cheap apparels, then we rushed to Buckingham Palace to see the guards changing shift. Months later my wife had our picture in front of the palace framed and hung proudly on our dining room, but as I had my dinner, I was wondering why it had a caption saying Birmingham Palace. It was funny, alright, but my wife would have none of it. The photo was eventually relegated to one corner, haha.

Anyway, I won't bore you with the story of the historical sites any further. You go yourself one day and decide if you like them or not. One last thing that I'd like to share is this wonderful place called West End at Piccadilly Circus. It has many theatres nearby and we went there to watch Phantom of the Opera, right where it belongs. I thought it was great, but we went again at the end of our trip, this time for Les Misérables. I was astounded. That was the best musical ever, even better than Phantom, and I was totally in awe. Songs such as Look Down, I Dreamed a Dream and Do You Hear the People Sing? are awesome!

In the event that you don't really get what  was saying or just in case you are from a small town in Asia just like me, I can understand that musicals may sound alien. It's not like something that we ever did before as it wasn't exactly part of our culture. However if you are into performing arts, I'd suggest you to go try it out. The atmosphere, the fact that this people are singing and acting live on stage with a little to no room for mistakes, it's definitely worth every penny.

Apart from London, we actually had an excursion to nearby places as well such as Stonehenge and Bath, but my wife had written about it, so I'm not going to invalidate her writing with mine, haha. If you are interested, you can click here. Next stop: Paris!

PS: What's my favourite food in London? Pret a Manger!

Good morning, London!

Perjalanan Ke Eropa: London

Saya diingatkan kembali oleh Facebook tentang perjalanan saya ke London setahun yang lalu. Liburan tersebut adalah sebuah pengalaman yang menyenangkan, meski persiapannya bagaikan mimpi buruk, terutama bagi pemegang paspor Indonesia yang berniat mengurus tiket, visa dan akomodasi sendiri. Mari kita lihat seperti apa prosesnya. 

Pertama-tama, perlu dipahami bahwa London sangat jauh dari Asia. Anda harus mengerti bahwa 14 jam di pesawat itu bukan perkara enteng, terutama bagi yang tidak menyukai perjalanan udara seperti saya. Untuk mengatasi hal ini, saya memilih penerbangan yang transit di Dubai. Dengan demikian durasinya menjadi tujuh jam kali dua dan saya bisa berjalan kaki sejenak di bandara Dubai (sebagai perbandingan, tujuh jam itu jarak tempuh dari Singapura ke Tokyo). Emirates adalah pilihan yang bagus. Benar-benar mengesankan. 

Bagi pemegang paspor Indonesia, kita memerlukan visa Inggris. Aplikasi visa ini luar biasa kompleks. Banyak detil yang mesti diisi dan dokumen yang musti disediakan. Jika bukan karena ingin melihat tempat penyeberangan pejalan kaki yang paling terkenal di dunia, saya sudah ingin membatalkan kunjungan ke sana. Begitu formulir selesai diisi, saya harus melakukan pembayaran lewat internet (dan ini tidak menjamin bahwa permohonan visa saya pasti diterima). Setelah itu saya harus membawa setumpuk dokumen, mulai dari slip gaji, sertifikat pernikahan, surat keterangan kerja, dan masih banyak lagi. Setelah diverifikasi, dokumen-dokumen ini dikumpulkan bersama paspor. Kemudian kita masuk ke sebuah ruangan untuk difoto.

Di Piccadilly Circus. 

Setelah menjalani prosedur di atas, kita hanya bisa menanti keputusan dari kantor imigrasi. Sampai hari ini, saya tidak sepenuhnya paham apakah ini adalah gaya humor Inggris atau apa, tapi email konfirmasi yang saya terima sama sekali tidak memberikan konfirmasi apakah aplikasi saya sukses atau ditolak! Pada akhirnya saya hanya bisa pasrah dan menunggu sampai paspor saya dikembalikan. Setelah saya buka paspor saya, saya melihat visa Inggris yang dikeluarkan kedutaan Inggris di Manila

Tidak seperti visa Cina yang biasanya hanya berlaku untuk sekali pakai, visa Inggris bisa dipakai berkali-kali dalam masa enam bulan. Ini memberikan kesempatan bagi kita dalam merencanakan liburan, misalnya pergi ke London, lalu lanjut ke Eropa dan kembali lagi ke Inggris. Begitu saya mendapatkan visa, saya lekas membuka dan untuk pesawat dan hotel. Dua situs ini bagus dan sampai sejauh ini tidak memberikan saya masalah, jadi saya suka menggunakannya. 

Kesan pertama saya tentang London adalah bandara Heathrow. Antriannya panjang, ruangannya dingin dan tidak seefisien Changi di Singapura, tapi petugas imigrasinya tersenyum dan sangat bersahabat serta berbicara dalam akses Inggris yang enak didengar. 

Cuaca London yang murung langsung terasa begitu kita keluar dari bandara. Dengan menggunakan Tube, sebutan kereta bawah tanah di sana, kita bertolak ke South Kensington dan berganti kereta ke Bayswater. Matahari terbit dengan perlahan selagi kita menempuh perjalanan, mengingatkan saya pada lagu Here Comes the Sun. Cuaca yang membaik dan ditambah lagi percakapan ringan bersama orang London di kereta sungguh saya nikmati. Ketika kita hampir sampai di tujuan, terlihat pula pemandangan yang mirip dengan film Notting Hill. Saya segera jatuh cinta dengan London.

Bebek panggang Beijing di Bayswater. 

Bayswater adalah tempat yang sibuk. Ada toko 24 jam, kantor pos, hotel, kedai telkom dan tempat makan di sana. Yang lebih unik dan lucu lagi, dari sekian banyak makanan di sana, yang terkenal justru bebek panggang Beijing! Ya, makanan Cina, dan kita sempat mencobanya di restoran Gold Mine. Khusus untuk bebek panggang, kita harus antri dan kebetulan kita mendapat porsi terakhir untuk malam itu. Saya suka kawasan Bayswater. Di ujung jalan, masih ada lagi stasiun lain yang bernama Queensway, jadi ini memang daerah strategis. 

Harrods terletak tidak jauh dari Bayswater, jadi kita ke sana di malam pertama kita di London. Ternyata Harrods mirip seperti Takashimaya, namun kelihatan lebih tua gedungnya. Harga barangnya pun kurang bersahabat, haha. Dari sana kita beranjak ke Hard Rock Cafe. Meski sudah memasuki musim semi, cuaca masih terasa sangat dingin di London dan jaket Uniqlo saya gagal menunaikan tugasnya, jadi saya membeli jaket kulit pertama saya di Hard Rock Cafe. Ini sungguh investasi yang bermanfaat dan saya memakainya sepanjang liburan.

Oh ya, sistem transportasi kereta di sana bernama London Underground, namun lebih dikenal sebagai Tube. Jika anda sudah terbiasa dengan MRT di Singapura, maka... yang satu ini tidak terlalu mirip. Tube dan beberapa stasiunnya terlihat kuno. Tidak ada pembatas antara tempat menunggu dan rel kereta, jadi senantiasa ada resiko terjatuh. Anda juga harus memperhatikan kemungkinan terjadinya mogok kerja, karena tidak akan ada kereta pada jalur tersebut. Saya beruntung karena sempat mengecek kereta di malam sebelum kita berangkat ke bandara Gatwick. Saat berada di London, lebih masuk akal jika anda membeli kartu Oyster. Kartu ini bisa digunakan untuk kereta, bis dan juga feri.

Di London Underground. 

Jika anda melihat peta jalur kereta, anda akan melihat zona yang ditandai dengan nomor. Kawasan turis kebanyakan berada di zona 1, tapi Abbey Road (dan stasiun yang terdekat adalah St. John's Wood) berada di zona 2, jadi ongkosnya pun lebih mahal. 

Dari Abbey Road, kita naik bis ke Oxford Circus dan berjalan santai ke arah Tottenham Court Road untuk melihat-lihat sejenak di Primark, pusat perbelanjaan yang menawarkan tas dan pakaian murah. Dari sana, kita bergegas ke Buckingham Palace untuk melihat pergantian penjaga istana. Beberapa bulan kemudian, istri saya membawa pulang bingkai foto kita yang berpose di depan istana. Ada tulisan Birmingham Palace di bawah, sehingga saya pun heran dan bertanya. Ternyata salah tulis! Saya rasa lucu juga, tapi tidak demikian halnya menurut istri saya. Bingkai foto tersebut pun akhirnya disimpan di pojokan.

Di depan Buckingham Palace. 

Saya tidak akan bercerita panjang lebar dan membuat anda bosan dengan bangunan bersejarah di London. Jika anda ke sana, anda putuskan sendiri apakah anda menyukainya atau tidak. Yang mau saya ceritakan lebih lanjut adalah West End, tempat istimewa yang terletak di Piccadilly Circus. West End memiliki banyak gedung teater dan kita ke sana untuk menonton Phantom of the Opera. Di penghujung liburan, kita kembali lagi ke sana, kali ini kita beli langsung tiket di loket dan menyaksikan Les Misérables. Saya benar-benar terpana. Les Mis adalah musikal terbaik yang pernah saya tonton, bahkan lebih bagus dari Phantom. Lagu-lagu seperti Look Down, I Dreamed a Dream and Do You Hear the People Sing? sangat menggugah!

Selain London, kita juga sempat mampir ke Stonehenge dan Bath, tapi istri saya sudah menulis ceritanya. Jika anda berminat, bisa baca di sini dalam versi bahasa Inggris. Tempat tujuan berikutnya: Paris!

PS: Makanan favorit saya selama di London? Pret a Manger!

Makan salad di Pret.

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