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The Capital

Washington, USA
Sunday, October 6, 2013

Day 1 - A day of 2 halves

Everyone knows the saying 'if you fail to plan, you plan to fail' so with this in mind we did our research and created a three day itinerary to take in the iconic sights of DC including the White House, the beautiful memorials and some of the famous Smithsonian museums.... well that was our itinerary until 00:00:00 1/10/2013 when our plans were thrown in total disarray as the infamous Government Shut Down started.

Washington is museum central and has a whole host of museums to choose from with many of them boasting free entry as they are part of the Smithsonian Group that lines the iconic National Mall. Although we were selective about which museums we wanted to visit we did have a couple of the Smithsonian Museums on our list. Like many other Government funded attractions they were closed until the Government can sort out the sticky mess they have got themselves into.

So not to fall at the first hurdle we decided to visit DC's iconic buildings and the many beautiful memorials. We started off at the White House and surrounding Government buildings so that we could get the obligatory photographs along with lots of other like-minded tourists. The White House was a lot smaller than it looks on TV but it was still impressive to see.

After this we walked past the iconic Washington Monument on our way to the World War Two Memorial. Now like everything else so far in DC even the iconic Washington Monument let us down. Back in 2011 there was an earthquake 85 miles from Washington that rocked the Capital and in doing so structurally damaged the monument. It has to be said the temporary scaffolding had been carefully constructed around the monument to follow its sleek shape but the metal curtain spoilt its looks and the view from every angle.

Next stop on our list was the World War II memorial and as soon as we arrived we could see lots of other tourists milling around and looking pretty cross because they weren't allowed in. The only people that were permitted to enter were the large group of Veterans that had come on a pre-arranged tour. We could see that this had caused a bit of a stir and we turned up just as a news reporter was filming a live piece where we managed to get into the background shot, our few seconds of fame. It seemed absolutely crazy to us that the Government is willing to pay someone to stand there and keep everyone out rather than keep what is normally an unmanned area open. Surely it would have been more sensible to just keep these memorials open so that there is at least something to see and do for the hundreds of tourists visiting the city.

So after a disappointing start we decided to walk past the reflecting pool so that we could take a shot looking back at the Washington Memorial from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which is one of the most photographed areas of Washington.

After taking some photos of the Lincoln Memorial we made our way over to the Korean War Memorial and pretty much all we could see were the cast iron soldiers marching through a field whilst carrying their heavy bags. We would have spent some time reading the information but we couldn't get anywhere near it because.... you guessed it was closed. We knew that this was going to be the case everywhere we went but we don't give up that easily so we rolled up our sleeves (figuratively speaking because it was way too hot to be wearing long sleeve tops) and we walked off in the direction of the Martin Luther King monument. As we approached we saw lots of people inside the barriers taking photos and just when we thought that our luck was in, we noticed the police officer firmly escorting the group of people out and then closing the barriers.

This just made us more determined to somehow get our own photos so after consulting the map we decided to be sneaky and followed the path to the Roosevelt Memorial which was a short walk away. The saying that the 'rules are there to be broken' really applied to our next course of action and when no one was looking we quickly moved the barriers, snuck inside and made our way to the lakefront and walked back to the Martin Luther King Monument.

After snapping some shots we made our way back to the Roosevelt Monument and decided whilst we were on the 'wrong' side of the barriers we might as well have a look around and just as we had started to take our photographs, we noticed a police officer slowly heading towards us. Although we were removed from the monument he was very polite and it was obvious to see that he thought it was a stupid situation too, but hey he was only doing his job :-)

After seeing a few more sights and stopping for lunch we started to make our way over to The National Mall. The National Mall is one of Washington's iconic areas and is the central strip starting at Capitol Hill and running right through to the Lincoln Memorial. The Washington Monument is in the middle and there are oodles upon oodles of (closed) museums lining both sides. Now this is where stupid becomes absolutely ridiculous, we were allowed to walk on the well maintained gravel tracks but we were not allowed onto the grass in the middle of the mall as it is designated a national park! Every grassed area had a single barrier to stop people entering with nothing to stop people walking around the barriers. Isn't this supposed to be the country of freedom?

It seemed that we had just spent the morning coming across closed sign after closed sign and just as we were starting to get a bit fed up with it all, our afternoon suddenly became very lively indeed. Ross had just taken a photo of the National Gallery of Art when we heard what sounded like gun shots. Sonya regularly hears things that sound like gun shots and often asks Ross 'was that a gun' but always until today he has replied 'no it was probably a car back firing' but today was different and he actually agreed.

No one seemed to bat an eyelid so we started to wonder if we did actually hear gun shots and we continued to walk towards Capitol Hill. Suddenly we heard literally hundreds of sirens that were coming from all directions. By this point we had made it to the main road in front of Capitol Hill so we continued and made our way to the reflecting pool to take some photos of Capitol Hill. Ross had just managed to take one photo when we noticed people running across the lawns away from where the direction we heard the gun shots. Still undeterred we continued to enjoy the view until 4 special ops police came running down the steps on the opposite side of the reflecting pool brandishing their guns. At which point Ross turned to Sonya and was about to say 'err.... let's get the hell out of here' when we turned around and a police officer behind us started shouting for everyone to leave the area!

Within a couple of minutes news crews were everywhere and more and more police turned up, it was like something out of a war zone. When a helicopter landed on the stretch of grass that we had just been standing on, merrily taking our photos of Capitol Hill we were getting a little bit concerned about what was going on and wondered if we should try and get back to the hotel or stay where we were.

Without any internet on the phone and nobody around us managing to find out what was going on either, we called the UK support office knowing that with the media everywhere the BBC would probably know something. The UK support office swung into action and the trusty BBC gave us the initial facts before those around us could find out anything through the US media! The initial reports said that a police man had been shot so at this point the whole area was on lock down and we had to stay where we were. A few minutes later an ambulance turned up and an injured police officer was taken out of the ambulance and into the waiting helicopter so that he could be air lifted straight to hospital. We had a front row seat to all the action standing right next to the TV crews covering the action.

We stayed around for about 45 minutes but when we thought it was safe to leave we made our way back to the safety of our hotel. When we got back to the hotel Ross contacted the BBC website and a few minutes later his phone started ringing! He joked that it could be the BBC, expecting it to be the UK support office but when he answered and realised it was in fact the BBC his face was a picture. He was interviewed and was asked to send over any photos he had and was told one of her co-workers would call back if they wanted to do a live interview. Ross didn't think anything would come of it but a bit later on his phone rang again and he was asked to do a live interview on Radio 5 Live! After going through all the details again he was told to expect a call within the next 15 minutes but unfortunately some political show ran over so when he got the call it was to stand him down instead of do the interview. Ross' 5 minutes of fame was taken away from him at the last moment.

Although Ross' interview didn't make live radio one of our pictures of the protestors outside Capitol Hill did make the cut for The News In Pictures, how cool is that!

Let's Go Caps!

After an eventful day we went to see some good old proper NHL Ice Hockey. We were lucky enough to grab some tickets to see the Washington Capitals play against the Calgary Flames. As with most sports in the US a lot of the big teams have virtually sold out their stadiums to season ticket holders and although there is the odd ticket available to buy they are either expensive left overs or not the best of seats. So we decided to purchase a couple of tickets from Ticketmaster's official resale where we grabbed a couple of season tickets holder's seats who couldn't make the game and they were half the price of a match day ticket! Unlike the UK there aren't any away fans as the distances are just too great to travel so the whole of the stadium was full of home fans. This leads to a great atmosphere when the home team is winning but a dull one when it is losing!

The match was the first home game of the season and boy was it a cracker, probably one of the best matches we have ever seen. Washington went 3-0 down before clawing it back to a 4-4 draw; nothing was scored in sudden death overtime so the game ended on penalties where the Caps dominated.

A great evening of hockey which made us excited to see the Mighty Panthers in action soon at the small but wonderful National Ice Centre.

Day 2 - Bureau of Engraving and Printing

We have just two weeks until we arrive back in the UK. Reality of daily life is scarily close once again. It's been a great journey and we intend to make the most of our last 2 weeks on the rails. It's just a shame everything in America is grinding to a halt.

We started off the day with a trip to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, one of the few places still open in DC. The Bureau is usually a very busy tourist attraction which operates on a first come first serve basis but when we arrived it was eerily quiet and we just walked up and joined the first tour.

The rather elaborate name for the Bureau is the place where dollar bills are printed and it's a bit like a mint for paper money. There are only two Bureau's in the country and between them they produce a staggering $1.5 Billion, yes Billion $'s a day! The dollar bills are printed with 32 bills on each sheet and they literally fly off the printers making it hard to actually comprehend the value of the money passing in front of our eyes and how much was being printed every second.

As expected rare notes such as the discontinued $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills are extremely collectable and are worth much more than the face value. Our guide mentioned that recently a $5,000 dollar note sold online for $70,000! But interestingly there is a bill that is in circulation that anybody could have in their wallet that is worth something to a collector. As the printing process is so accurate very few bills are ever rejected, however very occasionally an odd bill gets past the automatic scanners and gets right to the end of the process where each and every batch is manually checked. If at this point a fault is found the entire wad of notes is destroyed and replaced by a pre-made wad. The pre-made wads have a star next to the barcode on the notes and only make up less than 0.03% of notes in circulation. Apparently one in a good condition is collectable so get checking those bills.

After being mesmerised by the machines working away and smiling at the employee signs that were dotted around the walls such as 'think about how I feel, I print my life's wages in just a few minutes' we were directed to the gift shop.

Virtually every tourist attraction we have visited has some sort of gift shop but a gift shop at a place that prints money is slightly bizarre and so were the items that were for sale which included uncut pages of 32 dollar bills, rare bills and shredded money! Of course all at inflated prices to the actual face value.

We also measured ourselves against the gauge on the wall where you could find out what your height would be worth in $100 bills and Sonya was feeling a bit peeved because the taller you were obviously the more you would be worth. Ross was worth a massive $1,700,900 and Sonya was only worth a measly $1,491,200. After purchasing a neat little wallet to appease Sonya we decided to see if we could find anything else that might be open in DC but sadly we couldn't find a thing so we set off in search of the Hard Rock Café to enjoy a nice cold beer before finding the local Hooters bar so that Ross could enjoy the sights.

Day 3 - International Spy Museum

We spent the afternoon at the International Spy Museum which is a fantastic museum that looks into the world of the secret agent. The exhibits trace the complete history of espionage right from the Greek and Roman empires through to present day espionage. We particularly liked the great exhibits on the world of bugging, identity changing and finding out about the great lengths the USA and Russia have gone to in the past to spy on each other. Especially when both countries wanted to build new embassies in each other's countries and how they tried to bug the buildings during their construction. Both countries caught onto each other's activities and the buildings took around 17 years to complete due to the time taken to check for bugs.

We had a great afternoon at the museum and it was a great way to spend a few hours. It was on our 'to do' list regardless of the shutdown but it was extremely busy as most other people had the same idea as us.

The Land of Freedom

The novelty factor of the Shut Down has well and truly worn off, after all this is supposed to be the land of the free. Earlier in our adventure we travelled through many countries in the East that are supposedly 'closed' countries without any problems and now we are supposedly in the world's greatest nation and we can't do anything.

Congress, it's a good thing that you have decided to back pay your workers who were sent home through no fault of their own. But why aren't they going back to work? Are you really going to pay people to stay at home when they could be working and helping the economy? You need to sort this out and soon, it is a pure embarrassment to your country.

Political rant over.

Ta Ta for now.

Team Chip

Hostel Review

We stayed at Capital View Hostel in a double private with shared facilities. Let's start with the plus points, the location is fantastic only a 15 minute walk from the Amtrak station and within a 20 minute walk of the White House. All sights are walkable and there is a large Safeway just a couple of blocks away, we didn't take any public transport the entire time we were in Washington. For a centrally located hostel the price was fair. Now for the bad points, there are many. The reception staff were useless and when we questioned the bill they didn't even know what the tax rate was. If you decide to stay at Capital View prepare for the 10 commandments, no shoes, no eating in the rooms, no drinking in the rooms the list goes on and on. There are 2 daily room inspections and if you break any of the commandments you will be fined $10 or a whopping $50 if you open the door for somebody else. If you break the no food in your room commandment you will be put on the 'wall of shame' Yes although it is sad, but true there is a 'wall of shame' in the kitchen. Although the rules are there for a reason they were forced down our throat 24/7 and even though we booked a private room we were continually interrupted by pathetic room inspections. In all of the hostels we have stayed in throughout the world we have never had so many rules and regs. If you want to be treated like a teenager this is the place to stay. If it wasn't for the great location this would have easily been one of the worst hostels we have stayed in.


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