Monuments and Memorials: a tour of the US Capital

While Washington, DC does have a number of great museums, the city’s major attractions are still, without a doubt, the monuments and memorials. They’re all conveniently located in the same general vicinity, so on a bright and sunny Saturday morning Robert and I headed off to do a tour of the monuments. Funnily enough, our first stop was not technically a monument, although it was arguably just as, or even more, iconic than the host of monuments stretched out on the neighbouring greens – the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Front view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Rear view of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

Statue of Comte de Rochambeau of France, one of the sculptures in Lafayette Square, the park that lies directly north of the White House.

We joined the scores of people who were crowding around the gates, trying to get the best possible pictures they could. Of course, the White House does offer guided tours, but you need to book them well in advance due to the limited places, and unfortunately my ‘planning-lite’ style of travelling hadn’t allowed for that. Security around the whole property was high, as to be expected. As well as the tall wrought-iron fences there were security personnel guarding every single exit and entrance to the premises. The tourist pictures look decent enough when you can squeeze your camera through the bars in the fence to get an unobstructed view, but sadly there’s no way there’s no other way to get a photo with the White House without looking like the cheap tourist on the outside who didn’t want to pay for the official tour. I like to think that’s part of my charm, though.

The White House - on the outside looking in.

The White House – on the outside looking in.

After the White House we wandered down through the green and onto the World War II Memorial, a tribute to all the American soldiers who fought in the war. The design of the memorial is actually quite well thought out to represent a number of finer details, and Robert explained it all to me as we walked around the site. There are two arches on either side of the memorial – they represent the two victories in the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flanking the two arches are 56 granite pillars, which represent the US states and territories and the District of Columbia. The water feature in the centre is known as the Rainbow Pool, but the main wall of the memorial is what I found the most chilling. The Freedom Wall commemorates the lives of every solider who was killed during the war, and those who have since remained missing.

The fountain creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The fountains in the Rainbow Pool creates a serene and peaceful mood in the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The arches and the pillars of the memorial.

The Price of Freedom.

The Price of Freedom.

Every single gold star on The Freedom Wall represents 100 men, and there are over 4000 stars on the wall. The figure in itself is a sad reminder of the reality of war, but to gaze upon The Freedom Wall and have that visual representation before your eyes was absolutely heartbreaking. To think that each star was a hundred men, and to see how long the wall stretched on for… I couldn’t even capture the whole thing in a single photograph. It is definitely a chilling reminder of just how high the so called price of freedom really is.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing on The Wall of Freedom.

The never ending sea of stars that represent the dead and missing from WWII on The Wall of Freedom.

The WWII memorial it situated in the middle of perhaps two of the most iconic features of this area of DC – the long stretch of water known at the Reflecting Pool and the huge obelisk that is the Washington Monument. At this distance from the Washington Monument you could see that it was actually surrounded by scaffolding – Robert told me that they were just doing routine repairs and maintenance to the monument. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised – from The Hermitage to the Vatican to the Roman Forum and even my view of the Brandenburg Gate, so many famous sights that I had set out to see on my journey had been obstructed in the name of reconstruction. The usually gleaming white pillar appeared a sinister shade of dark grey, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it, so I just smiled for the camera and told myself that a picture of the monument looking like that is probably rarer than it’s original state anyway.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Washington Monument as seen from the Rainbow Pool in the WWII Memorial.

Instead of heading straight down the Reflecting Pool to the memorial at the other end, Robert took us on a detour through the Constitution Gardens, an area that was originally submerged in the Potomac River and was dredged up at the beginning of the 20th Century. We walked along the edge of the Constitution Gardens Pond until we came to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The memorial wall is beautifully designed, with the two long stone walls sinking into the earth, gradually getting taller as they go deeper. Along the wall are the names of all the soldiers who were killed or missing during the war, and the reflective properties of the stone means that viewers can clearly see themselves among the names, an intended design feature that aims to symbolically combine the past and the present. There are small marks next to some of the names that indicate whether a person a was missing or how and when they died, and the wall is actually updated whenever new information is received about any of the fallen veterans. While listening to one of the volunteers explain more about the wall, we learnt that it was also intended to represent a kind of timeline of the war – to the best accuracy their records allow, the names are in chronological order of their deaths and disappearances, with the height of the war and the height of the loss of human life corresponding with the tallest part of the wall. It gave me shivers as I was reminded about my visit to the war museum in Saigon, where I was confronted with images of the war that were not as pleasant to behold as this memorial. The two arms of the wall are also carefully placed – one points in the direction Robert and I had just cam from, towards the Washington Monument, and the other one points in the direction of what our next destination would be – The Lincoln Memorial. There was so much care and planning behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that despite it being another reminder of the tragic loss of life that war brings, it really was an architectural work of art, and still beautiful to gaze upon.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The memorial wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Onwards we pressed towards the Lincoln Memorial, a statue I knew well from a multitude of pop culture references throughout my life. The statue in memory of the 16th President of the United States sat at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and the top of its steps offered some great photographic vantage points.

Statue of President Lincoln.

Statue of President Lincoln.

It wasn't often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert's presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren't selfies.

It wasn’t often I had company when doing this kind of sightseeing, so I took the opportunity of Robert’s presence to get myself in a bunch of photos that weren’t selfies.

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom...

The view of the Lincoln Memorial from outside at the bottom…

... and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

… and the view of the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument from the top.

From the Lincoln Memorial we headed south towards the Korean War Memorial. If the other war memorials had given me shivers, then this one definitely gave me goosebumps. While the other memorials were a dedication to the soldiers who had fought and served, with walls that literally listed the extensive loss of life, the Korean War Memorial was an homage to the similar veterans of a different war, but it was more of a graphic depiction than a written or symbolic dedication.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Statues that comprise of the Korean War Memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

Inscription at the front of the memorial.

From there we left the war memorials behind to visit the remaining memorials on the walk Robert had planned out, all of which were dedicated to important individuals in America’s history. First up was the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the newest of all the memorials, created in 2011, near the Lincoln Memorial where the famous human rights activist delivered his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. The memorial is made up of three main pieces, and together they depict one of the inspiring quotes from his address in 1963. Two pieces stand with an empty slot in the middle – representing the “mountain of despair – while Martin Luther King Jr. himself is etched into the third piece that represents the “stone of hope” which is carved out of the mountain. It’s a beautiful memorial, with simple but effective symbolism.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The memorial was created as a visual representation of some of his most empowering words.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

The words of Martin Luther King Jr. that inspired the design of his own memorial.

We moved on to more presidential memorials, starting with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which was actually a peaceful little trail that was set in a quiet and shady grove. During the walk through the memorial, Robert taught me a lot about the former president that I knew surprisingly little about. Roosevelt had been paralysed from the waist down after contracting polio in 1921, and while he had refused to ever be seen in public with it, he used a wheelchair for much of his private life. With this in mind, the memorial is specifically designed to be easily accessible to those with a disability. He was also the president that led the country through the Great Depression and WWII, and the memorial serves as a kind of timeline of the tumultuous events of his presidency. There were various visual representations, but the thing I found most inspiring about the memorial were the quotations from various speeches he delivered.

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”

"I hate war."

“I hate war.”

"... and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war."

“… and fight to destroy the forces of ignorance, and intolerance, and slavery, and war.”

"The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man..."

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man…”

"Freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from want. Freedom from fear."

“Freedom of speech.
Freedom of worship.
Freedom from want.
Freedom from fear.”

The fact the Roosevelt also led the people through the Great Depression is acknowledged by statues that show the poor lining up for food. As Robert and I wandered through the memorial, we saw some tourists taking photos of the line of poor people, except they were jumping in the photograph to be a part of the line.
“Isn’t that kind of disrespectful?” I asked Robert quietly as they finally walked away.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful,” he said flatly. “They’re making a joke out of a period of historic poverty. Nobody should be wanting to join that line.” We stood there for a sombre moment of silence, before continuing on our way out of the memorial.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

The depiction of poverty in the Great Depression.

As we crossed of the Inlet Bridge, which bridges the gap that lets the Potomac River flow into the Tidal Basin, we approached the final memorial on our tour – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. When we got to the base of the steps, Robert sat down to catch his breath and sent me off ahead.
“I’m too old to be bothered climbing all those steps, and I’ve seen the inside more than enough times. You go ahead, I’ll wait here.” I had to cut him some slack – he was more than double my age – so I left him there to climb the steps to the top of the memorial that was designed in the style of a Classical Roman rotunda. The inner chamber held a bronze statue of Jefferson, and I took my time walking around the room and reading all the inscriptions along the walls, presumably quotations from some of his speeches and addresses. I surprisingly found myself recognising some of them – words and phrases that somehow rang a bell, although I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where I knew them from.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

The statue of Jefferson inside the inner circular chamber.

When I was finished musing over the words of the former US president, I returned down to where I had left Robert, and we made our way over the National Mall for some lunch, feeling throughly exhausted and completely famished from our long walk through the September sunshine.

***

On our way home from the memorials, Robert took us on another detour to show me a few more sights of DC. He took me down to what was known as the waterfront – the area along the Potomac River – and pointed across to the towers that signified the state of Virginia. Robert explained that there are laws that restrict the height of buildings in Washington, DC. The height of most residential buildings is limited to 110 feet, or 34 metres, and buildings on some commercial and business streets are allowed up to 160 feet, or 49 metres, with variations in areas around the White House and Congress buildings. I suppose it could have something to do with security – something that is in the back of every Americans mind since September 11, 2001 – except for the fact that the first version of the law was introduced in 1899. I guess it must have something to do with keeping the important buildings still looking important, and not letting them be overshadowed by skyscrapers.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

The waterfront by the Potomac River.

There are also canals that run through some of the streets of DC, parallel with the river, and Robert and I walked along a few of those until we got to one specific sight he had been keen to show me.
“This is the famous staircase from The Exorcist,” he said as we finally rounded a corner and approached it. If I’m perfectly honest, I didn’t remember exactly what the staircase looked like – to be fair, it was nighttime in the movie – but I remembered enough to appreciate it. I had probably been a little too young to be watching it when I had actually seen The Exorcist, because I remember being thoroughly spooked, even for a film as old as it was when I saw it.

The canals in DC.

The canals in DC.

The Exorcist staircase.

The Exorcist staircase.

Robert and I climbed the staircase – I took it slowly, step by step, taking my time to soak it all in and appreciate it – before continuing on. We passed through the prestigious Georgetown University on our way home to appreciate some of the architecture, although by this point of the afternoon our feet were well and truly aching, so we called it a day after that and made our way home. But I was so glad that Robert had taken the time to show me around – he knew the best route to take to see as many monuments as efficiently as possible, and he’d also been able to show me a couple of cool things that I otherwise never would have known about. He was also a really nice guy, who had done an extensive amount of travelling in his lifetime, so we were always talking about our trips and exchanging stories. He was old enough to be my father – which is sometimes a throwaway term, but he was literally only a few years younger than my dad – so he might not have been the kind of person I would have ever got in touch with or got to know if it hadn’t been for Couchsurfing. But I’m glad I had though – fun, friendly and incredibly knowledge, he had been a perfect guide and host for my weekend in Washington, DC.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

Buildings at Georgetown University.

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Much More Moscow: Kremlin and State Armoury

After our first failed attempt at visiting the Kremlin, seeing it became the primary objective on our second morning in Moscow. We rallied in the hostel common room bright and early, then made our way back into the city centre. But before that, we had some goodbyes to say. Rach and Marti would be leaving us this morning, and travelling down into Eastern Europe rather and continuing on to St Petersburg. The two girls had definitely been a dynamic presence within our group, and I think most of us were sad to see them go. We went around the group taking turns to hug them goodbye, with warm wishes for the future and promises to stay in touch.

***

Maria had advised us that the tickets to all the Kremlin attractions, including the State Armoury, can sell out rather quickly, so we kept that in mind when we were planning our day. We were so punctual in arriving to purchase our tickets for the Kremlin that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the first people there, but somehow there was already a line of tourists waiting outside the security check point out the front of the complex. We purchased our tickets, checked our bags into the holding room and joined the end of the queue. I remembered back to something Kostya had said at Lake Baikal: “Yeah, in Russia… Russians don’t really understand the concept of a queue.” That can be very frustrating, especially in big crowded queues like this one. People would elbow their way in wherever possible, but I think by the end of our stay in Russia we’d learned to play by their rules, and we found that our group – small in comparison to some of the larger tours – was flexible enough to slip in between other people and slither ahead in the “queue”, non-existent in the eyes of Russians.

The Kremlin is essentially a huge palace complex that has been the hub of political power in Russia since forever, pretty much, and is surrounded by high walls made of blood red brick. It was once the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the central office for the royalty and tsars as well as communist leaders and democratic presidents alike. The red bricks surprisingly have nothing to do with the name of Red Square, and are no suggestion to communism either. Later, Maria would inform me that in Russian, the word for red has dual meanings, and that it had actually been the word for beautiful long before it was ever affiliated with the colour. The more you know. The main features of the Kremlin, though, are the churches inside, some of which have been transformed into museums and exhibitions. Most are still very well maintained in their original condition, designs that appeared to be far more modern than the palaces I observed throughout Asia, though can easily be admired as whole pieces of art in their architecture and decoration. They all follow similar Russian Orthodox designs on the outside, but the insides are far more intricate. Most places required the purchase of a permit to take pictures, but I don’t think any photos can really do justice to these places – especially not the camera on my iPhone.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

On this particular day, there appeared to be a lot going on inside the Kremlin. Once we were inside the main complex, we stumbled upon a huge congregation of priests who were all dressed up in their very formal robes. We asked Maria what was going on, but she confessed that she wasn’t a very religious person and so didn’t really know much about the occasion.
“Some angels have days, that are holy days that are assigned to them. I think today must be some angels day, and so they are praying and celebrating or something. I’m not sure which one though.” I still didn’t really understand, so I just settled for observing the crowd of devout men and watching them meander about the courtyards, looking rather excited as they chatted amongst themselves. We waited around for a little while, watching the men and listening to some of their singing while we waited for everyone to come outside of the final museum, before heading out of the Kremlin and back towards the ticket box.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

I’m not really sure of the specifics or details of what happened next, since I had been taking a pretty passive role in decision making, happy to visit whatever sights had been deemed must-see. We took our time looking through the churches and various exhibitions, and Maria told us that we would be able to arrive at the ticket booths at 11:15am in order to get tickets to the session at noon. Maria had collected the groups money in order to buy all the tickets, but I came along with her because I was going to attempt to buy a student ticket with my ID – it was my university student card from last year, and I was well aware that it had expired, but the foreign people rarely noticed the expiry date and the savings, particularly for entrance to the Armoury, were worth at least attempting to score the discount. However, literally as we got to the front of the line, the woman selling tickets announced something in Russian over the a loudspeaker. I waited tensely beside Maria, who finally turned to me to translate. “She said that there are no tickets left for the Armoury, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we should see what the others want to do.”

The others weren’t impressed. There was another session in a few hours, but I think most of the group had given up and decided we had wasted enough time trying to see these places, when it seemed like a constant uphill battle to even get into them. We ended up separating again after having some lunch, with some people going shopping, and others going for a longer, scenic walk back to the hostel. I returned to Red Square with Kaylah to take some photos, but after that I returned to the hostel via the metro to have a rest. I didn’t gotten a very good sleep the night before, and after talking to Tim yesterday we had decided we might like to go out for a few drinks and see some of the nightlife in Moscow. However, it rained rather heavily that night, which put a bit of a dampener on the mood. We went out to the Moscow Circus and had a beer before the show, but afterwards no one really seemed to be in a partying mood, so we called it a night and headed back to the hostel in the wet weather.

***

I was woken up the next morning by a knock on the door of my dorm. It was Kaylah.
“Tracy and Jenna and I are gonna head back to the Armoury. It’s early enough that we should definitely get tickets.” It was a struggle, but I rushed to ready and head out with them – inside the State Armoury is an opulent collection of treasures and artefacts that is considered one of the major attractions in Moscow, and even though I’d had another terrible nights sleep, I couldn’t justify sleeping in when I knew there was a group planning to head out that way one more time. “Okay, but we need to get back here before noon – we have to check out by then and I’ll have to get my stuff together.”

So off we went to the Armoury. I tried to purchase a student ticket, but unfortunately the woman working had been more attentive than the woman who sold us our tickets to the Kremlin, because she picked up on the expiry date – I still figured it was worth a try. But finally, after three days in Moscow and our numerous trips to this part of the city centre, we finally got into the Armoury. The collection of treasures inside was definitely worth it – all I could think of was how many millions of dollars these items would be worth. Goblets and plates and portraits and books and tea sets and dresses and weapons and – well, the list goes on, but everything was decorated with lavish jewels and pearls and I’m almost at a loss of words for how extravagant it was. It was the kind of extravagance that you only ever really saw in movies, and even then you knew they were most likely props that were worth only a fraction of the real thing. The diversity of the collection was also impressive. Jewelled sword handles and horse armour were in the room next to elegant pearl inlaid gowns, which were in between classical horse drawn carriages and a room full of velvet-lined thrones. We followed the directions of the audio guide tour, seeing the most important and interesting pieces in the collection and learning a bit about their histories.

While seeing the Armoury had been worth the rushed trip, it definitely made the rest of my morning a little more stressful. Firstly, as we walked down the stairs out of the exhibits, I dropped my audio guide. Despite having the safety strap around my wrist for the entire time we were in the museum, is was on the hard marble stairs that it slipped from my grip. It landed with a clatter, and I clutched at Kaylah’s arm when I saw that one of the buttons had lodged loose. I quickly scooped the handheld device up and shoved the button back into place, but the LED screen was starting a flicker, a sure sign that the machines life was about to expire. An endless stream of mumbled profanities escaped my mouth – we’d only needed to leave one form of ID as insurance when we’d collected the devices, but it was Jenna who had left her drivers licence with the desk.
“Just be cool, be cool Robert,” Kaylah had assured me. Once we got the desk, we placed our devices face down, showing the woman behind the counter their numbers, and she returned Jenna’s licence.
“Okay, be cool, stay cool, but go! Go! Go!” I’d whispered to the rest of the girls as we scurried out of the museum and back into the sunshine.

The second thing that made my morning just that bit more stressful was our returning time from the Armoury. I literally ran from the metro station back to the hostel, arriving at 11:58am. Perfect, I’d thought to myself, I literally only need two minutes to gather my things into my bag, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the hostel hadn’t been to sure I would arrive back in time, and I found my bag on the floor of the main hall with most of my possessions thrown into two big black garbage bags. Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been that bad. What actually sucked about this was that it wasn’t just my possessions – the bags was a mixture of my clothes and what may have been the possessions of one, or maybe two other guys from the room who weren’t part of our group. I felt kind of bag for that guy(s), because I’m not even positive they were supposed to be checking out, yet they’d had all their things scooped into a bag and thrown into the hall. I had to sit in the common room of the hostel and sort through all the bags to make sure I’d recovered all my things, while the rest of the group sat around waiting for me.
“I’m so sorry guys, sorry for holding us up,” I must have said a dozen times, but they all dismissed my apologies and said it was fine.
“We’ve got the entire day where we don’t have anywhere to be, so we’re not on a tight schedule, don’t worry.” I was glad they were being so nice about it, and as far as I could remember this was the first time I’d ever really had a problem or held the group up in any way, so they seemed fine with it.

Still, I had run all the way back to the hostel, and combined with the embarrassment of sorting though my bag and packing everything while the others patiently watched on, I found myself dripping with sweat. It was a warm, sunny day in Moscow, and I ended up mopping myself down with my towel and changing into a singlet and shorts. When I’d finally packed all my stuff up and put my pack in the storage room, we headed off as a group to get some lunch.
“Wow, Robert,” Don had said as we walked beside me, “You look like you’ve just had a shower or something.”
“Yes, Don, I’m a little sweaty,” I said, feeling a little testy and unable to hold back the sarcasm. “Thanks for pointing that out. I would rather have had a shower, but I’m actually just really sweaty. ” I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in a very good mood for the rest of the afternoon.

***

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The rest of the day was spent as a group, hanging out in a park to eat some street food lunch, visiting a popular Russian market, and finding a few restaurants and bars to have a few drinks in and just hang out, enjoying each others company. I think the long train ride had really brought a lot of us together, but it was nice to hang out with each other in a different, relatively normal environment, although the absence of Rach and Marti was strangely noticeable. But after we whittled the afternoon away, Alyson and Tim and myself had a few more drinks at a pub just near the hostel, and eventually it was time to head to the train station to catch the midnight train to St Petersburg.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

Maria had met us back at the hostel and taken us to the station, and made sure we’d all gotten on the train safely. “There’s two places empty?” she had asked us, and we reminded her that Marti and Rach had left us the day before, forfeiting their tickets for that section of the journey. “You should come with us to St Petersburg, Maria!” someone had said jokingly. At first she had just smiled and laughed, but five minutes later she stuck her head into our cabin, where Tim, Tracy, Jenna and I were preparing our beds for our final night in transit. “I think I am going to come to St Petersburg. I have a friend who I have been saying I will visit, but I have never been, and it’s been, oh, I have been saying I will go for four years or something.”

We were all a little stunned, but we couldn’t help but laugh. Maria had seemed like quite a lax and easy-going woman, and while it had been a little frustrating when she hadn’t known some things about Moscow that we might have expected from our guide, I couldn’t help but applaud her spontaneous nature that told her that getting a train to another city, with absolutely nothing except a phone, wallet and the clothes on her back, was a perfectly good idea. I guess I learnt something from Maria that night, because with my plans for the rest of my time in Europe being just as unplanned and flexible, I was going to have to learn to be just as swift and spontaneous when it came to making decisions about my travels.