January 2, 2008
Although our friends had advised us to spend at least two days in Washington, D.C., we were too broke to pay for a night’s accommodation. Since we were staying at our friend’s place in Manhattan, the best way to take advantage of our situation was to make our D.C. visit a day trip. We took the last bus on New Year’s Day in Manhattan’s Chinatown, at 23:40, and the estimated arrival time to Washington’s Chinatown was 4:00 am. The ticket price for a round trip was $30.
We failed to get any sleep on the bus ride. Our senses were forced into high gear when we were dropped off in a dimly lit road in what I supposed was Chinatown. All of the other passengers knew where they were going and quickly disappeared from our sight. The temperature was low, around -5 C°, but with windchill it felt much colder. Nothing around us was opened, dashing our hope of hiding the cold at a fast food chain. We walked toward a direction of brighter street lights while figuring out where to wait for the dawn. Not much idea was coming to mind in our frozen and sleep-deprived state.
We continued to walk down the road. Finally there was a lit up building – a Howard Johnson Hotel. Having no plan to spend the night at a hotel, we instead stood between the two automatic doors at the entrance. We hoped we could just stand there for an hour or two.
After a few minutes, an Asian girl, probably on the same bus we took, showed up at the entrance and went inside. A security guide came up to greet her, and also noticed the two people between the two automatic doors. The guide thought we were together with the girl, so we had no choice but to get inside and figure out our options later.
The girl’s check-in process took a long time, so in the meanwhile we sat on the sofas at the lobby and bid for time. After half and hour, as the girl got her room key and made her way to the elevator, the security guide stared at us, and asked, “So what do you guys plan to do?”
Five a.m. We told the security guide we just wanted a place to wait till sunrise. He didn’t allow us to stay at the lobby, so I asked him to call a cab for us. We got on the cab and asked for the Grayhound station, since I guessed it must be opened 24/7. It was a quick ride, less than ten minutes, and indeed the station was opened. Announcements were blasted out by the PA system by the minute, so we weren’t able to catch some much-needed sleep. We sat across a table, looked listlessly at each other, and chewed on some stone cold donuts.
We waited till 6:30 to get out of the station and made our way to the nearest subway station. It was not a long walk, but the bitter windchill reminded us it would be a very long day ahead. Just across the road from the subway station was the Headquarter of the American Psychological Association. It was actually quite exciting to see the building in person, for some reason.
I have always had a keen interest in subway systems. In my opinion, Hong Kong has the most modern and efficient (never been to Singapore or Dubai), London has the dirtiest, Tokyo’s combination of JR and private metro companies are the most extensive, New York’s the most fascinating… but Washington has the grandest (and much cleaner than New York’s). I felt Washington’s subway system was an attraction in and of itself and a showcase of Washington’s status as the capital of the United States.
We got off at Metro Center, and immediately we came across many Baroque style government buildings. Unlike other capitals like London or Paris, Washington, D.C. is a planned city, with wide avenues, large public spaces, and blocks of grand government buildings. It is clear from the onset Washington was intended to be the bureaucratic center of the United States. While the core is impressive, this planned style of development has also contributed to the demographic and crime problems of the city. As Stephen Colbert famously said in his White House Correspondents Dinner speech in 2006, Washington, D.C. is “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center”.
Our first stop was the White House, a tiny white building behind close gates and guided by ample of security guides. It was really not much of an attraction from the outside.
The wind became almost unbearable once we got to the open area of the National Mall. Even wrapping my thick scarf all over my head didn’t help anymore. We walked against the wind toward the Washington Monument, a 555 feet 5 inches brownish obelisk. It’s one of the most famous landmarks in D.C. but one that was impossible to take a good picture of. In fact, under such gray sky and punishing wind, it was a bad day for photography anyway.
We took the tour to the top of the monument. The best thing about D.C. is all the major sights are free. The tour was a little boring, and the view from up top wasn’t that good, but we got a good sense of where everything was in town.
We decided to visit a Smithsonian museum or two, then made our way to the U.S. Capitol. After lunch, the Arlington Cemetery, and last but not least walk across the Arlington Memorial Bridge to the Lincoln Memorial.
We went inside almost every building we came across, even the Department of Agriculture and its pathetic “Mission of our Department” display, to take a brief break from the wind. Our progress was slow, but eventually by 10:30 we had reached the National Air and Space Museum. Despite being one of the most popular of the Smithsonian museums, it was really quiet inside. The exhibits were quite interesting, and we spent a good hour there.
Time was running short. When we got to the Capitol’s ticket booth at noon, all the entrance tickets for the day had been handed out. We proceeded with Plan B and visited the Jefferson Building and the Library of Congress. The interior of the Jefferson Building looked as impressive as European palaces, but without the extravagance and excesses since it’s a public building.
We were absolutely dehydrated and starving by this point. A quick lunch at a small Mexican joint helped us regained some strength, so we continued with our plan and took the subway to the Arlington Cemeterey.
The cemetery was huge. After an hour at Arlington, we were too exhausted to walk across the Arlington Memorial Bridge, so we called it a day and took the subway back to near Chinatown. We boarded the 5:00 pm bus back to New York and couldn’t wait to have a hot meal and a good night’s sleep.