Washington DC. Part I

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When we boarded the Amtrack from NYC to Washington DC, it was not without a sense of wonderment. Long distance railroad travel, once a vital part of the nation's passenger transport system, has become a rarity nowadays. Amtrack, the only remaining intercity passenger service provider, requires government funding to survive, and its service concentrates on the Northeast Corridor. Anyway, if you're not in a terrible rush, railroad is quite a gratifying means of travel - spacious, safe, with scenery you can leisurely enjoy along the way. We passed by rusty cities: Newark, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and crossed expansive bodies of water such as the majestic Delaware. As we moved along, the scenery offered more and more of a southern feel: the vegetation grew dense and lush, the landscape became swampy, shrilling of cicada seeped in from the window.

The first impression of DC was its vastness. I am not referring to the actual size of the city, but the grand scale of every structure we encountered as well as the wide open space between them. Upon arrival, we were greeted by the imposing vaulted interior and its stately arched exterior of the the Union Station that would outmatch the transportation hubs in many mega cities I've been to. Quite impressive considering DC had a population of merely 660k (2014). We soon realized that such grandeur was quite standard for pretty much all major edifices around the Capitol Hill. A few blocks away from the station was the Capitol Dome, which was apparently under heavy renovation.

Such wide-open, far-spreading layout is no doubt in scale with the unmatched power of our great nation, but it does have its shortcoming, for tourists like us at least. Walking from one attraction to the next typically required tens of minutes of toiling in the steamy summer heat, often without much shade. Mind you this was not the kind of crisp Californian dry heat, but humid, sultry, muffling southern heat. You could feel the sizzling heat wave rise from the pavement through the heel, up the spine, and accumulate inside the skull. You sweat profusely but it's so humid that the sweat just won't evaporate... As you can well imagine it was less than an ideal scenario for a vacation, especially with two young children to herd along. Nonetheless, we managed to trudge along. Commendably, the kids took the heat rather well, and we survived the entire trip without too much drama.


Let's start with the heartland of our country, the National Mall. This is an extensive and gorgeous strip of green lawn with the immaculate Lincoln Memorial on one end, the svelte and handsome Washington Monument in the middle, and the majestic (would have been if without those unpleasant construction zones and scaffolding) Capitol Dome on other end. It was about 2 miles from end to end, a good 40 minutes walk.

The Washington Monument was unquestionably the simplest yet most elegant piece of stone I've ever seen. It was just awe-inspiring to see it stands there on the wide open, sharp, plain, about to shot up vigorously into the sky with the momentum of a launching rocket.

Upon close inspection, it was not quite as flawless as it seemed from a distance, but a tight stack of marble, granite, and gneiss blocks, reaching up to an impressive height of 556 feet, the tallest stone structure in the world.

The neat thing was , inside the obelisk was a tiny elevator to reach all the way to the tip, where from eight tiny windows we could have a remarkable bird's eye view of the National Mall and the city, or peek into the Oval Office if one so desire, with a good lens.

On the west end of the Reflecting Pool is the Greek Revival-styled Lincoln Memorial. Inside sits the stately 60-feet-tall Abe, imposing yet his kindly eyes radiate certain warmth and benevolence. Engraved on the wall is his 2nd inaugural address and the Gettysburg address, both widely considered the greatest of American speeches. Lincoln had a knack in writing engaging speeches with simple, succinct, yet powerful words (the Gettysburg address being one fine example - he didn't always employ a speech writer; even when he did, he tended to edit the script heavily to make it lucid and clean), a practice rather uncommon in his days, when dazzling oratory was the norm. Apparently his style had profound influence on American speech writing. One hundred years after Gettysburg, following the same lineage, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered another great American speech, I Have a Dream, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

On the west end was the neoclassical-styled Capitol Hill, the seat of congress. Being the more populous and the (slightly) more powerful branch of the check and balances system, its building also seems to be the most splendid. Unfortunately it was under heavy restoration, which masked a good part of its glory as well as its public exhibit (such as the reportedly magnificent rotunda). We shall return to it in details in the next page.

The classic revival-styled Jefferson Memorial was built way out in the Tidal Basin, some 3,000 ft south of the Washington Monument. It was the last of the high-profile presidential shrines, and it almost became a Teddy Roosevelt memorial, until Franklin Roosevelt decided to dedicate it to Jefferson, whom he admired. A learned scholar, Jefferson stands amongst his writings scribed all around the walls, including part of his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Some criticized FDR cherry-picked the quotes more or less to support his political agenda, notably the New Deal (to which Jefferson in principle would have opposed) rather than to reflect Jefferson's political views and accomplishment - something FDR seemed quite incline to do. Well, there was never free lunch, even under the New Deal.

About equal distance due north from the Washington Monument is the residence of current president, the White House. Built in white-painted sandstone in neoclassical style and half hiding behind the shrubs of the expansive lawns, this is one of the best known buildings in the world. Unfortunately no tour was available during our time of visit, so too bad, didn't get to watch all those West Wing characters bustling by, eloquently uttering big words like "mandatory minimus" or "proportional response." We could only gaze extensively into the windows, but nope, couldn't figure out what Mr. Obama was up to.

One thing the president could do though, was to look out of the window and reflect on the numerous wars we got dragged into in recent years, since right out there were three major war memorials, one for WWII, one for the Korean War, and one for the Vietnam War. The WWII Memorial, located between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, is a pool surrounded by 56 granite pillars, each inscribed with a US states or territories that participated in the war. Together with two triumphal arches (one each for the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters), they form two semicircles on the two ends of the pool. At first I felt the the whole thing, with its showy ornaments, dancing fountains and all, a bit frivolous for a war memorial. But then if we look behind the casualties, maybe the war wasn't all that terrible - it practically ended the great depression (the US profited handsomely by dealing weapons and other resources before joining); the whole country was largely unscathed (unlike most other countries involved); what's left behind was a powerful industrial system that can be readily turned civil, plus an abundance of labour. The war officially established the US as a global super power. What followed was decades of miraculous economic growth. So there probably were reasons to glee.

The Korean War, on the contrary, was not so pleasant for the US. It was half-ass, leaving Korea bitterly divided till today, and its outcome only intensified the Cold War. The Korean War Veterans Memorial did shows a properly solemn atmosphere. Located adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial on its southwest corner, it is an triangular area, whose center features a patrol squad of 19 ghastly stainless steel soldiers from all four military branches, Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force, all wearing raincoats, full combat gears, and an anguished expression. On one edge of the triangle is a polished black granite wall, with ghostly photographic portraits of people in the war sandblasted into the surface. It was an unnerving sight.

A stroll around the National Mall, we passed all sorts of regal, important-looking buildings. Upon close inspection, these were important buildings indeed: the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (executive office of the president and vice president, 1st-3rd pix); the Treasury Department (4th); the Department of Justice (5th); The Rayburn House Office Building (office for the House of the Representative, 6th)...

The US Postal Service (1st-2nd); the FBI headquarter (arguably the ugliest office building in DC - I've seen better-looking prisons; so I couldn't help but took a few more pictures, 3rd-5th); the Environmental Protection Agency (6th)...

the National Archives (1-2nd); the Library of Congress (3rd-4th), Andrew Mellon Auditorium (5-6th)...

And much else... Note that prominent historic figures such as Andrew Jackson (1st row 3rd-4th), William T. Sherman (5th-6th, 2nd row 1st), and Alex Hamilton (2nd-3rd) could only made it to the 2nd and 3rd tier, and had to settle for a modest monument or just a statue.


Away from the National Mall, the streets of DC had the atmosphere of a modest east coast town. One obvious reason was that there were no tall buildings in sight - nothing exceeding the Washington Monument at 556 ft. The city has an interesting law that allows buildings height to reach no more than the width of the adjacent street plus 20 ft, which practically rules out the possibility of erecting skyscrapers in downtown. Instead we found rows of moderate retro-style buildings that gave a small-town feel. Many of them were indeed designated historic structures, such as the Hotel Washington (4th) and the National Metropolis Bank Building (5-6th).

In the middle of a quite, narrow street was the unassuming Ford's Theater, where Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865, five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered. The facade was decidedly modest, though the theater reportedly had a seating capacity of 2,200 in Lincoln's day. What amazed me was how much businesses were spawned out of the tragedy. Across the street was a lofty (by DC standard) Ford's Theater Center for Education and Leadership, and I supposed that was a good thing. But then next door was the "House Where Lincoln Died" painted in bright colours, reportedly displaying Lincoln's dead bed, "bloodstained pillow and pillowcases" for people with morbid curiosity. There were guided walking tour "on the investigation of Lincoln's assassination." Finally, there was Lincoln's Waffle Shop next door that served "breakfast all day long" - help yourself with extra ketchup to enhance the mood.

Some of the more modern edifices. Interesting, but a bit tame - it's hard not to be for their limited height and their vicinity to the grandeur of the National Mall.


Finally, I got a chance to caught up with the little creatures what's been annoying us all along the trip - I'm talking about Cicada (these were all Annual cicada, Tibicen linnei). Its intense, piercing shriek has always been an unfailing reminder of the endless steaming heat; but I've forgotten all about it after spending years in the balmy California. Now, spotting basically its life cycle in the woods on the Potomac shore, all the interesting details from Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques gradually came back to me. Every July, cicada grubs would climb out of their burrows, typically around the roots of a large tree, leaving behind thumb-size holes. It would look around to seek a suitable spot, where it could secure a tight grip for the fore feet, to start a fascinating metamorphosis. The old skin would crack from the middle of the back; a new, bright green, full-grown cicada would emerge. In a couple of hours, it'll stretch its wing and fly away, drinking tree sap through its delicate, needle-like mouth piece, and singing the song of its life all summer long.

Next we'll explore the vast collection of the Smithsonian and other museums.

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