One usually begins the London tour by visiting the Piccadilly Circus and the Trafalgar Square, the two most famous spots frequented by all who come here. For the first trip, Bashir accompanied me. We took the tube and got down at the Piccadilly Circus station. It is supposed to be the most frequented tourist hub in London. It is more colourful in the evening with all the neon signs and lights. Apart from sight seeing I had other two interests in visiting Piccadilly Circus.
One was to meet some people from the sports firm of Lilywhites which is situated on the square and the other was to visit the world’s largest map shop in Long Acre near Piccadilly. In Gulmarg I had heard of a Lilywhites Ski Trophy which used to be there in mid thirties. Those days Gulmarg was an important resort for the British Army officers and their families. I was keen to revive this competition. I went into the sports store which is spread over a multi-storey building. I requested for a meeting with the manager. He was glad to receive me but knew nothing about the history of Lilywhite Trophy in Gulmarg. Next stop for me was the Stanfords, the largest map shop in the world. It is situated near Piccadilly in a place called Long Acre. As I did not know the way, I asked Bashir that we should consult a local Policeman about it. As I was just going to do it casually, he pulled me back. He said it was not Srinagar and the person was not a Kashmiri Policeman but a London Bobby. He went to him and said, “Good Morning, Sir! Could you please direct me to Stanfords in Long Acre please?” The Bobby took out his Walkie Talkie and asked the control about directions to the spot and then explained these to us. We thanked him and proceeded ahead. Bashir explained to me on the way that the London Bobby was a very well respected person. He may be more knowledgeable and trained than our Srinagar City Police Chief! One has to approach him properly and decently.
The Stanfords is a big shop with hundreds of maps stacked on shelves and spread on tables. It is supposed to be the largest map shop in the world. I was interested in getting a satellite map of Kashmir for our trekking and mountaineering expeditions. On seeing us searching in various shelves the shop owner came to us and offered to help. I told him about my requirement. He immediately took out the requisite map and showed it to me. I asked for two copies. It was £5 each. While requesting the map I had introduced myself as an officer of Kashmir Tourism looking after Adventure Tourism. I had also told him that we too had published some large scale maps of trekking in Kashmir. On my offering the cost of the maps, he refused to take it and said I could have these complimentary and in return I should send him some copies of our maps. I promised to do that. Bashir was surprised as he had seen for the first time a British shopkeeper giving something free! I did send him five sets of our own trekking maps on return. Bashir then took me to Oxford Street. This street is very much frequented by tourists from India for shopping. On the pavements I saw vendors as we have back home. They had their wares spread on sheets or on small stands. They were selling perfumes, t-shirts, umbrellas, and many other things. The moment they see a Policeman they hurriedly collect their wares and run away just like in some places back home! I wanted to buy some perfumes but Bashir advised me not do so. He said I may get only some coloured water and lose money in the bargain! Such people seem to be same all over! After going round for sometime, we went back to Piccadilly Circus where we had some snacks in the McDonalds. Next we headed for the Trafalgar Square. It is another landmark of London. Again full of tourists. A lot of Japanese. There are also hundreds of pigeons.
Bashir was keen that I should see some parks of London. We went to Regents Park. It was a big surprise to see such a lovely park in the heart of London. Apart from preserving their heritage, the Londoners have kept their city very green. There are a large number of parks which act as the lungs of the city. The other well known parks are Saint James Park, the Hyde Park and so on. The truly out of the world green area is the Hampstead Heath. It is like a wild forest in the heart of an urban jungle. Walking through Hampstead Heath one can never get the feeling that one is in an urban area like London! I spent a whole day in this area. Another globally known green area is the Hyde Park which has the famous speaker’s corner. Anyone can give a lecture on anything he likes and can have a readymade audience. There is always some sort of activity going on here. One wishes back home we too had something like a Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner where people could vent their feelings. It would save lot of trouble!
Another interesting landmark which Bashir wanted me to visit was Harrods. A very high profile shopping store. Mostly aristocrats and rich Arabs visit the Harrods. It was interesting to go round the multi-storey shopping complex. I was just looking at the price labels! It would be embarrassing to leave the store without buying something. So I bought some gifts for my sister. The monetary damage was not much! There were many other landmarks of London which I would see off and on while travelling. These include the Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, and the Buckingham Palace. It is also interesting to take a Red Bus tour sitting on the upper deck which is totally open. One can also go on a boat in River Thames. However, I was keen to meet some more friends especially at BBC and also visit the British Museum which I will describe in the next episode!