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East Coast (IV): New York, Part 1

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first partsecond part, and third part).

It was snowing in Washington DC as Tara and I departed - she to the airport, and me to Union Station. Our time there had seen the weather go from brilliant sunshine to dull overcast to snow, and in the ten minutes it took me to reach the train station I was coated in crisp white. I had a 6:15AM bus to catch that would take me to the big city: New York. The northeast corner of the US features several large cities clustered close together, and services such as the Chinatown Bus, Bolt Bus, and Megabus offer fast and cheap service between the cities. Often the buses have wifi, and pickup and depart from the city centre rather than a distant airport. My Megabus ticket cost $14 for the 4 hour trip between Washington DC and New York, and while we were slightly delayed due to the snow, the trip was smooth and uneventful.

New York is one of the most storied cities in the United States. At over eight million people, it is the most populous in the country, and it is a leading cultural, financial, commercial, and technological centre. It remains the gateway to America for many immigrants and tourists. The centrepiece is undoubtedly Manhattan Island, where over 1.5 million people live and numerous landmarks abound. I spent all my time in New York on Manhattan, but there are four more boroughs of the city that I did not visit: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. They'll have to wait for next time.

New York is also one of the most expensive cities to visit in the world. Leery of the high hostel and hotel prices, I decided to try Airbnb for accommodation in New York, and found it to be a generally pleasant experience. Airbnb is a service where people can rent out spare rooms couches, or even their whole house on a short-term, informal manner. The company takes a somewhat obnoxious 4% service fee, but provides a great website for listing and looking up places, as well as facilities such as property insurance and validated contact information. It does take a little effort to find a decent place to stay (the usual combination of checking reviews, location, pictures, etc. applies here) - I had to send out several inquiries before I found someone who actually had an availability for the days I wanted. Eventually, I ended up staying with Dee in the Chelsea district, close to many of the major subway lines. I saved close to 50% compared to the cheapest hotel I could find (and could have saved more had my standards been lower), and Dee was a wonderful hostess.

Manhattan's streets are almost entirely named and laid out on a numbered grid system; avenues run north-south, and streets run east-west. Streets are often prefixed with an east or west label to further identify the location of particular places (e.g. 160 West 16th Street). This combined with the world-renowned subway system makes the city easy to navigate. Trains run 24 hours a day throughout the city - as close as 2 minutes apart during busy periods, and closer to 10-15 minutes apart during quieter hours. The few locations that are inconvenient for the subway (the West Side and around Central Park) are well-served by buses conveniently numbered by the main street or avenue that they traverse. The system notation is slightly confusing, mixing colours and identifiers, but the gist is that the alphanumeric identifiers refer to different services (e.g. express or all-stops/local) that run on a common line (the colour). Ticketing is also relatively simple; for my 5 day stay I purchased a 7-day MetroCard that offered unlimited rides on the subway and buses for $30. It was an absolute bargain as single trips usually cost $2.75. I caught the subway multiple times a day, criss-crossing the island to catch as many sights as I could.

I spent most of my first day in New York City catching up with my friend Tian. Fitful rain spattered down on us this first day and night, though it thankfully disappeared by the next morning. We met up near Madison Square Garden on 7th Ave and 34th Street, and then walked all the way to 1st Ave and 11th Street to the world-famous Momofuku Noodle Bar for a delicious ramen lunch, passing Washington Square Park. Then we ambled to a nearby subway stop to head back up to Midtown to the Museum of Modern Art - better known as MoMA. Possibly my favourite art gallery so far, MoMA holds many Western masterpieces, including Edvard Munch's The Scream (above; on temporary loan to the museum), Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night (below), and the 12.5m wide Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond by Claude Monet. I'm a big fan of Impressionist art (though Impressionist music bores me to tears), with their thick, mottled brushstrokes and natural imagery. Unlike many other modern art museums, MoMA holds a huge collection of these works alongside more contemporary pieces. It's huge but easy to take in at the same time - the exhibits are fascinating and full of fun for people of any age. The gift store is also fantastic, with all manner of crazy knick-knacks perfect for souvenirs. I highly, highly, highly recommend a trip to MoMA if you can fit it in - though pre-buying a ticket might be advisable due to its popularity.

By now evening had fallen in New York, and so we headed along West 32nd Street to Koreatown for dinner. As its name suggests, Koreatown is like a mini Seoul, a street filled to the brim with restaurants, karaoke places, and neon lights.  The famous Empire State Building sits on West 34th Street, so you can get a great view of it looking upwards from here (see below). We were looking for a Sichuan Hot Pot place for a fiery dinner, but instead found a tasty Japanese variant called Shabu-Shabu. The basic concept is that you have a burner in front of your place at the table, and a bowl of broth is placed there to boil. You then receive various raw ingredients that you cook in the broth as it boils. It's absolutely delicious and very fresh.

Following dinner, Tian went to a Sigur Ros concert at Madison Square Garden near Penn Station, whilst I went back to the apartment where I was staying to unwind a bit. We met up again after the concert finished to walk up to Times Square, the "Crossroads of the World". The Square sits on the junction of 7th Avenue, Broadway, and 42nd Street, and is brightly lit in neon colours - even in the early hours of the morning. Named after the New York Times newspaper moved its headquarters to the building that is now One Times Square (site of the New Year's ball drop), the Square is simply surreal. No place should be as bright as this in the black of night. Crazy lights blast at you from all angles - mainly advertising billboards on the tall buildings that surround the Square.

Times Square was under substantial construction when we were there. Several roads were partially or fully blocked, with pedestrian access also slightly restricted. Given the late-ness of the hour and the time of the year, it was freezing cold. We wandered into a 24-hour Starbucks for some sustenance and fortification against the cold before braving the benches in the middle of the Square. I can't imagine how frigid it would be to wait for New Year's here. Definitely a once - maybe only once - in a lifetime experience.

Times Square is the hub of New York's famous theatre district, better known as Broadway after the main boulevard through the district. Broadway extends west and north of Times Square, block after block after block jam packed with theatres and show halls. Much of the Square's bright advertising is for the latest Broadway shows; when we visited, the hottest tickets were for Book of Mormon and Matilda (an adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic book), as well as perennial classics such as Phantom of the OperaJersey BoysChicagoMamma Mia, and Wicked. The biggest theatres hold hundreds to thousands of people., but there are also a host of smaller, more intimate theatres in the district that show smaller musicals, plays and shows - collectively known as Off-Broadway. It's Off-Broadway where many shows are first tried, tweaked, and tested before a launch on Broadway proper (e.g. the classic musical Rent). Alternatively, shows that have finished their Broadway run, or have begun losing momentum on Broadway may be relaunched in a small location in a cheaper, less extravagant form (e.g. Avenue Q).

At the north of the Square, underneath a giant red staircase, is the TKTS discount tickets booth. Same-day excess tickets for Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are sold here on a first-come, first-served basis, with availability changing each day. The booth opens at 3pm in the afternoon to sell tickets for the evening shows, and the lines are enormous - wait times can be up to 2 hours. But with average full-price tickets being over $100, the 50%+ discounts offered at the booth are very tempting, and often worth the wait.

The south edge of the square holds the NASDAQ building, home to the mainly tech-centric stock exchange. There's a large US Army recruiting booth, the American flag on its side lit garishly to match the surroundings. Giant Disney and Toys R Us stores also line the edge of the Square, along with the Times Square Museum. It's an iconic, expensive, and well-trafficked retail location - these spots get very crowded during the day, and people aimlessly wander in and out, dragged by children. friends, and partners. The bright lights, wall-to-wall advertising, huge plasticky stores surrounding and devouring customers really seems a metaphor for our modern consumer culture - and nowhere is this culture stronger than in New York, United States..

Our final point of hilarity on this first night was seeing a big, empty Fosters can on the side of a food cart at the edge of the Square. Australians don't actually drink Fosters, despite the advertising to the contrary. Having had a good laugh, we closed the evening to be ready for a new day.

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