Friday, July 21, 2006

scotland : with scotch and haggis



I have just passed over Baltic Sea. With clear sky, at 10,688 feet, I could see a coastline of western Europe through my right window and coastline of Scandinavia on left on the navigation map of Emirates flight. Warsaw is ahead of me with Minx on the left side. Eastern Europe and Scandinavia have so far eluded me in my goal of touching diverse geographical places around the globe but my forging business relationship with Hungarian company at EDTA meeting gives me a hope to enter Eastern European block. Now I am past Warsaw, and heading towards Black sea piercing between Kiev on the left side and Budapest and Bucharest on right side. With my seat video monitor no working; there is no better way than to continue to pen my thoughts about my scotalnd trip.

When I learnt about Edinburgh being just an hour from Glasgow, I was happy. Else, another visit to the Glasgow city wouldn’t have evoked much passion. Opportunity to escape from Dubai’s desert heat to smell Scotland’s rain soaked cloudy weather and view lush green sloping hills was also at the back of my mind. But I wasn’t lucky in terms of the weather. The whole week in UK, had the warmest temperature of the century. 36 degree plus may not be a big deal compared to 42 plus in Dubai. But Europe is different. Air conditioning is not ubiquitous, instead they have heater. I was lucky to have AC in my room in hotel Menzies – close to the Clyde River, within walking distance from Glasgow central square and my place of work at Scotland Exhibition Conference Center (SECC). Sunset at 11pm made sure that I got a chance to roam around the city after work hours.

SECC – nicknamed as “Armadillo"- has a distinctive architecture in a series of framed 'hulls' that overlap each other. But powerful halogen l lamps at the exhibition booth and ineffective air-conditioning made sure that jacket worn sales guys managing booth baked with profuse sweat all four days. Evenings were rather cool and walk along the Clyde river bank did bring a gentle breeze.

I chose to spend my first day at Edinburgh. Airport Bus to Queen Street station at city square and then by Scots rail all the way to Edinburgh. Glasgow – Edinburgh one way fare is £ 8.00. Visitors can opt for tourist fares but it doesn’t include peak hour travel. Often during initial days, a foreign visitor is not conversant with various denominations of coins and notes and this is the period where chances of getting duped are high. At Glasgow station, I encountered similar experience when ticket counter staff gave me short change and when asked, he promptly returned the excess money. A taxi driver, though, was honest and told me that I gave him extra money. I had originally booked all four nights at Edinburgh and thought of commuting to Glasgow by train, but changed to just one night. Internet booking has its own pitfalls. They often have a cancellation policy in clickable form and I was fool enough not to read in detail. The damage was additional UK £ 100 towards cancellation charges. But St Andrews House on Glasgow road – my place - in Edinburgh was comfortable and cosy.

Edinburgh city is in the same mould as that of Vienna, Cologne and Paris. Singular arterial road- princess street - is flanked on one side by sloping flowery gardens with a backdrop of castles on hills and the other side has chain of branded stores like Zara, Next, Virgin Megastors. Garden houses museum, amphitheater that does live shows . A leisurely stroll along the backstreet of the garden took you through cafes, beer parlours, medieveal churches and an occasional portrait artist. Walking past princess street and seeing statues lined up along the way made me aware that Scotland’s rich history in producing world class scientific inventors. The list goes in hundreds but some of the iconic figures are James Watt: Steam ; John Napier:Logarithms; Ian Donald: Ultrasound ;John Mallard:MRI scanner;Roslin center :The first cloned mammal (Dolly the Sheep) ;James Simpson: Surgical anesthesia; Alexander Wood; Alexander Fleming : Penicillin and the list goes on and on.
Sight of cows grazing lazily on green top made 50 minute train ride from Edinburgh comfortable.Scots rail operate this sector and train run every 15 minutes. Glasgow is now Scotland's largest city. Glasgow is a huge, sprawling city with a Clyde river running through it. The city is sensibly laid out on a grid system so navigating wasn’t any problem. Glasgow and Edinburgh are opposite in many ways. Glasgow has an influence of Russian Mafia and it’s not uncommon to see bare-chested tattoo strewn beer belly tourists while Edinburgh is flocked by international backpackers with penchant for theatre, music and painting. Glasgow reminds me of Michael Jackson + Paul McCartney number ‘The Girl is mine’ shot with brick - brown coloured, graffiti strewn walls of rectangular shaped warehouse boxes. Edinburgh reminds me of ‘sound of music’ with castles in the background of small houses with front porch covered with pebble stones, garden flowers and protruding chimneys from the top. Glasgow born, Punjabi owner of Indian restaurant in Glasgow warned me to take taxi to the hotel to avoid muggers and druggists, while Edinburgh inn manager wanted me to take a bus to take a tour of the city. This sums up the contrasting ambience of two cities.

Scotland is green, nice and beautiful. With Indian restaurants almost at every corner, English language and economical transport of buses and trains, Scotland is a good tourist designation for vacation. But I think Asians should avoid the month of July- August. Most hotel tariff are steep with influx of tourists, temp is all year high.

Company sponsored gala dinner is something I always look forward to. This time, the venue was winter garden people’s palace. The grandeur of winter garden palace with live bagpiper music from elderly Scotsman in Scottish attire made evening enjoyable despite fuming in sultry weather. Dinner began with Scotsman extolling virtues of Haggis- special dish of Scotland - in a poetic form of Robert Burns. Dish looked greyish brown coloured oval shaped puffed balloon tied at both ends. When pierced with his knife, it popped up showing that looked like brown spongy cake. Everyone got a slice of Haggis with raw Scotch whisky. Our menu mentioned “haggis with neeps, tatties and nips" -- I wasn’t sure of last three items and so was cautious with sample of one spoon to taste hoping that it would be either vegetable or some meat dish. It turned out those three items were mashed turnips, mashed potatoes, nips of whiskey.

Guess what Haggis was made up of? “Sheep’s lung, liver, Kidney fat chopped, grated with oatmeal and then stuffed into the stomach that is upturned and then cooked in the oven. Oatmeal expands in cooking and that’s why baloney shape. Haggis turned out to be most grisly non vegetarian preparation that I have ever come across in all my travels including China.

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