Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Wednesday 1 December 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The first improbability about Las Vegas is that it exists at all. The second is that its name means 'the meadows'.

As we approached it after dark, heading East across the desert, there seemed absolutely no likelihood that a city could exist in the middle of such a desolate area. More pertinently it was impossible that something as lush as a meadow was on the cards. It was all very Wild West. Vast and empty and harsh.

We were heading in the Ford 'Escape' to seek out the riches of this town as part of our six day frolic through the sunny sillinesses of the south western USA. We had visited Disneyland, we were going to Vegas and our final stop was going to be LA. We were enjoying ourselves at the end of our cycling and I was excited to visit Vegas since I had never really seen it.

And I wasn't at all convinced that I was going to now! I really couldn't imagine it being there. However just after we crossed the state line into Nevada from California we got our first hint that a sizable inhabitation was round the corner.

We were greeted in Nevada by the town of Primm. A more inaccurate name for a town has surely never been invented. As soon as the gambling law gloves are off Nevada takes advantage of the situation and Primm is a hot bed of vice and sin. Glowing in front of us was 'Whiskey Willie's' and 'Terrible's Casino' and looming behind them an enormous rollercoaster. 'Free Drinks', 'First $10 stake supplied', 'Rooms free with Casino entrance' were the enticing invitations. I guess it was a place for those who couldn't make it as far as Vegas to get stuck in.

As we whizzed on by a strange celestial light appeared on the horizon. An earthly kind of glow that looked as if it eminated from the belly of a UFO. Vegas proper was hoving into view. We crested a hill and suddenly there it was laid out in front of us, like an enormous glowing mess of tea leaves in the bottom of a huge mountian tea cup. It was at least 20 miles away still and yet its light spill was making it possible to read things in the car.

We were able to spot our hotel from this far away as well. The Luxor, shaped like a pyramid, has a huge spotlight on top of it which shoots a beam of light into the sky that can be seen all over the Las Vegas valley and from far beyond. We could spot it easily from the car. At forty two billion candle power it is supposed to be the brightest spotlight on earth. Rather less edifyingly, it burns the same amount of electricity in an hour as the average US household take two weeks to get through. Which seems excessive.

But then as we were very shortly about to discover that excess is what Vegas is ALL about.

We pulled into the huge car park for our hotel, travelled on a moving walkway into its ground floor and gawped. Suddenly it was just like all the films. All the flims I had ever seen about this town. There were banks and banks and banks of slot machines, there were black jack and roulette tables and there were girls in improbably small outfits trundling about with silver trays heaving with alcoholic drinks. Lights flashed everywhere, cars and motorobikes perched on podiums or shined from within boxes, music boomed and reception was nowhere to be seen.

We finally found it right on the opposite side. It was reminiscent of check-in at Heathrow Terminal Five, although rather less glamorous, with a weird snaking ropeway for us to wriggle through and banks of desks. With our key came a great pile of leaflets and a map with which to navigate the hotel. We scurried to our room to inspect our loot and discovered that most of what we had been handed were inticements or adverts encouraging us to do things.

Here is the list of things you are encouraged to do in Vegas. You are encouraged to do all of them to excess:

1. Eat - at one of the inumerable buffets. These come in a number of forms from the worryingly cheap to impressively expensive and can be on a meal by meal basis or enjoyed with an 'all day' pass. That is so that you can eat all day if you wish. All day, without ever leaving the buffet.

2. Drink - happy hours are available all day. There are a million promotions encouraging you to imbibe, some come with gambling chips thrown in, most come with dancing girls in attendence, all contain supersize alcohol options.

3. Gamble - Clearly this should be number one on the list, but the first two are provided so that you can enjoy this third in comfort and very possibly inebriation. There is a very direct correlation between the amount you are encouraged to drink and the amount you are encouraged to gamble. In fact you can drink alcohol for free whilst gambling.

4. Shop - So that you can dress appropriately for all the above activities there are shops everywhere. Everywhere is in fact a shop and there are an extraordinary number of malls. These malls contain all the usual labels and all the super labels and some items of such expense that clearly success at all of the first three is required for you to be brave enough to splash out.

5. Gawp - When you need a rest from the exhausting pursuits listed above you can go to a show in Vegas. Huge names perform here or have performed here. Singers, magicians, comedians. In addition to those there are musicals and circuses, wild animals on display and rare fish in tanks and fountains that dance and girls that do too. You can see it all. All at a cost.

6. Party - Nightclubbing, bar hopping, room swapping, any kind of party you want to start you can start it and someone will help you host it. And then send you the bill.

7. Get married - It won't take long, and it might not last long either, but you can do it, anytime of the day or night and people you have never met are happy to witness it and cash your cheque.

8. Lie in the sun, lie in the spa - both are available in abundance. Both may be necessary to recover from any of the above.

9. Thrill yourself - Ride an enormous roller coaster, get thrown off a tall building on a piece of string or spun around or dropped from a horrible height.

10. Theme yourself -You can immerse yourself in any one of the myriad 'worlds' that exist in Vegas. Hotels and resorts are built around concepts, be they fairytale castle, mock up city or simply just how over the top or enormous they can be. You never need worry about being disorientated though, they all have casinos and branches of all the shops you know and love.

We surveyed this list of options in our Egytian themed hotel room, looking out over the rear end of a concrete sphynx and decided to do something not on the list.

We decided to go for a walk.

Fools that we were, we thought we might stroll out of our hotel and check out the 'Strip', the long line of hotels that runs along Las Vegas Boulevard. We had failed to realise that whilst there are many things you can do in Vegas walking is not amongst them.

It is virtually impossible to get anywhere with any speed on foot. It is actively discouraged. You are meant to move from hotel to hotel, from casino to casino by monorail, by taxi or by using your own car. If you must walk then you should not try and do it outside. You should move from place to place through the connecting maze of shopping malls and stay indoors at all times. You must follow the signs to other hotels and join the moving travelators or foot bridges that run between them. You may scratch your head that most signs lead you in an almost complete circle past all the gambling, eating, drinking, shopping, gawping, thrilling options en route but you should not fear because eventually you will get there. You may travel a bird's eye distance of only a few yards in what seems like hours, but don't be afraid because time is meaningless in Vegas. Inside some hotels it is permanent daylight, or daylight inside when it is night out and night inside when reality is reversed.


So, feeling slightly disorientated on that first evening we walked a very short distance. We looked right down the Strip at its reported fifteen thousand miles of neon lighting and then bundled ourselves into a burger joint for a quick un-buffet dinner.

We didn't need to worry about leaving hungry though despite the fact that we had to order what we wanted. 'Fat Burger' have made plenty of provision for excess. It is the first time in my life I have ordered food using a dress size system. Burgers are small, medium, large, extra extra large or 'bring a wheel barrow'. Phil and I ordered according to our size and left groaning under the weight of grub. We needed to walk it off and so it was lucky that the quarter of a mile back to our hotel was in reality about five.

We slunk into our hotel room and got ready to undertake Vegas properly over the next thirty-six hours. We were preparing fully to really go for it on the silliness front. We looked at the list, made a plan of attack and then did another very un-Vegassy thing. We got an early night.

We woke with renewed vigour and began our day in a buffet. The Luxor breakfast buffet seemed like it would offer us everything we needed and we were right. We piled into mountains of fruit and other tasty offerings fuelling ourselves all the while on sizable amounts of coffee. There was literally everything we could have wanted available.

Then we took to the Strip. We had decided to explore the hotels near us and then head right to the other end by monorail before returning to the middle for the last part of the day. We planned just to look at it all and gawp as instructed.

And so it was that leaving the glamours of Egypt we went to the exotic Mandalay Bay, a hotel with a gold interior, a huge casino, a shark tank and a massive theatre where one can see the Lion King. Then it was on via the Excaliber and waving to New York New York, to the MGM Grand, the largest hotel in the world, where we saw real lions and another big casino. Then on by Monorail to the Stratosphere where the casino is topped by a huge tower which we whizzed up and got a great view over the whole city.

Vegas lay before us by day baking in the desert sun all parched and dry and massively and continuously under construction. Beyond there were extraordinarily beautiful mountains looking on bemused at the desert of taste nestling in their midst.

We jumped in a cab (getting good at Vegas now) and rushed to the Bellagio where under an extraordinary chandelier of bright glass flowers we met up with Garth and Dee, our Canadian biking friends who were winding down from the coastal route with a bit of Vegasing too.

Together we launched on a trail of Italian luxury passing through the Bellagio to Ancient Rome at Ceasar's Palace. Here the curving escalators and Forum of luxury shops led us on for yet more 'bella' diversions at the Venetian where the odd internal daylight allowed us to stroll along their recreations of the Grand Canal and St Mark's square.

It was hilarious. Some of these places are amazing and quite beautiful in their audacious over the topness, others are pricelessly trashy. We were loving it.

We then all headed for perhaps the only properly glam spot in town at the Wynn hotel. Here 'theme' has been suspended in favour of sumptuousness and, if one can ignore yet another huge casino, it is luxury in a very pleasing way. We whiled away a very happy hour or two sipping delicious cocktails and gossiping by an enormous and beatifully lit waterfall. They even put on some quirky and inventive light shows for us. It was very cool.

Then we went to Paris.

Well, actually to the hotel of the same name. There we ate in a very nice restaurant under the Eiffel Tower which, if its waiter had been rather less California in his ebulliance and accent, was a dead ringer for a small side street bistro in that famed city.

Finally we took a deep breath and we rounded the night off with a spot of gambling.

I should emphasis the 'spot'. It was super light weight gambling. With only $32 as a stake we nudged nervously to a roulette table. We were too freaked out to bet straight away and had to watch for a bit before getting up the courage. Then Stacey, who was the croupier on our table, had to explain to us, slightly long sufferingly, what we had to do! We listened carefully, dived in with gusto and twenty minutes of heady thrills later we left the table with....$32. As you can see we really took to it like ducks to water!

We had had a great day. We had done just about everything on the list, with one notable and probably wise exception (I'll leave you to check) and waved off Dee and Garth really very respectably late. It had been great to see them.

The following day, nursing slight hangovers, we rounded off our Vegas experience with another buffet. This time, back at the Wynn, it was a very delicious and varied delight. The food was incredibly good and we ate an awful lot of it.

Dining to such excess we reflected on the madness of Vegas. We had seen so much that was so extraordinary, so sublimely ridiculous. Yet the concept of making these massive adult playgrounds, some so extravagantly conceived, is such a contradictory one. In some cases it is odd and beautiful; in others it is odd and really very horrid. The ugliest part of it all had been for us the disposible, wasteful and temporary nature of everything. Stay in the prescribed pathways and you will only see the 'glamour'. Wander away even slightly and the whole sham comes crashing down. We had accidentally found ourselves on some back stairways in a couple of hotels. Here it was all breezeblocks and rubbish and casually disposed bits of fake Roman statue. None of it is meant to last. They build these big hotels up only to tear them down a few years later. They pump them full of precious resources like water and electricity, spending them as if there is no tomorrow and encouraging their clientele to do the same with the precious resources of their lives.

We also noticed how strange the lives of those who frequent the Strip and all its glories is. Returning to the Luxor at one in the morning, the cleaning ladies were hard at work servicing rooms. Vegas is a place which never sleeps and where all normal behaviour is contravened. Perhaps the saddest sights of all were those sitting at the slot machines at nine in the morning, drink in hand, cigarette in another hitting the machine's 'Play' button again and again and again. It didn't have a very playful look to it.

We were pretty content therefore to 'Escape' in our hire car. We sped down the freeway to the relative sanity of LA!

We were laughing that we were going from one mad house to another, to the craziness of LA LA Land.
But it turned out not to be silly at all.

We spent a blissful forty-eight hours there, perhaps because the emphasis was on socialising. We stayed with Phil's friend Joanne in her glamorous Hollywood pad. She gave up her room for us so that we could sleep divinely, which was perhaps a bit silly but so kind. We hung out with her and also my friends Ian, Sarah and Mhari. In addition we were able to visit Phil's cousin Sonia and spend the most wonderful afternoon with her and her family. Sebastian and Evie seemed very delighted to meet 'Uncle Phiiiil' and we got to tour her new home just as it was very sensibly being kitted out with a new bathroom window and all sort of other very down to earth things.
Joanne spent a whole day with us driving us around LA, showing us the sights. We saw the beautiful and slightly silly people jogging in the Hollywood Hills as we posed by the famous sign, we sipped cocktails as the sun came down over Venice Beach and we whizzed through the streets in her lovely car waving to Rodeo Drive, Sunset Boulevard and Mulholland Drive.

We therefore got a very ordinary perspective on the city. That of locals. After the unrealities of Disneyland and Vegas we were back with feet firmly on the ground with people who live and breathe sunny southern America everyday. We drank coffee in a homey kitchen, we met Joanne's production mates and joked about hand models and lip models, we learnt about the realities of trying to carve a career as an actor and about the places that are good, the places that are bad and the places that are ugly. We heard about friends' immigration struggles, the pitfalls of their ordinary working lives and some heard some great scoops on famous names. We noticed the LA locals love of dogs and heard about which dogs were 'trendy' and currently 'in'. We found out about our friends' dogs and heard their life stories. We churned over politics and day to day living and caught up on each others lives.
It was the perfect way to end our time in the USA. With people we love in a place we'd loved visiting.

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