Friday, March 6, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 5 (Part 2)

After brunch, I continued my walk around. I crossed Louise Bridge into downtown and followed a pretty park trail that follows the Bow River. The downtown core was clearly visible just outside the park, but it was like a separate world inside, with joggers, families spending time together, tourists with large cameras, trees, bridges to portions of the park on islands, and signs warning of coyotes. I walked though Eau Claire Market, which was in the trendy Eau Claire district. There were some cool shops and whatnot, but nothing that's worth mentioning individually. After Eau Claire, I walked through the very impressive Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. It is a large brick building where the centre portion rises into a dramatic pagoda. On both the inside and outside, the pagoda is very meticulously decorated with paintings and colourful wooden beams, just like any of the large historical pagodas you can see in China. This pagoda atrium connected to different offices and rooms on multiple floors, and there was even a theatre from which the sounds of a Southern Chinese opera was emanating and floating up to fill the entire atrium. After marvelling at this unexpectedly majestic building, I ducked into the downtown core of Calgary where I was determined to explore the +15 system, their vast system of sky bridges connecting the buildings of the downtown core.

Seeing a +15 sign, I walked up and pulled on the door handle. It was locked! It turns out that most of the office buildings that the +15 is connected to are locked during weekends and holidays, which is not the case for the underground PATH system back home in Toronto that I was so familiar with. For the next half an hour, I wandered around town pushing and tugging on any doors that I felt had even a remote chance at granting me access to the +15. I passed through bustling Chinatown shopping centres to post-apocalyptic scenes of streets surrounded by looming office towers abandoned for the weekend. I went though dozens of doors and up and down many stairs trying to find my way into the +15 system. It felt like I was inside a computer game where I had to find the one open door to get to the next level. Just as I was about to give up, I found a way into the +15 system through an entrance to an underground parking garage.

Although the +15 system is not as large and Toronto's PATH or Montreal's RÉSO, I found it much more modern looking and futuristic. This was enhanced by the glowing electronic signs at all the doors advising you of the direction you are travelling in. At nearly all of the junctions, there are large round electronic podiums with touch screens with which search for your destination and scroll and zoom around the map. If you type in where you want to go, these podiums will plot a path for you. The system was also filled with automatic doors that open for you when you approach and close right after you pass through to prevent too much airflow between the buildings. It felt very futuristic to be walking between the lobbies of the large buildings through glass corridors carrying you above the traffic and the occasional park below. From these corridors, you can see a line of similar sky bridges stretching down the street, some of them towering up to three floors in height when connecting busy shopping centres! I was also extremely impressed by how clean the corridors, and the city as a whole is, which earned Calgary the distinction of being named the cleanest city on Earth by Forbes Magazine.

After exploring some of the nooks and crannies of the +15 system, I made my way to the Devonian Gardens. The Devonian Gardens is a large indoor park on the upper floors of the buildings connecting the busy Calgary Eaton Centre and the Hudson's Bay Company. The lower floors contain a bustling multilevel shopping centre stretching over three continuous blocks. Unfortunately for me, the gardens were closed for renovations, so I peeked through the windows and saw lush vegetation, paths, and small streams. It must be great for the office workers there to have such a beautiful place of serenity within a few minutes from their cubicles. If I worked in the downtown area, I would probably eat lunch there at least once or twice a week.

Since I was not able to see the Devonian Gardens, I walked to the adjacent Stephen Avenue Mall, a wide pedestrian street in the middle of downtown Calgary surrounded by shops and restaurants. This looks like it would be a great place to spend a day when it is warm outside.

Eventually, I wandered into the Calgary Tower, and although I was not originally planning to go up it, I decided that it was still early and I didn't have anything better to go. This turned out to be a great decision, as I really enjoyed the view from the top. For one thing, you can get a bird's eye view of all the major attractions in the Calgary area from the top of the tower. I enjoyed an interesting section that protruded out from the tower where the walls and floors were all glass so that you felt like you were hovering in mid-air. However, what I found most interesting was that from the top of the tower, one can clearly see the vast, flat landscape of the Canadian prairies. From that vantage point, the City of Calgary, and especially the downtown core looks like it just springs up in a vast expanse of emptiness, much like a patch of mushrooms after a spring shower, which all of a sudden made me feel very far from the rest of society, as this city appeared to me as a lone metropolis in a sea of emptiness. It was a very humbling and unsettling feeling that nature can just easily take over this city without its citizens fighting together for their existence. I wondered what will happen to Calgary after the Alberta oil boom is over. The view to the west was just as gorgeous, as one can see in the distance a jagged impenetrable wall rising abruptly from the flat terrain forming the Canadian Rockies. The soft orange-yellow hue of the sun getting low in the sky made the entire scene appear extraordinarily beautiful, but excruciatingly lonely and unsettling at the same time. I sat there for a while just enjoying the scenery and reflecting on the thought that our existence is much more fragile and at the mercy of nature than I had previously thought.

After the tower, I took the tram south and walked to the Mission District from the Stampede Grounds. There were some good views of the city along this walk. The Mission is a trendy neighbourhood with a lot of small shops, restaurants and bars. I feel that I would be very happy to live here. I noticed that there were a lot of French speakers around here as well as the city in general. I was eventually surprised to find that Calgary is surprisingly diverse, and that over 12% of the city's residents has French ancestry, which was only the 7th largest group in terms of ethnic origin.

Although I was very attracted to some of the restaurants and bars in the area, I decided to continue on as it was starting to get dark. Following Kevin's prescribed route, I walked into a residential neighbourhood and started going up icy, slippery hills. I came across a mysteriously narrow path leading into some bushes which were reduced to bunches of thin sticks for the winter. I decided to follow it. After a short hike, I found myself at the crest of a hill. Looking down, I saw a network of trails and a sea of buildings below me, which was very pretty against the setting sun.

Returning to my original path, I walked to Hillcrest, where I was greeted by a spectacular view of the downtown core. Apparently others have also taken note of this view, as the area was filled with large mansions and estates, including an extraordinarily large castle-looking manor flying the Union Jack.

I eventually made my way back to Kevin's apartment through some treacherously slippery and steep hills and roads. After dinner and hanging out for a while, we went to sleep early as I had to wake up to catch a 7:30 flight to work the next morning, and Kevin had graciously agreed to drive me to the airport.

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