Thursday, January 11, 2018

Christchurch 2.0

When I began putting together an itinerary for New Zealand, I worried that in order to see everything, I would have to waste a lot of time just getting from one place to the next. It's wasn't that the distances were so tremendously great, it is that those pesky Southern Alps turn otherwise short trips into all day affairs. To feel better about this, whenever possible, I tried to incorporate some sightseeing into the trips themselves. For example, to get from Queenstown to Christchurch, instead of taking the regular bus, I booked a tour that went past Mt. Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain.

As best I can tell, the most popular ways to explore the Mt. Cook/ Aoraki National Park are via multi-day hikes and/ or helicopter tours. I certainly didn't have the time, fitness or budget for either of these options so I figured a quick drive-by would work just as well.
I was too early into my New Zealand travels to realize that you don't need to go out of your way to book scenic routes. Pick any road between points A and B and prepare to be awed. You know the old joke about 'Is Chinese food in China just called food?" There must be some corollary when it comes to scenic drives and New Zealand. They must just call them drives. In reality, it feels like you are inhabiting an unending car commercial, with all the twists, turns and landscapes that convince you that you need that 4-wheel drive.

Since I had flown from Auckland to Queenstown, this was my first exposure with this phenomenon. The whole ride. I was glued to the window not even knowing in which direction to look.

I was so impressed that I was even ok with the fact that the weather all but completely obscured Mt Cook itself.

I thought of photoshopping Mt Cook back in there somewhere but I'll leave it up to the imagination

We stopped for lunch at the Hermitage Hotel within the park itself and had the weather cooperated, had enough time for a short hike.

Sir Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand climber who used Mt Cook to train for his ascent to MT Everest.

But the weather did not want to play nice so I ventured over to the Visitor's Center and its small but well-done museum instead.

As we neared Lake Tekapo, the weather began to clear. The thought of jumping off the bus and spending the rest of the day at the hot springs was more appealing than I care to admit. Sweetening the deal was the chance of killer stargazing. There are twelve Dark Sky Reserves in the world and one of them is by Lake Tekapo!

A monument to sheep-herding collies. 

But I couldn't throw my itinerary out of whack so early in the trip so I continued on to Christchurch. Where Queenstown had been all chill ski-town and wide open expanses, Christchurch was its busy, urban cousin.

If Christchurch has a motto, it is "Please excuse our dust while we remodel". This is because they suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 2011 that leveled the city, killed 185 people and injured thousands.

Anywhere else, there is a good chance it would become a boarded-up ghost town as residents flee toward less rubble-y environs. But not Christchurch. They are handling the situation like a boss! They have taken a creative approach, using abandoned lots as canvases, pop-up shops and urban mini-parks.

In some areas, like the Christchurch Cathedral Square, the destruction is more obvious. For years, there has been a debate whether to rebuild the damaged Cathedral or raze it and start anew. A few months ago, it was finally decided that it would be rebuilt to the same basic design.

That bureaucratic conversation could take place anywhere, but it is what they did in the meantime that is more telling. The people of Christchurch called in Shigeru Ban, a disaster architect known for quickly erecting buildings using innovative materials to build a temporary cathedral. He used shipping containers to form the walls and reinforced cardboard tubes to create the A-line roof. The Cardboard Cathedral, as it became known, is now used as both a place of worship and to host conferences.

A more permanent structure is the city's fantastic Art Gallery. (NZ budget tip #5: A surprising number of museums are free to get into and many, including this one, offer free guided tours.)

Martin Creed's Everything is going to be alright.

The gallery features an excellent range of works, primarily from New Zealand artists, with everything from  modern art to traditional Maori paintings featured throughout the two story building.

Who doesn't need a glitter elevator in their lives?
Surprise of the day: Finding Miami-artist Carlos Betancourt's book in the gift shop.

Bill Culbert's Bebop

Ronnie van Hout's Quasi

Near the museum is the city's Tourist Office where a wonderful pink-haired lady gave me a list of places to visit.

She insisted I stop by the Botanical Gardens to see the Azaleas in bloom.  As the very melodramatic "The Azaleas are dead!!" written in my journal attests, I did not make it in time but there was plenty more foliage to admire.

One of my favorite suggestions was the ReSTART container mall, which is exactly what it sounds like. With the entire city under construction, brightly painted shipping containers were brought in to house boutique shops. Add a bunch of food trucks and a beer garden and it is quite possibly the first time I have ever been impressed by a mall.

Quite possibly the most Christchurch-y picture ever.
An empty lot features Peter Majendie's monument to the lives lost during the earthquake. 185 empty white chairs invite visitors to sit and reflect on the not so distant past.

The Mission-style stores on the pedestrian New Regent Street date back to the 1930's. They were damaged in the 2011 earthquake, repaired and then damaged again during the 2016 Valentine's Day earthquake. Today, they are up, running and looking great.

It is yet another testament to the city's resilience. As much as I liked Christchurch's artsy vibe, it is the spirit of the people that is most remarkable. Here is a city that went through some terribly horrific shit. The entire downtown area was cordoned off at one point!  And yet, they very literally dusted themselves off and set about rebuilding and making the city even better.

They are like the ideal friend- the one that you turn to when everything's gone to pot, when you wake up missing a shoe and unsure why there is a flamethrower in the front seat of your car. Christchurch would be the one to tell you "Yeah, that sucked but what can you do?  Get up, put on some lipstick and let's go. We've got shit to do."

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