On a grey Saturday morning I brave the freezing weather to go on a trip to the Olympic Park in east London. No, it hasn't reopened yet. This is a post-Olympics bus tour of the park.
There is nothing glamorous about it, at least not to me because I saw the Olympic Park in all its splendour this summer. On the contrary, I'm struck by the nakedness of a place that until recently was ceaselessly invaded by thousands of people from every corner of the earth.
It's been three months since I last set foot in the Olympic Park, but it seems like yesterday. The remaining venues and bridges evoke memories of witnessing historic sporting achievements, patriotic spectators cheering on their Olympic and Paralympic heroes, all the bunting and general buzz, the rain and the sun.
The park is now stripped of all its radiance. The 4,000 square metre London 2012 megastore, where visitors would line up in long queues for souvenir shopping, has vanished. The world's biggest MacDonald's restaurant, 3,000 square metres in size, which also caused super-sized queues, has too disappeared.
Bulldozers, metal fences and piles of rubble and sand dominate in the park now, as a £300million transformation programme is underway to turn it into a new London community. "In a way, with the demolition, the park's gone back to the beginning of things," says Stephen Richards, our tour guide. Stephen, who is from nearby Homerton in Hackney, one of the five Olympic boroughs, boasts over 20 years' experience as a tour guide. So I listen with great interest to what he has to say.
As the bus enters the Olympic Park, equivalent to Hyde Park or 357 football pitches, it collects one of the marshals on duty. For safety reasons. His task is to make sure no over-excited passengers try to get off the bus and continue the tour around the park on foot.
But this is nothing compared to the rigid airport-style security checks people had to undergo in the run-up to the Olympics. I went on three bus tours in the summers of 2009, 2010 and 2011, and can confirm how tight security was then. We had to get off the bus and walk through a metal detector; bags and jackets were scanned separately. Sometimes sniffer dogs would board the bus, whilst the group were busy going through the checks.
I'm glad these security measures were in place from day one. In spite of the G4S fiasco in the weeks leading up to the Games, security played a crucial role in making the London Olympics successful.
As we pass by the Copper Box, where the handball took place, I learn that it will be turned into a leisure centre for the local community. Outside the venue, the nine-metre (30 feet) tall sculpture representing the word RUN, which acted as a mirror for visitors and their surroundings, is still there. I cast my mind back to the windy, grey afternoon when I took my picture in front of it.
When we then near the velodrome, where Chris Hoy and company won numerous gold medals, our guide tells us that its construction materials included rhubarb juice and strong Siberian pine. Like the Copper Box, the velodrome will remain, much to the delight of London Mayor Boris Johnson who is particularly fond of it. The VeloPark, together with the Aquatics Centre, is set to open in the spring of 2014.
Continuing with the tour, we stop for a moment in front of the Basketball Arena, a gigantic ice cube. Only a couple of months ago, I stood there with my camera taking pictures of the surroundings, before finding my seat inside the arena to watch Spain v Brazil and later on Argentina v United States.
I learn that parts of the arena will be sent to Scotland and transformed into a "tennis centre of excellence"; the rest will be recycled. There were rumours before the Olympics that it would be dismantled and transported to Rio de Janeiro for the basketball events during the 2016 Olympics, but it seems like the arena will have a less glamorous fate now.
Next to this crystal white fabric structure are 11 blocks of flats that made up the Athletes' Village during London 2012. Soon 3,000 apartments will be put up for sale. These are now being fitted with kitchens, since the athletes couldn't be trusted with having their own cooking space.
Stephen points to some fading metal structures in the distance, saying that they used to be the catering village for athletes. Once, he says, a BBC journalist asked a catering member of staff how they would cook for athletes from 204 nations with different culinary traditions and preferences. The interviewee apparently said, "It won't be a problem - we have representatives of 195 countries in the five host boroughs."
Most importantly, the Olympic Stadium, where historic achievements excited 80,000-strong audiences this summer, will stay - though downsized to a 60,000-seat venue. It more and more looks like it will become the new home of Premier League football club West Ham United. The stadium is already set to host the 2017 World Championships.
Five new neighbourhoods will be created on the site of the Olympic Park, offering housing and community, leisure and sports facilities. Construction of the first neighbourhood, Chobham Manor, will begin next summer, with residents moving in from 2015. It will be built where the Basketball Arena currently stands.
The park, which will officially become Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on 1 January 2013, will also boast The International Quarter. This development will consist of the already popular Westfield Stratford City, Europe's largest urban shopping centre, as well as new office buildings, homes, restaurants, shops and a hotel, which will create 25,000 jobs.
The red steel structure, Orbit, which was visited by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip along with thousands of commoners, played host to three marriage proposals during the Games. Our guide can't help joking, "I don't know if she accepted them all". Stephen is then quick to say that those were in fact separate proposals and that all three women accepted them. The ArcelorMittal Orbit, to give it its full name, will reopen (and continue serving as a marriage proposal site) in the spring of 2014.
In the meantime, a less impressive (and free) viewing platform, but which offers more attractive vistas than those from the John Lewis store in Westfield, is View Tube - a popular spot prior to the Games with a café and community centre. It was shut during the Olympics but is now open for business.
At the end of the hour-long bus tour, Stephen tells us that we need a bit of imagination to picture the park once all construction projects are completed in the next couple of years. But he points out, "Doing the tour is not as difficult now as before the Olympics, when I had to say, 'this mount of earth will be' such and such."
The London Legacy Development Corporation will run bus tours until June next year. To book a free tour, call 0800 023 2030.
Photos by the author
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