Friday, September 12, 2008

Beijing and The Great Wall

I was looking forward to the train ride - meet new people, see interesting scenery as we headed up through China. I got to the train station and waited. I was feeling terribly anxious for some reason. When it was time to board, I discovered I was sharing a small cabin with two Mongolian boys who wouldn't speak to me the entire time. Or make eye contact. This was my first indication that I might have some language problems ahead of me. I also discovered that I had pretty much no money left. For some reason, I didn't think about the food situation on the train. Good thing I'd picked up snacks. Our train stopped several hours later and we were hustled off into the station for visa processing. I hadn't realized we'd switch trains at the border so I'd gotten all cozy in my bunk -- ready for the 2 day trip. Now I was rushing to pack up while getting barked at in both Chinese and Vietnamese and something I think was supposed to be English.

Bleary-eyed, we got through the processing, had our stuff looked at and boarded a nicer, newer train. Again with the Mongolian boys. The older one (I think they were brothers who went to school in Vietnam but their family lives in Mongolia ...maybe? ) had a mohawk and was wearing a tshirt with stick figures in compromising positions and "I f----d your girlfriend" written across it. He wore it the whole time.

My train from Vietnam to China.

A few minutes later, more Chinese agents were knocking on all the doors and demanding to see the bags of the Western passengers. They wanted to know what my Vietnamese coffee makers were but mostly they were interested in my books and my folder of papers. Was I carrying any subversive literature, I guess. They went through that stuff pretty intensely. I was suddenly really not liking China and wondering what they were going to do when the world descends on them for the Olympics in August.

At some point, I fell asleep but at dawn we were woken up again and hustled off the train into a waiting room. We left our stuff on the train. I am not sure exactly why we had to do this. The waiting room had big cushy 70s style armchairs and crappy coffee but I was starving. We had about an hour to kill so I decided to take my chances and leave the train station to find some food -- I had exchanged what little money I had for Yuan already. Actually, I had plenty of money for regular food. It was the train food I couldn't afford. As luck would have it, there was a small grocery store across the street. I went in, found what appeared to be instant noodles and bought a couple of tubs. I had seen that there was a hot water spigot on the train that was used for noodles and making tea. My apprehension wasn't really abating. I think it was because I hadn't really talked to anyone in almost two days.

Eventually we were moving again and it started raining. For awhile you could see the amazing landscape outside:


But soon there was no visibility whatsoever. The rain fogged up the windows -- so much for the viewing part of the trip. I fell asleep -- as did my cabinmates. Around dinner time, I went to the hot water spigot and on my way back spotted the door open to a cabin filled with Westerners. I paused to see they were playing cards, so I introduced myself. The two guys were from New Zealand and the girl was from England. They had all left New Zealand and were backpacking their way across land -- on their way to China where they'd eventually catch the Trans-Siberian Railway. They invited me to join them so I broke out my bottle of Vietnamese wine (after realizing it could make for a tragjc homecoming in America if I were to open my bag to find it had destroyed everything in transit). Turned out to be a good thing as it was REALLY BAD. Eventually, we moved to the dining car where we drank the house beer -- Pabst Blue Ribbon of course - and continued playing cards until the wee hours.


We arrived in Beijing the next morning and I asked my new friends if I could trail them to a hotel. I was required to book a hotel in order to get my Chinese visa back in April but then the tourist agency in Thailand canceled it as I didn't know exactly when I would arrive. They agreed -- I think the couple, Craig (yes, another New Zealander named Craig) and Eve were happy to pawn Josh off on me so they could have a little coupley alone time. We got off the train and instantly realized we were going to have a problem with the language. First I followed them as they tried to find information on the Trans-Siberian railway but they quickly gave up and we spent fifteen minutes just trying to find the taxi stand. Once the four of us and our luggage were stuffed in a cab, Craig attempted to give directions to the cabbie. We drove for about ten minutes before the cabbie stopped at a light, pulled out a colorful paper with cartoons on it, pointing at the part that said, "Where do you want to go?" Oh crap. I think these fliers were part of the "Get Ready for the Olympics" training but still. We laughed and tried again. He nodded that he understood and we were off. Another five minutes, the flier came out again. He was very good-natured and we all laughed and tried our best to guide him. Finally after many u-turns and dead-ends, we found the hotel -- which was tucked way back in one of Beijing's hutongs, old neighborhoods with tiny alleys where the buildings adjoin each other and surround a courtyard (these neighborhoods are quickly being bulldozed as Beijing modernizes itself). Once inside the hotel, we then spent 30 minutes trying to check in. My friends had booked two hotel rooms -- both singles. Now they wanted to change one to a room with two beds (for Josh and me). The girls working the front desk absolutely had no idea what we were on about, nor did they seem to understand that my friends had already paid online for the rooms. Finally, a bespectacled business man standing behind us intervened and translated to the clerks. Everything was straightened out. We thanked him profusely and went to our rooms. I was suffering from 3 days of no shower and decided that needed to be remedied immediately before we headed out to explore the local area. However, I could not figure out how to get hot water. I was about to go down to the front desk where I anticipated another 45 minute conversation (even WITH the phrasebook I'd carted through 6 countries in preparation for the difficulty I expected in China) when I ran into the friendly business man who turned out to be our neighbor. I explained the lack of hot water and he kindly offered to help out. He came into our room and called downstairs with our phone. He sat back and smiled and started telling us that he was a professor and that he'd written a book about how China was going to take over the world and so everyone better start learning Chinese (I'm already aware of this, I have seen "Firefly" after all...). A few minutes later, there was knock on the door and a hotel worker popped in... with a thermos of hot water -- for tea. Oh dear. I must not have explained myself well. "The shower," I said. "I meant hot water for the shower." Our neighbor slapped his head and stepped into our bathroom and twiddled a knob I hadn't seen. Ta-da! I Hot water! I thanked him, but he settled back down again to discuss his book some more. I gave Josh a look of apology and stepped into the bathroom.

When I came out, our neighbor had cleared out. Josh showered and we went next door to collect his friends but oddly enough, they didn't answer-- so we headed out on our own. First stop, cash. We kept walking and discovered that we were right in the main tourist area. We wandered around for a bit, trying to decide on where to eat lunch. Met an adorable puppy, which I nicknamed "Dim Sum" because I'm PC like that.

dimsum - photo by Josh


Candidate for "People who look like their pets."

Ended up eating McDonald's and figured we'd get a real dinner later. After wandering around the lake and peeking into shops for fun "Engrish" (I found a couple of good t-shirts) we went back to the hotel to pick up Josh's friends for dinner. Josh dropped off his laundry with the front desk clerks and we headed out to eat dinner at a local cafe while a video of a Shania Twain concert blared overhead.

Next morning, my friends wanted to get their train tickets squared away. We caught a taxi back to the train station so they could get their tickets for Tuesday. While they took care of it, I picked up postage stamps (which would turn out to be a waste of money), checked my email (failure -- couldn't get onto my email -- oh hi China!) and get breakfast. Then we all wandered through an interesting grocery store where I purchased some Chinese style medicine for my ailing stomach.


Speaking of ailing stomachs, I then had to run across the street to a hotel to use their facilities. Looks like my "friends from India" were back.

Hailed another cab and headed to The Temple of the Heavens. It was a strange day - overcast yet you could see the sun burning through the clouds above. Couldn't tell if it was a fog or smog situation but I knew that the Olympians who would be arriving in two months would have their work cut out for them. Josh and I struck out on our own and wandered the gardens.


There is a particular part of the temple where there is a raised marble slab and people took turns standing on it. I found out only recently (a year later) that this was considered the highest point and the emperor would stand here to be both part of earth and the heavens.


I took my turn and then saw the young boy who stepped up after me grin such a Golum smile, I had to take his photo. Yeesh.


Around the grounds were covered walkways that appeared to be THE place for older Chinese to get together. Many games of chess were going on as well as karaoke machines to gather around, dancing groups, exercising groups (boy do the Chinese love their exercise), and various other social activities.



Some serious storm clouds were gathering so we decided to head out. We thought it might be a good idea to book a trek to the Great Wall that evening. I wanted to go the next day as I was worried there might be bad weather if I left it until Sunday. Josh decided he'd accompany me.

We headed back to the hotel and Josh and I went to the front desk to book the trip. I should have known it would be another impossible session of charades. I even tried to draw a picture of the Great Wall to illustrate what we wanted to do. Finally they understood. Josh remembered he was running out of clothes to wear and asked if his laundry was ready (or gestured a lot until they understood). The clerk went and retrieved his bag of laundry, which looked dubious... nothing was folded. We walked back up to the room and Josh pulled out a t-shirt from the bag --"I don't think they washed it," he laughed. They certainly didn't smell clean. Nope, not washed -- they just stored his dirty clothes for him -- they must have thought he was crazy.

Dinner at a nearby restaurant. Our bottle of wine was sponsored by the Olympics. So was the beer. I soon noticed quite a bit was sponsored by the Olympics.


Dinner was interesting -- tough to find something on the menu that wasn't intestines, brains etc. Then I figured, who decided muscle was okay to eat but not stomach? I ended up eating Peking Duck -- it's a requirement. So amazing.

Early to rise -- a taxi would take us to the waiting bus. We were greeted with a prepared "breakfast" -- a questionable "sandwich" -- and hopped on board. It was about an hour and a half ride out to the section of the wall we'd be walking, Simatai which was much less touristy than the Badaling section.

The weather was not so great -- very cloudy and foggy and hinting at possible rain. Josh and I picked up some ponchos and an umbrella and started the hike. A Chinese man hung back to chat with us as we walked. Told us he was a farmer. I didn't really want the company (the guy was very chatty and something didn't feel right) and stopped to adjust my shoes and backpack but the guy hung out next to us and kept yapping. Dismayed, Josh and I kept looking at each other -- were we stuck with this guy for the next 3 hours? Hadn't seen him on the bus -- where did he come from? When we climbed up to the start of the wall, we finally learned his reason for friendliness: he wanted to sell us a calendar. We detached ourselves from him with a firm no and continued our trek. We were to be ambushed by sellers at every watchtower but this still wouldn't be as bad as Badaling's touts. In fact, the wall was fairly empty. Josh and I would either linger behind or hurry ahead in order to get shots of the Wall completely void of people. Unfortunately (or fortunately as it perhaps kept tourists away) the weather often had the Wall shrouded in fog. But still, it was beautiful and mysterious -- probably more so than had it been full sunshine.



I really enjoyed the hike -- the Great Wall was one of the reasons I decided to go on this trip in the first place. Six months earlier (or perhaps more), I'd been sitting in my living room with my neighbor, Sherrod, watching a Dateline episode on the Wall. I knew I had to see it. I didn't realize how soon I would see it. I remembered this and as I stood at the peak of one of the rolling stretches of the wall, I paused to text Sherrod: "Guess where I am!" "Newark?" was the response.

It was nice there were so few people on the wall. At one point, I paused ahead of another group to squat down and take a picture of the stretch of wall ahead of me. Just as I was about to take the picture, a young woman burst ahead of me and into the frame, exclaiming, "I'M AFRAID OF HEIGHTS!" Baffled, I said, "Then why are you up here?" "If I keep moving, I'm okay." Sure, lady... as long as you keep moving UP THE HIGHEST HILL we've come across and ruin my photo -- I mean, it IS all about you. Honestly.




It was rather sad when we completed the trek. I knew that not only was I done with seeing something so amazing (that I might never see again in my life)... but also, somehow, I've reached the end of my trip. In two short days I'd be on a plane heading back to New York. I was ready... but I wasn't. I had no idea if I'd ever be able to do something like this again and melancholy was setting in fast and furious.

We crossed a rickety footbridge, climbed a hill and then hiked down to where the rest of our tour group was camped out in a cafe for our included "lunch."


Half-starved, we dug into the buffet. Our table was rather raucous and before we were going to head out and back to Beijing, a bunch of them purchased more beer for the bus ride (no open container laws) including Josh.


I made due with my one beer and later was glad of it. We hit some SERIOUS traffic and when we finally stopped to get some gas, half the guys on the bus were nearly bursting. They SPRINTED to the bathroom and exhibited sheer relief on their faces when they returned. Josh said he'd never felt like that before in his life -- almost didn't think he was going to make it. We stopped again a little later and I decided to use the facilities and I can honestly say they were the worst facilities in my entire 3.5 months in Asia. It was basically a cement building with holes dug in the dirt. The smell was incredible. Suddenly, the thought of pristine porcelain seated toilets and two-ply toilet paper looming in my future was heartwarming.

We got back to Beijing in pouring rain. Covered in mud and exhausted, we trotted down to a cafe for a dinner and hit the hay.

My Last Day

After a quick breakfast, we headed to the Forbidden City (which was actually pretty close by). The crowds were chaotic. Before entering the palace, I headed to the bathroom and thought, you know, if I time this right -- this will be the last squatting toilet I use.

And it was! Oof, one thing I will not miss, that's for sure.

I found it a little difficult to enjoy the Forbidden Palace due to the hordes of tourists but it certainly is a beautiful place.






As we exited on the other side of the palace, a familiar red wall loomed up. We passed through a tunnel and emerged under Chairman Mao's giant portrait on the other side.



Tiannamen Square. It's immense. I realized I really didn't know much about what happened here. There's no recorded death toll -- the NY Times has it somewhere between 400-800.

We headed to the closest subway to take us out to the Bird's Nest -- the new Olympic Stadium. The subway system was at least fairly easy to navigate. I imagine that was an Olympic initiative. However, the closest subway still only got you within a mile from the stadium. We walked through the blistering 90+ heat to the stadium. The smog was incredible.


The Birds Nest didn't look quite done and the grounds were a mess. All over the city, hotels were still going up (and would sit empty anyway). But there was a TGIFridays up and ready to go right by the entrance.


I stopped to take a picture of some workers and one of them pretended to come after me. I hope he was pretending...


Hopped in a cab to find lunch. Had Thai food for some reason. Melancholy settling in hard.


Craig and Eve went off on their own and Josh and I decided to do my last night up right. First we had a game of cards at a fondue/hot pot restaurant which was empty. The beers were about 1.50 each. We walked across the street to the tourist area where beers jumped up to 5 dollars a glass. No thanks. We wandered around for a bit. Found ourselves walking behind an American family -- the mother, at one point, whipped around and hissed, "Hunter, stay with us!" to her small son.


I had noticed around Beijing there are quite a few sidewalk gyms. Right near the hotel in the hutong there were some rudimentary stairclimbers and sit-up/push-up equipment. As we walked around the lake (and saw a number of tubby men swimming) we passed a gym that had a sort of "gazelle" machine, where you stand on two platforms and swing your legs forward and backward. We hopped on and tried our best, giggling. As we gave up, an elderly Chinese man biked over and jumped onto the machine in full street-clothes and started swinging away -- very seriously.

We kept wandering past an intersection where a small cafe/grilling place where a noxious smell was emanating. It was horrible. Neither of us had the nerve to go and find out exactly what gave off such a stink. We kept moving and eventually ended up in a teensy reggae bar, covered in Jamaican paraphernalia and run by a very large Chinese man with amazing dreads -- a Reggasian, if you will.



We were the only customers so we made friends with the owner and had a great time with his dog. Keeping the party going, we tried to move on to another bar but realized that we just couldn't afford to go out in this touristy area. We ended up passing McDonald's again and got a couple of cokes and walked out to the lake where we sat and watched the boats.




We were about to head back when Josh claimed we needed to make one last stop. Walked into a divey bar and sat down. Almost immediately an incredibly drunk young woman turned around from her table and offered us some mysterious meat in a styrofoam container. "What is it?" I asked. "Kak kak" she says and grabs her tongue. I look at her confused. She gets out her phone, scrolls and presses some buttons and then shows me "duck." Duck tongue. I look at the meat again -- it looks like a tiny slab of salami with two tendons protruding from it. What the heck, it's my last night-- and I eat the tongue.

Duck tongue

Not bad actually although, again, I don't understand who thought it would be a great idea to eat duck tongues. Drunk girl buys a round of shots and offers us another styrofoam container of meat.

Here try this.  It's terrible.

Josh reaches in and throws a piece in his mouth -- and instantly regrets it. "You remember that smell of that grilling shop?" he splutters. I grimace. "It tastes just like that," he chokes, hastily slurping down beer.

"Remember that smell outside that was worst smell in the world.  Well this tastes like it.  Try it!"  -josh

washing the taste out of his mouth.

"You have to try it," he says. Are you kidding? After that review??? But I do since it's only fair.


Whatever that was I just ate... it was horrifying.

Whatever that was I just ate... it was horrifying.

The girl bolts out the door, leaving her quiet and fairly sober friends behind. They don't speak any English so we don't really continue the conversation (despite her drunkenness, the duck-tongue-offerer spoke pretty decent English and translated for everyone).

Drunk Girl's friends are unamused.

Unamused by us.

She reappears 15 minutes later and hands me a tassel of some sort with a very Chinese decoration on it. I have no idea what it is. She picks up her phone and I see that it has several similar tassels. I get out my phone and she adorns it for me. She had specifically run home to get it for me as when we'd exchanged emails earlier and I had used my phone to record hers, she'd noticed my phone was appallingly naked.


Drunk girl then jumps up and again runs to the bar and suddenly there is a round of shots called "duckass" (well why not -- we just had duck tongue) sitting in front of us. They tasted a bit like Kahlua and ohhh boy did they mark the end of our evening.

Oh geez.

We stumbled back to the hotel. I attempted to let the front desk I'd need a taxi to the airport in the a.m. No luck, figured I'd try again in the morning.

Couldn't believe it was time to go home when I woke up. Since Craig and Eve were going that day to the Great Wall and the weather looked gorgeous, Josh chose to go with them. Can't see too much of it! We said good bye and I packed. I was excited and sad.

Performed an intricate mime of "hailing a taxi" and stretched out my arms, made a "vrrrrooom" noise and mimed taking off. The desk girls just put one hand over their mouths, pointed and tittered. Eventually, I gave up and headed out to a main street, luggage in tow. A taxi stopped for me and I showed him my guidebook where it said airport. He nodded briskly and off we went. Ten minutes later... he turned around to ask me where I wanted to go. I now know he meant which airline/terminal but at the time, I again tried to show him "airport" and my ticket, etc. until he stopped by the side of the street, got out, asked a stranger a question and got back in again. We made it to the airport.

I had about two hours to kill and tons of postcards to write so I sat down with lunch to write them. Probably wrote at least a dozen when I looked up and realized my plane was leaving in twenty minutes! I paid and bolted from the restaurant, asking a woman where a post office box was. She directed me to the center of the terminal. I sprinted over, tossed in the cards and RAN down the terminal. Of course my plane was at the very last gate which looked like half a mile away. I'm panting, passing flight status monitors showing my flight as "Final Call" -- I sprint up to the desk and I've just made it (although there were about 5 people who showed up right behind me). This is it. In 13 hours I'll be back in New York.

The Arctic

The plane ride feels too fast. I snooze a little, try to watch a Chinese movie and "National Treasure." We go up and over the Arctic, which is kind of wild. Coming over land in New York, seeing all the large, perfect houses below is surreal. How am I home already? Owen is there to meet me. The drive back to David's apartment is filled with wonder and weirdness -- all the new movie billboards, the cars are so American, the houses so clean and huge. The clean streets and silvery skyscrapers. It's all familiar but feels off. The three and a half months slipped by just like that. It felt like it had just been days since I'd woken up on my first morning in Mumbai, terrified to even step outside and now I was climbing the stairs to David's apartment and collapsing in his bed. It was lovely to be home but I wanted more time. I felt like I ran through 7 countries at breakneck speed. I should have taken more planes and spent less time on buses. There was still more I wanted to see. How can it be over?

No one got my postcards from China...and my banana chip bag is still intact. I guess I just have to plan a new trip sometime in the near future. Eventually those chips will be mine.