September 20, 2010
Despite my best efforts we made it here. At 9pm just 4 hours ahead of a 1am departure, I discovered the credit card necessary for check-in was in Bushwick, Brooklyn. We were miles away in Staten Island at the home of my travel companion and, at least for now, my girlfriend, Seo Jung (Linda) Park.
If not for some skilled driving on the part of her father, we might never had made the flight. It was most definitely the worst way to impress upon her worried mother–who already has many non-travel related doubts about my general character and reliability–that I would take care of her only daughter in the People’s Republic of China. That is as if Linda needed taking care of in the first place. She’s the one who speaks Mandarin.
22 hours, two flights, a layover in Linda’s own South Korea, three special meals, and one request from a stewardess to see my passport just before take-off in Incheon to confirm that it’s ok with the Department of Homeland Security that I can fly without lighting my shoes or my crotch on fire, we landed in Beijing at 11pm in New York.
And for a city of 22 million it was remarkably quiet. Everything I’d been told to expect was for it to be one of those cacophonic unforgivable cities that oppress you with noises, pollution and humanity. But we found nothing more than a muted buzz at the New Dragon hostel (owned by the Super 8 corporation) No yelling, no music, and most jarring, no sirens.
We lay down for a brief nap that lasted from 2am in New York until 6pm in Beijing. With this elongated rest went any possibility of sight-seeing or hopes of a smooth adjustment. We found dinner, bottled water and a stinky internet cafe, but sleep the first night came in 15 minute spurts as our bodies struggled to make sense of the modern ability to cover the distance of a years long trip in just under a day.
On our way to breakfast that morning, the lovely and pragmatic Linda suggested we buy our train tickets for trips north later this week at a local agent. I cast doubts on their efficacy for getting us where we needed to go. It would be much faster and less confusing to buy them at the central train station. Not true. So so so not true.
At the train station Beijing became the oppressive city I had expected. Imagine Grand Central Station at rush hour and consider it the station in Cheboygan on Sunday. Add a steady drizzle.
A fifteen minute hunt across, around and through the station yielded the “Windoew for Foreigners.” While the Chinese waited in 50 lines stretching 25 people a piece, we had our very own white people line. Save for the fact that it was closed.
The Germans in the line told us the clerk was on a lunch break due to return in a half an hour. So we found our place in the next Chinese line over figuring that if the white people line clerk returned we could slide over. We lurched forward minute by minute as the line grew behind us. When we were three people from the front our Chinese line closed without announcement.
At the same moment the white people line clerk returned and all 25 of us in line unsystematically switched lines with no credit given for our previous place. We watched as the three groups of foreigners now in front of us were denied tickets by the English-speaking clerk even as the Chinese made successful purchases. But although the clerk was more than annoyed that I couldn’t hear her above the noise and through her accent, we got our seats. Two tickets. Beijing to Huludao North. Soft Seat. 130 Yuan.
Now it was off to the 798 Art District. But not before waiting too long in the rain for a bus with what seemed like 1,000 other people. Our bodies still believed it was the middle of the night and knew they had been on their feet for too many hours for the amount of hours of sleep we’d had for the last 2 or 3 or 4 days. What time was it?
We delayed our trip to 798 to take in serene fixings of a Japanese restaurant with a screaming Chinese wait staff. But the interlude lasted long enough for the rain to stop and for our bus to finally arrive. The 798 art district is one of those places filled with galleries, cafés and stores filled with beautiful hand-crafted unnecessary items that everyone says was better when they first arrived than it is now. If not for the three weeks of living out of a backpack ahead of us we’d have walked out with two or three unnecessary but beautiful items. We hoped that leaving early meant a short rest at The New Dragon Hostel (owned by the Super 8 corporation) before dinner with two friends.
Our return trip included many of the typical delays of Beijing rush hour including traffic, security checks, and a bus attendant who left the bus for 15 minutes for a never-explained reason. Our short rest became a 10 minute power-nap. But finally, after a satisfying meal and conversation with the good folks at Baihe Vegeatarian Restaurant we found sleep.
September 22, 2010
As with much else here, everything is in the Summer Palace is immense. At its center lies a gargantuan man-made lake that in no way appears man-made. The day-long walk around the lake entails encounters with hundreds of structures from ornate palaces to ornate bridges to ornate gardens. And alongside the structures come the wave of humanity that accompanies all we have experienced. One cannot beat the crowd in Beijing by visiting a cultural site on off-hours on an off-day. The crowd is everywhere.
And while the palace is striking with many chances to sit and take in the beauty of the lake or the decorative wonder of a structure, my favorite moment came at the urinal. Near the end of the day, I stood in a spotless men’s room, pissing in front of the following sign: A Step Up Closer Helps Keep It Cleaner. This sign is amazing for three reasons. First, it remains the only English-translated sign of more than a few words that I have encountered that makes clear grammatical sense. It is as if the government commissioned Google Translate to create its signage with the result being phases that go on too long, often in the wrong order without meaning what the sign is clearly intended to indicate. Parking Prohibited becomes Appropriate Parking, Men’s Room becomes During Part of Shower. Second, it epitomizes the overbearing and nagging sensibility of authority here. They can’t even leave you alone to pee without a reminder to do it better. Finally, and I didn’t understand this until I showed it to Linda and she translated the Chinese characters which say something closer to, “a step forward is a step forward for civilization.” At least as an English speaker I had just felt the need to improve myself while urinating, the poor Chinese fellow next me was carrying the weight of his nation and his ancestors while ridding himself of his morning tea.