Monday, March 8, 2010

Day 5: A Damn Cold Capitol

I woke the next morning bleary eyed and greasy, but rested. Train sleeps are never the best, of course, but they are at least sleep.

I waited an extra hour or so before we pulled into the station and meanwhile I watched the frozen farmland fly by outside. To tell the truth, I had been so enamored with Xi'an that I had hardly been thinking much about Beijing. It was the more marquee place of the two, the capitol of the largest country on earth, and currently, it seems the new focus of the whole world's attention as China emerges into a global power.

But at that moment to me it was just a city, like any other, and a damn cold one at that. I had heard that it was extremely cold in Beijing when I was in Xi'an, and I was mentally and physically prepared with long underwear and a strong will to have fun despite the weather. I just hoped it wasn't blizzarding, which it had been doing earlier. To my delight, it was perfectly clear when I arrived, not a cloud in the sky. But it was still damn cold, with terrible wind.

Being so pleased with my hostel experience in Xi'an, I booked Han Tang Inn's Beijing 'sister' hostel, called Tienanmen Sunrise. According the description I read it was a ten minute walk from Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City, a location that couldn't be more central. With my carefully written directions to the hostel from the train station (Beijing West, if I recall correctly), I clumsily found the right bus and stumbled on, huge backpack entail. As we rode along, I eyed my surroundings with my usual wide-eyed, childish excitement. When we passed Tienanmen, I jumped to the window to eye the Square, but as we passed, I wasn't sure if I had seen it or not. I asked the Chinese student I had been chatting with whether that was Tienanmen Square, and I thought that I gathered from her answer that it was NOT Tienanmen Square. But later I learned that it indeed was. Huh. The point is that I clearly had expectations for a grandiose sight in the Square, but it's really not quite that spectacular. Perhaps it never really was, and my expectations were too high to begin with, or perhaps it has changed over the years and no longer resembles the sight it once was, the sight my expectations were based on. I don't know; more on this topic to come.

When I got off the bus I followed my strict directions to the hostel, all the while being stung in the face by powerful wind. The sun was shining brightly, not a cloud in the sky, but the terrible, terrible wind raged on, the kind of wind that knocks the air out of your lungs and leaves you gasping for a solid breath. In retrospect, I am making this sound terrible, but I was afraid such weather would keep up and ruin my trip. Luckily it did not.

Eventually I marched into Tienanmen Sunrise hostel. The staff chuckled at me because my face was utterly bundled up. I was given my room, a dorm room with four beds. But luckily I was apparently the only one staying in the room. I knew that such luck was too good to last, and it wouldn't, but I enjoyed it for a day and night.

Now, to give a brief review, Tienanmen Sunrise was a nice hostel. I met plenty of cool people there and found its general layout conducive to fraternizing. However, my central problem with the place was, for us poor folks staying in the dorm, the bathroom and sink were very far removed from our immediate proximity; basically, they were out a door, down a hallway, and out in the open (the sink was anyway, luckily the toilets weren't). You're without a smidge of privacy when you're trying to wash your face and brush your teeth out in the open as hostel staff and fellow guests are constantly trudging by. And, the water in the sink was always utterly freezing cold. Like the fucking caveman I am I dove in, using it to wash my face and shave nonetheless, but hot water was an amenity that would have gone a long way in that weather.

After freshing up with shave and shower, I found the communal hostel computer to send notes home that I had safely arrived in Beijing. I noticed my one contact in Beijing was online, Zahlen Titcomb. He was a U of C graduate, the oldest of three notorious brothers who each successively captained the frisbee team. Thanks to a mutual friend, we became in contact and decided to meet up. Neither of us had a very long stay in the city, but luckily our voyages overlapped enough to hang out at least for one night.

Zahlen said to simply see the city first by climbing the hill in a park just north of the Forbidden City. Then, I would see most of the landmarks and decide which ones I wanted to see closer. Also, it was a great chance to get a feel for the city as a whole, because it happened to be so clear that day, a rare thing in China as you should know by now. He said I could join him and some friends for hot pot dinner later that evening, but in the meantime he was busy with work, and told me to get my ass out there and explore.

So I did. I didn't follow his plan verbatim, but I hit his hill after the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was, naturally, my first stop, and I must admit I found it to be a bit dry; its alcoves and sideways were not really open, and after seeing what appeared to be the same room for the emperor again and again, I quickly grew tired of it. While there, however, I met a lovely young fellow tourist from Hong Kong named Maggie. She was by herself as well, and we decided to be friends and see the sights together. Such occurrences are common on the backpacking trail.

Once finished with the Forbidden City, we climbed to the top of the hill in the park just north of it. Zahlen was right: it was a magnificent view of the city, and you could pick out many of the landmarks, like Tienamen Square, the Great Hall of the People, the new Opera Building, Beihai Park, and the Temple of Heaven. I told Maggie that I wanted to see Tienanmen Square, but it would require walking back around the whole Forbidden City, but she didn't mind. So we walked around, the whole two miles or so I think it was in total.

During the walk, chatting with Maggie, she told me that she traveled a lot by herself, but she was actually in town on business. What business is that? I asked her: only being the assistant to the Chow Yun Fat's makeup artist. No joke. If you want to see pictures I can prove it. I asked if I could meet him or get his autograph, but she politely said no. Damn, I don't think I'll ever get that close to meeting Chow Yun Fat again in my life, but who the Hell knows.

Should you feel the story is slowing at this point, I should note that I found 14 dollars. Seriously. As Maggie and I walked along the moat of the Forbidden City, we found three 100 Kuai notes (each one worth about 14 USD). She got two, I got one. Wouldn't you believe it? Nobody goes out for a day as a tourist and makes money on it.

Anyway, we eventually hit Tienanmen Square. As I said, it's large, and now seemingly more refined than I had pictured it, but it's not wildly grandiose. We snapped pictures here and there, and tried to make it into Mao's tomb but found that it had closed for the day. At this point, you should realize that being outside in weather like that for the day was beginning to take its toll, and I asked if Maggie wanted to go inside and get some tea. She did, but as soon as she answered yes, she got a call and found she had to go work. So we exchanged numbers and email in hopes to meet up again.

I walked back to my hostel and did the only thing I could do: took a nap. Traveling can take it out of you, and after a night spent on the train and a day out in the cold I wanted nothing more than to get warm in bed for a few hours.

When I awoke it was time to go meet up with Zahlen. I gchatted him a bit more before I left to get the location right. It was to be on Gui Street for those of you who know Beijing, a lovely street chuck full of restaurants where lanterns hang over sidewalks lighting your way. On the way there in the subway, I had my first of two encounters with the dreaded teahouse scam. If you're not familiar, it is a typical tourist trap in Beijing: essentially some young Chinese people see that you're white, and with their good English try to chat you up and then get you to follow them to a teahouse where things are crazy expensive and you get totally ripped off for tea. The same can happen with an art gallery, where the art is not great and really expensive. I noticed the girl who would later share the dorm room with me in the hostel fell victim to the art scam, but she was kind of an airhead and I wasn't surprised. It's just very common in Beijing and Shanghai too, I believe. I think a lot of young Beijingers are involved with it, just to make some extra money as they certainly get a cut from the teahouse when they bring folks in. Anyway, on the subway, two very nerdy, innocent looking girls started chatting with me, asking me where I was from, and whether I had been to the city before. They even got on the train with me. As we were going, one of them, who spook quite good English I should note, exclaimed to me "Darian! I think we should drink a coffee together!" I was sort of wishy-washy about saying no at first, and said something along the lines, "You know I really can't, I'm going to meet some friends." But such indecisive answer only elicited more encouraging from my new Chinese friends. They jabbed a few more times, and, realizing what was happening, I quickly became more resolute: I leaned into their faces and simply said sternly "The answer is NO." After that, they were dismayed, and quit talking to me pretty much altogether, getting off at the next subway stop.

When I arrived at the restaurant, I was the first to get there aside from Zahlen. I wasn't surprised; as I was a bit nervous and excited to have dinner with him, I tried extra hard to make it on time, beating out his more casual, lackadaisical friends.

Now, to be blunt, I didn't really know Zahlen very well at all. I had heard far more stories about him than had had actual conversations with him (Zahlen, should you ever read this, take that as you will). We only had met once before, in passing, introduced by the same mutual friend who set us up this time (by the way, her name is Stephanie and she's a sweetheart). Nonetheless, Zahlen was great, and after a bit of awkward conversation and feeling one another out at first, we indulged in a fantastic meal of hot pot, complete with different kinds of sliced meats, vegetables, and even duck toungues, with beer and baijiu to drink, lasting a few hours and getting us all quite full and buzzed. Zahlen's friends were the type I expected them to be: trendy, well educated ex-pats, and they were both very nice (I can't actually recall their names at the moment, but they were a couple, boy and girl who had lived in Beijing for a while). In the end, the joy was simply in getting to shoot the shit with some somewhat familiar faces again, after being cramped up in Jiaozuo for the past few months with same few people.

After hot pot we had a few drinks in a trendy little bar they knew, which was secluded, off the street, full of leather furniture and old books, and had two friendly cats and a dog to play with. It also had a great selection of whiskey. It is the type of place that could only exist in a big city like Beijing, and could only be there to serve the ex-pat community. But I'm not complaining. I relaxed with a Hoegaarden and chatted it up with my newfound friends.

After the bar, just Zahlen and I had more food at a restaurant near by. I was pretty buzzed, but I recall us having a nice, deep conversation. I think about the usual things UChicago alumni may have in common, such as people we both knew, reflections on our experiences, and plans for the future.

I took a cab home alone and found the hostel lobby pretty empty at that point. I got to my four bed dorm room and fell into a peaceful sleep, having it all to myself.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Photo Spectacular

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are some pictures to go along with my narration. I think they're nice, but the story truly starts and ends in each of my lengthy posts.

The Mighty China Trip

Day 4: Xi'an Swan Song

In the morning I was hungover again. I don't mean to beleaguer this detail or invoke pity, but such (slightly) altered state has an effect on achieving your tourist goals; when you're tired and hungover, it makes appreciating a thousand year old piece of sacred stone all the more difficult.

Anyway, sadly this was to be my last day with Trevor before we had to part ways. We were taking separate trains out of Xi'an, him back to Jiaozuo and myself on to Beijing. We had booked our tickets through the service available at the hostel. They make all the arrangements and you pay a small extra fee. For those of you who wonder, this is one clear example of how it's possible to comfortably travel across the Far East without a word of the local language. Behold, the preeminence of the English language.

With our last few hours (Trevor's train back to Jiaozuo left about 3 in the afternoon, mine left that night at 8) we decided to see the Great Mosque in the Muslim quarter. We had wandered through the Muslim quarter with the Aussie couple two days before. There must be a neighborhood like it in every tourist destination on the globe. I don't mean to detract from it's character, however, because it does have plenty of that, distinctly different from the rest of busy and bustling downtown Xi'an. Its streets are small and narrow, and a main central walk way extends straight through for about a kilometer, all the way lit with lanterns and bright lights. Every centimeter on the walkway is also chuck full of vendors selling all kinds of foods, candies, trinkets, and any other little doodad you can think of. On our way there, Trevor and I stopped at an army surplus shop and I bought a nice new black beanie, discarding my previous "Team Germany" one later to a German tourist at the hostel in Beijing who took it off my hands. This is a mundane detail, but you may notice if you've seen the pictures.

We hit the walkway as good little tourists do, casually observing all the things for sale, and telling ourselves to make only smart purchases; no frivolous tourist crap that just gathers dust on your mantel. Trevor and I went in together on some dried fruit, and bought some spicy peanuts and a deck of Communist China propaganda playing cards. But to get them at the price I wanted I had to haggle a bit, something I got pretty good at doing by the end of my trip. The asking price was 40 or 50 Kuai I believe, and I walked away with them for 10. You see, that is precisely the trick: to get them to go lower you simply just drop the item and walk away. This will cause them to panic and do something drastic, as they don't want to blow a sale with someone who actually may be interested. It will either cause them to physically grab you and pull you back, offering you less, which has happen to me, or chase after you down the street, at a dead sprint if necessary (this I observed happening to someone else in Hong Kong). It's just the little game you have to play, and usually it's actually quite fun, though it's purpose is obvious: to get a fat, uninformed tourist with cash to blow to pay too much.

We split from the main walkway and ventured down one of the side streets. The Muslim quarter is really not that big and can be pretty easily navigated. Trevor pointed out a tiny street, about 8 feet in width, which had been closed the night earlier. It had signs that said it would lead us to the Great Mosque. But along the sides of it were, of course, more shops, packed in tight with one another, as an overhanging fawning completely shielded the street from the elements. These were the real deal, high brow tourist shops with plenty of trendy counterfeit goods, such as Ralph Lauren sweaters, North Face wind breakers, and European club soccer jerseys.

Perhaps it was the nature of the cramped space, but these vendors were more bold and forceful; upon seeing that you're a Westerner, they bombard you with exclamations like "Hello. Shopping!" and "Very good... come and have a try!" This gets very tiring quickly, especially if you do see something you may actually want to buy, and are trying to think about it to yourself as someone solicits you loudly. Trevor and I only toyed with buying a book of Mao quotations, a ubiquitous tourist item is this country, but decided against it, although the shop's owner was a nice guy. By the time we hit the Mosque, I was awkwardly carrying a few different things, juggling them while scarfing spicy peanuts.

The Mosque itself was small and completely Chinese in style. It bears little resemblance to a Mosque with domes and minarets, and is really more a series of small temple shrines and arches in a large courtyard, not unlike the pagoda's shrines. The courtyard is quite beautiful, and very quiet. I enjoyed strolling through it and trying to fathom its age, which is somewhere in the vicinity of 1400 years, so yes, it's damn old. Trevor and I took separate paths around it, periodically meeting to discuss our separate findings and eventually hit the Mosques' end, a large prayer hall, where only Muslims could enter. I took joy in observing some teenage Chinese Muslims running late to prayer and throwing off their basketball high-tops before they entered the hall. A truly Xi'an scene.

After the Mosque we had a quiet lunch together in a small restaurant. Conversation was a bit light between us, as we were both thinking of our pending train rides alone and new travel objectives. But we were certainly sad to part: we had had an utter blast in Xi'an, seen it all and done it all together. Trevor said he toyed with the idea of buying a train ticket with me to Beijing, but simply couldn't due to his previous arrangements, arrangements that would eventually take him to Japan to meet his family. I would certainly miss his companionship, his sense of humor to appreciate the goofiness of foreign differences, and his conversation. And I would also miss his talent in Mandarin, as he often served as my translator. Therefore, I was a bit nervous to venture out on my own without him, though I quickly got used to things and made due with the little Chinese that I knew.

Back at the hostel, our things were packed and ready for us, as we had done our packing before and checked out in the morning. We sat around the lobby a few minutes, and then a hug saw Trevor off as he caught the bus to the train station without me. Again, I was sad to say goodbye, but I do love traveling on my own, not that he was in any way a hindrance. He was a delight.

I was tired and understandably so. I thought to myself that I'd seen all there is to see in Xi'an, and I'd just use the rest of the afternoon (my train was an overnight) to relax, which I did by watching half of the movie Avatar on DVD with the hostel staff. At one point, it gathered a small crowd of backpackers, but I never did finish it. I intend to in the near future.

I had dinner one last time from Glasses'. Glasses himself remembered my name, which was very charming because my name is pretty tough for the Chinese. I had a light piece of oil bread and a few chicken wings, and smoked a cigarette he gave me with him, no doubt a symbol of our mutual good will.

The bus to the train station was absolutely packed. I squeezed into the front, the very last passenger to get in, nearly pressed against the glass with my enormous backpack on my shoulders. I couldn't have been any more obvious.

The train station was crowded, too, as they always are. I waited in line standing up, all the seats being taken, and passed the time by befriending a group of Chinese college boys who spoke a bit of English. Only one of them was heading to Beijing like me and as they parted ways I was touched to see them send one another off for the long holiday break with hugs, smiles, and pats on the back. I noticed from his ticket that the kid on my train didn't have a sleeper like me, but a seat. Rough to do that overnight, I thought to myself, but in a week's time I would know exactly what it was like myself.

Once on board the train after pushing through the masses filing onto it, I found my bed and took my shoes off. It was on the bottom of the hard sleeper, which is by far the most convenient. Everyone around me seemed like happy middle class folk, but I didn't see anyone really worth attempting to make conversation with. So I put my trusty iPod on, wrapped myself up in the given blanket, and drifted off into an early sleep. I made sure to listen to Phish's "Train Song" as I faded out. What anticipation: I would wake up the next morning in Beijing.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 3: Cutting Through the Smog on a Bicycle Built for Two

The third day of our Xiannese (that's not a real word) adventure began with uncertainty. The previous night before bed Trevor and I discussed what we would do, and decided it would be Big Wild Goose Pagoda in the morning, lunch, and then probably a bike ride on the great city wall in the afternoon. At this point, we'd hit the Warriors, the biggest attraction, and now had some freedom to play around a bit.

This morning I was not as hung over as the previous and after our healthy breakfast of oranges and bananas we took a bus south, outside the downtown city wall to see the pagoda. As the title of this post might suggest, it was smoggy that day. Damn smoggy. I note this especially on this day because we were sight seeing, and in particular things that were tall and extended into the sky. I was afraid the smog would somewhat ruin our view and our pictures, and although I can't say our pictures were ruined, they could have been nicer. But the truth is, depending on where you are in China, it's pretty smoggy everyday, especially in the big cities, and especially in Henan. Pollution runs rampant in this country, and it boasts the most polluted city on the planet according to Time magazine, called Linfen, which isn't very far from where I live by the way. Basically, having a clear day completely free of clouds or smog tends to be pretty rare. This is one reason why I am not too keen on staying in this country for the long hall. Just try and blame me.

Regarding the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. However, I did have a vision in my head, something like a lone tower standing on the horizon, cutting through the faint fog.

I must report that the real pagoda is not entirely this romantic, though it and the temples around it were some of the most beautiful and ornate things I saw my entire trip. When we got off the bus, we had a bit of a walk ahead of us, straight through this country's newfound love of capitalist opportunity in the form of what could be called something like a touristy county fair, complete with small rides for children and games to win big stuffed animals. Simultaneously one of the pros and cons of the tourist industry. Central to this fair is a great water fountain, which we also passed, where I understand that their is a water-laser show sometimes at night, though unfortunately we missed such show during this visit.

After weeding our way through the countless stands to buy snacks and souvenirs, we smirked our way into the pagoda's entrance by passing ourselves off as students with our old college IDs and getting a nice discount. Inside, the pagoda was something like it had been in my vision: a loan tower, rising through the smog, its splendor unrivaled by any nearby modern high rises in view. To give credit where credit is due, I should thank the city of Xi'an for not building around the tower and ruining its picture-perfect location.

And the tower itself was not the sole focus of the site, but part of a quad of temple shrines, each depicting with ornate wood work and golden statues the life journeys of a particular Chinese monk, Xuanzang, who traveled to India and returned with Buddhist teachings.

On a tangential note, it made me want to learn more about the history of Buddhism in China. Because Buddhism did start in India and spread to China, it must have been individuals like Xuanzang who spread Buddhism through this cultural exchange. This may not seem so poignant in itself, but that the two great civilizations of China and India have been in such close proximity for thousands of years, yet seem to have exchanged ideas so little, is fascinating. Obviously they exchanged some, as Buddhism in China and the Far East is evidence of, but seemingly not much, though I certainly could be wrong. And I believe this inquiry is also topical, as China and India today see each other as such fierce competitors. Then again, I suppose the fact that they are separated by the Himalayas could explain everything really, especially the mutual antipathy. That's a joke.

Anyway, Trevor and I delved our minds deep into the Buddhist tradition by observing the small temple shrines around the foot of the pagoda, but when faced with the possibility of climbing the whole 7 stories or so to the top, we decided it wasn't worth the extra money it cost. So we took a few more pictures, hit the can, and then left to find a bus back downtown.

We got off such bus around the South Gate of the great city perimeter wall, and found a nice, local Chinese joint for some of that delicious Xiannese BBQ. It wasn't as good as Glasses', but it refueled us for the next activity: riding bikes around the entire city wall.

Per the advice given to me by my English friend, the south gate was the place to enter the wall. At first such entrance appeared to be free of charge, but then we quickly encountered someone working the booth, and found that just getting on the wall would cost 40 Kuai each. Once on top of the wall we walked about 500 meters before we found a place to rent bikes. The price was pretty reasonable, and gave us 100 minutes with the bikes. I recalled reading that it would take about 90 minutes to ride around the whole city wall, so we set off with haste. Note to reader: although the title of this post implies Trevor and I were on a two-seater bike, we were not. We each had our own, although we did see a two-seater for rent and toyed with the idea of getting it. Well, maybe next time.

What followed was a truly fun travel experience, the kind of which I'll never forget. Trevor and I just made our way around the entire wall, chatting and pointing out various landmarks, and stopping to take a pictures. One really fun feature of the wall is that it was not entirely flat, but periodically has steep ramps that must be climbed vigorously on the way up and send the rider flying along with the help of gravity on the way down. Trevor and I reminisced about it later, and he told me it was one of his favorite travel experiences.

That night, we went to our hostel's sister hostel, which is bigger and bolder than our own, and still quaint, yet not as peaceful. Next door below it was one of the trendiest bars in Xi'an, frequented by locals and ex-pats alike. We met Nolan there and after stepping in realized it was clearly the place to be: packed full of people and tasteful music, and of course, it had all those esoteric decorations and leather-bound furniture essential to a trendy bar catering to westerners in China (I found similar establishments in Beijing and Shenzhen). I also saw Jia Jia again, although she was next door working in the hostel, running the night shift. I did some more harmless flirting with her, and me, Trevor, and Nolan even brought her back some food when we got a late night snack. It was a good evening, although I was pretty pissed off when the pour I got on my order of Red Label was hardly even a shot's worth. Nolan, faced with the same dilemma, went on an unsuccessful trip back to the bartender to see if he could get us a few more swallows of whiskey. He came back with the simple answer of "Sorry boys, welcome to China."

Walking home with Trevor that night, he said to me that him and Nolan had talked about me when I got up, and they agreed I would come around and decide to stay in China for the long term. With a bit of attitude granted by alcohol's consumption, I was I got a bit defensive and told Trevor condescendingly that such observation was an obvious one, and that I was clearly having a blast, and that I too could see myself there longer, but certainly not in Jiaozuo. We settled on the fact that I was undecided, and the future was unwritten for both us.

To this day, I'm still pondering such things. Maybe the fun I was having in Xi'an was just general traveling fun and not so unique to China, but simply unique to backpacking. Or maybe it is truly the thrill of the East, being a foreigner here, and having nothing but novel experiences with my first go round. Nolan did say something else, and that was if you want to try some new places, go ahead and explore them. You can always come back.

I suppose only time will tell.