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.

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