China, part 1 (March and April 2010)

We arrived in Beijing’s international terminal, after circling around in the air for 30 minutes waiting for our turn to land. The airport there is huge and modern, much cleaner and better organized than Bangkok. After an uneventful trip through customs we met up with our Danebod friend Abbie Clarke-Sather, who’s been living in China for a little under a year now; together we hopped on the Airport Express subway train (an absolute joy, after dealing with the airport taxis in Thailand) and connected with the main subway system, riding it all the way to the area where we hoped to find a guesthouse. Easier said than done though, for foreigners – many budget Chinese guesthouses can’t legally take non-citizens, and we were turned down by 4 different places before we gave in and grabbed a room at a comfortable (but very expensive) chain hotel. We went out with Abbie and her Beijinger friends to a restaurant and got some kind of soup with all the ingredients separated into little metal bowls, flipped into the broth with flair by the waiter’s chopsticks, and then went to bed early to get ready for the next day.

Beijing is hazy, cold and rainy this time of year, kind of a relief coming from muggy Thailand. The city itself if pretty clean apart from the smog, with shiny high-rises as well as little hutongs snaking throughout the city, narrow streets with more traditional homes and shops as well as more personality. Babies are ridiculously, adorably bundled against the cold with nothing but their fat ruddy cheeks showing up top and their squishy bottoms popping out of the split in their pants designed to make going to the bathroom (anywhere) easier. Men hack and spit loudly and without abandon, something we never really got used to the whole time we were in China, and city workers sweep the streets with huge, twiggy brooms and pick through the garbage, sorting out all of the recyclables. Women wear cafe-au-lait colored leather boots, sassy shorts with black opaque tights underneath on top of sky-high heels, tailored jackets in velour and modern tweed, little bits of lace and decorative hearts on every cuff and lapel, brightly colored Converse shoes with skinny jeans. Younger men dress with similar style and confidence, and we saw a few guys on the subway who could give David Bowie a run for his money. Some couples even had matching hairstyles.

It was much harder in China than in Thailand to get around not knowing any of the language (it was also surprisingly unnerving to not be able to read Chinese characters), and so it was fantastic to have Abbie there the first few days in this huge and overwhelming city to help us figure out where to stay, how to use the subway and the bus, to order a meal or read a street sign, and to help us get train tickets for the next leg of our trip. It was also really nice to see a friendly face and have someone other than ourselves to talk to–traveling just the two of us can get surprisingly lonely sometimes.

After Abbie left to go home to Lanzhou, we met two Chicagoans at our hostel, Susan and Rylan, newlywed artists on a trip similar to ours. We spent a few days with them, going out to eat and having light, crappy beers (I’m under the impression that there is no good beer in China), talking about life and work and travel and food. We saw Mao’s tomb in Tiannamen Square, a really oddball tourist attraction and incredibly weird experience overall–after a security check, the “line” (in Beijing, lines everywhere are really just pushy, budgy mobs, and Minnesota Nice gets you nowhere) surges into this room that seems like a low-end hotel banquet hall. You leave the plastic flowers you purchased for Mao, no doubt sold and resold every day, in a giant pile of identical plastic flowers, and ride the wave of people into the room where Mao’s body is kept in a glass box, bathed in unearthly orange light. He is supposedly frozen for 20 hours a day, and raised up to be viewed only in the mornings from 8am to noon. We went to 798, the art warehouse district–twice, actually, once with Abbie and once with our new friends–a huge network of studios with modern Chinese sculpture, paintings, prints and photos, possibly one of the coolest places in Beijing. We also went to the Capital Museum, a sparkly, architecturally impressive building with 6 floors of exhibits on Chinese history and enough English signage to get by.

After saying goodbye to Susan and Rylan, we took the subway to the chaotic train station to board our train to Xian. We got into the “line” that we thought was for our train number (luckily presented in Roman characters), alongside people of all ages with suitcases and huge woven plastic bags full of their belongings, and hoped that none of the announcements being shouted out by attendants with passengers following them applied to us. The train system in China is extensive–at any given moment there are over 10 million people riding trains. The train ride itself was rather pleasant; we had purchased a sleeper class ticket for the overnight train, and the sleeper cars have little cabins in them with six bunks that have sheets, blankets and pillows. The conductor comes around at the beginning of the trip and exchanges your paper ticket for a plastic card, and exchanges them back again when you near your destination.

During the day, you can sit on the bottom bunk or on a little seat in the aisle by a tiny table, watching the huge cities and countryside go by, moving your knees anytime someone needs to walk by you. We played Rummy 500, and a group of middle aged men quickly crowded around us to watch the game, checking out our hands and giving us advice that we couldn’t understand, making approving noises when the person they were betting on won a hand. They lost interest when we started playing Zioncheck, whose rules change every round, and which we had no way of explaining to them. All of the train cars have boiling water spigots (which is fantastic because you always have access to drinkable water, even if you have to wait for it to cool down), and while the lights are still on people are wandering up and down the aisles, making instant noodles and tea in clear plastic infusers, eating cucumbers and cookies and sunflower seeds, and chain smoking in the area between train cars.

The lights went out at 10pm, without a warning that we had understood, and we clambered over the legs of our bunkmates to the top tier and went to sleep.

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