Wednesday, June 30, 2010

2nd Day of Bejing

Beijing: Day 2

I wake up on day two of my trip to the northern capital... which is what Beijing means coincidently enough. Bei...north - Jing.... capital. I get my bag packed for a day about town - hopefully finding my friends with the DPRK team at some point - while trying not to wake up my roommate (one of the families close friends). Fortunately he sleeps like a rock... cause I wasn’t entirely successful at being quiet.

I have breakfast ~ which was incredible considering it was the first time I have had cereal in a long time. Kind of sad I know.. but it was cereal c’mon. ANNND there were dried fruits and stuff that I put in it. All things considered - I was quite satisfied with my breakfast of cereal, assorted pastries and other chinese breakfast items (which are basically the same thing as lunch foods... but served earlier.)

After that ~ I asked an attendant about the best way to get to Beijing’s extensive subway system. Taxi he says... and he even strolled down to the road and flagged one down for me.

For a country that does not permit tipping in the service industry... I am surprised at the lengths some workers will go to for a guest. I wonder how hard their slave drivers must beat them... Should take notes I think.

Ethical qualms aside ~ I hop in the cap and we wade through the thick traffic that is perpetually clogging Beijing’s arteries... I mean roadways.

But we get to the subway system soon enough and after paying, I make my way into the subterranean realm where I have never before seen so many Chinese people in a rush. Naturally I felt kind of bad being the white guy holding up the line as I tried to figure out the ticketing machine. Ah well - suck it up Beijingers.

Fare paid, several yuan change and a credit card type ticket dropped into the slot below. I oggled the card in fine Chinese fashion... somewhat believing that the stranger a manner that I looked at it, the more it would reveal its secrets. After I got over my gawking, I was delightfully surprised to find out that the subway only cost ¥2 - the same as a bus in Zhengzhou. Surprised because the general cost of things in Beijing was up from that of Zhengzhou, but I suppose the gov’t had initiative to get people and cars off of the streets themselves.

Deciphering which direction I needed to go using the Beijing map my hotel had provided (with a handy little subway map on the back) I waited for the train. Having lived in Zhengzhou for 5 months, I was well aware that lines were distinctly not to be obeyed... and so I situated myself in a close proximity to the yellow arrows designating where the subway doors would open and scurried in quickly when the subway arrived.

Sweaty people were in abundance. Humidity and heat are an unfortunate combination that do not go well together, but far too often do come together. The actual temperature was not all that high, but it definitely was amplified by the humidity.

Weather aside I fortunately saw a stop for Tiananmen east. I got off at the stop and walked up the towering stairway from the subway, surfacing right next to arguably the most iconic sight in Beijing. Chairman Mao’s huge forehead posted in a frame directly above one the outer gate that leads to the forbidden city. Behind me, across the 8 lane “road” that constitutes Beijing’s roadway was the actual square where certain events didnt happen...

Well... I took some mildly irreverent pictures of the stone lions eating Chair Mao’s visage and then continued through the outer gate toward who knows what. I knew that the forbidden city was in the area... but what I didn’t understand is how truly colossal it is. I strolled past rows tons of kitschy tourist stuff, and weaved my way through swarms of tourists... most of which were actually Russian and looked like poorly dressed highschool students... but with beer bellies and visible age of thirty to forty something. Then I heard the language and it magically all made sense.

I paid my entrance fee and crossed the massive threshold among the throng of tour groups - whose leaders were all holding what looked like boy scout camp flags, and wearing the ever wonderful hip microphone apparatus that I had experienced a month earlier.

Skirting around them with my excellent Chinese line-dodging skills, I headed into uncharted territory... oh wait... just kidding. Everyone and their uncle had been to the forbidden city. If you’ve gone to Beijing... you’d be a bad tourist if you didn’t check it out.

The pictures do not do it justice. The entry gate is incredible - regardless of the amount of tourists present. I traveled through, taking pictures of all the informational placards that I saw, looked at thrones... and more thrones... and more placards... and more tourists... and LOOK! its another bronze dragon.... and another throne. and a huge bowl that has been touched by near a million people each year and therefore glows like the sun in certain spots!

Look - I wont explain the entire forbidden city or any of the sights I saw in Bejing, because everyone sees them. If you want to know about them - we can have a cup of coffee and I’ll lay the details on you, but the real Beijing - the real China... did not come until after I left the forbidden city. I made my way across the street where I saw another classic Chinese gate and bought the ticket for entry into a park. Then... I heard it before I saw it.

A coordinated flock of roughly 30 Old Chinese people all playing the Harmonica to such songs as Oh My Darlin’, assorted Christmas carols and other cherished American classics. Was that weird to me? No. Its China.

Old people love to do things together here. They will find each other and find something to do together. In Zhengzhou it is usually a terrible marching band that sets off all of the parked cars and E-bike alarms. Not only is their music cacophonous, but the shriek of the vehicles just makes for quite a splendid scene.

I continued into the park and set on my way up a very steep set of stairs, bolting up like Rocky and dusting plenty of out of shape tourists with my supreme China walking skills. In their defense... the stairs were quite steep.

However - at the top of yonder steep hill was a Buddhist temple that is visible all the way from the inner gates of the Forbidden City - making it look like the forbidden city continues on forever.

I made my way down from the temple area and found another group of performers - doing Chinese opera type music... but with harmonicas... and one lady singing. Normally I find Chinese opera distasteful, but this lady could really put life to it. It was incredible, so I took a bit of a rest on the retaining wall along with about ten other older Chinese folk who were also appreciating the spontaneous performers.

Eventually I decided it was time to move on, and I found my way to the other side of the park to another park/ place of historical influence after passing through the essential Chinese alley market. After seeing all of those tourists, it was a very welcome sight to have “Real China” back.

The signs said “Winter Palace this way” ... and considering my general dislike of summer... I was allured. I never actually found a winter palace, but I found another nice park with yet another performing group. Seeing their banner, I believe they were called the “Red Sun Chorus” or something. Regardless, they were quite significantly younger, and definitely more imperious in sound. Instead of being old folk with harmonicas, this congregation of performers had trumpets and some serious lung power.

Finally I got bored with all of the tranquility and loneliness as I waited for my friends from the DPRK team to call me.

I stopped for some La mian - long noodles that inspired the Japanese “ramen” way back when to my understanding - and decided that Zhengzhou people made them better...

I made my way back down towards Tiananmen, using the Beijing bus system... another thing that tickled me as being something your average tourist would not do. This bus was actually cheaper than Zhengzhou’s BRT buses at ¥1. They were however, much less impressive than the BRT which moved psychotically fast and with complete disregard for other traffic because of its self-awareness of size. Whatever... the bus saved my aching feet from shoes with absolutely no cushioning qualities.

Finally reaching my destination at Tiananmen, I took some pictures of some statues that looked eerily similar to the Iwojima Marine Corps Flag-Raising statue.

I got bored with that and decided to look at my map after checking my phone and realizing that the day was moving along and I was still without contact from the DPRK team. It was now about 1 o’clock. I checked my map and realized how close the ever-famous “Temple of Heaven” was, so I found my way to the subway again and got out to the temple complex. Upon entry I decided that this was my favorite place in Beijing. It is a huge planned forest walled inside the city limits. For ¥10 anyone could come in and enjoy the fresh air that perfectly rowed cypress trees provided. There were old people doing calligraphy on the walkways with 3 foot long sponge brushes and water, more performing groups, some with more traditional instruments, and even normal Beijing people playing Badminton.

This was by far - the most lived in tourist attraction I had seen. The forbidden city was old and impressive, but devoid of everything that had life to it. It was all just a poster attraction to me. Nothing was “real”

But this... this was different (until you get to the actual Temple of Heaven... and circular mound... which are devoid of life again). I saw the additional attractions and decided that I needn’t do it twice. However, the park would worth seeing again.

After I had seen my fill, and my feet were about to fall off - I found my way back to my hotel using the subway, and a sort of motor rickshaw operated by a rather brave old man who was either illiterate or had bad eyesight, because he had a random schoolboy read my hotel’s address, which was in characters that were unfamiliar to me. Whatever - for ¥10 he got be back again, and I appreciated it.

Somewhat hungry... but deciding that it was too late for me to go adventuring for food that I didn’t really care about... only to eat alone, I opted to drink tea, take a bath and go to sleep early.

Beijing Day 3:

The next day I went down for another incredible bowl of cereal with my other breakfast foods, reminded myself of why I absolutely love hotels and then went back to my room to do some reading.

And then something peculiar happened.

My phone Rang.

I answered and heard a white voice... also surprising.

And then it registered that this voice was too pleasant and enticing to be just any white person, this was Rose Collins - the coordinator of the DPRK team, and easily one of my favourite people ever.

It turns out that none of the DPRK team had checked their work email (the only ones I had...) and had only just this day been able to get away from debriefings etc. They were however quite keen on meeting up with me in the few hours before they had to depart for Canada again. We set a meeting place: the Silk market. We set a time: soon. And I quickly got checked out of my hotel, signed away the bill and got back to the subway carrying my messenger back and rolling suitcase (a common Chinese sight... though not usually done by white tourists - fortunately I don’t entirely qualify.)

The Moment I Had Been Waiting For:

I came up out of the subway system right under the silk market, and after some back tracking and bobbing and weaving - I found her: my wonderful friend Rose. We went inside and, after some fashionable waiting, Dave arrived.

The best way to use our time we decided was to find some sort of cafe and park it for a moment so we could chat it up.

It turns out that one of their favourites was just around the corner, and so we hastened thusly. They suggested that we relax outside under so I greeted the shop workers and as asked them to hold one of the tables for us in Chinese ~ which they did with very big smiles. From behind I hear Dave proclaim, “I hate you... You just wanted to show off didn’t you! Well... Im glad that your straightforward about it.”

This coming from my professor of Language and culture acquisition... I was pretty proud of myself HAH!

We settled in with some delicious iced drinks, and after answering several questions from the worker who had watched our table for us, we got to our own conversations after Dave and Rose made known that they were proud of my language progress - which made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

For far too short a time, we spoke about the things that had happened to each of us over the subsequent six months since we had seen each other last. We then moved into the silk market and proceeded to take it by storm. Despite a lack of Mandarin skill - both Dave and Rose proved to be incredible hagglers - securing vast loot and swag at an almost negligible price, especially considering the trade off for how much the product would cost in North American shops.

Dave... a full Kilogram 100% silk comforter bargained down from ¥900 to ¥150... or $22... ridiculous.

Rose... a large stack of all-silk robe-like get-ups for ¥65 yuan each I believe... slightly under $10... also ridiculous. You cant even buy a cotton T-shirt these days for that. Let alone full on silk.

We found Dave again, getting his feet massaged at one of the various massage parlours in the Silk Market.

There... Rose had to take off to get packed, but Dave had already done so - and continued his massage while we talked.

It turns out that his masseuse was a girl from Zhengzhou - MY TOWN! So we chatted a little bit before I moved the conversation jealously back to Dave. I proceeded to talk as fast as a professional debate team member.

So much to ask, so much to talk about... and no where near enough time.

However, I was grateful for the time that was available to me, and it was well worth taking off the extra day of work.

His massage came to an end, and we hopped into a cab and I escorted him back to the hotel ~ where I met another professor of mine who was actually my technical course advisor. I say technical, because more often than not, I would use Dave as a sounding board for my course decisions in University. They worked in the same office, and it never really turned out to be a big deal... but it was certainly an interesting situation.

We got them out the door, bags packed to exploding, and down into the lobby.

There I had to say goodbye... until next time.

I find that the more I say good bye in an international context... the less emotional it gets. The farther I get in the world, the more I realize that “far” is a figment of your imagination. I have grown to be content that I can see people again, and that it really is quite feasible.

And these are certainly people I intend to see again.

So Salaam, and safe travels - until next time.

Alright, so what about my purchases you say.

I know how long haggling can take, so I waited until after my friends left to start up my real shopping. I had somewhat more time than they, so I went back to the silk market with my suitcase... which was rather unpleasant to have around, but plenty acceptable on a chinese paradigm - though I think “the other tourists” or “tots” were giving me some looks. I dont really know: i’ve learned to just ignore people unless they are talking to me directly or throwing a punch basically. More skills from China.

Anyhow - Through the course of events, I bought some silk fabric for Tangzhuang (stereo-typical chinese jacket thing with the ball-knot clasps). Nice...ish but not super impressive.

I also bought possibly the nicest silk tie I own... for ¥30 ... under $5, oh and did I mention that all of this was not really trying that hard because I had just successfully negotiated the purchase of an all-silk oriental carpet and was kind of tired of intense negotiation.

I acted all smart like ~ I cased two stores, argued with one in chinese for a while after pulling out about 8 carpets, which the shop keeper and I pulled out and spread all over the floor so I could look at them. I like to have the visual as I eliminate the carpets I don’t like.

They tell me all sorts of things between their broken English, and my growing Chinese. I learned that when you look at the back of a handmade carpet - that the smaller the knots are, the higher the quality. I also saw that the knots were somewhat irregularly spaced on the back, which was further proof to me that the carpet was actually handmade.

The shop keeper told me in negotiations that the carpets I was looking at take six months to make by hand. Wow I think.... but I’m still not paying your ridiculous price.

So I didn’t buy from the first shop, but proceeded to the next after some browsing and repeated my game. However, this time was different. After some very stressfully placed and dare I say cunning rouses... I got my new shop girl to drop the price to ¥1200 from ¥3480 - the same price as the other store. Was I content with that... heck no. I liked the carpets, but I wanted to go see what I could get at the other store now, and I wanted to be sure of the carpet I actually bought. SO I started heading for the entrance to the store and the girl asked me to wait while she asked her boss what she could do for me.

She came back and her boss looked fairly upset and she said that she would give me ¥1000... still more than I really wanted to pay. I insisted on going to look at the other stores (I had been real purposeful about reiterating that I was looking at another store’s product too.)

She said if I leave and come back she won’t be able to give me this super cheap price... WHAT! dont give me idle threats woman! (slap) ... ok I didn’t slap her... but I did call her bluff by saying... “fine then I wont come back and buy from you”

Her “stage temper” (an attitude that seems to be brought out for the use of selling in a haggling context) calmed a little bit after that comment.

I continued on my way... I was out the door... and then another shop girl says - “pongyo duhng ee sha. Nee ting shunma ta shwoah ma?” (friend wait a minute - did you hear what she said?) (the real pinyin way that would be written if you care is... pengyou deng yi xia. Ni ting shenme ta shuo ma?)

I look over my shoulder and I see her boss talking to her and after he spoke (which I couldn’t hear) he swatted at the door in a shooing motion. I figure he said something along the lines of...

If he doesn’t like that price, he can %#$^& off!

¥950... I bought. Basically USD $135 for a fully silk tiny knotted oriental carpet.... I was pretty pleased with myself. Im not sure how much they are in the US... but I hear tell they rank in the 300-400 range for the same size for a normal wool or cotton carpet... and silk would make that even more expensive.

Im not sure about those numbers... but I’m still pleased with myself.

Homeward Bound:

After all my mad commercialism, I went back to the coffee shop that the Dave, Rose and I camped out at, and greeted my new shop friends. I was quite hungry and decided that eating was a good thing to do before getting on a night train... There is food on them, I know now.... but I had some time... So I relaxed and killed a little more time until it was really time for me to head out to the train station.

I got all the way to the train station using the subway system, and a motor rickshaw.

I waited for just a little bit before the train started loading, and the second time around... I was an expert. I knew to hold on to my paper ticket, because the train agents come and exchange it for a plastic one - a lot like a credit card. I knew how to find the right train car and bunk row. Finally I found my place - on the bottom bunk - and studied a little bit of Chinese on the train while loading freshly bought music onto my computer. PS you should all love me for buying music this time, because everyone else pirates it.

Anyhow - this train ride home was a little less comfortably refrigerated, but overall was nice. I met a really nice Ph.D who talked with me for a while in English/ Chinese and commended my efforts at studying Chinese (especially because she has English speaking students who study Chinese... and evidently I am much more hard working than they). As I listened to her give me an impromptu lesson on stroke order for characters, I was reminded about the difference in my learning of Chinese and that of Spanish. It was easy for me to listen to rapid fire Chinese, because no one ever slowed down for me. Spanish had a learning curve when I moved to faster speech things like movies or native speakers because I had only studied in school - and teachers adjust their speech for their twitchy students. My new teacher left, after showing off some of her new-found French skills (she’s on language three now hehe), and at around dinner time when I was eating my instant noodles like everyone else on the train - a group of old ladies couldn’t stop staring at me, or talking about me. They eyed me with smiles and wonder. Naturally and somewhat involuntarily... I smiled back , and then I was done for. The chief old lady came over and had to know more - which really I was ok with.

We talked for a little while and I told her that I was working in Zhengzhou... how long I had been there, what I was doing etc. etc - all the standard questions - and after once again agreeing with other people she told me that my Chinese was very good. I don’t think it is that amazing yet, but the contrast between me and other foreigners has shown to be quite significant and has drawn some serious attention.

Anyhow, between patchy sleep and listening to my new music, I arrived in Zhengzhou, walked up from the underground region of the train station and was glad to be back in Zhengzhou... minus the pollution and filth. I suppose even that has an awkward “Zhengzhou appeal”. I hailed a cab... got fleeced on cab fair, but I was too tired and glad to be home to fight for it. Also... Im not really in the habit of taking cabs at three in the morning so I wasn’t sure of the rules. I watched the meter on the way home and it seriously went up every 15 to 30 seconds... grose.

Home again, I took an hour nap and then woke up to go back to work... bringing home the bacon.

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