Sunday, June 20, 2010

And That Was Beijing ~

Sweating like crazy due to the almost unbelievable humidity (aside from the two facts that I’m from St. Louis and I’ve been inside the tropical plant exhibit at the STL botanical gardens {oh my goodness} ), I tried to cool off on the lower bunk of the sleeper train. Heading home to Zhengzhou was a good thing for me. I’d rather enjoyed my visit, but it was good to be on a train knowing that progress towards home was being made and that there was no further walking for at least 8 hours.

sorry for the disturbance... but imma change tenses here.

It has only been three days since I left Zhengzhou, but it has been so loaded with experience that it truly qualifies as an American vacation. However, unlike an American vacation, this was for the most part relaxing. I will divide it into days. Read at your leisure:

Friday Night: In the beginning

My day really started after a normally full day of teaching. I sat at my desk thinking of my to-do list that I needed/wanted to accomplish:

---> Finish moving my stuff from one apartment to the next. (This included me loading up the last bag of stuff into a 4 foot-long, dark-blue duffle bag which I back-packed and then hopped on to my bike with. Unsurprisingly enough, turning is very difficult... or very easy depending on how you want to look at it. I had made two trips with that duffle bag and a rolling suit-case the day before... in a taxi those times... dont worry)

---> Get a glorious massage to work out the destruction I wreaked upon my back by moving my dwelling via heavy bags.

---> Meet the previous owner of my house to have my toilet fixed at (not so)precisely 7:00pm.

---> Have photo copies made of a the textbook my substitute would be teaching out of... so that I could create a lesson plan... and they could therefore teach it on my extra day off. (silly me)

---> Pack to go to Beijing

By the way Im still cursed by being raised by a Marine Mother. My first instinct is to pack for every possible situation... but I did a decent job reigning myself in.

---> Get to the Train Station
(1st time ever experience on that one)

AND YES! all of those things happened (though not entirely in that order)

Well where this story gets interesting again is then I am walking out the door about 15 minutes later than I expected... make those photo copies and then grab a cab. Slightly crunched for time (I thought), I got into the cab and get us heading in the direction of the train station... or as we who have been in China like to call... the Fire Car (火车 huo che) ... ok so no one calls it that in English... but I still think its cool.

I then get somewhat assaulted by a taxi driver who had just learned two english phrases. Well I was feeling particularly jovial, so I gave him two more.

We practiced those phrases a good part of the way to the train station, and then I made my way through the security check point. Thanks be due for the fact that Chinese train security is nothing like American plane security. A metal detector and an x-ray for the bags later... and your off to your gate to wait in a hall that easily has a half-thousand folk waiting for 4 different trains.

It was hot.

Fortunately there were tall bastions of cool air that look like speaker systems placed throughout the outer rim of the hall. I planted myself there.

I am directed to #1, so I buy some quick food, and go camp out my spot in the hall to wait. As the time gets closer... I get itchy feet, so I check the gate assignments and find that my train has been relocated. I got to the gate with perfect timing to get on the train, find my spot and get “seated.”

Yes, “seated” because I was in a sleeper train and you have one of three bunks that you select (when you buy your ticket that is). I was on the top bunk... and plenty fine with it. These bunks are vertically stacked, and not much more than two feet wide. The train itself is about ten feet tall (on the interior). The bottom bunk has the most room and thus carries a small surcharge. There is enough room to comfortably sit up. The middle bunk is accessed by a small ladder and is roughly 4 feet off the ground with enough room to sit up... while hunched over like Quasi Modo. The third and final bunk was my domain. Standing a wonderful 7 feet off the ground at the top of the small ladder, it was not exactly spacious. Fortunately for me, I appreciate small spaces, and am quite thin. At the same level, but on the other side of the trains hallway (a 1.5ft gap), was the rack that you put your bags on.

Well let me start from going through the gate (ticket stamping stage). Chinese people have no concept of “the line.” Im beginning to think they’re illegal to have.

Anyhow - I don’t obey them either anymore... unless it’s involving food... because that is when lines do apply (loosely speaking). I get through the gate and scurry down the stairs like everyone else to the platform. On the landing I follow the length of the train looking for my specific car... at somewhat of a run because I didn’t want to be left behind for my first opportunity to see part of China outside of Zhengzhou.

Heading down the dark isle of the train, I find my row and ask one of the other people in my bunk just to make sure. In the late night whisper, he told me I was in the right place and helped me get oriented as I situated my bags and then myself on the “upper crust” with my shoes still on and bag over my shoulder(PS i’ve always liked the top of things... even sometimes when they are technically lesser quality.) Seeing my situation... the man told me, “ahh... just put them next to your bag.” I agreed with his idea.

Sweating and somewhat laughing to myself because I was finally on a train, I tried to cool down from all the excitement and humidity of Zhengzhou (Im pretty sure all of northern China is humid these days...).

The train began to depart and then the most wonderful air conditioning kicked in that I can think of since perhaps those hot summer nights as a child when my entire family would move upstairs (because the best air-conditioner was up there). Fresh and clean it felt as I listened to the new sounds and reveled in all this common place stuff that I’m sure everyone else thought was deadly-boring.

Eventually I drifted to sleep under the light comforter that matched the refrigeration perfectly. I awoke a few times throughout the night, more than happy to have a reason to wake up and find out more about the inner workings of a train, but otherwise slept quite well.

A mixture of excitement and anticipation made my sleep quite interesting, but none-the-less refreshing. Excitement to be on a train and to be leaving Zhengzhou for the first time -- Anticipation to be seeing the ever-famous Beijing and most importantly - to see my long lost friends from Vancouver on the DPRK team.

Day 1: The longest and most wonderfully uneventful day yet

The next morning at about 5am the car full of bed-headed Chinese clambered down from their bunks to pour out tea (in multiple senses), brush their teeth, and get ready for arrival in Beijing. A welcoming overcast and fog was present across the whole region near Beijing. What can I say? I’m meant for gloomy weather.

I was met at the train station by a friend, their older brother and uncle. Rolling out in the Uncle’s car, we headed towards breakfast along the highways of Beijing. And then I decided: this looks like Zhengzhou. It wasn’t until we go to the restaurant that I thought it was at all different... and that is only because it was cleaner (HAH).

We ate at a restaurant with 180 years of history... it didnt look like it. However, I imagine it wasn’t really the restaurant but the family itself that was significant, because the older brother told me that this was the 8th generation of the family that was running the place.

Let me explain the situation a little more clearly... The older brother told me through my friend. My friend is the only one of their family who speaks English aside from a few words including “Beijing is number one”.

I was really impressed with what I could do in Chinese after this weekend was over. Every day right? It just keeps changing, growing and becoming something you didnt expect.

So after eating more than enough of something that seriously resembled split-pea soup, and some sort of pork sandwich on a marbled chinese bread... we headed to the hotel. This hotel is under the part ownership of the uncle, so I was being put up free of charge. By put up I mean... treated like royalty.

This hotel is not just a hotel. It is a spa resort on the outskirts of Beijing with a south Asian flair. Theres even Grass huts inside and the staff are all adorned in faux-sarong pants (pants that look like a tribal wrap skirt from the front).

I am full on escorted by an entourage of be-microphoned staff to my room and we all relaxed in my room for a while, chatting away pleasantly.

Well... my train got in at 5:30 and we’ve been going strong for about an hour... so my hosts are tired and they get me set up to go take a shower.

We wait around for a “waiter” that might speak English to take me to the shower area and escort me through the process. I mentioned that it wouldn’t be necessary and shortly there after, I am lead down through the hotel to the male area. I did not realize what I was in for.

In a nearly empty locker room, I was escorted to my locker and bidden to take off my clothes. And off they came - each article being recieved on a nice wooden hanger and then placed in my locker by the “waiter.” So there I stand... next to stark... and out comes another hanger.... and shortly I became... quite stark aside from the beach sandals that I was provided with.

And then my brothers wisdom came back to me. The last message I received on my phone as I was on the plane from St. Louis.

No matter what - you cannot forget.

You have got to

got to...



And so I strutted.

Getting sideways glances at my family jewels from the waiter and getting the full-on standard Chinese “eye-grope” by the other staff as my svelte fleshy whiteness was led down the stairs into a wide chamber with deep wide baths and and a long row of tiled showers with tall mirrors over stone sinks at either side.

Aside from generally being uncomfortable naked, it was an incredible experience. It also serves to break down some of my walls of inhibition I suppose.

Anyhow - after my shower - am I led to my clothing once again? No

I am led in another direction -- and seeing a salon... I was wondering if I would be asked to make the full circut through the kitchen and everything... however... we stopped in front of a stack of silk outfits.

I was given some kind of scandalous disposable underwear made from that see through fibre that they use on massage beds or airplane pillows... and then my silk garb.

Well that was interesting --- though I did feel regal enough.

Then, I was escorted back to my room where I did some light reading and relaxed. I soon realized that I did not have my cellphone (in my pants down in the grand locker room) and so I waited for another waiter to check in on me (which they did somewhat frequently) and then fetched that up.

There were no real methods of communication with the DPRK team aside from the emails I had sent a few of them, and the cellphone which I had given them the number of.

And so I waited.

Not receiving a call, and sort of absently reading a book - another waiter came and told me it was time to go eat. Being only about two hours since I ate at the “ancient” restaurant, I was still full -- but I figured my hosts were down there, so I came right away. Well... I was the only one, but they filled my table with various things and I tried my best to eat a little bit.

I was beginning to think of ways to get out of my predicament when my friend’s mom came to eat - evidently by coincidence more than planning. She sat down and we chatted a little bit using my limited language skills. I was more than willing to try to talk, because it gave me a chance to do something else with my mouth than eat.

However... I think she began asking questions about my friend’s english that I’m not fully sure I understood... and I felt a need to tread somewhat lightly.

Then my friend came down to join us! Oh imagine my relief, especially when a massage was suggested. I asked if there was a way to get the internet to check my email (in case the DPRK tried to email me...) so they got me set up in a row of well furnished computers (even if they were PC’s). Nothing.

I went back the short distance to the dining hall and they asked if I would like a massage...
I said - yep I’ll take one of those. Next step -- my room or “the relaxing hall” ... mmm well relaxing hall sounds... relaxing - lets do it there.

As I was being escorted there by my incredibly hospitable friend, I was told that they had asked for a glass of Tieguanyin (one of my favourite teas) and that I could choose any from the selection of girls for my masseuse. Clips of Rush Hour 2 were running through my head at this point - wondering what that meant - and trying to figure out how I would go about choosing.

Fortunately I did not have to choose from a closeted pantheon like in Rush Hour 2, but my masseuse came out forthwith and I was settled into a very large, wide reclining massage chair with a personal TV attached.

They turned on the TV... and I looked around, but found nothing interesting, and much prefered to enjoy my tea and massage in relative quiet.

Im not gonna go into any details at this point because its all kind of a euphoric haze... but once again my concept of personal space was severely adjusted.

Anyhow, my masseuse was awesome.


I got back to my room and realized that I could catch a Wifi internet connection from m room... and Magically... I got to skyping with my family. And LO! my ever so clever sister suggests web caming. Well - hey, Im game.

So after a little finagling we got the web cam up and running on a somewhat pirated internet source - I was impressed.

Anyhow - that is the first time we have actually gotten web cam up in running, and there was my mom -- beaming. This is the first time she has seen my face in over five months I’ve realized. She has heard from me plenty, but not gotten to see me.

And they say that ‘men’ are visual creatures - well I think the same thing goes for moms with their children.

After a not that entirely long of a chat - I am visited by the entire entourage of my hosts and spirited away to lunch, which by this time I am ready for (being a few hours later... and after what may have been a 1-2 hour massage... I dunno... I had no concept of time at that point.)

So I say good-bye to my mom and sister quickly and dash off in the politest way I can - accompanying my hosts.

The whole first ring of the family is there: friend, brother and uncle from this morning - mom, dad, and random friend are new acquaintances.

I see forks, knives and spoons, but no chopsticks. Secretly thinking that it was on my account, I asked them if they didnt like chopsticks. Well... chopsticks quickly materialized and all was well with the world.

After hearing that I speak a bit of Chinese, I quickly become the topic of conversation. Whenever I am asked if I can understand Chinese, I usually say... ‘half’. I dont say which half... sometimes its the unimportant half and I dont really understand what people are saying - and sometimes it is the important half and I can put together the general meaning.

Eitherway - they were super impressed when I could put together the meaning, and decided that I was way underestimating my skills... who knows if that is true.

Through the course of lunch, we got to know each other better and their respect for me kept growing... oddly enough. We’ll the truth is - they brought out the baijiu and American drinking culture is different than that of Chinese.

Only about three to four of us were drinking, but from the drinking i’ve done back in “homeland” - if someone toasts you ~ you either take a healthy quaff or drink the whole thing. Well... its not as restrictive in Chinese culture. I didnt quite get that. Anyhow - the fact that I was still playing by American rules was greeted with applause... literally.

With my glass of baijiu I had probably 2.5oz remaining - a little bit over a full-sized shot you would receive in the west (not those stupid skinny ones in Canada... the fat ones with the line halfway up (denoting 1 and 2oz)) -- I was toasted, and so I drained my glass in respect to the toast ~ I was trained right :P.

As I tipped my glass back they looked at me and started to say something... but it was too late... and then my glass went back all the way ~ did a quarter turn at my lips like a waiter would do when pouring wine (a characteristic quirk when I drink I suppose) ~ and then I set it gently down on the table. Before my glass made it to the table I hear (oh!) and an eruption of applause from the mother. So I smiled (figuring out that it wasn’t entirely normal to do what I just did).

A few people asked me if I was ok... “yes...” I politely said... though with definite tones of “why wouldn’t I be?” in my voice. There was laughter.

Through the course of lunch - they made sure that I knew it was not necessary to do such things ~ which I will keep in mind for the future.

Eventually lunch ends and I ~somewhat hazily~ look forward to further relaxing. BUT NO! Dinner is coming with a family friend and there is to be more drinking Im told. And the friend is bringing his Japanese business partner ~ whom I am supposed to drink more than. OH....

Oh sweet lord. Not good.

We have a little bit of time before that it seems ~ as we move to another hotel closer to downtown Beijing.

For about two hours we talked, and joked and I eventually got adopted into the family - dubbed Didi (younger brother). I was taught two local chants ~ which were really difficult to keep in my head because I had no idea what they meant. Anyhow - it was quite the roller coaster.

Lets just say that two hours is not nearly enough to digest my portion of 40%+ potency baijiu... and there was sake at dinner. I was in a tight spot once or twice, but my hosts were incredibly understanding and very helpful.

Dinner’s memory basically is me fighting for control of my stomach and that is the moral of the story.

Don’t make Peter career drink and over-eat 2 meals in a row! It’s dangerous!

So we go back to the hotel talk for a little while longer, I practically absorb a bottle of water, and after a good bit of talking which was increasingly sentimental from my hosts, I eventually went to bed being told that they would be leaving the next morning before I awoke. Just about spirited away like delightful fog. I however was invited to continue to stay at the hotel at their expense. Talk about hospitality.

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