Saturday, March 03, 2007

Beijing Beginnings

Here begins a recounting of my month in Beijing, broken down hopefully into areas of some coherency (but likely as not). There'll be a bunch of these over the next week or so, probably more diaryesque than the normal fare so if that sounds boring (it may well be) avert your browser now. There may be some pretty pictures along the way though. And you wouldn't want to miss those.

I'm telling these tales mostly from memory, partly from some scrawlings I made, so any relation to actual events or persons is purely coincidental. I may also change tense wildly and without notice. You have been warned.

So let's get started shall we?

Actually hang on a sec, I have no idea where I put my notebook when I "unpacked".

Here it is.


The day started on a slightly crappy note, learning that my friend (and previously, potential travel buddy) had had a fainting spell and had to be admitted to hospital. With that weighing on my mind I slung about 80% of my worldly goods about me and trudged out in the fresh snow to grab a taxi. I was able to negotiate the mandatory taxi conversation with minimal use of "bu ming bai" ("I have no idea what the hell you are talking about") but I'm pretty sure that when I told the guy that it was summer in New Zealand right now he either didn't understand or didn't believe me.

At the train station I bought a bus ticket to Beijing, and settled in to a grimy plastic chair to work out how I was going to know exactly when and where to board my bus. Fortunately a helpful business type fellow came and sat next to me, and with a combination of pointing, waving of tickets, and my one-word chinese utterings, we were able to establish that we were getting on the same bus, so all I had to do was follow his lead. He didn't speak a word of English, but I think the gist of the conversation he had at me was that he was in Liaoyang for a few days on business and basically couldn't wait to get the hell out of there and back to the civilised world of Beijing. His eyes certainly boggled when I told him I'd been in Liaoyang for four months and had never once been to Beijing (I think I told him that anyway). We then entered a rather amusing bout of back and forth where he tried to communicate some vital piece of information to me, with pointing, writing with his finger on my thigh, and repeating some word over and over again. I had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually I was able to work out that he was telling me to go to the bathroom before I got on the bus.

The thing about being a newbie in China (and I'm sure this is true in many places) is that you are basically an infant. Although you are toilet trained (though perhaps not in the particular regional variety) and you can walk, you can't understand what the grown-ups are talking about and when you want something you have to flail your arms around and yell until somebody works out what it is (ironically, its often a bottle). One of the great things about Chinese culture is that there will usually be some nervous student, bossy ayi, or bemused businessman willing to help you out. Sometimes this can be a pain in the ass (I once had a waiter escort me to the bathroom, wait at the door, and then walk me back to my table, just to make sure I didn't get lost/fall over/drown enroute) but it's often a lifesaver.

So I boarded the bus, armed with diet coke, jerky, bananas and rock n' roll; managed to get my stuff stowed; found my seat and got settled in for the journey. I briefly had a buddy in the neighbouring seat, who was fond of making phlegmy noises and snorting, but I guess he decided that he'd rather sit next to a real human being than the weird oversized infant with the beard. So I had two seats to myself which is a rare luxury in Chinese transport.

Especially at this time of year. A brief diversion: February is the month of the lunar new year (this year anyway) which was celebrated between from the 17th of Feb until last Saturday. During this time, and in the weeks before, literally hundreds of millions of Chinese are moving around the country, migrant workers traveling from the city factories to their remote regional homes; students heading back home for the holiday; and white collar city dwellers setting off on expensive package tours (that were booked up to a year in advance). On the highest volume day (today apparently), no less than 56.5 million people are expected to be traveling. That's like if one day the entire populations of the worlds five largest cities decided to play a game of international musical chairs (I have a dream...). Anyway, only marginally aware of this fact (I'd yet to watch the hourly broadcasts of the chaos on CCTV9, China's English language news channel) I was planning to swan into Beijing, take in the sights for a week or so, then head off on a leisurely tour of the region, wherever transport and accommodation was available. (Not to spoil the story, but that didn't happen.)

Back to the bus. I basically slept the first four hours of the journey (I warned you about the boring), waking every half an hour or so to catch glimpses of some Hong Kong action movie on the bus' TV. While I'm sure there was more than one movie screened in the four hours, they all seemed to contain the same triumvirate of Hero, Villian, and dewy eyed Herione, in various combinations of car chasing, chaste kissing or lengthy monologuing about their love/scheme/dewy eyes. One of the movies had an obviously Russian guy playing a CIA agent for comic relief. The view out of the grimy ice and mud caked window wasn't much improvement, a dull, flat, brown expanse, broken by the occasional black-smoke belching chimney or scatter of low brick dwellings and haystacks (though I've yet to see any livestock in China).

Eventually we stopped at a truckstop/roadhouse thing, identical to every other one in the entire world apart from the regional flavour of processed foods, the lettering on the coke cans, and the brand of cigarettes that all the men on the bus lit the second it ground to a halt. The fresh air was a blessing after the thick, warm air in the bus, perfumed with the scents of 50 or so people and their snack of choice. I snapped some photos of the surrounding landscape, and here are some of them for your 'wow that sure is a lot of brown' pleasure:




See? Pretty pictures.

Around 7 hours after we set out, I reached my destination, or at least the end of the bus route, somewhere in the absolutely-nowheresville outer suburbs of Beijing. A one hour taxi ride later, during which time I was reintroduced to the concept of 'rushhour', I was sitting in a restaurant with Mark and Paul (my gracious hosts) glad to be at the end of my journey. Except that after about 3 minutes of sitting I was told that we had to leave and get back into a taxi so we would make it to the cinema in time to catch the Beijing premier screening of the new 007 movie.

Which turned out to be sold out.

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