Beijing is home to one of the largest shopping centers in the world, no joke. It’s incredible. I walked through the bottom level for no less than 20 minutes and when I got to the end, looked up and realized that I had only covered one of 7 floors. Escalators and elevators zig-zag across, over, up and down the floors taking people from one floor to the next, skipping some floors and going to others (express). It’s absolutely out of control. Overwhelmed, I stepped outside. The sun’s heat, of course, smashed into me and I squinted past the Mc Donalds and hundreds of other stores in the courtyard and saw an alley. It looked like a market. I walked towards it.
An art student came up and introduced himself to me. There are lots of art students in Beijing. We meet 20 a day. They say hi and want you to come take a look at their work and give them your opinion. You know how art students are. Ohhhh, and then they try to sell it to you after you tell them you like it. Imagine that. You know how art students are.
“Sorry, I meet friend now. Big hurry!” I say apologetically, pointing to my watch. It works every time. It’s funny too, you start talking like them when you talk to them to make it easier. “I go here.” “You no have good price!” “Me go now!” I think I’m becoming fluent.
And with that I made it to the entrance of the market. I stepped through the threshold. The familiar stands lined the alley walls. The familiar hawkers begged you to come take a look. But this place was different.
Is that really…It is! Scorpions hanging on sticks. Some alive, some skewered. Beetles, starfish, seahorses, snakes and various other critters stood solemnly at attention with the help of their own respective skewers not far from the scorpions.
“You eat! You eat! Scorpion!!” said a lady, touching and flicking the scorpion to show that it was alive. We all know, of course, that I wouldn’t give her the time of day were the scorpion not alive.
“One yuan, one yuan!” she said as I edged near. I took a picture, which she quickly prohibited when she realized I wasn’t going to buy anything.
Scorpions on a stick. What will they think of next. But then again, the Chinese seem to be really into eating crazy things. At the restaurant outside of the hostel, they fill trays with foods which you can pick out, have cooked and enjoy on the tables close by. As a few of us enjoyed some 2 yuan beer (USD 20 cents for about 32 ounces) and played chess at the tables, I noticed that some of the foods were a bit far out. Chicken feet was one of the selections. Five yuan for 6 feet. Rasmus (my Danish friend) and I ordered some. We nearly vomited as we forced ourselves to eat it (when in Rome…). It was all skin and there wasn’t much meat. We also ate skewered frog. But didn’t get a chance to try the pig tail, pig feet or duck bill (which I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to eat).
The menus also provide an unlimited source of enjoyment. Jeep fried duch, anyone? How about mixed assorted dish? Or maybe some fried rape would tickle your fancy. Lots of people say they hate the food here, but I think they aren’t being very fair. The problem is that you never know what you’re ordering and don’t get a description so you can figure out if you’ll like it. I’m sure the menus are very descriptive in Chinese, but by the time they get translated, insignificant details (like that insanely spicy pepper sauce on your “Fried Chicken Noodle”) get left out. Instead, you just pick and hope for the best. If it’s crap, you paid a dollar for it so try, try again.
One night, Rasmus and I were feeling particularly adventurous so we went out to a local restaurant a few alleys away from the hostel. We made the decision to just point to a bunch of things on the menu just to see what we would get. We stumbled in and the lady brought us the Chinese menu. Everyone in the restaurant looked at us, waiting to see what we would do.
“wang chang wang chang wang chang?” (insert real Chinese here)
We pointed at 4 different things and I said the word for beer and she was off.
We invited two Chinese guys over to talk with us. In two hours, we managed to get their names, their ages, and the fact that they were brothers out of them. They practiced some English and hugged us alot. They were pretty drunk. We tried to teach them very important western things, like how to make that popping sound with your finger in your mouth from the “Lollipop” song. But to no avail. We also ate dumplings with mystery meats in them. I wonder if any had chicken claw in them.
We also visited the Beijing acrobatics show. It was insane. It’s like these people are made of rubber. You sit there in awe the whole time at some of the stuff they do. Balancing spinning dishes while dancing and bending into crazy positions, swinging on ropes, flipping around…it’s just crazy.
I also got a new job. I quit the old one the day after I got it, despite the fact that I hadn’t even started yet. On the day I was supposed to teach, I called to confirm with the girl and she said it was canceled and maybe I could teach Friday, but maybe not and it all sounded a bit dodgy. What were they doing sending an inexperienced guy in to teach the next day, anyway? So I went online and applied for more jobs. After all, I have time here. I can choose my battles. So anyways, within two hours I was called by an English lady from Berlitz language school. She wanted me to come down that day and talk with her. I warned her that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion (I was already downtown to return a shirt) but could show up within the hour to have a chat. While I returned my shirt, I bought a “polo” shirt for 30 yuan and put it on. Good as new. I walked down to Berlitz and talked with Val. After our chat, she assured me that I had a job and would call me the next day to give me a time to come in and review material. I go in Monday at 9:30 and I’m pretty excited. Berlitz is just about the biggest language school in the world. She said that if I did well there, I could conceivably teach in many other countries as there are offices all over the world. She was concerned that I would keep applying to other jobs but I assured her that I would be happy at Berlitz. It’s funny because I forgot to mention on all my resume that I had tutored math for over a year. Pretty significant teaching experience, no? I think it was the glasses that got me the job. It’s gotta be the glasses. So yeah, the pay is pretty good. Between 80-100 yuan for 40 minutes of class, which translates to about $14-18 USD an hour. Not too shabby, eh? Cab fare to class included.
And that’s all for today. Stay tuned for more crazy adventures in a few days.
Chaos. Pure chaos is the market.
Hundreds of people meander while crammed into a small alley between the make-shift stores stuffed with thousands of “designer” (fake) brand name shirts, pants, jeans, belts, watches, shoes, scarves, gloves, video games, chess board sets, and anything else you could possibly imagine. The store owners yell, joke, poke, jeer, laugh, and beg you to come take a look. You try to squeeze through the madness in search of nothing in particular.
“HELLO! You need a new shirt? I give you good price – just for you!” they say as they tug on your shirt. The sweat is starting to seep through your shirt, giving it a blotted and half wet look and feel. The humidity and heat are nearly unbearable and the sweat on your forehead threatens to drip through your eyebrows and into your eyes. It starts to rain, but only for a minute.
“HELLO! HELLO! You need a scarf for your girlfriend? Do you need another shirt? HELLO!” says a girl following you. She wont leave.
“Please look, I give you SUCH good price! Just for you! How much you want to pay for POLO???”
A man cooks sausages on a huge pot/cart in a stall. Like out of a cartoon, the aroma sweeps across your nostrils in the shape of a hand and attempts to grab you. You nearly give in but are put off by the fact that not only will you pay twice what you should, but you, well…might get dystenary.
Yup, you’re in a market. The “silk” market, where you can get any designer name you want for next to nothing. Of course, none of it’s real, but most of it is the same quality and no one can really tell. And of course, you have never seen so many people in your life wear “Polo” shirts as you have in China. Guys who would have to save the whole month to buy one back in the US sport it with pride.
Yeah, me too. And with my interview coming up, I needed more clothes. I needed some nice khakis and a some slick leather shoes. I entered a stall and looked at some shoes.
“You want some shoes? Which you like? I give you good price!”
I pointed at a pair, tried on a few different sizes and after I had made my decision, it came time for the haggling. The girl pulled out her calculator from her belt as if it were a revolver in an old country western.
“Okay”, I say with a smile (I’m used to the routine now), “How much would you sell this to just anyone?”
She smirks. “For just anyone, I give them this price,” she says as she types 850 into the calculator.
“WHAT??!!” I exclaim with mock surprise. “Okay, Okay, how much for only me?”
“Okay okay, for only you, because you good person, I give you this price.” 600, she types in. All negotiations are done with calculators here. It gives you a chance to see and gives them a chance to work our their profits easier.
My eyes bulge (again, in mock surprise).
“I can’t pay that much! YOU’RE CRAZY!!!”
“Okay, Okay, what’s your best price? Serious offer only! Only serious offer!!”
I gaze thoughtfully at the calculator and then at the shoes.
“Best price? Hmm…I’ll give you 200 yuan ($24 dollars).”
“You crazy! Impossible! How about…” 550, she tries.
“No way! I can’t afford that! I like 300,” I proclaim.
“I say only SERIOUS offer! I do 500, okay? okay? Good price, just for you!”.
“Because I’m a nice guy? Just for ME??” I ask.
“YES! Just for you!!!”
People hustle by, bumping into me, making their own deals, asking each other advice on colors of shirts. I keep an eye on my bag.
“I don’t have that much. I will give you 350 yuan. Final offer,” I say. Pretending to grow tired of the argument.
“Nooooo, 500 goooood price!” she begs.
“Okay, well, You can give me 350 and I buy right now, or I go look around and compare prices and maybe buy from you, maybe someone else,” I explain.
“Noooo! Good price! I swear! Okay, okay. 400. These good shoes!”
Indeed they were. They were very nice leather shoes. “Designer”, in fact.
“360 or I go and look around,” I say.
“OKAY OKAY! 390!”
“Nope, I go look around then,” and I start to pick up my bags.
“Okay! Okay! 380, Okay? Good price!!!”
And I had some really sharp looking leather shoes for $45 bucks USD. I think I earned it though.
The same process continued for the pants I bought just after, a few stalls down. Today, I went to an interview for an English teaching position and I had to look sharp and with the help of a little bargaining, did so for cheap. I made a good impression on the interviewer and she said that although I didn’t have much experience teaching (I included my language exchange with my buddy Jorge when I learned Spanish as teaching experience), she liked me and was comfortable and thought her students would be as well. I prepared for a mock class in business English and gave a 20 minute presentation and did well. I start tomorrow and will earn 120 yuan an hour (about $14 USD and hour). I wont get many hours to start but if I do well, I will get more. So, in other words, I should be living pretty well here. I think my new glasses helped give the impression that I’m smart.
Yup, I got some glasses. While I waited for my buddy Rasmus to pick out some frames, I asked the girl if she could test my eyes. She did and came out with some lenses. MY GOD! I could read signs 100 feet away! I can remember squinting to see the board in University and when I asked my doctor, he had me read the first line on the board and hurried me out saying that I didn’t need glasses (I guess my 10 designated HMO minutes had been used up). In New Zealand I noticed my eyes got worse and at one point, on a hike in the mountains, the trees in front of me were always out of focus. It hasn’t changed until now. Everything is crystal clear and it is incredible. And I got these slick bendy frames. After the eye test (free), bringing out several different lenses to test, the frames and installation of the frames, and a free case, I paid about $30 USD. And now I look like I’m about 27. CRAZY!
Anything else interesting going on? Yeah, lots. But I can’t type it all. Impossible. Me and about 15 others in the hostel had a big night on the town, which entailed drinking and dancing and got back at 5:00AM. I met some Mexicans, who went out with us and spoke Spanish most of the night. I argued with the taxi driver in Spanish when he tried to cheat us out of 2 yuan. English, Spanish – it makes no difference to him as he can’t understand either. And in the morning…errr, afternoon, I woke up and wanted to die. But after an hour, I was fine and ready to go. That was a first for this trip though. Man o man, what a night! At one point in the bar, at about 2:00AM, an incredibly cute little girl of about 6 or 7 came and sat in our laps and drew chinese characters on our hands. We offered her money but she didn’t seem to interested in it. She just wanted to hang out. Where was her mother at 2:00AM? I haven’t a clue. It reminded me of Ecuador. And Bolivia.
So right now, I am living in the hostel and having a great time. It’s quite interesting because all the people that are staying there are nearly at the end of their respective trips and have been there for some time. The average stay seems to be about a week, and so, we all get to know each other well. It’s not like most hostels where people come and go each day, but instead like a family. Some people get along, some people don’t. You make friends with groups and go out and watch TV together. Today, we explained rap to the young girl at the counter by rapping in the hallway. After 5 minutes of me making the beat with my mouth and Rasmus rapping, and gathering quite a crowd, I said: “see, that’s RAP.” We are very hands on teachers. Freestyle geniuses. We also went out for Peking Roasted Duck last night and it was phenomenal. The restaurant itself was hidden behind a maze of alley ways and we walked past 100 built-in houses and shops along with kids playing in the streets, guys sitting on crates playing cards old women cleaning dishes. After dinner, we were in heaven. Did I mention that the duck was incredible? Enough – I’m getting hungry (Oh my god, it was soooo goood)!
And yeah, so I start work tomorrow. Wish me luck!
I stood in the subway car, listening to the lady speak over the intercom. I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying.
“blah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blahblah blah blah blah blah”
And following the Chinese, comes the English:
“The next stop is: Chong Chun Jie”
I thought to myself: Either Chinese is a very inefficient language, or she said a lot more in Chinese than she said in English. So I’ve been trying to figure out what she says there for the past few days.
And yesterday, I met Brad – a Chinese guy studying English here in Beijing. He has a room for rent in his apartment for 1,100 yuan (about $130 USD) a month and we met yesterday to go check it out. On the way to the apartment, after listening to the subway message, I asked him what she was saying – and thusly was enlightened.
“Well, she starts off by saying that you must follow the laws and regulations. Then says that you should respect the older generation. Also, that you should keep the facilities clean and tidy. And lastly, that the next stop is Chung Chun Jie.”
And thus is the life here in Chinese. To the westerner, everything seems normal. So I’ve been told, if you were to never leave downtown Beijing, you would get the impression that everyone has a great job, and lives in a nice apartment. You don’t see any organized police force like you saw in the video of the Tiananmen Masacre on CNN several years ago. Lots of signs and notices are in English and Chinese. No one is protesting on the streets. Respectively, I see significantly fewer poor people on the streets. There seems to be very little crime here. It seems like a standup operation.
But let’s look a little closer. Ask someone about Tiananmen in public and they get a little nervous, only freely speaking when away from the masses, even in English. Venture down the alley ways here and see the poverty first hand, with loads of people sitting in front of their (literally) sewage smelling holes in the wall doing nothing, or perhaps asking for your water bottle so that they can refill it with tap water and sell it to some unsuspecting tourist. You might go see a movie, and not realize that some of it has been trimmed out until you talk with someone back home who has seen it all (they have a tendency to take those sex scenes out). Although many newspapers are available, the opinions section is suspiciously missing. Several websites (Voice of America) are blocked for everyone.
But from what I gather, the encroachment of Western civilization is changing all, little by little, and liberties are being granted slowly and cautiously after examining the benefits. For instance, one year ago, foreigners were allowed to stay anywhere in China they pleased and not forced to live in approved (and expensive housing). We can also buy anything from anyone, and not be limited to the “Friendship Store” for our purchases. There is a Mc Donalds on nearly every corner and a Starbucks on nearly every other (comforting, eh?).
“BUT CHINA IS DISAPPEARING! WE CAN’T SEE IT ANYMORE!”
No, this is China. A dynamic and ever changing and evolving country of lots and lots of people and lots and lots of resources – albeit a little behind, it is slowly picking up speed and one can feel the groans of its growth like a lumbering mechanical dinosaur waking up and standing on its feet. Indeed, so is the world. Evolving…and sucking in western culture like a sponge. I haven’t been able to escape the Top 10 American songs since I left home 9 months ago.
So anyways, I checked out the apartment with Brad and it looks cool. It’s a bus and train ride from the center (that ought to make it interesting) and is a typical Chinese apartment (squat toilet and all!). My room is fairly big with A/C and a balcony and I’m pretty sure I’m going to get an authentic Chinese experience there. I should be moving in early July.
After the tour, Brad and I went to the market to haggle for a sim card for my phone, which would enable me to use my cell phone here in China. $15 bucks later I had a card and 100 yuan credit and was ready to go. I got a lucky number too. Here in China, you pay different amounts for phone numbers depending on how lucky (or unlucky they are). For instance: you don’t want a number that ends in 4, because the word for 4 sounds like “death” in chinese. But, having two 4’s would be okay, because two of any number at the end of your phone number is considered lucky. The luckiest numbers can cost many many many times what an unlucky combination would cost. Here in China, if you are rich enough, you can also choose the bed you get put in when you go to the hospital. That would suck to be put in number 4, eh? It gives new meaning to the phrase “death bed”.
Later, we had a traditional Chinese dinner at a restaurant called “Hot Pot” where you sit at a table with a big hole in it where a pot sets above a propane flame. The pot has a soup mixture in it and you are brought out a variety of vegetables (cabbage, mushrooms, spinach, etc…) and raw meats (chicken, beef, crab, squid) and you drop what you want, as you want it, in the boiling soup in the pot and wait for it to cook (it usually takes about 2 minutes). When done, you pop it out into a thick peanut sauce and then transfer it into your mouth. It was really good. On cold days, you can then drink the soup for a grand finale.
This place is by no stretch of the imagination an easy place to travel in. But, I can already see, the rewarding treasures that China has to offer are going to take effort to enjoy and appreciate. I am here for this experience. I don’t envy those who’s experience is a brief hostel stay with a few rushed trips to the Great Wall and a jog through the forbidden city. It would be like enjoying a fine wine by sniffing the uncorked bottle.
Yup, I made it. I survived the 19 hour plane ride and, as I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve had quite an adventure since my last post.
So I had three more days in Sydney and then I was to leave for China. Not much happened in those three days. I met up with Martin again and hung out at the jazz festival in Darling Harbor, I ended up randomly running into the same girl I ran into in the Blue Mountains (who I had met in New Zealand) in the supermarket, I watched “Being John Malkovich” and saw the new Harry Potter movie. Then I left the country.
So I took the train to the airport and hung out on the dreadfully slow, albeit free, internet in the Sydney Airport (they have terminals all over the place and they are free) before checking in.
“Well sir, it seems you only have a one way ticket. Do you have a citizenship in China?”
I knew it! Bastards! I knew I would have a problem!!! DAMNIT!
“Listen…I went to the embassy several times. They assured me I wouldn’t have a problem. I went to Chinese travel agents, I was assured I wouldn’t have a problem. I called Thai Airlines, you guys said I wouldn’t have a problem. Are you now telling me that I have a problem?”, I asked.
“Well, I see you have a multiple entry visa. You should be okay. Do you have a major credit card?”, he inquired.
I showed proof of funds and he reluctantly agreed to let me check in. Good thing I got a multiple entry visa. My logic was that if I had a family emergency, I could fly home and still fly back. It was a bit more expensive, but would be better than getting locked out of China. Looks like it saved me here too.
So I checked in and eventually made it onto the flight. It was two hours to Melbourne, then 9 to Phuket (wherever that is), then 4 to Bangkok, then 6 to Beijing. They kept us pretty well serviced – plenty of booze and food and I was pretty happy the whole time (which has a little to do with the booze more than anything). I’ve never seen a company come around with a wine bottle so much. I met some Mexicans on the plane and we chatted for a while. And then we arrived in Beijing.
I got off the plane and made my way to immigration. They stamped my passport and pointed to the door. I grabbed my bag, went to customs and stood there for a few seconds before looking at the agent and shrugging as if to say, “okay, what now?”. He pointed to the door. And I stepped into China. The heat hit me and the drab, smoggy sky prevented me from seeing any further than a mile. Buses and cars zoomed by. People yelled and pushed through the crowd.
First on the agenda was to get some money. I went to the ATM. It greeted me in English, and asked for my pin in English, but all the options were in Chinese. I poked around until it prompted for an amount. Then wouldn’t spit out what I asked for, just kept re-asking, requiring me to lower my amount each time (at least, that’s what I assumed I was doing). Eventually money came out. Cool.
I made my way to some lady at a table amidst the buses after shaking off the taxi drivers.
“International Hotel?”, I said.
“TWOOO YUAN!”, she replied.
I bought the ticket and she pointed to the right.
“NUMBA ONNNEEE!”, she declared.
I didn’t see any number ones. I walked around asking bus drivers “International Hotel?”. I pointed to my map. I finally found a guy who motioned for me to get in the bus. When I got in, I plopped down and introduced myself to a Swedish couple and we chatted while the bus driver waited for the bus to fill.
“How will we know when we get there?”, I asked.
We didn’t have an idea so I went to the bus driver with my guide book and pointed to the symbols which meant, “Can you tell me when we get to…”. He either couldn’t read or couldn’t see very well (which is reassuring, seeing as he would be the one who would drive the bus) and gave the book to his friend. His friend looked and squinted and I prepared to attempt to butcher the language by saying the phrase (which is a lot harder than one would think in Chinese).
He looked at me and prepared to speak. I got ready for another struggle.
“Well where do you want to go?”, he asked in perfect English.
“International Hotel”, I replied.
Hah, great. Shortly thereafter we were on our way, zooming through downtown Beijing. I must admit, this place is very different than what I expected. For one, the city is huge and very spread out. Buildings are fairly boring and not too high (although some are reasonably so) and there is very little advertising anywhere. People zipped by on bikes and walked in little forest alcoves on the side of the streets. There weren’t all that many cars on the road and I started to wonder where all the billions of people were. The streets were also impeccably clean. Incredibly so. There just wasn’t any trash anywhere.
And everything was drab and foggy. But it was hot, leading me to believe that it isn’t fog. No one seems to be too sure if the fog hanging over the city is smog or just the weather (tourists don’t have a clue and no one who speaks English here seems to grasp the language well enough to understand the question). But Beijing is supposedly one of the most polluted cities in the world due to their burning coal for the cities power. The suspended particle count per square meter is 9 times the WHO’s recommended level and the “drab” hangs in the air preventing you from seeing very far or even reading street signs a little ways away sometimes. Sometimes it’s worse, sometimes better, and although it is said to be nearly gone some days, I have been told that it stays like this for the whole Summer, just about. What a shame. There is a big push though, so they say, to reduce the pollution so that when they host the 2008 Olympics, there will be blue skies. Good luck.
After stepping off the bus, we were assaulted by 20 cart/taxi drivers offering to take us to their hostels.
“HELLO! HELLO!” they screamed (that seems to be all that anyone here knows). “YOU NO WALK. TOOOO FARRRRRRR!” they explained. We walked into the International Hotel where they called us a free shuttle to the hostel. After being picked up, the shuttle driver gave us a tour of the city on the way to the hostel. He explained some history and pointed out some buildings, including Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, where throngs of people congregated doing seemingly nothing, although a few were flying kites.
“Why are they all standing there?” I asked.
“Oh, it is a celebration. They do that every day,” he explained.
“But what are they celebrating?” I asked persistently.
“It is a celebration,” he explained.
I couldn’t have explained it better myself.
We made it to the hostel and checked in. From what I gathered, the 10 bed dorm for 30 yuan is full, so I had to settle for the 4 bed dorm for 50 yuan (about $6USD) a night. But, the 10 bed dorm seems to be full every day at any time and none of the guys in the hostel seem to know anything about it, leading me to believe that I’m not gonna get the pleasure of staying in it because, much like the Forbidden City 500 years ago, it is closed off to the public.
I talked with the guys in my dorm for a while, one of whom was from Argentina, and found out about a cheap place for internet (50 cents an hour) and tried to make my way there. I went down the main street, made a few turns down some alley ways past tons of Chinese in the street doing everything from sleeping, to frying god knows what in pots and make shift barbeques and showing them the the paper I had with the symbol for “Internet” on it, eliciting a point to the next “checkpoint” where I received the same thing before recognizing the character on the building.
I went up the stairs of a pretty dodgy and dark looking building and walked in only to find about 50 computers with tons of people packed into the incredibly warm room.
I stood there and looked confused (it wasn’t hard). What now? My “internet?” was replied to with four fingers. Fair enough. I forked over four yuan. But then she gave me a card and started making 5 fingers. What could this mean? We tried to communicate for 3 minutes before she grabbed a girl who knew some English. She explained that there was a 5 yuan key deposit. Cool. I paid some more and was soon on the net.
Later that night, I ordered some chicken at a restaurant with a beer. 20 yuan (a little over $2 US) was what it set me back and I have since been told that I overpaid. In the morning, I wandered around the city, taking in everything. People rode bikes, pushed carts, cooked stuff, played cards, and everything else you can imagine everywhere. I wandered down alley way markets (“HELLO! HELLO!”) and eventually popped into a restaurant when I got hungry. People were lined up at a table with a bunch of food on it and cooks standing behind. I stood back and watched to figure out what I was supposed to do. A cook looked at me and I shrugged. He pointed at the food.
Then I pointed at some food. And 3 yuan later I had a lot of it. When I was done, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the plate so I sat around to see what the locals did. They just left the plates and so I did the same. I explored the city for a little bit longer before making my way to the Chinese World Trade Center via the subway to track down the package of Chinese books I had sent ahead of me to the American Express office.
I didn’t remember the address (I had the email though) but thought it might be in the Trade Center. I wandered around before meeting an information guy who spoke English. He said that American Express was on the 21st floor, so that’s where I went. But they didn’t have my package. It had to be somewhere else. I would try again the next day and thus went back to the hostel dejected.
In the morning, I tried again and met a Canadian guy on the subway. I showed him a store he was looking for and found out that his sister was teaching English here in Beijing, so we set up a meeting a little later on so I could ask her some questions. I looked around for the building of the other American Express office but without luck. I found a lady who thought it might be in some other part of town, but wasn’t sure. And seeing as I can’t read anything, it would be impossible to find it.
So I met back up with the Canadian guy and his sister, got some leads on potential schools where I could teach English and then headed to Starbucks. There I met Jim, a Chinese journalist who had just gotten back from vacation. We chatted for a while and then I asked him about the Tiananmen massacre. He nervously looked around while he spoke and dodged the questions so I dropped the subject. But he then offered to help me find the building I was looking for and before I knew it, we were wandering around Beijing with Jim asking every few building guards the address. And we eventually found the place, way off the street it said it was on and I made a mental note of where it was (it was closed and I would have to return).
From there we headed to a really nice part of the city, with lots of bars and restaurants on either side of one of the only rivers in Beijing where Jim introduced me to the local street food. I ate all sorts of random stuff and surprisingly, haven’t had any stomach problems today! We spent the rest of the evening chatting while watching people float by on gondolas through the river amidst candles floating along side them scattered throughout the water. He also told me to send him my resume and he may be able to get me a job somewhere. Cool!
So today the plan was to track down my books again. I slept in till nearly 11 (I guess everything just caught up with me finally, as I was exhausted for the first time) and made my way to the building. The door was closed and no one opened. I stood in the doorway of another office until the designated English speaker came up to me (it’s funny how that happens) and asked her for help. She knocked a few times on the office door and eventually a man answered. I thanked her and showed him the email he had sent me a while back assuring me that my package would be safe with him. He looked confused.
“Sorry, but my English not so good.”, he explained.
“But this is you, right?”, I asked, pointing to his name.
“Then do you recognize the email?”, I asked, somewhat confused.
“Sit, sit! Drink tea!”, he said as he pointed to a cup of tea.
I drank tea and watched as everyone in the office tried to read the email. 5 minutes later a lady came in and read it over. Everyone seemed very confused. Eventually, she looked at him and asked him what I assume to be “do you have this guy’s package?” in Chinese at which point he gave a huge grin and grabbed a box at his feet. There it was. He had obviously had someone else write the email for him, as he couldn’t have written it himself.
And so now I have my books. What’s on the agenda now? Find a job. I dropped my resume off at a school today and will sit on the internet tomorrow and sift through the jobs on a local website. I met a guy today who has been working for a few months and he gave me some leads and I met another guy in the subway who has been studying Chinese for three years and has been in Beijing for 9 months. We are supposed to grab some beers tonight. So for the next few days, I will be scrambling around meeting all the people I have been meeting and trying to secure a job, some tutoring for Chinese, an apartment perhaps, and some food – which is just as much a challenge as anything else. I’ve made a little paper of useful phrases (like asking for water from a street vendor) and hopefully that will get me through until I can actually memorize them.
I may stay in Beijing, I may go to another city to study and work, but one thing’s for sure: I’m going to be here for a while, so I might as well get comfortable.
I had just gotten off the bus and it was around 7:00PM, and as usual, night had already fallen. I had to meet Martin in a few minutes for drinks with him and his friends but was finding myself getting constantly distracted by the ever so interesting goings-on of the city, which seem to increase ten-fold as the sun goes down.
The lady to my left (who was on the bus with me not two minutes prior) bent over and picked up a bag which was laying up against the bus stop wall (at least, I’m pretty sure she did). She folded back the paper and chomped down on the huge sandwich within. I zoomed past a guy playing the Brady Bunch theme song with a spoon on a series of beer bottles hanging from a stand with string. Pure genius. I gave him 50 cents. The cacophony of languages spoken by seemingly every imaginable race blended together to create a vibrant and gyrating hum which was complimented by the neon signs on every street corner and hanging from the overhang of every store.
A man preached about the lord in the middle of the sidewalk and a woman handed me a flier for a gym membership.
And it was cold. Sydney gets bloody cold in the evening and we aren’t even into full on winter yet. With red cheeks, I looked for the pub. The meeting point was an old Irish pub just past the monorail station (a legacy from the Olympic games held in Sydney). Bingo.
And thus, the night was spent catching up with Martin, meeting his girlfriend and friends and listening to some girl tell me about her dreams (something along the lines of her being a man and going on a murder spree…”I’m sorry, why are you talking to me again?”). It was great. To avoid missing the last bus, I had to leave around midnight and eventually found my way home. Sydney’s public transport system is awesome and I have been taking full advantage of the unlimited travel pass card for $32 AUD which entitles you to (unlimited, duh) travel on all buses, trains, and ferries in the “Red Zone”. I’m not sure to where, exactly, the red zone extends, but seeing as I haven’t stepped out of it yet, it seems fairly extensive.
And so…yeah. I’ve been wandering around the city for the past week, taking in all it has to offer while spending very, very little. I’m staying with friends so I’m saving about $25 bucks a night and with that, people watching is usually free (unless it’s in a strip joint, mind you).
A highlight of my stay was going out with Lucy, Lou, Angie and Skelly (my friend Michelle’s friends from her year studying here and with whom I had gone out plenty when I came to visit Michelle a few years ago). We all ended up getting pretty well spirited and I woke up the next day in Lucy’s living room to her room mate towering over me asking if it was my alarm that had been going off for 20 minutes (my earplugs, combined with a rough night prior, seem to make me not hear my alarm). She had to go all the way downstairs to turn it off. Without much ado, I stumbled down to the Olympic Torch Passing, starting at the Sydney Opera House and spent the rest of the day wandering around the harbor.
I also got to see a huge boulder lowered onto a car in front of the Opera House in the name of “art”. Cool, huh? I took plenty of pictures.
The food festival was cool too. My new “roommates” and I checked it out and spent the night at Manly Beach drinking and checking out live bands (one of which was probably one of the most embarrassingly horrible bands ever to play on stage).
And yesterday, I got back from a three day stint in the “Blue Mountains”, which is a national park about 100k from Sydney. Beautiful canyons and cliffs nestled in dry rainforests make it a pretty enjoyable place to spend a few days hiking around and relaxing – not to mention an excellent opportunity to break in my new boots. Oh yeah, did I tell you about that? I finally got my new ones shipped to me. I had destroyed my first pair after hiking all around New Zealand for a month and a half and after taking them back, they shipped me a brand-spanking-new pair to Lucy’s place in Sydney. So now no one believes that I hiked in New Zealand, given the impeccable condition of my boots, (“430 kilometers…riiiiighhhht”).
I met some pretty interesting people while there including a girl I had met in New Zealand about 2 months ago. While I walked down the street, I passed a girl who quickly stopped and yelled, “HEY! You were on the Rees-Dart track in NZ!”. Yup, I was. We subsequently had an awkward 5 minute chat about nothing, seeing as we didn’t really know each other and had nothing to talk about. It’s a small world, eh? I also met a girl on the track with whom I ended up walking back to the bus station to catch the last bus of the evening. She explained to me how she had quit smoking a two weeks prior and was surprised at how easy it was after the first week.
“I think that after the first week, your body gets over the physical dependence and it’s just getting used to the psychological aspect of quitting”, she declared.
“I don’t know”, I replied. “My mom quit over 10 years ago and says she still gets an occasional craving if she gets a whiff of smoke in a restaurant. It’s a constant battle you have to deal with your whole life, but it’s a decision you make, you know?”.
So let’s fast forward about an hour to the pub. She had invited me out for a drink, and I’m not one to turn down the chance for a free beer.
In the middle some random chatting, she pulls out a cigarette and lights it up.
“Oh, this is the one I’m allowed a day. I cut it a little shorter, so it’s my mini-cigarette”, she explained.
I was impressed. Not many people alive (or dead) can pull off the process of quitting smoking while continuing to smoke cigarettes. What this girl was pulling off was a revolutionary confounding of modern day western logic. I smiled to myself when she pulled out her second “daily cigarette” not 20 minutes later. This girl should write a book!
So now I’m back in Sydney. I greeted my return to my friends house with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, all the rage since one opened up in downtown Sydney. The line was only 20 minutes and I figured it was as good a way as any to make the housemates forget that I was living on their couch.
It worked. And with only three days to go before my departure to China, I’m more excited than ever. I’m really going to miss Australia and really like it a lot. I can remember some guy telling me back home that he thought it was basically a “boring US”, which was totally wrong in my opinion. Indeed, as American and advanced western culture in general spreads, big cities and western countries are starting to converge in mannerisms and appearance, but when you look past that, the differences really do open up and become clearer. Not to mention the fact that you have some of the most incredible and diverse scenery in the world at your disposal when you devote enough time to see the country thoroughly (which I didn’t). I hope I get to come back here and do another trip around the east or west coast sometime in my life. It would only be fair to see it right, and with perhaps a bit more cash to splash.
I sat there trying to figure out what to do with the car in Simon and Kat’s apartment – with a pretty bad hangover.
“Maybe we could just drive it off a cliff somewhere, tape it, then sell the tape. Then you could make some money on it!”, suggested Simon.
“Yeah…that would be cool. But, you know, it’s kind of like 1000 times worse than throwing a wrapper on the ground. That’s like hardcore pollution. Unless we cleaned it up after. And I’m not up for that today”, I replied.
“Dude, just make a flier and say $250 bucks for it. You’ll sell it today.”
See, the problem was that 1) The transmission had some problem, 2) It leaked a lot of oil, 3) I couldn’t, in good conscience, sell the car without telling someone about that stuff, and 4) If I were to sell the car for anything near what I bought for it (assuming I would be dishonest), it would take at least several weeks – which I didn’t have time for.
“If you help me with it, I’ll do it”, I said.
And we were off. Simon and Kat had just sold their car and knew all the good places to put the fliers. So I went to an internet cafe, made a flier, put a picture (the only one I had) of me with my shirt off and my hands in the air at the border of Queensland here in OZ.
As we printed it up at the Internet place, a guy looked and called his buddy. His buddy called me and tried to bargain me down to $150. Funny stuff. What a cheap bastard. So I told him I wouldn’t budge and he said he would call me back. Simon and I proceeded to put another few fliers up and at one place, there were two guys looking at the board.
“Hey, you guys wanna buy a car?”, I asked.
Twenty minutes later, my car was sold. I explained the problems and we took it for a drive and they decided that they would try their luck. They just had to get it down the coast and I think they might be able to make it. And my problems are done. I bought a ticket to Sydney for $200 bucks and was there the next morning.
First on the agenda was getting to the Chinese embassy to find out if I would have problems getting into China on a one way ticket. I went to the address I had after getting off the plane (with my huge backpack and all) via the train, only to find that it had moved. Eventually, I maneuvered my way on trains and buses to arrive at the new address, only to find that I was one minute too late (they work really rough hours at the embassy, 10AM – Noon. I noticed a Chinese travel agent next door so I stopped in and chatted with the guy. He said that I shouldn’t have a problem with a one way ticket. He sells them to Australians all the time. So I went to STA Travel and bought my ticket for the 12th of this month for about $690. After hanging around in the city for a few hours, I met up with Matt (the guy I met in NZ) and we headed back to his place and he showed me the couch I would be able to live on for the next few days. Cooooooool! We celebrated his roommate’s birthday that night and stayed up pretty late talking and catching up. It was great.
This morning I spent a few hours cleaning up the house in payment for accommodation and the food from last night and headed to the city to try the embassy one more time. I got in, sat around listening to all the Chinese and when it was my turn was assured I wouldn’t have a problem with a one way ticket. I then called Thai Airways and was assured that I wouldn’t have a problem with a one way ticket. Remember this guys. Especially if I have problems with a one way ticket when I arrive.
So right now I’m just hanging out in Sydney. I bought an unlimited public transport pass and am just popping around the city checking everything out. In a few minutes, I’m gonna meet up with Lucy, a girl I met out here when I was here a few years ago and that should be pretty cool. At this very moment, I’m on a street I walked on quite a bit when I was here last time and it feels really strange to see it. My life has changed in every conceivable way since then and now that I am back here, it’s interesting to see how differently I feel walking the streets now that I am an experienced traveler.
When I landed at the airport yesterday, I walked up to customs completely relaxed and with a half grin on my face (as usual) and the lady at the desk looked at me and smiled and said, “Wow, you shouldn’t look so stressed!”. I cruised through the airport, found the train I needed got on, walked around and didn’t feel the slightest hint of intimidation. Compared with my first visit to Sydney several years ago, it felt pretty different. I was so lost my first time, it wasn’t even funny.
I didn’t know where to go, what the coins looked like, how much stuff should cost, who to trust, who to ask, what to do with customs, etc… It was my first time traveling and it was a very new experience. And now, after exactly nine months of travel, I’ve gotten pretty good at getting thrown into a completely foreign place and calling it home without too much trouble.
At least, in western countries it’s no longer a problem. In 11 days I leave for China. I can’t read or speak Chinese and I have no idea how things get done, where to go, or the customs of the people there. If I don’t see food in the window, I wont even be able to find a place to eat. It’s going to be interesting.
It’s going to be fun.