Greetings from China

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.

“Last stop.”

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.

“Yes, yes.”

“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.

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