Posted from Shanghai, China.
First and foremost: Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers and followers. If you have been faithful adherents to this insane endeavour of mine, you have my absolute sincerest thanks. I wish you all the best to you and yours around this holiday season. Secondly, I apologize again for my lack of updates up to this point. Since I left Xi’an (where I posted last) and headed to Shanghai (where I am now) I suffered through one of the worst bouts of food poisoning I have ever experienced and was incapacitated for a couple days… but have no fear my readers, I am on the clear path to recovery.
When I left you last, I had just caught the last train to Beijing leaving from Dandong, China, located just across the border from North Korea. The only bed left available was in first class, so I decided to spend a little extra and experience what a soft-sleeper car was like. Needless to say, it was a worthy investment. Instead of six beds, it was only four, which were leagues softer and came with much better pillows and blankets. Further, the residents of first class were more dignified Chinese citizens, so I witnessed considerably less abhorrent behavior (please refer to last post) The compartments also had doors, which made for a quieter environment and an overall better sleep/experience. However, compartments were for sleeping and I was still quite restless/active and went off to see what interesting things I could discover on my ride.
During my walk through the train wagons and after buying a few local beverages from the train’s wandering food cart, a Chinese man noticed me attempting English/Mandarin with a wagon conductor. He immediately asked where I was from and upon hearing the words “Canada” he immediately warmed up to me. His name was Hao and he was a Communist Party government civil servant that worked with the Ministry of the Environment. After hearing that, I joked that he definitely had his work cut out for him. We stood there together between the train cars and talked for the next few hours. He asked a lot of questions about Canada, our education system, how students find jobs/pay for school, our system of government, what I think of Canada/China, what are my favorite foods at home etc. To say the least, it was a lengthy and interesting conversation that tested my ability to be diplomatic but at the same time be able to maintain my long-standing beliefs and opinions. If you can understand the stature of the individual I was talking to, you will understand what I mean. Before long, I had noticed the train-ride was passing quickly and after exchanging information, we both retired for the evening.
The next morning after a welcome sleep and during a very thin cup of coffee (its the land of tea, not coffee I am realizing) I watched as we pulled into the outskirts of China’s capital city; Beijing. I departed one of the city’s colossal train stations (you really notice the rampant overcompensation-style architecture in China) and found a taxi line-up. You discover very quickly that Beijing has a considerable shortage of available taxis especially during peak times in the morning and afternoon. The queue for a taxi took roughly an hour and the process was noticeably cut-throat. Chinese citizens often disregarded the line altogether and cut into it as well as laughably jumped in taxis that others had already put their luggage into. The complete disregard for decency and respect for their fellow countrymen was baffling to say the least, but since I had nowhere to go quickly (and had found a decent cup of coffee in the station) I just watched the chaotic mess unfold and did my best to hold my tongue when people jumped the line. After a long, chilly wait, I basically body-checked a guy trying to steal my cab and got a ride to my hostel.
However, just getting a cab did not mean a fast ride. The traffic in Beijing is beyond horrendous. Try to imagine Toronto traffic during peak hours and everyone is driving as if their playing a game of Grand Theft Auto. It was another few kilometers and a long (albeit warm) wait until I reached my hostel. After a quick walk down an alleyway (Hutong in Chinese) I had reached my courtyard hostel and checked in. It was a gorgeous place not far from downtown Beijing, but still was very quiet and had a lovely character that made it feel like a sanctuary in what was a very busy, noisy and largely dirty city. Around noon that day, after unsuccessfully attempting to access my website, I made my way into town via the city’s Metro towards Tienanmen Square and Beijing’s Forbidden City.
The metro in Beijing is the only way to travel the city. While always packed to the rafters inside with Chinese, the system itself is kept very clean and the trains all run on time. Furthermore, most stations and directions are broadcast in the English language, which is extremely conducive to getting around. All this and it only costs two Yuan (about .25c Canadian) to go anywhere in the entire system… pretty slick. I got to the station outside Tienanmen quickly and walked my way towards the Forbidden City just north of the square (past the big, smiling picture of Mao) on what was a beautiful, sunny day.
The Forbidden City itself is a massive area. After passing through the various gates and dodging the numerous people selling you rubbish as well asking if you need a guide/tour etc, you enter the south-gate of the main complex. Inside their are numerous palaces (around twenty-six to be exact) as well as various statues, signs highlighting certain areas/sites in English/Chinese, numerous staircases and various buildings you can enter or just peer into. However, the entire complex is teeming with Chinese. While I could imagine the complex to be quite tranquil and peaceful back in its day, at present there were Chinese citizens posing in front of everything they could take a picture of. I have never seen so many cheesy/solemn poses in all my life and every time I wanted to take a picture of something, someone was invariably walking in front of me. I eventually gravitated towards the eastern side of the complex which contained the Palace of Treasures which was my highlight of the complex. Inside their were the various artworks/gifts that the various dynasties had created/received over generations and they were quite impressive. There were huge jade sculptures, golden statues, diamond studded globes containing the constellations and other intricate pieces that were fascinating to observe. After a total of three hours walking the City’s grounds and it’s elaborate gardens, I exited the North Gate a few minutes before the entire complex was due to close for the day.
From the Forbidden City, I walked westwards towards Be’hai Park, which is one of Beijing’s largest and best known public parks. However, it is not a park how you would imagine it, it was a massive grounds that was surrounded by a half-frozen body of water. Since it was getting dark (and considerably colder) the park itself was less populated and quite picturesque as Beijing’s infamous pollution made for a gorgeous sunset across the park’s large lake. The few Chinese that were present in the park I had noticed were doing exercises. However, they were not the Western forms of exercise you might be imagining, or even Tai’Chi, but what what I have dubbed the “Chinese Ministry of Silly-Walks.” Chinese citizens (mostly elderly) go for a walk, but do so with elongated steps, exaggerated muscle movements, swinging their arms or legs wildly or walk with their hands in the air shaking them like a pair of ‘jazzy-hands.’ I later discovered this is a traditional form of Chinese exercise and is quite popular/common to assist in blood flow and cardiovascular health, but it made me giggle nonetheless.
Darkness fell quickly and I had a rough time getting back to my hostel. Since traffic was at its peak, buses were crawling slowly (and I began to wonder if they actually existed at stops) and available cabs were virtually non-existent. I eventually found a city map that designated where the nearest metro station was… at least a few kilometers away. I urged my aching legs on past mounds of road-side garbage, clouds of noxious fumes caused by seas of idling vehicles, rivers of discarded cooking oil (oh yeah, poured right in the street) and more hocking/spitting/throat-clearers than I could count in my lifetime. Outside of the main parks and attractions, Beijing can be a pretty filthy city. It was late by the time I returned back and before long was having a free Friday dinner provided by the hostel in the company of an American English-teacher and a couple of vacationing Australians.
During our evening gathering, I met a guy from Switzerland. While having a chat, he asked me if I was from Simcoe, Ontario, Canada. I could not believe my ears, how did he know my hometown? Turns out the Swiss guy I was talking to was actually named Marc and had lived with my family and myself for three months (nine years ago) when my sister had done a rotary exchange in Switzerland. I was absolutely dumbfounded. Here we both were nine years later (in China of all places) and had happened to run into each other. The quote “its a small world” did not even begin to define my shocking astonishment at our chance meeting. We immediately began catching up on our last nine years. Marc was now a professional piano-player (I remember him jazzing away on our family’s piano) and was travelling with his girlfriend, Velanique who also new my sister. He’d finished school studying piano works/playing and was still living in Switzerland. However, he had just arrived in Beijing and was still jet-lagged beyond comprehension so I let him retire and did so myself shortly afterward.
The next day after a well-needed rest, I ventured into the city with Marc and Velanique to a popular Beijing art-district called the “798 Art Zone” (check it out on Wikipedia) It was on the edge of the city and after some metro/bus rides, we arrived to walk around. It was a truly unique section of town that was located next to an industrial complex. Throughout the district there was a maze of industrial pipes and shafts with liquid leaking out of them as well as steam pipes making high-pitched noises as various quantities of gases were released. However, located in this bizarre maze were artists workshops with free exhibitions. We languorously walked to and from various showrooms appreciating artworks (paintings, sculpture, script, modern/contemporary works) as well as perused the local shops and cafes. We chatted and played the tourist for the majority of the afternoon before venturing back into the city before the traffic had a chance to turn from bad to downright hellacious.
Marc and Velanique returned to the hostel to get ready for their train-ride that night while I headed towards the city’s Olympic Park. I discovered (to my dismay) that the metro right into the Olympic park was not in use. So I stopped at the nearest station and hiked a good few kilometers (over a busy highway) towards the Olympic grounds. While the park itself was grandiose in nature, it was largely unimpressive. However, the two most notable buildings were not. Both the Water Cube (swimming pool) and the Bird’s Nest (main arena) were lit up at night and made for some excellent photos. I snapped quite a few (dodging the throngs of Chinese snapping photos and people selling you junk; there is no escaping them) before walking back to the station with two girls who asked if I could escort them back to the closest metro. Being the gentlemen I am, I accepted and they made the walk back (even with my screaming leg muscles) much more enjoyable.
I arrived back at the hostel where my new friends and I all decided to go for dinner. We went to a local place within walking distance for a great meal of various dishes with the most notable being Peking Duck. The communal style of food-serving really appealed to all of us as we were famished after a long day of walking to various sights and we quickly dived in. Stuffed for the first time in awhile, we all retired back to the hostel for continued conversations about our travels, lives, hopes and aspirations. This is my favorite and the best part of traveling in my experience, learning about the lives and personalities of so many different individuals from across the planet.
The next day, after breakfast and meeting some new hostel occupants, Sam (The American English-teacher living in China) and I decided that we would try our hands at the popular markets (Pearl Market and Silk Market) in the city. After entering them, you immediately notice how aggressive the Chinese merchants can be. As soon as they see the ‘Lowai’ you get about a thousand offers for business coming at you from all directions “Hey you, I give you best price!”, “Come look in my store, maybe you want handbag?” “You buy, you buy watches!”, “Silk scarf for you? Or perhaps wife?” They are on you hard and I can honestly say, I have never felt so hounded in all my life and it can be a little overwhelming. I scanned through the various items and bought myself a few. The most notable being a new cell-phone cover for my phone. The merchant wanted 150 Yuan for it and I bargained him down to 30. The key here is to bargain hard and just walk away when they won’t come down further in price because as soon as you turn the leave, the price halves instantly. Also, don’t feel bad that you paid less… they wouldn’t sell it to you if they weren’t making some sort of profit. This process took the majority of the afternoon and afterwards (the hounding, the bargaining and the walking) it felt as if you had been hiking the entire day. That night Sam and I as well as a young doctor from Singapore (Glenn) and a girl from Switzerland (Noemie) dined at a Sichuan restaurant (my new favorite) that was known to Sam. It turned out to be a great, unique and wonderfully spicy meal. That night, I was early to bed, because the next morning I had to awake early (0530) for my trip to China’s famous Great Wall before having to catch my train that same evening to the city of Xi’an. However, I will save that bit of my adventure for the next update.
I mentioned earlier that I had myself a good round of food poisoning. So as not to leave you in too much suspense (I’ll save the details for later) it hit me squarely on the train ride from Xi’an to Shanghai. Needless to say, it was probably the worst train ride of my life to this point… at best it was an extremely horrible evening that days later, I recall as if it was a really bad nightmare. I arrived in Shanghai as yellow as a banana and took the next two days to recover. I am feeling just about 100% now, but for two days before Christmas, I was one sick dude. Only through the kindness of other travelers, a decent hostel and trying to maintain positive have I recovered.