Thursday, April 16, 2009

Mystery train, expressway to your skull

Great Wall 2

If I had moved to Beijing instead of Jinan, I would have probably spent the last six-odd weeks gushing about how much I like China. But judjing China by a Beijing still basking in a post-Olympic afterglow is like judging the United States by a Manhattan at the height of prosperity. Wonderful as it may seem, it's not an honest picture. In a way, knowing this made me enjoy Beijing more than I might have without the context of a more realistic China.

The past three days in the capital have probably been my favorite three days so far in this country. A big part of it was that I was so very hungry for a taste of the west, for someone outside of my coworkers to speak English to me, for real cheese, for a place that was so anonymously international it could have been anywhere in the world.

Tiananmen Square 1

Six other teachers and I took a train up early on Monday morning. The hostel we had booked was one of the nicest hostels I've ever stayed in. We checked in and then went out exploring, headed towards the obvious initial destination of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was too late in the day to gain entrance into the latter, but we loitered about the square for a while and contemplated history. Just as we were about to leave, a dust storm gathered above us. April in Beijing is known for these - it's the Gobi desert exacting its revenge on humanity, strong winds blowing dust and sand into the city. I spent the duration of the storm walking the massive length of the square and haggling with a Chinese man for a cheaper price on a copy of Mao's little red book.

The second day was the Great Wall, which is a couple hours outside the city. We opted to go to a minimally-visited part of the wall, planning to do a 10-km hike. There was lots of haggling with taxi drivers, and by the time we got to the start of the hike we had less time than we'd hoped to cover some very steep and partly ruined terrain. One of my colleages, mindful of a past knee injury, decided not to do the whole hike, and I decided to stay with her, mostly because I didn't want to rush myself through the experience.

Great Wall 4

The Great Wall of China was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen. There are no words to describe it. It took my breath away. The wall stretched as far as the eye could see across the highest peaks of inhospitable mountains, snaking into the hazy horizon. So many times, I picked up my camera to take a picture and then just put it back down, knowing I could never capture it. Standing up there, knowing the hundreds and hundreds of years of history of the rough stones under my feet, was incredibly humbling. Even though I didn't do the whole hike, it was worth it to skip the more touristy sections of the wall, because we were basically the only people up there: just us and the hard-blowing desert wind.

We had been planning on leaving Beijing on Thursday morning, but kept forgetting to book out tickets. By the time we got around to it, on Wednesday morning, all the good tickets for the nice fast trains were gone. We ended up having to take the cheapest seats on a slow overnight train on Wednesday night. With this in mind, we all split up to wander about the city and make the most of our last day in Beijing, and all ended up going shopping and spending entirely too much money. I am learning how to effectively haggle, which is essential here. Bought lots of lovely things, mostly presents.

The crazy night train

Of course, when it was time to meet back up and go catch the train, we ended up going to the wrong station, rushing across town with no time to spare, and grabbing our train seats at the last minute. The next six hours constituted the hottest and most uncomfortable train ride of my life, yet one of the most memorable. Every inch of the train was occupied. There were people sleeping huddled up in the aisles and in the small spaces between train cars. The windows were wet from so many people trying to breathe the same air. We played absurd word games and talked books and politics as long as we could to keep ourselves awake. I drifted off around 4am, and woke up shortly afterwards to find one of my colleagues using his very limited Chinese to talk to the large group of amused passengers who had gathered around to sneak a peak at the sleeping laowais. We got off the train shortly after 5am, about 72 hours after we'd left. After a few hours' sleep and a shower, I'm ready to hop on the next train (hopefully not the same one) and head back to Beijing.

I've been stuck so firmly in my own head for the past few weeks, looking at everything but the world around me. Travel, as it always does, gave me a much-needed kick in the head, reminding me that I am here to see and experience as much as I can. The small frustrations of daily life will always be there, but I will not always live in China, so it's really in my best interests to get the hell out of my own head and enjoy this whole wild experience. Probably for the first time since I left America, I am truly glad to be in China. We have a national holiday coming up that will leave me free of work responsibilities for about a week and a half, and I believe I will be traveling to Shanghai and Nanjing. Although in all honesty, I would be very happy to scrap all other travel plans and go bum around Beijing for 10 more days.


1L said...

happy travels! i'm glad to read that you're taking advantage of the travel ops. when i was in london for 3 months on training for my first job, as much as i loved london and could have spent all my time there -- i took advantage of the situation and traveled every free weekend that i had-to scotland, france, germany, denmark, the netherlands--all places that i might not have seen otherwise, if i wasn't already in europe. i look forward to reading more of your adventures here!! :-)

Mandy said...

Great photos, Anna!

shauna said...

I am glad to see you looking happy. You are missed.