Wednesday, August 28, 2013

My Trip to China

The last thing I ate in Korea was a ham sandwich. I made one more call to my parents, and then I was off. Leaving Korea has been much like coming to Korea. I have often felt too rushed to understand the full meaning of my departure. There are too many people to see, too many to miss. I find myself wanting to encapsulate a country in a few words, to list off some lessons I can bring with me to Beijing, but I know those lessons will only reveal themselves further down the road. Finding significance is best left to those with time.

Beijing from the sky was much more sprawling than I imagined. Not tight like Seoul. This I would find out later was part of a pattern. I look at China as the counterpoint to the United States. Both countries are large and powerful with lots of cultural and geographical diversity. Both countries are larger than life. But China is old, the United States is new, and their interests and political systems couldn't be more different.

After I landed I met Sean from Switzerland on the subway, a nanotechnology student who had spent 6 months previously in Beijing. He helped with my bags. They were massive since I would be moving to Vietnam from Korea. I asked him for any tips on traveling the Beijing area. He told me to make sure I go to the Great Wall on a clear day. I thanked him and we parted.

I arrived at Tienanmen East station exhausted from lugging my bags by myself through the busy subways. The subways seemed about two or three times busier than the ones in Seoul, and that's saying something. On the way out some ladies asked me where I was from and if I wanted to join them for coffee. I politely refused saying I had to make it to my hotel. After all, my Chinese teacher friend had warned me against people in Beijing trying to scam me. The stairs out of the subway were a nightmare, but a few older women helped me with my bags and soon I saw the clear blue sky in front of the Forbidden City. I snapped a picture of the fountain in front of the palace, and turned to get to my hotel where I could get some rest.

I stopped to wipe off my sweat in front of a bus stop and was approached by two more Chinese people. They asked where I was from, and they told me they were brother and sister visiting from Shanghai. They had just seen the Forbidden City and were going to stop for a beer on their way back and I could call them Colin and Julia. Colin worked in IT. Maybe it was because they helped with my bags, maybe it was because they were tourists too, or maybe it was because they offered beer, but they seemed on the level. I agreed and we turned the corner towards my hotel and entered a small Chinese-style quiet bar.

We had a few pitchers of some Chinese knock-off of Heineken and some green tea. Julia told me China is famous for its knock-offs and that she just bought a knock-off iPhone but that it was no good. Colin asked me about Korea and I had to correct myself and start using the past tense when I discussed my life there. That stung. I was working at a foreign language school. I was teaching brilliant high school students.

After some more drinks Julia mentioned karaoke. We talked about how it is different in America than in Asia, but yes I would sing the Eagles with her. So we switched rooms, put some songs in and began to sing. Colin, who told me his Chinese name was “Baa-Baa” offered red wine or whiskey. Feeling adventurous, I chose whiskey. We sang “Hotel California”, “My Heart Will Go On”, “Barbie Girl”, “Beat It”, and other Asian karaoke staples. Julia was mostly tone-deaf, but I didn't mind and a few songs she really knew well. Shot after shot of whiskey I matched Baa-Baa, but I could tell this smallish Chinese man was definitely doing better than me. I complimented his tolerance and took another drink. Gambai! Scorchio! Cheers! Soon it was time to leave. With some help I paid half the bill and we walked out with my bags.

My memory is hazy here, but I recall walking down the road towards the hotel. It was an ordeal. I was hot, sweaty, exhausted, and incredibly drunk. At some point, I am going to guess about halfway to the hotel, I collapsed and could not get up. I was either too tired or lacking in balance or both. I remember Baa-Baa yelling “Ben, brother! Get up! Brother! Get up!” I threw up on myself.

I woke up in a hotel room from a dream about my high school teacher that ran the International Travel Club. I had no idea what had happened or even what country I was in. My memories soon came back and I panicked. I checked. Everything was there. All of my bags, my wallet, my credit cards, my passport, everything. I was still in my stained shirt, but my shorts were off. I looked at the time. It was 6. I was proud of myself. I had only slept an hour or two and my headache was mostly gone. I looked again. It was 6 am. I had slept through my entire first evening in Beijing up until the next morning. Despondent, I realized I had not booked my trip to the Great Wall. That was the one thing I absolutely had to do before I went to bed the day before. I thought that maybe if I got showered and dressed right away I could still go outside and find a company to book a tour with for that morning.

I got out of the shower, put some clothes on and began reassembling what I needed for the day. At 7 the phone rang. I picked it up. “Hello Benjamin. I am calling to inform you that your tour bus for the Great Wall will pick you up at the corner in front of your hotel at 7:15. I will give you my number so reception can help you find your way.” I put down the phone to grab a pen and screamed and laughed in delight.

I walked out of the hotel for what seemed like the first time, trying to piece together any memories at all of the night before. Nothing. I did, however, find I had a receipt for the tour in my pocket with my name neatly signed and printed at the bottom. I also found I had way more money in my wallet than I recalled.

On the bus I met Vlad and Roxanna from Romania. I told them my story in wide-eyed astonishment. I asked the tour guide if we had spoken and it sounded like we hadn't, but someone had alerted her to the fact that I was quite tipsy and that she should give me a wake up call. We picked up a woman from Germany with a slight Australian accent who had been living in Singapore, and set off on our way.

Wow! It seems like it goes on forever in either direction!
The Great Wall was foggy. It was the old part of Badalang I was told, so there were very few people there. We couldn't see anything. I thought of Sean from Switzerland. Everyone complained and made sarcastic comments about the amazing view. I was still reeling at the fact that somehow Blackout Ben had gifted Hungover Ben with a second chance. I was just happy to be there. The wet, cool air was wonderful for my condition.

We went to a jade shop. We went to the Ming tombs. We went to a pearl farm shop. I went back to the hotel. I asked the manager what happened last night. He told me my friends, a man and a woman, had brought me in two taxis (I assume tuk-tuks) because of my bags. The man had helped me into the room and into bed. I asked about the Great Wall tour but he denied selling me any ticket to the Great Wall.

That night I wandered the streets of Beijing, seeing the parks and looking for something to do. I went to a traditional market meant for tourists really that reminded me of Insadong in Korea. There I bought an Oba-Mao shirt, with Obama cloaked in communist regalia. I'm not sure who the joke is on with that shirt, but I liked it. I wandered around the business district of Wangfujing and another night market where I almost bought myself some cicadas or scorpions on a stick. I decided I had nothing to prove, and headed home, got lost, found my way, had a PBR with some other foreigners outside the hotel, and went to bed.

Only part of the line to see Mao.
The next morning I repacked my bags and headed for Tienanmen Square. After a long security checkpoint, I was admitted. The Square is huge, the largest in the world. I wanted to kick myself for not knowing where the “Tank Man” photo was taken before going there. Seems like that would be almost like Abbey Road for foreigners visiting China. I took a photo of the line to Mao Zedong's tomb. I wasn't going to waste my last few hours in Beijing honoring a man like that, so I did a lap around the square, and got lost in the beautiful and peaceful garden next to the Forbidden City before eventually making my way inside through the west gate. I wandered around the outer part of the city looking for the Starbucks my father told me should be there. Instead I found a place that served Peking duck. Figuring this was my last chance to get it, I sat down and had a massive dinner all to myself. Delicious.

On my way back towards the City a small Chinese woman stopped me to ask if I wanted a tour. Now, this wasn't the first time someone had asked me if I wanted a tour. In fact, it had been happening all day. It could have been that I was well-fed, that she didn't seem desperate, or that I was on a strict schedule, but I said yes. She asked for 60 yuan and walked off with my money to get me a ticket. Before long, she came back with my ticket and introduced herself as Maja. Maja gave an excellent tour. She told me all about the extravagance of the palace. One emperor had 27 beds so he could sleep in a different one each night in case someone tried to assassinate him in his sleep. There is house built specifically for the emperor's honeymoon bed and is only used once by each emperor. There was a lot of information about concubines and eunuchs. Concubines could give birth to the next emperor. And a eunuch would burn incense to limit the time each concubine had with the emperor at night. If a concubine bribed the eunuch she could have more time. Eunuchs became very wealthy. The Forbidden City for me was a great example of how absolute power and centralized wealth could really go too far.

I talked with Maja for a bit at the end of tour about life in China and family stuff. I paid her, we parted, and I walked back to my hotel to pick up my bags and take a taxi to the airport. Overall, China has been a nice little stopover. I wanted to see a lot more of it, but at least now I can say I have been there. China puts Korea in perspective. China is Korea if it let itself go. Korea is very neat and new and fashion conscious. China doesn't care what it looks like. Most of the men keep their bellies out to keep cool. China has nothing to prove. They have dominated that part of the world for centuries. Sure, hard times have hit, but no one can deny their staying power.

One last note on traveling. With the internet connection being spotty and my laptop packed deep in my bag, I was unable to check my bank account until I got to Vietnam. Colin and Julia debited my card for five transactions of 467,087 won, or about $2100 total. I was also charged about $500 dollars to my credit card, but I am fairly certain all of that was in my wallet minus what I spent on the trip to the Great Wall. That was really dumb. I'll use more caution in Vietnam.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Feeling Small

Yesterday I filmed my bike ride home from school. I thought people might like to see what my neighborhood looks like and how I get to and from work every day. It's a nice ride. I hope it's not too long or dull. If it is click on settings and you can actually increase the playback speed.

On the bike ride home tonight I saw a little toddler running being chased in a crowd by his grandpa. He was giggling and running between the legs of all the people waiting at the crosswalk. It made me miss being that small. But why do I miss being small? It's so easy to get lost when you are small. I remember finding the feeling of being lost and away from everyone exhilarating. It was a horribly bad habit of mine to wander away at the store almost every time I went. It's easier to hide too. And when you're that small, the world looks bigger. Everything towers over you. I remember being bathed on the kitchen counter and looking out the window. I remember having to use a stool to wash my hands in the bathroom. And when you're small, the world is still new. Everything is exciting and you are learning everything for the first time. You cannot help but have a wide-eyed fascination with all that surrounds you.

I wonder if traveling has something to do with being small. When I am truly lost and alone in Korea, it is exhilarating (luckily people tend not to kidnap 6-foot tall dudes). It's harder to hide today than it ever has been, but switching countries is a start. Living away gives me perspective. It lets me begin to see the world as a larger place again. I can begin to imagine all the houses and rivers and oceans and forests and people that are between me and those that I know and care about across the world. The world is a bigger place. And, the world is still new. In Korea, I am still learning many things for the first time and this will continue in Vietnam.

Traveling has made me small again.