Dispatches are stored at PerpetualTravel.com
This dispatch is different from others. Unlike most travel writing, it doesn't talk about the interesting attractions of Beijing very much, nor does it get into deep descriptions of the place or the people, which was done in the previous dispatches, and hopefully the rest. This is more about the everyday life of long-term travellers, with Beijing as the setting.
We left Yangshuo in the southeast on June 4, 1996 for a boring 2100km (1300 mile), 36-hour train ride through flat countryside and ugly, industrial cities. It only got worse as golden sands blew in from the Gobi Desert, blanketing the north in a yellow-brown haze. We arrived in Beijing one day late for the thoroughly-policed seven-year anniversary of Tiananmen.
We rolled into the huge, unfinished railway station in the southwest of the city. It was as crowded as any big city with its gray buildings, brown skies, and one-mile visibility. It was so polluted that the rain left volcanic, ash-like dirt specks on our clothes. We got into the first of many miandis (me-yen-dee), bright-yellow microbus taxis that look like a loaf of bread, just shorter. We found them to be the most convenient, affordable, and bumpy form of transportation.
We drove around for half an hour, striking-out at the once-affordable hotels, having to stay far south of the city center at the Jinghua (jing-hwa) since the Jingtai is always full. It was so expensive that in a few more years all the hotels will have been renovated, and backpackers won't be able to afford this city.
The backpacker section of the hotel had a nice atmosphere, not unlike a college dorm, as long as the wind didn't change directions and carry the stench from the river towards us. We settled in for the rest of the day and met many interesting people. Half were staying in four-bed dorms in the basement, and the rest were on the second floor in a cramped dorm-room full of wobbly, noisy, metal bunkbeds that slept thirty-six. Everyone meets in the lobby and at the three outdoor, cafe-like restaurants nailed-up in the parking lot.
Antoinette was one of the first people we met. She was from the Netherlands and had been travelling around China for three months, enjoying the cultures in the west, where we were heading. She continued travelling around Asia for another eight months.
Another inspirational person we met was Gottfried, a German who had lived out of his car with a tent for six months while visiting the national parks in the United States. After meeting more people, we realized that it is popular for Germans to do this same trip, but in small groups, especially in the southwestern parks.
Our second day set the tone for our stay. It began with the worst pancakes the world has ever known -- thin, round sheets of half-cooked dough swimming in a pool of old, burnt grease. Needless to say, we refused them. The weather started out overcast and sprinkling, but much to our delight, it eventually changed to clear, deep blue, northern skies and intense sunlight, exactly opposite to the previous day's brown soup.
Antoinette oriented us to public transportation: double-length buses connected in the middle, lumbering through the city. Most of them have a pole on top, like a trolley, that slides along the power cables overhead. We stood for twenty minutes until we reached the center of the city. Antoinette went her own way for the day. We went down into the subway, a ring around the city, with one leg that runs west. It is clean, efficient, inexpensive, fast, and easy to use. The stairs are usually on all four corners of large intersections, so it takes a few minutes to get your bearings when you come up.
When we got off the Underground Dragon in the northeast, we were totally disoriented, even with compasses and a map. We surfaced in a small cloverleaf intersection, with few landmarks. When we asked where the bus stop for the #117 was, the old man running a portable newspaper stand answered by writing down the rush hour times and waving his hands to indicate 'not now'. Then he whipped out a map and showed us the buses we needed to detour back towards our destination.
This wasn't good news since we hadn't started as early as planned. Embassies accept applications only in the morning. It was near closing-time, so we flagged down a miandi for the 2km dash through the Sanlitun (sahn-lee-tune) Embassy Compound. It is a very different layout of broad boulevards devoid of traffic, lined by large walls and wide sidewalks covered by green trees full of birds, including huge, black magpies. There are few people walking around, giving it a ghost town feel in comparison to the rest of China. Each embassy has a very bored Chinese guard in military-green uniform posted out front, primarily to keep their people from rushing inside to ask for asylum.
We arrived at the Pakistan Embassy at 11:27am. The hours on the bronze plaque were 8-11, but the paper posted on the guard shack read 8:30-11:30. We pointed to it and just kept speed-walking, not knowing if the guard understood us. It is one of the largest embassies in Beijing and reflects their excellent relationship. (For the last thirty-five years, China hadn't gotten along very well with its other large neighbors, arguing with the Soviet Union, annexing Tibet, and fighting with both India and Vietnam.) The embassy even runs a school for the Muslim children of embassy personnel from other countries.
Marc was looking rather Middle Eastern with his full beard, so the friendly men in their shalwar kameez (Pakistani shirt and pants) were greeting him with, "Salaam Aleikums." They were a little disappointed when he told them he was an American! They handed us some literature full of bloody photos from the Kashmir Conflict, told us we could keep it, and asked us to wait awhile. While waiting, we called Chris, a friend we met in Singapore. He was teaching computer courses in Beijing, but leaving very soon since he was at his limits with China.
When the visa officer met with us, Marc politely shook hands and introduced us. Nearly causing an international incident, Karin stood up and extended her hand -- after a slight hesitation, he jutted his hand out and accepted a non-masculine handshake. We remembered our passport photos, unlike the British man ahead of us, who got to repeat the long trip the following two days. Pakistan charged him US$53 since he is a member of the ex-colonial ruler; everyone else from the West pays US$24 for the 30- to 90-day visa.
We left the embassy at noon, passing the Hard Rock Cafe across the street and stopping in the Lufthansa Center supermarket, where we found an amazing selection of chocolates and candies from Europe and the United States. We went across the street to Schiller's for a very good burger, and the chicken sandwich was equally up to standards at a reasonable price, with great service and style. The staff even helped us call a newspaper to locate an Internet cafe, and they gave us good bus directions.
Next stop, the World Trade Center where there were more Western supermarkets. As we approached, we passed a smiling Tanzanian gentleman in a business suit who said, "Hello" with a nice voice. He reminded us of West Indians and looked like Sidney Poitier. After a few steps we turned around since he had the biggest, most genuine, sincere, and happy smile in the world. Barnabas' manners were impeccable and he spoke wonderful English. He had a business meeting to go to, but gave us his address and phone number and invited us for a tour of his embassy.
We were here to cash a personal check at the American Express Travel Service, but they weren't allowed to sell 'banking services'. They told us to go to the China International Trade Institution Commerce (CITIC) Bank, just another kilometer (1100 yds) or so down the street. It was affectionately known as the "Chocolate Building" since that was the color of the skyscraper.
Instead, we went upstairs to the Bank of China and cashed one of our last TCs (traveller's cheques). Luckily, Karin had her old passport with her. Otherwise we would have been in a real bind, not having enough money to pay for our Pakistan visas, therefore unable to get our passports back from the embassy, and unable to get money at all since there were no ATMs.
Back on the confusing public transport to visit the Friendship Store. It used to be the place to go for souvenirs and the only place to find Western goods, but now they aren't so special with all the open competition.
Then we walked 1km (1100 yds) to the Post Office. Considering the number of travellers who come through here, and all the expats in town, we were surprised to find a meager collection of letters in the Poste Restante bin. The mail seemed to be purposely misfiled, so we had to go through all of it to find our stuff. We found one postcard and had to pay storage fees and wait a day before we could claim a package from home.
This was depressing since we knew more mail had been sent. Seems they feel it is their duty to return mail at the thirty-day mark, or earlier. We know we were only a few days late, and most post offices hold mail for much longer. The sad thing was that people don't put a return address on postcards, and this place didn't have a dead letter pile for us to go through. Later, two correspondents did tell us that they got their mail back. This is the point in the trip where we decided to make it easier for everyone and just depend on email, as we found access often enough.
By 6:15pm we were too tired to do any more, so we took the subway back then walked 500m (1550 ft) to the Beijing Concert Hall, where there was supposed to be an Internet Cafe. We were at the right place, but at the wrong time, as there was a concert going on and the cafe was open to the audience only.
Like we weren't tired enough, we hoofed it 1km (1100 yds) north looking for the bus stop, only to see one a 100m (110 yds) south of the concert hall when the bus we were on passed it. Seems all bus stops are at least one kilometer apart, so knowing where they are is a survival tactic. A long and painful ride, standing twenty-five minutes on a heavily-packed bus, only to get off 800m early, as we didn't know there was a stop near the hotel. It's at times like these that we envy people on expensive tour buses.
There just happened to be a large supermarket on the corner for our shopping needs. We found supplies like muesli to salvage breakfast. Right next door was one of the thirty-seven McDonald's in Beijing. We never eat there, but since it was China, curiosity got the better of us, so we tried the burgers, fries, milkshakes, cokes, and apple pies. Same as ever the world over, and better than most of the meals served at the hotel.
We dined with our two pretty, Norwegian roommates who started their RTW trip with three weeks in Delhi, having the usual experience of India Shock. They also got lost in the embassy area today, walking three kilometers from the subway. Out front, the hot day was transformed into a romantic evening under the stars, as Chinese couples of all ages were waltzing to classical music on a concrete dance floor under colorful lights.
Once again, we crossed over the huge black-as-ink open sewer they call a canal, to get home. We stopped at the cafes outside to talk with Antoinette and Kun, her funny Japanese roommate. Later, we called four contacts: one was away on business, the next one had an answering machine, another by Chinese custom couldn't have any visitors for thirty days since he had a newborn, and the last one had parents visiting for a few days and asked us to call back.
Don't know where the energy came from, but we sat in the lobby filling our journals to the music of Bob Marley. Tobias, the Dane we met in Laos and Jinghong, stopped by to let us know he wasn't too happy with China. The six young, crewcut Brits we met in Jinghong and Dali came in at midnight and asked for Laos tips, for an hour and a half.
Please let tomorrow be a smoother day
We began a new morning ritual: walking out to the cafes, buying two small bottles of fresh, thick and tasty yogurt, then bringing them back to the room to add to our muesli from the nearby supermarket. Yogurt in China is a special treat, most are locally made, and no two brands are the same. We would look for it several times a day.
This time, we were taking no chances with public transportation, hiring a miandi to race us around the third ring road and crawl up through a traffic jam to the Pakistan Embassy. After getting our passports, we walked to the Tanzanian Embassy, a quiet and peaceful place full of tall fir trees.
Barnabas welcomed us in and gave us a tour of the reception and ceremonial halls full of art, objects, and photos of wildlife from Africa. We also met everyone who lived and worked there, including the charismatic ambassador who had lived in Holland and knew people from Karin's island of Curacao.
We stopped at the large map on the wall for a geography and history lesson. The Serengeti Plains are famous for wildlife safaris and Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. Now that Tanzania's infrastructure has improved, tourists no longer have to stay in Kenya, which is full of hassles and has become increasingly dangerous. The infrastructure of Kenya and Zimbabwe grew while Tanzania's didn't due to its uncertain future when it became a protectorate of Britain, after the Germans were defeated in World War I.
He taught us some basics of his language, Ke-Swahili, which is fun and nearly as easy as Bahasa Indonesia. It's a mixture with Arabic, due to the thousands of years of influence from trading ships mooring in Zanzibar.
We went to a nearby Sichuan restaurant for lunch. The table was covered with dishes of delicious sauteed mushrooms, shredded pork, chili beef, and stir-fried jellyfish, and our ever-attentive waiter made sure our teacups were refilled after every sip.
Barnabas told us about the vast changes in China since he lived there ten years ago. He was sent to Beijing in 1975 and lived there five years, then assigned to other countries, and was now back in Beijing. Beijing used to be a small village of houses belching tons of black, coal smoke; now it is turning into a skyscraper city. He was kept on a 5km (3 mile) leash, as it was the end of the Cultural Revolution and Mao was still in power. Everyone walked around like zombies in blue or green outfits, and they were afraid to talk to him, even those who worked at the embassy. He had to be careful when he spoke to the Chinese or they might be subjected to interrogation. Men and women looked alike since the women wore bust-flattening clothes and short hair. All embassy personnel felt isolated, so they found ways to pass the time together with frequent parties.
After amusing him with photos of our families, we went to Wanfujing Avenue, also known as McDonald's Street, since this is where the first one was established in China. We walked north along the shopping street, weaving a path through the masses. Just the day before, Marc said there probably weren't any Dunkin Donuts in China, but one appeared on the horizon, so we decided to: experiment some more, relax in the cool air-con, rest our feet, and make good use of their clean toilets.
We emerged at 8pm to pursue Antoinette's suggestion of eating at the Donganmen Night Market. For 130m (430 ft), foodstalls lined one side of the road with red, paper lanterns in the trees, giving them a warm glow. Most of the crowd was Chinese, however, a few tourists from the expensive hotels nearby were walking around with cameras, but not eating much.
We explored the market taking in all the sights and sounds before deciding. The aromas were enticing, except for one unmistakable odor we assumed was bow-wow stew. The sugary donut balls were a nice start, then the best-looking and very tasty moo-shu pork rolls. By the time we got back to the beginning of the street, we were ready for baked pineapples stuffed with pineapple rice. Antoinette arrived with her three roommates in tow, so we stood around talking and eating for awhile. When we were done, we dropped our dishes in the plastic buckets the owners placed in the middle of the street.
On our way home, we overshot our bus stop by 1200m (3700 ft). While deciding what to do along a dark stretch of sidewalk, a young woman approached and said the magic words: "May I help you?" We thoroughly confused her at first, but she managed to help us. The interesting part was that we tried to start a conversation with her since she seemed to be fluent in English, but she was more interested in making her getaway into the shadows. We think she just wanted a brief encounter with Westerners to use her English, but then the fear set in. We learned to get used to this hit-and-run style.
Quoting the 1986 edition of Time-Life's "China":
"The state has many ways of exerting control over the everyday lives of the Chinese people. The control mechanisms are not always evident to visitors, who often comment upon the casual contempt the Chinese show for their uniformed policemen. But uniformed police, and their plain-clothes counterparts, are only the surface of an extremely complex security apparatus that regulates virtually every aspect of life. This apparatus, most powerful in the cities, has been described by a long-time resident of Beijing as being `like radar, it picks you up wherever you go'."
"At the everyday level, control is maintained by two overlapping types of organizations, none of them formerly a part of the governmental structure. The most ubiquitous is the danwei, or workplace unit. Virtually every Chinese belongs to a danwei at a factory, office, or school, and the danwei maintains a grip on many aspects of each member's public and personal life. Changing jobs, getting a better apartment, even travelling overnight to another city, all require permission from the danwei. Any slips of the tongue or untoward behavior are certain to be noted in the confidential dossier the danwei keeps on every individual. It contains everything the party needs to know, detailing three generations of ancestors to establish class background, and includes an up-to-date evaluation of political loyalty."
"While the danwei provides the primary mechanism of social and political control, a second sort of organization, the street committee, watches the daily lives of city dwellers even more closely. Every urban neighborhood has its own committee, which provides residents with certain services such as day-care centers. In return, the committee subjects the personal lives of its parishioners to unremitting surveillance."
We realize much has changed in China since this was written, but at the same time most of these control mechanisms and attitudes are still in place. This is why we think people seemed the happiest and most carefree on the trains, since they knew very few people were watching.
Eventually we caught a bus home. We should've known we were in trouble when we saw the headlights off as it came around the corner. The driver had a close relationship with the horn and used it to notify all other traffic -- bikes, pedestrians, taxis, oncoming traffic, turning traffic -- that he was in the neighborhood. We shook, rattled, and rolled slowly, honking our way through Beijing, finally escaping onto our seemingly silent street. Our tummies were happy, and it had been a nice day.
Another attempt to find the Internet cafe at the Beijing Concert Hall with Antoinette since she wanted to read her email too, only to find that there was another performance going on and the cafe was not open.
Nothing else to do, so on to Plan B: head east to Tiananmen Square, where many people were flying kites. It wasn't too crowded for a 500x800m (1550x2500 ft) slab of concrete, nine times larger than a football field. There is an ominously huge portrait of Mao watching over from Tiananmen Gate. On the east side of the square is the Museum of History and Chinese Revolution, with an enormous digital clock mounted on the wall, counting down the time until Hong Kong's return to the motherland on July 1, 1997.
We passed the Forbidden City -- with a title like that, how could we go in? We wanted to see the Summer Palace first, and never made it back here since we'd seen enough after two weeks. We're used to skipping major tourist traps. Friends described it as an expensive, redundant, and dead attraction, as there are just a few tourists visiting and no Chinese living there, making the place feel empty.
Continued walking east toward Wanfujing on Antoinette's official tour, which takes you through the Beijing Hotel and across to the largest McDonald's in the world. We were surprised to see fifteen cash registers, and a long line at each one. She doesn't frequent them in Holland, but likes to escape into the air-con while in Asia, sitting with a cup of tea, people-watching, and writing.
Henry, one of her roommates, showed up and entertained us for hours with tales from his four-month Trans-Siberian journey from Switzerland to Japan, which turned into three and a half years of wandering around Asia. In the last seven years he had worked some, but had also lived in Greece and travelled around South America. He had spent most of the last five months in China. He was especially interested in The Great Game between Russia and Britain in Central Asia during the 1800s. He gave us many tips and made us look forward to the next two months of travel.
Next stop, a pharmacy on Wanfujing to find vitamins. They had an impressive array of medicines from the West, all available without a prescription. There was a large glass case with every variation on the theme of condoms. One package had a cartoon picture of a woman on her knees with a beet-red bottom, that looked like rouge had been applied to it. We couldn't read the Chinese characters so we named it the "Spanky" brand. We wonder how they sold any with the nice Chinese saleswoman at the counter, and how she kept a straight face when somebody asked for one.
Then we went into the Foreign Languages Bookstore. Half the store contained textbooks on learning English, with a crowd of Chinese sifting through them. Having this many varieties seemed obsessive, but one person explained that most Chinese would like to leave the country, and they believed that learning English would help.
Caught a bus to the west side of the city where we walked through an outdoor clothing market with a nice selection, then down a street, through a Muslim fruit and vegetable market and into a stretch of outdoor cafes. The Chinese Muslims (moosah-lee) are known as Hui (hwee or hway), and most are members of the Uighur (wee-guhr, or oi-guhr) minority from the western half of the country. The small street had a local community feel that made us feel less out-of-place, and brought back many good memories for Antoinette.
The cafes were filling up quickly, but again we wanted to stroll through the entire market before settling on one place. Waiters blocked our path and grabbed us to get us to sit at their tables, so we had fun walking the street seeing who was the most persistent. It didn't take long for our senses to become overloaded with the enticing aromas, and for us to find a cafe to our liking.
The signs and menus were all in Arabic, so we resorted to pointing to the plates around us and at the interesting foods in the flaming woks. Luckily they brought out a bowl of thick noodles and green peppers in a tomato sauce, and a plate piled high with delicious braised lamb seasoned with cumin seeds, served with a 30cm-diameter (1 ft) loaf of pita-like bread, all at a reasonable price.
Heading into the subway we caught sight of a young man who was suspiciously pacing along with us. When we got to the subway he started speaking good colloquial American English. He had been drinking, and was just happy to tell us about his family in Australia with whom he was going to live.
Another run on the Beijing Concert Hall with Antoinette, but this time the Coffee Chateau was open. Cai, a young man from Shanghai, had four computers that were just for local email and not Internet-capable. He called the local company and got directions for us, then he translated the concert schedule. He asked the ladies, whose eyes were sparkling by this time, if they were interested, then took us downstairs to see the concert hall seating arrangement and buy tickets. Mysteriously, we were given a fifty percent discount, only paying US$5 each for good seats.
So far in Asia things seemed pretty safe, but China gave Marc the least worries when Karin went out alone. With only eight hours to kill, Karin and Antoinette set out for the Lufthansa Shopping Center, hailing a taxi to the Kunlun Hotel. Antoinette taught us the trick of having the taxi drivers drop us at the expensive, international hotels when we need to go somewhere. The drivers know the hotels, and there's the added benefit that the hotels have impeccably clean, luxurious toilets. After a stroll through the shopping center, they went back to the Sichuan restaurant in the Sanlitun Embassy Compound for braised eggplant in a chili garlic sauce, with sauteed mushrooms.
Everyone met back at the Beijing Concert Hall at 7pm, and were treated to a two-hour violin recital. The concert hall was full. Twenty-five percent of the audience was between the ages of five and ten, so there was lots of seat-kicking to endure.
Violinist Jin Hui had studied in Quebec, and was giving his first recital in China. His performance included masterpieces like Winniovsky's Theme Original Varie, Tchaikovsky's Serenade Melancolique, and Paganini's Le Streghe, with an encore treat of Massenet's Meditation. To top it off, the girls were allowed backstage for a photo with the artist, while Marc stayed in the cafe enjoying some of the finer coffees of the world, and talking to Cai. For a welder, he sure knew his music and computers, and made a good cup of java, too.
We were the last ones out the door of the Beijing Concert Hall at 10:30pm. Back on the bus home, the sewer river jolted us out of our trance in time to get off at our stop. Blind people have no problems finding their way home in this area.
Down to the Jianguomenwai (zhahn-go-men-why) Embassy Compound to visit the Indian Embassy by 11am. This one, however, stays open until noon. We obtained the Pakistan visa first since that was the next country we would enter; also so that the Pakistan Embassy wouldn't refuse us if they found an Indian visa in the passport, but apparently this wasn't a problem. The friendly Chinese clerk and Indian visa consul explained that the Indian visa process officially takes ten days. Supposedly, they fax the Indian consul in our home countries and wait five business days to see if there's a response. They offered to speed up the process for a large fee.
The choices were: the US$20, three-month, multiple-entry visa that starts ticking upon entry; or the US$40, six-month, single-entry visa that starts ticking when it is issued. We didn't expect to get there for another two or three months, so settled for option one. Rumors were flying that the second option could later be changed to a multiple-entry visa upon entry, but we didn't want to gamble like that, although we were going to Nepal and back into India.
Marc also had to pay a non-refundable US$20 application fee in US dollars since he holds a US passport and allegedly, the US Embassy charges Indian applicants the same fee. We decided it was better to spend the time in Beijing than Islamabad, the next place with an Indian Embassy before we got to India, plus we didn't want to rely on relations between India and Pakistan being good, if we had to apply in Pakistan.
It was time to replenish our funds, so we made a pitstop at the CITIC Bank's (not Citibank) AmEx counter to cash a US$1000 personal check for the rest of our stay in China. We decided not to buy any TCs until Pakistan since the Chinese government was forcing an exorbitant commission of 4%, unlike the 1% everywhere else in the world, besides the .75% service fee to cash TCs. This is how we got in the habit of cashing personal checks at AmEx, instead of using TCs or credit cards. We carried TCs, but used them only when we were in a bind, or when we were going to be away from AmEx offices for a long period.
Outside, we had to run past the legless beggars to the subway station as it was starting to thunder and lightning. Got off in the northwest, and took a miandi just in time, as it got dark and the rain solidified, pelting everything with hail the size of golf balls. The black asphalt looked like it had just snowed. Inside, we felt like moving targets on a gun range. There was so much noise on the metal roof that it sounded like we were under attack.
Reluctantly, we got out and ran across the parking lot to the building we had been told had Internet access, but we had landed at the wrong place. There was a friendly crowd of professionals in the lobby watching the hailstorm, so we asked them if they knew of the Beijing Information Highway Space. When we showed them the advertisement, one determined man flipped open his small cellular phone and kept calling until he reached them, then pointed us diagonally across the intersection.
The rain had subsided and we walked over to BIHS, only to learn that we would have to set up an expensive account before we could use their room full of computers. Marc persisted in explaining that we only wanted to telnet one time to check our email. The manager was called over and understood the opportunity to make money, and was reasonable about the rates, so we went in another room and logged into his account. However, the net was too slow and kept timing out before we could connect. While waiting, he told us that his company had started a subsidiary in the US and they were offering accounts on their computers to overseas Chinese. We got to see a very modern side of China today. This area is near the university, and is swamped with computer stores.
We had walked our feet so flat they hurt too much to go on. Our minibus driver didn't laugh, get upset, nor try to embarrass us when we inadvertantly gave him a hundred yuan note (US$8) for a four yuan ride. He actually tried to make change, until we realized our mistake and gave him a ten yuan note; Everyone had a good laugh.
Our feet were still too tired for tourist activities, so we declared it a rest-day and broke out the much-neglected pile of financial paperwork, something we work on about every three months.
Out with the old roommates and in with the new. Tim from New Zealand, and Bruno from Italy, replaced our Norwegian goddesses. Tim was a Physics and Math graduate who was teaching English in Seoul, Korea. He had travelled most of Asia and was heading to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. He went into town for a few hours, but didn't comprehend the distance from Tiananmen to our hotel, taking two hours and walking his feet visibly flat.
Bruno had travelled extensively, but he was very different from most backpackers we'd met, aside from looking like Elmer Fudd. It was 32°C (90°F), but he was wearing a flannel sweater. He had a huge backpack weighing no less than 25kg (55 lbs) and half-full of books. He had been a biology and chemistry professor until he went on a trip to Mexico and became interested in economics and comparative religious studies. He was travelling the world for a few years while writing books.
He had an analogy, "When looking at the stars and seeing some brighter than others, it's hard to tell which ones are farther away until you move, so having read so much about the world, I'm travelling to get a better perspective." He ordered thousands of dollars worth of books at a time, ripped the covers off of them, took some with him, and had the rest shipped as he needed them. As he read them, he threw away the pages he didn't want.
Marc read Tim's new edition of Lonely Planet's "China," but didn't find much new material in it. LP removed all references to the FEC, the old tourist currency the Chinese had created. They updated the prices by increasing them 50%, but the exchange rate had decreased by the same percentage, so we were still spending the same amount. The quality of travel and service, however, had improved a great deal along with the infrastructure. They also changed the style of the maps and shrunk the illustrations. It had plenty of details in it, but still didn't answer many important questions.
The book was smaller, even after adding Hong Kong and Macau. Basically, they added easily-verified comments sent in by readers, and slapped a new cover on it to get it out into the market. It was the worst LP Marc had ever read, and he felt it needed to be rewritten by a completely different author since the attitude was so negative -- many sentences have sneering twists to them. China still had its rough moments, and it is impossible to make the place sound rosy, but it was nowhere near as bad as when they wrote the original version of the LP. Too bad there were no other budget travel guides on the market.
While we were in the hotel's travel office we discussed the prices in China with John. Although he knew that China lost tourism due to its old policy of charging ten times the Chinese admission price, he still agreed with it "since we could afford it." Admission prices had not changed for tourists, but the price for the Chinese had increased greatly, so it was only four-fold gouging in 1996. We were still paying double on planes, but the price on buses and trains were the same as the Chinese were paying in the east. Out west, the Uighurs hadn't 'caught-up' with the new government policies!
Another rest day since it was 35°C (95°F) outside, and Marc wasn't feeling so good. Like yesterday wasn't enough, Tim tried walking through the city, finally realizing just how big it is. Wisely, this time he decided to take a bus home. The driver lifted the engine cover inside the bus and poured water on the overheated engine. Tim was standing next to it and got steamed like a vegetable. Next, the driver took off the air filter and started the engine, filling the bus with a deafening noise and choking smoke.
Antoinette got new roommates, a young Israeli couple. He flew helicopters and trained in Dallas, and she had taught children in Boston. She told us that two- to five-year-olds aren't playing together much anymore now that they have computers. She had a cute story about a woman who asked her to help her select a playgroup for her daughter, with one Asian, one Black, one rich, one poor, etc.
When we weren't able to send email to Marc's Mom in the US, we sent her a fax with a local phone number and times to call, since it's cheaper for her to call from the States. She sent a fax back letting us know when she would call. We had been out of touch for two and a half months, so there was some catching up to do. Marc's Aunt Mimi had died from a heart attack. Otherwise things were going well, and his mom was glad to hear from us. We also found out that we could not have our tax refund check deposited without our signature unless we had filed a Direct Deposit Form #8888 with the original tax return, so it would have to be re-issued.
Back to the tourist grind. While waiting to change buses we noticed all the foodstalls, stopping for lo-mein noodles and steamed pork buns, known as baozi (bao-zuh). Returning to the bus stop, we passed a freak show -- a man was sitting on a tarp with one leg fully-extended for full view to the crowd that had gathered around him. There was no skin on his thigh, and it looked like a model from an anatomy class, with muscles and tendons exposed. We couldn't figure out why he wasn't in a hospital, let alone near all this food, but we managed to keep our lunch down. This is another example of changes in China, as the government didn't tolerate begging in the past.
By the time we reached the northwestern part of the city, it was sizzling hot, so we loaded up on sunblock, donned our hats, and started the afternoon stroll around the Summer Palace. There was more of a crowd than we expected walking down the 760m-long (2350 ft) corridor, with hundreds of handpainted mythological scenes on the beams overhead. There was a good view of the city from the top of the hill. Wish we could write more, but we had been in China so long that it wasn't as sensational as it would have been if we had just gotten off the plane. Nonetheless, it is a must-visit place.
We were near Beijing University, so tried to blow past the guards to stroll around the beautiful campus grounds, but we failed. Couldn't find the restaurant that specialized in Peking Duck, which Chris had recommended, so we settled for rice and pork wrapped in leaves then steamed. Further along, we topped off with a delicious jian bing, a pancake or crepe filled with plum and chili sauce, green onions, egg, cilantro, and a few other things we're not sure about.
We tried to scout out the new train station, but couldn't find anyone who spoke English, so we bought the train schedule booklet for China, only to find out that it was all in Chinese. No worries, as we figured it would come in handy sooner or later.
Yesterday, Henry from the French-speaking area of Switzerland, had suggested that we look for Rudyard Kipling's Kim as a good introduction to South Asia and The Great Game. When we got home today, there was an ad on the board for Kim. An even stranger coincidence: Fabrice, the man selling it, was from the French-speaking area of Canada. He had been out for a year, going overland from Europe to Nepal, and was now heading to Taiwan to teach English.
Finally got the much-needed daily shower. The heat makes you sweat, the dust cakes on, and at the end of the day there is a line for the communal showers -- living like the Chinese!
We'd had too many experiences with bad seats on buses to take any chances, so were one of the first in line to board. Good thing, as the hotel travel agents' greed led them to put one person on a flimsy chair in the stairwell, and the three-hour bus ride turned into four, including an unscheduled stop in traffic where the bus driver and his girlfriend tried to beat up someone who cut them off.
The Great Wall at Simatai is quite impressive, lining the green mountain ridges as it snakes its way from peak to peak for 6000km (3700 miles). Most tourists visit the other two fully-restored sections of the wall closer to Beijing, so there were no tourists when we arrived. Only a small section of Simatai has been restored, and we had quite a time crawling up some 45-degree inclines which had no stairs, side walls, or safety ropes. You can't help wondering what kind of idiot would dare to attack, since it's so high in some places.
The wall is 4m- to 10m-wide (12-31 ft), 7m- to 16m (22-50 ft) high, and the steps range in height from eight to 30cm (3-12 inches). We were sucking down water and taking refuge in the cool and breezy guard towers with their thick walls. After three and a half hours, there was no way we were hiking back down, so we bargained with the gondola operators who tried to double the price of the pleasant twenty-minute ride to the base.
Another rest day. Tim's Beijing adventures continued. He had to help push-start the bus he was on. He also tried dog meat, and liked it.
We met Jeff, a Peace Corps volunteer from Lafayette, Indiana. He has a degree in Agriculture and just spent two years in a village in northeastern Nepal, advising them when they had ideas, made plans, or asked for help. The government had little input since it was too small to get involved. He only spent US$20 for elementary school latrines, which the aid organizations weren't too happy about since he wasn't spending enough. The organizations practically fund and run the country, and some of the expats have quite a God complex. Many fields of science are using the place as an unregulated, experimental research zone.
The Nepalese were very nice to him, but he found they were pretty closed and conservative when discussing politics and religion, and he wasn't impressed with their Hindu fatalism. Despite his cultural training by Peace Corps, he was not amused by their belief in karma, which led them to torture dogs, even lighting them on fire.
We hailed a miandi and got dropped at the front door of the Kunlun Hotel to use the toilet, read the newspaper headlines, and then walk one block to the Tanzanian Embassy. Barnabas had an unscheduled meeting to attend, so we continued down the street to the Sentiment Cafe, but the manager was not around to connect us to the Internet.
Wandering around the embassy area some more, we stumbled upon an Italian cheese store where we sampled eight of their finest. We bought a strong, creamy piece, similar to brie and bleu cheese. Next door at a fresh food store, we picked up tomatoes and French bread, then headed home to torture Bruno with a feast.
First stop, the post office to call Karin's family in St. Maarten since it was Father's Day. Everyone in the family was doing well.
Rushed off to the Indian Embassy, but they were closed for lunch. Breezed through the Silk Market, and went to find food and develop film at the Friendship Store, where we met a Danish woman who lives in Beijing. She suggested a good restaurant across the street and, more importantly, a reliable place to develop our film, in the rear left corner on the first floor of the CITIC Building.
Outside the Yaohan supermarket, we met the visa consul from the Indian Embassy, who told us our visas were ready three days early. When we arrived at the embassy, the Chinese clerk said that he had not been notified, and the consul needed to sign it. Earlier, when the consul returned, he told the clerk he was too busy to sign. It took awhile to convince the clerk to call the consul and ask him to clean up this mess he'd created. With our visas in-hand, we were free to leave at any time.
Back to the Sanlitun Embassy Compound for another attempt at establishing contact with the Internet. Our persistence paid off when the manager got us online. A quick scan of our messages revealed that there was plenty of work ahead, but not enough time as we had a date at the Tanzanian Embassy.
Barnabas and his family bid us "karibu" when we arrived at their home. The children entertained us and provided additional lessons in Ke-Swahili, even giving a pop-quiz at the end. A traditional meal of spicy mutton and fufu (stirred cornmeal, similar to 'funchi' from Karin's home, also like Italian polenta) was served. Afterwards, we settled in the living room to talk some more while savoring Kilimanjaro coffee. We also got some limited exposure to Western TV through the eyes of CNN. It's a good thing there was no curfew at our hotel, as we didn't return before midnight.
We took a miandi to the Ancient Observatory for a tour of the old astronomical and navigational instruments inside and on top of the castle-like buildings in the middle of Beijing. We had read that the views from the 'roof' were worth the visit, but it was too hazy. We soon sought refuge in the subway on our way to the northeast section.
At first sight, the Yonghegong Lamasery had the appearance of a Disney-like tourist attraction, with its parking lot full of tour buses, and trinket stalls at the entrance and along the tree-lined path to the temples. We were happy to find real Tibetan Buddhist temples, much more colorful than the ones in Thailand. Large statues of fierce gods and Tibetan mythology tapestries and frescoes decorated dark rooms thick with the scent of burning butter lamps. It took us an hour to get through the interesting buildings. In the center of one was an impressive Buddha carved from a single sandalwood tree standing 18m (55 ft) tall. Photography was not allowed, but it was definitely worth a few snaps, and the dinky postcard they sold did it no justice.
We sat on a courtyard bench watching the crowd of tourists and Chinese devotees dropping to their knees and bowing to large, golden Buddhas, just like in Thailand. Young, short-haired monks seemed to drift by, and the smoke and fragrance of burning joss sticks permeated the air, but it didn't feel much like a part of Tibet.
We walked down Dongzhimen, but were having little luck finding more than a good croissant-like loaf of bread to eat, so hailed a miandi to take us to the Sentiment Cafe. The manager was expected back in an hour, so we went down an alley to the Peking Cafe, famous for reggae music. It was 5pm, and they weren't due to open for another hour, but the owner did convince the cook to let us sample the springrolls.
Back outside, we were deciding where to go next when we saw an old woman emerge from a door and start to cross the alley. We smiled, then we both recognized the content of the two plates she was carrying and exclaimed, "Kimchi." Her face lit up and she came over to talk to us. Our limited Korean vocabulary was apparently good enough, as she motioned for us to follow her back into the building, a Korean restaurant. We didn't need much convincing!
We ordered a bowl of delicious bibimbab, steamed rice covered with an assortment of vegetables and spices. The staff knew exactly what we meant when we ordered the bulgoki, and in no time the table was filled with little plates full of kimchi, daikon radish, dipping sauces, vegetables, rice, soup, and meat. They hooked up a tiny gas stove on our table so we could grill the meat. The staff took turns sitting with us, and the chef made sure we liked everything. The woman disappeared for awhile, then reappeared with two beers, which she insisted were complimentary. Before we left, we took a detour into the kitchen to thank them and to see what we would have the next time.
Now we were ready for the Internet, and the Sentiment Cafe was ready for us. We got online and didn't move for five hours. We had received two hundred messages in 2.5 months, mostly junk email, a new trend we hope will fade. We were pleased to receive some feedback on the Australia and New Zealand dispatches. Everyone wants us to write more, but they are catching on that this has turned into the "Round-the-World Food Trip." We tried to respond to all the email, but five hours wasn't enough. It was 2am by the time we got to bed.
Woke up to the sound of rain and hail, and we quickly declared it a well-deserved rest day. Bruno checked out, heading to Mongolia, and was replaced by a pretty French woman. We met Jeff's new roommate, Harvey, a history teacher from Chicago who had been methodically seeing all the countries of the world for the last twenty-two years and had been to over 120 of them at the time. He would read as many as fifteen guidebooks on a single country, staying until he had seen it all and become bored.
Karin went to get train tickets out of here in two days, and to mail a package home. She must have been pretty comfortable in Beijing, as she fell asleep on the public bus, but luckily the sewer river by the hotel woke her in time.
Chris, a tugboat captain, had interesting stories about working on the waters between Nigeria and Angola for the big oil companies. His benefits were good and he was paid well, but it was boring and some worksites were so dangerous to get to by road that he had to go in by helicopter, like from Rwanda to the Congo.
His roommate, Joe, was a stocky Italian from the Bronx who had been biking all over the world for the last ten years. Sometimes the local people ask inappropriate questions, so he tells them, "No, you can't have my address, I just met you, but you can talk to me for twenty minutes."
Trying to get our day started, we just kept meeting people. We talked with John, a computer programmer from California who dropped everything to teach English in Japan. He was the only African-American we had met in Asia, so we were curious to know if he experienced any racial problems, and glad to hear that he had a wonderful time there.
Dominique, from Corsica, had been travelling for twenty-six months with no end in sight. She wore twenty necklaces with amulets, and large, silver, amulet earrings, making her look like a shaman and respected or feared in India, Nepal, and Pakistan since they thought she was powerful. People in villages kept giving her more of them, so she had to buy a stock of small rings to reciprocate.
She enjoyed travelling in Pakistan, but warned Karin that public toilets for women were hard to find in Pakistan because there, "A woman's place is from the bedroom to the kitchen." Still, it was her favorite; because of people's generosity she spent only US$145 in three months, even getting to see places that others never do. She also said that, as a woman, "As long as you give men a firm 'no', they will respect and even protect you." This technique did not work in India where, for ten months, she had to: "Slap-a-Man-a-Day!" When she needed money, she taught French in the embassy areas instead of English, since there were few French teachers and it was in high demand.
We stopped by the Tanzanian Embassy for our final Ke-Swahili exam, and to say, "Tuta onana bada" (see you later) to our new friends. They invited us to visit them at their home in Dar-es-Salaam, a very tempting detour after India.
It was a no-brainer guessing what our next stop would be -- the Sichuan restaurant for another good meal and, even more predictable, the Sentiment Cafe. It only took two hours to clean-up our email and send final messages before we returned to the road for another indefinite time period. We also printed fifty pages of reader's comments from the LP website, in preparation for the following year of travel through Pakistan, India, Nepal, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. We had started work on the next dispatch, but realized there was no way we would be able to complete and send it before leaving Beijing, and had to postpone it until Nepal.
Stopped at McDonald's on our way home for hot apple pies and cold chocolate shakes that always taste the same. We retired before midnight, but our French roommate and her boyfriend, who lived in another dorm, kept us amused with the sound of laughter coming from under the sheets, until he finally returned to his dorm.
We spent the morning packing and getting organized, then called off a trip to Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, saving it for another time, just like the Forbidden City and the Science Museum. All day the sky had been brown and heavy, and the air was steamy. As we were discussing what to do for dinner, the rain started coming down in buckets, accompanied by lightning and thunder, greatly limiting our options. We ate next door as the storm raged around us, then caught a miandi to the train station.
Half an hour later we were dodging touts and cutting a path through the masses. As we approached the baggage scanner, Marc noticed a young man with no luggage, following close behind us and avoiding eye contact. Marc grabbed Karin and stopped abruptly, forcing the guy around, but he stalled like no Chinese would ever do. We stood firm waiting for him to go in.
The suspicious guy just stood around in the chaos staring ahead. Karin was going to go ahead and be ready for the bags at the other end of the scanner before Marc fed it. Security saw us creating a traffic jam and waved us around and into the hall, so our tail went into the large, open, three-story hall and stared at the escalators. We stood at the scanner, and soon he realized that we were no longer right next him. He looked around only to find both sets of eyes on him, so he sheepishly walked away and up a staircase to the far left.
We disappeared into the VIP waiting room with its comfortable seats, and bouncers posted at the door. We were just starting to wonder if the announcements we were hearing might concern our train when a man from Inner Mongolia asked where we were going and told us that it was time. Just then, a young woman rounded us up to escort us into the airy hall, up the escalator, and to the correct gate. We were soon settled in next to a family with kids, locked our bags down, prepped for bed, then hit the sack. The train pulled out into a lightning storm on time at 9:17pm. An hour later we were asleep on the 300km (185 mile), nine-hour train ride to Datong (dah-toong), the ugliest place in China.
Looking back, we liked Beijing, although it isn't much like the rest of China. It didn't feel overcrowded like other big cities. We had fun most of the time, met interesting people, and took advantage of the convenient transport. However, our feet did take a real beating, and we had to resort to soaking them for the first time in a year.
We don't complain about the places we stay in, but eighteen days at the Jinghua Hotel were enough to convince us not to recommend it to anyone. Although it was conveniently close to the #14 bus stop, which went right into the center of Beijing, it was too far from the city and much too close to the sewer river.
The dorms were outfitted with back-breaking wooden slabs for beds, and guests had to share dirty toilets. There was a huge lack of security as the staff would open the dorms to clean them, then leave the doors and windows open to air the rooms out, with all our possessions on display while they went off to other parts of the hotel. They were the usual low-class, low-paid, surly staff who dealt with a hotel full of Westerners, but worked by Chinese standards of early cleaning and bust-in-without-knocking entries.
Guests sitting in the lobby were subjected to uncomfortable seats and toxic fumes, as they mop the floor of the not-well-ventilated lobby with kerosene. Additionally, we could always count on the food at the cafes to be lousy.
The main reason everyone stayed here was that the Jingtai was full, plus there was a definite atmosphere and benefit with so many backpackers in one place. The Jingtai Hotel was considered better by others, and had decent food and travel agents, but nobody talked about the better Lihua which Antoinette moved to, just around the corner from Jinghua. We realize now that it would be worth finding a US$12 hotel in town to save time and trouble with buses, and get out of Beijing faster.
Also, the Jinghua's travel agents seemed to be on a feeding-frenzy with their scams, especially with the phones, fax, and visas. We stayed away after seeing John's greed lead to some temper tantrums that seemed to revolve around his not getting rich fast enough. He could usually be seen at the cafes out front getting drunk, and later we heard that a customer asked why the price to Simatai went up and John attacked him, with the help of three of his friends. Another Westerner got involved and John threw him head-first into a window, sending the guy to the hospital bleeding badly and requiring stitches.
As a bonus to those of you who have made it this far, we have saved the following story for last as it would have only cluttered those above. On the first night in Beijing, and nearly every one afterwards, Alex regaled us with stories from his twenty-seven years of travelling in more than 130 countries. He tends to avoid the tourists, but this was the cheapest accommodation, and he had to stay to take care of visas. A real outdoorsman and traveller, he was one of the few people still travelling with an external-frame backpack. It was twenty-five years old, and he sewed all the fabric and straps himself.
His parents were from Germany and the Ukraine, and had emigrated to Perth, Australia. After a few years surveying the Outback of Western Australia, he followed his life's dream in 1969 and hopped on a ship sailing for South Africa. Once there, he bought a VW Beetle and travelled around East Africa while working some. Then he wanted to go to Europe, so he shipped the VW to Bombay and flew there to meet it. Wandered around South Asia awhile, then drove overland through the Mideast to Europe.
He was allowed to cross in his car from Scandinavia on a transit visa through Poland and East Germany to West Germany. He was giving two Czech girls a ride, but he missed the junction to drop them at, and they suddenly found themselves at Checkpoint Charlie. There was no turning back, causing them all to be strip-searched and interrogated.
He based himself in London for many years while he did some contracting in Africa and the Mideast. Westerners were afraid of working in Africa so he did well, saving enough to invest it properly and retire to his present vagabond status. Yemen fascinated him; bombs were dropping while he was in Ethiopia; he arrived in Uganda just as Idi Amin was being deposed by the army, but students hid him at a university and snuck him out by train to Zaire; he was present for the 1973 coup in Oman, and explained that it, and the Iranian Revolution, were caused by the government's modernizing too fast. The villagers didn't like the changes to their ancient value systems.
He offered a bribe only once, at the Sudan border since his visa was expiring and he wanted to extend it. The official was angry, but gave him the extension and a stern warning. We also learned a good lesson from him about amoebic dysentery: it doesn't just go away, so if you think you have it, get tested or it will stay in your stomach and develop into amoebiasis, which causes permanent damage; he became very sick and had to return to Australia to eradicate it with strong medicines.
Now, he travels slowly, living in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines for two years at a time. He also told us about the inexpensive huts along Hong Kong's lush nature trails full of birdlife. He had a fully-outfitted travel vehicle in the Americas, which he left in Panama when he crossed into South America and the Caribbean a few years ago.
China was much more violent when he was here in 1988, but he still doesn't like it. He was going to Mongolia and Kazakhstan next, so he was shopping for good boots and fleece jackets. The Russian visas were a rip-off, so he made some business cards to pose as a tour operator doing research when he got to the Russian Embassy in Mongolia. The hotel's travel agents seemed to be running a scam with the Mongolian Embassy in Beijing since the prices were so high, so he went direct and bargained the price down.
The train prices to Mongolia seemed over-inflated, so the Chinese train schedule came in handy after all. It took Marc a few hours to decipher the characters for the major cities on the map using the LP, then find them in the train schedule. This helped us out later when we found that the tiny schedules in English didn't list half the trains we needed. Alex decided to go to Hohhot for a few days, then take a train to Erenhot (ear-en-hot, but called Arlene) and walk across the border into Mongolia. When it got too cold in Russia, he planned to fly from Tashkent to India.
He should have been a travel writer, but he never expected to live long since he was always finding himself in dangerous circumstances like monsoons and wars, as well as being robbed and attacked.
Starting August 15th, we'll be residing in Palm Bay on a permanent basis again. This means we'll have regular email access, so don't be shy about writing ;-)
Marc & Karin
August 8, 1997
Round-The-World Travel Guide|
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