Anyway, even though the phone was going to go with me on my trip, a change of scenery still felt like an escape. I got to the station super early. It was my first time on a train in China, after all. I ended up waiting outside with all the people from the countryside who couldn’t afford a hotel and were spending the night there. A couple men scooted over and offered me a section of clean concrete between them. I sat down and we had the typical conversation.
“Where are you from?”
“Meiguo, state of Maine. It’s in the Northeast. Very cold.”
“How old are you?”
“Aiyou, you are so young! Are you married yet?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, no boyfriend.”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m teaching English.”
“How much do you make a month?”
Eventually my current state of underemployment came out and one man said he was very interested in English lessons. We exchanged cards. I asked him how often he wanted the lessons and he said he thought about two hours every day would be good. I was surprised, but it sounded like a good deal. Ok, ok, I know I was stupid, but why don’t we just go with naive and innocent instead? What did I know about such things? At this point Jack the Poet hadn’t started bugging me yet. I wasn’t well versed in the wiles of men. I’d never really noticed if people had ever hit on me before unless you count the creepy man who stood too close and asked me to lunch outside the post office. And that had felt more like an attempted kidnapping than request for a date. So how was I to know that five minutes after I boarded the train this guy would call me up and say “I love you” in English?
“You LOVE me?” I parroted back in tones of utter contempt. I am not a believer in love at first sight.
He mumbled something in Chinese and hung up. That was the last I heard from him! This is my complaint against American TV like Sex & The City or Friends, these people watch it and think American girls are all sluts. All you have to do is say “I love you” or “you’re hot” and the American girl will jump into bed with you.
I was in Hard Sleeper, with a bed too narrow to share, because American girls aren’t easy like on TV. You don’t get many foreigners in that section. There are six beds, three stacked on each wall with a tiny window in the middle and a small night stand set in between the rows. I was on a bottom bunk, commonly considered to be the best, though I didn’t know it at the time. I think most of my companions were women. There was a lady in her sixties on the bottom bunk across from me. She was very sweet, offering me part of her dinner, though I had brought my own and declined. When it was time to go to sleep, I changed into my nightgown under the covers, tucked my money belt under my pillow and curled up to go to sink into dreamland in comfort. The woman couldn’t stand the fact that my feet stuck out and liberal parts of my shoulder. She got up and adjusted the blanket until I looked comfortable and decent by her standards. I heard her say something that must have been the Chinese version of sweet dreams before I drifted off into oblivion.
I slept until morning, deep and refreshing. I vaguely remembered people sitting on my bed in the middle of the night and talking. It didn’t bother me. It was comforting, just like home. I really don’t enjoy sleeping by myself. I usually curl up with a human sized stuffed bear, so that I don’t have to feel like I’m alone.
By about six a.m. People started moving around. I arose and changed into all the clothes I had brought to China. My winter clothes were still in transit from the ‘states, so I figured I’d just wear three layers of my summer clothes in cold Beijing piled under the coat Daddy had bought me. I brushed my teeth at the communal sinks and the whole thing felt like a moving hotel. The windows showed miles of endless farmland dotted by a few strange houses, three story affaires in colored glass with big porches and balconies.
The inside of the train was a lot more interesting. I watched the involved process of a young lady putting on her make-up. It seemed like quite the complicated procedure. By the time she had applied the fourth coat to her eyes and was starting the intricate maneuvers required for beautiful cheeks, I was glad all I owned was lipstick that I used only for job interviews. Others were fixing their own breakfasts or chatting away. Some people were reading magazines, listening to iPods or fussing over each other’s appearance. I sat back and watched it all.
We arrived in Beijing around eight a.m. The air was crisp outside and not half as polluted as I had expected, though still visibly gray. The tour guide my father had used when he visited Beijing had given me the name of an affordable hotel. I already had reservations there and just needed a taxi, but I had no idea where to obtain one. I got swamped by con-men trying to charge me insane prices for a ride. I finally found a taxi sitting inconspicuously at the corner. I climbed in and asked how much the fare was.
“Like 50 kuai??” I asked.
“Something like that, yes.”
He was nice and friendly and I felt relieved to be out of the mayhem of the train station. I was in a real cab and the people at the hotel had said it might cost me 50 kuai to get to the hotel. It seemed like forever and when we stopped at the right place he said that it would be 50 kuai. That is when I noticed that he had no meter. I was probably getting ripped off, but he had been nice to me, so somehow it seemed ok. I dug out a crumpled green 50 and handed it to him.
The hotel was everything Dad’s guide friend said it would be. It was affordable, clean and had a bed. I paid for it with a credit card, because I was trying to reduce the amount of cash I had to carry around. (Keeping all those bills in a money belt meant if I carried too much the front of my shirt swelled like was pregnant or maybe just developing a considerable beer belly.) Then I went off to do all the touristy things: the forbidden city (old palace in Chinese), the Great Wall (long wall in Chinese), a hutong (same word in both languages), Ming tombs and what not.
My visit to the Great Wall was via bus tour. At that point I was only just starting to realize how truly annoying bus tours are. I went to see the Great Wall. The tour guide said she would take us to the great wall. But first we needed to shop in these five tourist malls, visit the Ming tombs, a theme park, etc. and it wasn’t till three o’clock that we finally got to the actual Great Wall. I hear it’s pretty great, on a later trip to Beijing I could confirm this. However at the time I really couldn’t say, because I’m afraid of falling from large heights and the small crumbling steps leading up to the Great Wall were enough to make me reconsider. Besides I was by myself, and if I turned an ankle there would be no one to worry if I was missing. Looking back, I suppose that’s an excuse, since the Chinese tour guide could hardly miss the presence of her one waiguo ren. But at any rate, I got my picture taken near the wall and that was enough.
The Ming tombs were pretty cool. I had visited the Forbidden City the day before and been unimpressed. Ooooh, big really nicely designed buildings soaked in centuries of blood. What was the point if I couldn’t go in any of them and feel how old they were? The Ming tombs you could enter, they were a much more tactile experience. I could stand in the large pillared rooms and feel the history around me. I could feel the texture of the wood and stone. I was even able to smell the must of age that pervaded the air there.
On my tour bus ride from purgatory, I did go into the Chinese medicine stop where they tried to tell me I had organ problems, because of my occasional back pain. Oh yeah, because it had nothing to do with my lifting of heavy things with weak back muscles. Right…I didn’t buy their medicine, though I did bargain for a couple of cool clear yellow stone balls in the parking lot. I’ve always had a penchant for stone. Besides they were brightly colored and my raven inclinations were triggered.
I didn’t go in the amusement park at all. I sat outside it and ate my lard biscuits and leftover Beijing duck from the night before. Boy they tasted good. I certainly wasn’t going to ruin my dining experience by going on a lot of spiny rides, which would certainly make me revisit my snack in an unpleasant way. Water and chocolate are amazing substances, because stomach acids have no effect on nullifying their wonderful tastes, this is something you learn when you puke on planes a lot. In short chocolate and water taste just as good coming up as going down, however while Beijing duck and lard biscuits are delicious, I did not think that either of them shared the same magical properties that make me so fond of water and chocolate. Anyway, my phrase for the day was “Are we at the Long Wall yet?”
As you can probably deduce from the description of my delicious snack on the bus tour, the night before I had experienced real Beijing roast duck. No wonder everyone tries to imitate it, that rich exotic taste… Mmmm… I went with Dad’s tour guide friend, who went by the English name Sherman, to a relatively local place that served up truly delicious roasted ducks. Sherman was a tallish, good looking man in his forties. His hair was slightly springy, his eyes roundish and double lidded, face unlined and his personality delightful.
He met me at the northern gate of Beihai park, where I had happily spent an afternoon playing dress-up in some artificial Daoist lake’s stone caves. It is not uncommon for places of particular beauty to house small booths with a vendor offering to take your picture in a number of historical costumes. Beihai park had just one of these places. I had my choice of dressing up as the emperor, the empress, an attendant, a Chinese minority and a number of other intriguing personas. It was so hard to decide that I bought a value pack and was allowed to wear everything. Not only was it fun to put on all those costumes, but the caves were warmer than the outside where the wind was rising to punishing speeds. As I was finding my way to the park gate some woman stopped me with a question.
“Are you a xinjiang ren?” She asked me.
A what? “bu shi, wo shi meiguo ren.” I replied.
“Oh,” she appeared disappointed. “You’re American. I thought you were from Xinjiang, you really look it.”
It was a curious question, that I felt I had been asked before and certainly was to be asked again, but I dismissed it out of hand. There were other bigger mysteries to explore.
The rest of my day passed without incident. I met Sherman and he took me to this duck place that had the coolest décor. Men waited out front dressed in Qing dynasty outfits. Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you probably would recognize the ensemble if you saw it. Qing clothes are a little earlier than what we commonly think of as Chinese dress, but it is defined by the same distinctive clasps. These men had on black slippers with tall white socks that disappeared into the dragging cuffs of their pants. The pants were accented by the large slits in the gowns they wore over them closed on the right by a number of fancy buttons. Upon their heads were colorful rounded caps, which matched the vests they wore over their gowns. Hanging from the back of the caps were fake queues of long black hair. These colorfully dressed men gonged our arrival and gave a cry of welcome.
All we ordered was duck, nothing else. Sherman had the Northern accent I had been taught in school and used the Northern words that were in my text book. It was a relief to listen to his speech. I told him how different southerners spoke and threw in a few examples like ‘xingqi/libai’ and ‘man/hen’. His friend sent him a text. Sherman showed me the message and asked if I understood it, not too well I’m afraid. I admitted as much and he translated for me. I got to learn a new and very important word: lao wai. Literally ‘old away’ as in those pesky people from other countries, it’s like the Chinese version of gringo.
Did you ever wonder why the duck thighs never seemed to work with the dish? I mean, you get this lovely platter of sliced duck breast intended to be placed in the crepes with the accompanying plum sauce and green onions, but then the duck thighs just sit there forlornly in the corner with no condiments or eating directions. Well, I discovered it’s because you’re supposed to make them into soup. That’s the course that comes after the duck, though by the time it got there I was far too full. I couldn’t even finish the duck breast slices. Sherman had taught me how to deftly dip the duck in the plum sauce, place it in the pancake with the onions and fold it without ever using my fingers. Why are you laughing? I said he taught me how, I didn’t say I could actually do it! My chopstick skills get picked on enough as is. I hold them just like a pencil, too bad I hold a pencil funny.
He asked what I had done that day and I outlined my adventures. I told him how impressed I had been by my rickshaw driver, because one of his hands was deformed. In Shanghai I saw a lot of people begging on the street. I once felt so bad for this guy with deformed arms who seemed to be just wailing on the sidewalk that I gave him money. Then I scolded myself, because if his hands didn’t work and he had no legs, he still could have used his mouth to make a living. From then on I only gave people coins who were doing something to earn them. I liked that my rickshaw driver was putting in the effort to earn a living despite his disability. He wasn’t trying to use his handicap for charity.
The weather in Beijing reminded me of home. It was cold with a promise of snow on the wind. Sherman took my picture in front of the restaurant before we parted ways. Near my hotel I found a bakery down the street from my hotel that had these wonderful salty biscuits that I suspected were made from lard, but which also reminded me of home. I liked to just walk the streets. With forced retirement at fifty and a population too large to employ, there are many people idling around storefronts and houses. To me they were united in the common interest of watching the foreigner wandering their neighborhoods. I would stop to chat with any of them who seemed inclined to talk. They had many questions for me, some easily understood and answerable, others beyond my grasp of Chinese and thus unanswerable. The exchange of cultures was fascinating but after three days I was ready to leave Beijing.