Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Ni hao! That means "hello" according to my Mandarin phrasebook, which I had to buy because almost no one speaks English here. Also, "wo ai ni" means "I love you" (some Chinese dude taught me that on the ferry from Osaka to Shanghai. I think he was trying to seduce me).
Anyway, I arrived in China 10 days ago after 53 turbulent hours at sea. Now, I have been known to get seasick a lot. I usually feel like vomiting during the ferry ride between Vancouver and Victoria. So I'm not sure why I didn't consider this fact when deciding to travel to China by boat. And not just any boat, but a boat that takes two days. I think I'm a masochist at heart.
I boarded the ferry in Osaka and the first day was great. There were lots of Japanese and Chinese people on board. Everyone was talking and playing cards and drinking beer.The water was very calm and we all enjoyed watching the sunset over Japan. I was in a cabin with three other people. Two girls from China and one girl from New Zealand. So things were fun that first day. But it was the proverbial calm before the storm.
On Saturday we woke up to an angry, roiling sea and torrential rain. Our path across the China Sea collided with a typhoon. The party boat suddenly turned into a ghost ship. Everyone stayed locked inside their cabins because it was too dangerous to go outside. It was horrible. I was taking a gravol every four hours to keep the nausea at bay. I couldn't keep any food down. I spent the entire day and night in bed just sleeping or listening to the Chinese girl in the bunk above mine vomiting. At least she was able to contain her vomit in her plastic bags and nothing landed on me.
It was awful. The waves were so high that I kept bumping my head. By Sunday morning we had weathered the worst of the typhoon and the water was nice and calm again. Everyone was trading war stories about the previous day's rough seas. Unfortunately, the typhoon meant we were five hours behind schedule so instead of arriving in Shanghai at noon, we were arriving at 4 p.m.
As we pulled into China, the scenery was remarkably different from Japan. The water was brown. The air was hazy. The land was overrun by industrial development. But it was exciting! Wow! China!
The Shanghai skyline is very futuristic with big skyscrapers and more neon than Tokyo. It is an exciting, bustling city. But three days in Shanghai was more than enough. It's just another big city and dealing with all of the "art students" was starting to wear me down. I would walk down the street and some random person would sidle up next to me saying, "Hello lady! I am an art student!" I didn't make eye contact and just kept walking. My friend Steve warned me about Shanghai's infamous art students. Most of them are scam artists who pretend they want to speak English and end up taking you to a teahouse and won't let you leave until you pay $1000 or something.
Still, I feel perfectly safe here. It's pretty easy being a single female traveller in China. Having said that, it has been hard adjusting to the culture in China. I think it's a bit of a shock coming to China after spending a year in Japan. I've gotten so spoiled living in Japan. I don't think there are more friendly and polite people on earth. You walk into a store in Japan and the salespeople bow and smile and welcome you and even when you leave without buying anything they still bow and smile and thank you profusely. Even at the post office, they will bow and say thank you at least five times just for buying a stamp.
After three days in Shanghai, I took the overnight train to Beijing. The train took 12 hours. It left at 7 p.m. and arrived at 7 a.m. so all you had to do was sleep. Sounds great, right? Well, it would have been perfectly relaxing except for the cigarette smoke.
The cars were technically "non smoking" but everyone smoked in the corridor and all of the air got sucked into the room. The "air conditioning" system was basically blowing cigarette smoke into the rooms. The train was so thick with cigarette smoke I had trouble sleeping.
Anyway, my friend Steve met me at the Beijing train station. (For those of you who don't know him, Steve and I have been friends for 14 years going all the way back to our salad days at Carleton University. He now lives in Beijing.)
Steve met me at the train station with his driver (note: normally I am not the kind of person who hangs out with people who have "drivers" but I will make an exception for Steve). Steve's driver took me to my hostel to drop off my bags. It was a nice gesture but it ruined my street cred with the other hostel residents when they saw me pull up in a big SUV with two Chinese dudes...one who was driving me, the other who was hauling my luggage. This "princess" reputation seems to follow me everywhere I go).
After Steve's driver dropped me off at my hostel, I spent the rest of the day walking around taking in the sights. I went to Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. Very exciting and surreal to actually be standing in Tienanmen Square. Of course, it would have been more profound if it wasn't teeming with billions of tourists.
I also decided to check out some of the Olympic venues (Olympic fever is alive and well in Beijing! It's all over the news. There's a countdown clock in Tienanmen Square. It's all people seem to be talking about. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement).
Being the swimming nerd that I am, I wanted to check out the new Aquatic centre that is being built just for the Olympics. Steve's driver (who I will call by his name Shao since it feels kind of weird to keep calling him "Steve's driver" now that we're friends) drove me out to the Olympic Tower in the morning.
Rush hour traffic in Beijing is a nightmare. Shao told me there are 3 million cars in Beijing. But during the past four days, Beijing held an experiment to get 1.3 million cars off the road and test the air quality leading up to the Olympics. It actually worked and the air even seemed cleaner. It was pretty amazing to see that happen. Still, it took us over an hour to get out to where some of the Olympic venues are. Beijing is huge and it's sprawling.
After Shao dropped me off at the Olympic Tower, I found some Olympic volunteers. Not hard to spot them with their orange shirts and while ball caps. I tried asking them where the pool was but they didn't speak English. So I started pretending I was swimming and then pointed around. Some mysterious English speaker suddenly appeared out of nowhere and said I should take a cab there. He wrote down the word for pool in Chinese characters on a slip of paper and told me to give it to a cab driver.
I was originally planning on walking there but I had no idea where I was and one city block in Beijing is about the equivalent of 15 city blocks in Canada. Everything looks really close together on the map but in reality everything is miles and miles away.
So I hailed a cab. Handed him the slip of paper and 10 minutes later he dropped me off in front of a fenced-off construction site. I walked around until I saw an entrance to the pool. It was very blue and very square but plopped down in absolutely the middle of nowhere off a busy highway. I tried to walk into the pool but two security guards wouldn't let me in. I figured China wasn't the kind of place where you want to argue with authority figures so I had to stand on a dusty gravel road and take pictures of the pool from a distance.
Speaking of the Olympics, I was watching CNN at the hostel the other night and they had a special report on the Olympics. Sort of a "one year to go" type of report. The story got to one section where the journalist was talking about some great exciting things about the upcoming Olympics. Just as she uttered the words "but according to critics...." the screen suddenly went black. I thought something was wrong with the TV but the other channels were working. When I flipped back to CNN, the report was back on. But other sections were blacked out. And it hit me that the story was being censored. It was an amazing thing to see after reading about this type of stuff in books for so long. Seeing censorship in action was one of my most exciting moments in China!
Another highlight was hiking a 10 km section of the Great Wall of China with Steve. There were very few tourists on the wall and it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Tomorrow is my last day in Beijing. I'm taking the train to Mongolia on Wednesday morning and I'm due to arrive Thursday afternoon. This will be my first test to see how I do cooped up in a train for a long time! But I'll be in Mongolia for four days so it will be a nice break from sitting on a train.
Overall, China has been great. It was really interesting (and exciting) to see all of the Olympic preparations. I had a lot of fun with Steve and my friend Brian (another friend from Carleton University). There have been some minor annoyances and some of the worst traffic congestion I've ever seen but I suppose if it wasn't like that then it wouldn't make China what it is. Plus, China is one of the most fascinating and interesting places in the world right now and I feel pretty lucky to have seen a small glimpse of it.
For now, I'm looking forward to getting out of the city and into the wild areas of Mongolia. Until then . . .