Monday, October 31, 2011

Not homeless in Beijing

This weekend, we went to Beijing, kind of on a whim, with Matt and Dan. I’m in love with Beijing. Even though this was only our second time going there (besides our 18 hours in the airport), parts of it are starting to look familiar. 

I realize I haven’t blogged about my FIRST weekend in Beijing for Lauren and Tyler’s half-marathon, so here it goes… The first time we went to Beijing, it was the two Emilys, the two Laurens, Tyler, and me at the Sunrise hostel. The Sunrise wasn’t too bad, especially on such short notice. Lauren, Emily, and I shared a private double room, which meant we had two twin size beds to split between the three of us. We knew this going into the hostel, and chose to do that to save money. Twin size beds are actually kind of roomy in China. The hostel bathroom was interesting, to say the least. It was a bathroom/shower dungeon, and to use the toilet, you had to sit sideways because it was positioned so close to the wall. But, hey, at least we had our own bathroom!

The hostel was about a 5-10 minute walk away from Tian’anmen Square, so that was wonderful. 

Bathroom / closet.

Our room at Sunrise.

Our first night there, the three of us loaded onto the D train from Shijiazhuang North to Beijing West. We set out on our journey under the impression that the Shijiazhuang North train station was a roughly 15 minute walk from our apartment building, so we left about an hour and a half early. People in China show up very last minute for their trains, so we figured we’d be good. About 20-25 minutes into our walk, we start to get a little nervous. After a few frantic calls to Iraise to make sure we’re on the right street, we just realize that she underestimated the distance by quite a bit… It actually ended up taking us 45 minutes to walk there, and we arrived at the train station about five minutes before we started boarding.

Trying to board a train in China is a bit of a shit-show, for lack of a better term. Some people start lining up about 10 minutes before the doors open, so you get the false impression that there is going to be some sort of line formed to walk through the metal partitions down to the platform. Don’t let this fool you; you’re still in China. Despite the fact that some people have been standing in line for 10 minutes, the rest of the lazy bums in the train depot will sit in their seats until the gates open, and then leap to their feet and push and shove their way into the already formed line. Imagine this line funneling through a metal gate, stampeding down a flight of stairs, rushing through an underground hallway, up another flight of stairs, and then just standing and waiting on the platform. I’ve realized life in China is described this way: OHMYGODHURRYUPANDRUNWEHAVETOGETTHERERIGHTNOW…stand and wait for ten minutes. People rush and shove for seemingly no reason at all. They just want to be the first ones there. 

Oh, and another thing. If you are handicapped in China, I have absolutely no idea how you get around. There are no elevators or ramps anywhere. To get to the train platform, you have to go down one flight of stairs and up another. There is a teeny half-ramp that people can wheel their luggage up; but only if your luggage is no bigger than a carry-on roller. Other than that, there are no other options. 

Despite the rush, the train was actually pretty awesome. Emily and I sat next to each other, and Lauren was across the aisle. Our seats on the way to Beijing were at tables, so that was kind of nice. The ride from Shijiazhuang to Beijing on the D train is quick; just a little over two hours, with one stop in Baoding. The trains are probably the cleanest thing I’ve seen in China. They have a ton of women in maroon dresses who are constantly sweeping the aisles. For some reason, even though people walk around with trashbags roughly every 5-10 minutes, people still throw their trash and food on the ground on the train. The bathrooms aren’t squatters, thank God, but they do look like airplane bathrooms. There’s even a lady with a food cart that comes around with snacks and drinks that you can buy.

Lauren's seat on the train.
Before we knew it, we were in Beijing! We followed the signs out to one of  the taxi stands, and were surprised to see a real line formed to wait for taxis. There were actually train station employees there to make sure people stayed in line and didn’t budge, and it moved pretty quickly. We got in our cab, Lauren showed him the address on her iTouch, and we were off to the Sunrise hostel! It went way more smoothly than we thought it would. The cab ride was much shorter than we expected – only about a 25 kuai ride.

The first night there, we stayed in the hostel and had a few drinks and some things to eat. The next morning, we headed out to the Olympic Park. We wanted to see it, plus Lauren and Tyler had to go there to register for the half-marathon. We navigated the subway system to the park, which took about 40 minutes or so. I have a love-hate relationship with the Beijing subway system. It’s really easy to use, but sometimes it’s panic-inducing crowded. I guess that’s the way China is.

Upon arriving at the Olympic Park, we realized just how windy it was in Beijing that day, because of how flat it was. I was wearing a dress, so that was lots of fun. The first thing we saw when we entered the park was Minnie Mouse. Yes, Minnie. There were a bunch of women dressed up in costumes for tourists to take pictures with. Naturally, we all posed with Minnie. 

The Olympic Park itself was really cool, and we saw a lot of the buildings that everyone watched on TV. I didn’t personally really watch very many things during the Olympics, but it was still cools. We also got asked multiple times to pose with Chinese families in photographs. That’s pretty normal. There was one guy, though, who pulled me away from the group and wanted a picture of just me in front of the Bird’s Nest. That was a little odd, especially considering how disheveled I looked from the wind, but oh well. It’s China. It happens.

 After the Olympic Park, we were starving, so we headed back to the hostel. We found a little restaurant on the street behind Sunrise, where we ate some of the most delicious bouzas I have ever had. (Bouzas are kind of like dumplings, but it’s more like a dough ball with the filling instead of a dumpling.) We even went back there this weekend when we went to Beijing.

We did a little bit of shopping and headed back to the hostel to rest for a while. We were going to meet a little later that evening to head to check out Tian’anmen, but it turned out that everyone else took a nap, so it was just the two Emilys, Lauren, and I who went. We got to the square, on the opposite side of the street, and realized that there was a MASSIVE crowd forming. Sometimes there is a point to big crowds like this in China, and sometimes, there are just a lot of people around. We wandered around, trying to peer over people and figure out what was going on. We awkwardly asked a few people, “English?! Do you speak English? Does anyone know what is going on?!” No, no one did. Or, probably more accurately, no one wanted to tell us.

We went to the underground walkway to try to get through to the square, where one of the guards blocked us. He clearly spoke no English, but had been taught to say this to white people, “Square closed”. We just wanted to know why, and after a little confusion, he pulled out a sign that told us the square was closed for the flag changing. Apparently it’s an every day thing, but the square wasn’t opening back up again because of the race in the morning. Tian’anmen Square FAIL.

We took a few pictures at the gate of the Forbidden City, which was surprisingly beautiful at night. The string lights that look tacky in the daytime actually made the building stand out against the night sky in a way that made the colors in our pictures look beautiful – and fake.

After taking a few pictures and fighting through the crowds, we headed back to meet everyone else to walk to what we thought was a night market for some shopping and dinner. We walked for a while and didn’t see anything, so we figured that we were mistaken about the market. After a few more blocks, we saw red lights. That had to be it!

We were close. It was a night market, but it was only food. And it was only weird food. They had everything bizarre you can imagine – starfish, dog, every bug imaginable, and sheep penis.

Yes, that’s right. Sheep penis. When we were walking by that man’s stall, he started yelling at us, “Penis! Get some penis! Want some testicles?!” It was quite clear that he had been taught that to yell at English speakers, probably for shock value. He definitely got a shocked response from us.    

After getting some pictures of the market, we found a nice place to sit down and eat a pretty delicious dinner. That night, we just hung around the hostel again so Lauren and Tyler could rest before the half-marathon. I even learned (kind of) how to play Chinese chess.

The next morning started bright and early, because I got up to Skype with the Lambertis at family dinner. Unfortunately, it didn’t work very well, because the internet connection was pretty slow. I got to see everyone and at least say hi, so it was really nice to be able to do that. I took some pictures of Lauren and Tyler before setting off for the marathon. The Emilys and I met a little before 9 to head to Tian’anmen to see them off. That was a poor decision, because there were 30,000 people running that day – the full marathon, half marathon, and 9K all started from the same point. Of course, we couldn’t get anywhere close to the starting point.

Then, we headed out for Starbucks to relax and get a coffee before heading to meet Lauren and Tyler at the end of the half marathon. We had shown the front desk of the hostel the map, where the half marathon end was marked, and asked them to write it down in characters for us. We figured we could show it to a cab driver and he would take us there.

We were wrong, for two reasons.

1. They had misunderstood us, and written Olympic Park (the end of the full marathon) instead.

2. They closed down the streets that the marathoners were running on. Now, in Beijing, apparently instead of re-routing traffic through a detour during the 4 hours the marathon was going on, they just closed the streets. Period. We sat in a cab at a standstill for 25 minutes before we decided to just get out, pay him, and leave.

We dashed through traffic, realizing that we had roughly one hour to get back to the hostel, eat lunch, get Lauren, and leave for the train station to catch our ride back to the Shiz. Beast mode.

Our original plan was to catch a cab going the opposite way, back to the hostel. That was a no-go. There were no open cabs. None at ALL. We stopped in a travel agency to ask where the subway was, and decided to take that. We were at least a 40 minute ride away from the hostel. While on the subway, Emily and I devised multiple plans for what we would do to a) get to the train, or b) if we missed it. Keep in mind that we had NO idea what happened to Lauren and Tyler, as they were supposed to wait for us at the end of the race. We hoped they would realize that we weren’t coming and just take the subway back themselves.

We got off the subway at Tian’anmen, exhilarated, and extremely proud of ourselves…but covered in sweat from rushing around to get where we needed to go. We ducked in to grab bouzas to go for the three of us before heading back to the hotel. We grabbed a victory drink in the hostel and our bags. We got there about 10 minutes before Tyler and Lauren. Lauren had about 10 minutes to drink some water, shovel in some bouzas, and we were off to the train station. We got there with about 10 minutes to spare.

The train ride back was uneventful. There are two things that people who live in Shijiazhuang don’t understand the concept of: headphones and the vibrate setting on cell phones. The train ride was a constant mesh of QQ tones, ring tones, video games, and people watching movies with no headphones. The man sitting next to me was playing this really bizarre (and loud) video game on his iPad that was very clearly made in China, and included the character Propaganda Polly.

No comments:

Post a Comment