April 30, 2008

Beijing: Day 1

My flight today was at 12. My goal was to get to the airport at 9 AM. Why so early? Well, I normally have small fits of anxiety about missing flights, so I like to get to the airport early. (I truly am my father's son.) And this time I knew that, well, I'm in a foreign friggin' country, so I wanted to be extra certain. And also, I did this deal with the airlines where I changed my flight dates, if you remember. So I was just paranoid that, like, someone forgot to hit the Enter key that day and my new flight information wouldn't be there.

But it all went quite swimmingly. I was at the airport by like 8:45, actually. And I would have been through security by 9 had I not stopped to eat a couple dumplings and drink a cup of (super-expensive!!) coffee. So I had like three hours to wait. Luckily the new issue of WIRED was in my hands, so I paged through that.

Also, and this is kind of interesting, apparently in China the flight times given are really boarding times. In the US, you get departure time and you just have to know that boarding starts like half an hour before. So I stood up around 11:30 and waited for the flight to board. But we didn't start until on the dot at 12. Interesting.

Everything in the airport was in English, including major announcements of delays and such. I thought that was great, considering the flight was domestic (this was at the Hongqiao airport, not the Pudong one). But there were actually a bunch of lao wai on the plane with me.

I however sat next to a Chinese guy, probably a little younger than me. We struck up a conversation and it was pretty cool to be able to talk a little bit in Chinese (as I keep saying). He was very nice; he lives in Suzhou and was flying to Beijing to see his sister for the holidays.

He was so nice! I mean -- this is what it's like being a lao wai in China. He asked where I was staying, and I was like "oh, I have a hotel near the Forbidden City." Wo you fandian kaojin Gugong. So he was like "you can stay at our house if you like." That was so nice of him, but of course I declined, I mean, yeah. Then he was like "is anyone meeting you at the airport?" No, no one is. "We can give you a ride into the city." Wow man. Awesome.

We had an in-flight meal, and I ordered the chicken. I opened the package -- and there were no chopsticks! I dug around a bit and saw a fork and knife though. That's when I realized -- it has been a long long time since I've used a fork. I hadn't thought about that until just now. But because I stick to eating Chinese food, I always eat with chopsticks. Strange.

So, it was very strange to hold a piece of chicken down with my fork and cut it with a knife. Stranger than I'd have thought it would be. I guess now that I think about it, Chinese food isn't served with a knife. I guess all you get are chopsticks and a spoon. I guess it's always cut up into manageable pieces. Again -- interesting!

The flight landed (somewhat more precariously than I'm used to, but whatever, I haven't been in the air in awhile) and the journey was complete. My newfound friend and I headed to the baggage claim to pick up my bag (I checked my bag because I didn't think I could bring one on, based on what a co-worker had said -- but she was mistaken I think). Then we headed out of the terminal to meet his sister. I was like, look, if you really don't have a problem with driving me into the city, I'd be happy to go with you, that'd be great. And then something must have gotten miscommunicated, or his sister didn't want to take me, because they led me towards a bus, said goodbye, and left. Haha. Strange.

Anyway I actually took a cab into the city, because I'm wary of taking buses when I dont' know the route. I asked the ticket lady which one to take to the Forbidden City, and she said something I didn't understand. I think she said "The seventh one" but that didn't make sense, because the sign only listed six bus lines. Anyway, rather than chance it, I just hopped in a cab.

The ride in was long and pretty boring, just like the ride in from Pudong Airport in Shanghai. I didn't know exactly where my hotel was, but I had it marked on my map and the driver knew the streets around there (since it's right next to the F.C.) And I couldn't say "Days Inn" because that's English and the driver wouldn't know how to read it. So I just said, "I know it's on Nanheyan Lu near the Tiananmen East subway stop. I have their phone number if we need to call, and if we see the English name, I'll recognize it."

All in Chinese of course :-D

So we made it to the hotel okay, and I checked in and everything, feeling quite awesome that I made it here on my own. I relaxed for a bit, then headed out into the city for some adventures :-)

The first thing I did was make my way back to the main road via this small series of parks in between my hotel and the street. I took a couple pictures because it was so unexpected and peacful.

I then emerged onto Dong Chang'an Dajie and turned right. I wanted a quick glimpse of Tiananmen Square, so I went there first. It's about a 5 minute walk from my hotel, and of course you can see the Forbidden City from there also, with the giant portrait of Mao hanging over the main gate. I'm leaving the FC for tomorrow (it's huge and takes at least half a day to see properly) so I went into Tiananmen - which, if my Chinese is good at all, means "Peaceful Heaven Gate" or something like that. A lot of the streets around Beijing end with men, or "gate". These streets run through where the gates to the city actually used to stand.

I was actually pretty underwhelmed -- it's just a big flat space with the Monument to the People's Heroes in the middle, surrounded by a bunch of flags, and Mao's tomb at the south end. There also are museums on each side, across the street from the square. The tomb was closed but I'm DEFINITELY going tomorrow; I don't care how long I have to wait. I hope they let me take a picture of him (probably not, though).

I stood there for awhile though and just appreciated the fact that I'm, you know, here. Plus, the weather was really nice :-)

After that, I stepped into the metro station. Tiananmen is flanked by two stations, Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West. I bought a metro card (now I have two!) and set out to find Beijing's indie record store, Fusheng Records, which is listed in my travel guide and which seems pretty cool. To do so, I took the metro Line 1 west to Fuchengmen (there we go with the gates again) and transferred to Line 2, where I stopped at Jishuitan.

I really had no idea where I was going, so I ended up just walking along Xinjiekou for like, half an hour or forty-five minutes at least. For some reason the street signs in Beijing don't seem to have Pinyin on them; at least not where I was this evening. The place was definitely a shopping area, but I never made it to the record store. I kept walking, asking people once or twice if they knew where Ping'an Dadao was (my guide says the store is at the corner of Ping'an and Xinjiekou). They both pointed me in the direction that I was walking, but I must have missed it, because I did not find it.

However, I did see a bunch of music stores, and by a bunch, I mean a shit-load. There were at least 20 stores packed to the brim with guitars, violins, saxophones, drums, and other instruments I can't identify. Out front were lots of disaffected-looking youth, kicking a ball around or attempting to shred on an electric guitar. What I mean by disaffected-looking is, their style of dress would look right at home in Austin's Red River district, or in Carytown in Richmond. So, make of that what you will. But I liked it. It felt very familiar :-) And just convinced me more that this world is tiny, so tiny, if trends of dress and music can so easily make their way across the Pacific.

Not to mention I passed a store selling audio equipment, including (gasp) turnables and a Pioneer DJm-700 mixer! So exciting :-) I wonder how much those things cost here, haha. It made me think of my lonely DJ equipment sitting in a storage unit in Austin.

Anyway, after walking for so long, I was hungry and my feet hurt and I still hadn't found the record store, so I decided to turn back. I went along the opposite side of Xinjiekou this time, and ended up wandering into a couple clothing stores (I think I may have mentioned that I am in the market for some shirts and pants). The first store I stopped in had a shirt that was worth looking at -- but first I had to answer questions from the 4 or 5 employees who swarmed the gao lao wai with interest, asking me where I was from, how long I was in Beijing, etc. Hehe. One of them, I shit you not, one of them reached out and touched the tip of my nose, completely without even saying anything to me first, then touched hers. I laughed and was like, is my nose big? Which, to be fair, it is kind of :-) She was like no, you're just really tall, hahaha. So crazy! I just wonder why this never happens in Shanghai. I guess maybe people there are just used to lao wai, but Beijing is a very international city as well. Hm.

I tried on a shirt, and I liked it, so I bought it. Big mistake. They started pushing all sorts of shit on me - shoes ("These are comfortable!") shorts, pants, and so on. Again I actually would like to buy some pants, so I did buy a pair, which turned out to be good in the long run (more on that later). But I was getting annoyed that they were asking me so much.

As I paid, I noticed they were playing some terrible rave crap on the in-store speakers. Because I figured I'd be headed to a record store, I'd brought along some I <3 RY stickers. So I was able to give like 10 of them to the staff and was like yeah, if you go to my web site you can hear my music. Haha.

At that point I was really tired so I headed back to the hotel and relaxed for a little bit more. I have HBO Asia on my TV so I watched that for a bit. I was planning to go to Wangfujing Lu to walk around, but honestly, I have two full days here (not counting even the Great Wall trip on Saturday) so I was like, well, I need to rest up. So I just walked across the street to have dinner.

The restaurant wasn't that crowded, but at the table next to me were like 12 or 13 young people, eating a shit-ton of food, drinking a lot, and being super loud. I guess I should have been annoyed but it was actually pretty fun to watch. They were all wearing the same kind of clothes, so I assumed they were co-workers.

At one point, well, I forget exactly what happened, but I was done with my meal so I was just watching them all have fun while I digested. Someone did or said something funny, and they all started laughing, so I cracked a smile too. The next thing I know one of them invites me over to their table! I was like, hell yeah, sounds like fun. So I went over, sat down, and began talking with them a little bit.

It was a little tough to talk with them though, because a couple of them were suuuuuuuuper wasted. They explained they work at a travel agency, they just came off a long day, and they have to work the holiday tomorrow, so they were out getting plastered. (I can understand the logic behind everything except that last point, haha.) Anyway they were drinking baijiu, which I've had in Shanghai once before. That shit will mess you up - some varieties are like 100 proof. They poured me some and we all did one or two gan beis. (Well, I didn't drain my glass, since it was over halfway full. That would have been painful.) It was pretty fun; they were all very friendly, except, well, again some of them were plastered, which made me awkward because I was sober (two shots of baijiu notwithstanding).

It became even weirder when the drunkest guy was reaching for something near me and knocked my glass of baijiu into my lap, getting distilled alcohol all over my jeans. He and his friends were very apologetic, well, as apologetic as he could be while attempting to stand up straight, haha. That was forgotten again as soon as they ordered another bottle of baijiu, which they kept trying to get me to drink. I was a little annoyed about my pants, and I don't drink much anyway, and I want to get an early start tomorrow, so I kept refusing. But they of course didn't accept this refusal, no matter how many times I or another one of their friends (who sort of adopted me as a protectee in this situation, haha) explained.

So what I did was fake it -- I raised the glass to my lips and tipped my head back, but didn't open my mouth. They were too wasted to notice that the amount in my glass stayed the same. So everyone was happy :-)

I stayed with them for like an hour, during which time the conversation got louder and louder. It was pretty fun, actually. I don't even mind about the pants so much. And I talked with them about some interesting topics. One of the guys gave me his cell phone number -- after all, they are a travel agency. He was like "See the Great Wall and the Forbidden City -- after you've done that, call me and I'll tell you where to go." We'll see. I may or may not call him. I'd certainly hate to be on the receiving end of his travel advice tomorrow, given how smashed he was tonight!

Anyway, that was my day! Pretty good one I think. I am uploading my flickr pictures now but they're taking forever, even longer than usual, so hopefully they'll be done by the time I wake up and am ready to take some new ones :-)

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