One hundred and ten degrees of longitude separate St. Petersburg, Russia, and Tokyo, Japan. For eight weeks in 2005, I'll be crossing this large chunk of the world solo. I've set up this blog so that family and friends can keep track of my whereabouts, my activities, and my well-being. It might also be useful for someone planning a similar trip. Please bookmark this page so you can check up on me at your leisure.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Little Sheep

I'm a little upset because this is my second time typing out this post. I bought two hours of time here in this smoky internet cafe upstairs from a supermarket, and I was blogging away furiously when my time ran out and the whole entry was lost. I would have saved my work if I had realized that my time was almost up, but the pop-up warning was in Chinese, and I didn't recognize it for what it was. Sigh. I may cut out a bit of detail this time.

When last we spoke, I was in Ulaanbaatar getting ready for my train ride to Beijing.

The train departed Ulaanbaatar at 8:00 am yesterday, and took about 12 hours to reach the Chinese border. Border procedures took about 4 hours. I was pleased that the Mongolian customs search of our compartment was brief to the point of being non-existent, because it meant that I didn't have to answer any questions about my weird Mongolian souvenirs like the branding iron. The big deal about crossing into China is that the wheels on the train have to be changed to the Chinese standard, which is not the international standard. I had hoped to get off the train during this operation to forage for hot food in the station, but we weren't allowed. Some of us tried to get dinner in the dining car, but it was a crowded nightmare, with an irritable and overworked waitress handling the whole room alone, and smug tour groups getting preferential treatment. I had Pringles, an apple, and a Snickers bar for dinner.

Sharing my compartment were Hilde, a young lawyer from Utrecht, Holland, on a 3-week trip from Moscow to Beijing; her friend Stevina, a landscape architect from the Hague; and Christian, a Frenchman from Lyons who has been travelling to Mongolia regularly since 1981 to do volunteer work on literacy and educational projects for the children of nomadic families. There were virtually no Mongolians or Chinese people on the train. It was all tourists -- mainly Dutch and French, and mainly travelling in large packs. Hilde and Stevina, as well as Christian, were exceptions to this rule, travelling independently.

I stayed up late last night with Hilde, Stevina, and another Dutch person -- a guy in his late 20s who is on a year-long trip around the world, sponsored by a Dutch telephone company and calling into a Dutch radio program every Monday night to tell stories about his adventures for the listeners. He collected a good story in Irkutsk: one night out on the street, a burly, drunken Russian started calling him "Yankee" and attempted to whip him with a horsewhip. The whipping was only prevented through the intervention of the burly man's friends.

The four of us spent a long time comparing notes on Russia and Mongolia, drinking Hilde's Mongolian vodka mixed with my orange juice, as well as some Chinese beer in big bottles purchased from the train attendant. We learned some phrases in Chinese from the train attendant, who kept poking his head into our compartment either out of curiosity or just to make sure we weren't vandalizing anything. I would point to a phrase in my Lonely Planet phrasebook, and he would teach me the pronunciation, repeating it several times over. Hilde offered him one of her black olives by holding it out on a plastic spoon; to our surprise, he bent down and took the olive off the spoon with his mouth, just like a baby. His face immediately twisted in disgust. No more olives for him.

The Dutch people told me that MTV's popular show, "Pimp My Ride," was now being shown on Dutch television, and homegrown Dutch versions of it existed as well. I suggested that "Pimp My Windmill" and "Pimp My Tulip" could take the country by storm. I wouldn't have made jokes like that, based on stereotypes, if my new friends hadn't opened the door themselves by joking about windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes all day long.

Christian spent much of the trip up on his top bunk reading a book about Karl Marx, as well as writing in his small black journal. I wrote in my journal a lot, too. We discussed the value of keeping journals while travelling -- he recounted opening up a trip journal from when he was 18, and having the sights, sounds, and smells of the experience came back to him powerfully after many years. Hilde and Stevina read novels in Dutch, studied up the Lonely Planet description of Beijing, and visited with people on the train they had met at earlier stages of their trip.

I harassed Christian with a lot of questions about French words and French grammar. I asked him about the word "flaneur," interested to see how a French person would define it to an English speaker. "He is a man who walks the city without a purpose," Christian said. He offered, as an example, a man who strolls along the Seine in Paris with no destination in mind. Stevina pointed out that there is a cognate of "flaneur" in Dutch, and added another aspect of the meaning: "He dresses up in fine clothes and wants to be seen." He is conspicuous and a bit eccentric. I said that I expected to be a flaneur in Beijing, and Christian said that the old section of the city, with the narrow winding alleys, would be a good venue for flanerie. The only problem is my lack of dressy clothes. I also don't have a turtle to walk on a leash.

I wrote a great deal in my journal about the Chinese landscape, and will not repeat it here. Let me say only that there were many corn fields, many donkeys, many piles of rubble, a profusion of telephone poles and power lines, and eventually mountains, mountains, mountains.

Today at about midday, everyone on the train started to get very excited about the prospect of glimpsing the Great Wall. Our first glimpses from the train windows were unimpressive -- just some fragments high on a hill. I suggested that in the interest of accuracy the name be changed to the "Okay Wall." Later on, after the stop at Badaling, we saw some long restored sections winding up and down the steep mountainsides, and these did look truly "Great." Everyone was gathered out in the corridor, and I said loudly, "There's some kind of a wall up there!" Some of the Europeans got the joke and others, I'm sure, thought I was just a stupid person. I heard one accented voice say sarcastically, "Some kind?" In my experience, that kind of joke doesn't always work with non-native speakers of English.

I learned that many people on the train were only spending a couple of days in Beijing before flying home. I'm glad that I have five days, because I want to see acrobats, and opera, and the Forbidden City, and silk markets, and do a day trip to the Great Wall, and all kinds of stuff. I also need to do some laundry -- badly.

We arrived at Beijing Station at about 4:00 pm, and I had no trouble finding the transfer person who would take me to the hotel. Gary was a young Beijing native who spoke excellent English, but with a surprising Australian accent. It was a long, hot walk to his vehicle, and we ended up each taking a strap of my big blue duffel bag. The bag is heavier now than it has ever been because of all the treasures I picked up in Mongolia. We walked the length of the station, weaving in and out of crowds, out to the front, up a large set of stairs to a skyway, across the skyway to the other side of the street, and then up to the next block, where I collapsed while Gary went to get the car.

I thought of a good joke while Gary got the car. After climbing in, I said, "Hey... I've only been in China for one day, and I've already done a Long March!" If you don't get that one, you need to read up on Mao Zedong and 20th-century Chinese history. If you did get it, but just think it's dumb, I can't argue with you there. Gary listened quietly and said, "Ha." He was a man of few words and sparse emotion.

On the way to the hotel, I realized that there were a lot more trees and small green spaces than I had been expecting. Also, it seemed like all the cars were brand new or almost new. I was hard-pressed to spot a car that was more than 10 years old, and most were no more than two or three years old. I saw a Volkswagen Passat police cruiser. I saw an army vehicle filled with serious-looking helmeted soldiers.

The Huafeng Hotel is in a great location: close to banks; close to McDonald's; close to banks; close to this internet cafe; close to a convenience store; close to a busy street lined with red lanterns and restaurant upon restaurant; and close to the old section of the city.

I checked in, making use of all the phrases I had learned from Gary and the train attendant, and then went out in search of Chinese currency and hot food. I successfully withdrew money from an ATM across the street -- 250 yuan, which is about $35 Canadian. I headed down the street with the red lanterns, and more or less at random, I chose a restaurant called "Little Sheep." This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, because it was one of those places where you cook the food yourself at the table, and that added a layer of complexity that I didn't need on my first day in Beijing. The staff were incredibly patient and encouraging, and the menu had English printed next to the Chinese characters, but despite all of this it was a mighty struggle to order, with much bugging out of eyes and shrugging of shoulders to indicate helplessness. "Little Sheep" had a very cute logo with a smiling, winking sheep, and all the female servers wore green aprons and little green caps shaped like the one that my mother wore in her nursing school graduation picture.

Finally, with the help of my server, the hostess, and a security guard, I managed to order beef, white mushrooms, and lettuce, to be cooked in a tonic dual-flavour soup. Once the soup arrived, my server started up the flame under the pot, and communicated to me by way of hand gestures that I should wait until it was boiling before doing anything. When the soup began to boil, I walked over to the counter where my server was and pointed to Chinese characters in my phrase book meaning, "Help!" All I meant was that I didn't know what to do next, but the characters must have had a connotation of emergency, because she sprinted over to my table as though it was about to blow up. Relieved that this was not the case, she showed me how to dip items in the soup and then eat them with chopsticks. Things went pretty smoothly from that point, and the meat cooked in the boiling soup was delicious and very spicy. I gulped Coke to regulate my body temperature. I think this is the kind of cuisine called Mongolian hot pot -- certainly, there was a large metal pot embedded in the table in front of me and it was extremely hot.

Instead of boring old beef and vegetables, I could have ordered any of the following: Inner Mongolian Plain Sheep Penis; Fucheng Fat Beef Upper Brain; Beef Throat; Fresh Pig Brain; Chicken Toe with Pepper; Duck Gizzard; or Old Man Head Fungus. I thought that modern medical science had eliminated that last one, but apparently not.

At the end of the meal, the server and I had a kind of conversation where we took turns circling phrases in my phrase book and then looking at the other person expectantly. I circled, "I'm sorry," meaning for the whole terrible ordeal, and she smiled and circled, "Goodbye." My meal cost 80 yuan. I haven't been here long enough to know if that's a good deal.

So here I am in this big smoky room. I'm aware that the Chinese authorities block a lot of internet content, particularly Western news, but I did a couple of little experiments and got onto CNN.com and the Globe & Mail website with no difficulty. Maybe only items about China attract that kind of government attention -- I don't know, and I think it might be a bad idea to spend a lot of time on the blog speculating about it.

My dear friends Steph and Graham in Toronto have a friend named Lindsay who lives and works here in Beijing. Lindsay has agreed to meet up with me one day, which I'm excited about because it's always such a pleasure when you're far from home to talk with someone who shares some of your reference points, and also because I'm sure she'll have great advice about what to see and do here. It might be getting too late to call her tonight, so I'll call her tomorrow morning.

The bottom line is that I'm sticky and dirty. Tomorrow I need to change some money, see about laundry, and eat some healthy food for a change. I think I'll go to Tiananmen Square and watch people flying kites -- I only found out recently that kite-flying is a big pastime here.

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