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.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Lu Yao!

When I woke up this morning, I didn't expect that today would be the best day of my trip so far, but that's the way it is.

I started off simply -- changing some money at the Bank of China branch down the street from my hotel. They wouldn't take my Mongolian currency, and they only do traveller's cheques on weekdays, but I changed $50 of US cash and that was more than enough for my needs.

I spent the morning and early afternoon exploring a neighbourhood near my hotel riddled with old, narrow alleys. These alleys are known as hutongs, and they exist in at least a couple of areas in central Beijing. Most hutongs are in a perpetual twilight because of the shade provided by tall, mature trees. The buildings lining the alley are usually only one storey, and they are usually quite old and in the traditional Chinese style. Walking up and down, getting thoroughly lost, I came across residences, small businesses, restaurants, bars, and of course a large number of people going about their lives. Entrepreneurs of various types rode their tricycles slowly along the hutongs, calling out in a rhythmic, ritualistic way the name of whatever product or service they were offering.

The hutongs were a photographer's dream: so colourful, so organic in their way, so full of life. I think I took 60 pictures today, which for me is a lot. I feel the same way about finding a good subject for a picture that I imagine a hunter feels about spotting and shooting big game. Today, I shot a lot of trophy bucks -- I just pray that this Konica film doesn't disappoint me.

In the quieter hutongs, I was left alone with my thoughts, but in the busier ones, close to landmarks like the Bell Tower, I was approached many times by people wanting me to pay for a hutong tour -- you sit on a bench under a canopy on the back of a big tricycle, and a man at the front pedals and steers. I was passed by a large convoy of these touring tricycles early in the day, full of Westerners, and I thought they looked like a bunch of jackasses. I must have said, "No, thank you," in Chinese, at least fifty times today to those tricycle guys.

I passed through a very busy meat market and then an equally busy fruit and vegetable market. Everyone was yelling and running around -- it was bewildering, all the activity. Crouching down to change my film, I was approached by two absolutely angelic and adorable little Chinese girls -- maybe three years old. I was right down at their eye level. "Nihao [hello]," I said to them. They said nothing. Their eyes were big. I suppose it's possible that they had never been that close to a red-haired Caucasian person before. I didn't have any candy or other gifts with me, so I just held out the plastic film canister. Lame, I know. They both reached for it, and in order to defuse the tense situation, I motioned that I wanted to take their picture. A small group of vendors and shoppers had gathered around us, laughing and encouraging the kids. The little girls didn't smile; they just stood closer together and opened their eyes even wider. I think that picture is going to be a gem.

I happened upon this green river with a wonderful stone walkway running along the bank. I walked down the river and around a lake, looking at groups of men playing mah jong and at people pedalling boats shaped like big swans. It was a perfect day for that sort of pursuit. An old man with a long scraggly beard and a farmer's conical hat came up to me, smiling, and I noticed that attached to his ragged clothing were laminated newspaper articles featuring pictures of him. He spoke excellent English and introduced himself very elegantly as the "Beggar Scholar." I stopped to talk to him. I asked him what the articles were about, and he said, "About me." "Yes, but what ABOUT you?" I asked. "About the circumstances of my miserable life," he explained. This was no ordinary panhandler. I gave him 10 yuan, took his picture, and was on my way. "Best wishes to you and yours," he called out as I continued down the river walk.

I discovered, quite by accident, the Ho-Hai area where I'll be meeting Steph and Graham's friend for dinner tomorrow night. She chose that meeting spot at least partly because it will be easy for me to pronounce it to a taxi driver. There's a Starbucks at the entrance to Ho-Hai, disguised as a traditional Chinese building. Starbucks has a special Chinese name, but I can't remember at this moment what it is. "Lotus Lane," the street with the Starbucks, is a high-end shopping and dining district where all the buildings are new but designed to look like a Chinese village like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At least half of the people strolling around were Westerners. There was a riverside cafe called "Lotus Blue." I gathered from the name and from the font that this was a reference to the Tintin comic book, "The Blue Lotus." There was a storefront nearby filled with large and expensive-looking reproductions of Tintin cover art.

I continued walking along the water's edge, and took a breather on a stone bench close to some men fishing with rods and nets. There was a young girl, a Westerner, sitting next to me with her bicycle beside her, and I was very surprised when she started speaking in Chinese to an older woman standing by the fishermen. The older woman looked at me with curiosity, and I said hello -- that initiated a really fun and friendly conversation between the three of us, with the girl translating.

It turned out that the girl is an American from Boston -- a high school student here in Beijing for a year as part of a special language program. She is staying with the woman and her husband in their apartment, and the two of them had been out for a bike ride. I asked them if they wanted to go get some tea or a cold drink, but instead we ended up going back to the woman's apartment, which was of course way more enjoyable and interesting. The two of them walked with their bikes most of the way; at one point I was riding a bike and the girl was riding the other one with the woman perched on the back in the Chinese manner, but they wobbled badly right from the start and then fell over in the street. Thankfully, no one was hurt. We took a break by some public ping pong tables and the kids' ping pong balls kept bouncing around our feet. The girl impressed the heck out of me with her Chinese language ability. "And you say you've only been here three weeks?" I cried. "Yes, but I've been studying Chinese for eight years," she said. Thank God for that, I thought. I showed her and the woman my Trans-Siberian guidebook with the map of my route, and a few strangers crowded around to look as well. It seems like if you're in public, and you're showing something to somebody, or telling something to somebody, everybody else wants to see it too or know it too. It's kind of endearing.

On the way back to the apartment, the girl explained to me that in China a younger person typically addresses an older person as "Aunt" (a-yi) or "Uncle" (shu-shu), and this was how I should address the woman and her husband. I asked her how I could get a Chinese name, and she said that the woman would think of one for me. We talked about the Peter Hessler book River Town, and she said that Hessler was going to come and speak at her school in the near future. He lives in Beijing.

When we arrived at the apartment, they lent me a pair of slippers, and then we drank cola and tea (cha) in the dining room. They were happy to give me my first real taste of cha. The woman's husband spent part of the time working away on his laptop, and part of the time chatting with us. He works in a finance capacity at a large electronics company. I explained to him about my big train journey, bringing out the book again and tracing the route with my finger. The girl translated everything for us. I asked her if it bugged her to be the translator, and she said that she actually really liked it. I was thankful.

A-yi decided that my Chinese name would be "Lu Yao." She wrote it for me in beautiful cursive Chinese characters, and then in roman letters as well, with the accents above the letters indicating the correct tones. She also wrote down a kind of proverb or story that gave her the inspiration. I'm not sure of the literal meaning of my new name, but the connotation, the meaning behind the name, is this: "a person who has come very far but still has very far to go." I was so pleased with the name and the explanation that I almost blew a gasket right there. The name describes me very well, I think, on a number of levels. It's true of my trip, and also true in other ways. A-yi called me Lu Yao for the rest of my visit.

They asked me to stay for dinner, and after refusing a couple of times out of a desire to be polite, I accepted. We had delicious pork dumplings in a sour sauce, and I think I acquitted myself well with the chopsticks. I made A-yi laugh hard by inventing incredibly stupid and awkward ways to use the chopsticks -- twisting my wrist around backward, etc. They taught me how to say, "delicious (food)" "delicious (drink)," and "I'm full." I ate about 15 dumplings, but A-yi kept putting more in my bowl. I started to slow down. She told me that I wasn't eating enough.

I took a picture of the three of them sitting on the living room couch, and Shu-shu took a picture of me with his digital camera. He immediately downloaded it to his laptop, and I saw on the monitor that I looked sunburnt and kind of insane. My sideburns are getting a bit bushy and out of control, which perhaps explains why the girl said she thought I was Irish when I first sat down beside her by the river.

I told them about my Chinese students at UBC, and about other Chinese friends of mine back in Canada. They asked me if I had any opinions about Chinese people, and I replied that I thought it would be better to form my opinions after spending some time in the country, learning about the people. I told them that I wished very deeply that I had a gift to give them, and they said that nothing was necessary. Still, I wish I had been carrying some of my gift inventory with me. This family was so great, however, and so generous, that I only would have been satisfied with a specially chosen gift -- none of my stuff would have been good enough.

We exchanged addresses. I said that I would send them a card from Canada, and A-yi protested that I would be too busy with my career as a lawyer to do that -- I should just email them. I repeated that I would send a card, explaining that in Canada a card is considered much more personal and meaningful. Again, she said I shouldn't. I pounded my fist on the table in mock anger, insisting that I would send a card, making her laugh even more. "She thinks you're very funny," the girl said.

I told A-yi and Shu-shu that I would take a taxi back to the hotel, and this caused them a lot of worry. "They're afraid that the taxi driver will cheat you," the girl explained. "They're afraid that you'll get in an unlicensed taxi, the driver will go in circles, and you'll pay too much." Shu-shu looked closely at the Chinese text on the business card from my hotel and drew me a map of the route that would be taken by any responsible taxi driver. I was really moved by their concern, but insisted that I'd be okay. I said that I would start to yell if I thought the taxi driver was cheating me. They seemed to approve of that idea. I said, "Thank you, Uncle, and thank you, Aunt," thanked the girl very sincerely too, and left.

It was one of the best and most delightful travel experiences of my life, and it all happened spontaneously. I feel very lucky.

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