Seven months around the world.... August 2004 - March 2005 travel blog

Wang Dan

me with Wang Dan's grandmother

My Dinner Guests

The Forbidden City from the north

Map of Beijing

The street down the "road" from my hotel, just southeast of Tianamen...


August 10 - 12, 2004; my first stop over in Beijing

After a nine hour flight to Toyko and then a four hour flight to Peking Airport, I arrived in Beijing at 9:30 PM on August 10. All was good so far. But then I immediately had my first of what I suspect will be many opportunities to problem solve. In the airport terminal, I found a person who worked for the hotel I was registered to saty at a quick 1 mile from the airport. All was well until I discovered that she put me on a shuttle bus that went to the wrong hotel. The best part about it is that I saw as we drove by the correct one, and tried my hardest to get the driver to stop as we passed it, but he did not have a clue what I was saying - so on we went another mile or so until we arrived at another hotel. I would have settled for that oen, except I did not want to pay for two hotels that night, and I did not want to give up that easily. So with the help of some Canadians who spoke some Chinese and were kind enough to give the taxi driver the fare because I had not yet exchanged any dollars to yuans, off I went. To another hotel, where the taxi driver gestured that it was definately the correct place. I grabbed my bags and went to the front desk where noone was able to help me because none of them spoke any English (and I had not a clue where I was in relationship to the correct hotel). That is when I realized I had started my trip around the world.

After me showing them the name of my hotel (in English, which was a big help) a woman spetted forward to say she spoke English. Next thing I knew I was onto the correct hotel. Great. Upon arrival, the taxi driver wanted more money (I couldn't blame the guy), but again I did not have any yuans, and the hotel would not make an exchange at that hour. So, I pull out my smallest bill - $5 - and started to figure out how to break it (the Canadians had given a buck for the initial transfer), when he grabbed the $5 and gestured that this would be plenty. AS I started to argue with him, I realized that this amusement park ride was easily worth $5 and let it go at that. So Kate,you can tell Whitney that that's how I got to my first days of classes That is in refeerence to an email you sent me awhile back).

The next day I hopped a taxi into town, and landed at the Far East hotel and Hostel. Being as it's the major hostel in Beijing, there were (still are, it's where I am now)lots of pepople from all over the world staying there (here). By the time I goit settled in and all, I had just the afternoon to cruise the hood, which is quite a hood indeed (see pictures I took this time around). I ended up finding my way to Tiananmen Square and surrounding area of the Arrow Tower, Zhengyangem, Chairman Mao's memorial hall, the Monument to the People's Heroes and Tiananmen Gate.

What a scene - the better part of a square kilometer of open "square" dedicated to a political movement, lots of people coming to visit and celebrate, people flying kites (at one point, I counted 25 larger dragon kites and an equal number of the multi-teired ones as well), other hawking cards, watches, books and the like to the foriegners (Nancy would have been proud of me, cuz I got "just say no" wired right off the bat), soldiers standing at attention for hours at a time - I guess they were watching over the masses, but the plain clothes security guards were there too to keep all safe from protests (the standing part reminds me of a Rumsfeld quote from July I read yesterday - something to the effect of he didn't understand what the big deal with making prisoners stand for four hours was, cuz he stands for 10-12 hours a day on his watch), and so much more going on.

But I think the best part of it was not feeling lonely on my first day in a foriegn land. I tell you what, these people sure are fascinated with a tall, white guy with a bald head and a beard. It was like being at the zoo, and I was on display!!! Very fun, very wierd, very unsettling, very inviting. And then there were those that wanted to have their picture taken with the tall white guy with no hair on his head but a bunch on his chin. I'll bet it happened at least every half hour someone wh\ould come up and ask to have a picture with me. Whole families, kids, couples, you name it. I thought about setting up a booth, but figured the plains clothes cops would frown upon that.

Then came one of my favorite parts of my whole trip thus far - when Wang Dan came up and asked if she could talk with me cuz she wanted to practice her English. She was definately my heart throb for the day. A 14 year old girl from the northeast, she had been studying English for a year now. She was there with her grandmother to see the taking down of the flag at what I figured must be the national flagpole (a nightly ritual that draws a crowd every night - or at least in the warmer weather). Wang Dan and I talked for about two hours, through the entire ceremony - which she was torn about what to do - go join her grandmother who had gotten her seat at the front of the crowd of now what was probably hundreds if not a thousand or more people gathered to see the national flag come down, or continue her time to hang with the tall white guy with hair on his chin who speaks English. She hung with me, and had I though it appropriate I would have offered to put her on my shoulders, but I didn't know...???

At anyrate, With my notepad and pen, a limited phrasebook at the back of my Beijing guide, my spelling things for her, and the age old practice of pointing, we talked about many things - some having to do with China, some the US, some her home town, some my trip, some the people around us, so I don't even remember. People came up to talk with her about me, and ask if they could take my picture, to look at my book and writing, to just watch two worlds collilide (sp) in Tiananmen Square. All of this was going on as the sun set over the square, the crowd waited with great anticipation for the flag event, the soilders put on their show, and the lights came on at Tiananmen Gate to highlight the VERY big picture of the Chairman. It was splendid, and brings a very fond memory to mind as I write about it.

Wheil heading "home" across the square, another couple came up to me that wanted to talk with me and practice their English. She was a 23 year old English teacher, and he a 40+ year old history teacher in middle school in Beijing. They had an electronic translator, and it made our efforts to communicate much easier. They asked me if I wanted to have dinner with them, and so off we went to have my first ever meal of Peking Duck in an alleyway of the hutong on the way back to the hotel. Although not as impactful as my time with Wng Do, I did enjoy the meal and talk with them. However, jet lag, food and beer had me falling aslepp at the table, so after some confusion of who was paying for dinner (I could have sworn they invited me to dinner, but then again a wildlife conservationist on a not-for-profit salary in the US is a wealthy man compared to their reality), we parted ways.

The next day it was raining, but there was sights to see and more experiences to have. Today would be a vist to Mao's memorial and then the Forbidden City. I'd love to have had a picture of the former, but no camera's were allowed (had to check them in at a storage place across the street set up for just that purpose). By 9:30 AM, the line to get in was hundreds long - he obviously is a big cheesemo here! Four things particulraly stuck with me about the experience. First, that no pictures were allowed. Second, that on the way in there was a kiosk where you could buy flowers - of the plastic version - to place at the foot of his statue - flowers that were then picked up and hauled back outside to the kiosk to sell again (or so I presume, I saw an oversized wheelbarrow full of flower being hauled out the side door while I was inside the memorial) - maybe the sign says at the kiosk says "flowers for rent". Third, that I got to see Chairman Mao resting at peace ion his glass cocoon (sp) - he looked very good for all his years lying there - now that was weird!!!! Finally, that as soon as you stepped outside the memorial on the backside, there were people at literally dozens of makeshirt booths waiting to sell you trinkets of Mao. At first, I decided to be frugal, but the notion of getting a Mao momento got the best of me. I settled on a watch, which I needed - a small thing in the shape of a cell phone, where when you flip open the phone cover there is a watch with Mao's face in the center of the watch face. It makes me laugh even when I write it almost a month later. It's too good!!!!! I guess the Chinese government have found their balance between communism and capitalism. As I left the area, I found myself singing the Lowell George tune "Apolitical Blues" (all you Little Feat fans will understand).

On to the Forbidden City. Between the rain, the crowds (which at this point were starting to wear on me)and my fatigue, it was all sort of colorful and impressive blur of history and color and pagentry (sp). I was most impressd with the gardens at the northern end of the encampment. I hope to make it back on a sunny day before I head south (I'm here for five days, and get there early to beat the crowds - so hoepfully I'll have soime good pictures to share in a few days. It really was impressive.

North of the Forbidden City, I took in the views from atop Jingshan Park, then onto Beihai Park. Both beautiful, and very peaceful compared to the crowds of the Forbidden City. For reasons not worth getting into, my camera battery died thereabouts, so I have no pictures from there. But I may again go back, and so stay tuned. On the way home, I stopped in a teahouse for a half hour of traditional Chinese music, then later to watch and listen to an older fella play his two string Instrument that was like a stand-up fiddle. Another great scene. Finally on the way home, I got stuck at the north side of Tiananmen Gate by guards who kept a crowd of 100 or so from going further so the flag soilders could proceed through and do their ceremony at the national flag pole. I've seen the clouds from both sides now, and man do those guys march in synch!!!

The next day I flew to Mongolia, the capital of Ulaan Baatar.



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