I am writing this from my berth on the Mongolian railroad. It has been an interesting 3 days out of the country so far. Gloria and I almost didn’t make it to China on Sunday night on account of me forgetting to get a Chinese visa. We showed up at the airport and we not allowed to board when the airlines discovered were visa-less. Monday was a whirlwind 24 hours of Joe-doing-work-to-rectify-her-grave-error. Starting at 5am I began frantically making phone calls to change our ticket to the next night (and was told it would cost 1,000 for both of us to change it) then racing to the airport to talk to the airline ticketing (who thankfully changed our reservations for only a fee of 100 each), then racing downtown to the China consulate to beg for rush same-day visas, only to be told that I needed to present my birth certificate to prove that I was born in Taiwan as my passport indicated. Of course my birth certificate was neatly packed away in a box of stuff in orange county so we raced off to retrieve it raced back before LA traffic and processed our visas 40 minutes before the consulate closed.
Glo and Joe leave for China, version 2.0: we said our tearful goodbyes Monday night, not Sunday. Had a smooth flight to Beijing by way of Korea. I lost the bottom of my super cool zip-off convertible pants on the first airplane. I was starting to doubt myself and my capacity to be a world-trekking hobo. But there’s no time for self doubt. And I had to stay cool or else what would Gloria do? She was already quietly freaking out inside.
Our first day in Beijing made us want to hang ourselves. After the crazy 36 hours we had just been through, we were in the worst shape to deal with being ripped off by the first taxi driver that took us from the airport to pour hotel, having to wait 20 minutes to get into our hotel room, warding off a bell-boy turned stalker, dodging piles of (I kid you not) human feces on the sidewalk, being pushed by a crowd of gangsters wielding huge sticks being chased by the police, squeezing our way through massive hoards of sweaty and rancid people in the Forbidden city, walking for 4 miles in poor footwear, being accosted by a crazy roadside saleslady, and finally having a downpour of polluted rain dumped on us with only one broken umbrella to shield both of our tired bodies as we made our way through foamy yellow puddles back to our hotel room. Not to mention the thick layer of fog that refused to retreat leading us to believe that we were walking in a haze of perpetual grey pollution.
In the hotel lobby, a very uncomfortable Gloria uttered my most feared statement: “this trip wasn’t for me.” I had dragged my poor dear unassuming friend half way across the world and was subjecting her to a vacation from hell all because of my folly and wanderlust. And I was starting to think that this trip wasn’t for me either. So we showered and went to bed at 5pm.
Day 2: We saw a more agreeable side of the city today. After a local poor man’s breakfast we headed out to downtown to find the office where we needed to pick up our train tickets. Afterwards, we treated ourselves to a luxurious lunch at the most famous Peking duck restaurant in Beijing and to an exquisite Haggen Daas dessert in a cute sit-down haagen daas café. We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and flexing our bargaining muscles. We made a good tag team and got most of our gifts for 400 RMB less than the quoted price. I also managed to navigate the entire city today and got us around by foot and subway using my trusty map. I was starting to regain my confidence in the prospect of being a world-trekker. Feeling better about ourselves, we went to bed at 8pm.
Day 3: We embarked on a guided tour arranged by our hotel at 7am. We filled a small 12 passenger bus and joined a hodge podge of other foreign guests who all wished to see the Great Wall of China. For $40 US we got a 12 hour tour that included much more than just transportation to the Great Wall. We drove through many famous areas of the city and got some brief descriptions. Our first stop was the Ming tombs, burial place of the emperors. Then we visited a jade factory before stopping at what is claimed to be the most beautiful section of the Great Wall. Glo and I opted to ride the gondola to the top of the Wall. I would have probably attempted the climb if I was by myself but considering the heat, I was very grateful to have taken the ride. The view of the Wall from on top of the Wall was truly spectacular and thought-provoking. Watching the masonry slither precariously up the steep slopes of the rocky Chinese mountains and watching tourists like ants haul themselves up the countless steps of this huge piece of architecture, my mind was in awe that this could have been built by hand, brick by brick, each piece dragged up the steep mountain and carefully laid by a young worker who received no compensation for this toiling and often fatal work. And 5,000 years later, I along with thousands of other visitors from all over this world walk on theirs (not the commissioning emperors’) handicraft, taking pictures as though we were at Disneyland. I just hope that as this monument stands as a drawing factor for people of all nationalities and cultures, sufficient thought is given to the work and lives put into this otherwise purposeless structure. After the wall, we were taken to a Cloisonné factory and then fed a huge Chinese family-style meal. We thought our tour would be winding down as we headed back into the city but it continued with two stops to a silk factory and a tea shop where we saw silk being taken from actual silk worms and spun into thread and we learned about traditional tea making and tasting customs. Finally we were given one last surprise stop to the Olympic village and were treated to a foot massage by a team of Chinese medicine interns who had also served the Olympic athletes 2 years ago. The massage was great but we were also subjected to an hour long lecture in very poor English about the ideas behind Chinese medicine. Then a Tibetan doctor entered the room and Gloria was hand-picked for him to read her palms and diagnose her with heart and respiratory problems. He very dramatically told her that if she didn’t buy a certain medicine (which of course cost a couple hundred US dollars) that she would eventually die. No duh. I had to translate for a perpetually-giggling Gloria during this whole melodramatic exchange and it was certainly one of the most interesting experiences we have had. We finally got back at 7pm and Gloria wouldn’t let me rest because it was our last night to see the night market. I had thought there would be cheap clothes and products along with food stalls like the night markets are in Taiwan, but there was only interesting Beijing style-snacks including live wriggling scorpions on a stick. Tired and hungry we ate a big meal at McDonalds and went home. It had been a full and good day.
Day 4: We barely woke up in time to pack, check out, and get a taxi to the train station by 7am. Of course it’s pouring rain today and of course I would have taken my medicine on an empty stomach making me vomit several times as soon as I got out of the taxi and of course there would be a traffic jam in front of the train station causing the taxi driver to leave us on the opposite street from the station and of course there would be a sky bridge instead of a cross walk….after lugging all our belongings up the stairs and down the stairs and going through the security, we got to the platform on time, albeit soaking wet and a little tired. So it was a very pleasant surprise to find how cute our train was. We are in a private berth where the “hard sleeper” bunks are actually softer than our hotel bed. We have a little breakfast table between the beds, a tv installed on the wall of each bed, reading lights, blankets, pillows, towels, and slippers. We were served tasty coffee by our nice Mongolian train attendants and we are now looking out at the beautiful scenery of mountains and rivers that look like they came straight out of a Chinese calligraphy painting. I am sitting here with the quiet excitement that comes when two of your childhood dreams are in the process of being realized: riding on an overnight train and going to Mongolia. I hope Gloria has a good time along the way. I cannot express how greatful I am to her in helping me realize my quirky dreams. She’s put up with a lot and though I know we have had some less-than-fun moments on the trip, we’ve had some nice times and laughs too and I hope it only gets better.
I will have no internet for 10 days as I will be on horseback in the Mongolian country. Stay tuned for Joe’s Odyssey: the Mongolian chapter, coming to you the next time I reach civilization.