Wednesday, October 1, 2008

II. Getting there

The picture you see above is cropped from the one to the right. It's one of a few that I've been able to take, but I like it a lot. It was taken around dusk in the Beijing airport, an absolutely mind-blowingly large airport I might add. The picture was also taken about 4 minutes before the sun totally disappeared behind the thickness of the atmosphere, even though (as you can see) it was still fairly high in the sky. I think the main colors in this picture, though, represent very accurately what it looks like in a big city here like Beijing or Wuhan. In the day time it's obviously a bit brighter, but blue skies, white clouds, nice sunrises and sunsets are always filtered through a translucent grey. It definitely takes a little away from the beauty of the city of Wuhan. I think cities are generally beautiful things, too. Traffic, people, interactions, buildings, the layout of a city, the way its been planned and developed, even the smells (like the smell that wafts into your nose when you first step on a bus..) -- These are all things I love about city living. But in this case I feel (and I think most people here would agree) that the layer of pollution here is something that could use a little work. Anyway I bring this photo up cuz it's a good introduction to what this entry is about, namely getting here.

First, I should mention that my last weekend in Pittsburgh was a great sendoff. Friday night was generally a good night of kickin it with a lot of my buddies. On Saturday I spent the daytime getting over a hangover and working on getting my ESL certification. Saturday night was a throwdown of epic proportions on the South side....thanks so much to everyone for entertaining my desire to do that. I gotta specifically name (SORRY) four dudes for ballin up for this -- phamm, dtr, wes, and most importantly Murderzmarek. He really wouldnt accept anything less than a total throwdown, and it was exactly that. Granted, I was a force in creating a lot of the weird and hilarious situations myself, but those dudes were the spark, so thanks.

Sunday was the Steelers opener against the Houston Texans, a game I'd been looking forward to for many months. And, to make it better, I had made plans to watch it with an old friend, Dan, from my Mt. Lebanon days. Well my phone had died, so I needed to wake up under my own power and then find someone in Oakland with a charger, all while hungover as hell. I woke up successfully, and then killed two birds with one stone by 1. finding a phone charger and 2. waking up an Eagles fan. I tried to call Dan but it failed. Then I found that I had 3 voicemails, so I checked them. The first one was the one I expected, Dan trying to find out where the hell I was. The second one was Dan dropping a bomb on me by telling me that he had frickin tickets to the Steelers game, and wanted to know if I was able to go. The third was Dan again, telling me what I feared. He got a mutual friend of ours to go to the game instead...well the "mutual friend" was Krebs, who I'm sure many of you know. Now, I'm a big Krebs fan; Krebs and I have a love-hate, "constantly trying to be jerks to each other but in a nice way"-relationship. So it was totally cool when I told Dan to give Krebs the shaft and let me go with him instead. Anyway so he gave Krebs the shaft, and I went to my first ever "in the stands" Steelers game! I was in shock the whole time; the experience is one that I insist every Steelers fan must have. The icing on the cake was that we won the game, and the cherry on top was that I found a terrible towel that someone lost on my way back home.

So the week following was basically spent getting ready for the trip, i.e. finalizing visa crap, ESL certification, packing, saying the goodbyes, etc. The whole time, the gravity of the fact that I was about to leave for China for a year wasn't really sinking in. My theory is that this is a result of the fact that recently it's been a very comfortable notion to feel a sense of apathy regarding most subjects... a notion which is almost certainly a result of having been around totally naive, ignorant, but for some reason motivated college students for the past five years (read the pitt news sometime). Granted, I've never been a "wave maker," nor do I really want to become one. But I also want to revive the ambition and energy I had in my younger days, and to do so I think might require the opposite of apathy, and the desire to "wave make." In other words, I think what I want is a paradox. The goal, however, is to create a balance without going over the spill point and becoming an ignorant college student... something I feel like is a very difficult thing to do, based on the statistics.

Back to the story, my flight was to leave at 6:00am Friday morning, so I just stayed up all of Thursday night and felt like hell during my traveling. Travelling honestly took forever, and I couldn't fall asleep for any longer than a period of two hours. My flights went to Chicago, then to Toronto (where I had to go through customs for some reason.... Yeah, there was a question about whether I'd be visiting a farm in Canada. I checked no cuz, like I said, I don't make waves), then finally to Beijing. The layover in Toronto lasted about 6 hours, so mostly I tried sleeping or talking to the 5-ish people working in the terminal. One of the ladies warned me about the smell of Beijing and the fact that people spit. To this I was finally able to use the phrase "when in rome" correctly. I was also about to buy the Toronto newspaper, but then realized I don't know anything about Canada. That's about all that's interesting to say about traveling, it honestly sucked. 22 hours!

But then I got to Beijing, and was very happy. However, it soon became clear that not speaking any Chinese was going to be a problem for a long time. I needed to find a cab to the hotel, but first I needed to find someone to write something down that would explain to a cab driver where to go. At the help desk there were people who could help people like me, but they said they'd arrange a cab for me for 250 RMB (about $35). Thankfully, some British dude overheard this and quietly told me that it actually costs about 80 RMB to get into the city. This would be my first experience with the Chinese trying to hustle me, a battle which continues to this day (don't worry I'm winning).

So I took the address they'd written down and hitched a cab. I was pretty psyched about going into Beijing, so once I got into the cab I did the classic Jenkins "chat it up with the cab driver" routine. Unfortunately this stopped after about 10 seconds of trying, the cabbie didn't say a word or emote. The seconds of conversation peaked when the robotic cab voice said a word that I recognized "Qi che," and I said "Hey! Qi che!" and pointed to a car. Super grizzled asian driver just pointed at a car, didn't smile or say anything, and then continued driving.

Important note: This ride was also my first experience with driving in China.

There were about three very clear moments where I thought I was going to die. Two involving a bus merging, and the cabbie not giving a fuck. The lanes on a highway are recommendations. There is also a fine art to being a pedestrian, which I will explain later. Basically, the main principle of being a pedestrian isn't to get from point A to point B, it's to not get killed, but to push the envelope as much as possible.

Anyway I was riding in the cab, laughing about everytime I almost got killed. Riding in the city was mind-blowing...everything was shocking to me. The architechture of the buildings, number of buildings, number of people, the cars, plants, sky, geography, road signs in Chinese.... it was like that scene in the Godfather where the brother of Al Pacino gets riddled with bullets in his car... that's kinda like how I felt, except the bullets weren't real.

I arrived at my hotel after a little more than 24 total hours of travel. This being my first ever professional reason for a hotel room, I decided to document it by taking a picture. It was actually pretty nice, they gave me fruit and cookies and a robe and slippers. The bed was so comfortable.. you know how after a really long day, getting into bed is almost like the bed is taking you into it? That's how it felt. Then I watched TV for about 15 minutes (cuz they had college football on and I figured I wouldn't be seeing that for a while, which so far has been true) and then crashed. I'd need a lot of rest, cuz I planned to tour Beijing the next morning and then leave for Wuhan in the evening. (note: many pictures to follow)


Meg-a Bites said...

So, Ravi told me where I could find this :)

1) I am so jealous, yet happy for you, that you get a comfortable bed in China. That makes you the first person I know who's been there with such luxury.

2) Yay for the near-death driving. Did you see any three-wheeled motor-boxes yet? Like an enclosed tricycle with an engine. Pretty crazy.

3) I loved China and I'm excited to follow your trip, so please don't be creeped out by me commenting often. And if you are, tell me to shut up.

zhu ni haoyun!!

Brody said...

I'm going to enjoy reading about your experience. It is going to be great.

One of my favorite topics is definitely going to be the hustle. It is non-stop. The one trick I learned was that if it seemed like I knew Chinese, they assumed I might live there instead of being a tourist, and left me alone. I got really good at confidently saying/sometimes shouting Wah Boo Yao (I don't want it) and they bought it.


Tobaggen said...

During the Olympic 5k, one of the announcers said "the pace is ragged and inconsistent, just like the driving in Beijing." Sweet that you get to experience that firsthand. Also, was the smog ridiculous there, or is that more or less an exaggeration?

Evan said...

megan, haha please read if you are interested! My accomodations are surprisingly really great, something I'll post about soon. Make sure raveman is keepin up too :)

brody, thanks for that great pointer. I will soon be employing that strategy heh. Hopefully I can make this blog as interesting as yours

hogan, hilarious quote. the smog is not exaggerated. If you look at the picture of the highway that I put in the next post, it should give you a pretty good idea of the visibility issues caused by it.