Call me a bit paranoid, or crazy, in actuality, I’m a bit of both when it comes to flying. (various friends can attest to this) To the rumors that I touch the outside of every aircraft as I board to check its structural integrity—I cannot deny. To the rumors that I have been at peace with dying, and have seen my life flash before my eyes numerous times on various flights, I will not deny that either (note: all were nothing more than minor turbulence). I’m a nervous flyer, I’m that “dude you don’t want to sit next to because I make the people around me uneasy” on the flight. I’ve mistaken the mini-TV screens unfolding from the ceiling of the airplane for oxygen masks, I’ve convinced myself on numerous occasions that the plane’s engines turned off mid-flight and we were now gliding down to our imminent deaths on a mountainside in Albania. I always scope out the pilots and see if they look hung-over or coked out and have often wondered why they don’t just keep parachutes on the plane for passengers, just in case. So you now have a slight grasp of how I am feeling as I walk to the gate at Gimhae International Airport in Busan to board my China Eastern Airlines flight 5073 to Shanghai. Here is the picture of my plane parked at the gate…
Now, I don’t know which Cold War Era designer painted this thing but could they have made this plane look any less exciting? Did they buy those block letters from a flea market of fonts? The pilots seemed to be walking in a straight line, and I didn’t notice any white residue around their nostrils so I deemed they fit to fly and let them pass me with out incident. I also just wondered if now the Feds are reading my blog because I wrote “pilots, incident, and Cold War” all in one paragraph.
Giving the aircraft one quick knock on the side as I boarded—doing so very subtly as to not cause a Chinese flight attendant to say “Sir why you knocking on plane, come with me” only to be dragged into a secret interrogation room CIA style…I decided the plane was remarkably clean for being something out of the Mao Era. Much to my great surprise, the plane was entirely new, the inside smelled like a new car, had sparkling seats, T.V. screens, and more than enough leg room. Sitting back in my seat, scanning the wing for any dents or lose bolts, I decided this airplane would do just fine. Hell, I was on my to China.
Eighty minutes later, we touched down at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport. A strange sight at the Shanghai Airport- behind me in the customs line was a group of 50 to 60 Indians straight off a flight from Delhi. Approaching the escalator, panic ensued among the Indians. None had ever seen an escalator before, let alone dare to step foot on one. Screams, yells, laughter, shouts of encouragement all filled the terminal while local Chinese men looked on with delight. Eventually, everyone except for a few older grandmothers made it on the escalator and to their awaiting luggage. (The old grandmothers had to be escorted down a different way to an elevator (which I assume they also hadn’t seen before). Paul Farmer, in his book entitled “Mountains Beyond Mountains” speaks of this phenomenon in the airport in Miami when the Haitians first come to the United States.
A local airport bus took me to JingAn Temple Station where I found my backpacker hostel with relative ease. I was only staying in Shanghai for one night, as the next night I was booked on the sleeper train to Beijing. The weather in Shanghai was cloudy, smoggy, and rainy—a great combination for a city where walking around is the standard mode of transit. One might ask, being in China, what was the first thing you did? Eat a spring roll? Crack open a fortune cookie? Well, no, the first thing I did was buy a 2 dollar “Made in China” umbrella, which broke in the wind roughly 8 minutes later. I should have told that woman selling them that telling me “made in China” when I bought them actually made me lower my offering price.
The highlight of that first day in Shanghai had to have been the crowd of umbrellas I saw while aimlessly walking around the skyscrapers. The umbrellas created quite a viewing hazard and I had to use my 2-dollar umbrella as a battering ram and forced my way to the front only to snap this picture….
Yes, that’s Jackie Chan and one of his little fans. I can’t be for certain Jackie wasn’t really alive in there…this is China right? I actually think China has cloned 55-65 Jackie Chan’s and just keeps rolling them out when the original gets too old.
That night I tracked down an Indian restaurant in Shanghai only to walk in to see 35 Indians eating with their families. I thought I had stepped into a private party and immediately backtracked to the door as the owner came up to me and said “Eating alone?” in a tone that instantly made me depressed. I nodded and he showed me to a table in the corner, giving all the Indians a great chance to stare at me as I walked to my corner table.
The one night stay in the hostel was eventful in the fact that at 4 a.m. I was awoken to a screaming match between a large drunk Australian man and a small Chinese student who had apparently unknowingly slept in his bed and had locked the Australian’s sheets, pillows, and blanket in his own locker. This was compounded by the fact that the Chinese kid spoke zero English. The Aussie tried to no avail to explain that he had no sheets or blankets but the Chinese student, half-asleep didn’t care and didn’t understand. A small shoving match ensued until eventually staff was brought into our 4 person dorm room to sort it out. I’ve spent countless nights in random hostels with random people all across the world, this was actually a pretty normal night.
The next morning I was perched on my barstool at 9 a.m. at an English Pub called Bulldog’s ready to watch the Ricky Hatton vs. Manny Pacquiao. Hatton (per my prediction) was destroyed in two rounds. It was quite entertaining to watch England’s golden boy get destroyed by a tiny Philippino guy in an English Pub in Shanghai. The waitresses were predominantly Philippino, while the clientele was English. I ended up meeting another English teacher from Belfast, Northern Ireland who lived in Shanghai. He showed me around the French Concession area of Shanghai and he introduced me to his other friend, Norman.
In a typically Korean moment, I was stumbling around the streets of Shanghai attempting to find a blues bar when I ran into two Koreans holding an 8-inch laptop while looking aimlessly at the street signs. “We are not Chinese, please help us find Babyface club.” Opening the laptop, they show me a picture, followed by a video of the baby face club along with a googlemaps page explaining where we are. Shanghai is the type of city where you really could walk around with a laptop and never lose your Internet signal. Unfortunately for them, I had no idea where I was, let alone their stupid club, so we went our own ways.
Naturally, running late, I got into a cab and with a note from the hostel that said “train station” in Chinese, the cab driver drove like a bat out of hell and I was at the train station in literally 90 seconds, this was even after the hostel had told me it was 15 minute ride. That man drove more aggressively than anyone I’ve ever seen in any country I’ve ever been to, save for one crazy cabbie in Istanbul in 2005, but I think that cabbie was on some major drugs.
The sleeper train to Beijing was beautiful. It even smelled like a new car though I did my best to change that by taking off my shoes and revealing some strong odors. I quickly hightailed it to the bathroom as the train reached speeds of 190 km/hr to wash my feet before lights out. Lights out couldn’t come soon enough because I was now sitting in a 5 x 5 room with 4 really old Chinese people who spoke no English. Talk about uncomfortable. They stared at me for maybe 15 minutes straight until I had enough and used the old man’s head as my step up to my top bunk bed. (I’m joking, I used his shoulder)
Beijing on the map looks like you could walk across it in 20 minutes, especially coming from Shanghai where you literally can walk across the city in 20 minutes. Turns out 2cm on the Beijing map is about a 20-minute walk. So the 6cm I had to hike to the hostel took 1 hour. The hostel in Shanghai had given me another little piece of paper with the direction and name of the hostel in Beijing. Here I am, walking around Beijing with my backpack and a tiny piece of paper showing it to anyone who will give me the time of day. No one is helping me, only giving me shrugs, pointing me in three different directions at once. I actually twice stopped on a bench to collect myself, re-gain my strength and push on in my never-ending search for the elusive hostel.
Finally after roughly 90 minutes of futile searching, a Chinese man approaches me and offers me help in perfect English. He turns out to be a philosophy professor from Northwestern and lives in Chicago. I show him the piece of paper only to have him laugh out loud while turning to me and saying “My friend, this piece of paper says “Shanghai South Grand Train station, please hurry my train leaves at 8 p.m.” I pull out my other piece of paper and he immediately directs me to the street where my hostel is located. This also now explains why the hell my cab driver in Shanghai was driving like I was a pregnant woman about to give birth in his back seat.
After exchanging pleasantries with the two Israelis in my hostel room, I was off to visit the Forbidden City. The area that Chinese emperors had all to themselves for most of their rule. Commoners were allowed nowhere near the Forbidden City. It is well known for it’s gigantic picture of Chairman Mao on the front gate. It’s one of those moments that you see something on TV. for so many years and now here you are, standing in front of it in awe, it would be the first moment like this in China, but not the last.
The Forbidden City has many temples and a giant surrounding wall and moat. The sheer size of the area is the aspect that most shocks the visitor. There is actually a Starbucks in Forbidden City, don’t even get me started on this. There was a basketball court in the Forbidden City too. One of my great regrets in traveling is not taking enough pictures of all the random basketball courts I’ve seen in different countries. I think a book full with basketball hoops in random, exotic, places would be an excellent coffee table book in any living room.
Across from the Forbidden City is the largest public square in the world, Tiananmen Square. Security, like most government areas in China is intense, bags are subject to search and metal directors are the norm. Tiananmen Square has one large monument with many soldiers standing guard around each of the smaller monuments. It is a place where one cannot help but think about the oppressive Chinese regime and their terrible record regarding human rights. The Tiananmen Square massacre comes to mind, where possibly thousands were murdered in the surrounding area around the square and the infamous picture of the protester standing up to the Republic’s tanks took place. And if the square itself isn’t enough of a reminder of China’s struggles with its dissenters, the square is dotted with fire extinguishers at every turn. Those fire extinguishers, placed within reach of the stone-faced guards, are used to extinguish monks who set themselves afire in protest of Chinese government policy.
The night was capped off with cheap, delicious beers, sitting on the stoop of the hostel, overlooking our Beijing alley, or ‘hutong.” We even got to witness a crazy street catfight 20 feet in front of us, I’ll post the video on youtube eventually. I met a Finnish fellow named Martti from Helsinki, he is a free-lance writer for Finnish travel magazine. He is spending one month hitchhiking across Mongolia on his way back to Finland via the Trans-Mongolian Railway. He really peaked an interest in Mongolia for me, land of the world’s last true Nomads. More on that later…
That night I drank my fair share of beers but decided I’d better keep it under control as passing out and hitting my head on the Great Wall of China wasn’t really an option. I haven’t looked into it, but I’m pretty sure Med-evac copter rides from the Great Wall are a bit pricey. The bus to take me to the Great Wall picked me up at my hostel at 6 a.m. My head banging from the beer, I found my seat, and passed out. Two hours later I am awaken when someone throws a nasty, dry, sandwich on my lap and tells me it’s my lunch. To compound this fact, I look outside and see we are still parked outside my hostel. It turns out we weren’t broken down but that I was the first pick-up of the morning and the next two hours would consist of circling Beijing (a giant city) picking up other participants then returning to my hostel to pick up the crusty sandwiches. Why they couldn’t have picked me up with the sandwiches I’ll never know, it reminded me of Korea in that sense.
Side roads the entire way made the trip to the Great Wall at Jingsaling last more than 4 hours, coupled with my two hour “circle-tour” of Beijing, it amounted to a 6 hour journey. Driving in down the windy roads toward the Wall, we would catch glimpses of it out the side window, usually just tops of the towers. Finally, the bus rolled to a stop. Exiting the bus it was another 20-minute hike down a tree-lined dirt road until we started up the mountain for another 20 minutes.
The vendors were wise to the game, as they usually are. They’d line up like Detroit Piston reserves on each side of us, as if we were being introduced at the beginning of a big playoff game. Walking through the gauntlet of vendors, declining their offers for an English guide to the Great Wall, the second we passed through, the pursuit was on. I was O.J. in a white bronco, trucking up that mountain and they were the LAPD right on my tail. Instead of sirens blaring, all I could hear was “you buy now!” “ok you buy later!” Let me say for the record, the worst possible thing you can do when vendors are on your ass on the Great Wall is try to “out hike” them up the mountain. Why I even tried I don’t really know, all it allowed me to do was nearly pass out when I finally made it to the top, then I had to buy a water from the vendor at the top to prevent myself from falling over. Was this a super-brilliant plan concocted by the vendors on both ends of the mountains? I’ll never know.
Once I paid for my bottled water, regained feeling in my legs and stood up. The view is one that I will never forget and immediately has catapulted itself to one of the greatest moments of my life. Miles upon miles of endless Wall stretching out into the cloudy distance. Tower after tower, each one higher than the next for as far as I could see. The best part was there was hardly a soul on the Wall. I knew the next six hours would be something I would remember for the rest of my life and essentially highlight my year living in Asia.
Our group immediately started hiking, mostly to get away from the vendors, something we would later learn was like trying to get rid of head lice…it just doesn’t hap—–wait, what!?, there’s a treatment for this condition? oh man am I out of the loop.
Anyway, let me re-focus here….ok…I’m back….after ten minutes into our nearly 5 hour hike, the group has dissipated quite a bit. I was now hiking alone which is a great thing, only it makes taking pictures of yourself on the Great Wall terribly difficult as the rocks aren’t really great for the auto-shoot feature. Every so often, I’d slow my pace and wait for the next closest hiker just in order to get a few shots of me. Solitude on the Great Wall is something I would highly recommend, there are no roads anywhere within sight, no cars to be heard, no hordes of tourists with screaming little children.
Over the next five hours I would pass through some 34 guard towers, all still amazingly in great shape (with possible restoration among a few). My original plan was to try and avoid the pesky guards and crash on the wall overnight and catch a ride back to Beijing the following morning. That didn’t pan out as my planned recluse for the night were the guard towers who were now being occupied by old Chinese men and women hawking water bottles, beer, and the occasional t-shirt or postcard.
Some of the inclines in the hike were dramatically steep, literally stepping up each step well past my waist. I wasn’t sure how a shorter person would/could do that. I half wanted to wait for this really short person in my group and observe them attempt the climb, but alas my goal was the 17th guard tower, also the tallest on the route. Sweating profusely, I shimmied my way up the giant steps to make it to the tallest guard tower. Much to my surprise…and delight…I was alone.
The guard towers were remarkably cooler and making it there was a welcome relief. Having the entire tower to myself overlooking all of Mongolia and China was something else. I sat on the window, catching my breath, and really taking it all in when….I start to hear something. It’s a faint voice, so faint I begin to think I’ve entered the first stage of dehydration…hallucinating. I can’t make out the voice, all I know is I hear it. Every passing second, the voice is becoming a bit louder until it becomes clear enough that I can make out the words….”you buy my postcard, you buy my postcard, you buy my postcard.”
This little old Chinese woman was either sleeping in this tower, followed me up to the tower, or straight up teleported herself into the tower, whatever she did, she was now 10 inches from my face shoving postcards at me. Solitude is truly difficult to find on The Great Wall. Though the moment I had when I was alone on that wall was one of the top moments of my life. When I look back at my year in Asia, that moment, walking on that Wall with nobody in sight for miles, is something that I’ll probably start the conversation with. “Asia was great. I hiked 12 kilometers on the Great Wall and didn’t see a soul for some parts, I also taught English in South Korea for 12 months.”
Knowing nothing could top my adventure on the Great Wall of China, the next day in Beijing, I decided to take it “easy” and hire a bicycle for the day and cycle up to the Olympic village that hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. One small problem with this idea: the pollution. I had heard about it and now I had experienced it. My bicycle was a 1990 vintage Huffy with a chain that had no desire to stay on the chain-ring whatsoever. That damn chain must have come off the bike maybe 12-15 times alone on the ride up to the village, some 10 kilometers away. Every chain derailment would be met by me pulling off on some random Beijing road, swearing at the bike, kicking it a few times, then getting back on.
Ninety minutes later I actually made it to the Olympic village which mostly doubled as a ghost town save for the “Cube” (where Phelps won all those gold’s) and the “Bird’s Nest” a monstrosity of an engineering project. I was so angry at my bike that I locked it up to the weakest, smallest, most feeble chain link fence I had ever seen. A security guard came over to me and either told me I was an idiot for locking it there or told me I wasn’t allowed to lock it there. I can’t speak Chinese and half of me wanted someone to steal that damn thing so I walked on. (I had given the bike rental company some old student ID as collateral)
It was 5 bucks to get into the Bird’s Nest and I think it was quite worth it. The stadium was completely open, you could walk around the whole damn thing if you so desired. They open up the field area too so you can run sprints like Usain Bolt if you wanted to. Me, I pretended I was back in high school getting called for bogus pass-interferences penalties as my team got crushed in the football State Playoffs. Ah terrible memories….moving on…
I will say, all joking aside, that the opening ceremony from the Summer Olympics was something so amazing, if you were watching it live on TV. it will stick with you forever. I remember calling family, friends, asking them, “are you ______ watching this?!?!” The synchronization of the drums, the amazing clothing, the sheer numbers of participants. It was China in every aspect.
Much to my dismay, the bicycle was still there when I came back and I grudgingly mounted it for the long, polluted ride back to my hostel to give the woman a piece of my mind regarding her chain lubrication procedures and derailleur adjustments. (Note for future travels: Trying to take video on your camera while riding through Beijing is not a good idea and may result in numerous “near misses”) Speaking of near misses, please find George Carlin’s take on near misses with regards to airplanes. “It’s not a near-miss, it’s a near hit! When two planes collide, then you sit back and say hey they nearly missed!” Read that last sentence with Carlin’s condescending monotone voice.
The train ride back to Shanghai was uneventful and there were no awkward staring contests with random Chinese people. They were a bit unhappy, however, as I came into our 8 x 8 sleeper car holding two good sized remote-control helicopters. Looking back, it’s yet another one of those things I didn’t need but the 12 year old inside of me said to buy. Suffice it to say, one has already died, and the other is a present. After some finagling, I found some room for the copters and passed out as the chain hummed along at 300 km/hr towards Shanghai.
My last day in Shanghai I headed for the financial district to what has to be the saddest aquarium I’ve ever seen. I am spoiled as I’ve been to some really great aquariums in my lifetime. (Sydney, Chicago, Maui) First, I’ve never been to a fricking aquarium that smells like a fish market. Were they grilling these things up in the back? Lord, the smell in the entire aquarium was horrible. I know it has fish, but have you ever been to an aquarium that just smells ‘fishy’ through out the entire thing. Even the damn seaweed and jellyfish section smelled like rotten fish. Let’s see more highlights from fish-ghetto…The penguin tank was the size of a large bath-tub complete with penguins that were swimming head on into the glass as if to say, “I’m gonna break this glass open, and you, Mr. human, are going to pick me up and run me out of here.” My favorite was the fact that all of the signs on the tanks say no flash photography or lights, yet after walking for no more than 50 feet, you’d see one of these concession stands….
Shanghai has the world’s third tallest building, so I figured I’d go to the top of it. Entering the ticket booth at the base of 130-story tower building, the conversation went something like this…
BPA: One ticket to the top.
Vendor: 40USD please.
BPA: What?! 40 dollars?! Do I get to meet Jesus or something up there?
BPA: Well, how far does 20 bucks get me?
Vendor: The observatory deck on the 110th floor.
BPA: Is that still the tallest in China?
Vendor: Yes sir, it is.
So my broke ass made my way to the 110th floor and it was still quite the view. The fog/smog was still intense as you can see…
(That building down there is actually taller than the Empire State building, so you can get a feel how tall we are talking)
The last night, I met some guys from Boston who were studying in Beijing and we sat out on the Bund people-watching and drinking dirt-cheap beer. A fitting end to my 10 days in China.
China is a land of billions of people and it feels that way all of the time. The people are beautiful, and they are very accepting of foreigners. The food is amazing, and as cheap as you can imagine. It really is one of the more fascinating places I have ever been and I am already planning a return trip back there. The Great Wall alone is worth the journey to China from whatever corner of the world you may be living in. I really believe it is one of the wonders of the world you must visit and experience before your time is up.
“The Journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” -Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism.
Now get to steppin’ people…
From the single boulders that together make up the Great Wall of China,