Not even if Bono wanted to

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of China  ,
Friday, March 31, 2006

I assume that many Americans share the impression that I had before arriving in Beijing. I know it is communist and totally government-controlled and is just no good to its people in an abundance of cases (all of which I've heard awful stories about from my folks on the Soviet end) and yet modernizing and growing at a fantastic pace as the markets open more and Olympics near. I only vaguely knew the story of Tienanmen Square in '89 and had seen relatively little footage otherwise in Western media that did not focus on the main tourist attractions, abundance of skyscrapers appearing in the big cities like Shanghai, or possibly future military challenge to the USA. And while China, even where I was in the predictably more developed tourist section of the capital, was quite different than the States, it was not near the departure from the ordinary and familiar that I had anticipated in many respects. Still had loads of fun either way!
Ryan, Ivo, Jerry, and I had gotten a tip for a great place to stay (Leo Hostel) from the folks back at UB guesthouse whose cousins run the Beijing establishment. After a few kilometer walk to introduce us to the city on the way there, and settling in the place full of backpackers just like us, our appetites had returned enough for us to seek some local grub. Just down the alley was a nice-looking and reasonably-priced join and we learned one nice fact about Beijing: it does depend where you go but in many places you can get good food for as cheap and plentiful as I'd ever seen it. The prices per dish being so low, we ordered one apiece figuring the portions would be small enough, given the price, to give us a few nibbles as our stomachs recovered. As it turned out, the heaps of food unloaded in front of us made conversation difficult because of the pressure to keep one's mouth busy trying to make a dent in the mounds and just because I simply couldn't see Jerry over the rice. Gorged to the point of pain and left still with more food to take with us than we could ever eat, all for less than $3 apiece, we immediately had a good feeling about the country.
That night we went up north in the city to meet up with a few Couchsurfers at this alternative improv/poetry slam/funky dance party that CSers Phil and Aubrey had both mentioned. Got to have a lovely chat with Phil who was working as a journalist there (and held the opinion that the censorship and control in China might even be a necessary evil as the massive country grows and so dramatically changes), play some guitar on the roof, and my favorite part was the Chinese fella free-versing "Sympathy for the Devil" in Mandarin (my friend Chad loooves the Stones). When we later got to the dance club I was surprised to find the same nearly everything as one would in the States including $10 beers (well, OK, the music was censored of bad words and most suggestiveness), the only thing I found odd was a near-complete social separation across the whole place between Chinese and Westerners.
On our next try we still ordered well too much food for far too little cost (the 4 heaping bowls of "fried" noodle soup might've put us over the edge) but got much more the hang of it. We had a walk around Tienanmen Square, the largest as well as most closely-surveillanced public square on Earth. It was lovely with the kite flyers and even the folks slinging postcards and watches with the little hand being Chairman Mao waving at you weren't too annoying.
After we took our obligatory silly pictures with the giant portrait of Mao at the north end and played a few more games of pool on the impossible snooker table at the hostel, we found the folks at Leo's a particularly social group and it was a few dozen of us that went out that evening. Again, same bar and dance scene as home, the oddest fact we learned being that the Dutch are the tallest people on Earth: Ryan hung out with a posse of them and was at 6'2" by far the little guy.
Our time in Beijing would be extended a few days beyond what we had planned because of a certain visitor we'd be receiving in Hong Kong as we had a very chill next day, only plan was to get train tickets south for later, which we eventually did with the aid of my spectacular pantomiming and drawing abilities (I've composed sketches for everything from my birthday to exchange rates, with some severely limited success). With the afternoon lazing on, I collected Mirjam, a very nice Dutch woman, from the hostel to take some sketchbooks to draw the scene on Tienanmen. As I sometimes do to amuse myself, I brought my travel guitar slung over my shoulder should the mood for a tune strike. Started playing as we were walking through the marketplace and Marjam seized the opportunity to pluck the cap off my head and hold it in front as we walked and sang. I am pleased to report that several yuans found their way into my hat, but it's less impressive when one considers the exchange rate totals that less less than a dollar.
Still having a good time as we approached the square (and stopping to chat with some "art students" to nearly fall for that popular scam), I picked a spot a little off dead center, sat down, and just continued playing and singing. One thing I've noticed about Asia in general is how easy it is to gather a crowd. From the girl chalk-sketching Chinese characters on the sidewalk to the fellas hitting jade with a mallet to prove its authenticity to the dude with the cheapo magic tricks on the train, nearly anything you might do beyond walking straight ahead or sitting down for lunch will likely attract attention, at least looking like I do. In this case, first the bored vendors drifted toward, followed by other tourists, followed by Chinese just walking through until I was sitting cross-legged on the pavement rockin' out for about 45 people. My mind was racing the whole time as I tried to think of songs a) that I knew, were outside of my usual Jack Johnson five, and that were loud enough to be heard off of my tinny travel axe over the ambient noise, and b) that, should the Chinese government for same reason overhear them through the mad surveillance and take an interest, not land me in some sort of dissident prison (the Stones were playing about that time in Shanghai and the censors forbade then from "Brown Sugar" and "Honky Tonk Woman", among others). As the crowd swelled I had the unique role-reversal of becoming a tourist attraction for the Chinese, as several took turns posing peace signs behind me as their friends snapped away on their cameraphones. Nearly half an hour later, as I was near out of good and memorized songs, my concert came to an end as the police van rolled up to my feet and an army man got out to intone gravely to me, "No. Music. Tienanmen. Square."
With a bow to the crowd, I hightailed it over to the flagpole for the precise flag-changing ceremony where, as I'd read and then witnessed, the soldiers all march from the Forbidden City gates on a strict 70-beats-per minute cadence and move their arms at exactly 23.5 degree angles. When I got back to the hostel and shared the story of Tienanmen concert with my friends, Jerry deadpanned "Oh well that's pretty good ... even U2 can't do that."
Up bright and early on my birthday in Beijing, we set off for the Secret Wall Hike arranged by Leo's. There are a handful of places that the Great Wall is accessible to visitors, the two main ones apparently infested with nothing but tourists (we like to delusionally think of ourselves instead as different: travellers, wanderers, or even men-of-the-world if you like), vendors hawking cheesy souvenirs, and the opportunity to snap the photo that everyone gets on the Wall with 6 other fanny-pack-laden foreigners walking through. The tour that we took is somehow arranged to a section of the wall that is largely both unrestored and inaccessible to outsiders. Our destination was two and a half hours outside of Beijing (but the place is so massive and congested that we didn't actually escape the city limits until the last hour of driving) in a suddenly rural area.
We were met by a a 5-foot, 76-year-old Chinese man dressed in a nice knitted sweater, slacks, and loafer and carrying a pickaxe who we supposed was going to show us to our guide until he took off with a start and beckoned us to follow into the hills. The impression that we might have to catch him if he fell or administer emergency CPR when a heart attack set in survived all of 100 meters when we really had to turn on the jets to keep up and were left gasping and shaking during rest stops while he tended to stray tree branches with his pickaxe and took swigs from his flask.
The section of the wall that we were on was unrestored and not new-looking at all but still remarkably together given how long it had been there. It was boggling to imagine how it could be so long, as it stretched on in slightly crumbling stone as far as we could see. Apparently there was one guy who walked the length of the thing: took him 109 long days of trekking! We hiked on through hot, dusty, and slippery terrain, ran across snow still chillin in the hot spring sun, drank from a natural earthy spring coming out the side o a mountain, and stopped along the way for Grandpa Incredible to lift a massive log and drag it upriver a bit to create a mini-dam for wildlife to drink from. After a brief rest (during which time Hercules no doubt did 700 pushups and built a house while Ryan hated life wearing Chucks and being sick), we ended up with lunch at our guide's house that he'd made into an impressive country complex. The cuisine provided some clue as to how he remained so healthy, eating all those fresh vegetables and lean meat it was no wonder that he could still bench press the lot of us while pushing 80. Between the history of the wall we learned in sputtering English from our guide and the amazing wilderness we were surrounded by, it was the perfect activity to celebrate turning my still-exciting but first-irrelevant age of 23.
That night we went out for Peking Duck, the Chinese speciality, at the same restaurant that George Bush I, Fidel Castro, and Yanni had dined at. We ordered 1/2 a dinner apiece ... it was the exception to the cheap food rule, we had to pay more money for the cachet of dining with a former US President, a cruel mustachioed strongman who has caused suffering to millions, and the even crueller dictator of Cuba. Despite Helena the Brit's sloppy pleas and my magnificent picture of the world turning round the sun and a baby x23 to indicate my special day, no more duck was forthcoming and we had to seek the rest of our dinner elsewhere. The rest of the night was spent playing the uproariously hilarious try-to-guess-Chinese-phrases-from-the-guidebook game, hitting the club area, and finally falling into a much-deserved sleep from a wonderful and tiring day.
Our mission the next morning was to explore the two things on every traveller's checklist for Beijing: a visit to Mao and the Forbidden City. First up was the Chairman, who is displayed in all his waxy glory in a huge mausoleum (or Mao-soleum ... get it? ... ) on one side of the Square. We waited in a huge line though it was fast-moving and I had to buy some cheap shoes seemingly made of carpet and 2 sizes too small because my flip-flops were not permissible. We solemnly (you can get in trouble for smiling in the building) filed quickly past the former leader in his glass box, looking more like a figure from Madame Toussone's than anything else. The Chinese people seem to have an interesting relationship with this figure that I wasn't able to quite understand. He is officially revered, being granted a huge resting place, public portrait, and visage on all the money, but many folks I spoke to felt that he did much more harm than good: Mao's own official stance was that we was right 70% of the time and wrong 30% of the time, though woe be to the aide who tried to suggest that a given decision was of the minority, and the folks I spoke to suggested those ratios might be more exaggerated and then flipped. I would definitely like to learn more about that period in China's history, there seems to be a lot to sink one's teeth into.
We continued to the Forbidden City and we found a nice and knowledgeable former schoolteacher who offered to be our guide along the way. We were having a lovely time learning about the huge grounds, except for Ryan who went back to Leo's with a terrific headache that lasted until his ear exploded all over the pillow. Each country the injuries get better, I know I'll be taping him together by the time we hit Russia. Ivo, his older bro Yella, and I did enjoy the rest of the tour and our guide's strange, long story about eunuchs, though I'll admit the Forbidden City was somewhat less moving with the modernizing decorations that have been added not to mention the Starbucks residing in the main courtyard.
That evening we hit the night market, a popular tourist destination, after a mad row with the river who once we arrived tried to charge us 4 times the agreed-upon amount. The night market consists of 78 carts in a row, each selling some more weird food item than the one before. Going down the line, there were some interesting morsels to be sure. Ryan had wolfed down snake skin and meat, locust, silkworm larvae, starfish and centipede (which tied for most awful), and scorpion (which surprisingly won the blue ribbon). Ivo, who says everything is "pretty good", even had trouble with his catchphrase choking down the centipede, and that fool likes everything. My favorite was the tried-and-true crawdads, reminded me of the river at summer camp as a kid. Our last night in Beijing was loads of fun, checking our a Chicago jazz band at a club with much of the hostel folks and exploring Tienanmen Square (never could get straight which bordering building was which of the Great Hall of the People, Great Revolutionary People's Hall, and Tribute Hall to the People's Revolution) once more before meeting the sugar plum faeries.
After a morning of some much-needed Internet time, some fond farewells, stealing some complimentary peanuts from the bar to sustain us until Hong Kong, and the most duck EVER (we were called in last-minutes as backup stomachs to Ivo and Yella who just were out of their league with the huge order they placed, we were off for a 24-hour train to Shenzen, the border town of HK.

Moral of the story: People say you've got to visit Beijing before 2008 because the Olympics will change it all. While that's probably true, any place that still serves scorpion and 40 pounds of chicken and rice for a dollar will always be A-OK with me.
Also, Ryan's ear had a lot of weird stuff in it before it exploded. Kinda interesting. I think I found that Cracker Jack ring that I lost in 8th grade when it came squirting our of his cochlea.
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