This is the second part of my experience teaching English in China. I was based in Heng Shui City, Hebei Province, a few hundred kilometres south of Beijing. This was back in the day when working in Beijing itself was considered a “hardship post”, and so not even in Beijing, this was a “double-hardship” post. While life in Heng Shui itself was interesting/pleasant, by mid-March S.A.R.S. was in a full scale pandemic mode, and things started to change.
DISCLAIMER: BEFORE YOU CONTINUE WITH THE BLOG, PLEASE KEEP IN MIND THAT SOME OF THIS WAS WRITTEN DURING THE ABSOLUTE HEIGHT OF THE S.A.R.S. OUTBREAK OF 2003. IT REFLECTS MY FEELINGS AT THE TIME, AS IT WAS A TURBULENT TIME FULL OF CULTURE SHOCK, INEXPERIENCE AND STRESS. SINCE THEN MY OPINIONS ON MANY SUBJECTS HAVE CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY, AND I AM ACTUALLY VERY FOND OF THE TIME I SPENT IN HENG SHUI. BUT YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT I HATE EDITING THE PAST, AND HENCE I AM POSTING THESE JOURNAL ENTRIES UNMODIFIED TO ILLUSTRATE THE EXPERIENCE, MY OBSERVATIONS, AND MY FEELINGS AT THE TIME.
Ok.. let’s keep going!
‘March 24th, 2003’
The previous week was uneventful: restaurants, bowling, haggling with taxi drivers and cabbage salesmen, etc., etc., etc.. However, the weekend turned out to be great! We decided to go for a trip to the “wild” Great Wall of China, meaning: no amusement parks, no MIG-15’s, no squirrels. The plan was to hike the Ming wall from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai. We departed Heng Shui very early on Saturday morning. We got to Beijing at 7AM or so, and made our way to the bus terminal on the other side of the city. After haggling for some water (it is a three hour drive from Beijing to Jin Shan Ling, and water is a good item to bring along), we found a bus going to our destination and willing to take us there for 30 Yuan each (this means the real price was 20 Yuan, but what can you do…)
The ride was an intense adrenaline experience, better described with the words “psychotic race”… The driver had his foot firmly planted on the gas pedal, locking it to the floor. We were doing about 130 km/h on a crappy road in a crappy bus. About a third of the journey was in a mountainous area (we did make it quite a way from Beijing), which only added to the “imminent-death” experience… To ensure TV-worthiness of any ensuing carnage, the bus was completely stuffed with people, who appeared to be surprisingly calm despite several close calls with oncoming traffic, varying in size from a tuk-tuk to a twin-trailer transport truck.
Most people were preoccupied with the “in-flight” movie (the tires had lost contact with the pavement on several occasions thus qualifying the journey as a “flight”), a strange bit about dogs being repossessed by Beijing municipal police… Ryan was not interested in the movie and elected to just fall asleep… Much to my joy not too many people lit up their cigarettes on the bus, except for one guy who quickly abandoned his habit as soon as he realized that if he smokes, I open the window. He was seated behind me and got a full blast of rather frosty air. All of his attempts at forcefully closing the window were thwarted by my arm jammed in it. He got the point after a minute or so.
We arrived in Jin Shan Ling shortly after noon, and immediately proceeded to the Wall. The admission was 30 Yuan, a bit of a surprise as the Lonely Planet quotes it at 40 or more. But there is always a trade-off. We noticed that there was a considerable accumulation of snow on the ground. We forgot about the increased elevation, and the resultant drop in temperature. I was not particularly thrilled, as I was wearing skater shoes as opposed to the weather-proof climbing boots that would have been more appropriate for the occasion, but I was not going to turn back now. We made our way to the wall, which was a bit of a climb up some slippery snow-and-mud covered steps. At the top we found some forty or so Italian, French, German, and other tourists, as well as a gang of souvenir pedlars who had instantly greeted us with offers of ridiculously priced junk such as calendars, postcards, and t-shirts. Ignoring them, we rolled forward. In sharp contrast to the Shanhaiguan experience, the first few hundred meters of the wall were interesting – despite the fact that some basic reconstruction had taken place here, and some spotlights had been installed for a tiny stretch. If one was able to ignore the pedlars and the tourists yodelling and screaming with excitement, the view of the Wall snaking over the nearby peaks and disappearing behind the horizon was quite breathtaking. The further we walked, the nicer it became. The spotlights had disappeared, the tourists tired out and dropped out, and eventually even the pedlars gave up (after following us for about two hours, and after they were done with their pathetic efforts such as “You buy postcard I leave you alone”, or “You buy something I have to go now”). Some sections of the wall were very wide, and completely intact. Others had some visible signs of aging, with bricks and stones missing, tilting, and shaky.
One section, towards the end, had collapsed as the ground below it had eroded away. The towers were spaced at approximately three or four hundred meter intervals, and their condition also differed sharply depending on the location. Some were still in their prime, and others had been mere shells with the walls collapsing. Some were easy to get to, a mere walk, while others required a really steep and tricky climb. Even though the steep sections were stepped, the intervals were sometimes just beyond the comfort range. To top it off the snow, mud, and loose bricks called for utmost attention unless one had an excellent dental plan and perhaps a wish to depart this world. Some sections which were not as steep were still tricky, as the snow cover turned the wall into a bobsleigh track and all of us had problems getting a grip on the surface, not-so-majestically skating and sliding towards the next tower.
It is a ten-kilometre hike from Jin Shan Ling to Simatai, and the views were getting better with every tower we passed. All the nearby hills and peaks lightly covered in snow, sun breaking through the haze, brisk wind providing a much welcome blast of fresh air – all combined into a fantastic experience. Sitting in on of the towers, peaking through the windows, one had the same view as the warriors did 500 years ago. I kept falling behind to “chill-out” and take a few photos. This actually turned out to be a great day, mostly because of the snow that drove the other tourists away. This kind of solitude has been rare. This section of the Wall was built during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and has the standard, best known Great Wall appearance… The Wall is not one continuous structure, but rather a plethora of defensive walls built over the many centuries of Chinese history. Some sections were built by the Ming, others were built by the Han, the Northern Wei dynasty, and some parts date as far back as the Warring States period: 403-221 B.C. Not all the walls are built of brick. A variety of building materials was used; stones, mud, clay, and some sections had rice flour mixed in with the mortar holding the bricks together. I had noticed that the section we traveled was a mix of brick and stone. Some bricks had Chinese characters pressed into them (during the manufacture process), and although weathered over the hundreds of years, one can still see them quite clearly. It was only recently that various western writers had made such claims as “the wall can be seen from the Moon” and the like, all in line with the style of sensationalizing everything Oriental.
Built to protect the Empire from northern invasions, the Wall was providing very little defence, as the invaders usually just made end runs. In fact, the Wall (or, more correctly, The Walls) had been largely useless until now, when it finally is benefiting the people living nearby as it attracts tourists and tourist money. The Great Wall, neglected for hundreds of years, is now a symbol of fierce national pride, largely due to the government search for unifying icons for all the people in China. But there is a different story the Wall. It also happens to be a monument to stubbornness and stupidity.
The Ming dynasty, who built the longest and most fortified sections of the wall, also had proven to be largely incompetent at diplomacy with the north-Asian tribes which were the usual enemy. The Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) never had to build long walls as they either waged war, or solved problems diplomatically. The Ming however were too weak, but too proud to give in. The Ming Wall was built not as a tactic, but to make a statement: “We don’t like you, stay the hell away!”
At the halfway mark we had a little surprise: in order to continue on to Simatai, we had to pay another 30 Yuan, or turn back. At first I wasn’t willing to cough up the money, as very often the toll collectors are locals who illegally tax tourists as if the Wall was their property. After talking to the guy we did get the feeling that this toll was in fact genuine, but just to be sure we took pictures of the ticket guy and told him we will show it to the people at the other end. Initially pissed off a bit by this encounter, I soon returned to the mellow mood as Ed had reminded me that the Chinese government was very much into fleecing tourists in this manner, and that I will encounter it everywhere. China doesn’t love tourists and foreigners. China only loves foreign currency.
We hiked the rest of the Wall uninterrupted. At the end we descended into a gorge, and used a suspension bridge to cross a small, lazy river. We descended the mountainside, and soon enough returned to the Chinese reality: a stinky village loaded with tourist-oriented crap. Stores peddling grossly overpriced water, t-shirts, and various items only loosely related to the Wall. We snagged a taxi, whose driver in turn waved down a bus at a highway a few kilometres away, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Beijing. Three more hours of high adrenaline psycho transit and we were there. Interestingly enough, on the way back I found myself mellow and uncaring, almost dissociated from my surroundings, treating the bumper car experience as if I was playing a video game without any real bone-crushing consequence. That evening we partied it up in Beijing. After checking into a very nice and surprisingly affordable hostel in the hutongs not too far from Tiananmen, we took off to a local drinking establishment where we met up with other folk (Ryan, Marama, Dion, Jenny, Tyrone, and Hannah). The mood was great, and we danced up a storm. After doing the conga line, the limbo, the “caterpillar”, and an assisted break dance (Dion spun me on the ground by holding one of my legs, thus earning the admiration of other dancers and mostly of the staff who now was relieved of the task of moping the floor), we decided that 4AM is a good time to hit the sack. The next morning we made our way to a sushi buffet, which is, by all accounts, an excellent fill-up station. For 70 Yuan we were seated in a private room where we spent three hours doing our part as members of the food chain. I decided to make this restaurant a must-do during all Beijing trips from now on. We spent the afternoon shopping, although our bargaining powers were seriously impaired as every market was flooded with silly tourists willing to pay the asking price. We got home at 9PM or so, and I am mentioning the train ride home only because of a very interesting phenomenon: having to use the “facilities” I noticed that the air in the squatter room was actually cleaner and quite breathable when compared to the car we were in, mostly on the account of the squatter actually having an open window. You know logic is impaired when you are thinking about spending the rest of the journey in the pooper “because it smells nice”… It was one of those “China experiences”.
‘April 7th, 2003’
Two months in China… It’s been slow. I am very close to engaging in a paw-gnawing behaviour if things don’t change soon. The problem here is that this city has no western entertainment, and anyone on a hardship assignment in China will tell that there is only so much exploring you can do at the same vegetable market. The only entertainment in the past few days was having DSL internet installed in my apartment, which, similarly to changing a light bulb, apparently requires 6 people: a computer specialist, a man with a screwdriver, two translators, a secretary from the main office, and her 2 year old child. This was a complete flashback of the light bulb incident, marked with smoking and snooping. This time I was slightly more thrilled, because DSL means more entertainment more quickly. You can take this comment ANY way you wish. However, I did not mention the burned out light bulb in my bathroom (it has been 3 weeks now), because I did not want a second parade through my apartment that evening. I have come to dread any repair jobs.
Last weekend we had visitors: Ryan came down from Beijing with Derrick, her boyfriend who came from Portland for a two week visit. We did some restaurant hopping, walked through the town (thus generating massive stares, as now there were SIX of us, and Derick is black, which is totally shocking in China!), took some pics, and then had a b-day bash with cake and all that crap. It was great, and I think I was drunk. Or at least hyper on coke. That’s Coca-Cola for those of you who don’t know me very well.
Since then, things have slowed down horribly. To keep myself occupied, I have decided to do a more detailed write-up about the city, the school, and my daily life. This actually seems to work, as it does take me outside to take some pics. It is a photographic scavenger hunt of sorts. Here it goes… My apartment is a two-bedroom unit, which is luxury, considering that most people live in dirt-floor shanties… My neighbours live in similar apartments only because they have families (the “two-plus-one” model, mandatory in Chinese cities). It came rather empty, but I can’t complain as I came rather empty as well… The main door leads you into the dining room, where one finds a small fold-down table, and a larger one where I do my food preparation. In the corner is a small fridge/freezer. The kitchen is a small (6 by 6 feet) “room” adjacent to the dining room, and it has a small table, cabinet for all my pots and pans (read: two pots, one pan, 6 plates, three cups, some plastic cutlery I brought from home, and a huge collection of chopsticks), a microwave oven, and a cold-water-only sink. A part of the kitchen is an enclosed balcony where one finds a small propane stove and the washing machine. The fuel used here burns very dirty, and so a hood is absolutely necessary if one wants to avoid poisoning. The washing machine is a trip back in time to the 50’s: it is tiny, and only provides the motion for the wash, no rinse, no automation of any kind. It has a built in spinner, great for drying lettuce. This was a joke. They use “nightsoil” to fertilize vegetable gardens in China, so I don’t eat any lettuce. The two bedrooms come equipped with… beds. At first it was a bit of a shocker, as there are no mattresses, just sleeping pads which provide very little cushion. I got used to it very quickly, and in fact I think I feel better sleeping on a firm bed of this sort. Or I have gone mental. All the bedding was provided, which was nice, especially the first night when I needed about 12 hours of sleep to recoup. I turned one of the rooms into my bedroom as the pad was “less hard”, and I also have a computer (the one I am using to type right this minute) and a desk there. Also attached to it is an enclosed balcony where I can dry my laundry. I believe normally the term would be ‘solarium’, but due to the lack of sunshine in China it seems to be a bit of a misnomer. The other bedroom has a dresser, a credenza (I think that’s what it’s called), and it had a bed which I have disassembled, and turned the bed modules into two coffee tables. One is a table, while the other is a stand for my TV and VCD-player. The X-mas tree is jammed into the corner to provide some questionable aesthetic value and plenty of comic relief. The bathroom initially was a source of great stress for me, but I managed to handle it, and now it seems ok. It is rather tight. It is a two-piece facility: sink (cold water), and a toilet. The shower is an electrically heated unit above the sink, with a very small capacity (no more than a gallon), so shower lovers can forget the orgiastic feast for your skin experiences of “back home”, especially due to the complete lack of pressure (gravity fed), and the fact that most of the holes in the sprayer head are plugged up with rust. It takes about an hour to heat up the water in the heater, so bathing requires planning and patience. Mostly patience though, because the water is often turned off, thus forcing you to wonder when you will be able to wash your hair or dishes. Last week the water was shut down for 3 days.
The water piping is pure magic in China, which is clearly some 80 years behind the west (despite the pumped up slogans about “catching up”). Apparently there was no water treatment in Heng Shui as recently as October 2002, which seems nuts. That means the water pumped up the pipes into your kitchen or bathroom was the same septic water found in the Heng Shui River, which smells worse than many Western septic tanks. When the water treatment plant was finally opened at the end of last year, all the delicious and clean water was now sent through the same dirty piping. I drink bottled water (we do get free deliveries of bottled water), and only use the tap water to wash dishes and take showers. I am sure it is safe by now, but why take a chance… (The official recommendation is to boil the tap water before consuming.) I occasionally cook at home, but due to my limited skills I tend to go to restaurants or at least the school dining hall, which serves bland, but ever-so-cheap food. Still, the fridge has a variety of “things”, fauna and flora, which I devour whenever I deem it too difficult to hike to the restaurant. My apartment building is only about 60 metres from the dining hall, and about a 2 minute walk from the classrooms.
The school property is a fenced off and guarded campus. The students stay here during the week, and are only allowed to leave on Saturday afternoon, and must return by Sunday evening. This means that the operation here resembles a university, complete with dorms, office/administration buildings, several teaching buildings, a security office, a gymnasium, a very nice rubber track, basketball courts, and several on-site stores selling food and whatever supplies the students may need. The dining hall is a very basic institution: no tables, no chairs. The kids come in, fill up, and are expected to leave as soon as possible. There are several serving areas, where students pick up their food of choice, swipe their meal cards (yes, digital technology sells rice and dumplings), and proceed to the “sitting room” where they quickly devour their meal and return to their studies. The floor gets hosed off after each meal, but I think the hygiene level is questionable at best as I regularly see people spit right on the floor (staff included). But the place still looks much cleaner than the bulk of restaurants in the city. The classroom buildings are crowded and smelly affairs. Each classroom has about 60 or 70 students assigned to it, which results in a very funky air quality, often resulting in rapid sharing of various respiratory ailments. Each classroom has a TV hanging from the ceiling, two water coolers, and 30+ desks. Rest is standard: chalkboard, teacher’s desk, etc. There are 4 floors in my building, and each floor has 10 classrooms and two rancid bathrooms. At lunch the thousands of students empty into two stairwells, causing the crowds to become a smelly mass slowly making its way to the exit. (The smell might have something to do with the fact that there are no shower facilities, the students hardly ever change their clothes, wear way too many layers, and to top it off do their P.E. activities in the same outfits they wear to other classes! Yikes!!! The dorms are one step worse than the classrooms: overcrowded, smelly, dark. Various rodents roam the floors, and horrible smells emanate from the clogged or broken pipes. There are 12 students per room, 6 rooms per wing and a bathroom, two wings on each floor. Depending on a building, the number of floors varies from 3 to 6. The conditions are at best unhealthy, and it is a small wonder why everyone is always coughing and sneezing, which is not very reassuring, particularly in light of the S.A.R.S. outbreak. In stark contrast to the dorms, the administration building is a grossly overdone piece of architecture, sporting marble floors, lots polished chrome and glass, various art pieces, and tonnes of light pouring in through the skylights. While the students pick lice off their bodies somewhere in the 18th century, the administrative staff enjoy a healthy and happy work environment of the 21st… In fact, they use a fingerprint scanner instead of a time card machine to identify who is starting work at what time. I have not seen that in Canada, and for some reason they have it here!!! Land of contrasts…
To add to the experience, the courtyard is currently undergoing a massive renovation — sculptures, memorials, trees and shrubs are all being thrown in, together with marble tiles, flower beds, and what seems to be an oversized fountain. I found out that the full-grown trees they are importing cost 7,000 Yuan each!!! Common sense would suggest that maybe instead of spending millions of Yuan on the courtyard it would be prudent to at least build a communal shower facility for the masses of sickly (and stinky) students. Maybe all that is coming as part of the modernization, but they started from the wrong end. One of the teaching buildings is truly great, and clearly offers a great service to the students. The science building has plenty of large size classrooms, is very well lit and clean, and atop one finds an astronomical observatory with a 600x refractor telescope! Pretty good for a high school. Someone did explain it to me. In China the appearance is everything. Parents choose to send their kids here because it looks impressive, and has a certain panache. No one really cares about the education element itself… In fact, the students get a raw deal – up at 5:30AM, and stay up until 10:30 PM… Day, after day, after day…
The city is dirty, noisy, and teeming with traffic. Rules of any kind are not known in China, as no one enforces any regulations outside of Beijing and Shanghai. This way tuk-tuks, horses, donkeys, trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, and everything else imaginable mixes together in a mass of honking and screaming. Some useless cops are trying to “direct” the traffic at several major intersections, but any idea of control can be forgotten: they are simply “dancing” on their spots, as no one cares what they are signalling. The drivers simply decided when they feel is an appropriate time to drive through the intersection, despite of the colour of the light. The streets are full of people living out their lives. Pedlars, merchants, repair-men, and just about any one selling or doing anything will conduct their business in the streets. The streets are actually somewhat reminiscent of departments at a store. Thus you have a hardware street, a meat street, a vegetable street. There is a street dedicated to fortune telling, and another one dedicated to selling lamb kebabs. It is quite interesting, and highly functional, as you always know where you need to go to find whatever it is you need. There is a very big trade in second hand goods: nothing gets wasted in China, and so you can buy a second hand hair brush, toilet, plunger, sock, and just about any other item. There are four department stores that we know of in Heng Shui. We have two favourite ones, one for groceries, the other for miscellaneous crap one might buy whenever the wallet gets too heavy. They are actually very good. The grocery store is clean, and carries a wide range of almost western food.
The favourites are the grilled chickens, yoghurt, and REAL BAGUETTES!!! We usually buy those in bulk, as it seems to be only real bread we can find in China. The entertainment is limited. We have a few favourite restaurants, currently I am in love with the lamb kebab place (or MOAS, as we call it… Meat On A Stick), a really great alternative to the otherwise boring Chinese food. The restaurant is actually nothing more than a bunch of what westerners call “lawn furniture” placed somewhere on the sidewalk. Each table is equipped with a charcoal grill where you cook your own kebabs. It is a dirt-cheap way to fill up with meat. I can get about 20 small kebabs for 10 Yuan. It’s a deal!
‘April 14th 2003’
In the last few weeks China has faced some serious criticism from various international bodies over the botched job of handling the atypical pneumonia outbreak in Hong Kong and the Guangdong Province. The immediate reaction was to put up a facade of professionalism, and pretend that containment procedures are in place. Only very reluctantly and as a result of fierce pressure from the West that the People’s Republic is so desperately trying to emulate, did the government officials admit that the problem is larger than originally reported. The same is not happening internally.
Quoting an English-language publication for Chinese high school students, where an article headlined “Disease under control in China” states that “…the atypical pneumonia first found in parts of China’s Guangdong Province has been brought under control (…) according to Health Minister Zhang Wenkang”. The article then proceeds to inform the nervous students that “…WHO experts said there was no need to worry about traveling to the infected areas.” (21st Century, March 29th, 2003.) Earlier this week I have arrived in one of my classrooms to find the most appalling scene: three large buckets filled with syringes, needles, and bloodied cotton swabs, apparently left there by the local Health Ministry employees after administering immunizations to several hundred students. The floor was stained with blood droplets, and stray needles littered the floor like confetti after a New Year’s party… It was SICK! These people have no idea of basic rules of hygiene! The staff at the food services regularly spit on the floor, as they are aware that it is very unhealthy to keep the expectorant in their bodies. For some reason it’s assumed to be inert when it hits the cafeteria floor… One cannot help but question the sanity of such behaviour, especially that this country is not only troubled by the SARS outbreak, but it also has a very large population infected with various strains of Hepatitis and HIV. Most of my students (senior highschoolers, aged 16 and 17) are unaware of the fact that HIV and AIDS are not limited to “black people in Africa”, and that spitting in classrooms is not a healthy behaviour. While there is a special “Taiwan” class scheduled every week with the purpose of ‘properly’ educating the youth about “The Question” (as it is referred to locally), even the senior medical staff are unaware of basic rules of disease prevention and containment. In order to be authorized to work in China, I needed to be tested for HIV. Much to my displeasure, no gloves were found, and after a botched blood sampling job was taken, the doctor casually wiped my blood off his hands with a napkin.
This whole blood-testing thing is actually done more as a political move than a health measure: China is trying to convince everyone that AIDS is brought and spread by foreigners, so foreigners have to get tested. Locals don’t need to. Having seen such things, I am absolutely convinced that China is both unable and unwilling to take care of the problem which clearly brings some serious outcomes to the rest of the world. The Chinese seem to be of the opinion that foreigners and chickens are the ones responsible for SARS. This feeling is more and more obvious: while walking down the street I often notice that people cover their mouths and noses when they see me. Clearly they are convinced that I must be THE ONE person in Heng Shui who is SARS-positive. Ironically, the foreigners are the ones with possibly the highest standard of hygiene… But it’s not nice to write this sort of thing, so I shall not.
‘April 17th 2003’
Today I have been hunting for a facility which could provide me with the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis and Typhoid. Well… was this ever a magical experience. As I mentioned before, the state of the Chinese medical establishment is horrid at best. Read up. I arranged to meet up with Mr. Yan (one of the English teachers) and head downtown to search for the appropriate medical facility. I needed his help, as my Chinese skills and theatrical abilities are somewhat lacking when it comes to medical terminology. After a bumpy bus ride we got to the “#1 Hospital”, which turned out to not be “so-number-one”, as you would normally expect those facilities to have immunization capabilities… From there we were sent to some dodgy establishment on the other side of the city which supposedly “specializes” in immunizations. Much to my “joy” we arrived at the same place which did the HIV test on me just a few weeks earlier. I had a bad feeling about this. We got out of the tuk-tuk, and after battling the rain and horrendously strong winds (Heng Shui is experiencing some sort of hurricane season), we stepped into the dark and smelly corridors of the “clinic”. The lights were out, thus giving it more of a crack-house appearance than I was hoping for, and I am sure I stepped on more than just one discarded needle. We walked through to the office area, where we were re-directed to an even dodgier hut in the courtyard where the nurse in charge of immunizations was stationed. Upon entering, we met a middle-aged man with dirty nails, sitting on a dilapidated chair in an even dirtier office. The walls were plastered with proud motivational posters intended to motivate the staff and visitors with the imagery of the superior state of the Chinese hospitals and clinics. I found it a bit of a contrast, considering that there was a pile of bloodied cotton swabs right under the poster featuring a spic-and-span doctor with perfect teeth “using” an MRI scanner. After an exchange between the male nurse and Mr. Yan, it became apparent that no such vaccines were available. Then the nurse enquired about my details, and we had to get into the customary chat without which things don’t go anywhere in China. From here we went back to the office in order to see if the typhoid vaccine could be ordered from the provincial capital of Shijiazhuang. After looking all confused for 5 minutes or so, and further discussing my personal details with another group of people, a short phone call was placed to the provincial health authority which gave a rather laconic answer: “mayo” (don’t have). To top it off I was informed that I don’t really need those vaccines. I was getting more and more stressed out. China only happens to be the world-capital of Japanese Encephalopathy, and the medical staff were telling me that this disease is not a problem. Hmmmm… I guess that is expected in the land of SARS. At this point I decided to get this done in Beijing, where the staff speak English and are more educated, but where the logistics are a major pain-in-the-ass…
Not only is it 3 hours away by train, and not only is the J.E. shot a series of three; the total cost is 1,200 Yuan, just to be in line with the national tradition of fleecing foreign travellers. There is a lesson here for me. Always take care of the medical stuff back at home. I had a hunch that a country with such high incidence of J.E. would be good at dealing with it. Apparently not. I could save time and money by taking care of it in Canada. Live and learn. The adventures weren’t over yet. While waiting for the bus home, we were battered by nasty winds and rain, and occasionally sprayed by passing traffic. When the bus finally showed up, it was cut off by a small car whose visibly irate driver leaped out and tried to drag the bus driver out in a fit of rage. I managed to find out that the bus cut off the smaller car, thus gravely pissing off the driver, and in line with the international tradition of “road rage” this was enough to spark up a fight. The bus driver locked himself inside, while the other guy acted like an insane baboon at a cheap drive-thru safari. Both of them managed to cause a massive traffic jam in the downtown area (both vehicles were parked at odd angles in the middle of the street), and it became apparent that our chances of returning home in a timely fashion were reduced to none. I decided that we should grab a taxi. After eventually flagging one down, we hopped in, were informed that we were being charged extra because it is raining (I did get a bit pissed at that point, and told the cabbie “all right, I will pay, but may your children be sick and stupid”. This caused an avalanche of laughter out of Mr. Yan, and a confused look on the cabbie’s face), and rolled down the street. To avoid the jam, the cabbie decided to jump a curb and take a side street. The curb was a bit too high, and instead of a jump, he executed more of a scrape-and-drag maneuver, which filled me with joy, and deposited some random automotive parts along the People’s Boulevard… Wow. It has been a weird day. I think I will start drinking…
‘April 21st 2003’
I spent the weekend in Beijing. The number one reason for this was to have a mental health break, and also I wanted to finally get the immunizations done. I did end up getting the encephalitis shot while in Heng Shui. I broke the language barrier by calling the Beijing United Family Hospital, hunting down an English-speaking doctor, and calling them FROM the clinic, so they could discuss the vaccine and whether it is appropriate for me. It turned out that it was fine. The only difference is that this is a no-name Chinese-made vaccine, and it has been in popular usage for years, with fewer side effects than the Japanese-made one. And considerably cheaper: while Beijing hospitals quoted it at US $100, this shot set me back 26 Yuan. And instead of having to take a series of three, one was enough, as it is a live-attenuated vaccine, which works much better. Great! Now I only needed the typhoid vaccine. (Unless I die from this supposed “vaccine”…) I rolled into Beijing at 6AM on Saturday, and right there decided to purchase my return train ticket, thus making sure that I have a seat. Much to my astonishment, the purchase, which for some reason always took minimum of 5 minutes of slow talking, this time only took 10 seconds, as I wrote out the instructions on a piece of paper and just handed it to the clerk. Why bother talking? Hehehehe! My appointment at Beijing United was set for 9:30 AM, so I had time to kill. But instead of killing it, I decided to price-shop. I went to two other medical facilities, but unfortunately they were unable to provide me with the vaccines. The first was the People’s Medical University Hospital of Peking, an “ok” facility. I was in and out. Afterwards I went to the Hong Kong and Macau International Medical Clinic located in the Swissotel building. The building and the hotel were magnificent, and the clinic matched the style. Unfortunately they couldn’t provide the vaccine, despite Lonely Planet advice that this location was a more economical spot do get it done. I proceeded to the Beijing United. At the entrance I was greeted by masked and gloved nurses who made me clean my hands (Noooo!!!) with alcohol, handed me a mask, and sent me inside after inquiring about dry cough and fever. Everyone inside was bundled up with protective equipment, and I thought it a bit of a difference from the other facilities, but definitely sensible given the headlines. After the registration procedure I was sent to a different building to see the doctor. The protocol requires one to have a consultation before being administered the vaccine, which turned out to be a bit of a problem. The typhoid vaccine costs US$55, while the consultation is US$100!!! I thought that all my savings would cark it, but then my savvy streak kicked in, and after explaining the situation to the doctor (a Canadian expat), she waved most of the fee, and only charged me $21 for the consultation. This hospital was fantastic. Floors were clean, all the rooms were well lit, and everything was well maintained. I understand that not every hospital in China can afford modern equipment, but they certainly can afford light bulbs and cleaning solutions. The Beijing United was in stark contract to the Heng Shui facilities I visited just a day earlier.
I spent the rest of the day hopping the city with Marama, Ryan, and David (who visited from a similarly deprived and remote location). We all descended upon the sushi buffet and stuffed ourselves stupid, then window-shopped for a few hours. In the evening we hopped some cafes and restaurants, and decided to head home. I was getting very tired, having been in transit the night before, and the evening was rather short for me. Before it was over, we got accosted by a gang of beggar-children. Begging is a huge scam in Beijing (or anywhere, really), and frankly I don’t stand for it, but many people find themselves unable to think when they get approached by a kid asking for money. The thing here is that the kids are purposely “dirtied-up” to be a bit more convincing. There are always a few adults ‘supervising’ them, and encouraging their begging, giving instructions regarding whom to target. It all is quite obvious, but most people are still suckered in. They target the immediate surroundings of embassies and posh hotels, as those areas are loaded with Westerners with big wallets and small hats. One kid followed us for 15 minutes, constantly crying at the same high-pitched squeak (highly unnatural, mind you as kids tend to take a break while crying), and asking for money. Every so often he would start helping himself to my pockets (the key is to keep your hands on your pockets, and kick wildly if it happens), which prompted me to swear like a wounded pirate in order to discourage the thieving behaviour. Marama and Ryan made a mistake of giving some money: this showed weakness, and the kid together with the ‘parent’ followed us all the way to the apartment demanding more.
On Sunday we decided to test a new restaurant we heard about. “Grandma’s Kitchen” is located behind the Friendship Store, and it serves proper North American cuisine. I bought a Texas burger combo, and it was soooooo huge, I couldn’t finish it. We all fell in love with the spot. After lunch we proceeded to the market to see what we could blow our money on. It turned out that due to SARS warnings (read: “panic”) most of the foreigners either left Beijing, or confined themselves to their apartments. The market was very empty, but it improved our bargaining powers. Needing a pair of sandals, I shopped round and about. In some spots the asking price was as high as 300 Yuan, but after laughing at it, it quickly descended to a more earthly 50 Yuan. Still a rip-off, but I decided that this was discount enough. A vendor approached me trying to peddle zip-off pants (which I could actually use): asking price – 280 Yuan. I walked away. Suddenly the price was 40. Wow! Now is DEFINITELY the time to fill up on clothes and gear…
I roamed the city for a few more hours, sat around the Tiananmen square and watched the tourists, and burned my time in other ways. Before heading to the train station I decided to hit a McDonald’s for a snack. Running out of time (but not willing to give up my Big Mac), I decided to take pedi-cab to the station, only about 500 metres away. I am in the habit of agreeing on a price beforehand, and this time it was 5 Yuan. Much to my surprise the guy asked for 15 when we got to the station. Most foreigners just pay up, but as far as I am concerned, this is an in-your-face rip-off, almost a soft-core robbery. I decided to get crazy. Seeing that the guy was actually smaller than me, I started yelling at him. In English. Except for the price, which I shouted in Mandarin. He got the point. Adding to his sudden comprehension was the fact that choice words such as “F… You!” are well known globally, and he realized that he was not going to make his 15 Yuan today. He quickly changed his mind, and said that it was ok, that I can go. Damn straight I can go! The rip-off agent was really close to an ass-whooping! I hopped the train 15 minutes later, and soon enough was mellowing out on my way home…
‘April 27th 2003’
The past week was an adventure and a half. While Heng Shui is still the usual unstimulating bore, the news of SARS and SARS-related events provided tonnes of entertainment. On Monday we found out that the May Day holiday was cancelled. This was actually a quite sensible idea, as it would prevent thousands, if not millions of people from moving all over China, potentially spreading the disease with them. The sad fact was that our travel plans had now carked it, but hey, our trip is a bit less important given the circumstances. On Tuesday while on my way to the market I noticed that the students (who were forbidden from going home for the weekend) engaged in a massive clean-up of their dormitory. Tonnes of junk got tossed out into the corridors, and from there shovelled outside. It was actually looking promising, except for the fact that no one saw it fitting to mop and disinfect the floors afterwards. This resulted in a very smelly situation, for some unexplained reason the whole building reeked of urine. Not sure why, but I chose not to investigate… While in class I noticed that a lot of students had purchased all kinds of folk medicines (China is notorious for this sort of thing), and much to my surprise some of this stuff was GUARANTEED to cure SARS!!!! Wow, someone should notify the CDC, the Chinese have found the cure! The prices of such crap remedies jumped up to some astronomical numbers, and people still buy them. On Tuesday evening I found out that the hospital I visited (the medical college hospital) was closed with several hundred people inside, as it was being quarantined for SARS. Having visited there for a few minutes, I managed to freak out my coworkers, as they were certain that now I was “contaminated”. On the quarantine note: the Chinese idea of a quarantine isn’t the same as the western one: instead of separating the potentially sick from the healthy, they simply lock up entire neighbourhoods. This means that the confirmed cases are locked up with the potentially healthy ones, and the procedure nearly guarantees that they will soon enough come down with the disease… I really don’t think that ending up in quarantine would be a good thing… On the PeoplesDaily.com web site the government was boasting about the efficiency of their quarantine operation: “…a staff of 200 medical employees have examined 120,000 families in less than 2 days…” I am wondering how precise their “medical evaluation” would have been. They were most likely restricted to a highly scientific “she doesn’t look like she has SARS”… Sheeeeesh…. Wednesday I saw several campus employees wandering around with giant sprayers, disinfecting everything with chlorine. A good idea in theory, but in practice nothing more than a waste of time… One of the spray-people, clad in some weird protective clothing, was walking up and down the stairwell, pissing up a narrow path of chlorine. No more than 12 inches across… I am pretty sure that if indeed the virus had spread into the building, I don’t think it would restrict itself to the 12 inch swath on the stairs. What about door handles, walls, railings, and the million of other surfaces? Is the virus unable to “stick to walls”??? This is an outright STUPID measure. Some things, like restricting travel do actually make sense, but this is just a waste of time. The “sprayers” wanted to enter my apartment on Thursday, banging on the door for good 10 minutes. I pretended to be dead, and did not answer the door. Having previous experiences with the crew, I decided not to subject myself to the joys of their curiosity.
Some moron started up a rumour that since SARS came from animals, then “animals carry SARS”. People started killing cats and dogs. This is absurd. This is the stupidest and sickest thing in the world. The whole country seems to be up-side down. Apparently, in some districts propaganda vehicles were dispatched to advice people to dispose of their pets. This is what happens when the government is run by idiots who have no knowledge of science or common sense. So now everyone is either taking their pets to the vets, or just beating, strangling, or crushing them… On Friday I visited the Teacher’s College where Ed and Steph live. The students there were likewise prevented from leaving the premises, and all of them were wearing the cheap and vastly useless cotton face masks. Their masks are of such bad quality, one could actually see through. But they did look pretty, with the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck prints on them, surely worth the extra money… The weekend was uneventful, spent on exercise, internet surfing, and gnawing on my limbs out of boredom. Ryan called me from Beijing: she decided to flee. She had purchased a ticket for Monday morning, while Marama was departing for Oz on Tuesday. At this point I think it is a bit premature, but perhaps they have seen more troubling things in Beijing than we have seen in Heng Shui. Their area did, after all, come under a quarantine order. Oh joy…
‘April 29th 2003’
Today the workers have installed barriers preventing the parents from seeing their kids and passing things through the fence – clearly an issue if the school is trying to create a safe environment. They also spray-pained fluorescent lines in front of all gates, two metres from both sides – no one is allowed to cross the lines without permission. Interestingly, this does nothing, as the labourers are still allowed to enter and leave as they please. While the 4000 students are confined to the school property, the few people allowed to move in and out (workers, delivery people, etc.) still might bring in the disease… Having said that, I do have some serious criticism to share. While freaking out over SARS, the administration has completely ignored the fact that now there are 4000 students without proper sanitation facilities jammed into the school property for an unusually long time. Normally the students go home on a Saturday afternoon, bathe, wash their clothes, and do all the necessary things to maintain their semi-hygiene. Now they are unable to leave, and as of today unable to receive anything from the outside. Most of them do not have proper clothing for the heat wave (it is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 30 degrees centigrade), and that cannot be helpful. While the battle against SARS is in full swing, the administration has forgotten about the myriad of other diseases which are likely to cause some severe problems.
‘April 30th 2003’
I am exercising a lot to kill the boredom. I have been running a lot on the track, doing body-weight exercises, and working out with weights. I have noticed that due to the lack of other entertainment, I can actually do a very serious and proper fitness program, which is nice. Although it also is rather boring. I can only do my exercises for so many hours per day. And knowing that I will not be leaving this city for a few more weeks is not helping. Although I must say that at this point I have achieved a weird equilibrium… No stress, SARS is a remote problem… Just take it easy… And stay away from the internet… I had a bit of a reality slap just a moment ago. Worried about the progress of the SARS, I clicked on yahoo.com, only to find out that my news website of choice went from critical headlines such as “Chewbacca to appear in the next Star Wars movie”, to nothing but “SARS, SARS, SARS and SARS”… It appears that the vast majority of news media is a bunch of morons, and following the news really is quite pointless… The panic that the media is spreading has managed to freak out a vast majority of people in the West. Well, in here, mixed with the lack of quality education, it is just about causing a complete meltdown of any logic and reason. No one here really knows what SARS is; they only know that it is some sort of mystery illness, and that we are all doomed. In additions to the skyrocketing sales in the area of traditional medicine, everyone is talking about all the things that are “supposed to help cure SARS”. Outlandish rumours about the causes, cures and spread of the flu-like virus are getting better and better every day. Most notable so far: garlic (they think garlic cures everything), turnips, ginger, and carrots all help, as does overindulging in beer and wine.
My personal favourite: nicotine! Apparently chain-smoking is good! Some people have adjusted their smoking habit accordingly to match the bodily demand for the life-saving nicotine… Some people are doomed, but it will not be viruses killing them, their stupidity will do an even better job. Everyone was told to “wash their hands three times a day”. Wow. Great. The “authorities” have placarded the city with posters depicting clean WHITE people eating wonderful entrees, doing kickboxing, and washing their faces with Noxzema… This apparently is an attempt to explain to the folk that they need to exercise, eat healthy, and stay clean. Well, isn’t this stupid. Majority of the people in this city live on 50 Yuan per day. I don’t think they can easily register for kickboxing classes. Also, considering that they live in crap shacks with no electricity or running water and in the backs of their taxis or trucks, I don’t think any of them visit a bath more than once per month… We are getting really tired of the treatment we are getting from other teachers. Because we do not speak Chinese, we are assumed to be stupid. This often compels people to be giving us very simplistic explanations and instructions. In many ways we are treated like children, which is quite bit annoying. I have been battling my students to open the windows ever since I started teaching. I was trying to let them know that stale air is not good for you, especially when so many of them cough and sneeze. All that to no avail. Now with the new disease-of-the-year the other teachers have instructed the kids to open the windows. Suddenly they are blindly complying with the order, even if it is rather windy or cold. When I ask them why they didn’t listen to me, but they listen to their teachers, I get a blank face. I like to rub it in though, and try to emphasize that I am a few years older than them and do know a thing or two about a healthy lifestyle. But in their minds I am a foreigner, and surely I cannot be right.
‘May 1st 2003’
The day was reasonably quiet. I had my 5 classes, everyone was very eager to participate (a very rare sight, considering the kids are exhausted, as per the no-break situation). I did my 3km run, my little workout, etc. Then I learned that as of TOMORROW (Friday) we are not allowed to leave the school property. This is a real piss-off. First of all, no one is telling us anything early enough to plan accordingly, and the second thing is that other people are still allowed to leave. Once again: foreigners (and these damn chickens) are responsible for SARS. I really think I should have left a long time ago, as trusting these people is a very stupid thing, evidence of which is presented to us on a daily basis… I found out from Ryan that he had a bit of a fight with Mr. Wang, as he refused to let Steph visit for the evening. The particular pissoff is that others still go in and out, and the administration is clearly aware of the fact that we do not have a lot of people to hang out with. This school is slowly turning into a prison. I have contacted FlyChina.com (where I got my airline ticket), and I am currently trying to find out the flight times for flights OUTTA HERE!!!!! I just need to collect my pay, change it into US dollars (Chinese Yuan is not only useless in Canada, it is also illegal to export it), and then I am good to go.
‘May 2nd 2003’
We met with Mr. Wang (the director) at 11 in the morning. While usually I am the one making all kinds of request and getting excited, this time it was Ryan who was voicing his unfavorable opinions of the school, and getting revved up. We presented the case as follows: this is a school, not a prison. We either can move about and there is no problem, or we are going on a lockdown because there is a problem. If there is a problem, then we should not be in the country, in which case pay us and we are out. If not, if things are “peachy”, then we want no restrictions, as clearly we are not here for the money (I took an 80% pay cut the day I arrived in China). We were promised more and clear communication, and the administrators would meet to decide if we would get paid for the remainder of the year (including the airfare and travel allowances) in case we have to leave early. We left the office somewhat happier, but we still know that in China things are random, and things will most likely get messed up more. We all are working on backup plans, and it is just a matter of time before each of us leaves. Next Tuesday I have a telephone interview for a job in Hiroshima, and another one in Tokyo. If I do not get a job in Japan, then I shall leave for Canada, and pick up this travel bit sometime in the future, sans-travail… ‘
‘May 4th 2003’
I am spending the weekend at the Teacher’s College, mostly to fill up on the entertainment, as we were told that we are going on a complete lockdown at the higschool starting Monday. This is insane, at best. What about food? What about any other things people need in their daily life? If things are so messed up as to warrant such drastic measures, then is it not time to close the school down? The funny thing is that things are not really that bad; it’s just that the administration wants to show that they are “doing things” and look good. Mr. Wang called on Saturday telling us to stock up on food etc., as if I can fit one-month’s worth of groceries into my backpack. If they think I can live on rice and dumplings for four weeks they are in for a surprise. Obviously they are “concerned” that myself and Ryan will bring SARS back into the compound. Well, if they are so worried, how about sending us in the school car (with a security guard) to the supermarket every other day? Naaaaah… Just lock them up. This is COMPLETELY absurd, but then absurdity seems to be the name of the game. Just when we thought this was beyond stupid here in Heng Shui, we found out more… For the weekend string of stupidity, what really put the icing on the cake was the fact that we found out that they have a concept of “part-time quarantine”… One of the students had left the campus without authorization, and upon her return she was told that she would be quarantined. Naturally, this stinks of punishment, as Heng Shui does not have any SARS cases, but the bottom line is that she is now locked up in one of the classrooms, with a bed, a pillow, and some sheets. Ed needed to get something from the classroom, and unsure if it was possible, he enquired with one of the other teachers. Much to my surprise we were informed that it is ok to enter as the girl was not there. Apparently she is allowed to leave during the day, and only has to return to the “quarantine” at night!!! I don’t think I need to explain the idiocy of this decision. It is visible from just about any angle. So, here we are, contemplating the prospects of the total lockdown in “The Land of Part-Time Quarantine”. The only thing keeping me here today is the fact that my money is still in the form of RMB (Yuan – useless in Canada), and that I am hoping to somehow salvage the vacation with the Japan idea. Myself and Ed were plotting all day on Saturday, and came up with a great alternative to flying home: taking the trans-Siberian railway from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, Russia. This would make for a 4 week vacation, including stops at the shores of the Baikal, in Novosibirsk, Moscow, and other places. The initial research shows that it can be done on a tiny budget, although securing the travel permits will be somewhat challenging, but we will work on it… (Ed came up with the idea that we could buy an air ticket to Ulan Bator, wait until we are at about 35,000 feet, at which point we would leap out, an paraglide into the forests surrounding Baikal, where we would adopt an idyllic existence of fishing and computer-aided design, and from where we would move to St. Petersburg where we would make money smuggling nuclear arms to Vatican, which is feeling increasingly threatened by San Marino. I think Ed is experiencing cabin fever…) So, as things stand right now, we are enjoying a really crap holiday in China, and do not know what is happening next. The only good thing is that I know that each week there are 5 flights from Beijing to Los Angeles on Air China, and that gives me the options to get the hell out of dodge… At 7PM myself and Ryan decided to report to the “authorities” and serve our jail term. We returned to the high school, backpacks loaded with groceries, only to find out that the guards were not sure if they were to let us in. Eventually, after a few phone calls (and a few of my screams) the door opened and we were let in. So, from here on I think my journal entries will get very long, as it looks like we will need to kill a lot of time.
‘May 5th 2003’
I woke up at 7AM, but had no drive to go and do my run (I have a feeling the fitness streak is O-VAH!). In fact, the recent events had stripped me of the desire to teach also: I skipped the 8:15 class, and instead took a long shower, and then decided to pack my bags. Not knowing what exactly might be happening in the near future, I packed as to allow for anything. My backpack is filled with necessities of trekking and working in Japan or Korea, while the suitcases were prepped to be shipped home. I stuffed one into the other, and filled all the remaining space with all the useless crap I always pack. I need to realize that I DO NOT NEED EVERYTHING. I brought way too much stuff, and it is actually a bit of a problem now, because if I want to free myself and roam Asia, I have to ditch all the useless junk I brought. Right now I have a suitcase measuring about 30x60x90 cm and weighing about 20kg. I will try to mail it home, and if not perhaps ask FedEx to do it for me (naturally for a fantastically large price, which absolutely SUCKS). The damn thing is preventing me from going anywhere, and it would be stupid to miss out on the adventure just because I had an urge to pack 20 shirts and a BBQ… (ok, no BBQ… but plenty of other stupid shit) I do have the intention of attending my afternoon classes, but for the time being I am pissed off and unhappy with the “system”. China is sometimes hard to handle, as the individual doesn’t count for much. The school administration doesn’t see any problem with the fact that the foreigner they invited to teach here signed a contract for 13.5 hours per week, and is now spending 168 hours per week as required by the lockdown. I calculated that I should ask them to pay me an extra 9880 Yuan for each week (based on the hourly wage of 64 Yuan). It will not happen, but at least they will realize that they cannot break contracts without any issue following. We will see what happens… Although I have been “seeing” what happens for a while now. I guess I really don’t want to head home just yet. Maybe Japan… Ryan and Steph already got good news this evening – they were both accepted into a school in Thailand, just outside of Bangkok. Ryan was rather jubilated, and rightly so. My only highlight for the evening was that while running to his apartment (to plan the next step in fighting “the man”) I got crapped on, either by a bat or a pigeon. My luck… Covered in guano, I spent the evening wallowing in jealousy over Ryan’s new travel plan… ;-(
‘May 6th 2003’
Three months in China… No more working out, as the construction workers are now using the gymnasium as their residence. So, effectively I am restricted to teaching and the internet. The internet is fantastically slow, and the food is starting to bite. We are living in a true ghetto. We are not allowed to leave, and no one is allowed to come in. Most of the people have nothing to do, so they are sitting outside, chatting in small groups, and otherwise passing the time. The difference is that no one is shooting anyone, but then considering the pet-killings, it is only a matter of time before the army trucks roll in. Just kidding. Today we had a meeting with the vice-principal and two teachers (for translation purposes). We told them outright that we have to leave as the restrictions are making it unbearable. We were smiley, friendly, soft. All was polite, but the feedback was not satisfactory as far as I am concerned: only half of May’s salary and perhaps a fraction of the airfare cost, and even that is a maybe. I will get more aggressive if I do not get more of a reimbursement. I do have a tendency to go freak out, but in this case THEY are the ones messing things up by responding in a totally irrational manner to the SARS thing… I cannot be hit with the costs of their stupidity. I found out that I can ship my luggage to Canada for about 800 Yuan, and then I would be free to go wherever. This is looking good, as I can at least continue to Moscow and Berlin. I spent the entire evening on researching hotels, hostels, and all the related travel details, and the itinerary is looking good: US $1300 from Vladivostok to Berlin, and peanut expenses on both sides. Now if I could only work out the timings here, and not get screwed up for money… The Japanese schools are not calling me. I am saddened by their decision to hire someone else, perhaps disease-free. Ha ha ha! I don’t really care at this point. Not really interested in the job thing anymore, maybe in September.
‘May 7th 2003’
More reports of pet killings in China. Just read a story on the net about some idiot in Beijing that apparently threw his Pekingese out the window of his apartment, but the thing didn’t die, so he buried it alive, and no one stopped him because the dog apparently “had a fever”. Normally I would discount it as a one-in-a-billion acts of stupidity, but having seen the Chinese response to the disease I don’t find it surprising anymore. Another cue to leave: protesters in the village of Hujiayao in Henan ransacked vandalized a local hospital out of SARS fears… Hmmm… “We are afraid of a new disease… Let’s destroy the hospital…” In other places people destroyed quarantine centres, schools, and other places used to fight SARS. Life is hard. It is even harder when you are stupid. This is so amazing. I feel like I dropped acid or something. Like I ate a whole “acid-pie” in fact… Just to make it more interesting for me, now there are thoughts of closing the Russian border, as the Russian health authorities are concerned about SARS spreading into Vladivostok. Well… That will kill the alternate plan. It really sucks, as there was a glimmer of hope that this expedition does not have to be such a disaster. I am calling the embassy to find out the details. I think at this point I am willing to take a chance and get the $300 ticket, as opposed to just tossing the towel and flying home.
I am hungry. I wanted to fry up some eggs, but they have become scarce in the ghetto. An interesting visual association: the security guards have all-black uniforms and hats very much similar to the ones worn by the SS. Maybe a photo session would kill some time…
‘May 8th 2003’
…well, isn’t it magical… I made a kick-ass itinerary through Russia, Belarus, Germany, and UK. I was going to be in Canada on the 3rd of July or so. And very cheap. Found an airfare from Gatwick for $400.00, and this also gave me a few days at Ed’s place in London. All was dependent on my ability to ship my crap home (can’t be arsed to jump on and off trains with two oversize suitcases).
The China Post office was contacted days in advance. It was all set to go: two large suitcases, 30kg total, etc., 744 Yuan (cheap!) Well. I went there today. They didn’t want to accept it. Can’t send to Canada because of SARS, and everyone is dead, and there is no point. Not exactly those words, but this is the drift. Apparently if I send the parcel, then it will get burned in Canada. I think this is just a rumour (China is full of those) as Canada post doesn’t have anything on the website about burning incoming mail, and neither does the Customs page. But then I learned while surfing the net for info that if I send a parcel to Canada the customs will most likely charge me like $600 duty or something stupid like that (IT IS ALL USED CLOTHING AND CAMPING EQUIPMENT)… so what the hell? I am still kind of hoping for some sort of a remarkable breakthrough. Perhaps I will get a hold of someone in Canada, and they will tell me that it is ok, no SARS-related incineration, and no “crazy-duty”. Considering the amount of rapid and dramatic swings, anything could happen, and so I should not book the return flight just yet. But time IS running out. If I don’t get the luggage out of here, then I can’t buy the train tickets for Russia. But I have to get the tickets today or on Friday, in order to get them FedEx-ed to me from Moscow. Without those I will not be able to get a visa… This chain goes on… Logistical planning is normally easy and rapid in Canada and the US. Here even the stupidest thing is long, tedious, and full of surprises. Like the income tax. No bastard told me that I would pay a $500 Yuan for this month’s pay, as there was no tax before. For all I know this is another rip off. Or not. This is in addition to the fact that I can only convert 70% of my income here into dollars, which means I will have about 4000 Yuan extra. I can smuggle it out, or I guess I could buy a lot of expensive items like mini-disc players and camera lenses. This is shit. I am growing a big, nasty, and mot likely spiky tumour in my brain. So after 3.5 months in a crap city in China I will most likely be heading back to Canada (possibly Wednesday, so I shall arrive on Saturday the 17th). Only saw Beijing, and only made a crap salary. The trip wasn’t about money, and it clearly wasn’t about too much tourism. It was mostly about experiencing the rip-off culture of the greedy Chinese vendor, seeing dogs getting killed because of some panic-inducing disease, and about learning that while it might have been a source of wisdom a thousand years ago, now the land of Confucius is full of dirty cities and rampant absurdity. I think this trip was about making me insanely bitter and unable to visit a Chinese restaurant for years. At the beginning it sounded like such a cool thing. Now I think that I should have kept the god damn job in Canada and watch the TV and get fat on Twinkies…
I was on a high last 10 days or so. I sense a real low sneaking in. This is the time when you can pat me on the back and say “you did good, Pig, you did good…”
God damn it! This is what happens when you don’t get enough sleep, put too much pressure on yourself, and listen to Chinese people. I went nuts on the internet, and pulled up every phone number for Canada Post. I dug up a number to the P.R. group in Ottawa, and waited till 8PM (8AM in Ottawa). Well, they were amused by the report, and then assured me that it was all bullshit. Very nice. Logic would actually suggest that Canada Post does not burn parcels, but when one is surrounded by a panicky mob, logic may suffer. Earlier, myself, Ryan, and Mr. Wang took off to the tax office and the bank to get our money changed to a harder currency (Yuan is dropping like a chunky kid at a fat camp, mostly due to the SARS panic which is affecting the economy). We picked up our stacks of cash at the school office, and I rolled out with a 17,000 Yuan wad. The students looked rather intrigued when we jumped into the car and left the ghetto, this being the second time for me today. First we popped into the tax office, which was a huge, spic-and-span building, with a lot of glass and marble. While the school originally assessed me at a tax of 480 Yuan, suddenly the amount became nearly 800 Yuan. I freaked (second time today), and they looked at it again. After some arguing (they treated my airline reimbursement as income) they lowered the amount to the original figure, much to my relief. Ryan commented on that in a humorous manner: “apparently in China you have to haggle everywhere, including the revenue office…” While all this was happening, I noticed that we were photographed and filmed by two of the employees. It was explained that they never received foreigners in this office before, and explained that this was the reason it was taking so long. Since tax payments are such a complex matter, and time consuming, we missed the appointment at the bank. We will get that done on Friday (tomorrow) in the morning. Might as well, as I need some rest, and I am not prepared for a third freak-out of the day… I can see the rip-off exchange rate being set somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 Yuan to a dollar…
‘May 9th, 2003’
Holy crap! Every day gets nastier. As we are closing on the departure time, we are finding out about more stuff that we either need to do or is impossible to do, and conveniently, everyone omitted telling us. We rolled to the bank at 9AM. At the bank we (Mr. Wang and the managers) got into a huge discussion about how much money to exchange, and the taxation. Everyone wants to be an expert, and everyone wants to order people around. We were told that there was some sort of a problem, and got sent back to the tax office again, only to find out that things are fine. We went back to the bank to do millions of useless bits of paperwork, and just as we thought it was all finished, the vault closed for lunch and a nap. The whole process took from 9 AM to 3 PM, and in the end we only changed about 40% of our earnings there (the government regulations allow 70%, but the bank did not have enough — we heard the phrase “mayo” several times, mildly distressing us). Mr. Wang was rushing me to give all my cash to the person at the counter, but I thought it would be a better idea to count out the precise amount by myself. While trying to do that, Mr. Wang was grabbing at my wad, thus pissing me off BIG TIME. It seemed that he was unable to comprehend the concept of “count your money”. We did something like 4 stupid transactions that day, ample time to get screwed. In the end, out of the 16,000 Yuan I brought, I was only allowed to change 7000, and the rest was changed “privately”. This is all a big scam – it was still done at the bank, by the bank manager. Clearly the bank had the money, but the manager needed his “special commission”… The exchange was not horrible, but it is a pissoff nevertheless – they created the whole situation just to make us exchange money with him. Trust was not on the up and up, so we checked the US bills for counterfeits (Ryan seemed to know his stuff), and we got going. The adventure of the day was still ahead… The Post Office… This was the ultimate exercise in stupidity and inefficiency. I needed to send 2 suitcases home. It was all taken care of on the phone: weights, dimensions, destinations, etc. Canada Customs were contacted, and the “mail burning” rumour investigated. I showed up at the office with a note written by Mr. Yan, thinking that at this point it cannot be too difficult. Well… In China things aren’t so straightforward. As soon as I found the person who talked to Mr. Yan, he informed me (using wild gestures) that I cannot send suitcases, and that everything has to be boxed. So right there I thought: “no Russia for me…” Then I got pissed off. I had become fed up with China at that precise moment. We grabbed some small boxes that he brought telling us to re-pack, and we used them to wrap the luggage. At first the staff were shouting that we can’t do that, that it is impossible. We continued, and as they saw the results (the boxes proved ideal to wrap each case, one box covered precisely half) they eased off a bit. I figured that I just need to press them for things to be done. In long, slow, and painful steps, we were slowly getting there. First, they didn’t like the wrap-job. I ignored. Then they didn’t like the fact that I was putting an envelope inside the parcel (Mr. Wang’s exact words: “You cannot do that, it is not allowed…” Whaaaaat? I cannot put a letter in my parcel? What the f..!?!?!?) I ignored them, and continued. The envelope contained a letter to the Canadian customs officials in case they decided to charge duty on all the property (it all originated from Canada, so they should not.) I decided to tape the letter to the luggage. That was also not allowed. Eventually I found some tape, and stuck them to the suitcase zippers, this way impossible to miss. Mr. Wang enquired if the “Attention: CANADA CUSTOMS” sign was my father’s name. I explained. He had no idea what customs, inspections, taxes and duties are. Neither did the staff at the post office. They probably mail one parcel every decade, so they are not up to date with things… Jesus! Then Mr. Wang came over and explained that they might not be able to send them as they are too big and too heavy. I was ready to lose it. I said to Mr. Wang: “The 2 boxes are equivalent to 4 smaller ones. What is the problem? They are putting it on a ship, a big ship, I am sure the ship can handle the 5 extra kilograms. It is not a small one-man ship; the days of tiny one-man canoes are over. It is an enormous fuck-off boat with thousands of bigger boxes, refrigerators, cars, and possibly an elephant on it. I am sure it will not sink because I have an oversize box here, or because I put an envelope in it. Charge me extra if it is a problem, but don’t tell me that it is impossible…” The reply: “But the next office might not send it, and then they send it back home…” I had an idea: “Please ask them to call the next office, Beijing or wherever, and find out if there is a problem. Tell them the weight and dimensions. If they say it is impossible, then I will be inclined to believe. I will be stunned, but I will believe. Otherwise I feel that we are only dealing with idiots” “They don’t know any numbers in Beijing” – said Mr. Wang “Whaaaaat? They send it there! The know people, I would imagine the god damn post office has a phone directory, names and addresses, and all that crap ! Holy shit!!!” (I am getting more irate). The postal worker finished the packing job with some cargo tape, which made it all very sturdy and nice. I was quite happy, and gave him thumbs up, and decided to be special by saying something in Chinese. I thought “hao-cher” would be ok, as I was under the impression it meant “very good”. Nope. Ryan, who by now had lost his power and collapsed on a chair somewhere behind me, raised his head and said: “Did you say “hao-cher? That means “delicious”…” GOD DAMN IT! I know I don’t speak Chinese… Why try… Mr. Wang came over right then and gave me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. “Here, you can call them at the next office about the parcel…” I was ready to snap… “Mr. Wang, how good is my Chinese? I just referred to a suitcase as “delicious”. Do you think that people at that number will understand me? Will I understand them? I don’t think it will work. Can they call?” “Ok… ok…” The parcels were now ready. Wrapped, weighed, labeled, and all that crap. “1300 Yuan” – said Mr. Wang, translating the postal worker “What?” “It costs 1300 Yuan to send. Give money.” “No, not yet… I want them to call the next office first.” “This is the real price. It is ok.” “No, Mr. Wang. I don’t care about the price. I want them to find out if the parcels are OK to send. What is the point of paying 1300 Yuan only to have them returned here, especially once I am gone…???” “Aaaaaahhh…. ok.” The call was made. Apparently it was ok. I paid the money, thanked for the service, and apologized for getting so irate. I told one employee (who happened to speak English) that I was under a lot of stress (was I ever!!!!) and that’s why I was so nervous. Then we got out of there. At that point Ryan made a suggestion that perhaps I should have been mailed along with the luggage. It was 5PM, and the day was lost forever. I too can think of better places to spend a Friday afternoon. All in all, we managed to convert some currency (certainly illegal, possibly counterfeit) and mail two boxes in a matter of 8 hours. A pretty bad performance. And to top it off, I have a suspicion that the post office employees were simply pissed off at me (evil foreigner) and charged me the 1300 Yuan only to dispose of my luggage out the back door. Effectively, I paid $200 for them to LOSE all my gear and clothes. Oh, well… If I see some local wearing my jacket next week, I will know that China might have been a big mistake. Good thing they don’t have church towers here, and I don’t have a high-powered rifle…
I went home. I was bizarrely relieved, despite the high possibility that I got massively ripped off several times in the course of the day. I turned on my computer and spent the remainder of the day watching Southpark, and pondering the lack of difference between Southpark and the People’s Republic.
‘May 10th 2003’
Today Ryan was doing his final packing. Departing for Thailand, he determined that he will not need all his Chinese winter clothes, thus reducing his load to one big and one small backpack. I moved in on the kill, and made off with all kinds of useless goods that will not be of any benefit to me on the road. I managed to grab all the food, a bunch of books for the long trans-sib ride, and two light bulbs (mine exploded earlier…). Also got a can opener, a utility bag, and some other junk. Ryan departed at 5PM or so, leaving me as the last one to get rid of. Mr. Wang already informed me that he wants me to leave early next week. I thought it a bit odd, as just a few days earlier he was saying I could stay until I find a ride home, but I guess he was less than appreciative of the yelling I did the day before. Ha ha ha! By now I am in the very last stages of preparation for the Trans-Sib. The last bit of info is being researched, namely the train from Harbin to Vladivostok, but it is looking like there is a weekly run on Saturdays, and so we will be fine. Mr. Wu and Mr.Yan gave me photocopies of the necessary maps, so I can point to the relevant cities. One of the teachers is working on confirming that info. I saw the school doctor and got a note stating that I am living at a safeguarded school, and that I have been healthy for the last three months here. This should help a little, in case the border guards have concerns. Myself and Ed had determined that while there are considerable risks, they are definitely worth the attempt, even if we end up losing almost US$700.00 by the time we get turned around at the border. The chances of getting turned around are slim, but they are there never-the-less. We are watching the SARS news to evaluate the situation, but there is a deadline on Sunday morning, so after that it will not matter… Once we buy the tickets, the money is gone, and I am a bit torn. But I really REALLY don’t want to come home just yet.
‘May 11th, 2003’
Mandy, a Chinese teacher who has been researching the train to ‘Vlad’ has called me, and it has been confirmed that there is a solid train service. I am sending the credit card info to the ticket company, and crossing my fingers in hopes that I don’t get ripped off, and that I successfully get into Russia. I guess time will show. In two weeks, to the day, we will know exactly.
Ok… done… Now I am waiting… I hate waiting… I guess I can move out of the High School, but I have a lot of food here… Hmmm… Stupid reason to be here though… I should move out as soon as I save all my pics and music on a disk.
Yup… That’s what I’ll do.
‘May 14th, 2003’
This is insanely boring. We are waiting for the tickets to get here, and before they do, my time is filled with internet and movies. And being a tad more active than the average person, this is simply killing me. Today is Wednesday. I am soooooo hoping that the damn courier will deliver the goods tomorrow. Most likely Friday. Friday seems too far though. The ghetto is just insanely boring. The people here are happy doing nothing and engaging in idle-brained activities. I can’t take that. Feels like a prison.
‘May 19th 2003’
Several days have passed… More stress… The papers were said to be in Beijing. This means no papers until tomorrow, at the earliest. I had Lunch with one of the teachers, she had cooked up some really good stuff, and I was more than willing as I had just ran out of food this morning. The rest of the day was spent on walking about and hoping to get hit by a meteorite or at least a very large bird dropping. Nothing happened. Around 7PM Ed found out from Mr. Xu that the documents were in Heng Shui. Using his connections, he actually managed to get the envelope picked up! Whoa, what about the protocol ?!?!!? Ed and I decided to meet up at the train station at 11PM. This would put us in Beijing at 6AM or so, giving us ample time to drop off the visa documents at the Russian Embassy. I ran to my class building as a random urge to say “bye” had struck. All of my classes were happy to see me, marked by shrieking and other loud noises. Some students gave me letters and pictures, and even a few gifts! I was rather surprised, as I didn’t really think they liked me (considering the number of physics and chemistry textbooks I tossed out the window… They probably don’t, it might be customary to give gifts to departing enemies.
‘May 20th 2003’
We departed for Beijing at 2:30 AM… This usually is a horrible ride – waaaaaaay too early in the morning. And so it was. After being seen off by Mr. and Mrs. Xu, and after witnessing an ultra-disgusting man piss while SITTING on a bench next to us, we went on the train. (About that last one… Those are the precious memories of China) We arrived in Beijing as planned, checked into the Far East Hostel, and then rolled to the Russian Embassy. We weren’t entirely sure WHERE the embassy was located, but after taking the usual rip-off taxi ride (circles around Beijing) we finally got there. At the embassy we were surprised to find out that one-day processing actually meant 1-hour processing, which was actually quite convenient. Unfortunately, the prices were equally surprising… While Ed paid $120 for the visa, I was charged $145! I had no idea that Canada went to war with the Russian Federation, and that now we were not liked as much… It turned out that the Russian diplomats didn’t care about half of the stuff listed on the website as required documents. We had letters certifying us to be SARS-free…(issued by the school nurse), photocopies of traveler insurance certificates (fake in my case, everyone knows I am too cheap to buy insurance). Everything was superficially inspected, visas were issued, and we were sent on our merry way. We bought the tickets to Harbin for Thursday PM (arriving Harbin Friday AM), and decided to chill out on Wednesday, especially that Ed was unsure if he wasn’t experiencing a Crohn’s episode, which would suck right across the board. We killed the rest of the day eating at Grandma’s Kitchen, touring, and chilling out with other hostel guests. This time we were staying in the older part of the Far East Hostel, which was sporting a very cool courtyard, all classic Chinese style. In fact, the building is 80 years old, and definitely had a feel to it. We were sharing a 4 person room with two Swedish girls, Mia and Louise. I spent the evening with them playing such exciting card games as ‘shithead’, ‘asshole’ and a few disastrous rounds of ‘cheat’. We were joined by Ken (a Brit, but we decided to not hold that against him), and Boris (from Hamburg, Germany) and ended up being stupid into the wee hours of the night, culminating in a midnight tour of Beijing.
We hiked through the Hutongs to the Tiananmen Square, which turned out to be CLOSED for the night. Ken jumped a fence surrounding the square, which instantly triggered a shouting reaction from the dozens of soldiers patrolling the area. We hiked around, making politically irresponsible jokes and remarks, and otherwise having a good time at the Politburo’s expense (some members of our party were lightly trashed, and misunderstood “politburo” as “polarbear”… This provided a lot of stupid entertainment for the rest of the night)
‘May 21st 2003’
Due to the previous night’s silliness, the girls slept in and completely scrapped their plans to go to Badaling to see The Wall (which was the big plan for the day). Ha!!!! Ed and myself did a bit of shopping, buying cans of tuna, juice crystals, PB&J, and other yummy things foreigners might bring on the trans-siberian train. At the hostel we chatted up with a group of recently arrived French travellers who just took the Trans-Sib from Moscow to Irkutsk, and then to Beijing via Ulan-Bator. Their reports were all A++, thus giving us an extra kick of motivation. All the talk about the Trans-Sib had infected Ken with the bug, and he started investigating the possibility of riding the iron horse himself. I was still reading about the train, trying to work out the details. The LP guide gives a lot of info, but it also omits a lot. To complicate things, SARS had caused a bit of extra confusion, and no one knows if trains even run across the border, and when. We decided to just go for it, as in China no one knows anything anyways. This lesson was learned at the post office. The evening was once again filled with card games, movies (“Probation Officer”, what a good laugh!), and random stupidity. Myself and Mia hiked out to the Tiananmen Square at about 4:30AM to catch the flag-raising ceremony. It was rather funny, as we missed it by less than a minute. We could actually hear the national anthem and saw the flag moving the few final feet of the pole. That was it though. As a consolation, we decided to do an early-AM tour of the Forbidden City, which at this hour turned out to really be a forbidding place… After enjoying a nice view of the sunrise, we entered the compound surrounding the Forbidden City, where we witnessed an eerie exercise session: hundreds of riot police practicing crowd control techniques using electric batons, shields, and other beating devices. It was very interesting, if not a bit worrisome, considering their enthusiasm. Suddenly it occurred to me that this exercise was futile and a waste of money, as the government was most likely to send tanks in anyways… But what do I know?
‘May 22nd/23rd, 2003’
After a few hours of crap sleep (about 2 hours for me), we packed our goods and checked out of the hostel. We headed to the train station, where we boarded the 12 hour overnighter to Harbin. The hard sleeper turned out to be quite clean and comfortable, thus restoring a partial confidence in the Chinese transport industry. After arriving in Haerbin on Friday morning, we discovered that this city SUCKS. While LP is experiencing a sort of literary diarrhea of positive comments about the “lovely Russian architecture”, the city is in fact nothing more but yet another Chinese industrial dump. Our plan was to spend only one night here, and catch the evening train to Vladivostok the next day. First, we needed the tickets. The train at the train station sent us to a CITS travel centre down the street, where we heard the dreaded “MAYO!” even before we asked for ANYTHING !!!!! It was a total piss-off, as it was a clear demonstration that no one cared to help. We decided to check into a hotel first, and then figure out the nitty-gritty of transportation. LP lists a few budget hotels, but armed with a 3 year old edition, all the info was outdated, making it as useful as a CITS guide. We ended up checking into the Hong Kong Hotel, which at 110 Yuan each gave us a window-free but clean room with a SHOWER AND A TOILET!!!!. Later, we headed back downtown to hunt for train tickets. At another ticket office we were instructed to go back to the same CITS office we visited earlier. There we were informed that tickets are not being sold because the border is closed. This was hardly good news, but I wasn’t convinced. We found a decent internet cafe from where we dug around for border info. The owner helped us and let use his telephone in order to call the embassy, which by now decided not to answer. Feeling a bit of stress arriving, we started coming up with random strategies, one of which involved a phone call to a person he knew at the border town of Suifenhe. That person in turn took a hike to the border and indeed confirmed that it is closed. This sounded like bad news. Slightly defeated, we headed back to the train station, purchased a pair of tickets for Beijing, checked out of the hotel, and headed out of Harbin after less than 10 hours. Before we departed, we did manage to get on a happy mood swing,
and visited the Church of St. Sophia, now a proper Chinese museum (read: crappy and overpriced), where we engaged in an unorthodox spree of idiot photography in an Orthodox church. We were fine with it. (As a side note: The LP talks about this church being a wonderful museum, playing Russian music, and allowing on to mellow out. All that is crap, as the place is a souvenir store. And in the Chinese tradition, it is filled with photos of artifacts as opposed to actual treasure. The music was all synthesizer-pan-pipe Simon and Garfunkel crap that can drive you insane given the volume and the 4 song loop. We boarded the train and left Harbin at 5PM.
‘May 24th 2003’
Back at the Far East Hostel we checked back into the same room, and decided to chill out over the weekend. Seeing that we were trapped in the Chinese bureaucracy and SARS-induced panic, we had little choice but to make alternate departure plans. After everyone woke up, we decided to head out to the Summer Palace. Myself, Ed, Effe (a recent arrival, a poorly-timed teacher from Nigeria/UK), Mia, Louise, Ken, and Boris jumped on the sub and then on a crowded bus and got to the Palace in the early PM. Set on a big hill in the North-West of Beijing, it was actually quite impressive, but not until one battles the omnipresent vendors. We purchased the entrance tix (using my Firearms License as a fake student card), and proceeded inside. After climbing a multitude of steps we chilled at the top, where we posed for a few shots for some Chinese visitors so thrilled to meet REAL foreigners.
After we made it to the lake, we rented two paddle boats and engaged in some low speed racing. The lake was actually quite sizeable, and it was a nice experience. When we tired of pedalling on the water like dolts, we hiked about, and then came back to the hostel to discover that Dan (from Calgary) and Kirsten (from London) had prepared a puppet show, and that myself and Ed were key performers. Having 15 minutes to quickly learn the lines, we did surprisingly good in our rendition of Animal Hutong: a controversial piece about SARS and the Chinese government… We pushed the boundary a bit, but apparently none of the hostel staff worked for the PSB, and so no arrests were made that night.
‘May 25th 2003’
The plan: visit the Wall at Badaling. After battling several bus drivers for info, we boarded bus 919 and headed to Badaling, about an hour north of Beijing. I have heard many horror stories about the volumes of annoying tourists at this section of the Wall, but thanks to the SARS panic the location was empty. How sweet! We hiked around, doing the usual things like taking pics, racing up the Wall (I won!), climbing, petting a camel (yes, there was a damn camel up there, for tourists who desperately needed camel pictures in their collection), and practicing some crappy KungFu. On the way back I got a bit worried that the bus might not be picking us up, which would be rather uncool. At the bus stop some taxi drivers were trying a scam on us telling us that there are no more buses and that we really need to hire them to take us back to Beijing. Smelling the scam, we resisted, and eventually a bus made an appearance at a late 6PM. I took the jump seat next to the driver, thus giving myself a nice, if somewhat suicidal highway experience.
‘May 26th 2003’
In the morning we made a quick dash for the Russian Embassy where we were informed that the border is open. They couldn’t give us any phone numbers, and so we left without any super-definite info. Having some tome to digest what had happened, we decided that this whole turn-back incident was an unfortunate result of Chinese confusion and so we decided to give the Russian trip one more shot. At that point it seemed that we would lose about $800 US each if we didn’t get in, so might as well spend the $50 to get to the border and find out if it indeed is shut down. We got ourselves sleeper tickets for the next day, and I decided to go and tour some more Beijing before this final departure. Effe and Ken joined me, and the three of us headed to the Forbidden City. We were approached by a pedicab operator who offered us a lift for 10 yuan. Unable to resist the price, and the fact that three chunky Westerners would be pulled by a frail Chinese man, we hopped in. After a minute or so it became evident that the old man was very close to a complete coronary shutdown. Effe offered to help, but after he nearly killed us by crossing an intersection on a red light, we decided that walking is the preferred mode of transport. Half-way to the Forbidden City we were joined by a female uni student who was mildly intrigued by our street side antics, and offered her services as a guide. After a brief round of badminton with some unsuspecting and mildly startled locals, we made our way to the gate, where we posed for some shots with the oversized picture of Chairman Mao. While in the Forbidden City compound we did the usual walk-stop-admire routine until we got bored, and decided to do a sweet Kung Fu photo shoot. Thus the three of us idiots were running around the City giggling like retards and doing Matrix-like jumps. Personally I thought it was excellent, but I have a feeling that the locals did not necessarily agree.
‘May 29th 2003’
On Tuesday, after the farewells with our hostel friends we departed on the night train. Still unsure if we would indeed make it across the border, I lowered my expectations, and was prepared to be back in Beijing later this week. China being China, and Russia being Russia, everything is possible. Trying to cross the border between the two of the world’s worst bureaucracies, one should have more patience, but it was hard to disregard all the negative info and so we did what we did. Oh well, lesson learned… On Wednesday, after a 12 Hour wait in Harbin, we popped onto another night train which took us to the border town of Suifenhe. We arrived there on Thursday AM. While talking to a group of Russian girls, it became apparent that crossing the border would not be a big problem. While in Suifenhe I chatted with a Russian businessman who helped us convert $50 into Russian Roubles, just enough to pay for a hotel in Vladivostok. The transaction took place in a somewhat dodgy spot, and both of us got rather uneasy (especially after hearing all the horror stories about Russian mafia), but in the end it turned out that we received genuine help and got some good travel advice. We purchased our cross-border bus tickets from Suifenhe to Ussuriisk and after a 2 hour lineup at the border where we were questioned about everything from the purpose of our trip to the state of our health, we finally made it into Russia!!!!!!!!!!
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