Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Central Kingdom

I'm in China. The Central Kingdom. The country in the middle of the world. And I'm in the capital. Wonderful Beijing. I'm here to learn about Chinese culture. Part of that learning will happen in Beijing, next week, when friends from all over the world arrive. Then we go to Xi'an (home of the Terra Cotta Warriors) and finally to Shanghai (the world's most advanced city.)

But right now, I'm in Beijing.

To get here, I first had to go to Hong Kong. Since China views Taiwan as a renegade province, I couldn't apply for a visa from there. I had to go to Hong Kong. Spent three days there while waiting for the visa. Got together with old friends (Morris, a former colleague from ORTV, and Sue, the mom of one of the kids who used to be in my youth group in Taiwan, and with Janie, a friend who has a restaurant in China and was in HK for a birthday breakaway.)

I didn't shop. Living in Africa for a prolonged time helps cure you of the urge to buy unnecessary stuff. Instead, I met with people. Watched people. Took some photos. Worked on the darn paper I'm supposed to have done.

Then, yesterday morning early, I headed out of my hotel for the trip to China. Here's the Reader's Digest version of my day.

Carry my rolling duffel bag down 2 flights of steps into Yaumatei MTR. Board a very full train, as it is Good Friday and everyone is taking advantage of the great weather to go have fun. Change trains at Central, thankful for escalators to ease the journey of lugging my bag from one platform to another.

At Kowloon station, I find the ChinaLink bus station (across from Starbucks). Buy a return ticket. Decide that the location means it is time to sit down for a cup of good coffee. Read. Wait for the bus. When the time comes, I board the bus and we ride about 90 minutes to the border.

The driver shouts some instructions in Cantonese, and everyone gets off the bus. Grab your luggage. Go through HK customs for a stamp saying you've left the country. Then go through China customs for a stamp to say you've entered the country. Though, technically, it's one and the same country nowadays.

There are thousands of people. And since I am the only foreigner on our bus, the other passengers get lost in the sea of Chinese faces. I exit on the other side, frustrated at myself for not looking more closely at what our bus looked like, or taking its license plate.

But then I see a group gathering with similar stickers on their arms as had been slapped on mine before I boarded earlier in the morning. We were all hoard onto the bus again, and proceed to Shenzhen airport.

Off the bus. Get luggage. Look for the CZ sign. Check in. Wait for airplane.

I end up sitting next to a family from Iran. The lady (maybe early 30s) is frustrated with her husband and her sister. She wants me to tell her it's OK to get divorced and get on with her life. I tell her I can't tell her what to do. We keep visiting. I ask about Iranian culture, food, traditions. She likes their president even less than she likes her husband.

Off the plane, I grab my bag and continue the journey. I find the Airport Express station. Buy a ticket to the city. Then a subway ticket to Beijing Main Station. Though I can communicate in Chinese, my accent is different, and people at the information desk don't hide the fact that they don't want to bother with my accent. They'd rather just hope I'd go away. Which I don't. Since I need to get from here to there.

A stranger shows up. Tells me which train to take. Tells me not to try and buy a week ticket for the train, since it's virtually impossible to get your deposit back.

I lug my bag downstairs and wait for the train on Line 2. It's late by now. Almost 9 pm. I hope it's easy to find my hotel once I get out of the station... Some beggars show up on the train. One guy sings for money. It's time for me to hop off. The stranger who helped me earlier nods as I get off as if to say, "You'll be OK."

I'm happy to see my hotel's name on one of the signs on the subway map. I head to exit B. Carry my bag up 2 flights of stairs.

"How do handicapped people get around this place?" I wonder.

As I emerge from the underground world, I see the enormous Beijing Railroad Station across the road. I do a 360. Looking up and down the streets with their neon lights, I see the name of my hotel. Though we're paying more to stay in the heart of the city, I'm thankful that our agent arranged for us to make this our home for the week. I just didn't have the energy to go looking for some mom-and-pop place in an obscure side street.

By 9 pm, I'm in my room.

Tired. Hungry.

Not wanting to step out of the safety of my room, I devour half a bag of cookies I had bought in Hong Kong. And 2 bars of chocolate.

Oh well.

At least I don't eat like that every day.

At least most days aren't like today.

For that, I'm thankful.

Today, the adventure continued. Had a meeting on the other side of the city. Met a delightful family. Was glad when they sent me back with their driver. He and I had a great visit on the 40-minute drive back to my hotel. He helped me with some of the words I didn't know. At times, when he'd talk non-stop about some of the changes in the past 30 years and I only understood about half of what he said, I'd just say something like, "Whoa. How interesting." And he'd continue talking. And I'd sit there wishing I could understand all he said, 'cause it really would be interesting to hear...

Just got a call. A friend arrived from Zimbabwe. I'm heading over to hear what he has to say about the changes in HIS world!

Life truly is an adventure!

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