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Don't Take That Tone With Me

Happy Hallowe'en! from Beijing, home of Tiananmen Square, eighteen cent Chairman Mao thermometers and, most recently, me.

After three months on the road and with no job beckoning back in Canada, I have decided to expatriate myself. While I continue to wait a decade or three for travelbugger.com to bring wealth and glory, I have chosen to hang out in Beijing for a little while with my friend Adam, likely teaching English. As Rob put it, there are millions of opportunities here and only a few hundred thousand obstacles - I have decided that I like those odds, for a month or two at least.

Rob and I left Ulaan Baatar last week and took the last leg of our Trans-Siberian odyssey from Mongolia and into China. Mongolia was terrific fun and there were a few unique tidbits in the country that I will miss:

By Tiananmen Square at night.

1. THE FLUID TRAFFIC LAWS. One day we convinced a taxi driver to take five of us little piggies down to a market, one above the legal limit. He drove about 30 metres before being pulled over by one of the legions of traffic police in the street. The policeman walked over, got the driver out of the cab and took him for a walk, down the road a hundred metres and into the middle of a busy intersection. They chatted there for about 20 minutes. Our driver returned with a demerit on his driver's license, said goodbye to the officer and then set off again to the market. There were still 5 of us in the car.

2. THE BUBONIC PLAGUE. While we were in Mongolia someone died of the plague while hunting marmot. When people are dying of diseases that were supposed to be eradicated about six centuries previous, you know you are traveling in foreign lands.

3. THE HANDSHAKE-FOOTSTEP RITUAL. Though handshaking is rare in Mongolia - they do not do it when introduced to one another - if someone steps on someone else's foot, they instantly turn around and shake hands. This liturgical two-step is performed whether the participants be men, women, children or bubonic plague-infested marmot.

Rob and I spent last Saturday at the Ulaan Baatar train station, enduring six progressively-less-humourous hours trying to buy a train ticket here to Beijing. We were so relieved to get through the lineups that when they told us the only tickets available were 50% more expensive than the ones we wanted we thanked them, bought the tickets and ran.

The highlight of the 30-hour train ride to Beijing is the border crossing. Chinese trains have a different gauge track than Mongolian trains, so at the border crossing (which happens in the middle of the night) the train pulls into a massive warehouse, each car is separated and then all of them are jacked up 5 metres into the air. A crew of mechanics then takes the wheels off the bottom of each wagon and moves in a new set of wheels, all fitted with the proper Chinese guage. The wagon is then lowered back down 5 metres onto the new wheels, the cars are re-attached and the train starts off again on its journey. All this happens with the passengers still in the wagon.

We arrived in Beijing last Monday afternon and were instantly bombarded by the different-ness of the city. 14 million people here and not a word of language that can be read, written or pronounced with any of them. It is an imposing way to enter a new place, particularly when I think half of those 14 million people were at the train station at the same time as us.

The Great Wall.

Spent my first day in Beijing renting a bike and pedaling my way through the city centre. "The drivers here have even more disdain for pedestrians than they do for stop signs," Adam mentioned at one point and it certainly seems true. Riding a bike here is hilarious as the bike lanes are massive, traffic laws are lax, the drivers ignore cyclists completely and my bike, called the Flying Pigeon, had absolutely no brakes. I tore through the city, narrowly missing fruit carts, turning when I couldn't stop and dragging my feet against the back wheel to slow down, when I could.

So far I have been riding my trusty Flying Pigeon and doing a lot of the usual sightseeing stuff: visiting the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square and doing a breakneck 10km hike along the Great Wall of China - gloriously impressive, particularly in fall with the autumnal colours blending together over the steep green hillsides. The Wall was so overwhelming it felt difficult to believe I was actually on it, even as I sat and looked at winding mile after winding mile of it, both to the left and right. As I clambered and hauled myself over the steeper bits, I was wondering if anyone could see me panting and wheezing from outer space.

In order to atone for my touristic nature I have been trying to eat like the locals. I spent last Wednesday night at the Night Market, a group of 5 dozen food stalls serving an impressive and disturbing menagerie of ex-animals. Beetle, sea horse and scorpion are all on the menu, as are snake, intestines and coccoon. Personally, I ventured for silk worm, grasshopper and "Goat Cock", which was minced neither in description nor preparation.

My Hallowe'en as a SARS Freedom Fighter - please note empty beer cans on the right.

Finally, I have been trying to get both my head, and my tongue, around the language here. Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and there are 5 different ways of pronouncing each syllable. Difficult already, the problems are compounded by how the same syllables, when spoken with different tones, can mean something remarkably contrary. "I would like some peanuts" and "I've really missed you" are separated only by the bend of a few notes. Perhaps coincidentally, "pregnant" and "bad luck" are also only separated by one singular tone.

And now, on with the job hunt! To all my friends and family reading this as I plan to extend this journey, I just want you to know I would like some peanuts. I really mean that.

p.s. the Goat Cock was actually quite tasty. And exceptionally humbling.