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|In The Mood For Love
Segments of this trip include:
Other parts of this trip include:
1: In The Mood For Love
Stephanie and I are on the way to China, and this time it is because romance has come calling. My oldest friend, Adam, is getting married and I am on the way there to be his best man. Over the years, I have been through a lot with Adam - including numerous date changes for this wedding - and I am now very excited to be on the plane and on our way.
We have just taken our short 25-minute flight to Vancouver before we head on our 13-hour marathon trip to Beijing.
"One flight down, one to go," I tell Stephanie. "We're halfway there!"
We are still at the point of a 16-hour journey where bad jokes are not yet cause for anger, and Stephanie laughs.
We board the flight to Beijing and for the third consecutive flight, I am treated to an airplane movie of (sigh) "Failure to Launch". I think about causing an airplane fire to escape the film. Stephanie believes this may be a possible overreaction and I grudgingly forget about it.
We land in Beijing and hire a taxi to take us to the apartment we have rented with our friend, Rob. Mandarin is a language with five tones, which is to say that each sound can be pronounced in five distinct ways. The most famous example of this is the sound "ma" which means a completely different thing when pronounced in each tone. These tones can be written in a Roman alphabet style known as pinyin, which indicates all five tones for pronunciation purposes. This is very useful, but the problem is that having never heard the tones before, we still have no idea how to pronounce them.
And so, to get to our apartment, the very first sentence we have to say in China reads as such:
"Wŏmen xĭ yào qù cháoyáng qū jiàngúo lù jiŭshíyī haò gúomào qiáo dōngjīng dì gúo jì hĭa yúan E2 zùo shíwŭ D shĭ."
We end up phoning a Chinese friend long distance and getting her to say it to the cabbie, which is a $30 phone call well spent.
2: Into The Frying Pan
Jetlag props Stephanie and I up at 5:45 the next day and we make our way to Tian'anmen Square, which is already chock-a-block with hawkers and kiteflyers by 7:15. Beijing feels as I remember it when I was here three years ago: Bustling, alive, dirty, exciting, rude, manic, smoggy, and ever-changing. It is pretty much the antithesis of Victoria, and that makes a terrific place to visit.
We wander for a few hours, visiting the Square and the Forbidden City, and then we meet up with Adam and our friends Rob, Mark and Ian, all of whom are in town for the wedding. The temperature with humidex is a balmy 56 degrees, so we do what all good Canadians do when confronted with oppressive heat: we play ball hockey for two hours. We finally surrender once the cramping sets in. I get my first ever case of heat rash.
We spend the night in one of my favourite areas of town, a lake called Houhai. Houhai is an area of thumping nightlife, a hundred bars and cafés located on the lake's edge. The lake is packed and humming with activity, but that doesn't prevent me from passing out mid-sentence due to jetlag. Stephanie politely crates me into a taxi and we make our way home.
3: Taxi Cab Confessions
I am much more alive the next day as Stephanie and I try to make our way to a new area of Beijing known as the 798 District. The 798 District is a collection of modern art galleries located inside the compound of a now-defunct factory. Giant warehouses and post-industrial spaces hold works from the cream of China's modern artists and the photos we have seen in magazines look amazing. I am more than pleased when the cab driver understands me and takes us towards the 798.
"Ok," he asks, after driving one block, "Where is it?"
And herein lies just one of the myriad flaws of the Beijing taxi service. Drivers frequently have no idea where anything is. At first I thought it was a language issue, but we quickly realize that if not heading to a major landmark, the driver will probably rely on us for directions. At one point, Mark showed his driver a map to where he wanted to go, and the driver's response was: "I can't read it; my eyesight is too poor." Phrases like these inspire little confidence from people navigating Beijing's frenzied streets.
An observation from over the course of my travels:
The Traveller's Irony
Beijing's streets are insane and the driving is dangerous, to say the least. Running reds, illegal lefts and full-speed dodging between pedestrians are par for the course. The passenger door behind the driver is permanently locked on all taxis due to the number of fatalities from passengers stepping into traffic. And somehow, through it all, the number of accidents we see is minimal. There is clearly a system at work, but it is as clear to me as the Chinese language.
Another phone call to a friend later, we make it to the 798 District, which is terrific; we visit dozens of galleries ranging from poor to spectacular. The occasionally controversial subject matter also gives interesting insights into the new (somewhat) more free China.
I see a woman today wearing an amazing t-shirt that reads, "Bjojo Like Batman!" I want it terribly and consider offering her money to take it off and give it to me, but realize that with hand gestures this may be misinterpreted, and so I refrain.
4: The Modern Chinese Zodiac
We spend the next few days shopping, visiting temples and catching up with friends. My knowledge of the Chinese Zodiac is poor, but we quickly figure out that this is the Year of the Scaffolding. In preparation for the Olympics in 2008, every major tourist attraction is being restored this year. All major sights are covered in scaffolding, as are any viewpoints by which one could see those sights. While slightly disappointing, we compensate by drinking numerous 60¢ beers with our friends.
Interestingly, in order to get the permanently hazy skies clearer in time for Olympics, the phenomenal amount of construction currently taking place – we are talking hundreds upon hundreds of cranes all throughout the city – must be completed by the end of this year. The construction must be finished whether or not that building is actually ready. Remind me not to move into one of the buildings completed in late December.
Monday evening, we go for a huge dinner with Adam and his family at a local Xinjiang restaurant. Xinjiang is a predominantly Muslim province in northwestern China, where locals look more ethnically Arabic than Chinese. The restaurant we go to features a stage show with live Xinjiang music (which sounds Middle Eastern), belly dancing and, in not so Muslim fashion, lots of beer. Highlights included: 1) a belly dancer draping a live boa constrictor around our friend Ian; and 2) all the patrons dancing on the table afterwards. This included Adam's 86-year old grandmother, who not only danced but was actually the last one to stop.
After the music had ended, Adam gave her his hand to help her from the table.
"I'm not finished!" she barked at him.
We were clearly not the only people in town ready to party.
5: The Wall Is Great. The Ride? Not So Much.
The next morning, Stephanie, Mark, Ian & I decide to visit the Great Wall. Our intention is to hike across it, from the villages of Simatai to Jinshaling, a 3-½ hour trek. It's an early wake up call for our supposed 1-½ hour drive to Simatai. The bus is an hour late, and when it does pick us up, it drives literally 200 metres before waiting there for 20 minutes for more passengers.
The ride itself is horrible. The temperature, with humidity, is still well over 50 degrees outside the bus and, without any AC, much hotter inside it. Dust seeps in at every crack. There are no shocks. Traffic is abominable, thereby dragging out the ride even longer. The seats in the back, where we are, are directly above the engine and are conducting its heat; this adds at least another 10 degrees to the temperature. When I am fairly sure I will throw up due to overheating, we move to sit in the aisles. In total, the ride takes five hours.
A Brit on the bus sums it up nicely when we finally arrive in Simatai and disembark:
The Great Wall is a spectacular as I remember: Beautiful, winding and dizzyingly steep. Rolling green mountains rest on both sides of the endless, serpentine, crumbling brick Wall. It leaves us gasping in awe every second we are not gasping for breath. The hike is definitely not an easy one, less so in this heat.
Hours later and drenched in sweat, we reach Jingshaling. Instead of walking down, we ride in a harness off the Wall, careening over water and through the hills. Probably an unwise choice knowing of China's occasionally lax safety standards, but at least it saves us 10 minutes of walking. We get on the bus for an equally intolerable journey home.
This night I sleep very, very well.
6: Bachelor Party!
It is now Friday, and that means it is Stag Day. We begin the bachelor party day with a mid-afternoon band practice. For the wedding, Adam's hope had been for himself and a group of his friends to play as a band. The band would be comprised of Adam on drums, Ian singing, Mark & I on duelling guitars, and Adam's brother Dave on bass. Adam's original intent had been to have us play about 10-15 songs. Soon, he realized a critical flaw in that plan: We were terrible.
Our set list was quickly dropped to three – the maximum we could potentially learn – and was comprised of "Tangled Up In Blue" by Bob Dylan, "Women Are Smarter" by the Jerry Garcia Band, and an absolutely rocking bilingual version of "Summer of 69" belted out by Ian, who speaks Mandarin well and sings it even better. We rehearsed for about 2 hours and the longer the practice ran, the better we sounded. We figured that practice was making perfect until we realized we weren't actually playing better, we were just sounding better. The 60 cent beers we had been drinking during rehearsal had been key. And so we figured out a plan for ensuring the audience would love us: Give them the booze before we played, and plenty of it.
The band practice was followed by meeting up with about a dozen friends, then a raucous dinner at an Italian pizzeria, foosball, pool and shots at a nearby pub, and then... a whole bunch of other bachelor party stuff that wasn't very interesting. Around 4am Rob turns to me and asks:
This instantly qualifies as this year's Sino-Canadian entry in the "Worst Idea Ever Awards".
I state with pride that I did wake up at 6:45 and make the rehearsal. But to give an idea of how tired I should have been, Mark & Ian got up on Saturday at ten. In the evening.
7: They Did
Fully recovered by Sunday morning, I made my way over to Adam's place to get changed and get ready for the wedding. He had generously bought us tuxes for the ceremony and so I was prepared to look damn good. I had offered to buy Stephanie a broom so she could smack away all the girls who would be swooning in my presence, but Steph said I didn't have to bother. I assumed that meant she had brought her own broom. So well-prepared, that's what I love about her.
Adam and I arrived at the church, a cute three-storey building located in the middle of an intersection, where we waited and relaxed. It was at this point the batteries in my camera died. I sent Adam's brother on a scouting mission and he returned with two new batteries which, in true Chinese market style, didn't work at all. A second mission went out, more batteries came in, and with the same result. They were not even good for one photo. And so, the ceremony went unrecorded by me. (Apologies for the poor photo collection.)
The wedding was great, complete with a choir and a Western-Chinese hybrid ceremony. Although spoken in Chinese, the ceremony itself was virtually 100% Western; the Chinese part had come in the freedom of the wedding's planning. Five days prior to the wedding, Adam and Wendy had not yet confirmed flowers, car, reception location or even the guest list. Two days before and still no invitations had been sent out. In Canada, one simply can't imagine a wedding going forward with such spontaneity and yet, in China, it is not only possible, it was cause for only the slightest concern for the bride and groom.
The ceremony itself was fun, fast & sweet. At the very end of the ceremony, the minister pronounced Adam & Wendy husband and wife and ushered them down the aisle. There was an awkward pause; Adam hadn't yet kissed the bride. "Kiss me, Adam! KISS ME!" Wendy whispered. And so they did.
Adam, Wendy, the maid-of-honour (Wendy's cousin DanDan) and I went off to get our photos taken while others made their way to the restaurant. Earlier in the week, I had been concerned when getting fitted for my tux that I probably wouldn't still fit in it by the time the next major wedding rolled around, but standing in the midday sun I figured out how it works: Wearing that tux, I probably lost about 20 pounds in sweat, and so I had until I needed the tux next to gain that wait back.
We arrived at the restaurant and ate like kings - 14 courses of southern Chinese cuisine. Songs were sung, dances were danced, speeches were speeched, and the whole thing was a great party. Our band, naturally, brought the house down (please, no autographs), and the party went well into the night.
Two days later, no longer fatigued, Steph and I said goodbye to Adam, Wendy, our friends and Beijing, and made our way by train down south towards Stop #2: Shanghai.