Well my colleagues and I made it. As I write this it is about 8 am Beijing Standard Time on Monday (12 hours behind back home). So far things have been pretty good on my travels. The trip started off pretty well I had to take a couple of different bags for two weeks of staying here. I don’t usually like to carry that much luggage, but I have a couple of suits and other formal clothes because of my teaching duties here.
Although my biggest mistake was that I forgot my digital camera. Out of all the things I forget I have to forget that. I don’t have a smart phone (another post for another time) so I had to hunt all over the airport to find a vendor that sold the old style disposable cameras. I was able to find someone and they only had three left so I bought those three. This means a couple of things: 1) I will have to rely on the graciousness of my colleagues for pictures (and I will post those when I get back); 2) I will have to scan the photos that I take and I will only be able to take a few photos; 3) The photos I do take won’t be very good. The beauty of a digital camera or phone is that the pictures are much clearer and make up for my inabilities as a photographer, which are considerable.
Anyway, the flight was a direct one. I was able to actually get some work done by reading a few books that I need for my own research, watch a couple of movies. I can’t sleep on planes, cars, or whatever, so by the time we got to the hotel I was exhausted.
We are actually staying at a hotel on campus. It is a very basic hotel. Very European in some respects. The rooms are sparse, the bathrooms are small, there isn’t a lot of space in general. And I am ok with that. This isn’t a total vacation and I don’t necessarily need that much space, especially when it is just me. But the rooms are clean, the wi-fi works great, the aircon is good, and we are really close to the workshops we have to hold. Actually, we got to the hotel at about 9pm Saturday night where I set up my laptop, sent a quick message to my wife, and then went to bed I didn’t even get a chance to walk around that night I was so tired.
One of the things that fascinates me whenever I travel are the different observations about language, culture, food, accomodations, etc. So I hope you will indulge me some of these observations as I go through. I wish I had some pictures to back some of these things up, but I will just have to get to them later.
Sunday, May 24th
So I woke up at about 6am, refreshed from the previous night. Before we left the states one of my colleagues noted that beds within China, and Asia for that matter, are a bit hard. They are not the fluffy mattresses we have back home. And I can say that is pretty much true. The mattresses are not as forgiving as we have in the states, but what am I going to do, complain? Um, no. One of the things that I pride myself on is the ability to adjust and just go along with things. You know the old adage “When in Rome.” I mean they are taking care of our accommodations so i am ok sleeping on whatever mattress they want. I will deal. Besides we are doing so much walking I will be exhausted anyway.
I spent the morning walking around the campus and the Haidan district of Beijing trying to figure out way where we were. The Haidan district is where most of the universities are in Beijing and there are TONS of college students. When i went out to explore the campus I must say it is beautiful. The grounds are immaculate, older Chinese were doing Tai Chi in front of a statue of Mao Zedong in the middle of campus, and tons of students were up getting ready for the day.
I don’t know what it is but I think the sun rises here a little earlier than back home. I distinctly remember seeing it at almost 4:30am and the sun goes down about 7:30pm. Maybe I am wrong, but it just seems to rise earlier and set later.
Anyway, no matter. I wondered around watching college kids play basketball, ping-pong, etc. It was just really cool to see the energy of the campus so early on a Sunday morning.
Then I proceeded to figure out where different things were that was important for me. In other words, I was looking for convenience stores that sell soda and water. And not to worry there are TONS of them on campus, just outside of campus, etc. I just like to locate things so that I can get quick access to them. Typically, the month of May in Beijing is fairly temperate weather, but during our time here it looks like it will be extremely hot (high 90s and humid). I am one of those people who has a high amount of sensitivity to heat so it is best that i locate water and other items as quickly as possible.
During my walkabout in the morning I was actually quite proud of myself. Without a map I was able to locate the Aquarium, the Beijing Zoo, and several little bodegas that I want to frequent during my time here. I just kind of wandered and walked trying to get my bearings.
For you American fans out there, I also found a Subway and McDonald’s directly across from campus. I was surprised how many Chinese college students were in there as I walked by. I guess they do a heavy volume of busines so more power to them.
Anyway, I came back to the hotel during the late morning, checked my e-mail, talked with my colleagues for a bit and then decided to go explore a bit more. I met one of my colleagues on campus and essentially became his tour guide for the next hour or so.
At noon, we were met by the coordinator of our stay in Beijing and treated to a magnificent lunch. I think I ate enough for two life times, but surprisingly I wasn’t full. I remarked to my colleague Yang, who I had met 3 years ago when he came to our campus, that I was trying to lose weight not gain it. He promised me that the food he was serving me was not only low calorie, but I would be as thin as him in an instant. I laughed and told him that would take a lot of Chinese food.
After lunch, the four of us (including one of my colleague’s wives) decided to find the train station. The problem is that we couldn’t get good directions from our host, nor the front desk, nor a map in Frommer’s guide. So for the next hour or so, the four of us walked around Beijing looking like a bunch of Keystone Cops. During these kinds of situations, and I hope I am good at this, you just have to wing it, not get frustrated, and deal.
The biggest problem for us in China is the language barrier. Very few people outside of university students even speak a word of English. Although I attempted to learn a few Chinese phrases I don’t think I am pronouncing them right because I got more than a few blank stares. I can tell though, as we are doing this, that we are getting tired and frustrated. About an hour later, we actually our able to make it to the main train station near campus, which is about 1 mile away.
By this time, one of my colleagues decided to go on his own, and my colleague’s wife decided to go back to the hotel. So that basically left Jabbar and I to figure out the subway system by ourselves. My colleague Jabbar is a world traveler, having more connections across the world than any person than I have ever met, but this was his first trip to mainland China so it made for an interesting adventure.
One more thing before I continue is that I had my first adventure with Chinese bathrooms. The public bathrooms in China are not as bad as some of the reviews might have you indicate. Each bathroom has a constant attendant, our fairly clean, and a normal public bathroom back home.
The two major differences are: 1) you need to carry your own toilet paper (you can actually buy this at Target…I did before I left); 2) The toilets for men and women in Asia, parts of the Middle East, and Africa, are basically holes in the floor. They are squat toilets. Now I won’t go into more detail, but it is interesting and supposedly better for you. But I did have my first experience and it wasn’t that bad. Again, when in Rome.
So Jabbar and I spent the late afternoon figuring out the Beijing subway and let me say once you understand it is pretty easy. The big thing for us was figuring out how to buy tickets (which was still a problem because of the language barrier), the specific stations that we needed to get off on (which wasn’t so bad because I had looked it up ahead of time), and then just walking from subway line to subway line. Beijing’s subway system is HUGE! I think we spent as much time walking from the different subway lines than we actually spent on the subway itself. It is a maze, but marked extremely well for tourists in Chinese and English.
Needless to say Jabbar and I were able to pull it off. The subway is also extremely inexpensive. It is about $.30 per ride. Really cheap, clean, and crowded, but again “When in Rome.”
Jabbar and I managed to travel down to Central Beijing where Tianammen Square is located. It was too late in the day to do any of the tours of the Forbidden City or the museums, but it is breathtaking. We just walked around for a couple of hours. The architecture is amazing, the plaza was full of people flying kites, and of course Mao Zedong’s picture was hard to miss. It was really amazing.
I wish I had some pictures to post, but perhaps another time.
I actually really enjoy this kind of time because Jabbar and I just talked about work, our travels, etc. Jabbar is a good colleague and this marks our third international excursion together. Actually, trying to keep up with him was a workout in of itself.
So we walked around for a couple of hours and by this time I was beat. It was 95 and humid, but well worth it. We took the train back to our nearest station, took a rickshaw back to the hotel, and called it a day. I was beat and went to bed by 8pm.
Lessons Learned That First Day
1) The Chinese are extremely nice, hospitable people. Any of you who are thinking about coming to China should come. The people are nice, the food is great, and it is so much less expensive than in the United States.
2) I am admittedly frustrated by the language barrier. This isn’t anybody’s fault, but I wish I knew more Chinese and vice versa. It is just frustrating, but by the end of the day I went back to the international language: hand signals. I think this has to be my mode of communication when I venture out to be a tourist.
3) You have to be flexible. Again, I think I pride myself on this when I travel. Yes, I like to have things planned out, but when there is no plan and nothing specific to do, I like to just go with the flow. I mean what is the worst that can happen I lose a dollar or two because I paid for something too much or got off at the wrong station or whatever. Who cares. When you go to a place and the language barrier is this high I just think you have to be extremely flexible. And let me say the Chinese who do speak English are extremely helpful and wonderful. I just feel like a moron and feel like I am imposing upon them. I mean I am coming to their country I should be better prepared than this, but you just have to go with it and see what happens.
4) I fully admit I went all Westernized. Last night I wasn’t very hungry, but because I was by myself, tired, and just wanted to go to sleep I went to the Subway and got a quick sandwich before bed. I try to eat, drink, and eat as authentically as I can when I go to another country, but I was just too tired. I apologize, but I was beat.
5) I was kind of proud of myself for navigating some of the cultural barriers. This isn’t the first time I have traveled abroad, but it is the first time when basically everything was put into someone else’s hand. I haven’t planned a trip, a tour, or anything. For me, that is unusual. If you ask Mrs. ROB she will tell you that I am a planner. I like to know where I am going, when I am going, etc. Here, I don’t have that luxury. Things are pretty loosey-goosey and that is ok. I was able to figure out the train system (at least to get to the touristy stuff), experienced a public bathroom, and through sign-language I was able to communicate some basic necessities and directions.
The Bottom Line
The first 48 hours here have been a mixture of awe, happiness, frustration, and amazement. I look forward to the next week and a half.