Friday, August 22, 2008

Home Sweet Home... Sort Of..

Been a while since I posted something. Just been so busy having fun that I haven’t found the time to write. So finally have a few spare hours sitting at Beijing Airport heading back to Nanjing for a few days. Here are some highlights.

* Arriving in China has been a big change from traveling in Africa. People here actually care about their jobs. I don’t quite get it but it’s so weird. They don’t get tips and the the service people get yelled at, yet they run around doing whatever you ask them to do. It is so common to see people telling their waiter/waitress’ to hurry up the food only 5 minutes after ordering it. I’m sitting there just enjoying the company and patiently waiting for the food and my relatives are telling the servers to hurry it up. I’m so used to waiting 5-15 minutes for food, but they usually expect food to arrive within 5 minutes. It’s not a crazy expectation as I’ve seen that happen regularly. When you ask for your server they show up within 5 seconds, crazy service and they don’t get tipped! When you enter a restaurant you are greeted and when you leave they wish you a good day and hope you come back again. Every restaurant does this!

* China has changed a lot since the last time I came here. Especially Nanjing as the last time I was in that city it was 2004 and I don’t even recognize the place. There are new skyscrapers, they’ve cleaned the streets up and they built more roads. It’s like walking into Baltimore and finding out they expanded 695, added 5 more buildings, each taller then the other and then tore down the row houses and built modern apartment buildings.

* Beijing Airport was hectic and yet very well organized. They had greeters and users everywhere to get you to where you needed to be. They had special olympic lines for the athletes and teams. Organized Chaos would be what I would call it, aka China.

* The pushing and shoving still gets to me. I push and shove just as well as the next person but I won’t push and shove women, children and old people, yet these people have no problems pushing and shoving me. As I got onto the subway heading back towards the airport I was carrying my huge backpack. This women and her kid pushes her kid right in front of me and butts in line for the train and then when the door opens pushes past me to rush to a seat. So I stand for a few stations and then half the train exits, so I mosey over to several open seats, turn to drop the bag and three people rush to take the seats. At this point I’m pissed and I’m carrying a 40kg bag, and you really don’t want to piss someone carrying that heavy of a bag as they are likely to drop it on you. So I drop the bag onto the open seat smacking both guys (yes two men, who rushed the seat...) slightly. Then on the airport train, it’s packed so I rest my bag near the door and I lean on the door the whole ride in. As the train enters station, I pick up my bag and get it on. At this point this kid edges past me and blocks me from the door with his roller luggage. I motion to him that the door is his and head to the door on the other side, which is the side you exit from... I think it’s poetic justice that he got stuck behind all the other people lined up behind him on the wrong side of the train while, me giving up my spot and moving to the other side was the first one off.

* On a variation of this pushing and shoving is the rush for seats. I’ve seen everyone do it, old, young, male, female, frail, fit, etc... they all rush for the seat and when they get the seat they all have this look on their face that they’ve just won the lottery! WTF?? I can understand old, frail and children but grown men? Sort of in their defense, they do give up their seats for old, frail, children and women with children.

* As I said before, the service here is awesome! I’ve gone from the American Gold Standard, to the non-existent Africa standard, to the Silver Dubai standard to the platinum Chinese standard of service. I’m so glad I went from Africa to China, cause if I went the other way, I’d gone nuts expecting food to show up within minutes of ordering. In fact my clock has started to speed up again. I grow impatient if I have to wait more then a minute for the check. Or if I’m ready to order and there is no server nearby.

* Traveling with Brian has been an experience onto itself. First of all Chinese people are fascinated by tall white people, so Brian stands out. Doesn’t hurt that Brian has a serious bout of Yellow Fever. So he’s going around staring at all the pretty girls that walk by and going “Ni Hao, Wo Ai Ni” or “Hello, I love you”. He’s also has a serious crush, in the creepy stalker way, on American Softball pitcher Cat Osterman. He’s been trying to get tickets all week. In fact he made a T-Shirt that read “I need USA Softball Tickets”, Chinese on the front and English on the back. Then he shows up at the stadium shouting at Cat “Ni Hao, Wo Ai Ni” Repeats this to all Chinese softball players and the volunteers in the stadium. As if this wasn’t enough while at the Temple of Heaven he got one of the costume dress-up people to paint him as a famous Chinese Opera star, a female role. He dresses in drag and gets his picture taken. Then doesn’t wash off the make-up and walks around town in it. The line he feeds the locals is “Wo Shi Piao Liang De Mei Long Fang” or “I am the beautiful MeiLongFang (female opera singer)”. Then I teach him “Wo shi feng zi” or “I’m crazy.” He does this with a serious face and really bad accent. So everyone is just staring at him laughing. Except one woman who looked at him and addressed him in the same tone as you would a child “Hao, Hao, Hao..” or “Ok, ok, ok...” and kept walking.

* Olympics is just awesome. The organization is great, the stadiums are packed and the crowd boisterous. Part of me understands that this is a world event but while I’m at the games, the place feels so small. The softball and hockey seats place me less then 15 feet (5 meters) away from the edge of the field. Most of the time you can hear what the players and coaches are saying. I’ve never sat this close to a field of play before and never expected to do so at the Olympics of all places. Just awesome!

* It took 10 days for Canada to get it’s first medal. In the meantime failed countries like Zimbabwe were racking up golds, silver and bronze medals. What the is going on? On day thirteen Canada is ranked 13 on the total medal count and 19 on the gold count! Behind countries some smaller and poorer countries. What is going on?!?!?!

* We only got 4 field hockey tickets before we arrived in Beijing. However in town we were able to score some tickets to softball, baseball and diving. The interesting part was going to the stadiums and listening to outrages prices for tickets. Tickets whose face value (printed on the ticket) were like 50, 80, 150 RMB going for 800, 1000, 1500 and even 2000 RMB. Some for events that already started. Crazy!

* We managed score three diving tickets on the last minute for free. Family connections rock; as a note we did give a comparable gift for those tickets. We got to watch Guo JingJing win the Gold medal that night, really awesome experience. Then we got to walk around the main Olympic grounds. Just spectacular, the pictures and videos cannot do the place justice. Another note, the main Olympic complex which includes the Main stadium (Bird’s Nest), Aquatic Center, National Gymnasium, and a few other small stadiums are surrounded by security and fences. The only way you get past the fences and walk around these buildings is to have a ticket to one of the events. So scoring these diving tickets was a double bonus as we were able to see these stadiums up close.

* Brian and I decided to go to the SiMaTai section of the Great Wall on our last day. There are four main sections of the Great Wall open to tourists near Beijing. BaoDaLing is where 80% of the tourist go and therefore the most packed. It has also been recently renovated and so is not the original bricks. SiMaTai is almost 150km away, and most of the stone are original and it’s not easy to get to. Brian had some outdated information and there wasn’t much online. So we tried Brian’s info and took public transportation to MiYun (a town 60km from the wall). There we were supposed to find another public bus to SiMaTai. First off, we were supposed to go all the way to the terminal bus station, however the ticket agents tries to get us (and a bunch of other tourist) off 1 stop early by a bunch of unmarked taxies who wanted to charge us 400 RMB to SiMaTai. After saying there was no bus to SiMaTai, she says there may be no bus. We get back onto the bus to the Bus Terminal. There we meet the same bunch of taxi drivers hassling us... I push past them and head into the bus terminal. Where we find out there two public buses to SiMaTai, they run 7am and 2pm, which meant we had to leave Beijing at 6am. The 2pm was not an option as it was another hour to the Wall and it takes about 3 hours to hike it and another 2 hours back to Beijing, with the last bus leaving at 7pm. So Brian and I walk back to the taxi drivers and find them negotiating with the other white tourists. Once they figure out I can speak Chinese they start negotiating with me. One guy says he has a minivan and can fit 7, me trying to be helpful tell the French group of 6 to go with him and the remaining four of us will split a smaller car. Now there are three drivers there, if we only take two cars, one driver is left out. So minivan guy starts making excuses on why he can’t take 6, and I keep pointing out that he was the one who offered to take 7. We argue for a bit, he insists that we take 3, and I tell him it doesn’t make sense for us when we can get 2 cars for 600 (300 each, roundtrip), why pay for 3 cars? At this point someone points out to me that the French made a separate deal with the other two drivers. So, I was like ok, let’s go. On the way to the car one of the French guys smiles and says to me he got two cars for 800. I was confused for a second then I pointed out that we had already agreed to 300 per car, so he should be paying 600, not 800. I yell at his driver saying it’s 300 per car not 400. His driver acquiesces and it takes the French guy a few more seconds to realize his mistake... SiMaTai was an awesome end to the trip. The Wall raises stunningly steep and there were very few people. In fact the attendants were saying how busy it was that there were about 30-40 people there that day.

* The story of my broken camera lens has been an epic. First I find out that the warranty is only good in Japan. Then I find out that China Post will not mail any electronic equipment because of the Olympics and probably won’t be able to until October. The guy handling my warranty repair won’t accept anything but Post, no DHL, Fedex or UPS. So I’m probably going to drop by Hong Kong on the way to YangShou to mail off my lens. I’m so pissed that I’m in Beijing at the Olympics and all I have is a basic point-and-shoot and my super-telephoto lens!

* Security has been a mish-mash of feel good gestures to TSA style pat downs. The feel good stuff has been first tier airport and subway. The subway one is what makes me laugh. Before you enter the subway you have to put your bags through the X-ray but they don’t check your person. So they say no knifes or weapons, but my knife is in my pocket and not in my bag, so x-raying my bag doesn’t do anything. They have a hand-held metal detector but I’ve only seen it use it on each other never on a passenger. Also the X-rays are not at choke points in the entrance, they are usually to the side, so you can theoretically walk into the Metro without X-raying your bag. In an empty station that is hard, but during rush hour traffic I can easily see that happening. On top of that, on my last day in Beijing on the way to the Airport I had my big bag packed and had my pocket knife in the check-in bag. I put it through the X-ray and they flag it (as it has a few pieces of climbing gear as well...). They show me the picture on the X-ray and ask what it is, and I go.. I don’t know.. let me see. and I open my bag and start pulling things out and go ‘is this it?’ and ‘or this?’ They get frustrated and tell me there is too much stuff in my bag, and give up and just tell me to go... What type of security is that!?!? The TSA version has been getting to the Olympic venues. Their medal detectors pretty much go off on everyone, I emptied my pocket expect my passport (which I always keep on me and which has never set off a medal detector), it set the walk-through one off and the hand-held one as well. After that incident I didn’t bother to empty my pockets. I just carried everything in my hand, walked through the detector, set it off and showed them what was in my hands, got patted down and sent in. Crazy security!

Anyway, Beijing has been awesome. Will be in Nanjing with relatives for a few days and then heading to YangShou for some climbing, may drop by Hong Kong.

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