I just returned to Baoding after a long weekend spent in Shanghai, China.
Remember when I tried to go last fall but couldn't because there were no tickets? That time, I wound up spending the Chinese independence day (otherwise known as National Day) in Beijing, which wasn't a shabby plan B since I had a lot of fun. This time, however, I made sure to purchase my Shanghai ticket well enough in advance so I wouldn't have a repeat performance.
I purchased a seat for the K-train, third class. This was not my intention. For a 12-hour ride, I wanted to be able to rest enough so I could enjoy a full day in Shanghai without having to crash. But a hard seat on the slow train was going to prove a daunting task if I wanted any rest. I also purchased a ticket to Beijing so I would be able to board my train to Shanghai later that evening after I arrived.
I arrived in Beijing around 5 pm. I looked at my ticket, did the math...if my train left at 11 pm, I had enough time to meet Slava for dinner at my favorite restaurant in Beijing--Matsuko Japanese. It was fantastic as always. We dined on fabulous sushi and sashimi, while swallowing hot sake and Kirin Ichiban, my favorite Japanese beer. My limbs felt like silk instead of the rusty wires they were before. As I parted with Slava, I hugged him and told him I wished he was coming to Shanghai, too.
I took the subway to Beijing West Railway Station, lugging a very heavy backpack filled to the brim with more than enough shit. I'm notorious for overpacking. The long walk from the subway stop to the railway station exuded any sake buzz I may have had, and the tension came back in my shoulders. I was tired and eager to get on the train, regardless if it was the shit train or not. I finally made it through the door and looked on the screen, clutching my ticket, wondering which gate it would be at. I couldn't find my train code anywhere. Then it dawned on me. I was at the wrong station. The train to Shanghai leaves from Beijing Railway, not Beijing West Railway. I had never been to Beijing Railway before, but fortunately there was still an hour and a half before my train. Or at least, I thought.
I took a taxi this time. We rode past Tian'men Square and I glanced at Mao's head, his relaxed eyes watching me back, silently berading me. "Shouldn't you know your way around by now, stupid weiguoren?" he snickered. "I DO know my way around, I'm just taking the scenic route," I mutter back, avoiding any more eye contact than I'd already given.
I arrived at Beijing Railway and wandered around, trying to find my gate. It said "2" on the main hallway screen but in terminal 2, my train code was nowhere to be seen. Now I was getting confused. So I went up to a man selling beverages and held my ticket. "Zai nar?" I asked. I apologized for no reason and waited for him to point in a direction. But he didn't. He waved his arms around a bit then pointed at the time, then waved them around some more. My eyebrows turned, pulling my forehead down. I had successfully managed to miss my train by misreading the time.
China (and the rest of the world) relies on Celsius, not Fahrenheit. China also uses kilometers instead of miles, kilograms instead of pounds, and, like the rest of the world, sets its watch by a 24-hour period, not 12 hours like America. Military time, if you will. I managed to look at 22:10 and think 23:10. I don't have a reasonable explanation. In fact, I'm ashamed to say this is the second time I've done this--mistakened 10 pm for 11 pm. I felt so stupid and ashamed at my mistake. I muttered, "Fuck." and walked away, holding my useless piao. Then I called Slava.
"Did you miss your train?" he asked jokingly, unprepared for the answer I had. I told him earlier if he heard from me it was because I missed my train. He didn't expect me to actually miss it, especially considering how much time we thought I had when I left the restaurant. He started cackling when I told him it was true. We agreed to meet at Dongsi Shitiao so I could crash at his apartment that night. I bought another train ticket for the next evening. The plus side to this was I got a Z train soft seat ticket. Z is the best train to Shanghai. And, I didn't have to pay full price for it. The price I paid for the shit train was deducted. So really, I couldn't complain. The only thing I was bummed about was missing a day in Shanghai.
In retrospect, I'm glad it went that way. My ride down there was so smooth. the guy next to me spoke English and was no fuss at all. Didn't talk my ear off, didn't snore, was pleasant the whole trip. I even slept a little, and I never sleep in seats! So all in all, I enjoyed the trip down. Made it halfway through River Town, pausing between pages to nibble on roasted watermelon seeds, a common Chinese snack. A very interesting read thus far, about an American man living in China, teaching English. It was funny to see how me and this complete stranger related with one another, especially in struggling to communicate with what often feels like an opposite world. I took a break and listened to my iPod, then drifted off and dreamt.
China is never what it your imagination may tell you, so it's best to just disregard any image you have in your mind before arriving somewhere you haven't been. I had this idea that Shanghai--the city with the modern infrastructures, the "Manhattan" of China, the Pearl of the Orient--would look like a white-gloved hand of some sort. Maybe I'd even forget I was actually in China for a couple of days and explore a new water town thoroughly infused with western culture. Sometimes it's good to get a fix. Maybe that's what I was after. I don't really know. I just wanted to get away for a few days, really, and relax myself. Baoding often feels like four walls, and when they start to cave, better start running or you'll get crushed.
The first things I saw while I was on the train... the buildings were stacked condos and apartments, dirty and beaten by typhoons and time. Rust was under the windows as though it was dark water still dripping. Alleyways looked like piles of rubble, nothing could be coherently recognized other than dust and debris. All this from my window. I lugged the heavy backpack over my shoulders, got off the train and made way to the subway.
I had been told by several that the Shanghai subway was easier to navigate but a lot more crowded than Beijing's. Actually, I thought the opposite. It seemed slightly more confusing (but manageable all the same), and far less crowded. In a Beijing subway, especially on Line 1, some days you get so damn close to the next person you can sniff and tell them what their blood type is. I had room to relax and play Othello on my iPhone, something a friend recently showed me is the best way to kill time on a subway (plus, I'm practicing so I'll get good and beat him!). When I arrived at Caoyang, I had to find my hostel.
I think subconsciously I enjoy making things more difficult for myself than what they should be. I could've just as easily asked someone as soon as I exited the station which direction I should go to find the hostel. I had a brochure. I knew enough Chinese to find out. But instead, I stepped out and took a deep breath, then followed the crowd of people, as though they were going there too. I was looking for Wuning lu, the street the hostel was on. I walked for an hour, making a large square, delirious and tired from carrying all my crap. Finally I asked a street patrolman which way, he pointed straight ahead. Walking further, my shoulders were aching and I was considering a taxi, even if it was just a short distance away. I called the hostel, telling them the hotel I was standing near, and just how far was this place? "10 more minutes, walk straight ahead," answered the receptionist, so I started counting steps to distract myself from the dents in my shoulders.
Had I taken the easy route, I would've just taken a right out of the subway instead of the left. But I crave difficulty, like I said. Either that or I'm just an airhead. Ok, yes. Sometimes. But, in my defense, I'm an airhead who frequently travels alone and is grounded enough not to completely lose it and start panicking when things don't seem right. My brain is wired in such a way that other possible answers and reasons appear first before the most obvious, rather than no answer or reason at all. So rather than having a head full of air, it's just a head full of other ideas.
The hostel felt like a hotel. Computers were everywhere. The lounge/bar area had a skylight. Free breakfast. Five floors of rooms. The beds were super comfortable. The bathrooms, not disgusting whatsoever. Strange for me to admit, I actually liked the smell of the water when I turned it on to shower. And oh, that shower felt good. Washing off the past two days was the first thing I did after checking in.
My first excursion was to visit the French Concession, located in the heart of busy Shanghai, but quiet enough to feel like you're strolling a neighborhood.
The next day, I made plans to see the Jade Buddhist Temple. This was something I had wanted to see since October.
I am not Buddhist, but I find it to be a calm and peaceful religion that makes more sense to me than others. I was looking forward to this for several reasons. Number one, it'd be great to see a Buddha or two while I'm in China. Number two, it's one of the still-active places of Buddhist worship. Number three, I thought that maybe, by going, I'd get a little sense of perspective. Hell, I might even meditate.
But when I got there, I was instantly turned off.
As I was walking toward the entrance, an eager and excited Chinese girl ran up to me. "Are you here to see the Temple?" she asked. "Yes, I am," I responded. "Oh! Well, you should come look at my tea, I have lots of tea," she urged me. "Um, yeah, maybe. But I'm here to see the Temple first," I said. "Okay! You come look at the tea after! Lots of great tea!" she said excitedly. "Yes. I'm going to see the Temple now," I said. "20 yuan," she said.
20 yuan? The big China book Kim lent me said it was 10. I told her, "I heard it was 10 kuai to see the Temple." Then she just laughed at me like that was the dumbest idea ever. "No, no. It's 20." Fine. I forked over the cash and prepared to be enlightened.
As soon as I walked in, another eager young man began walking by my side. I was on a mission and not in the mood for small talk. I wanted to come here alone, to think and to feel, without meddlesome peddlers. I've had so much on my mind, so much confusion that needs to be sorted out that I was hoping maybe a place like this, which provides comfort to so many other people, might help me too. But how could I when every direction I turned, I was being summoned to come look at all this junk for sale, overpriced jewelry, Jade, calligraphy saying "I'm with Stupid" for all I know. In fact, a really creepy calligraphist kept begging me to come over and watch him paint so I did, just to shut him up and boy was that a mistake. He asked me my name, and I said cooly, "Tara," and he exclaimed, "Kara! I can do this, see, watch!" and paints Kara's name on a white piece of paper, and even still all the letters looked the same. The way he was talking, I thought he might be sick or drunk. He asked me if I was married and I said no, then he said he wasn't either and maybe we could get together, something to that effect. It was kind of disgusting. I immediately turned away and started walking toward another Buddha. I heard him say he was just joking, but he was still lonely if I change my mind. Not my idea of a good time in a Buddhist temple.
Incense floated in the air. Dozens of Buddhas stood behind glass cases. I felt nothing looking at them, like average pieces in a museum. Boxes for offerings were strewn everywhere, of course, as if the entrance fee or the prices of shitty jewellry weren't enough. I was getting more and more repulsed. This is why I don't care for organized religion. I'd rather it just be me and God, nothing in between with alterior motives. I find more peace in the state before I fall asleep than I did anywhere in that stupid temple.
I went back to the hostel for lunch, then met up with a friend. He and his band, from Beijing, were playing a show nearby. It was my first metal show in China. I had seen many in the States, especially when I worked at a bar that had metal shows all the time. You see the young kids, yes, dressed in black. You see a lot of dread locks, long t-shirts, sullen faces. In Shanghai, it was a little different. No kids, which was nice. The preppy audience looked like people you would not expect to be into metal. It was a bit refreshing, actually. Who says you have to wear all that shit just to be into a genre? I met a Chinese man named Simon who worked as a counselor, majored in psychology. We had an interesting conversation about Chinese and Americans, and for the first time, rather than speak as though it was for a China tourism commercial, I spoke candidly about the Big Red and the people who habitate it. I also expressed my frustration with the language. I said I don't mind when my students laugh at my Chinese but I get fed up with the empty looks when people don't understand. When I'm pantomiming using a mop, and I'm in the grocery isle where all the mopping products are, using a little reasoning, I might be asking for a mop? He laughed, then brought up a very good point. This is a problem I have within myself, not something others have with me. I argued some but relented after awhile. It IS something I'm insecure about, but it doesn't help when others (especially other foreigners) call to attention just how bad it really is. Sure, it's difficult for me to have a conversation with someone who speaks little to no English. But I can still communicate some, a hell of a lot more than when I first got here, which hasn't been all that long ago. We shut up when the bands started playing.
Later, my friend Robbie and I got drunk. We wound up at some rave thing in an office building somewhere, I have no idea where it was. The fun game was spotting which preppy foreigner was on drugs and who wasn't. Then I went home.
The last day of my trip to Shanghai, I went to the bookstore and bought something I'm already almost finished with...and this was yesterday! The book is called Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, by Susan Jane Gilmer. It's about two American girls who backpack around China, starting in Shanghai. All the places are mentioned that I just saw. It was cool. One thing about crack books...once I buy them I can't put them down, then I'm back to square one, bookless and wanting more. So that's going to be me in a couple of hours.
I spent a little extra cash and got a sleeper back to Beijing. Best money I could've spent. Soft sleepers on the Z train are NICE. Yes. I cuddled up with my book on the train and read for hours. Didn't sleep very well but it wasn't the bed or train's fault. Honestly, I felt the best on that train, better than I had the whole trip. Don't get me wrong, it was a good trip overall, but the train was my favorite.
Shanghai's an interesting city but three days was more than enough time. Aside from the glowing lights of the Bund, the city lacks personality. I felt like I was in Houston a lot... high rise buildings everywhere that virtually say nothing. Dirty, polluted of course. I like Beijing so much more. The Olympics really cleaned up the city a lot, because I rarely see a gray day in Beijing like I saw in Shanghai. Beijing may not have as many flashy sights as Shanghai does, but it's got more to do, more of a vibe, and definitely more of an artistic edge. It speaks a hell of a lot louder to me than Shanghai ever could.
I'm happy to be home. The four walls have expanded again. I have been wanting to go to Dalian now for quite some time but I'm starting to have second thoughts. I haven't been to western China at all and am interested in seeing something, maybe Yunnan or elsewhere down south. We'll see. I'll keep you posted regardless.
xox Thanks for reading.