Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 3 - 12th July 2009

I managed to get the odd 15 minutes to half hour sleep which just gave me enough to carry on. My discomfort with flying is just too strong for me to relax completely. I think night time only lasted around 3 hours considering the easterly direction in which we were travelling. With the shutters down the impression of night was extended artificially as we tried to sleep. Eventually people started to stir and we were served glasses of ice cold, fresh orange juice to wake up before being served a cooked breakfast. A couple of agonising hours later and we started our descent. It was ironic that I had covered virtually the same track in 10 hours that I would be covering over the ground in 3 weeks to get back home again. Watching the underbelly camera as the ground approached was amazing, yet disconcerting. As you got closer to the ground you appeared to go faster. By the end it seemed to be too fast to stop. The fields and roads flew past so rapidly! The cloud cover seemed to be total. I had hoped for a sunny day, but realised that that was not to be.
Landing successfully, I released my grip of the lady next to me and apologised for invading her personal space. Strangely, she seemed to warm to me more after that. I was happy to know that I wouldn’t have to fly again for at least a month. As soon as we taxied to our allocated gate we were instructed not to move from our seats until the quarantine people had checked our temperature. Of course, there is always someone who has to get up and try to get a head start by getting their bags down from the overhead locker. In this case they were sharply told to sit down again by the masked authorities who had by now boarded the plane. No messing around here. An electronic device was pointed at our foreheads and bleeped satisfyingly to confirm our body heat to be in the normal acceptable range. I wondered what would have happened if it wasn’t. Is the whole plane, passengers and crew, quarantined for days? Actually no, the offending person is removed to hospital for further tests and all the passengers will receive a different coloured stamp on their entry papers instead of the normal one and will be monitored throughout their journey over the following week. This is one of the reasons that I had to declare all my movements during my time in China.

After that it was off the plane and into the marvel that is Beijing airport. A massive building concept that filters you via internal tram lines to the baggage hall to end all baggage halls. It was around this time that I began to realise the extent of the heat and humidity. Although air conditioned throughout, the high ceilings and vastness of the building couldn’t cope with the body heat of thousands of travellers. Having jeans and a shirt on didn’t help of course. Once I collected my rucksack, which I had had visions of being lost en route, I left the conveyor belt area. Can you imagine explaining about a missing bag to ‘Beijing Lost & Found‘? No, no I will be in Beijing for two days, then if it hasn’t arrived by then you can try to catch me on the Chinese/Mongolian border 36 hours after that. If that’s no good then try Ulaanbaatar two days later. Still no good? Then try a Ger tent in the national park or failing that the Mongolian/Russian border a few days later. In fact just forget it, I will buy new clothes in Beijing and you and your colleagues can share my stuff when it arrives. Sia sia (Chinese for thank you)
Thankfully, this wasn’t a problem I had to deal with and I simply walked through the public area to meet up with my friends. They were easy to find as all you could see was a exotic sea of Chinese faces and black hair, many covered with white masks, and levelled at about my chest hieght. The only tall people were my waiting friends. After the greetings had been exchanged we took a taxi in the now sweltering heat, straight to the art quarter of Beijing - Factory 798.

Remember that although it was 1pm local time, for me it was 6 o’clock in the morning and I had hardly slept for the last two nights. After a change of clothes in a little art cafĂ© toilet into t-shirt and shorts - and two double espressos I felt decidedly better. Well enough to take in the enormity of the art district. A former factory area that had fallen into disrepair, the government had given the area over to encourage the arts. Artists were allowed to take up residence and the result is an incredible array of work, talent and creativity to equal or outshine most of what I have seen in museums in Europe. How on earth they survive financially I cannot work out.
I looked at exhibition space after exhibition space, but no one had any prices displayed. I had heard that when westerners asked the price of anything the sellers would at the very least double the normal price and quite often triple or even quadruple it. However, in this case, although the gallery owners were showing the work of an artist they were somehow taken aback when asked the price and had to root around papers to find any sort of a price list - if there was one available at all! A further double espresso pepped up my flagging spirit and we left to make our way back to our hostel, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square.
Traffic was hectic with cars ducking and diving in between bicycles and rickshaws. Peasants alongside the road at traffic lights begging for money and food were ignored by the constantly moving hordes. No one paid any attention to traffic lights let alone observing lane restrictions. Noise and glaring neon signs, even in daytime, blasted out their messages and sales pitches. Any recognisable letters in signage was restricted to the large multinational companies that we all use in the west. Everything else was a complete mystery. A culture so different from our own. In the hostel, a dimly lit three bed room was home for the next two days. I was tempted to lie down but knowing I would never make it back up that evening I resisted valiantly by having a hot shower and a cold beer.
Using the tube system, we made our way over to Ghost Street, renowned for authentic Chinese restaurants. Rows and rows of lanterns lit up the entire street amid more neon signs which presumably stated the name and speciality of each establishment. One of our friends had spent the last year studying Chinese in Beijing and guided us past all the obvious front of street places with their staff trying to tempt us in, and instead took us down a little dirty alley with out of the way cafes dotted along the passage. We had to hop over muddy puddles and detritus to reach our goal.
One of the front restaurants on Ghost Street had their kitchen door open onto this alleyway when we passed. The scene was one of mayhem and carnage. Chefs standing in horrific surroundings with woks and flames going full blast. Stained walls and dirty floors were a Gordon Ramsey nightmare. What finished it for me was the old man, who was squatting on the floor, disembowelling a chicken carcass and stripping every vestige of recognisable life from it. The amount of possible diseases from this kitchen was staggering! They could have had a separate menu for this alone - sweet and sour salmonella, deep fried typhoid, diphtheria and rice, yellow fevered noodles…. And this was a front of street restaurant! Thank Mao I had received all my inoculations before I left Spain. All free, thanks to the Spanish health system. We took a quick photo and understandably had the door kicked closed in our faces by the chicken man on the floor without even getting up.
Hopping further along the alley we finally came to our destination. A little local restaurant that specialised in skewered meat barbecue. Not clean at all in the conventional sense, it still had a certain charm. On the dark green walls were strips of coloured paper with Chinese symbols that perhaps signified prayers to the gods of the stomach bugs, to be gentle in the advance of the offerings about to be received. I made the mistake of visiting the only toilet in the place before the food was served to relieve myself of the earlier beer and found myself back in the kitchen of the front of street restaurant I had passed earlier. Not actually of course, but the carnage was more or less the same - minus the chicken gutter on the floor.
The expected squatting toilet was in evidence, and so was what the previous tenant has left. For those not aware of what a squatting toilet looks like, think of a small square-ish porcelain shower base flat on the ground, with an oval sink placed in the middle, either side of which are two indentations to encourage you to where to place your feet. Reverse carefully into the footplate, undo your trousers, skirt etc. and squat, trying to hold onto your wallet and mobile phone so they don’t fall into the business end along with everything else. It’s enough to give you severe constipation. Unfortunately the toilet brush appeared to harbour even more germs - and that was just on the handle! So I just aimed a little off centre to avoid the unwanted splash back.
Back in the restaurant I sat down to a fortifying beer as the wine was not to be recommended at all. By drinking bottled beer you could always tell that at least something was drinkable. Eventually the food came out and it was a delicious mix of skewers of spicy mutton, chicken wings with sweet sauces, barbecued meats and pickles and salads that were absolutely wonderful. I shudder to think what the kitchen looked like but at least everything came out well cooked and no ill-effects were felt the next day. A couple of more beers back in the hostel and I had to fall into bed after a virtually sleepless 72 hours and three flight schedule. A deep sleep ensued only occasionally broken by dreams of headless chickens trying to escape down alleyways being chased crablike by squat bald skinny Chinese men who couldn’t walk upright…..


Rob Innis said...

Hey TJ, Ni Hao, I think the beers and espressos take care of any bugs. Great adventure and great photos - looking forward to seeing more of the art district.

TWC said...

Love your descriptions of the food bugs and bug gods. Maureen needs to compare notes with you about the loo, too! Fascinating and with excellent photos too.

TWC said...

Great writing, TJ. Love your description - especially the food bugs and bug gods. Maureen will have to compare notes with you about the loos! Good photos help bring the writing alive. Fortunately, PCs don't permit smelly-telly yet...
Looking forward to the next day.