Tuesday, November 13, 2007

China - Days 1-2 - LAX to Beijing

After a rocky week prior to our departure, Jim, Jessica and myself found our group one member less and our home town devastated by wildfires and chaos. Unfortunately Jim's traveling buddy Able had to stay back and tend to his family and friends dealing with the fire, so our foursome was a threesome, but excited none the less. We flew out of LAX and left behind smoke and ash filled skies for an 11 hour flight across the International Date Line. Visions of awkward language barriers and Chinese prisons filled my dreams for the entire flight.

We landed at Beijing International airport early Saturday morning, before dawn.

Perhaps before I get too far into this, you should know some background as to how we arranged this trip for such a cheap price. One of Jim's co-workers found a Chinese Tour Agency as opposed to an American one working in China. Through that agency we had our own tour bus, tour guide, tour flag, tour button, tour itinerary, tour meals, tour hotels....basically we couldn't use the bathroom without some kind of tour group related permission or direction. I hate tour groups...actually I despise them, everything about them goes against my grain. I like finding my own path, spending as much time as I need and not having an itinerary. A guided tour group through China sounded as fun to me as a field trip to the DMV... Normally I would never embark on such a journey under such circumstances, however through this agency we were afforded more luxuries than I could ever manage on my own, and the total cost of the trip was probably 1/5 the cost with the group rate. We were also traveling with about 13 people in a group, 10 of which I didn't know... I figured all I had to do was out run 1 of those 10 people and I would escape the Chinese police and prolong my predestined stint in a Chinese Prison camp.

Alright, so we land in Beijing and meet our tour guide and piled into our bus and headed off to our hotel. Being the first day after such a long flight, we had the remainder of the day to settle in to our hotel and sleep off any jet lag. Our guided tour was to begin the next day. So we checked into our hotel at like 9 am, bid our tour guide and bus farewell and had nothing to do for the next 12 hours.

My formal education on China started about 10 hours prior on the flight to the wonderful communist country. I had decided I needed to learn 3 words/phrases in Chinese in order to survive on my own. They were: "hello" "beer" and "thank you"... Ni Hao, PeiCho and Xei Xei. I learned to pronounce them with such art and poise that my accent sounded as though I was raised in the southern Qin mountain regions...I was sure to blend right in. I practiced my newly acquired Chinese tongue on the English speaking Hotel Staff at the...I shit you not, Days Inn and Suites Beijing...we may have well been staying in a hotel in Fresno. The entire staff spoke better English than I, and were probably far more educated than I will ever hope to be. Any how, I managed to get a beer, and a smile within the first 10 minutes in the Hotel lobby...although I felt as though I were cheating because of the ease. To establish a precedent, I got a beer for Jessica's dad as well.

Beer in China is about 3-4% alcohol. In the states it's about 5-9% depending on the type...O'doul's non alcoholic beer is 1-2%. So needless to say, drinking beer in China is really the safest alternative to drinking water. Thus my justification for my copious consumption of the fermented beverage.

Jessica was eager to explore and sitting in our 5 star hotel for more than what we required for sleep was not an option. So we found a nearby flea market and thrust ourselves onto the Chinese economy and street scene with utter nieveity. This being our first experience with the 7.5 to 1 exchange rate and serious negotiation tactics...we failed miserably and paid far too much for what turned out to be cheap, Chinese, tourist crap. I walked out of the place with some kind of Communist poster with Mao on it, Jessica got a really cool painting for our apartment, and I think we got some trinkets and perhaps even Sars or Avian flu. We had a great time none the less.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped for dinner. We ditched our group which had the only Chinese speaking member of our entire party, and found a local restaurant. Eager to engage the non-english speaking residents, we headed into a food serving place with pictures of every dish framed in gold and mounted on the walls. Of course by "headed into" I mean we were yelled at from the streets by the restaurants owner and practically dragged into the establishment kicking and screaming. I guess we looked hungry, and or rich because that crazy lady knew we were an easy sell. Anyhow we sat down, I managed to order a couple beers, and by a crazy series of charades and pointing I got Jessica a Sprite. We were then handed a picture book menu of mysterious colored foods and dishes. Word to the wise, just because meat looks like chicken...there is NO guarantee that it actually is. We somehow managed to get a couple bowls of noodles, and by bowl I mean bottomless buckets, and a plate of what the waitress described as curry. Funny, she didn't know a lick of English, but when I asked for a curry dish, she repeated the word Curry with such excitement and accuracy that I had to agree and order it. We weren't all that hungry and practically had to walk out of the place to stop the owner from making us agree to more than the 3 plates we ordered. We pegged her as a crazy old bat who had owned that place for far too long and wanted to fatten us up so they could cook us up and serve us to the next stupid American tourists who happened to walk by her front door innocently. Only after receiving the bill however, did her motives come to fruition. We were by no means robbed on the amount of food we were served, we had enough food for 6 hungry people, enough beer for a frat house and about a liter of sprite. Nothing we saw in the menu resembled a price, so we really had no idea what to expect in terms of a total. They handed me the bill because I made the international symbol for bill by holding an imaginary pencil and writing on my open palm...which really makes no sense to me, but my 6 years of waiting tables perfected this technique and our bill was served. 60 yuan total. Long division completed and much head scratching later and we discovered that that was about 9 bucks American, for a full dinner for 3 people with drinks. We tipped far too generously and hugged the staff and waived good bye. "Can that even be true?!" we kept asking ourselves trying to figure out the bill on the way back. 9 bucks for 3 people? We figured it must have been some kind of dead rodent disguised as chicken and yesterday's noodles...but later realized it was true and that food there, away from the tourist traps, is very cheap and surprisingly good.

We ended our first day in the Hotel bar paying far too much for cheap drinks and telling stories of the battles won and lost negotiating at the flea market.

Days 1-2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Days 11-12 Day 13


1 comment:

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