Gear Change Up

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The evils of reading...

She leaned against the door in her room, closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Twelve more days in Beijing. Each day was and endless array of walking around, trying to answer questions that probably had no answer. This frusterated her. She walked into her room. Making it back to the dorm each afternoon was always such a relief. No more walking the streets. Not at least until tomorrow. Beijing was a fascinating city, but it's biggest gift was a true appreciation of peace and quiet. Another day done be it good or bad.

She switched on CCTV International, only to find a documentary about ancient tea being told by a fat white guy. He could use an all tea diet. She pressed the buttons on the remote and the screen changed to the sports channel which was showing some sort of international table tennis. competition. Table tennis was going to remain another unanswered question about China. Didn't they realize it was ping-pong? She sighed and pressed the remote again. The screen went blank. She laid back on her bed and closed her eyes. Maybe a quick nap before spinning. She closed her eyes and decided that narrating her life in the second person was a really really annoying habit and that she really needed to get out of China before she read too many more Tom Clancy books.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

"On the Black Rock..."

Contrary to popular belief, one becomes a government major at Hamilton College not because it is one of the easiest majors avaliable. That is simply a perk. Government majors are the kind of people that you should be really nice to and give lots of pats on the head, because bless their souls, these are the people that actually theoretically want to get involved in politics. When it comes down to it, endless ideas inspire change, but those changes only occur through politics. This is why you need to give the government major a lot of pats on the head. They are either naiive enough, brilliant enough, or driven enough to believe that they in fact do have the power to change the world.

China, however, leaves the government major with a helplessness. The government major stands on the bridge on Jintai Lu just south of the Soho building. The government major looks west and sees skyscrapper after skyscrapper, with a few cranes thrown in there just to make the point that there will be more skyscrappers. The government major looks east and sees the hutongs, and the men fishing on the river (Beijing, by the way, is so flat you cannot tell which direction the river is supposed to flow), and the people bicycling home with friut tied down to their baskets. The government major looks north to see the Soho building with it's Dairy Queen (Yes, Virginia, there is a Dairy Queen, globalization may be evil but at least we are giving the gift of soft serve. How can that be wrong?) and clean, modern, and very expensive chinese restaurants. The government major looks south to the market where meat hangs from stalls, kids and dogs run free, and an entire meal and outfit can be bought for about $4 U.S.

So in answer to your question, Yes. China is becoming a modern society, and it is doing so very quickly. But not all of China. There are displays of extreme wealth next to extreme poverty. The government major looks at the conditions of the masses and says, "Now this, this has got to go." So many forces are responsible for the new found wealth in China, but at the same time so many people are being left behind.

The great endless debate in American society is whether we are God's gift to the world, or whether we are screwing it up for everyone else. So far it's kind of a coin-toss. It makes you feel like you need to look around think to yourself, "Self, how is all this entirely my fault?" And then, "Let's fix it! Whoo!"

But there is something about China. In the sense that, It's China. What exactly did you want me to do? Never have I been anywhere where I felt that power is definitely not in my hands. China is now a very capitalist, rather open society, but there is still that totalitarian government. It's in the background of everything, from me going to buy a DVD to me trying to talk to somebody. I walk around with absolutely no fear because I hear assaulting a tourist is punishable by death. The government is still the center. And it's moving China forward, but dropping the ball at the same time.

Look back to the east to the hutongs. Clock is ticking on them. Those cranes are getting close, and those houses will be eradicated to build more skyscrappers. Those people are going to have to move outside the city. China is like one big team, and they must be team players and get out of the way of progress. Nor should they get hurt in the process of moving because there is no medicare in China. I asked a Chinese student what happens to people who get hurt that don't have medical insurance. She said they become Buddist. Which is a funny answer until you realize it's sad. The team let them down on that one. But it can't be changed. At least not by me. China is just too big and too sketchy and too many people and I can't read much less navigate how to even start to turn this thing around.

The Chinese are very polite, and I have a feeling that if I went up to President Hu Jintao and said in my broken Chinese, "You need to end poverty." He would respond with, "Who the hell are you?" and I would simply keep saying, "Wo bu ming bai (I don't understand)," followed by, "You need to end poverty." Eventually he probably would end poverty just to get this foreigner on her way.

I'm not going to try that though. China has given me only more questions than answers, and I am not here to answer them. Don't know if I could even if I tried.

I am but a humble cyclist. The government major is really going to have to save ending poverty in China for another trip.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

It must have been a 5 star 7-11. There is no other explanation.

I made the mistake of going into 7-11 during lunchtime.

Now I know what you're thinking. You are thinking to yourself, "Self, going into 7-11 is never a mistake." True. 7-11 is a fabulous place with its endless array of tasty snacks, chilled drinks, newspapers, and slurpees. And while there are no slurpees in a Chinese 7-11 (no ice being a big factor), 7-11 is a true testament to globalization at its best.

But going into a Beijing 7-11 at anytime between 12 and 1300 hours is hazardous to your health. It is not recommended if you have high blood pressure, claustrophobia, if you are or may become pregnent (not advised while in 7-11), or if you desire to maintain sanity in general.

Today I was doing research in Guomao, the World Trade Center district. After some productive research where I rode around finding the areas where security guards would chase me around to kick me off my bike, I decided to take what in China translates into a "Coca-Cola Light break." I strolled over to the 7-11 and opened the door to find about 60 people crammed into the corner where the fast food is sold, and another 20 waiting in line to purchase their food.

7-11 was the most popular lunch spot in all of the World Trade Center.


I was stunned. Sure, at home 7-11 also sells fast food. But that hot dog is there so that you can make bets with your friends on just how long it's been rotating on the heater ($20, June 1973). You know better than to eat that. And remember when they started trying to sell other kinds off food in the shape of a hot dog?

And with endless awesome and ridiculously cheap places to eat in Beijing, why in God's name would you eat at 7-11? Being taller than everyone present, I managed to catch a glimpse of the food. It looked like normal Chinese food. Not particularly bad but not particularly awesome. Granted this stuff looked edible, but I don't get the draw. And it wasn't a bargain either. The price range was 15-22 kuai, or about 2-3 dollars for a full meal. Cheap by our standards, but being here for almost 6 weeks now I'm pretty used to 22 kuai being breakfast, lunch and dinner.

In China you can't let things like people in your way deter you. So, I was...not deterred. After 6 weeks in China I am very comfortable with nudging, pushing, and out right throwing people over my shoulder in order to get where I am going. I squeezed over to the drink case and grabbed my 18.6 oz Coca-Cola Light, and turned to make my way to the line through the mass of humanity. Using my backpack and my core strength, I rotated my body back and forth to knock back anyone that tried to push ahead of me in line. After successfully defending my space I finally make it to the front counter, paid for my Coca-Cola Light, and made a run for it. I made it outsite without major injury and turned around. I cradeled my Coca-Cola Light with two hands as I stared back at 7-11 in dismay.

It's 7-11. What is the big damn deal?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Great Compromise

If the Chinese are going to spit everywhere, I am going to blow snot rockets. Try and stop me.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

"Just because that samurai sword would fit in the overhead compartment...

...doesn't mean they'll let you take it on the plane. So don't buy that. Or that helm over there either."

Those and other throughts went through my head as I spent most of today at Panjiyuan antique flea market. It makes me wish I wasn't traveling after this, and that I had my own plane to take home everything I wanted to buy. I tell you, in the event that I ever actual place to live...I know where I am coming for all my stuff. China. Ole. As it stands I need to get a second bag. Which will be easy as hell. And here is why:

The laws of supply and demand say that when things are in excess supply the price will always be lowered. This is why things are so cheap in China, because China has an excess of two things: People and stuff. There is more stuff here than can be imagined, and they are trying to sell all of it. Which is ok because when they run out they'll just get more stuff. Row after row of vendors, peddlers in the courtyard, and then it turns out there's a whole second level and also an entire alley of 6 ft. tall terracotta warriors. If anyone wants one.

This is why I cannot get any work done here. I need to sit and write things and plan things and everything that I actually have to do at this point would take no more than three days but there is so much to see, whether I'm jumping on buses or just going for a walk to the market near CUEB. Row after row, vendor after vendor. You think you're going into a tiny store, and it ends up taking the entire day. I don't get tired of it though.

On the whole I find China exhausting, but never never boring. This is a good thing.

And I now own enough scrolls to open up my own Chinese restaurant which will always have english menus.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Stronger than yesterday

On the one hand, it's nice to know that while I haven't been on the bike in a month and 2 days, I am obviously getting enough time in the saddle. And I'm gaining strength, I definitely feel it. On the other hand, it's like, "man, fucking saddle sore."

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

It's quite a wall.

The Chairman himself once said that anyone wishing to be a hero must first climb the wall. So, check that one off my "Hero: To Do" list.

The day started with an alarm at 5 AM, because like any self-respecting member of the hyper-intensive clan we call "Chase" I of course had first person on the wall. After a quick breakfast of oatmeal and a banana, me and fuzi (not "fuzzy") hit the the dark streets of Beijing and discovered the only time that it actually is pleasant to ride in the city. The streets were quiet up until I reached the Dongzhimen long distance bus station, which was a flurry of activity. I jumped on the 916 bus bound for Houriou, and proceeded to pray for 2 hours that I got on the right bus.

I arrived at Houriou and was greeted by a man in a bright yellow mini-mini-van who was really enthusiastic about taking me to Huanghuacheng for 120 kuai. I was not in a mood to negotiate (note to travelers: everything in China is up for bargaining. Everything. It's fun, but sometimes I wonder why everything must be such a discussion around here) so when he said he would come back i jumped on that ship. He took me the last 45 minutes to Huanghuacheng. After I gave him the first 60 kuai, we had a little bit of a discussion about when he was coming back to pick me up. He was convinced he was coming back in two hours, when indeed I was telling him he was coming back at 2:00 (5 hours). He finally agreed, although he wasn't all that enthusiastic with the plan. But I went off, and he drove off, and I was pretty sure I wasn't going to see him again.

See, when going to the Great Wall from Beijing, you have several choices for where you want to go. There are many restored sections of the wall open to tourists. They have easy bus access, museums, climbing trains, and guard rails, and the stairs don't crumble beneath your feet. Huanghuacheng is not this kind of place. You have to go with the locals, and find your own way to the wall. And once you get there you are in rural China in the we're-not-kidding-around-friends kind of sense. So of course while I could have easily gone to places in the wall easier (and safer (although nowhere in China is really unsafe (yay totalitarianism))), as a self-respecting member of the hyper-intensive clan "B-rit," that was never an option. Why? I found I was asking myself that a lot. But for some reason it's not enough to go to China by myself, to hit the wall by myself, I must do the most difficult section I can access. And there is no other way to do it.

So there.

Now Huanghuacheng. It is the unrestored section of the wall. No climbing trains, no guardrails, and definitely no other people. Especially on a Wednesday in November. This is the Great Wall of the past transported into the present, and there is no way to describe the feeling of standing on the Great Wall after a year of creating this project, getting the fellowship, and freaking out about how exactly I was going to get this done. But lo, there I was, standing on the edge of the world, China to my left, and what would have been Mongolia, to the right.

And let me tell you, if I was the Mongols and I was all ready to rape pillaige and plunder, and then I ran into that thing, I'd be pissed! It's huge. And very sturdy. I hiked on the wall for about 2 and a half hours, and let me tell you, those that built the wall were not big on switchbacks. They go up and down the mountains. Straight up and down. At many points you're at a good 70 degree angle. Sweet. At the tops of the mountains they have the ruins of the guard towers which you can climb and look out at the scene. The wall stretches on forever. I could have kept going for days, but I had to go tempt fate with a mini-mini-van driver.

Or did I?

To get back to the road, I chose a local path to hike on that paralleled the wall. The path understood switchbacks so it was a lot easier getting back. It led down into a tiny village, where I stumbled upon an old man chopping wood, a rooster (which for the record I avoided), a donkey, and an open kitchen with a table outside where 12 retired australians were having lunch. They asked me if I wanted a beer.

Any path where there are 12 aussies at the end of it offering you beer is the greatest hiking trail ever created. In case anyone ever asks you where the "Great" in "Great Wall" comes from.

They sat me down and bought me lunch. They're touring China for two months with their swiss guide who does all sorts of China tours for international tourists if anyone is interested. I have his card. They were in Beijing for the next few days seeing the sights, and offered me a ride back. Word. We said our goodbye's at a subway station, they went back to shop, and I made it back to the bus station, picked up Fuzi (not "fuzzy"), and sent me on my way.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Guy Fawkes Day

Always remember the 5th of November with gunpowder, treason, and plot...

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Zhonguo Ren

Beijing is a city that takes a lot of energy. And the Chinese are an intense people that require a lot of energy. Put those together and there are just some days that require more energy than I want to put forth. I constantly feel like a foreigner here. So I feel that every situation requires understanding and politeness on my end, lest I get beat up. I am big here, and I think I could take 5-6 Chinese at once. But not 1.2 billion, so I do my best not to offend. And that takes a lot of energy too.

However, as a...well...stranger in a strange land, there are days that I want to pull Fuzi (my bike (not "fuzzy")) up in the middle of the street and be like, "Yo, you all really have a long way to go for first world status." You can tell China is a biking culture no matter how much they've adapted the car because everyone operates under the assumption that when going from point A to point B they can do whatever they please. But as always, I am here to help. China, here are some things to work on...

1. Forming lines. And sticking to them
1a. Not pushing. Especially on and off buses and subways. Next person to push is going to be snapped like a twig. Again, I am bigger than all of you.
2. Pollution. Your city is it's own 2 pack-a-day habit.
3. Obeying traffic laws. I feel like if we all do it life will be good, but since no one does it, it's not just congestion, it's traffic darwinism.
3a. Go the right way down one way streets.
4. Pollution. You people are the oldest civilization on the planet. If you're so good at everything why do you suck so badly at fixing this problem?
5. Quit crowding, otherwise you are all going to kill eachother and that will end the debate on China rising as a power. True, I don't see all 1.2 billion of you making it to modern times, but try to work as a team.
6. There is no need to yell into the cellphone.
7. Milk. It's what everyone is drinking except you.That will be a good start.
8. Pollution again. How did you get the olympics anyway? Did members of the IOC come here? Did they inhale? And what exactly were they smoking? Screw the secret police and the human rights issues, it should have come down to a breathing issue. A little perspective for my team: In the U.S, if your city violates the ozone level laws, you hear about it on the news. The level that you violate is the Catagory I level. It's kind of a big deal because it's rather unhealthy to violate the ozone level. Now ahead of Catagory I we have Catagory II and III (significant increases). And then there is Beijing, which literally cannot be ranked, all that is known is that it is above and beyond Catagory III 119 days a year. It bugs me, man. You all have such a beautiful city. It would theoretically be so nice to ride around. Cyclists' heaven. But you can't see across the street.

Something to work on.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

B.Y.O.T.P. And other adventures in Chinese public bathrooms

Being a woman, there will inevitably be a line. And the Chinese know how to "make" a line, they just don't know how to "stay" in line. No fear, no mercy. They are not afraid to cut you, especially the 4'6" women in their eighties. So don't be afraid to bite. Once obtaining a stall (preferably my own (with doors (and walls))), I look down to see that it's not a western toilet. I don't panic. Chinese use squatting toilets. The user must assume the position that the name implies. And yes, for an inflexible cyclist with a bad knee, this is not easy. So I take a deep breath (but not too deep), remember what Bela Karolyi said ("Yew kan dew eet"), and focus. Upon finishing, I discover that the Chinese are not big on toilet paper. This is not a problem because I have learned to bring my own. And not to be afraid to use it. I have also learned to traverse the city slightly dehydrated to keep experiences such as listed above to a minimum. Sure, on the one hand, this is how normal chinese live. I think to myself, "Self, don't you want the cultural experience?" To which Self responds, "Must you have every cultural experience?"