Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Day 1. The trip (July 26 AND July 27)

I met Luke at 4 am, ready for the trip. He had slept something like a couple of hours, a mixture of excitement and packing and repacking. His backpack is enormous! Chico and Sandy drove us to Sacramento airport, where we waited about four hours for the first leg of our trip, to Seattle. We got there without any problems, but again had to wait for another four hours before we could board the Hainan Airlines flight to Beijing.

The flight was long (11 hours) but uneventful. We were flying west, so of course we crossed the international dateline and stepped into the following day. The gentleman to my left was a Beijing lawyer, and gave me some pointers on how to get from the airport to downtown Beijing, using the airport shuttle. I of course slept like a log for most of the trip, but Luke was barely able to sleep, even though he had deprived himself of sleep the previous night.

Once at the Beijing airport we went through immigration with no problem, exchanged dollars into RMB (or yuan) at about 6.7 RMB per 1 dollar, picked up our backpacks, went through customs, and stepped into China. Luke decided that his backpack was too heavy, so we will have to do something about that when we get to Klaus. We duly asked about the shuttle, and were directed to the right bus without much trouble.

The shuttle brought us to downtown and for the first time I got that tingling through the spine that told me I was in a giant city where I could not understand a thing. Downtown Beijing has enormous buildings, many freeways, a fair amount of cars, and a goodly number of people. Ah, but if you look carefully there is the odd sign in English. I knew we had to get off in the third stop, and it was with some relief that I noticed Guandou bridge in one of the signs, since that was a landmark in my map. So we alighted from the bus, and in my best Mandarin I asked the directions for the next bridge. The young woman looked at me with some puzzlement, and then answered in very passable English that, yes, the direction I was pointing was correct, but why not use the metro? We were one station away from our destination, and Luke was still muttering about the weight of his backpack, so a metro ride was a solution sent from heaven.

We walked into the station and headed for the machines, where another very nice woman explained to us the way to get tickets, stood by patiently while our backpacks went through the x-ray machine (all hand bags, packages, and backpacks go through this), and practically walked us to our platform. One short ride and we were there. All we had to do now was find the apartment building, a block and a half away. So we walked, and Luke complained of the beginning stages of scoliosis, and I ignored him while I tried to ask for directions in Mandarin. Alas, the Chinese, like the rest of the people in the world, are not satisfied with a simple “yes” or “no”, but need to give me a whole, long, unintelligible explanation of why they cannot simply point me in the right direction.

Then I spotted a public phone, and thought about calling Klaus and Yin Ru. Ah, but to use the phone you need a phone card, and my attempts to buy one were fruitless. For example, a young woman looked at my charades in wonder, and asked me why didn’t I simply use my cell phone? Later I learned from Yin Ru that there must be only 100 public phones in all of Beijing, that she had never seen one being used, and that she had no idea where one would buy a phone card. OK, forget the idea of the phone, and get back to asking for directions.

Well, finally we got half the way there, and then I spotted in the distance a blond head. “Klaus, amigo!” Yes, it was Klaus and Yin Ru, who had had the good sense of coming down to the street, to try to spot our taxi cab (most sensible people would have taken a cab from the airport, wouldn’t they?) Big smiles and hugs followed, and our good friends showed us into their building and apartment (it turns out that Luke had guessed the right apartment building from the distance!).

After a delicious bath we went out to dinner, at a typical eatery. Yin Ru did all the ordering, in rapid fire Mandarin, and we ended with a small mountain of skewers with pork, some type of stir-fried turnips, calabacitas, stringy pseudo-bambus, and 1000-year-old egg. Luke by this time was eating by instruments, since he was dead tired. So we finished our yummy food and learned: always triple check the total, the pork skewers need to be paid separately to the guy that barbecued them outside the restaurant, and nobody has change for a 100 RMB bill! The latter is an important discovery, because all our fortune is in RMB’s.

We got home and Luke promptly crashed. It is very hot and muggy, but mercifully our room has air conditioning, so we will get a good night rest.

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