Transsiberian, Day 16: Beijing, this just isn't working out...please let me leave?

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

We wake up in the train to the sound of gentle Chinese music drifting from the cabin speakers around 7am. The music switches from peaceful to jaunty, and as we start getting up, Calvin jokes that it’s soon going to switch to System of a Down's "Chop Suey."... “WAKE UP!”

We gather our things and while we’re in the room, Taylan asks if we will have time to get coffee this morning. Calvin responds, “Coffee? You’re in China! You have time to get Peking duck.”

We get off the train in Beijing and it’s a balmy 40*F (4*C), the warmest we’ve experienced so far. We have less than a day in Beijing, so we check our bags at the train station and go to the fast food restaurant next door called Kung Fu.

Calvin says he’ll treat us because he owes us for the crazy drunk night he had a few nights ago. We all happily accept and take a look at the menu. I go to the counter and point to the menu to order something, and the cashier just stares at me, not doing anything. I turn to Calvin. “Is he taking my order? He isn’t doing anything.” Calvin talks to the guy, who informs him that I was looking at the dinner menu. A simple “no” would’ve sufficed! Don’t just blankly stare at me.

I decide not to order anything and we all sit down to eat. Music plays in the speakers, occasionally punctuated by a voice in English saying, “Welcome my friends to Kung Fu!” Mihaela sits next to me and eats her breakfast combo, which is a pork bao and some sort of corn porridge. I ask her how the porridge is. “I thought it would be sweet. It doesn’t taste like anything…it’s like water with corn floating in it.” Delicious.

On the train earlier, our new Chinese friend informed us that the air pollution wasn’t so bad in Beijing because a cold front came in and swept a lot of it away. Regardless, we all out on our face masks to prevent ourselves from getting air pollution in our lungs. Whatever that guy said, you can still see a general fog throughout the city.

We walk around, and Calvin takes in our amusement. His family lives in Shanghai, so he mocks Beijing in general, but there are some habits of all of China that he is still amused by. He warns us of people staring, since it’s not meant to be rude, but rather it’s a cultural thing. People will stare. Get used to it.

Mopeds zip past us from all angles, on sidewalks, on the road, and on the designated bike paths. The intersections are just madness, with little rhyme or reason when it comes to directions or who passes first. At one point we are at a crosswalk and witness the traffic police put up a barricade for cyclists so they don’t just go into the intersection when it’s not their turn. Most of the cyclists have this blanket thing which I can best describe as a Snuggie with oven mitts at the end of the sleeves, that they wear while riding so as not to get cold. Everyone has them, and they come in cutesy patterns as well as solid colors.

Another cultural thing Calvin warns us of is crushing our water bottles before throwing them away. There are people who will take plastic bottles from the trash or recycling, fill it up with unclean tap water, and resell them to tourists. So you don’t get a future tourist sick, its best to just crush and twist the bottle before tossing it.

Our first stop is the Temple of Heaven Park. I loved this place. It’s a massive park with temples in the middle, but also lots of green space. At one temple, I’m required to show my passport to get my ticket for entry. Oh, China.

I don’t care much for the temples but I love the people-watching. There are groups and individuals practicing Tai Chi. There are opera singers. There is a woman giving another woman sword lessons. There are men playing instruments I’ve never seen before. There is a woman staring at a tree, not moving at all. There is a woman giving dance lessons to a group of elderly people. There are elderly people gambling with cards while sitting along one of the park’s structures.

We head off to Tiananmen Square, which is the first of our exposure to the excessive security checks of China (oh, this blog is so behind due to the great firewall of China for several days, by the way). To simply enter the square, you need to go through a metal detector and put your bag on an xray scanner. We then go into a building to drop off our bags, as the mausoleum doesn’t allow anything, including cameras.

We go to Mao’s Mausoleum, which is a very different portrayal of a glass-encased body compared to that of Lenin. This is all after an xray and metal detector, of course. Lenin’s mausoleum was dark and ominous, limed with soldiers at every turn. This one seemed bright and lively, with yellow flowers for purchase to bring inside, and only a couple guards standing before a large flower arrangement before you enter the room with the actual body, which is in a brightly lit room with lush greenery and a single soldier. Mao's body is draped with the Chinese flag.

Looking around at the pedestrians in Beijing and seeing all the pollution face masks in various colors and styles is insane. I can’t believe this is just a part of accepted daily life. Seeing it on children is the worst, like they wake up every morning and put on a mask right after their coat and backpack. I hope they figure out a better way of life soon, so these poor kids don’t continue thinking this should be the new normal.

We get our purses and bags back before moving on to the Forbidden City. This held less of my interest, but it was very large and you could easily spend a half day exploring all the various parks and buildings. Before entering, our group agreed to meet back by the ticket office at 2:30pm. However, upon exit, we learned that there is only one exit, and you can’t meet where we said we would meet. This poses as a problem because most of us don’t have any data or internet or any sort of method of communication.

Basically, David, Mihaela, Calvin, Taylan and I all exit together, and we go to the front of the building to see if JC and LaiYuen are waiting for us. They aren’t. David has to depart since today is his last day with the group, so he bids us farewell and asks us to pass the message along to our missing cohorts. Mihaela and Calvin decide to re-enter the Forbidden City to see if those two somehow managed to go to the meeting point. They disappear, and in the meantime, JC and LaiYuen appear. I’ve never seen LaiYuen so frustrated. She actually said “what the fuck.” The reason they’re so pissed, and why we were, too, is because to exit the Forbidden City, you exit from the east and have to walk at least a mile all the way around to the front again. It’s so tedious. So now we have everyone but Calvin and Mihaela, so I try to chase after them, but that requires me needing to re-enter the huge line/metal detector/xray security of Tiananmen Square again. It nears 3:30pm and finally the group is reunited.

Calvin correctly reads the general mood of the group and tells us he’s scrapping the afternoon itinerary, and we’re just going to lay low. He walked through the Forbidden City twice today and never wants to see the place ever again, no matter how many years pass until his next visit. We’re all starving. We walk to a street market near Oriental Plaza and this was the Chinese experience I was looking for. The market is bustling, with vendors offering up live scorpions on a stick, fried dumplings, cotton candy sculptures, nut candy, and trinkets all at low prices. JC gets scorpion, I get some amazing dumplings that I could eat for days, and I also get a heart-shaped cotton candy.

We all walk to the Quanjude Duck House, which is known for being the first place to serve Peking Duck. Calvin treats us all once again, apologizing for his drunken escapades the other night. I honestly didn’t think he was that bad, but if it gets me free food, then why stop him?

We order the duck and a couple more dishes, and when we ask the waiter for suggestions, he just tells us in Mandarin “duck.” Well, thanks. So we get duck in two forms, Peking and sweet pineapple, along with some beef. I try to order green beans and the waiter simply says “no.” Are you out? You don’t think it pairs well with duck? You hate me? Give me reason! This is the third time this has happened to me!

After a long, restful dinner, JC suggests a hookah bar. Calvin surprisingly shuts the idea down, because in his opinion, the Chinese can’t do hookah well. I joke that it’s probably like the train and you’re just sucking in the burning coal fumes through a water pipe.

We walk through Oriental Plaza, which is like a less-populated Times Square, lined with LED billboards on all sides, illuminating the pedestrian street at night.

We walk around a bit towards the train station and stop at a cafĂ© called Drunk. Calvin promises he won’t drink so much on the train this time, like he did on our way into China. I tell him he shouldn’t feel bad because we got at least four free meals paid from his guilt.

We eventually head off to the train station and get our bags. Time to bid farewell to Beijing and move on to Xi’an! LaiYuen leaves us at this point, so we bid her adieu. Now it’s time to find Shanika, who will join us for the remainder of the trip. Last she messaged Calvin was to inform him that she was on the north side of the train station, waiting for us. We were confused since the entire entrance and exit of the station faces north, so that’s very unhelpful. After shouting her name into the crowd and having JC and Calvin look for her to no avail, Calvin gives up and decides to enter the station.

...Only we find out that our tickets are for a different train station. It’s 8pm right now, and our train departs in forty minutes from the other side of the city. Shoot.

We run across the street and scramble into cabs, with Calvin and Mihaela in one, JC and Taylan and me in the other. Of course, our cab driver throws a fit about us keeping our luggage in the seats beside us. So we three all get out of the car, fill the trunk, get back in and we’re off. I mutter a few choice curse words to the driver.

On the way JC uses Google maps to see the distance…it’s a 25 minute ride. As we are nearing the station with three minutes to spare, the time jumps up to eight minutes remaining. Grr.

We arrive at the station to a massive traffic jam and throw money at the driver before running to the entrance. We go through security to enter the building, then again to enter the ticket area, and run up the stairs to the train platform. We get there at 8:36pm and the train is closed. We try to bargain with the staff but they persist. We had FOUR minutes left!

We go down to the ticket window on the first floor to see if there’s a later train to Xi’an, but there isn’t. We sit and think and check the messages on JC’s phone, which last said Mihaela/Shanika/Calvin were on the train. We assume they left without us. We think okay, we’ll need a hostel and to books some flights… and ding, Calvin messages us: they didn’t stay on the train. Huzzah! We meet up with them back near the platform, which requires a security and xray check again. This is beginning to drive me insane, as we’ve done security at least four times since we arrived at this train station already.

We learn that Calvin, Shanika, and Mihaela all were on the train, but when they realized we weren’t going to make it, they jumped off. Calvin ditched the grocery bag of food on the train, calling it dead weight. My juice! My peanut butter! My bread! My organic pears!!!

We attempt to get refunds with no luck, and then Calvin books us all rooms at the hostel that Shanika stayed her past few nights in Beijing. “Was it a good hostel?” Calvin asked. “Because that’s where we’re staying tonight.”

We take the metro from the train station (more security! This time without walking through a metal detector, oddly) to the hostel. In one of the tunnels, there is an LED advertisement that animates as we whip by, almost like a flip book. Calvin apologizes for not realizing that our train was at another station. It’s hilarious to see how frustrated he is to have to stay in Beijing for 12 more hours.

We arrive at Chinese Box hostel and settle in. Taylan and I get the private room with our own private shower and a massive bed that could fit six people. The comforter is only a queen, though, covering about 1/2 of the bed. They have postcards here at the hostel for free, so I am excited at the prospect of writing ones from Beijing!

Calvin immediately sits in the lobby, plugs in, and gets working on booking our flights tomorrow. Some other smartass guest at the hostel sees Calvin and the dude clearly talked to someone in our group when he says “You guys look like you just missed a train! You look like you’re booking flights!” OH DUDE YOU ARE SO FUNNY.

He then starts talking to Calvin, who is in serious emergency booking mode, trying to make small talk and suggesting a ton of random websites for flights. Calvin tells us later that the dude wasted his time and he missed out on one of the flight options because it booked up while he was looking at those other dumb sites. Calvin nearly reaches his tipping point when he is trying to talk to the hostel staff about booking cabs in the morning while the dude asks Calvin for Mandarin vocab regarding rock climbing, since he’s going on a hike in a few days. GO AWAY, DUDE.

Another hostel staff who is Asian but based on her accent is clearly from Australia, talks to another guest and the dude overhears and says “Wow, that girl speaks English so well.” Der...she is from Australia you moron.

We still have my unopened bottle of Mongolian vodka, but no one is really in the mood for drinking. I realize that since we’re heading on a flight tomorrow, we’ll have to ditch the bottle. Thank goodness I didn’t splurge on the Genghis Khan vodka. Michaela looks on the bright side…we can now SHOWER!

120 hours of no showering turns to zero again! We can finally wash off the sweat, horse hair, yurt smoke and train stink off of us from nearly five days of accumulation. We shower and write postcards, and we’re off to sleep for an early flight to Xi’an tomorrow.