Note: By the time we reached Beijing, both A and I were beginning to feel the full effects of 48+ highly stressful hours broken by a total of only 2-3 hours of sleep, so my memories of July 10-11 are a bit blurry. If I get the next sequence of events wrong, please just write it off as a case of temporary insanity due to advanced exhaustion.
Both A & I tried to get good pictures of our first toll booth but the motion of the van, the rain, and our sleep-deprived nervous systems kind of got in the way. (I said "our first" because the Chinese seem to love the things... with many decorated and/or designed to evoke some specific aspect of their locale). As the bus rolled along the highway, our guide Linda told us a little about Beijing and answered questions from everyone in the group. It didn't take long for me to realize that Beijing isn't a compact city like DC, and doesn't even have a specific "downtown" area like New York or Chicago. It kind of just sprawls over a huge area a bit like L.A., only on a scale that surpasses "huge" and moves into vocabulary all its own. As we rolled along one major highway after another -- all inside the city -- the scale of the place became mind-boggling. Every couple of minutes we'd pass over another broad boulevard lined with big apartment buildings marching off into the distance. (Maybe the rain & haze created the illusion of endless rows of buildings lining endless roads, but this place is still just plain BIG.) We weren't in Kansas any more... it was like we'd landed in a version of Brobdingnag populated by Lilliputians!
Another thing that struck me very quickly was that we were seeing a very modern city, and that there had obviously been some attention paid to avoiding the kind of concrete slab architecture often associated with Soviet-style communism. (Interestingly, the architecture was also almost exclusively what I'd call Western, with very few touches of what I'd call a "Chinese" look.) This was a city with a personality all its own... right down to the roses planted in the medians of many major roads. I'm not sure if that was done as part of the improvements for the '08 Olympics or was just how they did things 'round those parts, but the roses lent a nice touch of non-artificial color where back home I'd expect a Jersey barrier. My appreciation for the roses grew as I spent more and more time looking at them... The traffic wasn't "heavy," the traffic wasn't "bad," the traffic was... Well, let's just say there ain't nuthin' movin' in that picture to the left. (Our "one hour" trip from airport to hotel was becoming reminiscent of that "three hour tour" from Gilligan's Island.) Our unimpeded progress down the airport access road had become a slow roll with only intermittent short stretches of semi-speed that quickly returned to glacial motion. So much for all those National Geographic photographs of Beijing streets full of thousands of uniformed bicyclists... They've gone as car-crazy as the USA did in the 1950s, and with a vengeance! (More on traffic in China in later posts...)
Can you say, "omen"...?
Not too much later, Linda announced that we'd (finally!) arrived. First she pointed out one side of the bus at a rather scary-looking market and said there were both a good Peking Duck restaurant and a supermarket inside, so if anyone wanted to sample the famous dish or pick up some provisions all we had to do is cross the street. Then she pointed out the other side of the bus and said, "there's your hotel!" I turned and saw... Oh, no.
Plastic netting over construction debris. Dirty hanging tarpulins. Chunks of broken-up concrete and asphalt.
Hanging down over it all was a huge banner touting all the great improvements the hotel was going to be offering once the renovation was complete. I'd checked it out online before the trip and thought the lobby looked pretty good -- but now I was looking at the bare back wall of that lobby open to the street, because the rest of the building's front was gone! (There aren't any photos because I was too shocked to use my camera!) Our bus rolled right into the construction zone, squeezed through a gate and rumbled around to the back door.
We wobbled off the bus as our baggage was hauled in. The very nattily uniformed young women (and one slightly older woman, obviously Madame Boss) started checking names and getting room keys ready while Linda explained how important it was that we keep our passports available. Then Madame Boss took said passports into a back room & did something mysterious for several minutes before returning. A was busy checking us in and I was nervously watching our baggage disappear around a corner without us when I suddenly remembered I was supposed to be picking up a rental phone. (Our cell phones wouldn't work with the Chinese system, and in any case international roaming fees would've driven our bill into the stratosphere with a single call. Several companies rent phones that work as "local" phones in China; a week earlier I'd contracted with PandaPhone, one of the better-known such companies, to deliver a phone to this hotel that I would then leave for them to pick up at our last stop in Guangzhou.)
The denouement: I ask Young Lady #1 behind the desk if PandaPhone delivered anything for me. Young Lady #1 immediately turns and asks Young Lady #2 to help me because her English is better. I tell Young Lady #2 what I'm looking for and ask if the phone was dropped off as scheduled. Young Lady #2 turns to Young Lady #3 at the end of the counter and fires off something in high-speed Mandarin. I turn to repeat my story to Young Lady #3 but she immediately calls something out to Young Guy #1 at the concierge stand a couple of feet behind me. I spin around and Young Guy #1 asks me about the phone in broken English. I repeat my story to Young Guy #1 and he turns to Young Guy #2 standing next to him and fires off more Mandarin. Young Guy #1 checks a list. Young Guy #2 checks another list. There is much shaking of heads and comparing of lists before Young Guy #1 calls out something to Young Lady #3, who is now behind me. I turn back around and she tells me no, it hasn't been delivered yet, but because traffic is bad (understatement!) I should check back later.
Now dizzy as well as tired, I followed our group down the hall and boarded an elevator that soon opened onto a hallway tastefully decorated with replicas of historic Chinese sculpture & art at every turn. Despite the mess out front, this was obviously a high-class place and I began to wonder if they'd accept us in the dining room with our decidedly non-formal rumpled travel clothes. (I think A said something like, "They'd better" -- she's dangerous when hungry.) We found our room and had just decided we'd stayed in plenty worse places when Young Guy #3 showed up at the door with our bags. I turned on the desk lamp and realized the phone had a video screen... that was playing a commercial... a sexy commercial... a sexy commercial for extremely high-end jewelry costing more than my annual salary... Waitaminit, isn't this a Communist country...?!? (The phone would do this every time the lights were turned on, then be quiet & act like a normal phone.) We got settled in a bit, I deciphered the "Chinglish" instructions for Internet use, and we made our first Skype call home to tell the folks we're still in one piece. Exhausted, dirty, a tad smelly, slightly confused, feeling kind of lost... but we're actually in China(!) and are both in one piece.
We quickly decided we were too tired to deal with crossing the busy street & trying our luck in the local market, which left us only the in-house (high class?) option. The heck with it; they don't like how we're dressed, they'll tell us, right? On the way to the elevator I took a closer look at a particularly nice reproduction of a bronze horse sculpture at the end of our hallway, and discovered that someone had been using it as an ashtray. (Urgh... people smoke everywhere here, don't they?) We exchanged some money at the desk (more checking of passports, and a near-microscopic examination of Every. Single. Bill. before getting a nice wad of Yuan in return), and still no cell phone. We were then directed to take the elevator up to 2 for the dining room.
From the elevator, we entered a longish hallway lined on one side with young women wearing silk uniforms very much like classic Chinese courtiers' robes, each of whom in turn smilingly nodded & motioned toward the dining room entrance. Both my anxiety level & amusement increased with each nod; What are we getting ourselves into... and just what level of VIPs do they think we are? The dining room immediately eased my fears about attire and added to my "what are we getting ourselves into" worries: the real restaurant was in the demolition zone, this was just a big conference room with tables scattered around and a bunch of long covered tables down the middle that were obviously for use as a buffet (but which had only decorations on them). About 2/3 of the tables were empty... and one long side wall was just hanging tarpulins, with a bunch of tables set up as a temporary office; the construction zone was separated from the dining room by just the 1/16" thickness of the tarps. (Never mind a tux -- where's my hardhat when I need it?)
We opened our menus... surprise, no English! -- and there it is, a two-page insert in the middle packed with beautiful color photos of different sea cucumber dishes. For those who don't know, Sea Cucumbers aren't vegetables; they're extremely primitive, slimy, mucusy, gooey, ugly, bottom-dwelling filter-feeding creatures whose primary defense when grabbed by a predator is to barf their entire stomach (not just its contents; their actual stomach) out their toothless, lipless mouth. And these dishes were the only easily recognized items in the entire menu.
Never mind the protective equipment; I began to worry about starvation.
After a few increasingly nervous moments, a waitress realized we were in trouble and, despite a knowledge of English equal to my knowledge of Mandarin, managed to steer us to a couple of tasty-looking (non-disgusting) dishes. We ordered soft drinks and after a few minutes of trying to not "pull a Conan" were faced with our first mandatory use of chopsticks. Normally, this wouldn't have been a big deal; we'd both used chopsticks many times in the past (although I had more practice). Unfortunately, it took no time at all to prove that practice does not make perfect when one is too tired to actually grip one's chopsticks, much less use them to convey food from plate to mouth. I eventually got into a groove, but poor A kept dropping most of her food on the table. A quick glance off to one side confirmed that we were not only being watched (we were the only Westerners in the place); several waitresses were also trying -- with minimal success -- to not laugh outright at our inability to feed ourselves.
[Pulling a Conan: In the film Conan the Barbarian, there is a scene in which the character falls asleep at a meal, falls face-first into his soup & blows bubbles as he snores. Yes, we both saw that movie. Stop laughing.]
The kicker was a mushroom dish our waitress had suggested. First of all, A almost never eats spicy food, and this otherwise very tasty dish (the name of which is lost to us) started off smooth but had a kick by the time it reached the back of our tongues. Second, those little buggers are slippery -- I was kinda-sorta managing, but I think A actually "squirted" mushroom slices from her chopsticks in every direction except toward her mouth. By this time we were both so punch-drunk with exahaustion that we began laughing out loud at each other... and suddenly one of the waitresses materialized beside A and very quietly, with a big smile, put a fork down beside her plate. Hooray! Saved from starvation (and further embarrassment)!
When we finally finished, we faced a new dilemma: no one had told us anything about tipping in hotels & restaurants. We decided it would be better to err on the side of cautious generosity, dropped a roughly 20% tip on the table and beat a hasty retreat for the elevators. Halfway down the hall, there was a commotion behind us and a waitress came running out of the dining room, waving the tip money. Her English was even worse than my Mandarin, so after communicating "stay here" she zoomed back into the dining room and another waitress with some (minimal) knowledge of English came zooming out. It turned out they thought we'd accidentally dropped the money, so we tried to explain how tipping worked back home and that we'd left the money as extra thanks for their excellent service. Apparently horrified, the young woman said, "the hotel pays us enough, it is an honor to serve you!" After we apologized (and were repeatedly forgiven) and took the money back, the young woman asked if she could accompany us the rest of the way to the elevator so she could practice her English a little longer. We were glad for the company, but to this day I'm pretty sure she was just trying to stop us from making a bigger spectacle of ourselves!
While A used the bathroom to get ready for bed I uploaded photos from my camera onto my laptop for the first of many times... then inadvertently added one more act to the evening's comedy review. I had forgotten that in China, the quality of a hotel is often measured by the firmness of its beds: the better the quality, the harder the beds. Looking forward to finally laying my aching bones down for a few hours of real sleep, I jumped into the bed... and realized we were in a very good hotel. Later in the trip I referred to our beds as fine examples of the stonecutter's art, but on this first night in China I simply rubbed the sore spots 'til they stopped hurting and then laid back down... slowly & carefully... and fell asleep while wondering what we'd adventures the next day held for us.