Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Beijing Is Full of Art Students

Xi'an to Chengdu Train

We arrived in China on Sunday the 24th around 14:30. The transfer to Tianjin trian station was notable for: 1) the comically crappy quality of the bus; 2) a shocking introduction to Chinese traffic conventions; and 3) almost getting ripped off by a driver who >said< we were going to Beijing. Thanks Wee Wee.

The Tianjin to Beijing Express was packed, so we had to stand for 2 hours. Some folks made extra room for my fat lowen (honkey) ass and our fat lowen (cracker) bags. We struck up a conversation with a number of locals. Chinese people that speak English are very keen to practice their skills. The most avid conversationalist went out of his way to help us find a nice hotel near Beijing Station at a good price. Thanks Andrew.

We were having some camera issues (see 'Equipment Failure' article for the details), so we headed down to the photographic heart of Beijing (Xidan) to get our fix on. Getting things repaired always ups my appetite. After dropping off the goods, Jason led the way to the Russian part of town in search of a Thai place that is spoken of highly in the Rough Guide. We were just about to give up looking and head to McDonald's when some helpful expats pointed out that we were standing directly in front of our goal. It was good food despite the camouflage. Jason noted that we think of Thai food as something familiar from home.

The highlight of the evening was the post-supper rickshaw ride. We settled on the fair price of 20 RMB for the short journey and our suspiciously mirthful driver gave the first of many mighty screams when we started to lurch forward. It is difficult to describe the scene exactly. Imagine a bicycle ridden by a half-crazed Chinaman screaming in a pained high pitched warble pulling a two-seat cart containing a terrified but hysterically laughing pair of yanks dodging in and out of chaotic Beijing traffic. Upon arrival, our driver made a case for additional payment, apparently basing his claim on the extra strain caused by a small hill along the way. We eventually handed over double the agreed price. I have never heard such a strange expression of joy as was shrieked out by this odd gentlemen (possibly the finest rickshaw driver in all of the Russian part of Beijing) when he grabbed the bills and pedaled off, ringing his rickshaw's absurd electronic horn again and again.

The next afternoon we had our first run in with The Art Students. The Rough Guide warned that English-speaking students run a minor scam where they approach and befriend foreigners with a story about how they are art students and their work is on display in a local gallery. The "gallery" is really a shop selling low quality prints at high prices and The Art Students get a cut of whatever is spent by the suckers they bring in the door. We got rid of this pair in good time and dove into a hot pot shop to get some grub.

We were in the mall trying to find vitamins and looking very lost indeed when approached by a cheerful pair of college-aged Chinese girls. My Art Student radar went on high alert, but they were more interested in my sideburns ("very special") than galleries, so I stood down from general quarters. They helped us find vitamins and a power strip to replace the one we left in Japan. Just as we were parting company to pick up the cameras, they started going on about calligraphy and watercolors and a showcase of their work. I felt dirty having been taken in so easily by the Art Students.

Jason's camera got fixed. Mine did not. We walked toward the center of town with the intention of passing through T Square, finding a tea house, and discussing our next moves. On the way, we sat for a bit in the square to take in the scene. A Chinese guy gave me a cigarette. I gave him a button from London. Those kind of small exchanges always make me happy. Back on our feet, we were approached by a pair of college-aged Chinese girls. You guessed it: Art Students. They barely made it through the word 'calligraphy' before we mumbled some apologetic words and split.

Still not yet out of T Square, we got mobbed by some youngsters that wanted us to take group photos of them. Then they wanted to take group photos with us. Then they wanted individual photos as well. It is fun being a celebrity. I picked up one girl "over the threshold"-style to make her photo extra memorable. You gotta give a little something back.

Not 10 seconds later, there was another pair of college-aged Chinese girls striking up a conversation with the OC brotherhood. I set my phaser on 'Fuck Off!' and readied for action. There was no mention of calligraphy or watercolors within the first 15 minutes of pleasant conversation and Jason was doing a fair job of disarming the girls with his demi-Latin charms. There was no way I was going to let him score all the points. My fear of Art Students is small compared to my fear of comparative inadequacy. As it turns out, these kids were legit. Vicki and Lily were studying English in Beijing. It was not hard to convince them to come with us for a cup of tea.

Vicki lead the way to a local tea house in the noisy/crowded/dirty area of Beijing just south of T Square. Instead of just a pot of the green stuff, we were treated to a tasting of 6 types of Chinese tea and instructed on the finer points of tea etiquette and the medicinal qualities of each variety. We bought some tea as a gift for V&L and ourselves received a gift from our server: two small hollow statues that emit a jet of water from their penises when first soaked then doused in hot water. I have no idea why this was part of an otherwise very staid presentation about tea.

All fired up on ginger root and flowers, we popped back over to the hotel to drop off our bags and change, treated the ladies to a meal at KFC, then headed back out to karaoke. The beer and list of tolerable English songs ran out within several hours, so we headed over to Club Cobra. We had some beers, a good laugh, and lost the still camera that had just been fixed. You take the good, you take the bad, you take 'em both, and there you have, the facts of life, the facts of life.

The next day (Wednesday), we got up quick at about noon and headed back over to Xidan to see about replacing the still broken video camera and the AWOL still camera. We found exactly what we wanted and were able to buy it with a minimum of bureaucratic bungling. Not too many stores in Beijing take international credit cards, and the ones that do make you chat on the phone for 20 minutes with somebody in India before sealing the deal. Either way, the new cameras were an unexpected expense, but now we are again operating at full tourist potential. We celebrated our new toys that night with a magnificent feast of Peking Duck back in the seedy part of town.

Thursday, Jason and I left the girls behind and took a tour bus out of town to see some sights. Stop number one was a section of The Great Wall. We climbed up a steep section and were reward with some excellent views. Things went very far down hill from there. The cramped/smelly/hot bus dragged us all over Chinese creation giving us opportunities to buy Chinese herbal medicine, roast duck in a potato-chip bag, all kinds of horrible candy, and souvenirs from a Ming-themed waxworks. We had 30 minutes at the actual Ming Tombs. That is enough time to walk to the entrance and reluctantly turn back. I do not thing I was alone in my relief to be back in the city.

Long story short, Vicki and Lily convinced us to travel to Xi'an, the ancient capital of China and their adopted home town. We boarded a train from Beijing West Station late that night. We sorted a lot of problems in Beijing, had a few good times, and saw a bit of historic China. It is not my favorite OC port of call, but it is by no means bottom of the list.


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