Last week I hastily stuffed a green backpack with random assortments of clothes and took off on a completely improvised trip to the only government state more redder than Texas — CHINA!
Before I even got there, shit went wrong.
First of all you need to get a Visa to enter, which takes about four days of processing unless you pay a ton of extra fees. I usually don’t mind a stalled trip–it gives me time to think about what I’m doing and back out before I do something crazy–but in this case the American Visa to China costs about $100 more than if you’re from any other country.
I stayed in Seoul for five days, seeing all the sights I didn’t see before, hanging out and sleeping in a Korean sauna. Every day that I spent waiting for my Visa came to me like the upward clicks on a rollercoaster, those rythmic beats that come just before nose-diving into what’s still a complete blank in my mind.
As naive as it sounds, that’s what China was to me. A big blank at the end of a roller-coaster drop. I had no way of knowing whether there were thick-metal bars to lift me out of the shit once I was deep enough in it. But like every roller-coaster, its only an illusion of danger.
The boat to China lasted twenty-five hours, and was delayed about two hours before I left. I met some people at the train station and hitched onto their bandwagon, so I felt confident China would be a breeze.
The only part I remember about the boat ride was the Incheon bridge still under construction.
When we entered Tainjin, the Chinese port, I felt queasy from the oil and shit in the water. I began coughing sporadically from the toxins in the air, barking out waves of black dust.
About Chairman Mao: there’s no amount of currency that doesn’t have his picture on it.
At the Tianjin docks we were hounded by beggars, so bad we could barely move. This was the middle of the night, might I add, so I held my passport and wallet at all times as we moved through the crowd. Finally we found a Taxi that flew over 100 on a thin dark road in the middle of nowhere.
We were on the drop off of the Chinese rollercoaster, screaming headlong and just waiting for something to lift us out.
Only when we opened out eyes did we find that 100 wasn’t that fast. It was in kilometers, dummys.
Everything in Tianjin was dark, though there were buildings everywhere. Crushed buildings with insides as hollow as a crisp-burnt figure after an eruption. It was like driving through a warzone, but actually, it was only one of the most polluted cities in the world.
When we got to the train station to Beijing we were accosted by yet more vagrants, and after walking through them all I couldn’t hold my belongings with the same patronizing fear I had before. Maybe this was their routine – sleeping outside of a train station and waiting for westerners to come by with a hand-out. There were thousands of them, more than I’d ever come close to seeing in my life.
From Tianjin to Beijing I began to think of a novel I’d just read, Memoirs of a Geisha, which was educational about Japanese sex culture, at least how it presents itself to the reader. In the highly fictionalized novel, before traveling, every Geisha would always check their astrological almanac to see if it was an auspicious time. I began to think I should have checked my almanac. So far, coming to China was getting scarier by the second.
At the Beijing station, there were even more homeless people than in Tianjin, and I felt helpless in the choice of either being patronizing to them all or give away all the money I had with me. So far, I’ve been a sucker for a sad face. Meaning, I give to make myself feel better, or to get out of frightening situations.
Another frightening taxi-cab later we were in our hostel. Then I slept, and woke up, and then it was today.
This morning I showered thoroughly, the fear of the massive clouds of pollution just outside the air-conditioned hostel. And those streets are gigantic as hell. Where it took me about four hours or so to walk from one end of San Francisco to another (slowly), it would probably take me about a day and a half to walk from one end of Beijing to the other. In fact, walking has now lost it’s privilege of being any fun, adaptable or easy.
Today I was attempting not to loathe these Chinese touts who have drained the money I have. Anytime I decide to get in a taxi, or buy a souvenir, or get entry into a museum, or even eat some God-damn pork, they screw you with the might of a persistent school-child that looks so innocent and helpless–and just so foreign. You want to be a nice guy in a different country, right American?
These enemies of sight accost you at any tourist spot. They pose as “interpreters” or “tour guides” or “drivers” or just plain merchants but I find myself growing ruder with every tourist site. We avoid them until we need them, then we take a taxi and the driver locks the door, tells us to pay twice what we had agreed. Then he pretends to have no change.
So the roller coaster has been falling and shows no sign of picking up thus far. I thought more about my astrology almnamac, and figured a trip to China couldn’t have been any other way. I always avoid tour groups, hotels, or just plain anything orthodox as a traveler because I want to really experience the place. Whatever that means. In a place that speaks very little English, that seems like a terrible idea.
On the upside, there are very nice Chinese people here.