Just left the airport; Beijing decided to welcome us with a humid 33°C evening, apparently the hottest day of the month so far. Richard and I are being driven through Monday's rush hour traffic courtesy of Richard's Uncle and his Audi A4. I notice the hazy red sun disappearing and reappearing between the mostly grey buildings as we drive along. It looks cloudy and distant, I wonder for the first time how often Beijing actually gets blue skies. The highways are complex and meant to handle a diverse combination of traffic. At one point, we are one of three separate lanes of traffic merging onto a road. There are cars, buses, taxis, electric scooters, bikes, and pedestrians crisscrossing and slowly negotiating towards their desired destinations. I notice a sort of lazy indifference to the chaos on the faces of commuters. I see what would be considered dangerous manoeuvres here, met with a reflexive adjustment by any affected drivers without even the slightest acknowledgement. Perhaps a quick honk here or there if the move was particularly egregious, or perhaps it's just to alert the other driver to the honker's presence. Either way, I'm in amazement at how everyone is able to confront and adapt to the wild and unpredictable road conditions. It felt like as a driver you are always almost killing someone the entire time you're driving.
To drive in Beijing requires planning and precise execution, being clear and confident with your movement as a vehicle. I think the same purposefulness of movement is needed to live in a city like this too. Do things correctly, and plan ahead, or risk being left behind by the masses of people who did. This is only a theory right now, so I'll see if I still believe this 12 days from now.
Went to visit Richard's Aunt today. We took the subway to the neighbourhood she lives in, and like other areas I've seen already it is rather dirty and dilapidated, at least by my Westerner standards. However, despite the look of the exterior building, their apartment is clean and tidy, albeit small. I realized later that this was a recurring theme with the homes I visited in China. No matter what the building looks like on the outside, or even in the common spaces like the elevator, every home I went to was clean, well furnished, and comfortable despite not being too spacious. Richard's Aunt, Uncle, Grandmother, and their two dogs live there. His grandmother is very old and cannot leave her bed any more. The whole apartment is probably 500 sq ft. Because I was very jetlagged still, I took a nap on a bed across the room from his grandmother. It was a humid and sunny mid-morning on a tuesday; through the window were the strange and exotic sounds of a city starting it's workday. Birds, car horns, the sounds of men and machines labouring in tandem, and the odd unintelligible shout all combined to form a melody of urban life. Richard and his Aunt conversing in Mandarin in the kitchen. Their two tiny dogs yapping in tandem every time someone got within a kilometre of the front door. The bed was essentially a wooden frame with blankets over it (which was actually great for my back). It was bright, hot, and loud yet I quickly fell asleep amidst the panoply of sound. Maybe because of the jet lag, but also because I was happy to just have my feet off the ground. I appreciated the space and moment, the comfort of the world proceeding all around me in a country I've been in less than 24 hours. 500 sqft. of familiarity in a city of the unknown was all I needed that morning.
4:42AM. That's the time my phone showed when I woke up. I was on the overnight train to Xi'An, nestled into a 6 bunk (triple-decker bunks on both sides) cabin, shared between me, Richard, Victor, and 3 middle aged Xi'An locals. One man and two women. I chose the top-most bunk and, despite some earlier technical difficulties, the AC was thankfully working at this point so I had been able to pass out a little bit. I was awake due to a combination of jet lag, having to pee, and from the sound of both the women from Xi'An snoring beside me in orchestrated harmony, filling the air with synchronized inhalation and exhalation. I realized that my bladder was going to burst at any moment so, despite my fear of stepping on one of the four heads sleeping below me, I resolved to climb down and head to the washroom. Fortunately as I looked down to plan my escape, I see that Richard is awake and on his phone. To be completely honest, I have always had a suspicion, deep down, that Richard has some sort of superpower that allows him to exist without sleep...so seeing him awake at this time basically affirmed my theory. Upon quiet inquiry, I learnt that he had to pee too. So we jumped down (or carefully climbed down in the darkness) and headed to the far end of the train car we were in, where the washroom was - which was a closet with a hole in the floor. It was here that we hung out for a little bit, in that time period right before dawn where everything is the quietest it's going to be that day. Not even the farmers in the rural countryside we were passing along had gotten up yet. Being awake in these moments makes you feel as if you've escaped time.
It was here that Richard told me he was up because he had just found out he had just received a job offer back in Canada (where it was currently the middle of the afternoon). It was really exciting news. At this point sleep seemed out of the question so we stayed and just talked in the cramped hallway, thinking about the future. Train still chugging along through the poor farmlands that fill the space between cities. We were standing on a green speckled carpet, with beige plastic walls and cigarette smoke surrounding us. The washrooms doubled as the smoking area too. It was just Richard and I hanging out at 5 in the morning, that interstitial space between night and day, halfway between here and there; our biological clocks trying to convince us we're still in Canada.
Our last hours in Xi'An. We have to leave in the morning for the airport because we're flying to Shenzhen. We are back in the Muslim quarter grabbing some late night food. All three of us hop in a little scooter taxi type thing, think like a small horse carriage on a moped, from our hotel. My leg's hanging out the side because we are all big 200lb+ guys and the scooter is way too small for the three of us.
We were lucky enough that Victor got in contact with a friend of his who lives in Xi'An, and his friend was nice enough to show us around the city all day - he even drove us out to the famous Terracotta Warriors site, which is over an hour drive away from the city! For dinner, Victor's friend brought us to the Muslim quarter, which is a well known food market in Xi'An. It was awesome, all the food we tried was amazing and it was very authentic and unique. There is apparently a more touristy section of the market a little further away, but we went to the section that locals go to. During this time, Victor's friend recommended that we check out a particular food stall which is open late and was semi-famous for a beef sandwich type thing that I cannot explain very well. So that's where we headed, although we stopped for some meat skewers on wooden sticks halfway there. As we are now walking back to the hotel, beef sandwich type thing safely in hand, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed with joy with the whole experience. Food really is the heart and soul of China, and their creativity and diversity of ingredients and flavours is what makes Chinese food culture so interesting. I had no idea what half of the ingredients on this sandwich-type-thing were, but it tasted incredible. Granted I was also many beers and baijiu shots deep by this point, so I was feeling very appreciative. The street we were walking down, if I could describe it in one word, was dirty. But overall this doesn't seem to be a particular concern for people here. The quality of the products are what matters to them, and that in itself is the reason to go. The Muslim quarter is a district of small restaurants, street food vendors, and hawkers selling a variety of Middle Eastern influenced dishes - no pork in sight. This ethnic diaspora is apparently a consequence of Xi'An's history as a destination for the silk road, China's trade route with the Middle East.
Hong Kong is like if you took the biggest city in the world, halved its size, and then built it on the ocean coast with mountains surrounding it from all sides. It is dense. I was walking around the streets of Mongkok today, which is apparently the most densely populated neighbourhood in the world according to its Wikipedia page. The markets which flanked the streets were seemingly never-ending. Sneaker street, which I spent a good hour or so exploring, was a street literally with sneaker stores, and only sneaker stores, lining both it's sides. Most of them selling the exact same styles - Nike LeBron 15's with the knitted upper, Adidas Ultra Boosts with Cloud Foam in 1000000 different colourways, Curry 4's, and every Jordan from 1 to infinity. With tons of stores selling the same shoe, you'd expect competition to be fierce and to drive market prices down, but it seemed like everything was the same price and I am quite confident most stores were owned by the same person or group of people. It's really just a spectacle of consumerism. Amidst the throngs of people moving every single direction, I passed by a guy with a shirt that said:
"everything is something to us"
I don't know why but for some reason that statement really stuck out to me, and I thought about it for awhile. It may have been just a nonsensical translation like most of the English I've seen on the outfits of Chinese people, or maybe someone actually thought about those words and put them on a shirt. Who knows?
Chinese culture is so strange in a lot of ways. Most people under the age of 50 are stuck to their phones almost every waking moment of the day. They are huge consumers of technology (government approved technology) and seem to adopt new goods and services, collectively and with remarkable speed. At first glance, it wouldn't seem like individualism is important to them - they are more than happy to plop down on the subway and pull out their phone among the hundreds of others doing the same thing. But if you pay attention, I think they actually value their differences a lot and they are meticulous when it comes to adding personal flair to their belongings. In a country of over a billion people, finding the right car accessory to match their style is important. Everything means something. Their diversity and uniqueness is critical to providing an individual with a foundation, an existential foothold if you will. Something they can hold on to and say "this is me". When you live in a 50 story apartment building with big numbers painted on the side to distinguish it from the ten other 50 story buildings that look exactly the same, I think it is understandable that they covet and value their possessions so much. Its justifiable to be obsessed with things, when these things form your identity.
We spent the day in Hong Kong. We were fortunate enough to again have a local friend, Phoebe, help us out and show us around the city all day. It was hot and humid out, as Hong Kong generally is for like 10 months of the year. We checked out Lantau Island, quite hungover, and hiked up to see a Big Golden Buddha™. It was quite nice, and big, and golden, and Buddha. After that sweaty experience, we went to a "ratchet ass mall", in Phoebe's words, near Mongkok to enjoy some of the cheap food, found in what I guess would be considered a food court on the 3rd floor, yet the food vendors were still intermingled with clothes and other stores so there really wasn't an obvious separation of purpose between the different floors. We had the pleasure of experiencing the mall without its air conditioning working, so it was nice and toasty with the addition of tons of people surrounding us too. Since it was the day we left, I also had a big duffle bag with me and let me tell ya, it was not easy navigating through the crowds with it, especially when most of them were half my size. Things took an interesting turn when I was sitting down enjoying a nice sushi hand roll (which normally I don't like as I find them hard to eat and also mostly rice) and I thought, you know what, I'm basically eating a seaweed and rice triangle right now, I'm gonna add some soy sauce to it. So I grabbed the soy sauce from the table of sauces in front of me and drizzled some on it and took a bite. Unfortunately, what I actually grabbed was wasabi soy sauce which, if you don't know, is way hotter than just wasabi. I love spicy food. I love really spicy food. I put hot sauce on almost everything. However, getting blindsided by a shot of wasabi soy sauce, while in a crowded, AC-less, mall was something I have not prepared for. I felt like I was trojan-horsed by a wasabi spice bomb and there was nothing I could do about it. It was a terrible experience. After a shirt change and a bubble tea though, I was back on my feet and we were making our way back to Shenzhen.
Shenzhen is a relatively new city by China's standards. In just 1979 it had a population of just 30,000 people. In the 80's it was designated as China's first Special Economic Zone, which means it was granted more free-market oriented trade laws and was open to foreign investment. After being one of the fastest growing cities in the world the past three decades, it now has a population of over 10 million people, one of the busiest shipping ports in the world, and a large technology industry. I went to check out Shenzhen's semi-famous electronics market, and also to get my phone screen fixed. Like most places I'd been to in China so far, it was way bigger than I thought it'd be. An entire street of malls filled with individual vendors selling every piece of technology you can think of, and also the individual parts that the devices are made of. It was quite overwhelming - but luckily I had Richard with me so we were able to find someone to fix my phone shortly (for less than half of what it would've cost in Canada). Later in the day I went with Richard, Victor, Winnie, Jade, and Winnie's parents to SheKou district. It's a huge sprawling mall and entertainment district with lights, fountain shows, restaurants, bars, and shopping. A huge boat sits in the middle of the entertainment district on a small patch of water. The MingHua, originally a French passenger ship from the 60's which was sold to China in the 80's, is now home to a hotel and various restaurants and serves as a tourist attraction for Shenzhen. It is now completely landlocked due to land reclamation efforts surrounding it. In fact the whole SheKou district, which sits on the water, literally was part of the ocean just 30 years ago. It was pretty interesting to me that everything I saw, all the roads and tall buildings and malls, was all built on terraformed land. The entire district is a visual indication of the progress and prosperity that Shenzhen has experienced over the past few decades. Also really speaks to the amount of effort put in by the Chinese government to development Shenzhen, and their efficiency at doing so.
Hopped on a plane around noon today and flew back to Beijing. Didn't do too much today. Tried a Pidan, or "1000 year old egg" and almost yuked.
Victor skipped out on the touristy stuff today, so Richard and I went to the forbidden city in the morning and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Everywhere. And it's a huge place too. Still, it was very a beautiful and impressive place with lots of interesting history. We spent a few hours there looking around, and afterwards we began our journey to the Great Wall, north of Beijing - the Badaling section to be specific, which is the most popular part to visit apparently. To our surprise however, by the time we got there after taking a subway, another subway, and then an hour train ride...the wall was practically empty! It was incredible. The only people we saw were a few who were making their way back as we started out, but as we continued walking there was no one left and we had the wall to ourselves. It was so quiet and so serene and actually allowed me to take in how incredible this structure really is. Miles and miles of stone wall, 8-12 feet high and 5 or 6 feet wide, built literally along the edges of mountains. I cannot fathom the perpetual manpower and ingenuity needed to construct something of this magnitude, especially over 500 years ago. I was floored by the beauty of this simple stone wall, weaving through the surrounding mountains like a snake.
Played badminton last night in a hot ass gym with Richard and Victor. Victor used to go here to train during the summers back in university. There were some seriously good players, and we played doubles with a few of them. It was a lot of fun though; I'm used to playing badminton with mainly Chinese people, but I felt like a stuck out a bit more than usual when I showed up in a random high school gym in Beijing. All the doubles matches we played went the full 3 games, so I guess the team's were pretty even. After badminton, we went to a skewer restaurant close by called 京朋串吧 , which Victor said is one of the best in the city. With a recommendation like that, and with the appetites the three of us were walking in there with, it only made sense to order a hundred thousand skewers. Okay, it might've been ninety-nine thousand, but regardless they were some great tasting skewers and one of my favourite meals of the trip.
Learned how to make dumplings today. I was pretty terrible at it but Winnie gave me some pointers and showed me a couple different ways to make them. Richard was passed out with Jade, his Grandpa was helping prepare dinner. His Grandpa told me, or showed me rather since he does not speak English, that the trick is to keep the far side of the dumpling pouch slightly shorter than the side nearer to you. I tried that, and it did help somewhat, but my dumplings were still looking pretty ugly and had holes in them. Winnie then pointed out that I should only be folding one side of the dumpling pouch, not both - the other side should stay flat. After that I'd say they started to turn out a little cleaner. Nowhere near as round or dumplingy as Winnie's, but they weren't gonna explode in the boiling water which was the important thing. And besides, since we were in Beijing we would only be boiling them, Winnie tells me, because that is generally how Northern Chinese people prepare dumplings. In the south, where she is from, it is more common to either pan fry them or do a mixture of both frying and boiling. Because they were getting boiled, it didn't matter as much what they look like because the boiling distorts their shape anyways. Made me feel better about my ugly ass dumplings. Thanks Winnie :)
I don't really have anything deep or profound to say about this experience, it was just the most interesting part of my day.
Flying out today but managed to steal some time this morning. This trip should not have been so good, and it didn't need to end so well, but it did, and I am so fortunate to have these opportunities and to experience so much of life in the short time that I had here. These 12 days were more than I could have asked for.
My general outlook on life is summarized quite well by a random, uncited quote I saw on a blog many years ago, which I wrote on a post-it note and now keep it in my wallet. It reads:
Someone who thinks a bit more about life,
who wants to get a bit more from life,
and who gives a bit more to live
Yeah, I realize that's not even a complete sentence, but I still like it. I imagine it would be my answer if anyone ever asked me what kind of person I want to be. Even though that's a weird question.