China's national sport is barging. If a situation can be barged into, a Chinese person will do it. The right of way between motorists and pedestrians is determined solely by boldness. Traffic signals have nothing to do with this exchange whatsoever. The first time I had to cross the street in Beijing I spent ten minutes trying to detect a safe time to cross, before realizing there was not one and there never would be. Then I bravely followed an old woman into the street, using her as a human shield for the entire duration of my crossing.
The etiquette for lining up in China has only one rule: if a person can fit into a space, a person will fit into that space. People in China line up butts to nuts and if you're the shy type who leaves an inch between your crotch and the person in front of you, three people will take this as an obvious invitation to cut in front of you in line. They don't even consider this rude. It's more like a law of nature, Chinese people must flow into all available spaces, like water. Eventually I figured out that I had to physically hold people back with my elbows to keep myself from moving backwards in line. No one seemed to consider this any more rude that holding up an umbrella to hold back the rain.
In most situations, hesitation is the only sin. If you confidently and decisively move toward your destination, people will generally get out of your way. If you hesitate for a split second because you were raised to think that it's polite not to walk right into people, you'll find yourself tucked into the back corner of a subway car you didn't even intend to board, on your way to Zhuxinzhuang.
Occasionally this all-barging, all the time social contract backfires, like when the people getting off the subway walk straight into the people getting on the subway, like someone sleepwalking into a wall. There are arrows on the floor showing how to board the car diagonally from the sides to avoid this, but obeying these would violate China's other social contract: never at any time follow any rules whatsoever. I think they do this solely to differentiate themselves from the Japanese.
The only way into North Korea is through China, so I decided to spend a couple of days getting to know Beijing before the DPRK trip. As I was boarding my flight from Seattle to Beijing, the airport employee looked over my paperwork and said “Okay, final destination?” “Pyongyang.” “And that is ...where?” “North Korea.” “Pfft, yeah right,” he smirked incredulously before waving me onto the plane.
Stepping off the plane in Beijing, I thought about how I normally have time to learn a little bit of the language before I travel to a place. But the sudden announcement of the travel ban to North Korea meant a rushed last minute departure and no time to learn any Chinese or Korean. I looked around the Beijing airport and noticed nearly everyone was wearing a shirt with English writing on it. Oh cool, they’re going to speak English here, this is no problem.
Yeah, no. No one spoke any English. No one knew what their shirts said. China is in a hurry to become more like the West and English is just seen as a cool and modern language to be wearing. I kept laughing at the random shirts people were wearing. The girl wearing the “Eggcellent!” shirt or the guy wearing the “Pacific Ocean Shark Attacks Are Very Dangerous” shirt. Or the grandma wearing a Nike “Dunk in His Face!” shirt. Awesome, China.
I picked up an IC metro card to add to my growing collection, loaded it with renminbi and hopped on the train. Zipping along through Beijing, the biggest surprise to me was how different it isn’t. Fifty years ago this was surely a different universe of ox carts and distinct Chinese architecture but today it mostly looks like any Western city. They are in a huge hurry to become America and they’re most of the way there.
Train to subway to subway and I’m walking up the dark street to my AirBnB. I’d originally planned to stay in a hotel for my three nights in Beijing, but every hotel I looked at online went like this: Booking.com: 5 stars! Reviews: “It was the worst experience of my life.” “The ceiling was covered in black mold.” “There was a dog in my room!” Rather than shell out $150 a night for the only hotels with half-way decent reviews, I decided an AirBnB for $30 was more my speed. This was complicated by the fact that when a foreigner stays in China, they’re required to go with their host to the police and register where they’re staying. When you stay at a hotel, this is automatic, they go and register all their guests and you never even know this is happening. With an AirBnB, I’d heard everything from “It doesn’t matter” to “They arrested my host for not registering me.” I contacted my host and he said not to worry about it. All right dude, it’s your ass.
I located the building, a huge concrete apartment block that looked like the building from The Raid. Into the exterior elevator and up to the 19th floor. The door opened into the blackness and I tentatively ventured out into the hallway. No lights. I rolled my bag slowly up the hallway. Could this be the right place? This seems like the right place to get shot. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and went door to door. Nope, nope, nope. I feel like you can buy crack here. Headed back up the hall the other way, the wheels of my suitcase clacking over the seams in the concrete floor. Nope, nope, yeah this is definitely the wrong building- Wait. This is my door. Oh shit. Punched in the security code and the lock booped open.
Inside, everything was perfectly nice. My host lived there but I never saw him. There was an Irish guy staying in one of the other bedrooms, but I never saw him either. Modern life in a nutshell.
In the morning I looked out the window and thought "My, it sure is foggy today!" because I am an idiot. Beijing's air is like a cross between the fog that turns people inside out and your great uncle's dirty bathwater. Some days, someone in the heavens lifts the lid off the pot and all the shitty air floats over to Japan. Other days it hangs around and eats the paint off the cars in Beijing. They register air pollution on a scale where 25 is considered hazardous to human health. My first day in Beijing was an 87. My second was 114. On the third I couldn't see my phone screen to look up the air shit index. I'm told that some days get up to 200, at which point birds fall from the sky and ghost pirates cause major problems for everyone.
Shit, should I be buying a mask? No sooner had I had this thought, than I passed a mask vending machine in the subway station:
I might have bought one but I was too quickly distracted by an ice cream vending machine nearby:
As best as I can tell there’s a robot suction arm that opens the lid and grabs you an ice cream out of the cooler.
I had just been reading about how the standards of male beauty differ in China compared to the US. American men tend to aspire to being big and muscular, while the Chinese find this kind of ridiculous. Their preferred esthetic is a primped metrosexual look that would get your sexual orientation questioned in the US:
The subway stations in Beijing are like an underground city in and of themselves. Stations are connected by endless underground hallways and though they’re impressive, they seem like they were designed for something else and somebody just threw down some temporary signs and a rope last week to make it a subway.
The plan was to take three subway lines and a train out to Badaling, the best-restored section of the Great Wall. I was in China on a 72 hour transit visa, which meant I hadn’t had to apply in advance or pay anything for a visa, but I technically wasn’t allowed to leave Beijing. Thankfully Beijing is huge and this part of the Great Wall passes through it. One considerable downside I didn’t understand the significance of at the time is that it’s also the most popular spot on the wall to visit.
Stepping off the subway into the train station, the line snaked outside and into a world of bewilderment. Wooden panels funneled us toward the trains like a theme park under construction. The front of the train station was absolute chaos. Seven different announcements were yelling over the top of each other in Chinese, and as I got closer I realized that some of the people milling around were yelling into microphones with speakers clipped to their belts, like a Mr Microphone on steroids. Several people tried to grab me and funnel me into a side gate that seemed to be leading away from the train station. What the hell?
I pushed my way through all of this and into the train station, which seemed like it may or may not be open. At the ticket counter I stared at the Chinese characters on the signs and tried to figure out what was going on. That’s the challenge in Asia, in Western countries that use the roman alphabet you can start to figure things out even if you don’t know the language, as you recognize words you’ve seen before in other places and you can sound things out, etc. Not so with Chinese, which just looks like a bunch of squiggles to the uninitiated. “House, house, duck, castle, yeah I can’t read this.”
Eventually I picked up that the train I had been expecting to take to Badaling wasn’t running, and the next one wouldn’t be for two more hours, which was going to totally hose my day. Someone grabbed my shoulder.
Oh, all these people yelling in microphones are taxi drivers who want to take people to Badaling.
Six-hundred RMB was about $100 US, way too much.
We negotiated in spite of sharing no language in common by typing numbers into the calculator app on my phone. He didn’t know the universal “rubbing your thumb and fingers together” gesture for “money” so I had to improvise sign language.
Eventually I’d “talked” him down to 150 and was led over to a regular car that in no way looked like a taxi. I got in the back seat and waited while the taxi driver ran off to hook more customers so he could increase his profits for the hour-long drive.
After several minutes the door opened and a woman got in with her young son. She asked me something in Chinese and I said “Sorry, I don’t speak Mandarin.” She gestured to her 5-year-old son, who was apparently studying English, but he suddenly felt shy.
After a few minutes of waiting for the driver to return, the woman got back out of the car and took off, presumably to find a better deal, leaving me alone with her son. We sat in the back seat of this car isolated behind the train station for at least 20 minutes, with me marveling the whole time that she’d just left her son with me. Do I really look that trustworthy?
The boy and I talked a bit in English as we watched the bizarre coterie of randos wandering around behind the train station and the sun poured droopily through the haze. The boy’s mom eventually came back, grabbed him out of the car without a word, whisked him into into a nearby van, and poof they were gone.
I looked around at the men milling around behind the train station. When it's hot, men in China hike their shirts up to nipple level and tuck them back so they stay up there, venting their glorious flab. The worse shape someone is in, the better of an idea this becomes.
Okay, this is insane, I’m not even sure this is actually a taxi, I’ll just take the train. I get out and the driver’s sister runs over and tries to keep me from leaving, in spite of us not understanding each other at all. As I walked away, all the other drivers surrounded me, yelling out their offers to take me to Badaling. Apparently saying no and walking toward the train station is an awesome negotiating strategy since before long I was in another car with a Chinese couple that left right away for under $20.
For the first ten minutes of the drive, the driver tried to convince me that I needed to book a ride back from the wall with him too, since I’d never catch the train back from Badaling. This exchange happened entirely through the auto-translate app on his phone, which sucked balls. My replies degenerated from mistranslations of politely worded deflections to mistranslations of curt refusals, interspersed with him periodically taking his phone back and hitting buttons to clear the gobbledygook I had filled it with. He eventually gave up.
Looking around, the air quality blurred everything slightly, making the skyscrapers look like a CGI effect from the movies. The drive was fascinating, since the drivers didn’t follow rules any better than anyone else in China, everyone was all over the place. Drivers honk constantly, but not in our style of “I’m calling attention to your poor driving” but instead as “Hey by the way I’m over here.” On the narrow roads closer to Badaling our driver would honk before every turn and entering every tunnel, like “Coming through!”
We drove along the Great Wall for a long time before the driver stopped and let us out and a seemingly arbitrary point. He tried to double-charge me as I gently reminded him in a language he didn’t speak that I had turned down the return ride. Eventually we got this worked out and I was left to blunder around and figure out how to enter the wall, ultimately joining one of the wandering hordes the wall had originally been built to keep out.
In time our growing throng reached the entrance, and was dwarfed by the absolutely immense number of people waiting to get tickets to enter the wall. I would normally say “waiting in line” but that would be a lie, there were no more lines than there would be a line of rocks in an avalanche. I passed the time between inching forward in the crotch-to-ass parade by laughing at the names of the stores that lined the wall’s entrance. Translations from Chinese to English tend to be painfully literal, and I decided that after I got my ticket I’d buy a couple bottles of water at “Store Near Bus Stop” as the huge sign said on the front of the store near the bus stop.
A huge draw to living in China for native English speakers has to be the constant comic relief provided by oddly translated signs.
After I got through the melee in front of the ticket windows, tour leaders blaring endlessly into deafening hip speakers at groups of Chinese tourists dressed inexplicably in Chicago Bulls gear, I entered the building and ran the gauntlet of tourist shwag booths and counters lining the passageway into the wall. Every shop keeper knew the same English phrase “Hey you! Hello! Buy this!” Eventually I got in and up the stairs and hey look, I’m on the Great Wall of China! Okay.
The first thing I noticed was not the ancient beauty or cultural significance of the Great Wall, but the fact that the “Great Wall” logo on all the trash cans and signs looks a lot like the Taco Bell logo. The Great Wall of China: Live Mas!
This may seem culturally insensitive, but the Chinese would actually be thrilled by this comparison. The only reason Taco Bell isn’t sponsoring the Great Wall is that they didn’t think to offer.
I had decided I wanted to climb the wall from the first tower on the north side up to tower #8, the highest point with the best view. Spoiler alert: The entire population of China had this exact same idea. Great minds!
The alternate route to the 8th tower is to take a cable car up, and then ride down in the “sliding cars,” toboggans that are essentially just chairs with wheels on the bottom that ride a luge course down the mountainside. These seemed to me to be the lazy man’s way to see the wall, for those who weren’t up for the climb. I spent the next five hours being deeply envious of those lazy motherfuckers.
As the wall spans across mountain ranges, there’s a lot of up and down on the hike. Sometimes there are stairs. Sometimes there are no stairs in sections that positively cry out for them, and you’re left to cling to a handrail and Edmund Hillary your way up the absurdly steep and smooth slopes, hoping your shoes have enough traction and thanking providence you didn’t wear sandals.
A few years back when I was in the midst of marathon training and planning on running many more, I was looking into exotic marathons to run around the world. The Antarctica Marathon! The North Pole Marathon! Guides watch over you with rifles as you run to make sure you're not dragged off by a polar bear! One of them that caught my eye was the Great Wall of China Marathon, where you actually run the bulk of the 26.2 miles atop the wall. This seemed like it would be a fun challenge. Being there in person I realized just how deeply, comically misguided that notion had been. Oh man had I dodged a bullet. This sank in with the same mix of emotions you’d have in hearing about a plane you’d been booked on going down in the Andes. That’s not a challenge, it’s a cry for help and a declaration to the world that you are messed up inside.
Thankfully, you were not in this Great Wall predicament alone. I’m kidding, it would have been way more manageable if there hadn’t been 1.37 billion people there all at the same time. The only thing that can make pulling yourself up a handrail as your feel slip out from under you on the concave stones more fun is only being able to go about a foot a minute because there are twelve thousand people in front of you.
Inching forward. Inching forward. I’m more okay with crowds than just about anyone I know, but this was pushing it. People pressed up against you, skin to skin on all sides, sweating directly onto your skin as you breathe in their spicy B.O. for hours on end. Nowhere to escape as the sun beats down. I defused any soul-crushing claustrophobic panic that might have otherwise crawled up my throat by chuckling to myself about all the people I know who this experience would have flat-out killed instantly.
In a few sections, the wall swelled out wider to where there was a little room to breathe and mill about. I was at one of these spots, waiting my turn to take a photo out of one of the turrets in the side of the wall when a Chinese woman gestured at me and pointed to her camera. Oh, she wants me to take a photo of her and her kids. No problem. I reached out to take her phone and she shook her head and pointed at me. I was confused for a long second as she gestured further. Then it suddenly dawned on me. She wanted a picture of me! She wanted a picture of me with her kids? WTF?
Sure, whatever China, let’s do this. I posed with the woman’s kids like I knew them, the mountains mountaining majestically in the background. The woman was so happy. Glad I could help, weirdo!
As I walked away, I chuckled at the thought of this family having some random white guy in their vacation photos. I was mid-chuckle when a woman in her early 20s politely stopped me and pointed to her camera. Uh, sure?
We crouched together like buddies as she took a selfie of us together. As the photo clicked I suddenly realized she had some app that was putting cat whiskers on our faces in the photo. Nice touch, China!
She thanked me profusely and headed off to show the world she had a photo with… wait, why do they want a photo with me? Is it because I’m white? I’d read that whiteness is a big deal in China, it’s like a brand that represents America and modernity and success to them. I’d read about ex-pats drifting around and basically making a living being white in China. But I wasn’t expecting anything like this to happen to me. Well, tough shit whitey, you’re a celebrity in China.
After the first two times this happened, I thought it might just be a fluke. After it happened about ten more times while I was on the Great Wall of China, I thought it might be because these were tourists from rural China who had never seen a white person before. After it started happening all over Beijing, I thought maybe they were mistaking me for someone famous. After all, we white people all look alike. I was joking about this with friends later. “I met Nickelback!” Was it because I was tall? Was it because I have long hair?
After this happened a few dozen times during my three days in Beijing I stopped trying to figure it out and just enjoyed it. It was basically the same thing as being Brad Pitt for three days. Seriously, if you know any white people with low self esteem, send them to China. It’s free therapy.
Walking down the street in Beijing, women would just walk up to me and hand me their babies, to take a picture of me holding their baby. “Hello! Hold baby!” Click. Their enthusiasm to meet me was tempered somewhat by our inability to communicate in any real way. “Hello! You from?” “United States.” “…?” “America?” “…?” “USA.” “AH! USA! USA!”
Do all white people get this treatment? I texted my mom and she suggested I have a very approachable energy. Maybe.
The only people who really spoke English were very small kids, who clearly were studying it in school. Kids would run up to me on the street or in the subway tunnel and start a conversation. “Hello! How are you!” Their English was excellent. I lost count of how many conversations I had with little kids while their parents balanced the fact that they were on their way somewhere and were probably late with their excitement that their kid was getting English conversation practice with a real live white person.
I also received multiple job offers from strangers in Beijing. No, not that. One woman stopped me on the way out of a restaurant and was determined to hire me as her English tutor. It took most of a 25-minute conversation to convince her that I was a tourist who was only there for three days and had no real practical way to mentor her in the nuances of American English.
And that’s what they wanted, to speak like Americans. They wanted our pronunciation and accent, as my British friend Nancia lamented.
After I met the tour group I’d be going to North Korea with, all of whom had been in Beijing the same days I was, I asked the other white guys in the group if they’d had similar experiences in Beijing. Were they asked to pose for photos with strangers? It had happened to one of them. Once. Hmmm. Maybe mom was right.
Back at the Great Wall, I’d made it up to tower #8, took in the view, took some photos and got the F out of there as fast as humanly possible, cutting through the crowd like a hot dog through a block of hard cheese, which is to say slowly and with much frustration.
I made my way to the train station, bought an absurdly cheap 90 cent ticket for the 80-minute train ride back into central Beijing and got in line. They had us corralled inside the train station until the train came. This was the part the taxi driver had been warning me about, that it’s a knock-down drag-out fight to get a seat on this train. After a while, a station employee opened the gate and everyone flat-out sprinted to the approaching train, like it was a Walmart on Black Friday. Thankfully I can outrun old ladies and spoiled Chinese kids even while laughing and questioning the morality of what’s happening around me, and I managed to get on the train without causing any international incidents. That kid I tripped was totally asking for it.
Since I had clearly not learned my lesson at all from the Great Wall, the next day I decided to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Surely these would be well-kept and sparsely visited insider tourist secrets.
To get into Tiananmen Square, you have to start out on the correct side of the street, walk through an underpass going underneath the road, walk up the wrong side of the street past a bunch of shops selling Chairman Mao knick knacks and commemorative plates and fatheads, and then go through security. Absolutely everything in Beijing requires going through security. Every museum, cultural site, government building and subway station has you line up, walk through a metal detector and run your bag through a scanner before you can get in. This is generally not a quick or claustrophobic-friendly process.
After getting through security, you head downstairs and under the road again, cross back over to the correct side of the street, and enter the square. Yep, makes sense to me.
Mao’s body was on display under glass nearby, and I thought about going to see it, but I’d been warned it was a serious pain in the ass. There was sort of a dress code and weird hours and long lines, etc. And they don’t think it’s funny at all if you sing the Meow Mix song while you’re in there.
In front of the mausoleum there are two large propaganda sculptures in the same style I’d see over and over again in North Korea, the people boldly marching forward with guns, grain, and a book, celebrating the cultural revolution. The great thing about communist public art is that it tends to feature women a lot more prominently than our monuments in the West. The monuments in North Korea were very similar except they were formed a bit more roughly and they’d replaced the wheat and the book with more guns.
Standing and looking closely at one of the monuments, I felt like I got it. The emotion captured on the faces was striking. These communist badasses were heroic as hell. I could totally understand being inspired by this.
Tiananmen Square is a big open space, there’s not a lot to see beyond standing in the spot where a million people protested against the government in 1989, seeking democracy, before the army cracked down and killed several hundred of them. The protestors had erected a 33-foot-tall statue of the Goddess of Democracy in the square, which the government demolished during the crackdown. There are several replicas of this statue on display around the world now, but it would have been cool to see the short-lived original.
I crossed under the road on the north end of the square to get into the Forbidden City. The road over my head was where the famous lone protestor had stood, blocking the advancing column of tanks in 1989.
Standing in line to get into the Forbidden City, some random lady picked up her six-year-old daughter and handed her to me. What- Oh, right. I held up the kid by the armpits and smiled. Click. Shake hands, thank you, thank you.
Entering the Forbidden City, you pass by the famous gigantic portrait of Mao. I squinted to see if there might be a note under the portrait that said “Do not accept checks from this man.” Inconclusive.
Inside, I went through security again, and another line. A young Chinese boy in line behind me enthusiastically greeted me and started talking like we knew each other. Had I met this kid somewhere? Impossible to know. I played along. They must teach a class in line conversations because this kid rocked it. A+, junior.
I paid the entrance fee and rented an English guide. Alas, this was not a helpful lackey hired to do my bidding, it was a small plastic map of the compound with LED lights corresponding to places of interest. It reminded me of the Mattel Electronic sports games from my childhood. Sadly, there was no button to shoot the basketball. I plugged in the included headphones and a friendly voice explained that the guide would tell me about everything I was seeing, triggered by entering different parts of the Forbidden City. Bitchin’. Let’s learn the shit out of this place.
Entering the city was like wading into the crowd at Lollapalooza. Everyone in China was here. No one was crowd surfing, but it wasn’t for lack of coverage.
After an unnecessarily lengthy introduction explaining how a gadget with one button works, the guide stopped talking. Hmm. Must be waiting for me to walk by something interesting. I slipped through the crowd across the courtyard and picked a gate at random to enter. I walked past several rooms, the entrance to each swarmed with three dozen people fighting to get their cameras into a suitable gap in the air to snap a crooked picture of whatever was inside the room. Still nothing from the guide. I hit the button and it started talking to me in German. Oh shit. Boop- Portuguese. Boop- Vietnamese. Boop boop boop boopboopboop. There were 30 languages on this thing. I booped too many times and cycled right past English. There’s no back button so I had to just keep cruising around the world until I looped back to something I could understand.
The guide started up its unnecessarily long explanation of how the gadget worked a second time. Then it was silent.
Hmm. Okay. I stood on my tip toes to see over everyone into the room they were all warring to photograph. There’s a chair in there. Hmm.
The entire inside of the Forbidden City was one long line. The line to get in was the line to see the first thing was the line to see the second thing. Except you couldn’t actually see any of the things unless you pushed a bunch of people out of the way to peek for a split-second through a window into an empty room. There was nothing inside the city walls that wasn’t a shit ton of people pressed up against each other. It was like going to Disneyland but there are no rides, you’re just waiting in line to wait in another line.
There’s really nothing I can say to adequately convey how crowded things are in China, nothing in my previous life experience had prepared me for this in any way. Every story I told about this trip included the words “No, you don’t understand. There were A LOT of people there!”
The line slowly shuffled into another building and inched us mercifully out of the sweltering sun. The guide was still silent. I held down the lone button until it rebooted. It repeated the five-minute introduction again and then fell silent. I peeked over the crowd into another empty room. I was starting to understand the electronic guide’s silent protest. What was it going to stay? “Check that shit out, there’s a ceiling.”
I sat down for a minute so all the other people’s sweat could run off me. What am I even doing here? All right, fuck this, let’s get out of here. I looked at the map for the closest exit and joined the throng of people inching forward in that general direction.
Two hours later I got out the back door. Whew. Well David Foster Wallace, there’s a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.
I did see two cool things inside. One was this dog thing:
The other was this sign directing me toward the toilet men:
A free man once again outside the gates, I looked at the rest of my list of the most recommended things to see in Beijing. The Summer Palace. The National Museum of China. The Temple of Heaven. Fragrant Hills Park. Nope, nope, nope. I’m not going anywhere else anyone has ever heard of. Lesson learned.
As I was riding on the subway I looked up at the map of stops. Hepingxiqiao. Huixinxijie Nankou. Beixinqiao. Lama Temple. Ooh, lama temple? That sounds obscure and interesting.
The path leading into the Yonghe Lamasery was twenty degrees cooler than the rest of Beijing and lined with beautiful trees. The noise of the street outside faded to silence.
The peace, and space, inside were heavenly.
Wandering around inside a Tibetan Buddhist temple felt like being home. When I was in my late 20s I visited the Tibetan monastery in Minneapolis one night and joined the monks for their evening meditation. I was going through a rough time in my life, having recently called off a wedding and ending a long relationship that was the only reason I’d stayed in Minneapolis in the first place. That relationship had served to pause the depression I’d been drowning in since my teenage years, and now the pause was over. I was miserable and unsure of where to go or what to do next. I’d been doing a little meditation as part of casting a wide net to find a way out of this. While my mom was in town running the Twin Cities marathon she suggested we go check out the local monastery.
The monks at the monastery were excited that a high-ranking monk was visiting from overseas, and he would be leading our meditation that night. We all sat down together and ran through the ritual, the readings, the chants and the bells. And then it was silent. With my eyes closed, the darkness somehow grew hazy in front of me and then suddenly I was floating in the ocean. In front of me, bobbing half in and half out of the water, was a large golden medallion. The half above the water had a sun on it, the half below had a moon. Things grew hazy again and I found myself in a cave filled with deep silence. I was sitting in a meditation pose. I looked around and took in the dimensions and the features of the cave. The haze returned and I was back in the monastery in Minneapolis. The visiting monk was looking at me and smiling knowingly.
Did he know what I’d just seen? Did he think I was nodding off? Hmmm.
I left the monastery energized to explore this new path. The next day I was visiting a Tibetan store in town. I was flipping through a book on Tibet when a drawing on one page caught my eye. The caption said it was of a cave beneath a monastery in Tibet where the monks would go to meditate. It was clearly the cave I’d seen the night before. Huh.
From that starting point I embarked down a path dedicated to meditation that completely changed my life. Looking back, I can’t imagine that not happening. I can’t imagine what the alternate path would have been.
Years later I had a past life reading that described a life in Tibet where I’d had the same mother I have now. As a young boy in that life I’d wanted to be a monk, so she took me to the monastery to be raised there, visiting daily to bring food and check in. I grew up to become the head of that monastery. The parallel to my mom bringing me to the monastery again in Minneapolis is something I often marvel at.
The Lama Temple in Beijing had something special about it, and within minutes it was my favorite religious site I had ever visited. The statues inside the various temple rooms had such an amazing presence to them, like nothing I’d ever experienced before. Sometimes when you stand before a really great statue, you can feel something. Maybe you feel the devotion of all the people who have prayed there. But this was something beyond that, something transporting.
There were signs at the entrance saying no photography in the temple, and I was genuinely sad about not getting photos of these amazing statues. After another day in Beijing, I realized that everyone in China ignores every single rule about everything, so I rushed back to the temple before our flight to Pyongyang and snapped photos of all the statues that had moved me on my first visit.
I’m sure there’s at least some element of “you had to be there” to this, but tough shit, you’re getting statue photos anyway.
I was first struck by the peace and grace of the beautiful Quan Yin they had behind glass:
And then by the huge statue of Tsongkhapa, the famous Tibetan teacher who founded the Gelugpa “yellow hat” lineage of Buddhism, which the Dalai Lama belongs to. This room was such a happy space, I returned to it five or six times.
The most famous sight in the temple is this enormous 60-foot-tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, carved from a single piece of sandalwood. It’s really hard to get a covert photo of something this big.
But my favorites were these statues of a monk and his two disciples. I was floored by the personality in these figures. You could feel the innocence and sincerity of the disciples, as well as the wisdom and protectiveness of the monk guiding them. I felt like I was being told an entire story just standing in front of these silent figures.
So take that, insanely overcrowded tourist spots. I saw something awesome in Beijing.
After the temple I was starving and somehow already out of Chinese currency. China is almost as dedicated to the cash-only lifestyle as Japan, except in Japan a foreigner can easily withdraw cash from an ATM in the 7-Elevens that anchor every block across the country. In China it’s not so simple.
I inserted my card into the ATM in the subway tunnel. PBBBBT, it spit it out like a vending machine rejecting Camel Cash. Tried the next one I saw. PBBBBT. I started noting down the bank names on the various ATMs so I wouldn’t keep trying the same bank that had already let me know my money was no good here. PBBBT. PBBBBT.
I pulled out my phone and Googled the situation on China’s slow as hell censored internet. It said that Bank of China and HSBC ATMs would take my card. Google maps, boop boop boop, all right I’m routed to the nearest Bank of China ATM.
Nope, it’s a tire store. No ATM in sight. Hmm. Maybe it’s down in this subway terminal? Nope, there’s a no-name ATM here but it won’t take my card either.
I walked all the way across town to a Bank of China branch, went into the deserted lobby and inserted my card in the ATM. PBBBT. Goddammit.
There are no HSBCs anywhere near this part of town. I haven’t eaten all day, I’m light-headed and dehydrated. The restaurant I’d been searching for money to eat at was nearby. I decided to chance it and walked over there.
“Do you guys take cards?”
Nobody in China knows the word cards.
Some Chinese folks know these words, most don’t.
I held up my Visa.
“Oh yes! Sit down.”
Oh thank God. Dude you can just leave the pitcher of water- Okay fine you’re going to be coming back a lot. I tucked into a plate of chili spaghetti and all was right in the world.
After dinner I wandered up the hutong from the restauarant (check my shit I’m so China-savvy I’m not even calling them alleys). This whole area was completely fascinating. First, was this store, which needs no further commentary:
A little further up the block I found this pod of vending machines, which utterly fulfilled the “weird vending machine” itch Japan had so rudely left unscratched.
Further up the block there was an outdoor ping pong pavilion in the park where furious pick-up matches were raging.
Shortly after that I stuck my card into an unbranded no-name ATM in the subway, which felt about as risky as sleeping with a Kardashian. To my shock, it was accepted. Select English, boop boop boop. All of the screens were in English except the one that tells you what fees the ATM is going to charge you for this withdrawal. Well of course that makes sense. But whatever it cost me, glorious renminbi was spit out at the end. I was whole again. I bought six bottles of water.
My next stop was the Olympic Park from the 2008 Summer Olympics. This might seem like a “meh” destination but it was entirely worth checking out for three reasons.
One, was the cavalcade of bizarre buildings:
Two, was the menu in the food court:
Third, and most importantly, was the chance to see real Beijing people out having fun on a Tuesday night. This was fantastic. Between continually pausing to pose for photos with strangers upon request, I enjoyed watching the groups of people dancing, jumping rope, twirling flags, and roller blading. This seemed to just be a thing in China, people would spontaneously mob up and all jump rope together with a boombox. This was on display in concentrated form at the Olympic Park, but I saw it all over the city. Just walking to the AirBnB late at night, I passed 30 people dancing together in front of an office building for no apparent reason.
Leaving the Olympic Park I passed through some kind of bizarre drum-themed portal into a beer garden where the Bellagio fountain show had been ported over from Vegas.
I also passed a library book vending machine that I didn’t understand at all but I liked it:
After walking around all day long without an umbrella, I made it back to the subway stop for my AirBnB right before the rain began. Began is too nice a word, I want to say “cut loose” but that doesn’t quite imply strongly enough that God had terminal diarrhea. The rain hit the city like a train hitting a hobo. I was only a quarter mile from my AirBnB but it didn’t matter. I got so wet I was worried the phone in my pocket was going to short out. The water backed up and flooded the streets as all the crust and ooze that had been hanging in the air all day was flushed down on the unsuspecting Beijingers with extreme prejudice. I had to type my passcode into the door lock three times because it wasn’t designed to work underwater.
After meeting the tour group I’d be going to North Korea with, I was sitting on a curb a few blocks away, pondering what to see next. Nancia from our tour group walked up to me.
“Hey, do you know if there’s an ATM around here that takes foreign cards?”
Ah ha ha ha ha ha. Good one.
I decided to visit Wangfujing, Beijing’s most famous shopping street and pedestrian mall.
On the walk over there were many delights to take in:
Wangfujing was bonkers crowded, but in a way that was kind of charming. Countless booths served up every imaginable variety of food, all of which was absolutely horrific from a vegan perspective. A wide variety of glossy meats were on display. People were walking around with octopus tentacles on a stick. Deep fried starfish? I just ate!
I actually had, stuffing myself with a lavish multi-course meal at an impossible-to-find fancy vegan restaurant that cost all of $20. I guess this is what they mean by a favorable exchange rate.
Looking around at all the food booths and assorted street character, I thought to myself “Hey, this is a nice Chinatown!” This was not the most intelligent thought I had in 2017.
I thought about buying a lamb mask to wear to North Korea, just to keep people guessing.
The next morning I met up with our tour group and we were off to the airport to fly to Pyongyang. Hanging out with people from ten different countries, it quickly became painfully apparent that I needed to learn the metric system. Any time I told a story, no one had any idea what I was talking about. Wait, how tall was that mountain you climbed? What’s that in meters? How far is a mile? WTF is a yard? Did you make that up? How hot was it? No, I mean how hot was it in Celsius?
I couldn’t answer any of these questions. I had lucked into English being the common language on the tour and yet there was still this huge communication barrier. Obviously I knew that most other countries use metric but I’d never been outnumbered like this before. At least the Brits-
Nancia informed me that the British are using metric now. The only imperial measure they still use is the mile.
What? You motherfuckers abandoned us? It’s your fault we’re like this! Don’t we get a vote on this? I didn’t know you could just Brexit your way out of imperial weights and measures without letting us know. I feel betrayed.
It’s just us Americans. We’re alone in the world. Damn.
It slowly sank in that I was going to have to learn metric if I was going to travel the world and not buy way too much fruit by the foot. There was no way around it. And the extra kick in the balls was that I was going to have to learn a whole system that is absolutely useless in the place where I live and spend most of my time. I felt like I’d bought Betamax.
At the airport, everyone around the Air Koryo counter was wearing matching jumpsuits. We were thrilled that the Air Koryo crew was so adorably jumpsuited. It broke our hearts only a little to realize that this was actually some kind of North Korean athletic team who were going to be on our flight.
Getting into the security line, I chuckled at the huge bin of lighters sitting on a table. You can’t take a lighter on any flight in China, which seemed like a ploy to goose lighter sales. In North Korea you couldn’t even take cigarettes on the plane, which was a fun thought experiment to think through the logic on. Going through the security check in Beijing, I had to send my bag through three times. Take out the Kindle, iPad, phone. Take out the Sonicare, umbrella and battery pack. Again? Take out your necklace and pocket change. Damn, a’ight China. The pat-down and wanding was roughly what you’d get upon being arrested in the US.
Nancia and I were talking in the line for exit immigration, so they figured we were a couple and sent us through together. She breezed right through but the guy kept scanning my passport over and over.
“Please see those security officers over there, sir.”
“I don’t know him!” Nancia offered, disappearing.
Over at the security desk they asked where I’d stayed while I was in Beijing. I told them about the AirBnB. They asked why I hadn’t registered with the police. Shit.
I still thought this was one of those “Sorry, dumb foreigner! Won’t do it again!” wrist-slap moments right up until they called the police.
“Sir, just wait here until the police arrive.”
Our tour leader was looking at me with a panicked expression from the other side of immigration. I tried to explain across the room with hand gestures that I’d be a moment, I just had to be interrogated by the police. She began to frantically call people.
After about 20 minutes a female police officer showed up and asked me why I hadn’t registered my lodgings with the police. I said I’d thought my host was supposed to do that, etc etc. This went back and forth for a while, I wasn’t sure what else she wanted me to say. “Uh oh, Spaghetti-Os!” did not have the desired effect.
Eventually she produced the form I was apparently supposed to go to the police station and fill out in the first place.
“Sir, please fill this out.”
I filled out what I could understand. There was a check box that said “I have registered with the police before my stay in China.”
“You didn’t check this box.”
“Yeah, well I also didn’t register with the police before my stay in China.”
“Just check the box. And fill in the address where you stayed.”
Uh-oh, Spaghetti-Os. The only address I had for the AirBnB I stayed at was in Chinese. I can’t read or write Chinese characters. If the AirBnB app hadn’t mapped me straight to the place with a tap I’d have been sleeping under the inflatable waving tube man in the Olympic Park.
I propped up my phone on the counter and proceeded to mimic the Chinese writing like I was copying a drawing. Writing on a counter that was six feet high did not make this any easier. The officer was clearly impatient with how long it was taking me to forge this artwork. After several minutes I looked at the form. Not bad! I handed it to the officer.
She took one look at it and burst out laughing. Clearly, it was absurd to her that I was so good at writing Chinese without any practice. I agree! What are the chances?
When she eventually stopped laughing she said she was going to let me go because it was my first time seriously fucking up in the People’s Republic of China. I told her that was very kind of her even though I was pretty sure she thought I was mentally defective and was just tired of dealing with me.
Once I caught up with the rest of the tour group at the gate, everyone was happy and relieved to see we weren’t down a person before even leaving China.
After the moist bed shenanigans in Pyongyang, Jean-Sebastien observed wryly:
“It’s always you, isn’t it?”
Yes, Jean-Sebastien. Yes it is.