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August 18th, 2003

Beijing, China

A gray polluted haze hung in the air as I headed to the travel agency to sort out my plane flight home. It was the same haze that I had seen when I arrived the previous afternoon, obscuring the sun until late in the afternoon, when the swollen outlines of the yellow orb would finally break through the thick layers of smog. Even with this constant, oppressive presence Beijing is an attractive city, most of its incredibly clean boulevards being lined with shade-providing trees.

My plane ticket would be ready in the late afternoon, so I headed towards the city center to do some exploring. Emerging from the metro in the shopping district, it took me nearly twenty minutes to navigate my way through the immense shopping mall that served as a conduit to the outer world. I eventually reached Wangfujing, Beijing's primary shopping street, a pedestrianized version of Fifth Avenue. Most of the stores were of the bigger-is-better variety, shopping mall competing with shopping mall for grandeur and poshness, but mixed in with the upmarket facades was a food market where vendors hawked all manner of Chinese food, including some things that I'd be hesitant to eat even if I were starving in a desert.

A local in his early twenties approached me and started chatting me up. "Kevin" (as he called himself to Westerners) was a local art student whose sister studied at Stanford, and who was planning a trip to Chicago. He seemed eager to practice his English, and I soon let my guard down and allowed him to show me his nearby art studio cum dorm room. Most of the pieces were mediocre in form and content, but I was impressed with a sketch of a market scene and decided to get a feel for bargaining in Beijing. Negotiations lasted almost thirty minutes, and I parted with the sketch in hand.

I was eager to explore Beijing's primary attraction, the Forbidden City, but I had to be back at the travel agency to pick up my tickets, so I decided to put it off till the next day. I picked up a cheap pair of swim trunks at one of the shopping malls, then returned to the hotel for a dip before heading back to the travel agency.

In the evening I met up with Thembi, who had arrived in Beijing that afternoon, to celebrate her birthday. There were twelve of us in the group, all of which she had met during her Trans-Siberian travels, and I knew about half of them either through her or through coincidental encounters on trains. We headed off in three taxis to the chosen restaurant, but our taxi and one other got hopelessly lost and had to return to the hotel. The problem was that Thembi had shown the name of the restaurant (written in Chinese) to our taxi drivers, but no one in our taxis had thought to ask her for the name, so that when the taxi drivers failed to find the place we were completely at a loss as to how to figure out where to go. The solution was inspired: someone suggested we ask the clerk at the hostel where the phone booking for the restaurant was made to call the operator and trace the phone number from the logs. I doubt this would be legal back home, but it's apparently not a problem in China.

Dinner was mediocre, probably because the restaurant was more of a "cultural excursion" than a proper restaurant -- although I'm not sure how "cultural" fifty people standing up on a stage and bumping and grinding to disco music is. Fortunately we were in a private room, which obscured most of the ear-splitting noise. I found myself sitting next to Claudia, a large British girl, who was flying out of Beijing the following morning, and was so depressingly negative about every conversation topic -- especially Beijing itself -- that I had to limit my conversation with her lest my good mood be spoiled. We took a final drink on one of Beijing's touristy bar streets, then retired for the night.

Street stalls along Wangfujing
Vendors making their pitches

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