CHINA!

Trip Start Sep 30, 2006
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Trip End Jan 16, 2010


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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The past 24 hours, in one word - intense. My 12 hour flight turned into a 16 hour ordeal when our flight was held for some connecting passengers and then we had to wait to get re-cleared to go into Russian air space. Once that was taken care of, a new snag: because they shut off the engines to conserve fuel, a starter for one of the engines sheared and seized. Due to United's bankruptcy situation, there was no new part in San Francisco, so get this - they took a starter off another plane that wasn't scheduled to go out yesterday. Really comforting when you are about to cross the Pacific!! And says a lot about the US air industry these days. 4 long hours after we were brought onboard, we finally got into the air. Once airborne, the trip went well. A few bumps along the way but after our tarmac torment, no problem. Wearily waking to arrive in Beijing airport, I am greeted by sparkling marble floors and walls, fantastic artwork and replicas depicting China's treasures and the epitomy of modernity, the ATM machine. Which I promptly use, after I visit the flush toilets with the cleanest floor I have ever seen - and ever want to see, so clean that I stare down at the floor only to see the reflection of the person in the next stall!!! That will wake you up. At the neighborhood surrounding the hostel, the story is very different. At night, I distinctly smelled the familiar, bothersome odor of burning coal. When I lifed in Dublin, coal was burned in residential homes for heat in the winter, and I guess here in Beijing it is being used for home heating in 2006. The result is soot covering everything from cars to sidewalks to streets. The paradox between the effort to showcase the new China when entering the country and the reality of daily life in the neighborhood where I am staying is glaring. I wanted to write today even though I took it easy and didn't do all that much, recovering from the long ride.
However, here in China's capitol you don't have to do much to see a lot. As I strolled through the bustling streets looking for something to eat, I saw everything you can imagine. Businesses hidden underneath ancient Chinese architecture storefronts - I wonder how old these are, Chinese characters and writing on buildings, bus stops, newstands and cars, advertisements with European women as their sales persons, mopeds outfitted with pickup truck style beds, schoolchildren in uniform running to get sweets and opening a toy surprise package, cars parked and driving on the sidewalks beeping at pedestrians, a parking police parks a bike more efficiently to allow the car to pass, a man sweeping the sidewalk of huge piles of dirt and construction debris with a broom made of sticks, government buildings in massive, communist block style with soldiers standing guard at the entryway, assisted by the latest high-tech cameras and surveillance equipment. I also see block after block of men in single file squatting down in the dirt digging out rocks and weeding, planting tufts of grass. I cannot figure out the purpose of this activity other than it looks as if they are all in front of government buildings, so I decide this grass planting effort is a government sponsored employment project. Or prison detail, I don't know, but it doesn't seem that they are accomplishing much. I am staying in a residential alleyway known as a huotong, where people hang outside their houses and just check out who's passing by. When I come along, large and white with red hair and big boots (too big for my pack) I get a lot of stares and many smiles, especially from the women. Men who are brave say "Hello" and I smile back, as it is the only word I recognize in my hour long scramble through the bedlam of bicycles, cars, buses and pedestrians. Somehow, with a distinct harmony of flow and remarkable efficiency, there are no accidents when I am sure some inattentive person is going to be killed at any instant. Especially me!! After navigating across one street in front of cars and city buses, I have a near collision with a careening bicyclist, who I could not see behind the bus. A ring ring ring and a loud yelp got my attention. I look at the block long intersection of Pan'ang Dalai St. and am amazed at the symphony taking place before me, and now as I cross the street (and succeed) I become part of the music. So incredibly different from Canada, where some of the towns I visited could have been any rural US city. This is China. This is Beijing. I am traveling now.
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