China – Tian Jin
I packed my bags again last night, pre-flight.
Actually 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, there were already things going 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.
Yes, for a day I was pissed at being an American.
I stayed in Seoul for five days, seeing all the sights I didn’t see before, meeting random people 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.
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.
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 that came out of the water like two beautiful thoughts overwhleming the dark sea below it. I felt like they were something I could never hold or measure up to, standards I had given myself too high to ever achieve. I thought of the “idea rocks” children used to have and thought maybe bridges were always my own idea rocks.
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 that were being lifted by gigantic cranes that seemed to caw fanatically while holding Chairman Mao’s red book, barking out waves of black dust.
By the way, if you’re wondering about how the Chinese still see Chairman Mao, I’ll just say that there’s not an amount of currency that doesn’t have his picture on it.
A second out of the station 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 gave me about the scariest ride of my life.
We were on the drop off of the Chinese rollercoaster, screaming headlong and just waiting for something to lift us out.
Everything in Tainjin 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.
When we got to the train station to Beijing we were accosted by yet more bums, and after walking through them all I couldn’t hold my belongings with the same patronizing fear I had before. To these people, their lives were 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 any Japanese or Korean station.
From Tainjin to Beijing I began to think of a novel I’d just finished, Memoirs of a Geisha, which was educational about Japanese sex culture and that’s how I justify reading it. I recalled that before traveling, every Geisha would always check their astrological almanac to see if it was an auspicious time for traveling. I began to think I should have checked my almanac. So far, coming to China was getting scarier and felt more threatening by the second. Then, at the Beijing station, there were even more homeless people than in Tainjin, 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.
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, knowing the entire day I’d be walking along gigantic Beijing streets. And they 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 priviledge of being any fun, adaptable or easy.
Today I was attempting not to loathe these Chinese people who have drained the money I have. Anytime I decide to get in a taxi, or buy a souvenier, 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–yet you give them an inch and they feel you up until you’re starving on the streets.
These enemies of sight accost you at any tourist spot. They pose as “interpreters” or “tour guides” or “drivers” or just plain merchants but you can’t believe a word they say. If you get into a taxi they lock you in and make you pay whatever’s in your wallet. If you pay for a ticket they pretend they have no change and just keep whatever you intially gave them. If you hire them as a guide…well, God help you if you go anywhere with them alone.
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 experience the place in all its authenticity. A person on a tour or traveling with their parents in four star hotels wouldn’t know anything about what I’m posting here. But it’s the true, real, authentic China and it wouldn’t have gone away had I gone at a different time, place, etc.
On the upside, there are very nice Chinese people here. Just as long as I talk to them first, they can’t be up to any mischief…
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