Day 617: Raise The Red Lantern

09.09.10:

Arriving groggy-eyed in the big Chinese Cheese that is Beijing, I had work to do.  First up, I needed to pick my second passport up from Fed-Ex. This may seem like a bit of a pedestrian thing to tell you, but if anyone is wanting to know the inner-workings of The Odyssey and perhaps one day replicate them this is the kind of thing you need to know.  Getting a Chinese visa in Nepal cancels any other Chinese visas in your passport.  To get around this (since I’m going to have to leave and re-enter China a bunch of times to get to Mongolia, Korea etc), I had hatched a cunning plan which involved my mum and dad getting me a double entry visa for China in my second passport and sending it over to me.  Well, actually – they sent it to Chris and Debbie, my buddies from Liverpool who live in Shanghai.  Chris and the Debster were supposed to come up to Beijing to meet me, but you know the best laid plans blah blah blah – with visa difficulties of their own, they couldn’t make it over to the capital.  Chris, the good egg that he is, posted the passport and it was my job to pick it up.

Annoyingly, Fed-Ex have a habit of situating their warehouses on a industrial park on the edge of town. Yes gone are the days of the choo-chooing mail train bringing yonder wares into the city centre to be deposited in vast houses of brick and stone.  Now it’s a big metal shed on the outskirts of the A1325.  Wouldn’t be too bad if that was just the situation in Croydon, but when it’s the situation in Houston, Dubai, Rome, Melbourne and – yes – Beijing it all gets a little depressing.  I suppose the rent is cheaper and it’s easier to truck the stuff in from the nearby airport.  Again profit trumps romance.  Isn’t that bizarre when the most profitable commodity on Earth – diamonds – only retain their value because of a misguided (but evidently manipulated) sense of romance – go figure.

It took me a good couple of hours to track down the ever elusive Fed-Ex warehouse (the utterly useless Beijing address system didn’t help), but then there was a problem as I didn’t have the full tracking number.  I do have a passport with my name on it – are the more than one package there addressed to ‘Graham Hughes’?  Hmm… right…

So a couple of calls to Chris in Shanghai… I got the number and then I got my package – happily included (thanks mum!) was my SE Asia Lonely Planet, some more Odyssey business cards and a bunch of new passport photos.  But the big prize – my other passport – was all I needed for phase II of today’s operation.  It was time to head FULL PELT to the Mongolian Embassy.  Fearing the time, I took a taxi, but on Thursdays the embassy doesn’t open until 2pm so I needn’t have worried.

After queuing for an hour and a half I finally put my passport in for the Mongolian visa (which would be delivered tomorrow YEY!) I jumped in a taxi back to Beijing West railway station to pick up my backpack which I had left in left luggage.  After being stuck in the most epic traffic jam I’d ever seen for ten minutes I jumped out and scooted down into the Beijing metro.  For getting to Fed-Ex, Chris had suggested I take the bus as the Beijing underground ‘wasn’t as good as Shanghai’s’, which is a bit like saying that the escalators in Liverpool aren’t as good so I might as well take the stairs.  On the contrary, the Beijing metro was great – cheap as chips and it could whizz me from one end of town to the other in half an hour.  Given the gargantuan traffic jams on the surface, I cannot hesitate to recommend.

The train line to Beijing West isn’t finished yet so I had to walk from the Military Museum metro stop.  Getting back to the train station I cursed myself for being so groggy this morning – I had NO idea where the left luggage place was.  To make things worse, there were several left luggage offices in the one station (what is that? Privatisation?).  Consequently, it took me an hour to find my damn bag.  This wouldn’t have been so embarrassing if my CouchSurf host, Carl, wasn’t waiting for me to turn up at his gaff on the other side of town.  I hate being late.

Looking at the map, Beijing is unbelievable symmetrical – it’s rather amazing in a town so old, every other city dating back centuries – London, Paris, Cairo, Rome… is a higgledy-piggledy mess of spun by a gigantic and possibly inebriated spider.  This kind of North-South-East-West grid is something out of a 1980s text adventure game.

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>West

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>North

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>West

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>South

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>Pick up Beijing

Syntax Error.

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

But it fitted in nicely with both the concept of Feng Shui and the architecture of communism (in which anything organic is seen as decadent and dishonest: for more information, look at EVERYTHING BUILT IN THE LAST FIFTY YEARS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD) so I guess that makes it crazy double total Chinese, and that’s what Beijing is, in a nutshell: crazy double total Chinese and it’s actually more fun than you would ever give it credit for.

So I (eventually – soz Carl!) reached Carl’s place and laid down my weary bag.  That night Carl took me out around the Qianhai Lake area – mucho destructo by ol’ Chairman Mao-o, but now lovingly restored to some assemblance of disorder.  This is where you’ll find your old Beijing, but also (as is the yin and yang of it all) where you’ll find the most expensive beers in town.  We grabbed some street-eats outside the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower (home of the fabled whisky and rolling tobacco of Master Kong) and then settled in for a beer or two in the tiny Twenty Square bar (called so because it’s 20 square foot).

There I spun a disbelieving Carl, who hailed from Perth, that most suspicious of places, a story of a hapless ranga from Merseyside who had single-handedly conquered 84% of the world without once taking to the air.  My tall and improbable tale might have remained just that: tall and improbable, if it wasn’t for the fact that the only other people in the bar, a couple of scousers from a little place I know called West Derby (what are the chances?!), happened to recognise me off the telly – they had been living in Qatar and following my adventures on Nat Geo Adventure.

Look Mum, Fans!!

‘Alright, I believe you mate’ said Carl and threw me a bottle of Tsingtao.

Author: Graham

Adventurer, filmmaker, blogger, double Guinness World Record Holder. The first person to visit every country in the world without flying. I currently live on a private island in The Caribbean that I won in a competition.

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