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.

Days 618-620: Weekend at Bare Knees

10.09.10-12.09.10:

I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed the sight of legs.  Girls legs, to be precise, pins that go all the way up, if you know what I mean.  Brutally and unfairly covered since I left Europe, damn I’ve missed them.  You guys in the Middle East and India must be like completely retarded or something, it’s all well and good saying it’s your culture to deny me a glimpse of a teenage hottie in hot pants but at the end of the day, you guys are like total idiots.  It’s like going to a houseparty to discover there’s no booze, all the girls have left and everyone is sitting around quietly reading Dostoyevsky. And tutting.

Then again, if my daughter/sister/wife had an inch-thick monobrow and a moustache that rivalled Lord Kitchener’s, I’ll probably cover her up like some latter-day Elephant Man too.

China, on the other hand, has chosen to embrace the world of sexy legs and it’s skimpy shorts all the way to the Forbidden City.  Yes, I’m a wretched old perv and if there is a hell then I’m racing towards it on a jet-powered handcart, but Mao-o-Mao they’re good to see.

On Friday I picked up my Mongolian visa and would have been well on my way to the land of da Geng had it not been for somebody emailing me to ask how come I haven’t got food poisoning yet.  I mean, 20 months and 167 countries is a bit long to go without a dose of Montezuma’s revenge.  As if the food poisoning Gods spotted this mistake and sought to instantly rectify it accordingly, I was stricken down with a monumental case of 24 hour squits.  Best off sitting in and watching Entourage on DVD (which is nowhere near as dark and unsettling as it could or damn well should be… let’s face it, it’s Ugly Betty but for boys) and being just a few metres from the nearest flushable western style toilet and plenty of toilet paper.  Carl’s flatmate, Jeff helped me get my computer back on it’s feet (damn you Sony – you SUCK!) and the break from Chinese food for a few hours probably did me the world of good.

Carl was a very good sport for putting up with the SMELL OF TARTARUS that wafted around his flat for the best part of Friday and on Friday night we went out for din-dins with a group of his Beijing-y mates.  I didn’t stay out late, though… with Armitage Shanks calling me, I thought it best for everyone concerned (not least my jeans) to not keep him waiting.

On Saturday my back passage was back in tip-top order and again, I could have disappeared north to go see Kublai Khan’s stately pleasure dome, but Carl was attending the divorce (yes) party of one of his CouchSurfing chums and it sounded like far too much fun to miss.  And indeed it was – there were bridesmaids, there was cake, there were speeches (well, one speech) and it was at least 100 times more fun than a wedding, simply on the grounds that none of us had to go to a friggin’ boring old wedding before we started drinking.

I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who has made the cardinal error of thinking that once you get married he/she/it will ‘change’.  Ha!  Good luck with that, baby!  I’m with the Jesuits with this one – show me the child at seven years old and I’ll show you the man.  You can’t change ’em!  Once a dick, always a dick.  Get divorced!  Have a party!  Go out and see the world!

Afterwards, Carl took me to a Russian bar to watch some eye-poppingly lovely belly-dancing (sadly lacking in the Middle East these days – except on the King of Saudi Arabia’s yacht of course), a bit of sensational acrobatics on the old dancing poles (Anna you would have loved it) followed by a Russian OOMPH OOMPH band.

Needless to say, when the OOMPH OOMPH band came on, we bid a hasty retreat and found ourselves a nighty-nightclub in which to dance the night away.  I didn’t stay out as late as Carl (I wussed out at 3am) and on the Sunday morning I arose and made a determined effort to actually leave for Mongolia as soon as humanly possible and hit the snooze alarm for the thirteenth time.  By 5pm I was just about ready to leave for the border and after making my way across town to the bus station I was horrified to discover that the last bus left at 4pm.  This made little sense as it took 12 hours to get to the border and who in their right mind wants to get to the Mongolian border at 4am…??  Especially considering the damn thing doesn’t open until nine.

But as I stared up at the departure board in dismay and bewilderment (there on the board was a bus scheduled to leave at 8.30pm – something wasn’t right here) a random guy asked me where I was going.  I explained I wanted to go to Mongolia, but Hohhot in Inner Mongolia (halfway there) would do.  Always taking the opportunity to follow strange random men down darkened alleyways, I followed this strange random man down a darkened alleyway away from the bus station and soon found myself in a tiny convenience store buying a ticket for Hohhot.  The guy wanted 22 quid, but I laughed and said I’d pay 15, just for the cheek.  We agreed and he wrote out my ticket (local Chinese would probably pay 8 quid for the same ticket, but I’m well used to paying whitey tax by now) and I sat on a plastic chair outside the shop for an hour before I was bundled into a car (this doesn’t look like a bus!) and driven to the edge of town.  Luckily for me, I wasn’t forced to dig my own grave in a desert/corn field/pine forest, I was in fact dropped off behind the welcome sight of the overnight coach to Hohhot.

Day 621: Innies and Outies

13.09.10:

So there’s Inner Mongolia and there’s Outer Mongolia.  What’s the difference? I hear you cry… Well, it’s like this, see: half of the historic area of Mongolia is in China (that half being Inner Mongolia) and half of it is an independent and sovereign state which used to be called Outer Mongolia, but is now known by the more snappy and dynamic title of Mongolia.

The same thing has happened thousands of miles away in the country of Macedonia, made famous as the birthplace of a certain Alexander who was apparently (like Peter, Britain and Frosties) GR-GR-GR-GREAT!  Unfortunately for the Macedonians, the Greeks who control the southern part of historic Macedonia won’t allow Macedonia the snappy and dynamic title of Macedonia (on the grounds that they own the lower half and they don’t want hapless holiday makers getting confused) nor will they allow the name ‘Outer Macedonia’, no, what the Greeks have decreed (with all the common sense of a bunch of Trojans happily pulling a giant wooden horse into town) is that we all call Macedonia ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’  Yup, they want us to kinda explain everything in the title.  I mean, why call it ‘The Odyssey’ when they could have called it ‘The Journey Home from Troy Of The Greek Adventurer Known By The Greeks As Odysseus But By The Romans as Ulysses’?

Did I mention how much I love Chinese long distance buses?  Damn I had completely forgotten how unbelievably ace they are.  And now that I’ve caught the bus (or whatever happens to pass for a bus) in pretty much EVERY country in the world, and since you didn’t ask for it, here is my top 3 in reverse order.

3. Turkey: Free cups of tea, free internet, costs about 1 penny a mile.  Awesome.

2. Central America: Free food, BIG seats and unbelievably good films on the telly.

1. China. You don’t get a reclining seat, you get a BED. A real BED. Win!

And the worst?

3. Guinea: Two nights along a potholed dirt track in the jungle crammed into a shared taxi designed to fit 8 that somehow fits 16 sitting on the handbrake and handing out money AT GUNPOINT to every horrible policeman who demands it. But still infinitely more pleasant than:

2. UK (National Express): Overpriced nightmares of discomfort and horror. Take the overnighter from Liverpool to London at your peril. The driver will probably be drunk.

1. USA (Greyhound): Appropriate name as they treat their customer like dogs.  I would rather spend a night in a Congolese jail than on one of these horrible, filthy, wretched and insidious buses ever ever again.  This so called ‘public’ transport company is an embarrassment to the good name of America on a par with George W. Bush and Scientology.  I speak with utter authority on this matter: GREYHOUND BUSES ARE THE WORST IN THE WORLD.  AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE and if all else fails, walk.

Ah, that feels better.  Now, where was I?  Oh yeah – Mongolia.  So I arrived at the capital of Inner Mongolia, Hohhot, at some ungodly hour of the morning.  There I changed buses and headed to the bordertown of Erenhot.

The bus ride there was rather uneventful, except for the fact that some brilliant mind had decided that the otherwise dull fields of nowt that mark the approach to Mongolia should be livened up with the addition of hundreds of large metal dinosaurs.  And as every manchild knows, dinosaurs ROCK.

I was kind of expecting there to be a bus leaving Erenhot for Beijing around 8pm, which would allow me bags of time to cross the border, eat some Mongol Cuisine (yum!) hang out with the locals and then get the bus back to the capital of China – after all, this was going to be a border-hop: there and back again.

So imagine my horror when I arrive in Erenhot to discover that the last bus leaves at 4.30pm.  I looked at my watch.  It was 2pm.  No time for love, Dr. Jones.  This was going to be all business.

Unfortunately for the sake of my sanity, it took me TWO HOURS just to cross the border.  The Chinese and the Mongols have a mad system (which also exists in a few countries: the border between Romania and Moldova being a good example) in which it’s illegal to cross the border on foot.  This creates a NICE LITTLE EARNER for the owners of the clapped out jeeps that ply the 500 meters between the border posts.  Ten quid to be crammed into the boot of a 4×4 (I sat on a large tin of beans) and driven half a kilometre across no man’s land is not something I would usually pay for, but time was short and I had little choice.  I decided to make up the loss by forgoing dinner.

The trip across the border was also prolonged by confusing stemming from my Chinese visa, which, as I had come through Tibet, was not stamped in my passport, but printed on a sheet of paper.

But eventually (being the operative word) and after much smiling and nodding, I made it into Mongolia: COUNTRY NUMBER 168.  By now it was 4pm – the last bus back to Beijing was leaving in half an hour and then I learned that this Mickey Mouse border that separates two of the biggest countries in the world closes at 5pm anyway, so unless I wanted to spend the night in Mongolia, I had to get truckin’.

So I turned around and walked back into China.  As I was the ONLY PERSON in the entire frickin’ world who seemed to want to go to China at that exact moment in time, you would think it would be a quick and painless procedure, even if the border guard was a little perplexed about why I would leave China to just come back again five minutes later on a different passport.

But no, the process ended up taking 45 minutes, by which point, the chances of me getting on this damn bus seemed slimmer than an anorexic stick insect that’s just been run over by a steamroller, since it should have left 15 minutes ago, but I still charged pell mell into the Erenhot bus station shouting Beijing! Beijing!

A plump middle aged lady came to my assistance.  ‘Beijing?’

I nodded frantically.

‘Come.’

And with that I was again bundled into a car and driven to the edge of town.  There seemed be a pattern emerging here.  Anyway, all aboard the night bus to Beijing!  As I watched the dinosaurs pass by, posed majestically against the setting sun, I was content in the knowledge that Mongolia could be ticked off the list and I was on schedule to get the ferry to country number 169, South Korea, on Wednesday.

Day 622: The Great Wall

14.09.10:

Sometimes I had good days, sometimes I have bad days, sometimes I have days that are madder than Mad Jack McMad of the clan McMad.  Today was one of the mad days.  It all started at 2am when my bus pulled over at the side of the road and the driver’s mate gesticulated for me to get off.  Are we in Beijing already?  We’re four hours early…

Sleepy-eyed and completely not with it, I got off (hoping I had grabbed all my stuff) and was herded onto another bus.  You see, my bus wasn’t full enough to justify going all the way to Beijing, so I was to get on another bus that was a little more full.  Well, make that TOTALLY FULL.  Which meant that for the next hour while all around me slept the sleep of angels in their little Chinese bunk beds, I was unhappily STANDING IN THE GODDAMN AISLE.  When it became abundantly clear that there was no way out of this situation, I took the executive decision to make an arse of myself and demand my money back.  So I barged my way to the front of the bus and started shouting at the driver, at which point (possibly because the Chinese HATE to ‘lose face’) the driver’s mate clambered down from his bunk and offered me his bed.

I didn’t need to be offered twice.  I snapped up the bed and fell fast asleep.  Then at 5.30am the driver’s mate decided that he wanted to have a conversation with somebody at the very back of the bus (or on the roof, I don’t know) and as the Chinese are blessed with the highest toleration of noise this side of a howler monkey, the ensuing racket woke me up.  Convinced that there was either a fire or we had arrived, I put my socks on and got ready to disembark.  Oh yeah: there’s the Beijing West train station, I know where I am.

Some people got off the bus, so I thrust my shoes onto my feet and headed for the door, at which point the driver’s mate pushed me physically back onboard.  WTF?  I wasn’t in the mood for this, not after last night’s shenanigans.  I pushed him back and told him in no uncertain terms that I was getting off the bus.  Bizarrely, the driver then told me that I had to pay to get off the bus here.  How much?  10 Yuan (that’s about a quid).

FINE.

I took a 10 yuan note from my wallet, threw it on the floor and marched off the bus.  I was doubly pissed off because I had decided that I really liked Chinese buses as well.  Now I didn’t like them so much, but until somebody else puts beds on buses then I’m afraid they’re going to remain the best, even if they suffer from occasional Greyhound syndrome.

Anyway, it was now 6am and the day was yet young.  The bus to Qingdao, the coastal port from which I could get the ferry to Korea, would be leaving Beijing sometime in the evening (I hoped) and so I had a day to kill, and I had a promise to keep with an old friend…

The Great Wall of China is a masterpiece of human endeavour.  Even if it never really worked (it didn’t keep Genghis out) it still stands out as an artistic and engineering triumph, winding its way in now broken sections from the Jade Gate in the far West all the way to North Korea in the East.  The Lonely Planet recommended against visiting the bit of the wall in Badaling (which is where I visited) on the grounds that it’s full of tourists.  Silly pretentious Lonely Planet, I AM a tourist.  Lemon.  What’s with people wanting places all to themselves anyway?  Are all the girls in bikinis spoiling your beach?  Are all the people having a good time in your living room ruining your party?  If all the people in the world camped out in your back garden, would you write and tell the king?

Or would you grab a tent and join ’em?

Tell you what, though, I wish other people would learn to take a photograph.  When I throw you my camera, DON’T PUT MY HEAD IN THE LOWER MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN PICTURE!!  I’m sure the sky is lovely and one day I might take a picture of it myself, but for the love of God: HEADS, UPPER THIRD OF PICTURE, PLEASE.  ALWAYS.

THANK YOU.

Anyway, the crowds were an added bit of entertainment and it was nice to be around lots of people who were enjoying themselves.  The wall was great, although it was a stinking hot day and with my backpack and my laptop/camcorder etc. to carry, boy it was a killer climbing up that hill.

In a bit I had to climb down, and the fact that I desperately need a new pair of shoes became painfully obvious as the shiny polished stones were like an ice rink: one that is disturbingly vertical.  Anyone who has braved Dubrovnik in Croatia in high heels (and who hasn’t?!) will know exactly what I’m talking about.  I slid all the way down, clinging onto the handrail for dear life.

Fun!

Anyway, enough walling for one day, I headed back to Beijing to meet with Carl and pick up my gear that he had kindly let me leave at his.  After a (much needed) shower I was raring to go to the Forbidden City and see Tiananmen Square for myself.  Carl was up for it, so we took the metro down to the very middle – figuratively and geographically – of Beijing.  Tiananmen was a little meh; too big, too surrounded by yawn and, well let’s just say it – it looked a little like a carpark.

The Forbidden City, on the other hand, was exceptionally groovy from the outside and, like St Peter’s Basilica and Samarkand, I made the executive decision to save the inside for another day: to leave some more stones unturned.  Climbing the Great Wall was enough for one day.  Beijing: I like you.  I’ll be back.

Everybody knows that the best place to get travel information is at a backpackers.  Luckily for me, Carl had been staying at a nearby hostel before he moved into his current flat. Like the Major in Fawlty Towers.  So he knew the staff pretty well and we were their to pick their brains about bus times to Qingdao.  Happily, there was a bus leaving at 7.30pm, which was the time I was hoping the bus would leave.  Carl and I celebrated with the biggest glass of beer you have EVER seen.  It was so big it had its own tap.  And a tube of ice in the middle to keep it cool (the Chinese man, they think of EVERYTHING!).

Unfortunately, it was so big it took us an hour to drink the damn thing and by then it was looking a little late for me to get to the bus in time, considering I still had to go back to Carl’s, pack my bags up and head halfway across town.  But we gave it a red hot go.

I said goodbye to Carl on the steps of the Dongzhimen Station (I wonder if Chinese people find ‘Dong’ and ‘Wang’ as hilarious as I do – then again, nobody thinks the ‘turd’ in Saturday is even remotely funny except for me and the less said about Scunthorpe the better).  Carl’s a good egg, and if you’re ever in need of a couch in Beijing, I couldn’t recommend a more generous host.  Cheers man!

So it was a heart-pounding RACE to the bus station.  It would have been good to have an hour to make the journey.  As it was, I had half an hour.  The first metro line train came straight away, which was great, however the second train I had to transfer onto was a) miles of winding tunnels away and b) just pulling out of the station when I got there.

So I had to wait for the next one.  But even when I had got to the destination station, the bus station was still a while away.  It was 7.25 and things were not looking good.  I needed a taxi and none were stopping.  At 7.33 I arrived at the bus station, but the driver dropped me on the other side of a massive dual carriageway which meant I had to RUN up the stairs (with all my bags which are now collectively weighing a TON), cross the bridge and come down the other side.  And then…

And then….

Where the HELL is the bus station??  One thing about China that’s worth worrying about: hardly anybody speaks English.  Yes, hurray for the Chinese they are just as completely inept at learning other languages as I am.  Which is great.  If you’re Chinese.

I asked a few passers-by, but to actually get the one English professor in the whole of China who actually understands the words ‘Bus Station’ was going to be the statistical equivalent of winning the Lotto.  Without actually buying a ticket.

I had two choices: left or right.  I went left.  Within 50 yards there was a narrow driveway.  A coach was entering it.  I ran after the coach down the dark and forbidden driveway of doom.  And there it was: the bus station, inexplicably hidden from the outside world by a bunch of noodle shops.  I ran inside.  The place was empty.  The lights were off.

There were two women at a small counter by coach bay door number 16 who were packing up for the night.  Like the previous two nights I ran towards the women shouting the name of my destination.  One women shook her head.  “Tomorrow”.

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!! I said, doing my best Vader and banging my head on the counter.

The women then started talking to her friend in Chinese.  They looked at me, saw the despair, the longing, the joy they knew that only they could bring with those three magic words…

“Come with me…”

A broad smile cracked across my face.  I had beaten the system.  Again.  Hurray for China, man, THREE CHEERS, BRAVO.  These guys know something that the less mentally agile denizens of Planet Earth do not: rules are made to be bent.  I was put on a bus that was leaving that very moment, but before I had even managed to sit down I was put on another bus which I assumed was the bus to Qingdao, but wasn’t – it was the bus that was taking me to the bus to Qingdao.  I assume that they were taking the same route out of town and that they called ahead to ask the Qingdao bus to wait for me.

Anyway, one way or the other, I was soon curled up on my amazing Chinese bus bed dreaming my way to Qingdao and beyond.