Across China to Korea
Seoul, Korea. 20:20 Sept 11th, 2006
So, this is the last entry in this travelogue. If I write any more it will become mere blogging. Somehow writing about travels seems so much more interesting than writing about mundane life, and yet, travel has become for me my mundane life. So, I guess in the end, I really am blogging after all.
As you could tell from the last entry (supposing you read it), I`ve been a bit burnt out for a while. Arguably, I hit the road burnt out. Its become a chronic condition, that were it not for the constantly changing scenery ennui would be knocking at my door. But velocity heals most wounds. So let that be the theme of this chapter.
The border crossing from Mongolia was only slightly ridiculous. They have a total of two people working passport control to stamp 20,000 passports, or so it seemed. Perhaps there were three people working. It doesn`t matter. We sat in the mildly hot sun in the Gobi desert for five hours waiting in and around our Jeep for our opportunity to cross into Chinese territory.
That`s ambiguous. What should be said is that I could not book the Orient Express that ran directly into Beijing. That train was completely booked for the month of August when I tried. I was there mid-august... Jesus has it been a month? Time flies no matter what you`re having! So, the best I could do from Ulaan Bataar a train to the border, conviniently located in the hotest corner of the country,and from there to take a jeep to the border.
When I say "take a jeep" what I mean to imply is to be wedged into a jeep. Incredibly so. For the brief periods when the jeep actually was moving (and walking, though not permitted, would have been much much faster) there was not room to wiggle one`s toes. Okay, I exagerate. With seventeen people in a russian jeep, you can still wiggle your toes. But every other ounce of space was spoken for. It was insane. This is not a jeep cherokee, mind you. This is a four seater with luggage in america. In Asia, the equivalent volume is normally six in the back, three in the front, for nine in a jeep. Tight, but normal. This was seventeen people in a jeep. Have you ever been in a car and not been able to accurately count how many people there were? I could not see everyone at the same time, and some people I could only hypothetically posit. But seventeen is a fair bet.
China charges you a fee at the border, a seventy five cent toll for using Inner Mongolia. Its the little things that make you feel special.
So the five hour border crossing was ridiculous, but I heard stories of worse. Once in Erlian, the standard of living was remarkably improved. Compared to Mongolia, China is clean, orderly, almost afluent. But here nobody speaks English. I`d almost gotten used to being able to handle the more rudimentary aspects of life when I had the misfortune to go... da da dun, once again to a fucking... oops did I say that out loud? Train station. They have an x-ray machine to scan luggage, a computerized ticketing center, and a CITS travel agency in a newly remodelled building. Did the ticket woman speak a word of English? No. Now, how many ways can you interpret the statement "Beijing?" I had to get the CITS (official travel agent) to come over to the window with me to sort out that she was not, under any circumstances, going to sell me a ticket to Beijing. She wasn`t even going to sell me a ticket to the station where I`d change trains to TAKE the train to Beijing unless I specifically asked for THAT ticket in Chinese. Or something. I wanted to punch the lady. I kept pushing money through the window, saying yes, whatever, to everything she said, I was in tears. Just give me a goddamn ticket to ANYWHERE! The train only goes one way, and that`s thankfully far far away from you!!! Her. God she was frustrating. So the next five people through the station were also westerners, all with the same question, and I just answered it for them. Was she thankful? No. Her job would require five words of English. Five minutes on the internet to acquire them. "Transfer at Jining" and "no direct train." Talking to a girl from Shanghai later, I found out that she actually COULD sell the onward ticket. Bitch.
Anyway, this was my introduction to China. I`m not one to let first impressions be my guide, but China has always struck me as an unncessary pain in the ass. Here is this country teeming with culture, bursting at the seams with history; every valley in every corner of the country unique from the other. But getting through the day can be a numbing headache. Okay, so I`m a snob. I had a Lonely Planet guidebook IN MY HANDS, used, at a bookstore in Ulaan Bataar. I knew what a nuisance travelling without it would be. There were phrasebooks galore. But I obstinately stuck to my guns and refused comfort. So, I got what I deserved. Second helpings, in fact.
So clearly, the thing to do in this situation is get as far off the backpacker`s trail as possible, as deeply into quotidian Chinese urban landscape as one can. And what I found was pretty interesting. Firstly, there are dozens and dozens of cities in China with a million-plus people that you`ve never heard of, never will hear of, and wouldn`t have any reason to hear of. Two of the cities I stopped in randomly were once Imperial capitals. But without the odd tourist map or randomly placed bilingual informational sign, you would never know any of these cities were older than fifty years. The country is modernizing, and in the regional capitals is very nearly comperable to a normal westernized Asian town. Not Quite to the standard of Japan, but well on its way. Still, its a rare, rare city that has anything at all historical left in its center. They are far too lived in for that. All the cultural sites are 15 or 30 kilometers out of town.
I stayed the night in the Railway hotel. For seven dollars I had my own room and bathroom, it was a bit run down and threadbare, but comfortable. After a night on the train from UB, I nearly had dreadlocks from the desert dust. My hair was thickly matted and a shower was wonderful. The next day I took a train to Jining, and my nerves somewhat shaken by China, I met up with three guys, two from Slovakia and one from Poland, and we travelled together for a couple days. My nerves frayed, I decided it was time to band together and let someone else make decisions for a while. In Jining, through a team effort, we got tickets to Datong with no trounble, and in fact, as I made my way out of the back woods of China, everything did become easier.
Anyway, in Datong the weather was terrible, and my friends learned the hard way about Foreign Exchange banks. In China, Korea, and Japan, only certain banks` ATMs are authorized for foreign transactions, and in China its normally only the Bank of China that will work. In Qingdao, one branch of the Merchant`s Bank worked... But basically, it can take a lot of searching and effort to find a bank that will give you money. Which they did the first day. I took the rainy day off to sit in the room and aclimate to China, and the next day set of for Taiyuan, while they headed of to Beijing. Datong is near the Great Wall and is famous for some Buddhist Grottos in the area and a certain temple. I skipped all the sites, and just concentrated on the grimyness of the city. It was pretty impressive. In most of the countries I`ve been to this trip the Graffitti has been indicative of... I`m not sure what, but it indicates. In China, all the graffitti was phone numbers. hundreds of phone numbers, painted usually with a brush and black paint. I showed some photos to a friend and most of them were for fake IDs or job offers. But other than numbers everywhere, almost no graffitti, and no spraypaint, apparently.
By the time I got to Taiyuan, I realized that all the hotels, especially the cheaper ones, would be clustered around the Train station. So I wandered off, and the first set of two I came to were not authorized for foreigners (India has the same restrictions...) They were the only obvious hotels in the area, and they told me that 2 kilometers from the station there was one hotel in town where I could stay. I opted for the other solution, which was to simply loiter around in front of the station for a minute until one of the dozen old ladies came up to me saying "Blah blah blah," which clearly meant "are you looking for a hotel?" Sure enough, I was not there five seconds when a really nice looking woman with a really genuine smile came up to me. I tried to get, you know, price, anything, out of her, but she just led me away, down a dark alley, then an even darker alley, then around the back of the building, and then onto the stage set for Metropolis complete with an ant-like line of Chinese travellers laboring under gunny sacks slung over their shoulders and back, toiling up stairs. I had to hurry past them to keep up with my guide. The stairway was unrelenting concrete, and outsized. But suddenly we emerged from the gloom onto a rooftop, and then incongruously a front door to a hotel, and then up more stairs, and into a livingroom like space, and there was this beautiful young thing who spoke English. She was in fact the first chinese person I`d met to that point who could hold a conversation, and she was young and attractive, and she wanted to spend the next day with me and show me around the town... My brain was immediately leaping ahead to what-ifs of absurd dimention...
Well, she showed me to my room, down a long dark hall, through two more locked doors, and it was one of these rooms that is only slightly larger than the bed, but with a window and T.V. I haven`t seen a room without a T.V. since Mongolia. And for 30 yuan, no complaints. After getting my bearings, running a sanity check, I went back downstairs to flirt with my new friend. I mentioned that I`d been kicked out of the other hotels in town, and she said yah, I wasn`t supposed to be staying there, which was why I didn`t sign any paperwork. I figured as much, since we hadn`t signed any paperwork in Datong either. But not ten minutes later, just as I finished eating, who shoud arrive but the police. It was like something out of a Pynchon novel, where simply talking about it makes it part of the narrative, and thus it is so. I was ushered into the nearest room, and locked myself in, brushing shoulders with the police, but keeping my head down and pulling a Jedi Invisibility Mindtrick. Curiously, they were looking for a suspect who was actually on the same train as me from Datong...
Anyway, after the excitement with the Police, she made me go to my room and stay there for the rest of the night. But the next day we wandered out under grey skies to explore the city. Central Taiyuan is actually pretty much a normal city. It could have been Cleveland, or Nagoya. Sidewalks were by and large being used for walking, streets were bustling, and they had a large city park with... because this is China, carnival rides, including a Log Flume ride... which people were riding... in the rain. Well, it was more of a light drizzle, but it was not waterpark weather to my mind. We found a place to sit and chat for a while before returning to the Hotel, and after another hour or two it was time for me to catch my train to Luoyang
So here was my mission. I decided that I was going to cut a swath right through the middle of the country, and bisect my last route through China. I was going to go to the Shaolin Temple, and then take the ferry from Qingdao to Korea. All for no very good reason other than it seemed like a reasonably direct route and avoided Beijing, which I wasn`t very interested in seeing again just yet. (However, Beijing has grown in my memories to be a city that I do like... curiously enough...)
I spent the extortionary 25 dollars for the sleeper car in the train, instead of the more reasonable 5 dollars for a hard seat. But I decided I needed some comfort. Everywhere I was beset by misinformation, and no information, and flying by the seat of my pants was leaving them as threadbare as the carpet in a chinese hotel. Besides, the other train was arriving at 2am, which I was not looking forward to. I arrived instead at 9am, with the intention of finding a smaller villiage in the mountains, some place, perchance, scenic, where I could base myself for a few days and explore the Shaolin Temple at my leisure. However, I`d so gotten in to the habit of going with the first tout to greet me at the station, and had so far abandoned my well-honed cross examination methodologies, that instead of getting a bus to the city I was intending, I ended up on a tour. Woah is me. The loathed tour. It seems the only foreigners who wander into Luoyang are going to the Shaolin Temple, and so they just put them on the bus and are done with them... Well, my cunning plan had a couple more holes in it, for it seems that in fact, I only had a couple hundred Yuan left, and if you recall the issues surrounding ATMs, I didn`t figure my luck in the provinces would be very good anyway. So, I abandoned myself to the tour, let myself be guided here and there, visited a 1500 year old Pagoda, a nunnery at which several emperial princesses once resided, visited one of the most Ancient Confucianist Universities and, bonus, a FOUR THOUSAND YEAR OLD TREE. I`m not very credulous on these matters of outragous dating, but jesus. This looked like an underestimate if anything. I`ve never seen a more gnarled, twisted, knotted, bent, propped up, pruned back, falling apart tree in my life. And I`ve seen me some trees. So, the tree was worth the price of admission and I never woulda gone there without being entrapped.
But the nicest bonus from the unintended tour was a girl from Shanghai who was there with her parents. This was the first culture shock I got in China. She was, like... totally normal. Only child of her parents, worked an office job, was taking a holiday from work with her folks, was pleased but not surprised to see a foreigner, was utterly conversational with her english, and was able to hold a conversation. You could drop her in L.A. and nobody would ever notice. So this is Shanghai, I was thinking. She kept me informed on the tour, and by the end of it we were actually just hanging out together. Its been so long since I`ve found a "local" who`s comfortable enough with foreigners to just hang out... At the end of the tour, her parents helped me to get a room at the railway hotel (wouldn`t otherwise have been my first choice... I`m done with hotels on railway lines... this one was literally on the platform. I could look out the window of the bathroom where I`d stand naked and watch people getting on and off the trains. It did at least have entertainment value in that...) So, after I was settled in, we went out for drinks, and I got to hear her play city mouse in the country. Overall, it was just one of the few really normal social interactions I`d had in months...
But t he Shaolin Temple in fact was worse than I`d imagined. It was burned down in 1929 by a local warlord, and rebuilt mostly around 1994. So it is beautiful, but very little of it looks or feels old. Probably 75 percent of the stonework, which I must say was excellently restored; it will last another 500 years, but still, it was new. The turtle stelle were old, various artifacts were old, and the last building in the complex seems to have survived from more ancient times. But by and large, it was a Theme park and a boarding school, There were few if any monks, the kids were in tracksuits, and as I was told, there`s no reason to go there apart from the name.
Luoyang, however is the site of the Largest Buddhist grottos in China. These are caves and buddhas carved into the sides of mountains, much like Ajanta and Ellora in India, and what once was ..ah... whatsitsname.... in Afganistan. Apparently it was fashionable in the 1000`s or something. Again, shitty weather, as you`ll see when I get the photos up... really low visibility. Its not like its foggy even, its just a haze so thick you can`t see more than 3 kilometers and it even blocks out the sun. But at least its not hot and muggy...
Luoyang was also several times an Imperial Capital. There are dozens and dozens of archaeological and cultural sites in the area. But, here again, I was only passing through. I was more interested in how livable the city seemed. There were several Plane Tree-lined boulevards, a nicely-scaled center of town, a modern shopping mall, and a Carrefour supermarket. Now, as I wandered through the store, it dawned on me that if they have a refrigerator dedicated to various creatures` feet, they ought to have a pound of coffee somewhere... If they have 50 varieties of green tea, certainly there`s gotta be a bean somewhere... if.... no. In fact, the shop had only nescafe. But, just beyond the registers, yes, that is a bean I see on that poster!!! And glory glory. I had completely given up on the hope of finding coffee, and not only do I find fresh ground coffee, but its french roast, with nice oily beans. Oh joy! (I ran out of rolling tobacco some time ago, and since I`vebeen in Korea, I`ve found whole bean, but its all like 15 or 16 dollars for 2/3rds a pound... but the hostel has Kirkland Colombian dark roast... which has gotten me through. Oh, I did find a package of Drum, but since its contraband here, she wanted 12 dollars for it.).
So, I found coffee, and like everything else, I kinda had to sort it out myself. Apart from my friend who was just travelling through, I didn`t meet a soul in that town who could speak a word of English. Just eating was becoming the biggest chore. I figured out La-myan, ( Ramen) as its called at the point of origin, and I could buy streetfood, but as for getting a proper meal at a decent restaurant? No dice. There were some really fancy restaurants with picture menus, but those places are so depressing to be in by yourself, and I was the only tourist hanging around for several days. I never saw another foreigner walking the streets there. My method for finding things has become a brute force, walk around the city in circles, look at every building, and analyze it for whether it meets any of your needs. I actually did that here in Seoul as well. Looking for a travel agent. Unsuccessfully. But in Luoyang, the real breakthrough was when I found the Internet cafe... The semiotics that indicated "internet cafe" were a certain CNC phone company sign, and a certain font on signs plastered repeatedly on the risers of some stairs inside a mall for Cellphones. It was a particular form of advertising and font and color choice that I recognized from Japan. And really I wasn`t sure. But I knew there HAD to be a massive 200 computer internet cafe SOMEWHERE in that town. They are everywher in China, after all.. And I canvased the entire city before I found that one on the second lap... Its brute force, but it works.
So after a few days in Luoyang, I took the train to Qingdao, my last stop in China, and my last trainride completing the trans-continentsal voyage. And damn if it didn`t get off to a fine start. Five AM, the station is packed, the platform is teeming. The train arrives? Its standing room only... before anyone boards the train. Fuck. Here`s where third class catches up with you. Cause, of course, everyone`s getting on the train. For the first two hours I ended up wedged between several groups of people and in between cars, just inside the transom linking two bogeys. but I managed to sit on my backpack, vertically, and of course, I had my morning coffee, and a book, so, I got by. And then I realized that I`m the moron, who with a completely open schedule, decided to take the train on a Saturday just before school gets back in session. My timing has been really pathetic lately... Anyway, around 7:30, we reached the next major city, and enough people got off that I was able to upgrade to the edge of a seat, third man on a seat for two, somewhat toward the middle of the car. And then about 6 or 8 hours into the ride, my seatmate got off and I had a whole seat to myself. Then about an hour out of Qingdao, I realized I was suddenly surrounded by really young looking girls. The youngest was clearly 16, and the oldest was about 23. And after they sorta magnetized around me, they eventually found one who could speak passable English, and... the standard conversation ensued. The one that makes me want to jump from moving vehicles... "where are you from? What is your job? Do you like China?" They are such simple questions, but they perplex and bore me to tears. But it was only for an hour, so I managed to struggle through...
So, pulling into Qingdao, I managed to come out through a different exit from everyone else, and so I actually walked a hundred yards before the first middle-aged lady hawking rooms found me. The second place she took me was actually the only hotel I stayed in in China that had what I would call "character." The staff was totally friendly; the main receptionist spoke the four or five words of English essential for her job (that`s all I ask! You know, room, one, two night, pay now...) The room was painted with green trim. And the smell of salt brine was in the air. I could tell immediately that I was at the beach. So I dropped my bags and consulted the memorized map, and my nose, and where that fails, just head downhill, eventually you`ll hit...
The sea. Tears of joy welled up in my eyes. I had completely forgotten that I was on a mission, but my heart knew; it was over. I had won. I made it. Coast to coast Across Europe and Asia. Without adventure, without incident, and without a story to tell. Overland the whole way. I can close my eyes and retrace every step. History springs to life, and I finally have a definitive Scale by which to measure the earth. It took about three months, and every last reserve of patience, but I made it. Mission accomplished.