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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

This is why I travel

Or is it?

A German guy said that last night as I recounted my day. Isn't this the real reason we travel, he asked. In the end, aren't these the days we remember most? Yes, perhaps, but in the end, no, it is not why I came to travel!

The day in question. It started well. I woke up, took a shower. A bit of a stumble while debating how much it should cost to wash some clothes. Then a walk towards Tiananmen, near which is the place I thought I needed to go to extend my visa. On my way I walked through a lot of old neighborhoods, got some very nice pictures of homeless people, one of whom, a Mongol, had the coolest hairdo this side of Coolio. Then I arrived at the police station and was told I needed to take the subway up near Andingmen and go to an office there.

So, a ten-minute walk later, and then a 16-minute subway ride (and by the way, the subway here, while kind of clean, reminds me of the subways in Paris, with the sort of musty old smell in the waiting areas, and the smell of urine in the stairs leading down), and I was at my stop. Then, what was supposed to be a 500m walk turned into a 15-minute walk to the office and then I waited.

Now please keep in mind that I had been told the process should take a day or two depending on how much I wanted to pay, and that I only needed to bring my passport. With this in mind I had already purchased a train ticket on to Shanghai for the 27th, and had just my passport with me.

I waited in line a half hour and then it was my turn. Where are you living? I was asked. I gave him the card of the hotel I was staying at. I need proof you are staying here, he said. Do you have a phone, let me call them. OK, I said. Well, the people at the hotel did not have my information written down, and I guess told him I was not there. Despite me showing him my key the guy said I had to go get written proof I was staying there. This worried me. Why?

A half hour bus ride and a twenty minute walk later I was back at the hotel. The boss was there, smoking and stinking like most bosses seem to do here, and he said that they could not give me what I needed. Foreigners aren't allowed to stay here, then, huh? I asked. Nope. In less than five minutes, I had my things packed, my still wet clothes stuffed into a bag, and the money that I had already paid for the room in hand and was jumping in a taxi, praying I would be able to get to the station before it closed. I told the taxi to take me to a hostel that is inside a football (soccer) stadium and was there in 20 minutes. I booked a room and explained what I needed and then had to wait for 15 more minutes for an official looking sheet saying I was living there to be printed up. I apologized to the woman at the front desk for being so hurried and annoying and she laughed and said she understood. Then I helped her with a guy who spoke no chinese.

With paper in hand, I was back in another cab (this day not only ate up a lot of time but was bloody expensive with all the cab rides and such!) and on my way to the station again. Traffic was as bad as any I have seen in China, jammed and moving at the pace of a limping snail. After 20 minutes we arrived and I went to wait in line yet again.

When it was my turn, 20 minutes later, I gave the woman my stuff. She was a saint. Polite, smiling, even joking, and in English! (it seemed almost none of the people working in the foreigners section spoke much) Then I explained I had a train ticket for the 27th. When are you coming back? she asked. I'm not. Well, you won't have a passport then. I explained to her what the woman on the phone said, and she said, well, that's not right. It won't be ready until Friday. I'm sorry. There is a place you can go down the street, an agency, that will get it done quickly for an extra fee. How much? That I don't know.

So off I go again. I get to the office where nothing much of anything is happening. So, it is 160 RMB for the visa fee, I am told. And how much for the speed? 800 RMB. He said this with a straight face and I spat out my laughter. 800 RMB? (100 USD). You're kidding? No. Bye-bye, I said, and back to the office. Now, I was facing another wait in line, and the prospect of not even getting the passport in. I decided to walk a foggy moral line, given all my complaints of people not lining up in China, and I made myself visible to the wonderful woman I had dealt with before. Come here, she said. Thank you woman, you saved my sanity yesterday!

Just so you know, I told her, they want 800 RMB. What? she asked. You could by a plane ticket for that much. I know, I said, I was thinking for that I would just go back to Hong Kong and do the visa over again. We both agreed that the price wanted was the craziest thing we had ever heard. I gave her my passport (and let's all pray it is really ready by next Friday) and was off again.

One thing to note, here, as a segue into the rest of the day...there is a weeklong holiday coming up next week, and had I taken them my passport today, it would not have been ready until the 10th of October, so woman, again, thank you!

So, now I have a train ticket, but no way to use it. Off to the train station. Another bus, another walk. First I have to wait in line 20 minutes to return my ticket, and see a fight break out between a shady old man and a younger kid that he obviously ripped off somehow. The younger guy, obviously not a fighter, was literally shaking with rage and dragged the guy away to take him to the police. Then they were back and I don't know what all transpired but that was the entertainment for the line wait. I got all but 50 RMB of my money back for the ticket and then went into the train station to get a new ticket for Shanghai. The 30th, booked. The 1st booked. Go down to the information counter and ask there for next available date, I was told. So I go there. Any tickets for the 2nd? Yes. I'd like one. You have to go back over there to buy it. Oh, OK. Great. Five minutes later, I have it. So here I am in Beijing until the 2nd of October, praying that yesterday was just a one off sort of day, and that my visa process will be smooth and it will be ready by next week.

By the time this was all said and done it was 6pm and I needed to eat and have a beer. I did that and then walked back to the hostel, seeing a new part of town, the part of town that is being ripped apart and built back up, with expensive shopping and living. This area, Sanlitun, is also where all the embassies are and where the foreigners live and where a lot of the bars are. When I got back to the hostel, the stadium concourse was packed with people and they wanted me to give them a ticket to get through the gate. I'm living here, I said. And finally got through. The commotion? A concert from S.H.E. Now, for those who don't know S.H.E., which would be just about all of you, they are a very popular group from Taiwan, and one of their songs, Ai Yo, is a personal favorite of mine. [Fortunately, Alan can keep up with all of S.H.E.'s nanigans at their official website. Ai Yo!--ed.] They are three cutesy and tiny girls and another song, Superstar, is being played all the time in Chinese stores. Now they were giving a concert in my new backyard. How exciting!

So I sat outside and listened and chatted with the German, and a few Chinese guys and everything was right again. Then I went for a walk and found a street full of outdoor restaurants (kebab places) that were all full, the sidewalks and inside and I ate. The street was hung with red lanterns and strewn with garbage and full of Chinese spirit. I read an English magazine for the first time since I've been here (praise be!) and was just grateful that the day was coming to an end.

On a few side notes, inside the magazine there was a little section where some students and foreigners living in Beijing were asked about their dreams. One guy said his dream was to be ruler of a country where he could prosecute people based on the level of stupidity. He also mentioned that his father had died nof lung cacer. Meanwhile, in his picture, he has a cigarette dangling from his lips. It would seem he can not see for the log in his eye.

OK, I think that is about it. I am taking it easy today, as I didn't get much done by way of writing or studying yesterday. Also planning to check out Beijing nightlife with the travel writer I met earlier in my trip and some of her friends. Tomorrow will probably meet with another person met earlier on the trip, so it seems all might be well in Beijing now. I hope.

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