Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sino-Strugglet Relations

Everyone talks about travel as an education. And by everyone, I really mean the people I meet who don't travel very much at all. They ask me what I'm doing and I tell them I've been traveling for the past year and they say, oh, how wonderful, what and experience, that's so amazing, I wish I could do that, and all of it comes out in the tone of voice that let's you know that these people would be lost like Gilligan if they ever ventured anywhere outside of Blackberry wireless service and Starbucks range. And while some people might then spend the time after that revelation wondering if they are a Ginger or a Mary Anne (personally I think I'm a Professor...) I decided that I didn't have time to invent a coconut radio, and so, phone-less (let alone Blackberry-less), and uncaffinated (I, well, I don't know how to order coffee in Chinese. It's an issue), I stepped out into the world. Or at the very least, into the China.

But of course, when you visit a major city in any nation, from Kenya to Kuwait, it's always going to be a little easier then anywhere else. The thing about cities is that they are magnets for people, for immigrants, for languages and for English Menus. Traditionally cities were built on major waterways, take, for example, Egypt, as evidence, or the Roman Empire, or however the Vikings made it past the frozen tundra of Scandinavia and into our hearts and minds. But a fun fact about Shanghai is that while these days it may be one of the two cities people can actually remember exist in China (The other one is NOT Hong Kong. Come ON people, is history just something you learn from The Tudors? Please don't answer that..), if you think back about 80 years ago or so, Shanghai was a one horse town filled with ex-pats, opium dens, and young ladies from the east who wanted to look more like they were from the west. These days however, well, I mean, subtract the horse, add thousands of cars, bikes, and poorly designed scooters, and, frankly, keep the rest of that definition, and you have Shanghai in 2010. And while Shanghai these days may be mad, bad, and dangerous to know, it's not so very different then it was less the a century ago. It's bigger, richer, and more important, but it's got no fewer foreigners (if anything, it has MORE), and it's still a place where a girl can get herself around and, despite more then a few misunderstandings, make herself understand. But you know where that's NOT possible? Beijing. Or to be more specific, it's not possible on the 13 hour train ride that connects Shanghai in the south to it's more northern facing counterpart, the Big Dragon. (I don't think anyone acctually calls it that, but I'm going to make it a thing. Spread the word.)

Now, given that the trip between these two cities is so long, and given that if you go to China, you go Great Wall or you go home (to be fair, you go home either way, the People's Republic isn't a fan of long stays, residence permits or anything that would keep subversive Western ideas like "human rights" or "seated toilets" in the country), one might think that the methods to get to Beijing from Shanghai would be large and various. Not so, my friends, no so, let's not forget, this is China,
and China is a country where they figured out the least efficient way to do things and just decided to model everything on that. So you can book a flight from Shanghai's Pudong airport, if you like, and you plan it in advance, or, if you want to be a complete struggle (which I obviously always do), you take an overnight train. In an ideal world such a train would be comfortable and reasonable, and you would spend the evening sleeping away as the countryside breezes by outside, unobserved and unsung. But this is not an ideal world, to be fair, and it's made an even less ideal one by a little thing I like to call the Shanghai Expo. The expo is supposed to be a cultural event opening the city to the world but what it actually is is a huge pain in everyone's collective buttocks, raising prices everywhere and, if in any way possible, actually making traffic worse. And it hasn't even offically begun yet. So I couldn't get a bed, and I settled for a seat, figuring, well, it's wouldn't be the first uncomfortable night I'd had in my life nor the last. How bad could it be, right?

Well, not entirely wrong, Bad would be a misnomer for my 13 hours spent in a seated position, clutching my bags on my lap to deter potental passport thieves, and confronting the stares of the entire train car. Amazed by my pure dazzleing differentness, my fellow passangers spent the entire long and sweaty evening watching my every move, some covertly, some blatently, all curiously. When one of the ventured to give me a hesitant "hello", my rejoiner of "hello" caused ripples of reaction spreading out through the car, possibly through the entire train. Maybe they were suprised that a white person had taken one of the cheap seats. Maybe I look wildly hot as I drool onto my seat cushion at 4 in the morning. I really couldn't say. All I know is, when I was awoken at 6am by the dulcet sounds of Chinese pop-power ballads and the call of the wheeled congee cart, the stares were still there. Oh, well, so was my passport, so I really can't complain. Every part of my body aching from the ride, my clothing and hair emitting the sweet odors of the chili-beef ramen and green tea that had been consumed by my seat mates during the trip, I finally found myself blinking in the hazy dirty light of the Beijing afternoon.

Better enjoy standing up while it lasts, I thought to myself, in three days, you have to get back on the train and do it all again. And this time, I reminded myself, you really need to try and dress better. Apparently people are watching.

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