China For Beginners

The beauty of traveling in a foreign country where most people don't speak English is that you're free to discuss the workings (or failings) of your digestive tract in public without anyone around you raising an eyebrow. You should be sure, however, that when you accidentally slam your foot into a bicycle pedal and unleash a torrent of expletives hitherto only heard in a Sex Pistols interview circa 1978 that you're not standing in front of a tour group of bemused schoolteachers from Dayton, Ohio, who are hardly able to hide their mirth, but are neverthless impressed with your vocabulary. Also, if you're going to be talking about the people in your immediate vicinity, make absolutely sure that they definitely can't speak English. After Sean and I had been complaining openly about the vicious smell emanating from the trainfarters---thanks, Gallaudet, for this excellent new word---we both froze in panic when one of them greeted another passenger with a Mandarin word that sounded suspiciously like "Whaaaaassup?" Later, he said something else that I swear was "Yo, Rob." Either Mandarin sounds a lot like like early 90s slang or the trainfarters were totally onto us.

So anyway, what have you been doing lately? Because I'm just going to throw this out there, all casual like I didn't have to buy special hiking shoes that made me cry with their ugliness or anything, but guess what? I climbed the Great Wall of China!

I KNOW! I couldn't really believe it either, especially since it took four hours and was mostly uphill, because Sean insisted on us doing the hardcore section (Jinshangling to Simatai) rather than the touristy mecca of Badaling, where I probably could have got away with scuffing my foot around in the dirt and taking a few pictures. But no, this was proper climbing! Well, sometimes it was more crawling than climbing, and sometimes it was descending backwards, but ALWAYS it was sweating, sweating, sweating, and finally it was over. And this from a girl whose credo is a line from a Lemonheads song: "I can't go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend; what if something's on TV and it's never shown again?" I sincerely hope you're as impressed as I was, and if you're not, I shall show you the pictures of the rubble-strewn paths, and the rickety rope bridge that was like being drunk, and the 70-degree inclines, and then we'll see what you have to say about that. And if that really doesn't work, I'll show you the shoes. OH MY GOD, they were ugly. Yoiu'd cry too. Just don't do it in a youth hostel.

The bus ride out to the Wall---packed to the gills with every other twentysomething backpacker in Beijing---was like a U.N. summit; I heard French, Dutch, German, Croatian, and Slovenian being spoken, as well as English in Australian, Canadian, American, and British accents. There was certainly more than a little of the field trip about it, although during the field trips of my youth the bus driver never almost crashed the bus twice or leaned on the horn the whole way there. Sean and I took the opportunity to practice a little more Mandarin, something we've been doing a lot of lately. Mostly, it entails us trawling the streets of Beijing, muttering a few phrases to ourselves over and over again to ensure we get them right when they finally need to be used. Sometimes I get a little worried about how we must appear to the locals; a couple of grubby travelers, wandering the streets whispering "post office, post office, rice, where is the toilet, that's too expensive, no seafood, can I please have the bill?"

Things I've seen over the last few days include the following: babies sitting in the front baskets of bicycles; newspapers posted daily on community bulletin boards for everyone to gather around and read; a Taco Bell with tablecloths, margaritas, and waitresses; an old man sweeping the street in nothing but his boxer briefs; and the confused expression on a dozen faces when we tried to book a ticket to Vietnam. Apparently the international train from Beijing to Hanoi is the city's biggest mystery; the Lonely Planet seems to know about it, but no-one else does. One poor desk clerk at a hotel stared at us in anguished puzzlement for a good five minutes, repeating "Vietnam? You want to go where? Vietnam?" before a lightbulb finally went off above his head, a flash of understanding crossed his worried teenage face, and he exclaimed "Oh, Vienna! In Austria! You want to go to Vienna!" The Mandarin pronounciation of Vietnam, we've since discovered, is "YU-en-aah," and finally knowing this has saved us a huge amount of hassle. We eventually procured tickets for Thursday's train journey in a dark and dusty corner of a bank a block away from the train station, where a woman sat under a bare lightbulb and hand-wrote our tickets after we'd given her both a self-effacing laugh and a piece of paper with the Chinese characters for "Hello! I'd like to book two train tickets!" written on it. I'm not feeling particularly confident about this train journey, though, as I fear we may be the first people to be taking it in the last half-century. When we looked at the tickets afterwards, they still said Peking. The city, if you remember, is now called Beijing.

In other news, our hostel has been overrun by a pack of affable teenage Irish boys, half of whom remind me of my brother Tom (hi, Tom!) and the other half of my Irish friend Huston (hi, Huston!) They cleared the fridge out of beer the first night they arrived---it is 40 cents a bottle, so I'm not sure I can really blame them---and they hung an enormous Irish flag in the lobby. Do they just travel around with this Irish flag, I wonder, hanging it wherever they stay? After they'd helped carry another crate of beer to the fridge before they left for dinner---"so it'll be cold when we get home!"---I heard one of them look around in amazement, sigh, and whisper "God, this place is great."

And I'm inclined to agree with him. I'm finally feeling at home in Beijing, though it's taken a week, and of course now we're about to move on again. The girls in the restaurant where we go for dinner most nights always laugh at us, and it's okay, I'd laugh at us too. We sit under a television which is always showing the Chinese equivalent of Starsearch and we grapple with our chopsticks and mangle our pronounciation, and our bill is never more than $3 and we're always smiling at everyone who comes in, and they smile back, and then we walk back to the youth hostel and fetch another beer from the fridge, and it's glorious, this way of living.

Yesterday evening, as we were sitting outside on the sidewalk at a table that had been moved out of the restaurant just for us, the sun came out in Beijing for the first time in a week. We were eating with my friend Katharine---a girl I'd known back in Charleston, and whose face it was immensely comforting to see in an unfamiliar city---and a rainbow appeared in the sky above the city. "Traveling is hard work," the Scottish girl in my dorm had said the other day before she left, "People think you're just going on holiday, but sometimes it's actually a real struggle." I thought about what she'd said as we devoured a plate of boiled peanuts and Katharine waved at the people she knew walking by, calling to them in Mandarin, pointing out where she bought vegetables and where she swam in the lake. Yes, traveling is hard work when you don't have clean clothes and you can't pronounce Vietnam properly and you're constantly woken at 6am by the sound of zippers being zipped and plastic bags being unpacked and repacked as people creep out to catch planes and trains. But it's not hard work at moments like this, I thought yesterday. Not at moments like this.

Aug 15, 2006

I am insanely jealous. That's all.

Aug 15, 2006

You absolutely must collect all of these posts and put them together in a Nothing But Bonfires traveling book! I really feel like I'm right there with you, experiencing all of these places and adventures. What an incredible experience--I'm really inspired by you and Sean!

Aug 15, 2006

Oh, I'm with Angela. Definitely put these into a book! Something like Eat Pray Love but maybe you could call it Laugh Mutter Travel or something like that.

Aug 15, 2006

Oh! I missed this blog immensely.

And I completely know that feeling of being in foreign city, totally frustrated, and then just having that moment where you felt completely comfortable and proud of yourself for just freaking being there. Congrats!

Aug 15, 2006

Last night my husband asked me, "Why are you suddenly all lying around with your iPod all the time, looking into space?" and I told him, "Because NBB is traveling and I have been reading her blog and I am re-living my youth. Now go away and stop reminding me I'm in Iowa."

Aug 15, 2006

Ha! Ugly hiking shoes! I would also cry. I hate those things. I also hate "comfort shoes" like Danskos, which try to be both comfortable and stylish but still look awful.

Aug 15, 2006

What a lovely post.

And I was very glad to see Nothing But Bonfires was up again -- I, too, was wondering what had happened. (Chinese censorship aside, did you ever find out?)

Aug 15, 2006

70 degree angles, rubble and rickety ropes? I am impressed. Very impressed. Especially as I would have been crawling on my hands and knees the whole time whimpering about steep drops. (I'm assuming there are steep drops).

Ugly shoes notwithstanding - you did us proud!

Aug 16, 2006

Bravo! Well-done from a fellow "If it can't be done wearing cute shoes, I'm NOT doing it" girl. There MUST be a NBB travel book, I agree with Joy and Angela. I'd buy it in a red second, (no pun intended) and I'm sure loads of other people would as well. Nothing but Trainfarters? Southeast Asia for Pretty, Pretty Couples?

Aug 16, 2006

Please, please, pretty please - with a cherry on top write a book about your travels. I so enjoy reading about your adventure that I am now getting the itch again - ugly shoes notwithstanding.

Climbing the Great Wall is on my list to do before I die - I am insanely jealous that you have done it - and the hard part as well. Kudos to you both!

Book! Soon! Please!

Aug 16, 2006

Sigh. Your last paragraph sounded, well, so romantic.

Where are the photos of the hiking shoes? Their ugliness must be judged, and quickly.

Aug 16, 2006

Mmmm, hiking shoes. They can be fun, really! Try this: put on hiking shoes and stout socks, and lederhosen, and nothing else. Sean will like you, I promise.

Aug 16, 2006

How pissed would you have been if you'd have ended up in Vienna? Of course, I hear the coffee is very good there, and they have such yummy Linzer cookies and probably nicer shoes.

Have you had any snake wine? My parents (and Tom too) had to try it, and duck tongue snacks, which evidently tasted like mouldy cat toes and bottled bad breath. I double dog DAAAARE you to eat one of those scorpion kababs. And I demand photographic evidence. Go on, DO IT!

Oh, and I got a haircut. Very lesbian with UNDERNEATH layering. The stylist told me all about the men she meets online who cheat on her. Exciting stuff.

Heather B.
Aug 16, 2006

You are truly living the good life right now. I - along with many others - am insanely jealous right now.

Serenity Now
Aug 16, 2006

I am so jealous I have a deep yearning to get on a plane and do exactly what you are doing.

Aug 17, 2006

I feel like the Internet has been selfishly hoarding your Website, because somehow I didn't stumble upon it til just now. I loves your writing. And I am jealousjealousjealous of your trip. I have been to Vietnam a couple of times and would move there in an instant, so long as I could take my dog with me. You may have been there before -- I haven't delved into the archives long enough to know -- but in any event you'll love it. The food! Oh my God. I want to be sweating into a bowl of pho on the side of the street RIGHT NOW.

Right - this really is not supposed to be about me. Love your site. Love your writing. Carry on.

Mary Dawn
Aug 17, 2006

it sounds like you're having such a wonderful time, i'm jealous too! i can't wait for pictures from the great wall!

Aug 17, 2006

Your "post office post office" line sounds like some homeless person's mantra. It had me howling with laughter thinking about you two muttering that line, heads down all serious-like, right before you walk into an establishment. You'll definitely keep the crazies away acting like that.

Keep it up!

Aug 18, 2006

That all sounds wonderful. You have just inspired in me a major case of wanderlust. Can't wait to come back and read more about your travels!

Aug 18, 2006

Congratulations! Now that is impressive. You actually recognized the Slovenian language?

Aug 18, 2006

Also...your pictures are stunning. How is it that you've made it look as though you are the only two people in the most populous country in the world?

Aug 19, 2006

Thank you for sharing.

Aug 22, 2006

Sounds like those are the moments, and the memories, that will last a lifetime and can never ever be replaced. Priceless.

Maxine Dangerous
Aug 25, 2006

Love, love, love your site, which I just stumbled upon today. Really enjoying reading about your adventures overseas. Looking forward to next installment. :)