Archive for January, 2008

Yesterday was rather interesting…

Woke up pretty early to check out the art district here, Dashanzi 798.  It’s on the edge of the city and occupies a bunch of vacant (and some not-so-vacant) warehouses.  The entire area is amazingly photogenic; lots of brick, rust, graffiti, etc… and alot of the galleries and studios are amazing.  I shot a few hundred pics before running out of space, then decided to go for a walkabout.  Most of my days here (not spent seeing specific places) I just hop on the subway, get off at a random spot, and walk around… and this is quite the place for walking.  All the neighborhoods are vastly different, from slums to students to (ugh) shopping to financial districts.  On this particular afternoon I wandered around Chaoyang, east-central of the second ring road… which is quite an awesome place, tons of bars, clubs, and art.  Beijing truly is the cultural mecca of China; it’s all too easy to compare it to New York.

Anywho, I wound up hopping the wrong bus to get back home, and got lost somewhere on the south-east side.  I also conveniently lost my map (it was a very good map, I will miss it) and was therefore VERY lost.  One thing you learn while travelling: need something?  Find a concierge.  It took me all of 12 minutes to locate a hotel, and while asking the concierge where I could find some decent sushi (most of the sashimi here is frozen, for some reason) a New Zealand couple (who were clearly out of my tax bracket) explained they knew the area well, and just happened to be going out for sushi themselves.

I can’t recall the name of the place (the Asahi was flowing pretty hard at this point), but DAMN… it was very good fish, to say the least.  Lots of good conversation with the kiwis, mad drinks, etc.  I’ve been living on a shoestring lately (not that it’s that hard here — my average breakfast of street-steamed dumplings is about 40 cents and perfectly adequate), mostly because my first few nights here were a tad over-indulgent — battling jet lag with whisky is expensive no matter where you are.  But I just figured, fuck it — sometimes you’ve just gotta eat $100 worth of fish.  This must’ve been the Kiwi’s motto, because they didn’t blink when the bill was something like 1800 RMB — an absolutely astounding figure here, as some places with amazing decor and trendy names like ‘Paper’ and ‘Salt’ serve gourmet 12-course tasters for about 120RMB.  “Oh, no problem Nich — this one’s on us.”  I guess sometimes you just get lucky and stumble into good situations…

…and then sometimes, you stumble into not-so-good ones.  After dinner, I parted ways with the Kiwis and headed back to my hood (via cab – figured I’d splurge) and get a call from B.  B and company are hanging out at his favorite joint, a Muslim restaurant near his house (to put food into a better perspective, 4 people can eat more than enough delicious food and have several beers there for about 100RMB – $14 or so).  B’s hanging out with his roommate, Una, his assistant (who’s name escapes me but who’s practically his shadow — her monthly salary is significantly less than the sushi bill), and this Ohioan named Mark, who I had met once before. The Yanjing is flowing like water (at 5RMB per 600ml bottle, it’s actually cheaper than water here) and the subject of conversation is generally history, with some economics and politics mixed in with the alcohol.  It’s starting to get onto 2:00 am or so, and B’s gotta teach the next morning, so Mark and I decide to find an all-night bar.  We recruit Una to help in this progress, as neither of us are familiar with the neighborhood, and grab a taxi (Mark is, I believe, a “privileged” guy and therefore not worthy of walking).  After a hilarious cab ride (Mark’s Chinese is excellent and Una doesn’t really know where we’re going — the driver’s lovin’ it), we get out on a main road, supposedly near BedBar, some place I’ve never been to and none of us can find.  Mark passes Una 30RMB or so to get back home with in the taxi, and we start walking.

Thing is, we can’t find this place to save our lives, and it’s getting quite cold.  After we walk trough the 3rd or 4th hutong with no luck, we find some other bar, not really a bar even, just a lounge type hole-in-the-wall, several couches, and oh, they’ve got Jameson (very hard to locate here).  Now the Jameson is flowing, and there are maybe 5 other people in the joint besides us, counting the proprietor.  A very tall Chinese man and his female companion sit down near us, and Mark starts up some conversation.  Apparently, the guy’s a cop.  He seems well enough, we feed him some Jameson, he feeds us some cigarettes.  Several hours pass, and we’re having a good time — Mark and the cop are trying to “help me” with my pronunciations, teaching me a thing or two (which of course, I’ve retained very little of).  Eventually, it’s getting pretty early, and even I’m getting tired — I’m starting to reach the 24-hour mark.  I’m sort of spacing out, Mark’s looking quite inebriated, and I’m pretty sure the cop is trying to sell us his companion for the night, although I’m having trouble making this out.  Exit time, to be sure… Mark walks up to the “bar” (barely even a counter) and it sure seems like he’s paying the bill… in any case, when he walks back, I ask what I owe and his response is “nothin’ dude — I got it”.  He paid for a serious portion at the Muslim restaurant as well, and refused my dough there as well… so I just figure I’m batting .1000 for the day as far as cash is concerned.  However, Mark’s not looking too good… he really seems to want to pass out on the couch, the floor, the upper loft area… and the cop keeps nudging him, getting him upright, and watching him do it again… I mean, it’s happening every 15 seconds or so.  I’m thinking, okay dude — do what you gotta do, it’s like 6:20am, I’m gonna start walking… but the proprietor is blocking the only exit, telling me we haven’t paid yet.  Great.  So I start trying to figure out what half the bill is, fumbling with my cash, when Mark’s like “hey what’s this” and starts climbing some very steep stairs leading to an attic like area (with a door that’s parallel to the ground) marked “keep out” very clearly.  The proprietor and cop are not having this, and the cop follows him up to the attic.

I’m still half-figuring out the bill, half-laughing at Mark’s antics, when a fucking sea of glass starts raining from the ceiling… I’m confused, and people are yelling very loudly.  “Oh fuck”, I think, “we’re really screwed now”… the cop’s companion is starting to look very amused, but she’s alone in laughing.  I think the door to the attic had glass panes or something and got “dropped”, causing the shards to rain down like… well, rain.  But we’re talking a LOT of glass here; it keeps falling for a good 20 seconds or so, almost comically.  Mark stumbles down the stairs, and these people are very, very pissed off — the bill I was just arguing about is clearly peanuts to what they’ll want now, I think to myself.  Mark’s yelling now too, saying very useful things like “fuck that, I didn’t break your glass” and the ever popular “I don’t break glass, man — it’s just not something I do”.  The owner’s asking for 600RMB for the windows (or whatever they were) and Mark’s first response to this is…

“Fuck you guys; I’m calling the cops!”

Ooooh, this is just getting better and better… my eyes are opening wide now, and my exhaustion has turned to fear and unwavering nausea.  Call me a pussy, but I really, really, REALLY don’t want to know what the inside of a Beijing jail cell looks like, and unlike Mark, I can’t say anything in Mandarin that will help this situation (I suppose I could try to order more beers before the cops show up… nah, maybe not).

Mark didn’t have to call the cops; the proprietor was already on the phone before that statement crossed his lips.  My vocabulary lessens dramatically at this point; suddenly, all I can say is “fuck”, “no” and “shit”.  Now the (off duty, drinking with us) cop is standing in front of the door, arms folded, and I suddenly realise just how big this guy is — as tall as me but not the least bit lanky.  No way I’m making a run for it… Eventually, I talk Mark into talking the cop into letting me go, although this takes some time, as for some reason, I actually have to explain to him why it’s simply not a good thing for me to get involved with this particular project of his, and how I really don’t want to be there when the pigs show up (I vaguely recall telling him “mayo guanxi, motherfucker” which loosely translates to “I have no basically dynamic personalized networks of influence, motherfucker”).  I pass him a Red Mao and the cop lets me pass out the door.  People are still yelling, glass is still hitting the floor.

Immediately outside the joint, I am filled with relief — like someones just took a bunch of rocks out of my backpack, like I’ve just had my first nicotine jolt in days, weeks, months, like I just escaped a situation I have no possible control over — I feel quite happy to be… free.  I hop in a taxi and ferry my ass back to the hostel.  My bed feels like the flesh of a thousand concubines; 1.25″ of foam and cheap cotton are suddenly heaven on earth.

I awaken around 3:00 or so, with my eyes red and my skull feeling several sizes too small.  Aspirin.  Water.  Sustenance… I need… things.  I fumble with my phone, remembering I texted B on the cab ride home with something like “Mark just pissed off a bunch of people cops coming I made it out”.  I call Mark, and amazingly, he answers:

“Dude, what happened with that?”
“Oh man, all hell broke loose! They called the fucking cops!”
“uhh yeah man I was there for that… so what happened? What’d you wind up paying?”
“Paying? Oh…. nothing. I didn’t have to pay for shit”
“Wait.. really? What do you mean?”
“Well I just stood my ground and told them the score; I was like ‘I don’t break glass, man, that’s just not how I roll'”

Huh. This is a bit surprising.

He explains that after the cops showed up, they asked him for his name, passport, visa class, and his side of the story (which I’m sure was a VERY interesting depiction) and that somewhere in the bickering, he had to take a piss, so he wandered toward the toilet. Apparently the proprietor just lost it at this point and started screaming something like “NO! NO! NO TOILET FOR AMERICANS!” and Mark just started losing it too, yelling to the cops “YOU SEE THAT? THAT’S BLATANT RACISM, MAN!” and the cops were just not having it… they escort him outside, look around for a minute, and just say, “Go home. Go now.” Mark said he was shocked as anybody; he described his reaction as “Really? Like, this is over?” and the cops just said “Yeah, this is over — we’ll take care of this”.

Wow.  Did not see that coming.  Almost anti-climactic.  I asked him what he was up to tonight.

“Packing, dude.  Vacation.  Phill-up-peeeeeens.”



合理咯 [pronounced ni-hau] from China,

I’ve been here 6 days.  Put simply, Beijing.  Is.  Insane.

I’m now subsiding in a city of roughly 15 million (although that’s the Chinese government’s guess, soooo…) and I can communicate verbally and in a written manner (in at least some sense) with about .025% of them.  The language barrier isn’t a barrier at all; it’s a frickin’ wall… it’s not like Mexico or Italy or France where I can stumble through with broken fragments; I truly have no method of communication other than the 12 or so phrases I’ve picked up, and even then, it’s basically a one-way thing.  Ever try to read a Chinese bus schedule?  No dice.  This is hard, but it’s not what really makes being here difficult… what’s rough is the truly amazing cultural divide that, at it’s core, is completely transparent.  The fact is, the last 3 to 5 generations of people here have pretty much been taught their entire lives that China was/is the center of the universe, and that The West has basically robbed them of their rightful throne, while in the west, we’ve had an equally biased view of China as a whole.  While the implications of this are understandable, the nuances and pure irony of alot of it are easily lost on both cultures… and the divide is enormous.  The “facts” and the propaganda flow on both sides of the Pacific, and ignorance, fear and hate seems to flourish.  I cannot possibly describe the look on peoples faces as I walk down the street; I’m something of a spectacle here anyway because of my height (I’m told, at least) and responses to my presence tend to vary from:

a) Hatred for the White Devil
b)  ADVANCED Hatred for the White Devil
and, occasionally,
c) a smile, then chuckles and conversation I can’t possibly understand (some of the kids yell “HALLOO!” which is pretty rad I guess)


It’s not all like this, though… and that’s the dichotomy that’s hard to grasp unless you’re here.  For every 6,000 people who stare and glare and curse and spit at me (only happened once, but damn), there is one person who will pretty much try their damnedest to move the fucking earth to make my stay here as awesome and inviting as possible.  An excellent example is my plane ride over here (a mere 12 hours and 13 minutes — just enough to get to know someone!), when I was sitting next to a nice lady named Anna who immigrated to the US in 1994 and has since started an exporting company to bring servers, routers, miscellaneous Cisco garb and other networking equipment to China.  I used to sell that stuff wholesale for a living, so we had some good starting ground.  She was going back for business, and upon hearing that I was alone and didn’t speak a damn word of Mandarin, her eyes opened wide… “you’re crazy”, she says.  I shrug and smile (what else can you answer to that?  I mean, I’m already on the fucking plane…)  So she pulls out a pen, and proceeds to write her home phone, cell phone, email, website, business address in Beijing, and business address in SF in my notebook, and says, “When you have trouble, give me a call — this place will be hard for you.  You have friends meeting you at the airport, right?”.  “Kind of”, I replied, explaining that my buddy here, Bill, said he “might meet me at the airport”.

Bill was, in fact, not at the airport when I arrived.  Dude is busy; whatchagonnado.

Then she learned I didn’t really even have a place to stay that night, as I am, in fact, dumb.  So she whips out the cell phone, calls her friend who owns a hostel here (which is,  oddly enough, only a 20 minute walk from Bill’s place, making it convenient as all hell in a town this big), and says “50 a night” to me while on the phone.  I’m like, “50 dollars?” and she replies “No, 50 RMB”.  I do some quick math in my head… shit, that’s like $6.80. Kickin’ rad if you ask me.  Then she casually mentions that “my driver is picking me up from the airport — we’ll drop you off wherever you like”.

Damn.  Woman doesn’t even know me and she’s goin’ all personal assistant on my ass… pretty amazing.  I’m actually hanging out with her and her family later tonight.  There’s talk of duck.  I’m stoked.

While I was packing for this trip, my buddy Ace was over at my place.  We’re chilling in the basement, crumblin’ erb, and I’m rattling off all this “what about this, what about that” shit, as he’s been to SE Asia before and therefore an expert as far as I’m concerned.  Eventually, he just looks up and says, “shit, man, just pack your wits… just bring your brain, and you’ll be fine… some people don’t even bring that, and they’re fine…”.

Each day I’m here, my entire viewpoint shifts a bit; now, I’m just starting to grasp real, actual, interpretive knowledge to chew on.  There is so much to learn here, it boggles the mind… and the best part is (at least while I’m in Beijing) that I can sit down with Bill, an economics major and very intelligent human overall and have 4 hour conversations going over what I’m finally starting to see…  I’ll barely be able to scratch the surface.

My whole plan seems… off.  I was originally planning on taking trains south through Datong and into Xi’an (spending no more than 20 days in China altogether), then flying into Vientiane or Bangkok airport, sitting on the beach where it’s 85 degrees and sipping Singapore Slings for 90 cents.  While this is still technically on the agenda… what the hell am I gonna learn there?  I mean, I know I can see the sights and absorb the culture somewhat and meet the locals and (miracle of miracles!) even communicate with them (more) easily… but this place is insane, it’s changing, and it’s all happening right now.

The air here is basically soot, the overcrowding is insane, the food is cheap and generally delicious but pretty homogeneous, most people who act nice are just trying to cheat and scam you, I can’t talk to anyone, none of the bookstores I’ve stumbled across yet have English sections, the best whisky here is Jack or Beam (and even that is usually fake or watered down), the cigarettes are crap (at least they’re only $1), the guys sneer at me, the girls won’t even make eye contact most of the time, everyone is spitting and littering and yelling and pissing all over the place, most of the other westerners here are either kids or just plain fucking idiots who basically just insult the locals as much as possible 99% of the time (not to their faces, obviously) and think of China as their goddamn sandbox or something just because they have super-currency, the music is generally awful, squat toilets are truly evil, and (surprise!) sewer gas smells the same everywhere in the world.

Being here is fucking hard… and I’m getting addicted to it.