Today we begin the last stretch of our epic adventure: the two-day train ride to Beijing. We settle into our usual bunks and slip easily into our soothing rhythm of snacking, napping, and reading. These train cars aren’t as nice as the ones we had on the Trans-Siberian and our stern Russian provodnitsas have been replaced by a slight, male Chinese train attendant. While we read quietly, he often pauses at our open cabin door to look us over and giggle. “Is he laughing at us?” Sabrina wonders aloud. We lower our books and attempt a conversation with Chinese Provodnitsa (as we later dub him) but to no avail – he doesn’t speak a word of English. So he giggles. And we giggle. And no one knows what is happening.
Keeping It Real
Outside of our window the Gobi desert rolls by, eventually giving way to misty mountains. To be honest, I’m not especially excited about our time in Beijing. The city has a somewhat lackluster reputation for being industrial and polluted and, for reasons I cannot pinpoint, the Chinese culture has never particularly appealed to me. Much like Russia, I understand the Chinese government is likely not the true voice of the Chinese people. At least, I would hope not given the slew of controversial policies regarding everything ranging from human rights to the environment. Perhaps that makes me sound close-minded, or prejudice, or a bunch of other things… in any case, I’m kinda ‘whatevs’ about this portion of the journey.
“I can’t tell you how it really is I can only tell you what it feels like…” Eminem plays as our train pulls into the station.
I’m A Celebrity (in China Anyway)
After dropping our bags at the hotel, a few of us head out to explore Tiananmen Square. Beijing is indeed crowded and cloaked in smog, but the trains run efficiently which certainly makes sightseeing easier. As I stand there trying to imagine the student protests of 1989, I notice two elderly Chinese men who are not-so-discreetly gesturing at me. I attempt to turn my attention back to the sights when I realize one of the men is pretending to take a picture of his friend while blatantly pointing the camera at me. I assume they’re just creeps and the ladies and I head to the Forbidden Palace.
Sarah, Ashley, and I are approaching the the palace gates when a young woman taps me on the shoulder. She says something in Chinese (that I don’t understand) and gestures to her camera and then to me. Ah, of course! I don’t mind taking a photo of her. I move to take the camera from her and she smiles and waves me off. She gestures to her boyfriend – it seems she wants ME in the photo with him. So I pose with her boyfriend and so does Ashley. This happens a few more times throughout the day and we soon realize our blonde locks are the cause of our popularity. It is surprising to me that our hair would be such a sensation in a modern city like Beijing, but mostly I just wish I was more photo-ready!
We spend some time strolling through the palace but I am distracted and put off by the crowds. As we make our way back to the hotel, we pass popular retail and fast food chains that can also be found in the States. Beijing isn’t quite as dirty as some other cities I have visited (Kathmandu, yikes!), but I find it difficult to get a real sense of the city’s vibe amidst the pollution and bustle. Maybe that IS the vibe? While enjoying some down time before our group dinner, I am unable to access my email account. My attempts to log into Facebook or peruse the New York Times are also blocked – oh right, I’m in China.
I remember reading once that even reincarnation is forbidden in China without government permission. Reincarnation! Though such litigation sounds ridiculous to us Westerners, it actually affords the People’s Republic of China (PRC) an important power: the ability to choose the next Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Maybe you are wondering, dear Reader, why atheist China would care to authorize such an appointment? China has occupied the Himalayan country of Tibet since 1949 and having an important leader like the Dalai Lama under its control would allow the PRC to more easily assert its influence in this occupied region. There are many debates about whether the quality of life in Tibet has improved or declined since its occupation – and certainly, I cannot do either argument justice in one blog. On the whole though, I’d say I’m one of those “Free Tibet” hippies.
In lighter news, our group heads to dinner to enjoy some traditional Peking Duck. My stomach has been a bit “off” today and nothing seems appetizing. I nibble on some white rice and chat excitedly with our group about tomorrow’s big trip to the Great Wall!