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August 1st, 2008

My grand and auspicious day (my two and a half days-long day) started
on Monday, when I finished up all my state-side work (music building,
webmastering), the last touches on my papers (which took a while), and
packing (which, it seems, I took care of on Sunday). All that lasted
me till half past three in the morning on Tuesday. I checked in the
internets and, just before the birds started chirping at four 'o
clock, decided my time was better spent watching movies than the
insides of my eyelids. Dr. Strangelove is finally struck from
my bucket list, but not Being John Malkovich, which ran through
my 8am wakeup call. Turns out it was a good thing I stayed up all
night, because I got an email about 7:30 to "OH NO YOU BROKE SOMETHING
GO FIX IT!"

The rest of my morning was mundane: showering; double-checking money,
passport, and packing; printing out my homework; grabbing clothes I
forget from my parents' house, eating a little cereal. Y'know, those
little things you do before you leave the country. Mom was nice and
schlepped me down to the pick-up point for our bus (although I did
have enough time to walk, come to think of it).

Meet me at the Field House



Time to start your big adventure, kids! Don't forget your ... parents? Yup.

For anyone south of New York, our professors arranged a Chinatown bus
(Double Happiness, if anyone wants to charter them) to run us from the
athletic buildings on UD's south campus straight to the JFK Airport in
New York. That's $80 we saved in gas and cost-of-ownership.
Nonetheless, our parents, who all dropped us off at the field house,
stuck around to commiserate (or to ensure we got out of their hair for
a month). Our professors showed up eventually, too, and made the
rounds like good politicians coaches, shaking hands
with everyone and (more pertinently) collecting money for the bus.

10am and time to go! We took a few photos with everyone, then just
the trip members, then neglected to take one with the busses because
they came a little bit late (but no matter). Everybody on the bus --
goodbye, parents! Thanks for sending us to another country :)

JFK -- J/K, guys!


JFK airport is the same ol', same ol'. We checked in at AirChina
pretty efficiently; I just handed them my e-ticket pass with my
confirmation numbers and my passport. They asked whether I wanted an
aisle or a window. An aisle, I said, and that turned out to be a good
choice.

Onwards and Upwards


Our medium-huge planes on the tarmac at JFK (credit BrittneyBaker)
On the plane, the seats were A-B (window, aisle), E-H (aisle, inner,
inner, aisle), and C-D (aisle, window). It was only a moderately
large plane, y'know, just a double-decker with eight across. AirChina
had sat singletons by aisles or windows and families in inner rows
(like the Chinese family with a few kids who spoke American English
the whole time). My row was two students at each window/aisle pair
and, in the center block, Quinn and ... me. She and I each claimed an
extra seat to strech out in.

I fell asleep about fifteen minutes in to the plane ride. Whoops.
They tell me I missed an hour of sitting on the tarmac, take-off, and
dinner. I couldn't really make up for the first two, but dinner was
still hot! A very stereotypical airline meal, it had an individually
wrapped roll with packets of powdered creamer and sugar; a tiny salad
(Syran-wrapped), a small piece of cake (very sweet, also
Syran-wrapped), a tea cup, and a single-serving dinner tray. Our
first taste of Asia: the entrée was chicken and rice in a sweet brown
sauce, almost teriyaki sauce. Om nom nom. Shrimp was also on the
menu.

Delicious Chinese single-serving planemeals
The in-flight movies were a variety of popular Chinese cinema and some
American flicks with subtitles, such as 27 Dresses. I wasn't
impressed except with the map that showed us flying north and then
south, so I went back to sleep.

Wakefulness found me just in time for me to miss lunch, as well as
lunch (a small ham and cheese sandwich). The air stewardesses had
tucked the sandwich into my seat back pocket along with a customs
form, which was the typical Name-Nationality-Reason for
Travel-Address-Whooooo Are You, Who-Who, Who-Who dealie.
Dinner came soon after, around 4pm CST. The timing of all this was
quite odd, but I blame the twelve-hour time difference. My body
didn't know either way, though, as I hadn't properly slept since
8:30am on Monday.

Getting off the plane in Beijing
Thirteen hours later (the shortest long flight we'd ever taken), we
touched down in Beijing at 6:30 CST. 你好中国! (Hello, China!)
The first thing we all noticed, which we hadn't seen before because
all the windows were closed, was the smog. It really is that bad,
guys. The next thing we noticed were the busses queued up to schlep
us back to the terminal. A pleasant ride, we all hung on tight and
soon enough ended up in the airport structure. From there, it was a
tram ride down to arrivals / baggage claim. Their tram was pretty
sweet, the same kind of thing I've seen on TV shows and animes showing
East Asian mass transit. Smooth, clean, pretty quiet, looked like a
magnetic track.

Approaching the tram for inside the Beijing airport (creditBritney Baker)
The Beijing airport is huge! Not just in scale, as it is quite wide
and accomodates some huge magnitude of people, but also that the
ceilings are a good 30-40 feet high. The architecture is a fusion of
industrial features and sweeping curves, with a ceiling of orange
slats hiding the architectural lighting and the proper ceiling, which
is grey. Customs had nigh on a dozen booths open, split between
Olympians (and related people), nationals, and foreigners (外国人). I
was personally surprised by the number of Chinese people in the
internationals line; I suppose they claimed residency in the U.S. and
were thus shunted to our line. I was also surprised when a Chinese
guy, who was right behind me, allowed two Delawareans in front of him
in line so we could three could be together.

Another surprise: a breeze in the airport. They kept the place around
80'F (which is about ... 25'C, I believe?), but it was still
comfortable. That's a lot of air. A lotta lotta. I noticed HVAC
systems once I started looking, but they were pretty subtle and just
mounted here and there in the walls or hiding behind glass walls.

In sum, the airport was grand, large, high-tech, efficient, and very
open and welcoming. I wouldn't mind going back there -- but not for a
month, mind you!

Welcome Home


 Descrip
Our tour guide hailed us. He looks around 21, cute guy, trendy for a
Chinese kid (kinda tight emo pants, square emo kid glasses, shirt with
some print on it, kinda messy hair, Nike sports bag). A real
vivacious type, he really did say hi to all us Delaware folks coming
out into the lobby and waved a little red flag with his company's name
on it. "Follow the red flag," said my professor, Dr. Barlow. In
turn, I told him, "That's rather ambiguous advice around here."
Incidentally, our third program director, Master Kevin Sun, and his
wife joined us in the lobby.

All forty-five of us (plus some hangers-on, maybe) and our luggage fit
in the bus -- barely. We all enjoyed watching out the windows to see
Beijing: lots of signs in red; towering office, commercial, and
residential buildings; an awful lot of people just walking the streets
or biking. Another surprise: fewer people than we expected. Beijing,
our tour guide told us, is home to an awful lot of people -- on the
order of 8 million, I think? -- but the roads felt pretty empty coming
to the hotel.

Our tour guide welcoming us to our hotel
The further we drove, the less development we saw, and we eventually
came into a bit of a shanty neighborhood that reminded me of South
America. Many small grocery shops and some restaurants dotted the
streets, as did a variety of people (including men walking around
shirtless or in wife-beaters). We turned in at a taller building with
four stories which had a nice red sign welcoming the "University of
Delaware faculties and students" for our stay -- quite precious!

Key distribution was a bit unorganized. We have most of the third
floor, which made life easy, but didn't know which rooms were whose.
Apparently Dr. Barlow wanted to assign us rooms in Delaware, but Dr.
Goodwin vetoed that in favor of a more laissez-faire system: get a key
(one per room), find a roommate. Unfortunately, they neglected to
tell us that and simply started handing out keys (which were really
RFID cards). Mild confusion ensued for about half an hour, where our
TA was with a student, Linda LaRue had a double to herself, and I also
lacked a roommate. We decided to call it quits and just sort it out
at dinner. Although we theoretically started with an even number of
men and ladies, we ended up just making one mixed room (two good
friends) and everything shook out okay.

Our bathroom, almost all of it.
The banquet room downstairs is pretty standard; a glass-walled area
with some fifty round tables set with saucers, bowls, and forks. They
soon brought us out toppings for dinner, which included cooked
mushrooms (which we figured out eventually), cucumbers, tomatoes, and
sprouts. Next came a huge bowl of noodles (面? mian4), with a serving
spoon and large chopsticks (筷子, kuai4 zi). Although the learning
curve for serving was a little steep, we were hungry... and kept
eating ... and kept eating. Darn Chinese food. ^_^ We also asked for
some water, as the airplane ride dried us out, but instead got pots of
tea. Nice thought, something to drink, but still not water.

Beds in the hotel room
Our room accomodations are pretty swell. The beds are short twins
with a small bedside table between them. The beds are a bit firm, but
I'm fine with a mat on the floor. Also, by the window is a nice table
to sit at (or put your things on) and two brown wicker chairs. The
counter holds a nice 21" TV, a water dispenser with a tank (yay, safe
water), A/C wall unit, overhead lights, light sconces above the beds,
and an economy bathroom.

I'm serious when I say "economy bathroom" -- it has a sink, a toilet
with maybe a liter of water in it, and a showerhead mounted on the
wall fed by a hot/cold water unit mounted on next wall. No shower
stall, nor any toilet paper. Ah well, it's been worse (see: electric
water heater over a tub in a cottage in Costa Rica). On the plus
side, the hotel gifted us two sets of shower shoes and supplied a full
set of linens.

Our bathroom, almost all of it. I think I have more living space here than at my house in Newark. Fate, it seems, has a sense of irony.

Open Doors, Closing Thoughts


These health science kids are a pretty social bunch. Room doors were
open till late -- we didn't lock up until we went to bed at 11pm CST.
I'm on Verizon international roaming, so my new global phone obviously
works. I also ran up $1.15 in text message charges, so tomorrow will
be a good day to buy a new SIM card and switch to a Chinese provider.

My roommate, Rich, is a pretty chill guy -- social, easy-going,
polite. He likes to keep a neat room -- it's relaxing, y'know? -- and
just got back from an Israel birthright trip, so he knows the deal
when it comes to travelling. Looks like a good guy to live with.

All our Chinese staff is quite polite, though most of them don't speak
English. I regret not practicing my Chinese more over the summer, as
my pronunciation is apparently horrid. (I tried to talk to the
waitstaff, but to no avail -- the girl knew enough English to say she
didn't and I knew enough Chinese to not ask for a cup of water.)

As for internet access, our program directors talked to the hotel and
swung a great deal: 110 RMB (~$15 USD) for all of us for the month!
Our rooms have ethernet ports, so we'll see how well that works soon
enough. (I forgot that my laptop's ethernet is broken, so I may end
up buying a wireless router today when I get a card reader for my
camera; I forgot my USB cable!) Additionally, it's a big city, so I
expect to find netcafes here and there.

Whee!

An Early Start


The parking lot in front of our hotel
Jet lag blows. Although we all went to sleep around 11p-12m, I woke
up at 5am; I guess I woke up Rich, too. It's 6am and it seems nobody
slept past 5:30am. All us congregated in the hallway for a while,
till we eventually meandered down to the lobby to meet up for
breakfast.

They supplied a Western breakfast -- not continental, by any means,
but there was bread (white bread) and jam (passable) and hard-boiled
eggs (pretty straightfoward) and coffee (thin, in a large pot). It
was passable, and they tried; we appreciated it! also, we kept asking
for hard-boiled eggs, to the point of mooching them from the next
table over; one of the girls at my table never'd had 'em, and she
loved it! (I stuck to the bread and jam.) Tomorrow, Sun laoshi has
told me there'll be some typical Chinese breakfast served, which'll
supposedly be about as light as we had. I'm thinking the grocery
store will furnish good supplies for elevensies on the road.

Supporting capitalism in China


Our first task of the day: money-changing and
shopping. Our professors advised us to bring over $200-500 dollars in
cash to exchange. I packed about $250 personal/food plus $100 for
souvenirs for mom. A few people were rolling in it. Pretty soon,
Tiffanny, our TA, was rolling in it like a Fruit Roll-Up: she walked
into that bank holding a wad of over $14,000. That's three zeroes,
kids.

Outside the silk store were three lions; two were stone
While our illustrious program directors managed the
money-laundering money exchange, Eric, our tour
guide, walked us up through a medium-small silk goods store. They had
functional token displays showing the growing stages of the silkworm,
the harvesting of silkworms, the looms collecting silk, the different
stages of weaving the silk, and finally a few tons of product to sell.
It was an adventure, accompanied by lions (two sculptures out front
of the entrance), tigers (embroidered with silk thread onto a white
silk backing), and panda bears (as hats and slippers). Lotta lotta
silk, man.

 Descrip
After our excursion through three floors of silk and our coffers'
filling, we were driven over to a slightly larger shopping center:
four floors above-ground, two below, chock-full of single-wide stores.
Fields of Rolexes, iPods and competitors, Chinese cultural items
(including one store that sold Tibetan stuff), clothes, shoes, ties,
and an awful lot of desperate clerks calling to you, reaching out for
you (and sometimes latching on to wrists and elbows). That was our
first stop on the Road to Financial Rouen. I blew an awful lot of
money getting useful things, like a card reader for my camera (because
I forgot my USB cable), and a wireless router (to employ once they
hook up the ethernet in our room). That wireless router was $5
cheaper than the real-deal D-Link DS-534 router. It was also brand
name TP-LINK and almost all of the documentation is in Chinese. By
the way, my new phone number in Beijing is +001 (China int'l code)
1352-077-0638 (China #).

Free reign was granted us till 1:30, so we honed our bargaining
skills. Mine were sharpened to a shiny dullness, about a 40%. I did
feel a little better about my language skills, since that (and a lot
of English and calculators to write numbers on) got me through plenty
of purchases. The ground floor and above had a lot of English
fluency, while the basement floors (electonics, toys) sure didn't.

The banquet hall for lunch
Lunch was a few blocks over in a lovely traditional restaurant. We
had a variety of foods on a lazy susan! Quite delish.

Outside the second marketplace
After lunch, we migrated to another, larger shopping center.
Craaaazy. The clerks are even more aggressive there, though one of my
friends made out like a bandit when she only had 1/3 of the asking
price in her wallet. Everybody's a businessman. Blah blah, had free
for another two hours till 4:30pm, wandered around, bought some stuff
(like a seal with my name and a Chinese banner, same deal. That was
an excellent bad idea, except for the pants which I had to hit the ATM
for. At least I had some moolah to pick up a pair of Oakleys --
pardon me, Okey's -- glasses, since I broke my pair this morning.
Also, it seems that the track pants where the bottom half unzips off
are coming back, to my delight; I took a pair of Abercrombie & Fitch
Paratroops, list $80, for $20. (ETA: When I washed out those pants,
they bled a lot of color into the drain.) If it's a forgery, it looks
good enough to me.

Back to the hotel to drop off our purchases and rest a moment, then
downstairs to dinner in the banquet hall. $BWL9%5I(B (delicious)! An
assortment of plates kept coming to the table; we coulda used a lazy
susan great. At least the Chinese beers weren't in short supply, but
some were room temperature and they were all light. Ehhh, meh.

Eric MCing the banquet karaoke
Directly following dinner was a karaoke / social session. Whooooaa.
Our tour guide, Eric, was quite vivacious and sang us a coupla boy
band songs. A few of us got up and performed: Anthony juggled, since
he juggles; Rachael and I sang "In the Jungle," quite off-key; one of
the hotel staff sang a cute Chinese karaoke song; and one girl on the
tour company staff danced traditional-style, very nice! Crazy, silly,
good first-night bonding event.

Originally published at Andy Does Beijing. You can comment here or there.

A-yup

Clear skies Another class session this morning. We’re packing it in between touristing and the Olympics so that we can get it done and not worry about scheduling it around various Olympic events. Lunch was at the hotel, then another hour and a half of class. (Incidentally, our professors grant us about 30-45 minutes in between meals and class times, so that we can take showers or walk to the market or wash laundry or write journals or do whatever pleases us most.)

Incidentally, the weather was quite nice today, almost no smog! I could see almost as far as a good day at home. Sorry, China =p

Best Taste of Beijing

A little slice of home, on the town Steve, while feeling homesick yesterday, found a listing of Western-style restaurants in Karen’s Lonely Planet guide book for Beijing. We decided to go to “Steak & Eggs,” allegedly an authentic American diner experience. Sounds delicious!

Getting there was half the adventure. We were a dozen, so we walked down to the main drag in our neighborhood and hailed three cabs. Unfortunately, The address we had for the place, which was downtown, was only in English and American-style, and the cabbies had issues when they called the restaurant. After about ten minutes of conferring in between all three cabs with the cabbies and us, they finally decided to drive to a nearby hotel with English-speaking bellhops and ask them for help. They helped us figure out that 5 Xiushui Nanjie was xiushui 南街 5号。 (Basically, S. XiuShui St, #5.) It took a lot of effort, but it worked out in the end.

Burgers and pancakes, part of your traditional Chinese dinner Our cabbie dropped us off at the wrong end of a one-way street, so we paid him (20 kuai, about USD $3) and walked up the lane to Steak & Eggs. By the way, the Beijing taxi system is very similar to the New York system, where they have an initial fare, a per-mile rate, and a per-second idle rate. Each taxi has a machine installed in the dashboard which displays your idling time, distance travelled, and fare, and prints out a receipt. Also, the cabbies have their taxi license mounted on the glove comparted in a plastic sleeve. (Sometimes, we have skeevy guys in random cars try to get us to come ride with them as if they were taxis, but they’re a little too shady for us.)

Anyway, Steak & Eggs was the second place on the street, which also had “Grandma’s Kitchen,” an Istanbul restaurant, an Italian restaurant, and, at the other end, the “Mississippi Steak House.” When we asked Paul, who owns Steak & Eggs, he said the only thing Mississippian about it was the name =D Anyway, Paul’s this great guy from Canada who lived in Daytona Beach, FL for a few years and then moved out to Beijing five years ago, when he opened the restaurant. It was very traditional diner, with breakfast all day and seltzer water on the menu. The only thing off about it was the Chinese wait staff and the Chinese on the menu. Nonetheless, the wait staff was charming and spoke pretty good English (although one couldn’t pronounce “diet” — she kept saying “diert” — it’s a Chinese thing). We ordered burgers and buttermilk pancakes. The food was great, real buttermilk pancakes, burgers dripping with juice, a real genial time. (The only fault I had with it was that my stomach had a few issues with the buttermilk, since it’s been a week or two since I’d had cheese or anything with dairy.) Paul was also great, the kind of guy I’d expect to see in a diner after playing chess in the park on a Sunday, pepper hair with a big mustache, very genial. He chatted with us about Beijing, the restaurant, and even told us we should order the Chinese bottled water (which was more water for less money) than Evian water, if we weren’t picky about it.

Ice creamy goodness
The only other problem was tracking down the rest of our friends. They spotted us looking for them; apparently, they were so famished when they get out of the cabs (at the other end of the street) that they saw the “steak” in “Mississippi Steak House” and went straight there instead. Way to follow through with plans, guys, way to go. The food there was also good, Angus steaks and salmon plates and whatnot, and great prices compared to a comparable American restaurant. Nonetheless, it was definitely a theme restaurant with a very eclectic theme. The English there was also pretty good and the manager dropped by and offered to get us American television stations if we would come back. Rich, my roommate, said sure, we could come back to watch the opening ceremonies for the Olympics! We have their card, so it may be a deal. I may go back to Steak & Eggs though, since their owner was a real cool dude with good priorities on his menu.

 Descrip After dinner, we walked around the corner and ran right into a Baskin Robbins, another taste of home, so people got ice cream. Then, we tried to hail taxis to drive us home. Tried, and failed miserably. We split back up into our three groups and got taxies separately and it took us twenty minutes, maybe more, to first find a taxi that didn’t have a fare and then to flag them down, as some Americans. We eventually caught one, but he didn’t really know where our hotel was, so we got to the right area and then got bogged down in the wrong neighborhood for 15-20 minutes. After we got back out to the main road, we just called the hotel on my cell phone and the cabbie asked the front desk for directions. Another 10 minutes of driving down the road and we finally got home, with a cab fare three times that going out: 60 kuai.

By the way, driving around, I noticed an awful lot of really sweet buildings in downtown Beijing. Nice architecture.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

We expected to be a little late for a wushu class, but instead walked right in on pure, unadulterated, batshit madness. Some ticket scalpers local businessmen who had purchased tickets early in the year had brought a batch by to sell to us, for handball, field hockey, boxing, and a few other sports. Handball is a sport created for the soccer off-season, to be played on a basketball court. We looked it up on YouTube and the game looks pretty groovy, challenging, fast-paced. That pretty much describes the ticket-buying experience, too, everyone down in the lobby trying to figure out what tickets they wanted to buy personally and sorting that all out. Even when we came back upstairs, all the athletes had caught the Olympic fever and frittered away the rest of their evening looking up the competition listings on the web. It was a bit intense for me, so I withdrew to a less psychotic area, where we had already bought our tickets and ceased to care for the night. Craaaaaaazy athletes. It seems that most people came on this trip to attend the Olympics and seeing China was a nice side benefit. I say China’s pretty cool to visit, good food, good people, and that the Olympics are here sure sweetens the deal. Other than that, though, hanging out with all these athletes is a good time; they’re all pretty positive, welcoming kids, and we still have a mixed bag (psych, women studies, theatre, etc.) of students.

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-- Andy

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