Thursday, January 21, 2010

Hitting the road - Beijing Part 1

Dalian is a tough city to warm up to. I suppose it starts with the fact that the winter has two modes – opaque petrochemical ice fog or sunny blue Manchurian skies caused by hurricane winds and sub-zero temperatures. It presents a tough compromise – die of weather induced depression or simply freeze outright. Either of those extremes makes psychologically surviving the workweek a challenge even for the most grizzled professionals such as yours truly. I can only imagine how the less emotionally resolute survive. What keeps me going (in addition to constant emergency interventions by My Lovely Wife) is the prospect of getting out of town and wandering around some other city even if that city has the same aggressively unpleasant weather as this one. Last week, with escape in mind I made a plan to get out of Dodge for a couple of days.

Plane tickets in China are pretty much price fixed by zone. The major airports – Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Guangzhou – are like giant hubs in the center of a bicycle wheel with spokes heading out to the Tier 2 cities. From Dalian for example, I can fly pretty much to any one of them for about 700 Yuan or $110 one-way. It’s a great deal and it makes weekend getaways a genuine possibility. Couple those prices with the fact that a 5-star hotel in Beijing can be had for $115 a night including dinner and refreshments in the penthouse and you have a trip that is almost too cheap to not go on.

Friday afternoon found my traveling friend and me freezing at the airport. Like the lobby of my apartment building and just about every other public space in China, the main terminal is crafted almost entirely of marble which is not a very warm surface. I suppose in the summer it’s not so bad, but in the winter it conveys the impression that the whole place was carved from an ice berg. Given how obscenely common it is, it makes me wonder if there are giant marble fields somewhere out on the horizon where workers toil from sunrise to sunset hand prying naturally fabricated tiles from some vast marble glacier. The stuff just looks cold and brittle and it doesn’t help that every time a door opens a howling breeze that started somewhere near Irkutsk announces its gelid arrival. While the best strategy would be to get here late and avoid the deep freeze until the last possible moment, I am neither mentally capable of considering such an option nor is the airport reliable enough to allow it. Take for example the guy in front of me in the security line on this icy afternoon. A little old fellow although here it’s tough to know whether someone is actually old or simply looks that way from spending his life in the marble mines. He had on the standard old person uniform – a floppy blue Mao hat, a puffy coarse canvas jacket, black slacks and a pair of dress loafers inappropriate for the season. Over his shoulder he carried a red and white striped bag made out of what appeared to be mattress ticking. He made it past the identity check with no problem, announcing his success to his comrade who was watching from behind the barrier. The comrade, clearly from the same Red Army unit, had on a bright green surplus army greatcoat and one of those winter hats with the fur ear flaps and a big Red Star on the visor.

The old guy tried to walk straight through the metal detector but the guard stopped him, explaining that he must put his bag in one of those conveyor bins. He took the bag off his shoulder and complied, taking the bin from the guard and turning around to walk through the metal detector, binned bag in hand. The guard stopped him again, this time apparently asking what he was carrying. The man kneeled down on the ground and began rummaging, removing various articles of clothing and whatnots spreading it all out on the floor. Reaching the bottom, the last thing to come out was a jar of what appeared to be pickled pig’s ears wrapped in an ancient and very gray pair of cotton long johns. All the while the search was going on, he was laughing and talking with his buddy while I stood in between and simply waited for all of it to end. I don’t know if the pig’s ears were confiscated or merely x-rayed. The guy didn’t complain, he just gathered up his stuff, said a happy goodbye to his buddy and went on his way.

It’s a one hour hop over the Bo Hai Sea to Beijing Capital Airport. Like Dalian, this airport doesn’t seem to have any climate control - it’s either roasting in the summer or freezing in the winter and naturally it’s made of……marble. We landed on time in the midst of the biggest crowd of people I’d ever seen here. Normally this place is pretty empty; it’s so vast that it can absorb a lot of people wandering around before you even notice them. Not tonight though, I guess every person in China had the same plan that I did about getting out of town. I fought my way to the head of the crowd and walked fast towards tonight’s destination, speed is never a problem when you’re in a crowd of people with ½ your inseam. Unlike every visit in the past, tonight I was not taking a cab, I was taking the subway.

Subway trips to the airport are the stuff of legend among my expatriate pals. Everyone knows how to do it, and claims to know someone who actually performed the feat. But no one seems to have actually accomplished it themselves. Rather, the tales are told over beers in smoky expat bars, each one more amazing that the last. Stories of mounting the trains with five suitcases and two children in strollers. Sagas of hour long rides to the most remote stations jammed cheek to jowl with 100,000 Chinese in each car. All the stuff of extreme travel. It was my goal to debunk the myth once and for all and so we boldly walked past the escalator down to the taxi stand and crossed the giant indoor (marble) pier to the station.

For some reason the architects had only bothered to install a handful of lights bathing the platform in kind of a dimmer than normal twilight. I suppose that was appropriate given that the sun had just gone down but you had to wonder whether a brighter venue would not have been better. Of course there was no heat and the fact that the far end of the platform was open to the elements didn’t make it any friendlier. However, the airport manager had installed a few of those white nylon four pole tents over what few benches there were. You know the kind that you see on beaches and backyards in America. I’m not sure why because after all, we were indoors. Perhaps condensation from the expanse of ceiling far overhead? Or maybe he was trying to convey a sense of the tropics to offset the arctic reality. I don’t know, but the tents unintentionally added an odd “trade show” feel to the platform and although they seemed to offer no respite from the non-weather, my fellow passengers chose to sit under them almost exclusively. There was a big line for tickets so we simply walked up to the automated system and bought ours. Why everyone was waiting was beyond me, perhaps they had no money and had to pay with debit cards.

Like the airports, subway stations in China also have x-ray machines. Perhaps some security zealot saw “The Taking of Pelham 123” on a trip to my fair land and so decided to avoid any potential high-jacking crisis. The net result of these checks is always to slow things down more than they need to be and I wonder how many militants they cull each day. Or maybe they’re simply trying to separate people from their pickled pig’s feet. I threw my bag on the belt and passed through to wait for the train to arrive.

There were a couple of television screens hanging on the railings showing some motorcycle rally in Africa. It was nice to know that somewhere in the world, people were warm. I watched the countdown timer and the train arrived right on time. We boarded with the few people on the platform, giving me the impression that perhaps we would ride into town without being crushed in a sea of rush hour commuters.

Before venturing on this most perilous journey I had taken a long look at the Beijing subway map. It looked pretty clear – a fast line shot out from one of the transfer stations in town straight to Terminal 3 where we had arrived and then on to Terminal 2, the old airport. It looped around in a giant arc and headed back to town. What didn’t seem to make sense was the fact that it didn’t loop back from 2 to 3 which of course would have made complete sense. I’ve transferred between these two on the official buses and the process is so incredibly horrible that I learned to avoid it like sushi from a neighborhood street food stand. I figured we’d find out soon enough as the train left the station for the 15 minute run to Terminal 2. We stopped and waited for a few minutes allowing for stragglers and then rather than continuing on, our train started backing out of the station in the direction from whence we had come. Now this was a bit perplexing and not a good feeling even as we picked up speed and we began analyzing what might be going on. The concern of course was that we were on an endless see-saw path between the two airports, but this fear was dispelled when the time it would have taken to get back to Terminal 3 came and went. The best I could figure was that indeed there was no loop between the two stations, instead a two-way train that came in, went out, stopped, backed out again and went on its way back to the city. Fine by me, looking out the window I could see the world’s densest traffic jam extending as far as the eye could see along the airport expressway. I was glad we’d made the choice we’d made.

There were no stops on the line between the airport and the first transfer station. The people we were traveling with were it – no crowding, plenty of breathing space, a vision of hope given the time of day which just happened to be the peak of the commuting hour. We rode on looking outside at the long lines of red taillights.

Our hotel was close to the Shuangjing Station in the Chaoyang District which made getting there pretty easy. We only had to change trains in one location and then take a straight shot down from there down to the end of Line 10. Knowing this line, I continued to be optimistic because not only was it one of the lesser used routes, the trains always empty out as you get towards the end. My spirits were buoyant; at least until the moment we pulled into Sanyuanqiao Station and faced a grim sea of humanity surpassing even my most dire expectations.

Because we were only able to purchase a ticket from the airport to this station, we had to buy a pass to get us on to our final destination. Buying tickets in the Beijing Subway is simple – there are plenty of machines and they have an English option. Well, simple enough if the machines are working. We got off the Airport Express and followed the horde in the direction of the bank of machines. For some reason, another security check was between us and our goal. This one seemed to run in both directions, attempting to capture both arriving and departing terrorists. I lowered my bag, tucked myself into a cluster of people and sped past. We got to the machines and elbowed our way into the queue only to find that all but one was flashing “Out of Service.” I got behind a young woman using the only good one and stood there and watched as its little electronic brain went into arrest. She pushed all the right buttons and it just stopped. After pondering her request, it simply changed its status to match its compatriots. Everyone turned on their heels and started to scatter.

Lots of people were now yelling and a young woman in a uniform stood off to the side of the exit escalators using a bull horn giving everyone what I assume were directions on where to go and what to do. It was a bit confusing because the counter-yelling was just as loud despite the lack of amplification. She kept repeating herself and waving her arms towards the security check. I mustered some Chinese and asked her if this was the way to some tickets. She more or less said, “Yea” so I eased back into the migratory flow and head back the way I’d come.

This time I had to get my bags scanned along with everyone else. Passing the check, we rounded the corner and came to yet another security check. Beyond that was a very long line stretching back from a ticket booth that actually had a person in it. I went to the back and waited. My traveling companion decided to go up the escalator to see if there were machines on the next floor. While he was gone, the line suddenly disappeared and I found myself about 3 people from the ticket agent. China is weird this way, solutions happen suddenly and being incapable of really understanding the language you rarely know why. This time it was due to the sudden appearance of the girl with the bull horn who was now selling tickets by hand off to the side of the booth like some scalper at a Laker’s game. I bolted and bought two just as my friend reappeared announcing that there were three more security checks upstairs. We passed through the gates and went to the platform.

The train pulled in and it was about as jammed with people as it could be. This was the moment when I realized why the subway-to-the-airport stories are apocryphal – it is exceedingly difficult to get on a rush hour train with suitcases. This in mind, we just forced our way in taking up our allocated space as well as a little bit more. At each station people behind us would try elbow their way past us to the exit and in doing so trip over our bags, causing a giant cascade of human dominos. But as I expected the throng thinned out as we approached our destination. By the time we got to Shuangjing there was almost enough room to sit down. We got out checked the station map to find the best possible exit, headed up the escalator past the blind man playing one of those traditional two-stringed Chinese violins known as the Erhu and went out into the freezing Beijing night.

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