10 July 2015

Trip Wrap-Up

Wow, what an adventure. Looking back on my trip feels a bit surreal. "I did that?" Yes, I did that.

The whirlwind trip across Europe was lovely, and I enjoyed the "go, go, go" feeling of switching trains followed by the relaxing train rides watching the scenery. But if I had had the luxury of an additional week to get to Beijing, I would have spent more time in Europe. I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in London, my accidental day in Berlin was educational, and my three days in Moscow were just right.

The Trans-Manchurian Railway
As for the Russian rail adventure, being on the train straight across a continent was a one-of-a-kind experience. I honestly don't know if I would suggest taking the train all the way, or planning a few stops as most travelers do. You just can't replicate the amazing things it does to your head knowing you can't get off the train for a week! But on the other hand, making stops allows you to see more. Things I didn't see, lessons I didn't learn, stories I can't tell.

I did come up with one route that I suggested to my friends in Beijing: to experience the Trans-Manchurian railway, take the No. 19 Russian train out from Beijing to the Russian city of Irkutsk, spend a day or two in Irkutsk, and return to Beijing on the No. 20. This shorter trip has all the exciting parts of the full rail trip without taking too much time or being on the train for so long! If you want more specific advice on planning a Russian rail trip, feel free to contact me personally.

The Rule of Law
I had hoped to learn about people's perceptions of the "rule of law" on this trip. I tried, I really did. But do you know what people have to say about it? People from all over the world say the exact same thing: "Rule of law? I don't really know anything about that, but I do know that my country's courts do a good job. We have problems. Some of the judges are not well-trained. The legal process is slow. It's expensive. But it gets the job done, and I trust the courts. As for me personally, I stay as far away from the courts as possible. I don't want to get involved in a legal dispute." ~Directly quoting every single person I ever talked to about this from England, Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, the United States, etc.

I'm not disappointed that that was the answer I received. No, it confirms for me what I have been writing about in my legal research paper all year. I know many will disagree with me, and maybe will be angered by this view, but it's the one I hold: The "rule of law" doesn't mean anything to the citizens who it's supposed to benefit. It is often a buzzword that makes us feel good about our judicial system and our system of governance. It's a way to point a finger. It's a badge of approval. Let's dig deeper, America, and break that down into something more meaningful, okay?

My time in Beijing was so special to me. I experienced China in a way I hadn't before: in a big, modern city that still has so much of old, rural China hidden in it. It's a place that's hard for people to love, which makes it so easy for me to love because I love flawed things. I love Beijing because it's dirty and dry and crowded and noisy and frustrating and modern and impossible and fast-paced, so when I found a quiet and simple place to escape all of that, I think I just loved Beijing more for its faults.

The lesson with the largest impact that I learned on this trip is to better value friendships. Friendships take so many forms and have so many different purposes. I realized that I have a wide range of friendships, and it's not just the close ones that matter. I met many people only briefly on this trip, but they have each left a deep impression. Some of them I hope to keep in touch with. Others, I know I will not or cannot contact, but that doesn't make their contributions to my life any less valuable. Moreover, I better appreciate my friends "back home," my constant friends that are a part of my everyday life in Ohio. But do you know what? My travel life is no less "real life" than my Ohio life. The various parts and segments of my life are all interconnected and make me who I am. That's what I learned on this trip.

28 June 2015

Last Day in Beijing

To me, this embodies the average hutong. It's a bit run-down, but no one is asking for anything fancy!
My last weekend in Beijing was wonderful, and the theme was snacks and hutongs! Hutongs are traditional alleyways with courtyard homes, and they are quite fun to explore.

On Friday night, I went out to dinner with my coworkers and the other summer associates, followed by a hip hutong bar with one of my classmates, our Chinese friend, and a new Australian friend. We stayed up late talking and eating meat skewers - including chicken kidneys and gristle - in the alley.

A countryside hutong. I wish you could hear the roosters and smell those flowers spilling over the walls!
On Saturday, I left the city for a village trip. I took the metro to the end of the line, then boarded a bus to visit some ancient Ming Dynasty tombs that house the emperors. I love village life, and getting out on my own in the peaceful countryside was just what I needed to cap off my trip. I walked through a flower field and some nearly-empty hutongs, listening to roosters, birds, cicadas, and other animal sounds. As for food, the village grows a lot of fruit, which I sampled as I walked along the county roads. I also had donkey meat in my noodles, and it was surprisingly delicious.

My very last full day involved two hutongs. In the morning, I went to some winding, interconnected hutongs behind the main train station. I ate steamed buns filled with leeks and egg and also sticky rice cooked with prunes. 

This woman is making jiaozi, which are boiled dumplings,
not baozi, which are steamed and more bread-like.
In the afternoon, my friend joined me for a walk in a touristy hutong. It was so crowded and busy, but it was a lot of fun. We ate clay pot yogurt, cool noodles, and pomelo juice.
On my way home, I finally tried the handmade green tea ice cream my friends have been telling me about. And I ate durian fruit for the first time! (It's gross, actually!)

A well-kept hutong. 
So long, Beijing!

27 June 2015

Around the World in 60 Days

Something small has been weighing me down this whole trip.

I packed very carefully, bringing only what was absolutely necessary. But I had to pack one item that seems absurd to me: my apartment keys. I carry these keys with me everywhere, around the entire globe, just so that when I return I can immediately go to my apartment. They've been across the London Bridge, to the Berlin Wall, on Red Square, around Lake Baikal, up the Great Wall, and on Tiananmen Square.

I really thought about leaving my keys with someone before I left. But I didn't. So every time I opened that particular pocket of my purse and felt those keys, I pictured my little studio apartment in Ohio, and I remembered how I feel when I am there. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it pulled me away each time. And it's had a strange effect on me and how I view these past two months.
Pro-tip for travelers: don't bring your keys.

23 June 2015

Do I Like Beijing?

Do I like Beijing? I've been asking myself that since February 2008, but have been absolutely pestering myself about it for the last five weeks. Do I have to answer???

A view of downtown from the pedestrian overpass that leads to my street, on the right.
Ugh. It's a huge city, and I don't like huge cities. But the thing about them is that you make them - part of them - your own. When I was at the university, I made a few places my own. The park and Weiming Lake. The zongzi stand. The back street with noodle shops. Yeah, Beijing is alright.
I moved downtown, and I'll readily admit I hate the business district. HATE. But the sidestreet where I live is mine. The bikes. The old men playing mazhong. The knife sharpener. And my dear, sweet baozi friends. (I'll explain that last one!)

Each morning I leave my place and grab breakfast a couple doors down. I order the same thing every day: five little egg and chive baozi (steamed buns) and soy milk. A man and a woman run the stand. They are amused by me, and I by them. They ask me funny questions, like whether I eat baozi in America and what's cereal? (It's like cold, dry porridge. Gross!) And why don't I find a nice Han Chinese guy so I can eat baozi every day? (Oh, baozi is a race thing, now?) And my favorite question: what will you have today? (As if I'll surprise them and go off-menu.) After they ask that one, they say my order before I can get it out. It's a game. Maybe they're mocking me. I don't know.

This is Guomao, the China World Trade Center, where I work.
Today the woman looked me up and down in my fancy office clothes and said, "You're going to work. Where do you go?" I told her I work at Guomao, a place everyone knows. She knew, too, but said, "You take the metro?" No, I walk, it's like 20 minutes straight up the road. She was shocked it was so near. I was confused, because you can actually see the Guomao building from there.

And that's when I realized a big city doesn't have to be. You can buy your eggs and chives and soy beans next door to your baozi stand, which is right in front of your apartment. And you don't have to leave this block, ever, and you are happy. You never have to put on a suit, walk to the Guomao China World Trade Center, swipe your card, and sit at a desk reading banking regulations. Novel concept.
Beijing is not so bad.
This is not a model city! It's the SOHO district, which I walk past every day.
It's easy to get lost wandering among the plain white office buildings. 

My Beijing Apartment

This is the outside of my building from the back alley.
After three weeks of class at Beijing University, where I lived in a hotel, I moved into an apartment I found listed online. I'm kind of low maintenance... (That's not the right word. I sign up for undesirable situations on purpose?) ... so I was far from dismayed to see the place for the first time when I moved in. 

The way I describe my place to my friends who still live in hotels is that it's where normal, lower-middle-class people live. It's on a sidestreet with overflowing trash cans, too many idling taxis, a knife-sharpening business in a questionable alley, and a couple noodle shops. The fruit market always smells rotten, but I still buy mangoes and lizhi there. Stray animals wander around. And the many, many old people who sit on the street all day openly stare at me. They either yell "Foreigner!" at me, or whisper "beautiful girl..." like I can't hear either. You know, if they reversed the volume on those, it'd be blatant racism and street harassment, but seeing how it's genuine surprise and admiration, I'll let it go.

My particular building is old, six stories because any more and it would need an elevator, painted red, and could use some upkeep. I'm on the first floor, so I don't have to endure the dusty, creepy staircase with sound-activated lights for very long. But it's there.

Inside, the apartment is small, and wallpapered in hot pink. Like, Hello Kitty pink. There's a bed in the hallway, which was supposed to be mine, but I got upgraded to one of the two bedrooms. That story is forthcoming! There's a tiny kitchen and a tiny bathroom. It's old and not very clean. There's nothing specifically gross about the place... it's just China, okay?

Pink and flowery.
The first few days I took cold showers. Not on purpose. I just didn't realize how fickle the hot water machine is. It's in the kitchen, and you have to plug it in, turn on the kitchen light, and let the kitchen faucet run for a few minutes before going into the bathroom to use the shower. Silly me for not knowing that!

I'm happy here, I'm comfortable, and I've learned to call this place "home."

This is the street entrance to my building. People congregate here every day to play cards, look after children as a group, drink tea, eat meals, and comment on this American girl every time she walks by.

Do you know where "home" is?  It's the place where, when you're walking after work in 100 degree heat after a day of reading banking regulations and you're in a complete daze and can't remember the last twenty minutes of your life including how you crossed ten busy roads, and suddenly you snap out of it and find yourself 30 meters above the Third Ring Road on a pedestrian overpass that leads to your sidestreet... that's when you know it's home. Because you can find it unconscious and blindfolded.

10 June 2015

"Midnight" Bike Ride

A blurry morning bike ride through the empty streets of Beijing.
My professor calls it the "midnight" bike ride, but it's better/worse depending on your view. A group of us law students rented bikes, woke up to meet at 2:30 am, and we rode our bikes in the darkness, stillness, and quietness of Beijing from our university to Tiananmen Square.

The square was lively at 4:00 am because each day, there is a beautiful flag raising ceremony at sunrise. On the morning we chose, the sun rose at 4:45. The ceremony is, naturally, brief. The soldiers march out, slowly raise the flag to the national anthem, and then retreat.

Just before the flag raising.
The excitement and the crowd were interesting. The flag raising is something that citizens from all over the country come to see. I felt emotional, not only because the ceremony is beautiful, but also because I felt so connected to China and because those around me felt national pride in their country.
What's more, the bike ride back was exceptional! The sun was up, and the city was waking up and coming alive!
The flag has risen, and so has the sun.

24 May 2015

Old Peking Tour

I can't overstate how awesome my day was. Today I did something I have been looking forward to ever since I picked up Paul French's book Midnight in Peking. French uncovered the true story of Pamela Werner, a young British girl who grew up in Beijing on the eve of the Japanese invasion. At that time, the city was called Peking. She was murdered in 1937, and the mystery was never solved... until Paul French did just recently. Please go read his book. It's a page-turner, and you will thank me for the recommendation!

The audio walking tour is something I Googled and downloaded on my phone last night. Simple as that. I followed the directions, starting at the Beijing train station, where I coincidentally was dropped off just last week from Moscow. Paul French himself is the audio tour guide, and he explains the sites, both the general historical significance and that relative to Pamela's story.

The first tour stop is a hutong behind the train station. A hutong is a traditional Chinese living space, distinguished by its narrow alleys, communal living arrangements, and close quarters. They are rapidly disappearing from modern Beijing and are something everyone should go see while in Beijing.

Armour Factory Hutong, or Kuaijiachang Hutong, is where Pamela grew up with her father. Pamela's building is still standing! Moreover, the Werners lived on the same street as the famous Edgar Snow. I saw his residence, too, where he wrote the book Red Star over China. I'm a fan of Edgar Snow, so seeing his place and Pamela's was very moving. The hutong itself was typical and quaint. My presence attracted some attention, but the residents were kind and curious.

The next stop, surprisingly close and competely intact, is the Fox Tower and Tartar Wall. This is a beautiful corner of the Ming Dynasty wall, which used to be the outside border of the city. Today, it's in the city center. The Fox Tower is where Pamela's body was found: raped, surgically cut apart, and dragged to the tower. I walked along the Tartar Wall, on top of which Pamela often rode her bike. There is still a little building which once served as a train station, and as French says in the audio tour, it's miraculous that it's still there.

Most of the Tartar Wall has been torn down, so when I reached the end, I turned into what was referred to back in Pamela's day as the Badlands. It's Chuanban Hutong, and it was a lively place that seemed a bit more cut off from the city than the others. In Pamela's day, it was where the brothels, drug dealers, and gamblers were. Hence the name.

Next I went to Suzhou Hutong, where Pamela loved to find snacks. I had zongzi there, my favorite snack of sweet, sticky rice with prunes cooked inside! Pamela ate her last meal, a bowl of noodles, in this hutong. I did the same! Eat noodles, I mean. :)

From there, the tour took me to the Legation Quarter. A legation is the old word for embassy, so this was a very European part of Beijing. It was a quiet, tree-lined area with British, French, and American architecture. Specifically in the French Legation is where Pamela went to ice skate after eating noodles in Suzhou Hutong. Important people and events involved in the book center around the Legation Quarter, but I won't give anything away! It's a murder mystery, after all!

The tour ends at the old Beijing train station, on the corner of what is now Tiananmen Square. This really puts things in perspective, because Tiananmen is the symbol of New China. My tour took me through Old Peking - it even has a different name - so the contrast to me was stark.

Why did I love this tour? I could say that it's simply because I love the book, or I love Old Peking, or hutongs, or finding meaning in the world around me that everyone else seems to be missing. But really, I think the answer is that I feel so connected to history. That space and time and place and life are all one, and every life matters. Pamela died so young. She probably thought she hadn't yet made her place in the world. And what would she have said if she was told that 78 years later, a strange American girl would cry into a bowl of noodles in Suzhou Hutong, eating them in her memory?
This is the entrance to where Pamela lived: behind what is now Chang Chun Printing, at 1 Armour Factory Hutong.
The Snows also lived on Armour Factory Hutong for a couple years. They knew Pamela and her father.
This is the Fox Tower. I took this photo standing in the spot where Pamela's body was found. 
This is the Tartar Wall, which once surrounded Old Peking.
Here's the little train station. Really, it's odd that it survives. It's a quaint cafe today.
The Badlands Hutong! This seriously gave me the chills.
In memory of Pamela, in Suzhou Hutong. So spicy!
A European building in the Legation Quarter.
Apartments in the Legation Quarter.
Legation Quarter.
The old train station on Tiananmen Square.