Monday, January 26, 2009

Epilogue: Don't Cry Over Spilled Vodka...or Do.

There’s one final tale, which I’d be remiss if I forgot to share it with you.


After Alison and I said our goodbyes in Beijing’s monstrosity of an airport terminal, I made the long trek to my gate towards Security.  I wasn’t too worried about security here seeing as I’d somehow managed to return from the Philippines with six spears, 3 machetes, a monkey skull and other various tribal paraphernalia, and into the States with Cuban rum from their lovely embargoed neighbour, or back to Canada from England with frozen clotted cream.  For my non-stop Air Canada flight from Beijing to Hongcouver, I packed all my little gifts of fabulous Russian and Mongolian vodka in clear Ziploc bags deep in the bowels of my carryon.  Each vial of vodka was under 100 mls and remained unopened in their original bottle.  Not only was I carrying mine, but Alison’s as well—gifts for her family and friends.  I understood that by Air Canada’s standards, my alcoholic gifts would pose no problems, and as I didn’t want to run the risk of broken glass and liquour-soaked clothing, I put it all in my carryon.  Oh the havoc that was about to be wreaked in the Bejing airport…


When I went through security and they pulled out my Ziploc bag of goods, I was pulled aside and told in not so friendly of terms that I was not allowed to bring the vodka through security, that it had to be put in my carryon.  I was not exactly impressed, but asked how that could be done now that I’d checked my bags.  The security officers told me I’d have to return to check-in, but that was such a far trek back I’d risk missing my flight!  I fought with them for as long as I could afford, trying to point out that Air Canada allowed the bottles, that I could pass through the gates and buy as much alcohol in the duty-free zone as I could carry but they would not budge.  One officer in her attempt to be kind offered for me to bring the empty bottles back since they were souvenirs.  “Touching,” I thought.  The sentiment reeked with sarcasm.


Nonetheless, there I stood in the Beijing airport pouring mini bottles of good Russian vodka into a garbage can, tears streaming down my face.  I must have looked positively alcoholic!  I was just SO frustrated that I’d worked so hard to find the gifts for family and friends and was dumping it away all because of bureaucracy.  After I’d dumped a few bottles a thought crossed my mind and I asked the security people if someone from Air Canada could come and escort me to the plane with the alcohol and put it in the cargo area.  Amazingly enough, through a series of panicked pleas I was able to get an official to meet me, and take my re-packed carryon onto the plane.  I had a big shopping bag with me in which I stuffed my other carryon items and used that to bring aboard with me.  In the end, I arrived in Vancouver with everything in tact and only a couple of empty bottles! 

Jacqui was there to meet me as I came through the gates and got a look at my hilarious entrance wearing a conical Chinese hat I’d bought for her.  I was home J


Definitely cry over spilled vodka…it could work in your favour!

The Last Hurrah

China, China, China…what can I say, I haven’t said anything about it for four months.  Oops.  I have this serious problem with wrapping up ‘The Last Blog’ from a trip…maybe I’m just lazy or maybe I’m in denial and don’t want to admit the experience has ended.


Because it HASN’T I tell you!!!  I’m still connecting with people I met randomly throughout the trip for one thing.  Just a few examples… Lindsey from the US, whom we met on the train from Moscow to Perm, who treated me to a trip to a gulag, who’s wedding I shot in Washington, D.C. this past fall, and who tried to catch up with me in Mississippi over Christmas when we were only 15 minutes away from each other.  Rasmus from Sweden whom we met on the train from Perm to Ulaanbaatar, whom we bumped into again with his brother Hampus in Beijing, and who still updates me on their travels (currently somewhere in southeast Asia).  Galina from Russia who was the friend of a friend from Wyoming whom I met in Vancouver who once lived for three years in Siberia, who had us stay in her apartment for several days, who took us to meet missionaries in Mongolia from British Columbia who were friends of some of our other friends from Prince George, who is now keeping in touch from Thailand.  Whew!  No, I don’t expect you to follow, but I DO I think I’ve paid enough penance for not writing about China yet…my ‘prolonged experience’ was my excuse.


All right, so here is a bit of what took place between Sept 10-16 in Beijing…


Alison and I landed in China and proceeded through customs effortlessly, quite the contrast from our frustrating experience with trying to obtain a Chinese tourist visa for Alison.  Maybe this was due to the fact that the Olympic Games had just ended and the Para-Olympics were still taking place, but at every turn we found ourselves offered tourist-friendly information and courtesies.  After 4 weeks of bureaucratic nightmares we took advantage of free, concise, and helpful directions and suggestions at every possible opportunity.


We were also pleasantly surprised at how wonderfully situated our hostel was, not to mention how great the amenities were.  Located within the historic Hutong alleys and quite close to Tiananmen Square, our hostel was centered on a quaint courtyard, right amidst the hustle and bustle of wide-eyed travelers and local vendors just going about everyday business.  Fast internet, comfy beds, our own glorious room, and HOT SHOWERS, (hallelujah!!!) not to mention free beer when you ordered pizza from the restaurant downstairs…I was in heaven! 


Alison and I were just settling into hostel life by catching up with family and friends via email when all of the sudden Alison shot up out of her seat and ran out the hostel door onto the street.  I was baffled as to what could have caused such a stir, and then realized she’d recognized someone.  Or someones.  Rasmus & Hampus Meck, a couple of Swedish brothers we’d met on the train from Perm-Irkutsk happened to be looking for a hostel in Beijing and stumbled upon the one we were at.  Go figure!  Anyway, they wound up staying at our hostel and we usually all hung out once a day whether it was for a meal or to do some exploring etc.  Actually, bumping into the guys was rather timely as Alison and I were starting to need more variety in our company.  Guys often tend to help keep the mood light, and I think their sense of humour and quest for beer kept us from getting on each other’s nerves! 


Alison and I never got mad at each other on our trip until one of our final days in Beijing—the day we hiked the Great Wall.  Actually most of the day was spectacular.  We started off with the guys and a few other hostel-goers at one point on the Great Wall really early in the morning and planned to hike 10 km before ending at a restaurant at another junction in the wall.  The Wall was truly incredible and the best part was that for the whole 10kms, our group (which had split up for the several hour-long hike) had the wall to ourselves.  Well, save for the locals hawking their wares (Coke, beer, and T-shirts primarily—just what I was looking for right?!) we really did have the thing to ourselves.  As the sun rose above us in a clear blue sky, we slowly made our way up and over the undulating monument that seemed to snake its way through the mountains behind us, before us, and into eternity.  Guard towers in varying states of decay urged us onwards, inviting us to spend a few moments relaxing in their shady corridors.  I might have lingered longer had it not been for our need to meet the group and driver at a certain time, as well as the ever-pestering touts.  The wall was not a smooth, worn path, refurbished to meet the needs of foolhardy tourists eager to peer through their cameras’ viewfinders rather than watch their step.  The stretch we were hiking demanded our attention; from the uber-steep stairways crumbling around us to the jagged pathways leading us onwards it was vital that we watch where we were going, which meant that photography had to be done at a full stop.  Not that this was a problem for me—I enjoy what one could call ‘meditative walking or hiking’.  Stopping and starting with no real pace or drive, just enjoying the sheer beauty at a relaxed pace…letting it all sink in.  This however, is not Alison’s style.  She most definitely soaked up the grandeur of the experience and the beauty of the moment, but Alison is a bust your buns, pedal to the metal, guns a blazin’ chick who understandably had a different sort of experience in mind.  Both of our methods were great, but very much suited to the individual, not the team.  This caused, well, a little friction.  Not towards the end of the 10 kms, but more so when we began another, overcrowded stretch of grueling stairways that happened to be a turn in the wrong direction.  Only we didn’t realize it until a few thousand stairs (and a missed lunch) later.  We were both quite peeved at each other and the situation…not that it was one of our faults, but because we were just overtired, sweating like dogs, and each dealing with the situation in our own, individual way.  Plus, after 5 weeks, something is just bound to bubble over when a situation gets tense.  In the end, we made it to the group in time to catch our ride, but found out that if we’d made the right turn we could’ve ridden a zip-line down to the restaurant.  BOO, BOO and DOUBLE-BOO.  I had always wanted to do that and quite frankly, I’m a fan of rewards after long, hard experiences.  Not that the wall was THAT tough, it’s just that it was hot, we were tired, and a free ride down the mountain with food and beer waiting was, well, definitely incentive.  This on the other hand, felt like being sent to bed with no dinner and I wasn’t too impressed.  Ahh well, Alison and I both decided that we still made great travel partners, but should probably avoid hiking together in the future!!!


Our Great Wall experience was quite amazing all in all, as was the rest of our Beijing experience.  We both spent a lot of time just wandering the alleys, buying souvenirs, eating meat on sticks (something that makes me ridiculously happy) trying Peking Duck, and debating with the guys.  Rasmus and Hampus.  If you read this, please know that it has been YEARS since someone has challenged me in my faith and Christian beliefs as profusely as you both did.  These guys put some tough questions to both Alison and I, and personally I really enjoyed the debates and opportunities to define my beliefs more concretely.  We spent some pretty late nights arguing over beers and questioning each other’s views—I loved it and that kind of thing makes me feel very…alive. 


On a much lighter note, here are two things everyone who goes to Beijing should do.  One: Visit Tiananmen Square.  I was determined to start the trip in Red Square and end in Tiananmen.  And I didn’t.  We kept putting it off until the last day and then for some strange reason it was CLOSED.  I was thoroughly disappointed in myself and pretty embarrassed.  Dumb, dumb, dumb!...oh time!   Number Two:  Visit the Pearl Market.  Oh. My. Goodness.  I get overwhelmed visiting the grocery store without a list so I pretty much keeled over and panicked upon entering floor one of three packed with pearls.  I did wind up buying a few nice pieces for myself and for others, but oh wow that place was a sight to behold.  There’s no way to describe it, so just GO.  And plan to spend a few hours if you’re a woman.  And if you’re a man, just leave your wife, sister, mom with a set amount of money and get the heck out….you’ll drive yourself ballistic trying to make sense of the billions of pretty beads!


Hmm…what else can I say about Beijing?  It was a great place to end our trip, an inspiration to return and visit China’s small villages and countryside, and a fun place to say farewell to each other after five weeks of travel across the infamous Trans-Siberian Railway.  What an incredible journey!!!  Hope you’ve enjoyed the armchair version of our trip and in the words of Alison pretending to be Chinese, “Prease hod on handwail!”