The Return Home

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

After being abroad 20 months, the last eight of which were spent in Asia, coming into any western country is going to be a shock to the system. Coming home to Canada is perhaps the most surreal experience I have ever had. It started on the flight. The maple leaf on the tail of the plane. Announcements in English. And French. I think I must have fallen asleep, but I remember looking out the window and seeing the Queen Charlotte Islands and fjords below, green and pristine, and feeling an overwhelming sense of pride in our beautiful land. And then as we descended into Vancouver, a city I've always thought overrated and sprawling, it practically glistened in the sun and suddenly I realized I just hadn't understood it. Like Vancouver, I would never look at Canada the same way again.

Soon, I was in line for customs, with my beaten, bruised, and well-used passport in hand. This is still the same passport that I was issued in Dublin after my passport full of European stamps (which are now a thing of the past) was stolen there, and I am thankful that I have endured the miles better than this little booklet. I was expecting to spend all of my layover in Vancouver in customs given how long I was away (and that even after such an absence, the maximum allowed duty-free into the country is still $750). I was backpacking, and so the truth is that I didn't have anything to worry about, even with my mostly new wardrobe, since they were bought quite cheaply in Asia and I still had very little in my possession. Instead of a thorough tear-apart after a long flight, however, I was greeted by a very friendly customs guy who shook my hand and welcomed me home and after a few routine questions about my travels, sent me on my way to Canadian soil. First stop? An ATM where my hand was filled with green $20s. I walked outside and breathed in deeply as if I could somehow resolve my absence by sucking it all in.

If, in the You Can't Do That on Television (a Canadian show, by the way!) tradition, this episode has a code word, the word is definitely "overwhelming". It's not something I've really felt before, not in this way at least, so I don't know what was normal. Certainly, I loved having some Canadian change in one hand and a chai latte in the other as I sat waiting for my flight back to Saskatoon. I remember the monitors were all showing what I felt to be very American content, CNN news talking about just how putrid the air in Beijing was and the uproar of athletes using masks to practice for the upcoming Olympics. A bunch of people talking about something of which they know nothing, I felt defensive of China for all this posturing and rubbish pouring out of the tv. Interesting. Soon enough, I was back on a smaller plane bound for Saskatoon.

If I can describe how the next two hours or so went, there was a strange emptiness in me. I kept reminding myself that in a few hours I would be back at the small Saskatoon airport, I would see my family standing there, I would be at the restaurant or at home. None of this provoked even the remotest reaction in the most bizarre way. I would poke and prod but found only numbness. The rockies gave way to the prairies and soon Saskatchewan spread below looking very plain with the massive farms in all directions. We descended to Saskatoon and I noticed that I was finally feeling something, and it was anxiety. Of all the reaction to have, this was most puzzling to me. Excited to see everyone, I could understand. Sad the trip is over, sure. But nervous and anxious? At least it was only in the tracest amounts.

I looked out the window as we came up on the edge of the city and I couldn't tell where we were coming from. Bear in mind that as a pilot, I have spent over 100 hours flying around the city from every angle. Had so much really changed? I saw the big grain elevator (a major landmark coming in from the west) which I remember being on the outskirts but there were patches of urbanization all around it. Maybe that wasn't the same elevator? Maybe we weren't quite in Saskatoon yet? But the aircraft turned and there was downtown, the Bessborough, the core looking quite as I left it almost two years ago, and soon the wheels marked my return with two solemn black streaks on runway 33. One for each year, I suppose.

When the plane finally docked at the terminal, I was still feeling only that anxious emptiness. I stood up and waited my turn like everyone else and walked off the plane. I walked toward the escalator down to the arrivals area, and saw a few people waiting for their plane to board, realizing that I couldn't make out their faces clearly without my glasses. It could even have been my family sitting there, and I wouldn't have known it until I got closer. And then, out of nowhere, I just about collapsed,. Literally. I had to stop, catch my breath, and wipe my eyes and try to calm down my now very shaky body. I couldn't walk out there like this - I was a mess. I breathed slowly and preoccupied myself with fishing my glasses from my backpack and shook my head trying to make light of what felt like a pretty ridiculous reaction. Down the escalator, out the doors, and suddenly I was being hugged by a girl that was definitely too tall to be Mariah.

And then I looked up and there was my whole family standing right in front of me, after all this time, and my grandparents, and my Aunt Joeanne, Uncle Russ, and my cousins Cortland, and Catie. And the word of the day: overwhleming. After a lot of greetings and hugs and mini-stories my backpack came off the conveyor belt and though pretty much everyone offered to carry either it or my daypack for me, I did the last leg of the trip, from the airport to the car, with both backpacks on my shoulders. Jeans from Indonesia, shoes from Shanghai, a laptop stolen and recovered in Australia's Gold Coast, aviators from the markets in Phnom Phen, and all back home in Saskatoon. Our first stop was Athena. We walked in the kitchen door and I saw nobody I recognized. While the others were doing greeting in the kitchen I walked through the door and somebody was waiting at the till. "How was everything today?" I asked him. "Really good, thanks" I counted his change and said goodbye as my family walked through the doors of the kitchen. Yes it is, I thought, and we all sat down at the table..

Return Home Photos

Get Out (of) The Expansive China

It was the last city in the last country I was visiting on this so-called "last big trip". Beijing, the 2008 Olympic City was spread before me as I stepped from the train at 7:30 AM on August 1st. Accommodation this time was of a form I'd not used since leaving Australia, Couchsurfing. For those not in the know, a quick rundown is that it is a website full of travelers and people who like to meet travelers, perhaps showing them around, perhaps giving email tips, perhaps meeting for coffee, or, perhaps, offering up a couch or spare bed (or floor) to sleep on. I had vague directions for a guy named Aaron's home. Essentially, a subway ride to Ji Shui Tan station on the circle line, and then I was supposed to say the name of Aaron's apartment complex and a taxi driver would know it and bring me. From there, no idea. And, in fact, the more immediate problem was the same. I was standing outside the west train station with no idea how to get myself to a subway.

Oh, I knew where it was. Somewhere between 1-2km north of the train station if Lonely Planet was to be believed. And I had, I felt, a pretty good feeling of where north was. But I lacked energy or ambition to trek there with my loaded backpacks, so I did what anybody too tired to think clearly would do: I jumped on the first bus I saw and hoped it would head north and cross a subway line. It didn't. In fact, it headed south and, as near as I could tell, away from any and all civilization. No matter, aside from that Aaron was waiting for me to arrive to go to work, I hopped another bus in the opposite direction. It also did not go north - well, it backtracked north to the train station and then proceeded east for some time. East was still okay (I WAS at the West station) as it was generally correct, and soon, sure enough, we were headed north and I got off as soon as I saw a metro line.

For a city that has been pulling all the stops to be ready for Olympic visitors, I was really shocked at the lack of any indication of how to get to the city centre. Although the metro, once found, is really easy to use, the bus lines are another story. On the street, even pinyin (the english-letter version of Chinese) is absent, leaving you to ponder bus numbers and Chinese characters. Once on the bus, the route is marked in Chinese and pinyin, but that is a lot less helpful as you can probably guess. Regardless, I made it without resorting to taxi to the subway and then to the correct stop and was hoping to find Aaron there but no go. That had been the plan as of our last email, but I thought I'd try anyway and see if he was home so I grabbed a cab and sure enough, he knew exactly where we were going. I didn't. So when he dropped me off, I looked up to see rows and rows of apartments and no idea which one might house Aaron. Luckily, he saw me from his place and yelled out my name and soon I was in my Beijing home comfortable and set.

The location was truly excellent. It's only a 10-minute walk from the subway, past little restaurants and in a very local area that I never would've seen were I not staying with a local, of sorts. Aaron's actually an American who moved here partly on a whim and now works in R&D for P&G which is a lot of A&As (acronyms and ampersands). So he has some interesting insights on China, Chinese, and the way things work and don't work in this country, or at least he knows what someone from the west would find interesting about day-to-day life. After a bit of chat and some tips, maps, brochures, and discussion of my final days in Beijing, he was off to work and I was off, after a bit more rest and recuperation, for Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden Palace. The sky, contrary to reports, was blue, the sun was shining, and I had a whole lot of city to see. When I exited the metro I saw an area gated and fenced off that I assumed must be the Forbidden City. As I walked towards it I could discover no entrance though there seemed to be a few people mingling. It was, I'd later discover, an area built to look like it was from the turn of the century with trolleys and so on, and was completely off-limits to any tourist unlucky enough to be in Beijing before but not during the Olympics.

After a short time there I made my way to the real Forbidden City, but that meant walking through Tienanmen Square. That's great, I could go and visit Chairman Mao in his mausoleum; the old dictator's wishes had been ignored and instead of being cremated he was embalmed and is on public display. Or rather, he USUALLY is. Prior to the Olympics, the closest I was getting to Mao was his portrait hanging on the Gate of Heavenly Peace (for which the square is named). While wandering around I noticed I had someone following me and/or surreptitiously taking photos. Locals being fascinated by foreigners is pretty common, although not so much in larger centres, but with the Olympics Chinese are in from all over so it wasn't too surprising. What was surprising was how much he followed me - even after he asked me to have a photo with him I would still turn from a site and see him snapping photos of me looking at the gate or Olympic decorations or whatever. Beijing is crawling with spies and security, so maybe it was that but as I sat down to have a bit of water and ponder it I was approached by three more Chinese who each wanted photos with me. And once they'd worked up the courage a line formed. I later discovered that I had also been filmed by CCTV (Chinese news) looking around the city. Truly bizarre.

By the time I was finished with photos and made it to the Forbidden City, I was forbidden to enter. It was after 4:00 and there was no getting in, so I wandered east and found myself on a street lined with food stalls, pretty much exactly where I'd have gone had I planned it. On Wangfujing Street was everything: snake, starfish, silk worms, crickets, beef, pork, skewered fruits (with or without honey), you name it. So, I had some snacks, starfish included (crunchy but so-so) and went along to the main shopping street. This street is about as western as it gets - big shopping malls, McDonalds, you name it. I did a bit of looking around at the Oriental Pearl mall in particular and stumbled mainly on a movie theatre. So, a quick stop to watch Hancock as I was already exhausted and I was too tired to continue so I went home and slept like a superhero. Soundly.

The next day was likewise beautiful and blue. Aaron invited me to go to a pretty posh pool party but with the clock ticking and time running out on my stay in China and Beijing, I couldn't afford the time to sit around a pool. Instead, I hopped the bus out to the Summer Palace, a beautiful park which, aside from a pool party, is probably the best way to pass a hot summer day in Beijing. Pagodas on the distant hills, a lake named after my first stop in China (Kunming), beautiful bridges, women walking by with umbrellas and boats slipping along in the water, what more could a person want? The park was truly beautiful and a must for anyone visiting Beijing, though I would wait for a nice day to do so. I spent the better part of three hours wandering around and then decided that I would try to take in a few of the Olympic venues that evening. So I hopped the bus (960) from the Summer Palace and found myself across the highway from the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium and the Water Cube in a sea of people.

Perhaps my timing was unfortunate, but even though I was there, I couldn't get anywhere near the places. Everything was fenced and guarded from a good distance back and I got yelled at trying to take a picture from the pedestrian overpass of the Bird's Nest (I took two anyway). But as I got to the gates I discovered it was a dress-rehearsal for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremonies (tm) and my timing was not so lucky. Even so, I'd been warned by Aaron that without tickets to the Olympics I wasn't going to get anywhere near the stadium or other Olympic venues. So I joined the growing number of people standing along the freeway waiting for dusk to fall and the show to begin. The crowd grew and I was surprised to see how disobedient they were. People jostled for position as close to the front as possible and soon my good spot was usurped by people waiting on the road and then those lining the grassy barrier between the onramp where we were and the highway itself. So I moved up and was the first to sit on the opposite side of the grass along the highway itself. A few people laughed and soon everyone was there and finally the police showed up and sent us all back to our previous line.

I was also the last to leave. I got off the highway but sat on a manhole cover in the middle of the grass that I thought should be perfectly acceptable. Not in traffic or even on the shoulder, not trampling flowers, a good compromise. I played dumb and/or refused to move back as politely as possible and somewhere, someone out there has a great photo of me being told to move back by two police officers losing their patience. Finally I gave in but soon they were gone and the edge not only resumed its original place but crossed to the barrier between either directions of the highway. If it's a dress-rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies then I feel it's important to show the police what they have to watch out for, so I feel I did my part. The sun set beautifully and then we were treated to bursts of fireworks at unknown intervals which meant that I was never quite ready. If what they showed tonight was a small taste then those attending the actual opening ceremonies are in for a treat.

I tried to make my way back to meet up with Aaron for some Cantonese food at his favourite restaurant, but all the subway lines in the area were closed so I walked three kilometres to a different line and we had dinner. It was quite nice and the closest thing I've had to the Chinese food we get back home. The following morning, we had an interview with Singapore News about Couchsurfing. They chatted with Aaron first about hosting and living in Beijing and then with me about visiting and my couchsurfing experience. To round things off, they took me to my first stop for the day, the Temple of Heaven to do some shots of me touring the city and sights. Hopefully I don't look too much like a bumbling tourist; that little piece should be on the air in the week following the opening ceremonies. As for the Temple of Heaven, it is quite a pretty building set in park grounds that are less pretty but lined with lanterns concealing speakers playing traditional Chinese music which did a lot to compensate.

And finally, I made it to the Forbidden City and managed to enter after someone running the art scam tried to have a go at me. This was impressive but I don't think it was worth the money to enter, which Aaron had told me. That said, I felt I had to enter despite that - it IS the Forbidden City after all - and I didn't feel cheated after, so I won't advise anyone to give it a miss either. But it was some big gates and small buildings and to be honest, the most interesting thing for me - aside from the Hall of Clocks (admission extra) - was the massive copper cauldrons that served as the fire prevention system. They're just, well, massive copper cauldrons, filled with water near all the buildings in case a fire should break out. But it somehow gave a picture of a different time more than the gates and buildings really could. I had dinner at Megabite, a Chinese food court in the Oriental Pearl mall with lots of (expensive) options and pretty good food and then went home.

My final day in China and of this whole trip was reserved for something truly special. It is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it is a ribbon of human achievement, and it is something I have wanted to see since I was in third grade. The Great Wall of China awaited. But the wall itself is almost 6500 km long and near Beijing there are several spots regularly visited by tourists. A friend had been there recently and told me how crowded and horrible Badaling (closest and most accessible from Beijing) was. On the contrary, both Aaron and Charlotte were recommending I go to Simatai and look at the section of wall around that area. It is remote, beautiful, not restored (so in some places you are walking on the original wall and not newly replaced bricks) and as an added bonus, furthest from Beijing and the smog that had settled on the city that morning. I had been lucky with the weather up to this point but now things were a bit more back to normal. To their credit, the Chinese said if it was going to continue like this they were going to go from driving alternate days to once-per-month which is commendable. Can you imagine that happening in western society?

So down to the bus station where a woman dressed as an Olympics volunteer offered to help me get where I wanted to go. No busses that direction anymore (I'd missed the early ones) but I could get a mini-bus. That sort of agreed with what I'd read, so I let her lead me... and lead me... and lead me until my suspicion grew quite great. We turned a corner into a small road/alley and I knew I wasn't being brought to just any minibus to split with tourists. I've been in Asia long enough to know a scam when I see it. So I stopped, looked around affecting a tone of worry, and asked if she knew this driver and I would be safe with him? Oh, he's my husband, she assured me, and then I laughed and walked away. That didn't stop them from chasing me down. 400?? We'll give you very good price. Wait for you, bring you back! You tell price. I said 50 which I knew was low but I could take the bus for 15 yuan now that I knew she was lying so I walked away and got myself on bus 980 to Miyun.

The problem with going somewhere less touristed is the difficulty, especially in China. When I revealed my plans to the ticket lady on the bus, she made a big deal about the bus not going where I wanted, but I knew that I had to get off in Miyun and get a mini-bus from there so I wasn't too concerned. Aaron happened to call me in the middle of the exchange and I passed him to her and got everything sorted out and paid my 15 Yuan. 1.5 hours later I was dropped across from a gas station with some eager mini-bus drivers. The prices started high but I worked them down to 50 yuan and still decided I wanted to verify there wasn't a bus or someone to split the ride with in that direction. I hopped back on the next bus but discovered that no, there actually was no bus this time. I also discovered an American-Albanian couple going the same direction and that the prices here were higher. They had been looking around and negotiating for an hour so I took their word that there were no busses and whatsmore, they were being followed by a guy that yelled and screamed at anyone who offered a fair price, and aside from knocking him out there was nothing to be done for it. We even got in a van from someone who offered the three of us a ride for 100 and he jumped in too and started yelling. I was dangerously close to throttling the man, but soon we were underway for 50 yuan - each.

So I went through a lot of extra trouble for nothing but soon we arrived. Not as Simatai, I should've made clear earlier, but at Jinshanling from which Simatai was 10 km away along the Great Wall, though there was at least one part of the wall that was so ruined that the trail actually goes off the wall and comes back on at the next tower. The Great Wall was, well, great and everything I'd hoped for. It was hazy even out here, mostly due to heat and humidity though and not pollution, but still offered breathtaking views of the wall making its way along mountain tops far far along. The initial section near Jinshanling was maintained and an easy walk, but soon was the genuine article, making its way along the countryside in timeless glory, crumbling in parts, steadfast in others. As the trek was along a mountain pass, it was a lot of up and down, sometimes quite steeply, but I was still in good shape (and full of red blood cells) from my time in the Himalayas and I did the four hour walk in two and a half. Which isn't to say I wasn't stopping every 100 metres to gape at the scenery and sheer magnitude of the wall, but it was over before I knew it and I descended the mountain, crossed a river on a suspension bridge, and took a flying fox down to civilization again.

After paying another 50 Yuan to get back to Miyun and catching the last bus (6:00) for Beijing, I got home and Aaron had made dinner which was unexpected and very welcome since I'd not really eaten aside from breakfast. Then we went out with a friend of his for drinks and before I knew it, I was waking up to the day. The day when I go home, when I board the plane for that one final journey, and at the same time the day I get to see friends and family again. I said goodbye, thanked Aaron, and did some last minute shopping before getting on the train for Beijing's new airport. One last stamp in the passport, and suddenly I was on an Air Canada plane and they were talking English and French, though I was still saying 'thank-you' in Chinese. The journey home would be a long one that would doubtless continue well after my physical arrival in Vancouver four hours before I left Beijing and in Saskatoon an hour and a half after. But I was now on the plane, the doors were closed, and it was taxiing to our spot on the runway. The pilot opened the throttles and as I was pressed back in my seat, I watched China slip away as the skies opened above.

Beijing Photos