Monthly Archives: December 2014

Another Day, Another Continent

Picture of Melbourne, Australia.

Central Melbourne.

Dec. 18, 2014
Day 154

The sound of suitcases rolling past my head woke me. My flight had landed in Melbourne, Australia in the middle of the night. After clearing customs, I walked outside to get my bearings, then I quickly scampered back into the airport. I had flashbacks of my night in the airport in Miami, which I wrote about in 1000 Days Between. Unlike in Miami, I found a few other backpackers, sleeping in a quiet hallway. I blew up my air mattress, crawled into my sleep sheet and joined the others in their quiet slumber.

By 5 a.m., I couldn't take it anymore. The “quiet hallway” turned out to be one of the main corridors that led through security. It just happened to be closed when I first had seen it. But now it was open, and there was a constant chatter of over-caffinated travelers, dragging their luggage across the floor.

I packed my stuff, put on my backpack and got a cup of coffee. While walking through the airport, I felt something digging into my shoulder. When I took off my backpack, I saw that the metal frame had snapped. I had owned that pack for about five years and I had put it through the ringer, so I wasn't surprised that it had broken. Still, I wished it wouldn't have happened at the start of a two-month “vacation.” I took the frame out, shoved the broken end into my empty coffee cup to prevent it from ripping anything and added it to the front of my now-flimsy backpack.

When I stepped outside, the warm air confused my body. Jet-lag wasn't the issue – Melbourne is only three hours ahead of Beijing. But I was going into a sort of “seasonal jet-lag,” the result of traveling from winter to summer. This was actually a disappointment, considering how much I loved ice climbing. There would be none of that in the Australian summer.

I walked up to a curb, searching for the bus stop. Something so unusual happened, it took a few seconds to register: a car stopped and allowed me to cross. No car had ever yielded to me during my five months in China. Other strange things were happening. I had already practiced my English on the locals in the airport. Then when I got to the subway station, I saw people lining up on the left side of an escalator so others could pass. And when I wanted to exit the train, people waited outside until I was off. In China, everyone pushes their way aboard, so you have to force yourself through the crowd to exit. Compared with traveling through China, Australia really was going to be a vacation.

When I reached downtown Melbourne, I walked along the Yarra River, which passes through the center of town. People were sitting at riverside restaurants, having a beer and a laugh. Next I found Flinders Street, walked past the iconic Flinders Street Station and Saint Paul's Cathedral and ended up in the Treasury Gardens. It was only about one square block, but it had a green lawn, and eucalyptus trees provided plenty of shade. Last time I had seen such a nice park was in Shanghai, and when I had taken a nap on the grass there, a cop had woken me and kicked me out. But in this park, people were napping and picnicing all around me. A few guys were even playing a friendly game of cricket, Australia's national sport. I fell asleep for about an hour, and was not disturbed by the police, nor anyone else.

Across the street from the Treasury Gardens was Fitzroy Park. It was bigger, and in its center was a conservatory, full of flowers, fountains and ferns. Nearby was a miniature village that was a gift from the citizens of Lambeth, England, who sent food to Melbourne during the second world war. I also saw the “fairies' tree,” which took Ola Cohn four years to carve in the 1930s. Later I walked past a graduation ceremony for Melbourne University and took a stroll through the world-class Melbourne Museum.

At the end of the day, I met a local couple whom Katie had known from her time teaching in Berlin. We had a nice chat and called it an early night at their home in the suburbs. It wasn't the most exciting first day one can imagine spending in a new continent, but the blue sky and warm weather were just what I needed to reset my body after having spent so much time in Beijing. And bigger adventures were just around the corner.

More photos from Melbourne

Observations From Five Months in Beijing, China

Dec. 17, 2014
Day 153

You can't visit a new continent (let alone two new continents) every year. This year is special for me, my only multiple-new-continent year. After spending nearly five months in China, I'm due for a break. I'm heading to Australia.

Friends back home are always asking what I think of Beijing. To be honest, even after living there for nearly half a year, I still don't know how to respond. I've written about many amazing experiences in China (the best so far being my trip to Inner Mongolia). In fact, there are many more facets of China that I love and have yet to write about. But almost every day, I find myself in a situation that makes absolutely no sense to my Western eyes and ears.

I could go on and on about China, but for now, I'll give you 10 observations from my limited experience in the country:

1. The stereotypes about bathrooms, spitting and toilet-training are all true.

Picture of janitor.

Public bathrooms in Beijing.

Squat toilets are common. Bathrooms stink. People spit with no reservations. Toddlers wear crotchless pants and do their business on sidewalks, or wherever.

A lot of Westerners freak out when they see this stuff, but honestly, it hasn't been an issue for me. I'm not sure why it hasn't affected me as much as others, but I do know this: you're not going to change Chinese culture. If you plan to travel to China, you'll need to get used to this stuff quickly, or it'll be all you ever talk about.

2. The people are genuine and not aggressive.

Picture of smiling person.

Friends in Beijing.

Whenever I go for a walk, people say “hello” to me. I live in a suburb with a large expat community, and even there, many people get excited when they see foreigners. The language barrier is a real issue, but even if we can only communicate non-verbally, it always brightens my day to talk with the locals. And I have almost never been verbally harassed, which is very different from my experiences in Latin American cities, and even in bigger cities in the US. China has only recently opened its doors to the rest of the world, and the excitement is in the air. Meeting the locals has been one of my favorite things to do in China so far.

3. The websites you use every day won't work in China.



Before I came to China, I knew that Facebook and Twitter were blocked. That wasn't a huge deal to me because I didn't use those websites very often. The thing I didn't realize was that Google is blocked. That's right, no Google Search, no Google Maps, no Google Drive, no Gmail! My own humble website isn't blocked, but because it uses some code that accesses a font from Google, it is painfully slow in China. The Android phone I bought in China doesn't even have the Google App Store, so I can't download any useful English-language apps. Google is like oxygen: you have no idea how important it is until it's gone.

The internet in China reminds me of a Ned Flanders quote about his cable television. “[I have] over 230 channels, locked out!”

4. The street food is amazing. International food is available at a price.

Picture of street food.

Dumplings (饺子) and steamed buns (包子) are my favorites. Beijing also has many nice restaurants that cater to those with international culinary preferences. They tend to cost a bit less than equivalent restaurants in the States. I go out to eat a lot in Beijing, and it's always an interesting experience. Even when I accidentally order intestines.

5. People smoke like it's the 1950s.

Picture of smoking man.

You can smoke just about anywhere, and cigarettes cost less than $2 per pack. This is a terrible place to live if you want to quit.

6. The beds are really hard.

Picture of tiles.

Softer than a Chinese bed.

If you laid sheet of plywood on top of a typical Chinese bed, it would become about 10% softer. This isn't a problem for everyone. If you sleep on your back, a hard bed probably is a good thing. If you sleep on your side and have plenty of “padding” on your hips, you'll still get a good night's sleep on a Chinese bed. But if, like me, you sleep on your side and you have bony hips, hard beds make you very, very ornery. After a couple days of waking up feeling like someone had hit me with a baseball bat across both hips, I broke down and started sleeping on my air mattress. People think I'm weird for bringing my own “bed” to a hotel room, but I consider it a necessity in China.

7. The pollution can be nonexistent or terrible on any given day.

Picture of pollution.

Air pollution.

Sometimes I wake up to a perfect blue sky. I can see the distant hills to Beijing's north and west. Other days, I can't even see the next building. There are so many factors at play – rain, wind, government mandated factory closings, and I'm sure many more – that it's impossible to guess tomorrow's pollution level. I don't know much about the long-term risks of living in such a polluted place, but if you're visiting Beijing for a short time, keep in mind that, depending on your luck, you might go home thinking I don't see what the big deal is, or I better make an appointment for a lung cancer screening.

8. The driving seems horrible, but there is a method to their madness.

Picture of traffic.

Beijing traffic.

Your biggest danger – by far – in China is getting hit by a car. I'm not the kind of person who blindly walks across the street, assuming that cars will stop. Even in the US, I look both ways before crossing. But in China, that's not good enough.

People do tend to stop at red lights, but stop signs, crosswalks and “green walking man” signs are meaningless. Cars are allowed to turn right on red, but they're not allowed to slow down and check if anyone's coming. There are so many more rules here, if you try to understand them all, you'll quickly start pulling your hair out. Instead, I've boiled the rules of the road down to their lowest common denominator.

Just for you, free of charge, I present my guide to driving and walking in China:

If you're on foot, here's when you have the right-of-way:

If you're on a bicycle, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot.

If you're on a motorcycle, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot or on a bicycle.

If you're in a car, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot, on a bicycle or on a motorcycle.

If you're in a bus, here's when you have the right-of-way:
When you're up against someone who's on foot, on a bicycle, on a motorcycle or in a car.

If you're in a truck, here's when you have the right-of-way:

9. The public transportation is dirt cheap. The subway is easy to use, but buses are a huge challenge.

Picture of Dan in subway.

In Beijing, the subway costs thirty-three US cents per ride. There is plenty of English signage, so it's easy to figure out. Trains come every few minutes, so you never have to wait for long. My only issues with the subway are the long transfers (sometimes you have to walk through underground tunnels for fifteen minutes just to change trains) and the fact that the trains stop running at 11 p.m.

Buses in Beijing cost as little as seven US cents per ride, but they can be extremely difficult for foreigners to use. There is almost never a map, or anything written in English, at the bus stops. I have yet to meet a bus driver who speaks English, so if you get on a bus without a local who can translate for you, chances are you'll have no idea where you're going. Of course, this can be a fun adventure in itself.

10. There are tall people in Beijing. Seriously.

Overall, Beijing has been a great experience. I'm sure 2015 will bring more of the same. And in case you were wondering, here's when I first visited each new continent:

1. North America – 1978
2. Europe – 2001
3. South America – 2005
4. Antarctica – 2006
5. Asia – 2014
6. Australia – 2014
7. Africa – ???

Beijing Hutongs, Part III

On a crisp autumn afternoon, I went for another walk around Beijing's hutongs, this time near the Drum and Bell Towers. I really enjoy walking through these neighborhoods because they give a glimpse into traditional daily life in the modern capital city.

Here are some photos I took during my walk:

Picture of Drum Tower.

The original Drum Tower dates back to 1272, during Kublai Khan's reign. The current incarnation was built in 1420.

Picture of people.

Today people carry their own time-keeping devices.

Picture of man.

A man guards the Drum Tower's gate. The building is under construction.

Picture of soldier.

When I pointed my camera at this fake soldier, he pointed his fake gun at me.

Picture of bird man.

The man on the left trains birds. The man on the right is just curious.

Picture of bird.

One of the birds, attached to a nail by its breast.

Picture of electric meters.

Electricity is a welcome achievement in the hutongs.

Picture of ducks.

Roasting ducks, possibly for Peking duck, a local specialty.

Picture of biker.

A motorcycle delivery man.

Picture of rickshaw drivers.

These rickshaw drivers will show you around the neighborhood for a modest fee.

Picture of sign.

Happy officers give a Chinese warning.

Picture of bright houses.

New and old.

Picture of Hello Kitty.

The Hello Kitty car.

Picture of crumbling wall.

A crumbling facade.

Picture of rickshaw driver.

Another rickshaw driver.

Picture of janitor.

Those infamous public bathrooms don't clean themselves.

Picture of tiles.

Future roof tiles.

Picture of friends.

Friends taking a stroll through the neighborhood.

Picture of wheelchair.

The elderly are revered in China.

Picture of newspaper.

Time for a newspaper break.

Picture of sign.

“Must wear defence mask” is always sound advise.

Picture of sign.

Beer bottles stacked on a window sill.

Here's the complete photo set.