In the great wisdom of Beijing, Americans holding an “F” visa must leave the country every 120 days and then return to . working. This is a foolish demand but David got some cheap tickets to Seoul, Korea so we are off – he to the Big City for business and I to South Korea.
High demand for tickets forced us to book the night train with the “hard” mattresses, that is 6 people to a room with no door, 66 to a car and about 25 cars. Two young people vaulted to the ceiling berths and barely moved all night. This is the month of the great exodus when city kids and workers return to the country for their annual visit and the Chinese New Year. So the train station was packed. David took the bunk above me and I, thanks to my age, was given the lowest one.
A vendor strolled the aisles with drinks and snacks while a large thermos of hot water sat on a small window shelf so one could prepare a $1.00 hot noodle bowl. Joe, David’s friend, saw us off with some orange and peach juice but I had determined that I should not use the bathroom hole in the floor and planned to drink no liquids for 12 hours, our arrival time at Beijing International Airport which has western toilets. Babies and mommies waddled up and down the aisles dodging the metal pull down chairs which allow passengers to look out the window. But it was 9 p.m. now – pitch black – and the silent diesel engine moved forward.
Two burly brothers with square jaws, clearly of Mongolian descent sat across from us One of the men had recently had surgery and was uncomfortable all night. I told David I had some Aleve with me, and he could offer it to the man if he was in pain. David brushed me off – that would be rude in China. I told him it would be rude in America not to offer something like that if you had it. Sometimes I think I’ll never understand these Chinese. And the brothers are talking about me, but I can’t make out the details. Annoying.
Our bunk was actually a metal shelf bolted to the wall then covered with a vinyl pad similar to a bicycle seat, hard and waterproof, covered by a thin mattress with a cotton comforter in a duvet cover at the foot. A nattily dressed attendant in a navy uniform carefully untied the satin window curtains. I thought how incongruous China is – satin and Battenburg lace on the shelves but metal shelves for beds. There was no door, so when the space heater started burning dust it caused me to cough; when I switched ends the light hit my eyes.
The Chinese people have mastered the art of living cheek by jowl. The passengers continued to murmur after lights out and occasionally a cell phone tinkled, but it was all very mannerly. Americans in a similar situation would have been raucous and noisy all night when they weren’t complaining about the crude accommodations.
As we sat on a side track for 15 minutes to let another train go by I thought of Einstein getting seminal ideas about Relativity watching two moving trains. Al was right. I could not tell if I was moving forward or backward, if at all. I carefully covered my pillow with a pashmilla, tucked my toes under my parka and tried to go to sleep. I awakened all night and then, tired of fighting the steel bed, I sat watching the receding Mongolian snow as we lumbered into Beijing
Beijing is so large that it takes over an hour to get from the city limits to the train station. The city reminds me of Dallas with its expansive freeway system far above the city streets. In theory this is fast but Beijing is now so overrun with cars it is bumper-to-bumper most of the time. Still we made it to the airport in plenty of time and I went through the ritual of paperwork, passports, pat down, and pleading to save some precious cream.
We were very late getting off the ground however, and after an hour in the air were informed that Seoul was socked in by fog so we landed at Dalian on the coast of the North China Sea. Barges, hundreds of them, dotted the harbor, each with a metal spine down the middle of the ship making them appear at 15,000 feet like so many dead fish skeletons floating on the water. Thousands of apartment buildings sat row upon row like Brooklyn row houses, or those on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, only newer. Huge rock-like mountains jutted out of the sea and from that altitude reminded me of the fake rocks people put in the bottom of their aquariums. These outcroppings are frequently topped with a worship pagoda or a cell tower. On land, occasionally a hill pops up like Stone Mountain, Georgia – unexplainable. Several people have suggested a satellite English school here. It is not a glamorous town but we North Carolinians like water.
Finally we arrived at the Incheon Airport which is on an island west of Seoul but with only 2 hours before my return flight. You could not see the planes from the restaurant windows at Bennigan’s where I had some Italian food. My photos didn’t turn out so I include a picture of carved fruit, something the Chinese like to do. Talk about sticker-shock. It was 31,000 Korean Won or $29.00 for a strip steak. NO thanks. Finally after another 2 hour delay we were back on the plane at 6 p.m., sitting on the runway until 10 p.m. I had fallen asleep and the first I knew of anything was someone waking me as the last passengers were leaving the plane. By now my ankles and legs are swollen from so much sitting and I could hardly get into or out of my shoes.
We did not deplane earlier because we would need to go through the complete customs brouhaha, inspection, declaration forms etc. The airplane was nearly empty as we filed by, they slapped yellow stickers on us and, as usual, told me nothing. A young man, Mr. Kim, saw how tired and confused I was and offered to help.
We had to go through the re-entry process and when I looked up the yellow-sticker crowd was gone. I followed an orange-sticker group to the outside then luckily spotted a yellow sticker-Korean man who spoke English and he ushered me into an airport van. I learned later that it is not a requirement of Air China to give subsidiary instructions in English – and they certainly didn’t. The motel was a bizarre collection of yard sale items – a shadow box, a pedal sewing machine, mishmash chairs. One dining area had garish lime green suede chairs next to another area in Victorian pink and gray damask. Tacky nude statuary made me think that, as all airport motels, it was part brothel.
Like China nothing fit, but unlike China everything worked including a heated toilet seat and my favorite – radiant heating in the floors. I have always wanted to be rich enough to afford that. But there was no outlet to recharge my phone and my Verizon international phone loaned to me for the trip and guaranteed to work everywhere does not work in Korea. My friends in Beijing were probably frantic. I called North Carolina and left a message to call David about my being stuck in Korea. The phone instructions were no where to be found.
The food was American, Korean, and Chinese, as were the customers. The dining room had that most beautiful of all Korean exports – flatware, including stainless steel chop sticks with water glasses and salt and paper shakers. The Koreans laid over with me had Western ways, such as the men wearing wedding rings. Fewer people spoke English however. Korea is now a 1st World Nation so I suppose the pressure to speak English is lessened; they are doing fine without a 2nd language. But consequently no one spoke to me or gave me instructions. They returned everyone else to the airport in the morning except me! I raised a ruckus in English and was finally driven separately
Back at the airport I was convinced this wretched trip had no point – but I was wrong. Grumpy, tired, and feeling put upon I sat down to wait the next 2 hours for the substitute plane back to Beijing. Mr. Kim spots me and wants to talk. This was a redeeming moment. Mr. Kim was a Korean Presbyterian pastor on a mission trip to Tibet with some of his members. I gave him a copy of my Butterfly New Testament and said we had thousands of New Testaments as well as complete Bibles available in Chinese if he or his flock needed them. And since they were legally printed in China we could ship them without a problem. I talked about my impression of Koreans – they are taller, more healthy and friendlier – the Chinese are kind but not friendly. We discussed Korean food, Arminian theology which he immediately identified as John Wesley, and the Korean language. Korean is made up of 28 characters, like an alphabet of phonemes, making it much easier to learn. I got his email address so we can provide assistance if need be.
Beijing is a huge city in every way. As we start our downward flight path there are thousands upon thousands of rows of apartments of 6-12 floors stand shoulder to shoulder like set-up dominoes. I am tempted to turn them all over with a flick of my wrist! There is almost no greenery, no mountains, no waterways, not even hills.
In the airport I am stymied. My phone is out of juice and the sellers want $14 for a card, then down to $7.00 I balk. Finally I can make a call for $4.00. I learned that David was frantic thinking I was holed up in Beijing or something, and calling the USA and Chifeng to locate me, not realizing I was incommunicado.
He reams me out – where were you? Why didn’t you call? A nearby taxi driver is eavesdropping and offers me a ride to town – starting at $54.00. I balk. Then lower. I shout “Tai gwee la” which means too much! And he finally settles on $28.00. (David says later a taxi should not cost over $14.00 but at this point I don’t care.) Just get me back to real life. Moral of the story – keep balking until you get a better price.
David parks me at a “Tea Bar” for several hours where I read, help the waitress spell pistachio and I watch embassy personnel walk their obese dogs in a cordoned off area surrounding an exclusive apartment building. From this quiet and restful place, I actually like Beijing. That night we bought some American groceries, peanut butter, jam, Dijon mustard, V-8 juice and spaghetti sauce. Later we board the night train home. I won’t be taking Air China again.