What the hell am I doing in Beijing?

This was the first thing that ran through my mind when the Travel was done and the Destination was here.

“What I am I doing in Beijing?!?”

A century and a half ago, the traditional answer would have been “I was looking for a good time in San Francisco, I was chatting up a pretty barmaid, we got liquored up pretty good and when I woke up, I was at sea and in the navy.” My route was less adventurous: about fifteen hours of travel, including a 12-hour nonstop flight from New York.

(So: no cute barmaid, no booze. You make the call.)

In fact, the biggest bit of adventure came after the Logan shuttle dropped me off and before my connection to JFK landed, I checked my email, and read about Google Chrome OS and North Korea misbehaving and maybe needing to have its computer taken away for a month until it’s learned its lesson.

(Wow, how embarrassing. When we attack other nations, we emulate John Wayne. Other countries go for Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rambo. North Korea, when your Hollywood poster boy for international posturing and aggression is Matthew Broderick, you know you’ve got an image problem.)

Oy. I’d been off the Internet the whole night while I packed and hadn’t bothered to catch up on the news during the ride over. I had an hour or two before my flight so I quickly got caught up, determined that I now knew enough about Chrome to talk about it, and filed a column about it.

I had to remain quiet about the North Korean cyberattack story. I didn’t come up with that Matthew Broderick line until just now, you see.

More than twelve hours on a single flight! Well, it was a nostalgic trip. The US airlines were just starting to phase out the widebody planes when I began flying regularly so it was neat to once again find myself sitting in a four-seat middle row. Doubly-neat to have the aisle, and when the doors closed and I still had the whole row to myself? I’d communicate my response, but I don’t know it’ll make it through the famous Great Firewall Of China.

I’m posting from my hotel, incidentally. I keep thinking that I’m going to be blocked from sites. I logged into Google Reader and Safari told me “The connection was dropped unexpectedly.” Aha! Blocked by the small-minded enemies of freedom and democracy!

Nnnno. I was blocked by wonky in-room Internet. Which to be honest is probably as big an enemy to all that is good and decent in this world as anything and certainly more formidable than anything that North Korea is capable of dishing out.

I had prepared for this marathon flight by (a) spending so much time on worry and last-minute fussing that I got next to nil sleep, and (b) watching a CBS Early Show medical segment that promised me that after spending so much time in an airline seat I’d have more clots than a container of Breakman’s Cottage Cheese and would be lucky to live long enough to see the first beverage service.

But I got through the flight just fine thanks to alternating waves of napping, stretches (advantage of a widebody plane: you can actually walk in laps), and electronic overstimulation. I was in such a good mood that I allowed the girl who moved into the other aisle seat of my row (thus preventing me from sleeping on the entire bench) to live.

I never miss an epiosde of Robert Llewellyn‘s fantastic “Carpool” video podcast. But I always seem to watch them while traveling. Which seems appropriate because the entire show is a conversation between Llewellyn and whatever friend, friend-of-a-friend, or (n) degrees of separation personality he’s giving a lift to in exchange for an interview.

(Probably because these 10-minute shows are the perfect way to burn off the remainder of a netbook’s battery life during a long flight. I got to see “The Big Lewbowski” in its entirety with more than an hour to spare, which isn’t enough time for a second feature but ample for a month’s worth of Carpools.)

I was fretting all week because I had identified no fewer than four different elements that were out of my control and which would prevent my showing up for this MacMania cruise I’m speaking at. All that remained now was The Swine Flu Scare. The flight ended, the “fasten seat belt” signs were turned off, and as usual, I stood up to collect my things together from the overheads but was kindly asked to remain seated.

Yes, the plane was boarded by an efficient little squad of people in masks, goggles, and gloves, who moved through the plane and fired a laser temperature sensor at most everybody’s foreheads but particularly those foreheads that looked American.

I was told that we’d have our temperatures taken before being allowed off the plane. I wish I hadn’t learned that from Wikipedia, though. But the flight attendants were very nice about it and averted their eyes when I pulled my underwear and pants back up.

Yup, no joke: if X number of passengers were running a fever, the whole plane could have been quarantined and I could have been a guest of the People’s Republic for over a week. We seem to have come through it OK. A little slip of paper inserted into my passport when I cleared customs urged me to go to a clinic if I started to feel flu-like symptoms.

“Call this number,” it soothes. “We will take you to the closest clinic.”

Umm…sure. A few tweaks to the language would have been in order. As-is, it sounds a little like that scene in “Casino” when Joe Pesci talks about “taking a package out to the desert.”

Okay. I want to move towards the “wrapping things up” part of this missive.

1) What an adventure this is going to be. I’ve been to other countries before, but the UK (where they speak English; wrongly, but it’s English) and Mexico and Central America (high school Spanish and the Roman alphabet got me through) don’t count. I don’t know the language and I don’t even know these squiggles they’ve got on the street signs.

I do know some basics (“Hello,” “Thank you,” “This is all the Mandarin I speak,” “No, I swear, I only sneezed because of the sunlight, that’s all; look, I wish to speak with my embassy”) but otherwise, I’ll be depending on the kindness of strangers.

But The Amazing Race paid dividends! When I cleared customs, I went to an Information desk and asked where the Taxis were. Then — and here’s the brilliant bit — I handed the agent the name and address of my hotel written in my Moleskine and asked her to rewrite it on that same page, in Chinese. One quick flash to the driver and presto! Here I am in the heart of Beijing.

I have a few days of sightseeing and I hope to make the most of them. I don’t know what I expected, precisely, from this my first Communist country. But I see parks, and colors, and crowds of people who seem to be enjoying their lives. The TV is full of “American Idol” ripoffs and an enthusiastic infomercial for a smartphone with a “touchable screen.”

The Three Stooges. In Mandarin!

And Coca-cola is abundantly available. Still can’t tell if it’s made with real sugar or not; it tastes a bit different but lacks that glorious snap of a Central American Coke.

Anyway. Joy abounds. Glory awaits. I should get a nap. I should have packed that little plastic bit that you can swap into the end of the Apple MacBook power supply in exchange for the five feet of extra cord that ends in a grounded plug. Why? Well, it robs me of an extra four feet (which I thought was valuable) but without the grounding plug I could have plugged the MacBook directly into the 220V world power plug here.

Battery dying! Must post!

5 thoughts on “What the hell am I doing in Beijing?

  1. tim

    Having just returned from a week in Shanghai, I can recommend a few things: 1) street barbecue (just point to the meat- and veg-like items you’d like grilled up, wait 10-15 minutes while taking a seat at a reasonably filthy table on the sidewalk, and enjoy some of the tastiest food this side of the Great Wall), 2) the Shanghai Museum (free, and a fascinating collection of art, sculpture, jade, pottery, and money), and 3) strolling around Pudong and staring at the fancy Buildings Of The Future.

  2. tim

    I’m about 85% certain that it was chicken, bell peppers, and eggplant. Cat (and dog) is pretty expensive compared to chicken and pork.

  3. Mike Peebles

    Actually it’s Korean’s not Chinese, that eat cat / dog.Chinese eat a lot of pork, lamb, fish & duck. The Coca-cola tastes diff because of sugar & water used there. So do the cigarettes. Stick with bottled green tea w/ honey and you’ll do fine. Shanghai you will notice is very westernized with lots of people from Europe & US. Too bad your trip isn’t taking you into mainland China but you will love Guilin. Eat lots of dumpling & noodles and green vegetables.

  4. daragh

    I can’t believe I know this, but isn’t “American Idol” a ripoff of the British “Pop Idol”?

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