This upcoming week is the Mid-Autumn Festival/National Holiday, so we have a week off. It’s the only reason I’ve survived so long. No travel plans unfortunately. For the holiday I least. Jess and I just booked a weekend trip to Busan at the end of October though. Other than that we’re just saving money for our New Year’s trip to India. But there’s a lot of places in and around Beijing I still haven’t seen so I’ll do some exploring here.
Kiki went to her hometown for the holiday and sent everyone who works for her a Tianjin specialty-hairy crabs. Live crabs. 15 of them. Seafood is always super fresh here-literally still swimming. Instead of bags of frozen fish and shrimp, the supermarkets have aquariums with every possible variety of seafood splashing around. The market near my house is one of the best in the city and I always tell myself I’m going to learn how to cook live seafood but I haven’t brought myself to do it quite yet. But now I have these crabs and either they’re going to be dinner or I’m going to have to put a plastic wading pool in the middle of the living room and give them all names. I’ll let you know when I decide.
Also, they didn’t get delivered until after 10 tonight and Jess and I were both ready for bed so we look a little crazy, and Jess’s camera work goes a bit spazy at the end, but it’s still funny:
I know, it’s been an absurdly long time. I was busy with end of school things and when I finally got through that I was just exhausted and didn’t feel like writing. But I’m home in Kansas City at the moment for a visit so it’s time for a long overdue update.
To begin with, my flight home was an adventure in and of itself. I took off work a couple days early, after two solid weeks of helping to write curriculum and planning lessons, so I could have a full month away from China. Got to the airport early on the 12th, checked in, no problems, my flight actually boarded on time, which is practically unheard of for BCIA (Beijing Capital International Airport). And then we sat. And sat. First, because of BCIA air traffic control. This is normal as it’s the second busiest airport in the world; there’s usually a line to get off the ground. But while we were waiting there was a loud bumping and shaking underneath us in the back of the plane. So then we waited for maintenance to check it out. And for them to fix one of the air conditioners which had broken. Did I mention it’s been over 100 degrees in Beijing? Yeah. Eventually they let people go back to the gate for about 20 minutes. When everything was fixed they reboarded everyone and about 10 minutes after we got in our seats they announced that we couldn’t take off because the crew’s time had expired. So, back off the plane, through immigration to get our exit stamps canceled, customs, and then we were all rebooked on another flight the next morning and shuttled to a nearby hotel for the night.
It wasn’t all bad though because I met some fun people and got to hang out with them at the hotel and while we were waiting around the airport the next morning. The hotel was really nice and the airline took care of everything, rooms, food, transportation, rebooking flights. My trip was a little more complicated because I actually had two round trip tickets, one from Beijing to Boston (with a stop in San Francisco) and another from Boston to KC (with a stop in Chicago). It was cheaper for whatever reason (I will never understand airline logic) to fly from Beijing to San Francisco to Boston to Chicago to Kansas City, than it was to fly from Beijing to Kansas City with a stop in San Francisco. And my youngest brother is in Boston so I thought it would be great to stop and see him on my way back to Beijing. But I didn’t particularly want to stop in there on my way to KC; it’s just always cheaper to book round trip tickets than one-way. So it was a bit of a hassle to reschedule my connecting flights.
The next morning we got back to the airport and were delayed again. Because they tried to put us on the same plane, again. And the air conditioner was broken, again. One of the crew had told us that this particular plane was supposed to be decommissioned last September. I’m not feeling very confident at this point… Eventually they told us to move to another gate and we boarded a different plane there. The people who were already at that gate got sent back to our gate to wait for that plane to be fixed…I hope they made it off the ground but I have my doubts. And all this running around made us miss our newly rescheduled connections in SF. Which would have made me miss my next connection in Boston. When I explained everything to the ticket agent though he was super helpful, and instead of making me fly halfway across the country and back he got approval to change my ticket to go from SF to Kansas City and skip Boston altogether. So despite leaving Beijing 26 hours late, I still got home the same day I planned.
There was a time when this kind of chaos would have sent me into a panic or angered me but the more I travel, the more I’m able to brush these things off. There were some people on the flight who were hopping mad and screaming at the gate agents and I just had to roll my eyes. Is it an annoyance? Sure. I get frustrated too sometimes. But is it worth screaming about? Screaming at people who have no more control over it than you do? In the scheme of things, does it really matter? I like to make plans-I have books full of notes and schedules and to-dos-but I also know things don’t go according to plan all time, or even most of the time. It’s the unexpected things that sometimes end up being the most memorable, good or bad. So what I remember about this trip is that I got to finish two books I’d been meaning to read while I was waiting. I got to have a nice dinner and interesting conversation with Baynie from Las Vegas and Meredith and Ben from Wisconsin, who gave me some great ideas of places to visit when I finally take my cross-country road trip, hopefully next year. I got to soak in a hot bath and get a good night’s sleep in a hotel that I can’t even afford-for free. I’ll remember the chatty business lady who flies back and forth to China every other month (didn’t catch her name), that befriended us at the hotel and later, when she saw us stuck in the check in line at the airport, went and bought us all her favorite breakfast rolls to eat while we waited. I’ll remember the friendly flight attendant who asked all about my life in China, kept us all updated on what was going on, and even tried to help me find a different connecting flight on her phone while we were waiting. And I’ll remember the ticket agent in San Francisco who could have told me that I had a non-changeable flight, as three previous representatives had, but instead spent half an hour on the phone with his corporate headquarters trying to upgrade my ticket and finding me a way to get home as soon as possible. People are people, anywhere you go, and people are generally nice if you’re nice to them. Most of things I hear folks complaining about could be solved with a smile and a simple “please and thank you”.
I had another situation in June when I went to Macau for my visa run. I usually go to Hong Kong but I wanted a change. And if I’d flown directly into Macau it probable would have been fine, but I also wanted to see Zhuhai, on the mainland, because I’d heard it was beautiful-one of the cleanest cities in China. So I planned to fly to Zhuhai after work on a Friday, crash, get up early and go the port, where you can walk through the immigration building into Macau on the other side. Solid plan. Except my flight was delayed and I didn’t get to Zhuhai’s little airport until almost 2am, when we were the last flight in and almost everything was shut down. I had booked a room online at a hotel near the airport, and stopped at the information desk to ask the only employee in sight how to get there. She didn’t recognize it, but called the number on my booking to ask them for me, since no one spoke English there. Turns out, the hotel did not accept foreigners, only Chinese people. This isn’t unheard of in China-either they didn’t want to deal with foreigners or they couldn’t accept foreign passports. (Some places require a 15 digit Chinese ID number.) At any rate, I was stranded with very little money, and would get my refund until later in the week. The girl at the information desk was a little lost too, but she pulled out her phone and between her English and my Chinese, and a really good translation app, managed to explain what was going on. By this time a curious security guard was hovering around trying to help too. He suggested a hotel nearby where airline staff stayed and they helped me call to book a room. Then the girl called her friend who also worked at the airport and had a car, and I waited a few minute until they got off work at 3am, then they drove me to the hotel, walked me in and negotiated a lower price with the girl at the desk, and made sure I was all set before they went home. I’m so grateful for people like that; they make the journey worthwhile. And I got to have a good time in Zhuhai (which was beautiful) and Macau:
I wanted to post some last pictures of my kids, too-I had some adorable ones of them in their little graduation cap and gowns-but I can’t find them! I need to get my computer organized. The last month of school was a blast though-we did experiments with eggs, trying different ways to wrap them and then throwing them off the roof (only one broke!) to see which was strongest, making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, movie day, art projects, making a class book and just playing games. I’m going to miss those guys but I’m excited for next year. At least, I think I’m better prepared for next year.
I’m just enjoying being home for now and seeing family and friends. My driver’s license expired about a year and a half ago while I was out of the country. And since it had been expired over 6 months I had to retake the whole test. I had attempted this when I was home in December and failed the driving exam so I was actually nervous this time. I know how to drive; it’s like riding a bike. But I can’t stand being judged. I had a death grip on the wheel the whole time, and the examiner looked about 22 years old, which was annoying. But I passed! It feels good to drive again. I’ve been hanging out in the pool, playing with my dogs, and revisiting some of my favorite places. Definitely experiencing some reverse culture shock though. When I first moved to China I would automatically convert everything I bought into dollars; now I convert everything I buy in the States to RMB, and it hurts. Oh it hurts. Prices here seem outrageous to me. My mom is coming with me visit my brother in Boston when I leave KC. She booked our hotel last night at one of the cheaper places available, and the price of two nights there would cover accommodation, food, transport, and activities for two weeks in most places in Asia. And the choices here are overwhelming. I spent like an hour and a half in the grocery store the other day. Most the shops I go to in Beijing might have 5-10 different options for something, say, ice cream; here there is a mile-long aisle devoted to it. In a way it’s nice, but there’s also something ridiculous about it. We drive to places I would just walk to in Beijing. Life here seems foreign now.
Just some first week of school pictures. We had a pretty fun, busy week. I only have six kids, 4-5 years old. They are a pretty good group. It’s the only all-day class at the school, 8:30-4pm. Then I have one-on-one tutoring with some other kids.
Friday night Jess and I celebrated the end of the week by getting pedicures, dinner and drinks at Eudora Station, and watching a new band. Saturday we went to see a movie to get out of the heat and smog. We picked one at random, thinking it would be Chinese but it was actually Russian, dubbed over with English voice actors, and Chinese subtitles. It would have been great except for the voice actors. It was like watching a really serious movie with cartoon voices. Interesting experience. Then, we decided to relax with Chinese “health massage”. Unfortunately, there is nothing relaxing about Chinese health massages. It’s more like having someone repeatedly try to tear all the flesh off your bones and then run you over with a truck. Really, it’s unfathomable how a 90lb Chinese woman could do so much damage. Every time I move it hurts. But it’s effective if you go regularly, so I’m going to try it out.
Then things started going downhill. On the way home we had the worst cab driver in the world. When we stopped to get groceries I realized I had lost my phone. I was not particularly upset over this as my phone is a piece of junk that will no longer hold a charge longer than an hour. So I was briefly excited to buy a new phone. But then Jess called the spa and it turns out I had left my phone there. So we turned around and went back to retrieve it. As we were leaving, we noticed a phone store next door. I took it as a sign to replace my sucky phone and picked out a new one. Went to pay. Realized I had, once again, left my debit card in an ATM. Yes, for the second time in 6 weeks. So I abandoned the new phone and we raced back home to the ATM, called the number, and found it will take up to a week to retrieve. Although they were really nice about it. Then this morning as I was headed out to the grocery store I realized the front tire on my bike was almost flat. Took it to a nearby bike shop and filled up. The back was a bit low so I topped it off, too. A little too much. I got about two blocks before there was a loud BANG and my rear tire busted. No problem, I’ll just take it back to the bike shop…oh wait…no debit card, no money. So, yeah, fun times.
After my series of fiascos, not to mention residual pain from the massage, I decided to hide. So this afternoon Jess and I piled all the pillows and comforters in the house on her bed, grabbed some junk food favorites, and watched a triple feature of Aladdin, Neighbors 2, and Cast Away, which I had somehow never seen. Then we updated our wall mural with recent activities.
Let me tell you, Lemony Snickett has nothing on me and Jess. We were both itching to get out of town for the weekend since after Wednesday’s flood the temperatures skyrocketed and things got very smoggy. We wanted to go to the Kangxi grasslands but figured they would still be soggy, so we hit the internet.
Nicole: “Hey, there’s a fast train to Shanghai we could take! And it’s cheap.”
Jess: “Yay! Let’s go to Disneyland!”
Nicole: “Oh, nope, wait, that’s the one-way price…never mind…”
So, then I started searching train tickets to random cities.
“Hey let’s go to Wuhu! Just because it sounds funny!”
“Oh, no, wait, that’s like a 36 hour trip…”
After a few more misattempts, Jess suggested a day trip to Cuandixia Village in the mountains outside of Beijing, then spending the weekend in a hotel in a different part of the city for a change. Also partly because our shower was flooded and we didn’t feel like dealing with it. And because the hotel had a bathtub and I haven’t gotten to soak in a bathtub since I left the States. So we booked a hotel on line, threw some things in a bag and took off.
Of course when we arrived at the hotel, near Wangfujing, they did not have our reservation on the books. We got a different room and went straight to sleep so we could get up at 5am Saturday morning. From there it was a 40 minute subway ride to Pinguoyuan, where supposedly bus 929 would take us to Cuandixia. However, bus 929 was nowhere to be found. After wandering around for a while a security guard pointed us in the right direction. We found the right bus stop, where we were informed by the driver that the bus no longer goes to Cuandixia and we needed bus 892.
We finally got on the bus and were headed out of town when it hit me that I did not take my debit card out of the ATM when I had taken out cash that morning. At this point we were well outside of Beijing, somewhere in Mentougou County, but we got off the bus and took a very expensive cab ride back to Beijing. Did I mention that in all this time we hadn’t found any breakfast? No, well, we hadn’t. So we stopped at the McDonald’s near the hotel where a raving homeless guy was yelling at passersby and throwing things. Naturally he followed us inside to sit next to us and stare.
So after we ate we headed straight to the ATM where I knew I’d left my card. I called the number on the machine where the ABC Bank lady informed me that they do not manage that machine and I should call another agency. Which I did. And the lady there informed me that she would have someone check the machine on Monday and call me. At this point we had very little money (Jess was down to the equivalent of $15 US until payday before we even started, and I only had the cash I had taken out in the morning, much of which was spent on the aforementioned taxi.)
But we decided to just go have fun anyway and set out for Beihai Park, one of the oldest parks (construction began in 938 A.D!). The park was very close. However, it was walled off and the only entrance was a very long walk away. (By the way, the temperature hit 108 degrees Saturday…)
The park however, was beautiful. The lotus blossoms were opening all over the place. In some places there were so many and so close together that you can’t even see the opposite bank of the river. There were boats out everywhere. We got to climb up to the top of the temples and view was amazing.
It was nice to be surrounded by nature for once; you can almost forget you’re in Beijing at all.
Of course, by the time were done we were both sunburnt. Or, as Jess put it, “You look like a strawberry donut.” But I had fortunately remembered that I had a backup credit card. At home. In the apartment. So we took a cab back and as we pulled up to the gate…
Nicole: “Oh, what?”
Nicole: “You left the apartment keys at the hotel, didn’t you?”
Fortunately the security guards know us very well by now. As does the locksmith, seeing as this is the fourth time Jess has locked herself out since she moved in, and the second time within two weeks. He didn’t even ask questions, just went straight to our apartment, where we grabbed the money and went straight back to the hotel. Where we were locked out of our room.
Apparently our reservation had eventually shown up in the hotel’s system so they switched us to the room we had originally requested. So we packed again and dragged our stuff down the hall.
Then finally, relaxation. We took our baths, blasted the air conditioner, ordered pizza, and watch a movie till we fell asleep. For about 10 hours. From there on out the weekend was smooth sailing. Except for Jess leaving her computer behind (it was recovered), and a minor bike collision (everybody’s fine). But stay tuned for more amusing disasters when we head out to the mountains again next weekend!
Managed to retrieve my debit card successfully from ATM. I have to say the ABC Bank folks were extremely helpful. And when they opened up the machine there were several cards besides mine that had been captured so I don’t feel quite so stupid.
Discovered source of shower drain clog: coins. Yes, coins. In China, the washing machine is pretty much always in the bathroom and shares one single drain with the shower and the sink. So apparently all the change we forget to empty out of our pockets came out in the rinse water and stopped up the drain. Chalk it up to another #chinaproblem.
Thought my luck was turning today. Things were going really well, I even found out I get an unexpected 5 day break before my next teaching job starts. Then I came home to no electricity. I checked the electricity box and we still have money on our card. (Here electricity is purchased with a prepaid card, so it’s not unusual for us to forget to refill the card and run out.) Jess checked with a neighbor and found they still have electricity. Then she approached the maintenance people, who basically laugh whenever they see her coming now. The same guy who fixed our shower came upstairs and starts flipping switches and rearranging wires. Essentially what we found out is that the fridge is broken. We can plug anything else into the outlet, but as soon as we plug in the fridge it’s lights out everywhere. So once again it’s two steps forward and one step back…