Days passed and I eventually thawed out. I even acclimated enough to strip down to four layers instead of six. Christmas came and went, my kiwi friends moved on and I opted to try Beijing
on from a couchsurfing point-of-view.
Most of the english-speaking Chinese choose an english sounding name to go with it. My host's name is Katherine. Her real name, of course, is something I would undoubtedly butcher and perhaps say in the wrong tone, thereby telling her she has the face of a goat or something equally insulting. I decided to stick with the western name.
Katherine is my age but eons ahead on the maturity spectrum. She owns a flat in Beijing's cosmopolitan Central Business District.
She also owns a business. The exact details of her job get a little fuzzy in my right-sided brain. I do know, however, that it involves carbon emissions, trading, business suits and more responsibility on a daily basis than I've had in the past eight months combined. I would feel like a failed waste of 28-year-old space in her presence if it weren't for her encouraging jealousy of my freedom to roam at will. We made a good yin and yang.
After seven days at Katherine's, I became her longest-term guest. I'm starting to consider it a couchsurfing flop if I don't go down in the record books as the lengthiest visitor, or at least most fondly remembered. Katherine and I packed enough activities into our week together to hopefully keep me in the running for both.
We started with the 798 art district.
Also known as my new favorite part of Beijing. It's an old industrial section of town, where the factories and warehouses of Mao's time are now filled with modern art. Over 200 art galleries of every shape, size and media line the streets, and visitors poke in and out as they please. We spent a Sunday roaming the neighborhood and escaping the cold in the comfort of great art.
True to form, my couchsurfing host also gave me insight into the Chinese culture I would have otherwise missed. We talked about communism, dating in Beijing, and traveling the world. I let Katherine order all the food, and ate new delicious dishes, as well as ones with eyes, as a result. She taught me squash and mah jong, and saved me from the frustration of not knowing the language multiple times.
Beijing has a fair amount of its major signs marked in pinyin (mandarin in a roman form), but I've found communication here to be more difficult than most places I've been.
English-speaking vendors and passing locals are few and far between. And poor man's sign-language can only get you so far. It's an absolute must--I've learned the hard way--to carry your desired destination or question in the written chinese format. Having Katherine to use as a source for writing it spared me half the battle.
I think my favorite unimportant insight was witnessing phone conversations in chinese. The "goodbye" portion specifically. I was never able to ask for a direct translation, but to my ears it sounds a little something like this: "Mmmm, bye, mmmm, uh, bye, mmm, HAHAHAHAHA, mmm, bye, mmmm..." I would love to know if something is actually being said or if it's just a very long, drawn out "See ya!"
My time in China ended on two very high notes.
The first was the chance to combine my hostel and CS experiences with an evening of drinks and conversation. Katherine and I met up with the german couple Kerstin and Greg and Canadian Josh. The next day, the same group came over for a home-cooked chinese meal and riveting game of mah jong before we said our final goodbyes.
The last day of 2008 was my other high note. I said adios to the year with a walk on the Great Wall. I had hoped to do the 4-hour "wild wall" tour. 10 minutes into my 2-hour alternative, with the wind whipping around my head and legs already burning from the 75 degree inclines, I was grateful things don't always work out as you had hoped. I joined a mini tour group that consisted of Canadians, Americans, Koreans and a funny guide named Xu Ying (or Shane, for the tourists).
We stopped first at Badaling
, the most touristed section of the wall. Luckily the waning temperatures kept the crowd relatively sparse and avoidable. One guy from the group joined me in walking the route instead of the cable car alternative the others chose, which further helped to escape the masses. After the wall, the group moved on to the Ming Tombs, lunch and mandatory stops at silk and jade factories. These attempts to sell overpriced local goods to tourists could be left out of the mix, in my opinion. But the pressure to buy is relatively low and we saw some interesting behind-the-scene steps in the manufacturing that kept it from being a total bust.
I saw the final seconds of 2008 tick away at a New Year's Eve party, thrown by a local record label.
Katherine, her friend Doris and I hit up the club after grabbing dinner downtown. An attempt to teach my chinese friends the tradition of the midnight kiss, with the help of some willing westerners, dissolved with the realization that everyone around us was much more into hugging. Apparently it's mostly just an American thing. And really only in the movies, at that. So we hugged it out with the rest of the westerners trying to make the most of a holiday in a country that doesn't celebrate it. For some, 2008 was a hard year of economic turbulence and political unrest. Don't tell those people, but I'll always remember it as an amazing one.