Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Shanhaiguan, part I - Departure & Arrival

It was the last day of 2006. I turned off the alarm at 5AM, rolled from one shoulder to the other and draped my arm over Angela, thinking I had another fifteen minutes before hers rang. Sleep nearly reclaimed me when her alarm clock pierced the darkness minutes later and I leaped out of bed. We had to be out the door in one hour. We both needed coffee, which I began to prepare in the little Moka in the kitchen, showers, and to pack. Once I had the coffee on the burner, I returned to the bedroom and sat down at the computer to write a few e-mails for my boss which had to be sent before leaving. For whatever reason, the usual lackluster performance of our Chinese ISP, also known as the government, wasn't cooperating, but the necessary was accomplished. Anyhow, that's a topic for another story. Angela made pancakes and we ate together as we do every morning, then we kicked it into high gear and made it out by 6:30 AM, 15 minutes behind schedule. We had one hour to get to our train at the Beijing Railway Station. Without traffic there wouldn't be any problems.

We taxied to the Xizhimen subway station, there was no traffic, and then transferred to a subway train. The subway wasn't very crowded and we arrived at the train station with about fifteen minutes to spare. It had snowed the day before, which added a nice holiday flavor to our departure as we walked in the early morning darkness through the murky slush in the light of a giant video screen blasting everyone in the square outside the station with the morning's news.

Angela - Train to ShanhaiguanWe entered the station, x-rayed our backpacks, escalatored up to our platform, had our 75 RMB tickets hole-punched, and purchased a couple of bottles of water on the dark platform with no lights aside the light which was shining on us from within the train. We boarded the train which was full, but not as crowded as I had anticipated. The train departed promptly and it was beginning to be light enough to see out of the windows at the snow-covered landscape as we rolled slowly out of the station and out of Beijing.

We rocked past brick house after brick house, hutongs with brick roofs, and row upon row of unoccupied and unfinished apartment buildings, wires and walls, people now emerging on two wheels or four, the half-dome greenhouses and nursery trees in perfect rows, all the while music, Chinese classical muzak, looping incessantly. The group across the aisle from us played cards loudly, slapping them down on the little table between them, while the sleeping man next to me snored into the dirty curtain and the woman next to Angela muttered to herself while gazing out the window. The muzak stopped after 90 minutes which, coincidentally, is when we made our first stop. The noisy card-playing group exited, but their space was taken by new passengers.

Shanhaiguan IAfter two more stops and another hour, we had arrived in Qinhuangdao. It was snowing lightly and the station workers were already sweeping snow off the platform which was dusting everything. Our first priority was to purchase return tickets as it can be quite difficult to procure tickets if you wait too long. One of the joys of traveling by train in China. We waited in line and paid 95 RMB each for them and then left the station happy to know we were going to return when we wanted. We still hadn't reached our final destination, though, Shanhaiguan, and quickly found a cab to take us the rest of the way, about 20 minutes by car. We arrived and entered the old part of the city, passing through the old city wall, and driving through the deserted city within the walls. Our initial reaction was pleasure, no tourists and none of the Chinese multitude, but we quickly discovered that our first impressions would soon be dashed. Everything was in ruin: piles of rubble, bricks and garbage were everywhere. The aluminum walls surrounding gutted blocks of what once was, now only quietly advertised the future face of the city as we bumped along in the backseat on our way to the First Pass Hotel. Hopefully, we would be getting more than this.

The cabby dropped us at the entrance, we entered the deserted hotel, and Angela began to bargain for a room. She bargained down to 150 RMB but, considering how deserted it was, I thought we could get a better rate. We decided to try our chances elsewhere and find a place to eat in the meanwhile as it was just about lunchtime and we were both quite hungry after our morning's travel. We walked through the old town which was being converted into a tourist supercenter, exited the city walls and eventually came to a Huo Guo (Hot Pot) restaurant. We were cold, it was snowing lightly still, we wanted soup, and this was the best option we could locate. We weren't displeased and settled in for a warming meal.

No comments: