So, the last y'all heard, we had left all of our training behind in DC, had visited family, and were off to the Great Unknown (our new post, Chengdu, China). After not having internet or phone for a while after we got here, I was able to steal a computer and internet from another source and let everyone know that we had gotten to Chengdu safely and that everything was A-Okay.
But now it's time for the US to Chengdu story! And pictures!
After saying a tearful farewell to our families, we flew for what felt like a hundred zillion years to our first stop: Hawaii.
Yes, you read that right: HAWAII. We went to Hawaii because James had meetings there. Which really didn't suck. In fact, I have something to say really quickly:
~ ~ ~
Dear State Department,
Anytime y'all have any inkling whatsoever to send my husband to Hawaii for meetings, you can just feel MORE THAN FREE to HAVE AT IT. I truly, seriously, wouldn't object in the slightest. NO, REALLY.
~ ~ ~
So, yeah. We hung out in Hawaii and got our this on:
And then it was time to head to our next stop: Beijing. Because - you guessed it - my husband had meetings there, too.
The evening we flew into Beijing, we were exhausted and overwhelmed. We had been awake for upwards of 40+ hours between catching connections and what have you... not including losing 6 hours and CROSSING THE INTERNATIONAL DATE LINE... and, honestly, when the shuttle picked us (and our eighteen suitcases/bags) up at the Beijing airport, we were all already emotionally spent.
Our first glimpses of China - from behind the windows of the van taking us to our hotel - were obscured by twilight and haze and honking and exhaustion and lights and smells and DIFFERENT. I looked at our two boys. Matthew seemed grim, and Zachary had large, silent tears rolling down his face.
I pressed my sons' hands with my own and willed myself to emotionally keep it together.
We got to the hotel and immediately needed our Chinese. Not that we have all that much. We got all of our bags out of the van and up to the room, which was quite a production, let me tell you. We tried to peer out of the hotel room's windows, but couldn't see much. The son of mine who hadn't cried in the van broke down and cried in the hotel, his arms flung about my neck. Once we all fell into bed, James only had a couple of hours before he had to be at the Embassy.
The alarm went off what seemed like 15 seconds later. We had already noted that the per diem for hotels goes a WHOLE HECKUVA LOT FARTHER in Beijing than in the US; our "hotel room" was actually a three-bedroom, three-bathroom gorgeous apartment complete with a balcony off the master bedroom. We tentatively opened the curtains to the balcony and were deligted to find a clear, crisp day with a pretty blue sky:
We practically RAN out onto the balcony to get a better look at China for the first time during daylight. We found BLUE SKY:
James was going to be gone the whole day being All Important And Stuff, so I faced a huge dilemma.
We only were going to be in Beijing that one day. What should the boys and I do while James was gone all day? I didn't want to waste our one day in Bejing - possibly my sons' ONLY day in Beijing ever - by sitting in the "hotel room" like a total scardey-cat.
On the other hand, it had been MONTHS since I'd been in Chinese at FSI, and to say I'd lost almost all of my language would be an understatement. Furthermore, I didn't have a cell phone, James didn't have a cell phone, I didn't have any idea how on earth to contact anyone if I needed to (either inside OR outside of China), this was my first ever time in any sort of Asian country, and I had NO CLUE how to get or use taxis. James expressed his hope that I could/would get out and sightsee, even though he unfortunately couldn't be there with us. I debated within myself back and forth. I was scared.
Finally I told myself something lame like YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and I forced the boys to go out with me on an adventure.
I went to the hotel's front desk, and tried to communicate to the folks there that we wanted to go see something. We didn't care what- just SOMETHING. A cab was ordered or called for or whatever (um, remember this part, because it's pertinent later) and we settled on a touristy plan for the afternoon. The hotel staff basically suggested that we go to The Forbidden City first and then walk from there to see Beihai Park, which was supposed to be really pretty. The hotel staff gave each of us a business card from the hotel, complete with its address and a little bitty map, and instructed me to show that to a cab driver when we were ready to come back. It all sounded so easy! (Remember that part.) We set off.
The Forbidden City is pretty much right smack in downtown Beijing. Which means that we drove right through downtown Beijing on the way there. Which was cool, because Beijing has a whole ton of creative buildings the likes of which you would never see in the US. For example:
Isn't that building crazy?!
Beijing also exudes newness. It's very cosmopolitan - even more so, I would say, than Chicago or New York:
Anyway, after a long cab ride, the cabbie dropped us off here:
Which was, as it turns out, the EXIT of The Forbidden City. But I didn't know that when I was settling up my cab fare and climbing out of the cab.
Settling up the cab fare at the end of the ride was easy; he had used the meter (remember that) and so I paid him and he went on his way.
It was AFTER he went on his way that I learned, as I tried to enter the above building, that The Forbidden City has a definite ENTRANCE and a definite EXIT and the foot traffic only flows in one direction, and you are turned around by uniformed Chinese guys if you try to enter the Exit. Which meant that we had to find the Entrance. By ourselves.
HA HA HA!!!
If you are unfamiliar with The Forbidden City, it's basically about five hundred years old (no, really, as in it was there before Columbus) and it's on a huge swath of land that Chinese Emperors carved out for only themselves and their families. It was here that they would live and play and entertain, etc., etc., etc. In terms of land space, it's rather huge, and so walking AROUND the outside of The Forbidden City takes a realllllllllly long time.
Ask me how I know this.
So we finally had walked all the way to the Entrance and.... we were already tired. And we hadn't seen anything yet. But we bought our tickets (yes, you have to buy tickets) and entered.
Lots of beauty:
The buildings are even prettier up close:
And what's crazy is that - all over Beijing (and Chengdu... and, I'm assuming, all other cities in China) - you can be on a random modern city street and tucked somewhere away, there's a piece of Antiquity close by.
Just like in this picture:
Peeking over the tops of the Forbidden City buildings, you can see modernity in the background. Totally fascinating.
We got our very first taste of Chinglish:
Wouldn't dream of it.
You would have to be a pretty awful person to want to deface this:
There are dragon sculptures and depictions everywhere. Even in Chengdu, you can see dragons all over the place - and even all around the outside of our Consulate here in Chengdu. I hear that they're supposed to ward off evil? I like them:
There are also lots of turtle sculptures everywhere, even here in Chengdu. This is one ferocious turtle:
Further back in The Forbidden City you will see a lush area with lots of trees and gardens. This area, I think, makes for the best photographs, and these next two are the last from The Forbidden City and are also my two favorites:
The rock formations are just gorgeous.
We finished looking around The Forbidden City and we were now approaching the Exit we had first tried to use as an entrance. We were tired, for we'd now walked the ENTIRE length of The Forbidden City twice (seeing it once), and as we walked out of the Exit we were both unsure of how to get to our next destination and also how to maneuver through the onslaught of vendors in our faces trying to get us to buy their stuff.
To say that the vendors (who wait at the Exit of The Forbidden City to sell things to tourists) are "aggressive" is probably being polite.
They stand, holding stacks of glossy keepsake books or cooked food or necklaces and they walk right into your personal space, and get up in your face yelling at you to buy their things. I addressed this by avoiding eye contact and mumbling "I'm sorry" and "Don't want" in Chinese while sort of waving my arms in a No, Thank You! fashion (which I hoped also served to keep them from getting any closer...FAIL), but after a while my younger son, Zachary (who is usually quiet and reserved), was TOTALLY fed up with the intrusiveness. He ended up yelling at one vendor, which alarmed me, and I had to remind him that We're sort of all alone in the middle of Beijing, kid, so let's not yell at the natives, okay? After that, he didn't speak to them again. Matthew, Zachary and I formed a ball of three bodies and forced our way through the gauntlet of sales, hoping we were headed in the right direction.
We were, and we finally reached Beihai Park. Beihai Park is a former imperial garden, and it's quite gorgeous.
Since there were no lakes, ponds, or water features of any kind back in The Forbidden City, Beihai Park must have been where the Emperor-ish Peeps got their water sports on:
I wish I could say that the boys and I savored all the beauty, and we sincerely tried to, but we were still really jetlagged and we had already walked a LOT. We ambled about Beihai Park and came across our second Chinglish sign of the afternoon, stuck in a cute little flower bed:
We took the pigtailed girl's ominous order seriously and did NOT muss said flower bed. With that, we walked out of the park and began our search for a taxi to take us back to the hotel. (Remember: this is the process which was supposed to be SO EASY!)
We walked. A lot. We had exited Beihai Park in sort of an out-of-the-way spot and not at the proper Exit, so we weren't swooped upon by people trying to sell us stuff, which was good. I was proud of myself for having the afternoon go so splendidly - we had just TOURED BEIJING! WITHOUT JAMES! OR ANY HELP! GO ME!! - and I patted myself on the back as we walked up a small street, keeping our eyes out for a taxi.
Finally, one came along, and I flagged it down. It stopped and the driver launched off into... saying something. I had no idea what, but I had my hotel's card! With its directions and address and name! The magic card which was supposed to make getting back perfectly easy! The cab driver nodded that he knew the place and the boys and I climbed into the cab.
Once in, the cab driver kept talking as he pulled away from the curb. I had no idea what he was saying, but I watched his hands intently, waiting for him to turn on the cab's meter, but he didn't. "Mom?" Matthew, who has also taken Chinese, asked tentatively from the backseat. "Did he just say that the cab's meter is... broken?"
The cab was fully in motion now and it was obvious that there was no meter running. I tried to crank my speaking skills into full gear and engage the driver in what conversation I could. My rusty Chinese wouldn't come, and FSI never taught us how to talk about hiring a cab or anything even remotely useful for real life scenarios like this (but I can talk about the US Presidential election and problems with US immigration in Chinese!) so this cab scene was just... horrific. Matthew saved the day, for he interpreted that the guy was telling us that the meter was broken and was demanding THREE TIMES the cost that I had paid that morning in order to take us back to the hotel.
THREE TIMES the cost I had just paid that morning? Was he out of his mind?
I told him to stop the car, which he did. I told him I wasn't paying that. I now knew this was a haggling scenario, and I wasn't having it. I told the boys to get out of the car, and we all got out. The cab driver, thorougly disgusted (but not as disgusted as I was), peeled away from us and we were on our own again.
I patted myself (and Matthew) on the back AGAIN for realizing what had been going on. We were being duped! And ripped off! And we realized it! And got out of that situation! Oh, how wonderfully fabulous. All I needed was another cab whose meter wasn't "broken" and we would be on our way back to the hotel.
We meandered around.
We passed shops:
And walked. A LOT. We passed construction:
During which the guys were busily carting bricks in wheelbarrows.
We finally flagged down another cab, but trouble awaited us yet again.
This cab driver didn't even give me the excuse that the meter was "broken," he just up and demanded SIX TIMES what I had paid that morning - and TWICE what the "broken meter" cabbie had demanded - in order to take us back to the hotel. It was about now that I realized that not only were we obviously tourists, but when I handed my hotel's card to the cabbies (which was my only link to the hotel), I was basically putting a sign on my chest that read: "HI, WE'RE REALLY, REALLY RICH, TOTALLY CLUELESS, AND FULLY DEPENDENT UPON YOU TO GET US WHERE WE NEED TO GO!"
I gave that cabbie a hearty NO in Chinese and walked away from him. This really ticked him off. I started walking down that street, for I was coming full circle back to The Forbidden City's Exit where cabbies congregate in order to find tourists in need of a lift. He followed me in his cab, inching down the road and keeping pace with us as the boys and I walked.
I came up to a line of cabbies, holding out my hotel's card and basically trying to figure out how much THEY would charge me to take me back to my hotel. They laughed hilariously when I asked to have the meter run. I asked why none of them would run the meter. They laughed again and told me that if you call on the phone for a cab, they have to run the meter, but if a cab randomly picks you up in the city, you haggle for the fare (and it's a LOT more than what the meter price would be). The cabbie who had been following me showed up and joined the other cabbies facing me and... well... let's just end the story here. I'll tell you that the boys and I ended up in a cab, that we paid an insane amount of money for the fare, and that I should have just stuck with Mr. Broken Meter who had picked me up in the first place.
A few minutes after the boys and I got back to the hotel, James showed up, too, fresh from his meetings at the Embassy. He burst into the hotel room with worry and was beside himself with joy to find us all there, safe and sound. Turns out, James also had quite a time getting a cab back to the hotel. He ended up needing Embassy assistance and, in the process, heard some horror stories that led him to be very worried that the boys and I wouldn't be able to get back to the hotel. He and other DS folk had worked out a plan to try to find the boys and me if need be. Mercifully, we were already back before James got there and everything was okay.
Our cab experiences notwithstanding, we still really liked Beijing.
Tune in next time, when I share our first few days at our new post and also talk about how our cabbie experience in Beijing helped us be overwhelmed with joy about being posted right now in Chengdu! (Hint: THE CABBIES HERE ALL RUN THE METER! AUTOMATICALLY! ALL THE TIME!)