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2004-10-04 10:45 p.m.

GOSH! (beijing 1)

I'm tempted to bitch about Matchan again right now, but I shall forbear.

I will tell you that I just took a nap and dreamt that she and I hooked up. But right after we made our feelings known to each other and settled in as a couple, she started viciously attacking my teaching style (in much better English than she would be capable of in reality). And I was like, "OH NO YOU DINT!" Cause if anyone should be attacking anyone's teaching style, it's ME, BEYOTCH! YEEEAAAH!

ahem. Excuse me.

Yes. She and I seem to have developed a slight... tension. It's possible I'm the only one who feels it, but... I'll keep you posted.

I'm going to start doing reviews of pirated DVDs I picked up in China (for 75 cents each). The first?

The Prince and Me, starring Julia Stiles! I got this because Julia's in it, and I love me some Julia. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the movie was sucktastic as well as craptacular. Totally formulaic plot and terrible dialogue... And the conflict was just... weird. A conflict would arise, and it would be, "Oh no! Is this the end for our dear couple?!?" And then five minutes later it would be neatly and unconvincingly resolved. "So... Wait. What? Everything's okay now? Really? Wait. ... What?" All of which makes it all the more galling that I actually LIKED the film. Julia's charm is not to be dimmed even by a theatrical shitstorm such as this. Oh, Julia... [sigh] It gets a completely undeserved 2 stars.

Next we have Just One of the Guys, a film I got because I have fond memories of watching it on HBO as a kid. Man, I think the mid to late 80s must have had just about the stupidest fashions trends in all of human history. Far from the best of the 80s teen movies, somehow this movie still has a clunky charm to it. It gets 3 stars, which also somehow seems totally undeserved.

I think this is taking things a little too far, but... Vote for Kerry!

Alright. How 'bout I tell you a little bit about Beijing? I've decided I'll just cover Tuesday and Wednesday in here. If you want the full story and haven't already had it thrust upon you, let me know. The following may be review for some of you.

Tuesday, September 14th, 2004! (Suddenly I really miss the Daily Show...)

First off, my travel companion was tprophet. As Americans suddenly finding ourselves with a week to kill in Beijing after the North Korea thing fell through, we decided to hook up and tackle the town together. Tprophet is a hacker from Seattle. He works for a certain large, notorious software company which we shall refer to as The Unnamed, though his degree is actually in water resources. He's currently running for the Washington State Legislature on the Libertarian ticket. It's not often that I meet someone whose encyclopedic knowledge makes me green with envy, but tprophet is one such person. Especially in the areas of politics (both domestic and international), geography, economics, current/recent events, telecommunications, and (of course) computers his knowledge far outstrips mine. Over the course of the week we got to be really good friends. He's a great guy and definitely a good person to have in your corner.

Another good thing is that we both have similar philosophies of travel; we are both interested in avoiding shallow tourist experiences and finding ways to break through the veneer and get at the true character of the place we're visiting. Combining ideas we were able to come up with a lot of interesting things to do over the week, many of them things that one or the other of us would never have thought to do had we been on our own.

ANYWAY, on Tuesday we went to the Summer Palace, which was wonderful and great and amazing and if you go to Beijing it's a must-see, but I'm not going to disucss that here. I want to talk about what happened when we left the Summer Palace.

We exited (somewhat accidentally) by the northwest gate and were immediately set upon by street hawkers opening briefcases in our face and trying to sell us fake Rolexes. I just had to laugh; the shady guy on the street coming up to you, opening a briefcase or a trench coat and saying, "Hey, you wanna buy a watch? It's a real Rolex!" is such a cliche, but I had never actually experienced it before.

They just wouldn't leave us alone. Tprophet eventually gave in and actually bought some watches from them. I figured, "What the hell? Might as well do it just to say I did it." I got myself one fake Rolex and a Mao watch, ostensibly for 40 yuan (about five bucks), total. I gave the guy a fifty and he gave me a ten. Then he came back with my fifty, claiming it was ripped and asking for another. I was suspicious but took it back and gave him a hundred. He gave me fifty in change. By then they had smelled blood and were swarming all over us. I was just trying to keep my pocket from being picked.

Then the guy came back AGAIN with a ripped 100, claiming he needed a new one, but of course this time I was certain something fishy was up, so I sent him packing. Finally we got clear of them.

Of course it turned out later that the ripped fifty I got back wasn't my fifty at all, but a counterfeit (more on that in Wednesday's entry). Also, it turned out that the fifty in change they gave me wasn't 50 yuan, but 50 Belarusian rubles, practically worthless. Tprophet also got 50 rubles as change. In our rush to complete the transaction and get out of there, we failed to look closely at the money they gave us.

So, I ended up getting scammed into paying 140 yuan ($17.50) instead of 40 yuan. I was more amused than angry this time, though. As opposed to the taxi scam of the first day, this time I went into the transaction fully aware that these guys were probably going to do everything they could to scam me, and I did it anyway, out of curiosity. I feel like I knew what I was getting into. Plus, the amount of money I was jilted out of was a lot less this time, and hey, now I had counterfeit Chinese money AND Belarusian rubles. Pretty cool!

After escaping the watch salesmen we found ourselves in the middle of an exceptionally rough looking neighborhood, much of which was rubble. There was garbage, piles of rubble, and stagnant pools of water everywhere. The buildings were all falling apart and the people looked haggard and beaten. Was this the same city? We tried to look like we knew exactly what we were doing, and while quite a few people eyed us, no one bothered us.

Tprophet wanted to try riding a bus, so we found a bus stop. He also wanted to see a university, and I wanted to try finding an English student to hire as our guide, so I looked at the bus routes and found one that had the kanji for university on it. I wrote it on my hand and showed it to the bus lady to make sure we were on the right bus, and apparently we were. It cost us 1 yuan each to ride as far as we wanted.

At our stop the bus lady kicked us off, and we proceeded to the "university." (There's something of a university district in Beijing, and we just happened to wander into one of them.) It was pouring rain by this time, so we took refuge in a classroom for a while before proceeding to explore other buildings on campus, looking for English speakers.

All of the buildings we entered on the campus were ancient and falling to pieces. They were dark and dank with bars on the windows, and each one seemed to have its own unique and utterly rancid smell. It was like my imagination of the worst of miserable inner-city high schools. In the US, in most cases buildings like those we visited would have been condemned a long time ago. It was somewhat surreal to be wandering halls such as those, almost like a nightmare I must have had once. ...Except the halls were filled with shy Chinese college students instead of lurking horrors.

Boucing around different buldings on the campus, eventually someone took us to the Office for International Students (ironically in the first building we went into to find shelter from the rain), where we met Kevin. Kevin (he's Chinese- that's his English name) had recently graduated from the university and now works there as kind of a liaison and advisor for foreign students attending the university on exchange. He spoke pretty fair English. We talked to him about hiring an English student for a day to take us around, with free English lessons and some financial reimbursement as incentive.

As it turns out, the university we went to is primarily for minority students. Around 90% of the population of China is what's called Han Chinese, but 70% of the students at this university are from one of the many Chinese minority groups. I wonder if that explains why the place was in such poor condition?

Kevin took us and an international student (from Oregon) studying at the university out to a restaurant nearby that specializes in food from Xinjiang Province. It was really good, and really cheap.

After that Kevin helped us find a bus to take us to a subway station. Getting off the bus we were helped by a young woman named Bula in actually FINDING the subway station. Bula was in Beijing on exchange from UC Pomona (practically next door to where I lived selling home security in the LA area). Her 20 yuan bill was rejected at the subway ticket office for being counterfeit. This prompted us to tell her about our experiences earlier in the day. She got really excited when she found out we had Belarusian rubles. It turns out she WAS Belarusian and had lived in Belarus until she was 13, at which point her family moved to Arizona. (Tprophet said later that she and her family were probably refugees from when the government changed hands- she had a distinctly Semitic look to her). Tprophet gave her his rubles. She ended up riding the subway in the opposite direction from us, and thus we parted. I thought about getting her contact information (I have a slight thing for Jewish girls, it seems), but I figured she wouldn't be interested and didn't.

Tprophet later informed me that Bula had been very interested in me and had given all kinds of signs and cues which I had totally failed to pick up on. I asked him what, exactly, and he told me that she talked almost exclusively to me, ignoring him [this didn't really bother him, for reasons I leave to you to infer], she stood quite close to me at all times, she said, "I'm not really having a great time in Beijing" (which apparently was a strong cue for me to say, "Hey, why don't we get together and do something while I'm here, then?"), and when our train came she said, "Here's your train..." and trailed off, giving me a lead-in to request her info.

"Holy shit!" I thought. "He's right! Son of a bitch! [cue Napoleon Dynamite impression] Gosh! I'm such an IDIOT!" I've been kicking myself ever since- she was pretty cute. I AM an idiot. From now on my new (theoretical) sensitivity to these things will be called The Belarusian Criteria.

So that's what we did on Tuesday. Next time: WEDNESDAY!

preserve me from the enemy who has something to gain and the friend who has something to lose,