Thursday, February 12, 2009

"All My Bags are Packed, I'm Ready to Go..."

Well, here it is, the final entry from the other side of the world. Kind of never thought we'd get here, to this point. Not that any disaster was going to befall us, just that it seemed like such a strange undertaking that the thought of actually completing it never really occurred to Ed or I. But here it is: the last few hours. For any John Denver fans amongst you, I hope you can complete the next part of this entry's title.

At any rate, it is time for a brief review of the day's events and then, as must be the case with these kinds of things: reflection.

Today Dad and I headed out to the Summer Palace on the outskirts of town. It was an overcast and drizzly day, which I guess suited us Seattlites just fine. This rain was, in fact, the first time I'd seen rain in over a month. Amazing how much someone can miss rain...and amazing how much I didn't. But it was good conditioning for my return to the 206. The palace itself is a series of buildings, bridges and temples which wrap around a large lake. At the head of the lake a man-made hill was assembled for the emperor and a top it were placed more buildings, bridges and temples. Upon reaching the summit Dad pointed out how, if this was an artificial hill, he'd really rather not be on it during an earthquake. Now, it's stood up to a few of those before, but I share his sentiments completely. All of that aside it was a very beautiful place, and I'd imagine even more so during the summer. Yet, there was something nice about the mist (real mist, not smog) creeping across the lake and seeing the hills and trees with water upon them. Though these weren't the views a Chinese emperor took in (summer does not equal mist here, per se) it was cool to see what it might have looked like when no one was there (not mentioning the hundreds of staff who lived there permanently).

After that we headed to the Beijing Zoo to see the giant pandas. Ok, truth is: not that big. Really cool to see, and I took some videos of it, but still, they aren't that big. Dad and I then had a bit of an adventure as we trekked out through the streets of Beijing to find the nearest metro stop which, like everything in this city, is deceptively far away. We finally found our way into the subway system and then learned how things are done here. I can still safely say that Moscow dominates the competition when it comes to mass underground transportation, but the Chinese do have one very cool feature. In the tunnels between stops there are a series of TV's lined up and synced to be just off of each other so that as the train enters the tunnel and pics up speed they combine to be one continual advertisement, just like watching a commercial at home. How cool is that?

Dinner was glorious. We went back to Made in China, and I realize this shows a lack of variety on our part, the meal is just so damned good. We ordered the exact same things as last time: Peking duck, honey glazed prawns and eggplant. The duck is painfully good and the prawns, which are eaten whole, have some of the most amazing flavors I've ever found combined in a seafood dish. Now many claim that the Peking duck is the restaurant's premier dish, and while I won't disagree, I will offer up the eggplant. It is baked (I presume) with a few different kinds of peppers and seasoning, and during this process it essentially melts. The eggplant dissolves in your mouth and the entire dish resembles a stew. Pour over steamed rice...delicious.

Now for a brief introspection segment, I promise a full analysis from the comfort of home, but this will have to do as we are waking up in 5 and a half hours. Bummer.

I've learned a lot on this trip, not only about other cultures but also about myself. I'm not going to claim that it was one of those life changing experiences like climbing Mt. Everest or anything so extreme, but over the course of the past 32 days I have noticed a subtle series of changes within me, affecting both my opinions and viewpoint. A lot of what Ed and I have done has been within the safety of Mir's travel guide work. We always had someone waiting for us when we got off the train. We had people to give us important documents and walk us through the processes. We always had a hotel room. We lived out of suitcases, not backpacks, and we ate at good restaurants, not buffets. This trip could have been done in a much more hardcore fashion, as the Lonely Planet originally intended for it, but it was still an adventure nonetheless. Edward and I became proficient travelers and learned to just enter a city, with no real idea of which way was north or what the really meant, and just headed out. We would walk down streets, regardless of their names or directions. We marched through Mongolian slums, Siberian housing districts and Moscovite shopping promenades; all with the same determination to see where it would lead us - without concern for our surroundings, merely a genuine curiosity.

The other day Ed and I were having a discussion about America and its place in the world and he brought up an idea that has been voiced by people who study cultures and nations. The idea is this: that Americans are, by now, genetically predisposed to willingly take risks with little regard for personal safety, that they are literally made, from conception, to head forward into the unknown and not look back. The theory behind this being that all the people who have come to America over the centuries have been risk-takers. The first pilgrims uprooted everything, climbed in tiny boats and sailed across a huge ocean, not knowing how long it would take or what would happen when they got there. The colonists tore themselves away from the awe-inspiring might of the British Empire and forged a new name for themselves. Over the decades people from all walks of life and every corner of this earth of left everything they've known and loved and feared, to head to America, for a chance at freedom. All of this means that, as we've grown in size, our second and third and fourth generations have been bred from people who blindly set forth towards an idea, and achieve there what cannot be achieved anywhere else, wherever there may be.

Does this mean Ed and I marched across frozen tundra with nothing but a small light at the end of an impossibly long tunnel? No. Did we brave the elements or live in hostels or sleep on people's couches? No. Did we discover new lands or alien cultures that civilization has yet to meet? No. We were two Ivy-League educated guys with suitcases and a pre-planned itinerary, knowing exactly where we'd begun and exactly where we'd end. But within that we had room to wander, to explore, to discover things which were new and alien to us. We learned of the backwards nature of the Russian culture, of the oppression of both Tsarists and Soviets alike. We saw what can happen to a people who are ever looking over their shoulders, trying to climb back into the womb of comfort and consistency they once knew. We drank with these people. We ate with this people. We danced and talked and shared jokes with these people. We quietly observed their ways and mannerisms. We began to understand, or at least tried to understand, how an entire country could claim they were having fun, while not smiling; or glare at strangers from behind suspicious eyes. This is a nation that has been so beaten down that they really have no future as we Americans see it. They don't follow their hopes or dreams because to do so would be pointless. They don't move away from religion (as many countries do) but have run back into its arms. They don't want capitalism to breathe new life into their economy, they want to all have 40 sq. meter apartments and job security and no need for personal responsibility. Everything about us is the antithesis of everything about them.

Our journey took us to a dirt-poor 3rd world country which is one of, if not the only, true democracy on the planet. The capital city is a polluted waste where people live in tents and shit in the street. Where cheap coal is burned in small metal stoves to heat people's homes. Where one US dollar can by 1500 units of their currency. And yet...these people are ever-smiling, always ready to say "hello" and simply wanting to talk or share something. Unlike here in China where if someone notices you speak English they are probably trying to sell you something upon approaching you, there in Mongolia, people just like people.

Beijing, Xi'an. Both great capitals of the ancient and modern world. The people here, while raised in a totally different world than my own, are emotive and smiling, wearing Nike and forging a culture of their own amidst Communism and Capitalism, between the East and the West. Unlike in Russia where everything current in media, culture and art is taken directly from the West, here people are making their ethnicity and their style match in a way. Even though the Chinese are wearing Western styles and listening to Western music, they do it their way.

And though more will follow in this reflective narrative of mine, for now, it is time to go. "Little Wing" by Jimmy Hendrix just came on, and I have to appreciate it fully.

From Beijing: Good morning, Good afternoon, Good evening, and Good night.

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