02 September 2007

Journey to Beijing

The Great WallAt the end of a 36-hour journey, I arrived in Beijing, more than 6,500 miles (10,500 km) away from home. In the 3 days since then, I've met a few of my Chinese colleagues and a number of friendly Australians, explored the Great Wall of China, and briefly visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I've also managed to squeeze in a few hours of sleep, so I'm up to about 70% of normal functioning.

Forbidden CityMy first night in China, I went to the hotel restaurant for a quick meal before collapsing into bed, and I got the distinct impression that people here don't dine alone very often. My waitress didn't seem to know what to make of the situation. She took my order, and then came back a few minutes later to ask if a friend would be joining me. She seemed sorry to hear that no one was coming. A few minutes later, she came back and told me I looked lonely and asked if I wanted a newspaper to read. Accepting the newspaper seemed to make her feel better, and she left me in peace after that.

On the Great Wall of ChinaMy first day at work went well. My Chinese colleagues spoke excellent English and were possibly even more sensitive to my state of jet lag than I was, so they didn't push too hard. In fact, the only real challenge of the day was when I didn't accept my colleague's advice to take a taxi to the hotel from the office. I could see the hotel out the window of the office, so it seemed crazy not just to walk there.

The problem turned out to be getting across a really busy freeway with no pedestrian crossing point in sight. I asked many people for directions to a crosswalk, but they didn't understand anything I was saying. When I communicated via sign language and pantomime, it seemed like people understood that I was trying to get across the freeway, but everyone pointed in a different direction and said something different in response. I was essentially going in circles. Finally, a sweet girl, who didn’t speak a word of English, took a detour from wherever she was headed and actually walked me there.

Hanging with the Aussies in BeijingAt breakfast that morning, I had shared a table with a friendly Australian who had told me about an expat happy hour at a nearby hotel. By the end of the day Friday, I felt like I was walking around in a sleep-deprived fog, but I was feeling a bit isolated by the language and didn’t want to miss an opportunity to hang out with English speakers. It turned out to be highly worthwhile. The Aussies really are a warm and friendly bunch, and they had lots of interesting stories about their experiences in China.

On The Wall with my new friendsSaturday morning, I went to the Great Wall with one of my new Australian friends and his gracious Chinese hosts. It took an extreme amount of determination for me to get out of bed that morning, and I was beyond exhausted (and even feeling a little queasy) when I left the hotel. However, this would be my only opportunity to visit the Great Wall, not to mention my first visit to a Wonder of the World. After a 2.5 hour drive, swerving in and out of traffic on winding roads, our guide opted to take us on one of the steepest and most difficult paths to the top of the wall. This was the most famous part of the wall, called Badaling, where Chairman Mao had left a personal inscription for anyone who was able to make it to the top.

The Great WallSurprisingly, the physical challenge made me feel much better. The view from The Wall was amazing, and from time to time we would go into a little tunnel or feel a light breeze to provide some relief from the hot sun. By the time we got to the top, I was feeling almost normal again. Unfortunately, that feeling only lasted a few hours. After making it back down the wall and eating a delicious (and very large) meal with my new friends, I could feel my mind slipping back into the fog.

I managed to stay awake until it was morning in the U.S., so I could chat online with my husband for a few minutes before collapsing into my longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep so far (almost 6 hours).

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