January 12, 2001
Lara and I have said goodbye to Jinzhou, and we're now settling into our room in Beijing. We'll be at the Beijing Teacher's College Foreign students dormitory/hotel for the next 11 days, until our flight back home on January 22nd.
The past couple of weeks have been very busy, as usual. I began to pack up right after Christmas. We came over with four heavy bags and two carryons, which is the max allowed by the airlines, and we'll be going home with the same. But in order to manage it, I've had to throw things out, give lots of things away, leave other things behind, and mail a couple of boxes of bedding and stuffed toys home.
Last week, a long time American e-friend of ours, whom I'd never actually met in person, came to visit us from Dalian, with her two daughters. We had a great visit, and then spent two furious final days of packing immediately after they left, last weekend.
Then, on Sunday evening, Lara and I took the night train to Harbin to see the Ice Festival. We arrived early Monday morning, and first took a taxi to visit another American family, met through the Internet as well. They were absolutely wonderful, with three boys (the middle one just about Lara's age) and so we stayed and visited with them most of the first morning.
Eventually, we did see the Ice Festival, both in the evening with the lights (which are frozen into the ice sculptures) turned on, and also during the daytime, with the sun shining through, and reflecting off of the ice blocks. It was a magnificent sight, and since we planned our trip between the New Year's and Spring Festival holidays, the place wasn't crowded at all.
The only real problem we had was finding taxis. Everyone we saw, and there were plenty, always seemed to already have somebody in it. In fact, we came very close to missing our train home, but climbed onto it just in time.
We returned home very early on Wednesday morning, and I spent the day doing laundry, sorting through all the final bits of debris, and trying to squeeze too much stuff into two few bags. Good friends took Lara out to buy junk food for the train and to go play with her best friend, Meng Meng one final time.
We slept well under borrowed bedding, and woke yesterday morning just about ready to go. But we had to wait for other furious errands being run. My passport had been borrowed to change my allotted allowance of yuan into dollars. And I was still waiting for students to return with borrowed home video on VCD's and with some photos that I had left at the film processors.
Our train was scheduled to leave at 11:08 am, and the students only began showing up at the guesthouse a little after 10 am. But my stress levels had peaked long before. My horrendous task of packing was finished, and since our train tickets were on a really poor train, I wasn't going to worry too much about missing it or catching it. So, I took some final photos and video, looked around again at all the debris, for important bits and pieces that I might have overlooked before, and generally tried to reserve my resources for the hairy task of getting all 300+ pounds of stuff safely to Beijing.
In fact, it would have been an impossible task, except for the fact that we traveled with 4 of our good students (all strong, healthy young men) and a couple of their friends. They were traveling to Beijing to take a cram course for TOEFL preparation, and so we had agreed to travel together. They chose the train (and of course, picked the cheap one... only 36 yuan per ticket) and bought the tickets for us.
I knew that it was going to be a hard trip when I discovered that we didn't have reserved seats. As we approach Spring Festival (begins January 23-24th), the trains are already becoming more and more crowded by the day. Only two days before, on our train back from Harbin to Jinzhou, Lara and I had had to claw and push our way through ten overpacked hardseat cars before we were able to reach the sleeper cars and upgrade our tickets. I didn't even want to think what the 7 hour trip to Beijing would be like with all my luggage as well.
Finally, at 10:15am, I got a call from the waiban, who had my passport, and who also had the school van that was supposed to take us and all our stuff to the train station. She sounded frantic and told us that the van couldn't make it back on the icy roads in time to pick us up and still make it to the station in time. So, she called for another, smaller, school car to come and take us and meet them at the station. Of course, we couldn't fit everything into one car, so one of the students ran out and quickly found a taxi to help take the overload, and we quickly packed up the cars and took off. One big advantage to rush departures, though, is that there's no time for the long, teary farewells that the Chinese seem so fond of.
We had enough students along with us that I hardly had to carry anything, and was able to take photos and video of the expedition, and mostly try to make sure that nothing was left behind. At the station, we met up with the waiban and others seeing us off. I got my passport and travel expense money and safely stowed it in my money belt, and we moved on into the station, and just a few minutes later, through the gates, and out onto the platform.
As expected, the train was crowded, and unfortunately, I think we picked the most crowded car of all. But we got all the luggage piled in, and ourselves as well, just before the guard closed the door and we took off.
The situation was about as bad as I had expected, but we found an open cubicle near our end of the car with a sink and trash can, and so we began to pile all of our bags into this space. Eventually, we filled it to the ceiling. (obviously, nobody was going to be using that sink during the trip!) At that point, I was able to relax considerably, though I knew it was going to be a miserably, overcrowded, stuffy, smoky, hot, sweaty seven hours to Beijing.
But then Lara and I got a reprieve. A conductor came along, and advised my students to buy me a sleeper ticket, and after only a brief hesitation, to be polite, I agreed. (Lara didn't even hesitate politely, she immediately began shouting that she wanted to go to the sleeper car.) So, two of my students took us back through the train to the sleeper car section. The crowds weren't as bad as they had been on the night train from Harbin, but it was still slow going, especially as the food carts were already moving through the cars, blocking the narrow aisle.
When we reached the hard sleeper car, the conductor turned out to be rather officious woman, who began to question whether Lara should have a ticket. In China, children shorter than 1.1 meters ride free on the trains. Lara's 5 1/2 years old now, but very petite for her age, and so we pretty much take it for granted that she doesn't have to pay for anything in China. The last time I had her measured, she was 1.05 meters tall, so I felt pretty sure that she was still under the height limit, but you never know for sure. Anyhow, the conductor immediately took her down to the end of the car, to compare her to the height lines that are painted at the end of every train car in China. Everybody except the official came back with big smiles on their faces, so I knew that Lara will be riding free for the rest of our stay in China.
The conductor exercised her power by chasing my two students out of the sleeper car after only the briefest of rests. I felt guilty that my students were back in the crowded hard seat car, while Lara and lounged in comfort in hard sleeper, but consoled myself with the thought that they are a lot younger and tougher than I am.
We ate lunch in the dining car, and I napped while Lara played in the afternoon. About 20 minutes before we arrived in Beijing, Lara and I pushed our way back to the rest of the students and all our stuff, and we planned our strategy for getting the luggage to its final destination.
Lots of hauling, haggling, pushing, loading later, we were piled into two taxis and safely on our way to our reserved room at the Teacher's college. As far as I can tell, all of our things arrived in good order. Nobody got lost, hurt, ripped off, or suffered any other sad fate.
The first thing Lara wanted to do after we arrived, was to unfold her scooter, and she's been happily scooting up and down the hallways ever since. There's even a little boy living in the room across the hall, so it looks like she'll have a playmate.
After settling into the room, and doing a little washing up, we all went out for a wonderful meal, with roast duck and others of our favorite Beijing dishes, and celebrated the successful conclusion of the monster move from Jinzhou to Beijing.
The hard part is really over now. It's not as cold here in Beijing as it was in Jinzhou, so Lara and I will be able to get out and play everyday. We can't buy any souvenirs, because we have absolutely no luggage space, but we've got enough money to play and go sightseeing and visit our Beijing friends and eat lots of junk food and generally have a good time.
Our students will have some free time everyday to go out and do fun things with us, too, so we're looking forward to having a little vacation and enjoy ourselves while we're here.
And I'd like to mention that even though our China adventure might officially end on the 22nd, I think that for Lara and me, it will always continue. In any case, I'm not planning to shut down this list or my website any time soon, and I hope that I might actually have some time to continue to tell you more about our life in China and our re-adjustment to life in the U.S.
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