I’m visiting Caitlin in Beijing. It took 23 hours, door to door, in 9 separate vehicles. There were three trains each in New Jersey and China, two airplanes, and one people mover at Dulles International Airport. Luckily for me I don’t mind traveling.
China is a place of contradiction. After 12 hours in Beijing, most of them spent sleeping, I feel at home here but out of place at the same time. It is both cheap and expensive, Crowded and spacious. I was offered my first glimpses of the country as we came in for landing at Beijing International Airport. The flight path took us over vast empty white territory of Siberia and Mongolia before we turned into our final descent, made from the west of the city. We passed over dry plains, followed by huge and pointy mountains, and finally the outskirts of the city where I caught a glimpse of the Great Wall. The buildings I saw were in clusters — densly packed but widely spaced. The airport is huge. We taxied up to the new Terminal 3 building and were one of only about 5 planes docked at what must be close to 50 gates. The inside is so large that photos do not give any sense of its scale. In a country so large and populous it felt strange to be inside a building that was so immensly over-adequate. The terminal felt extremely empty. This was my impression of the contradictions of China.
It required three trains to get to my sister’s house: exactly the same number of trains that I took to get from my house to the airport. Her neighborhood could be Long Island City in New York or Korea Town in Los Angeles. It is not as dense as I thought it might be, but there are lots of people and shops. There is a convenient metro station. I arrived at dinner time and so eating was one of the first things we did. A meal of fried naan and Xianjang vegetables plus two lamb skewers cost us 20 RMB for two people. That is $3. Even in Egypt food was not quite that cheap. I was extremely impressed. Beijing is considered expensive, and Caitlin regaled me with tales of eating 5 course meals with four people at restaurants in the countryside for 40 RMB. If all I do in Beijing is eat, I will be completely happy unless it makes me sick. On my suggestion we went to a bar after dinner for a quick drink and for my second lesson in contradictions. My beer cost RMB 35. Almost twice the price of our dinner for two. We spent close to 15 dollars for four drinks. China is both cheap and expensive, according to your habits and living standards.
Today I need to get house slippers, register at the police station, buy an extension cord for my computer and get a SIM chip for my cell phone. Obama will be inaugurated a little after midnight tonight and we are trying to find out the best place to watch. Right now it is breakfast time and I am hoping for some yummy yummy street food.