"We suggest you dont drink the water in the toilet!" ASIA - Part I

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February 20th 2007
Published: February 20th 2007
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Ever tried miming your menu or home address? Ever had your eyelashes curled while having supper, or your back made into a huge mushroom pattern? Well, China is the place!

„Bei” means “northern”. “Jing” is “Capital”. “Bei-jing”. “The northern capital”. (In early days the capital was in Xinyang - under the rule of Qin Shi Huang - who actually united China to one single empire, close to Xi’an, not far from the incredible terracotta army was found by farmers who stumbled across the heritage by chance back in 1974).
This is a City that is growing out of its traditional forms, with the demolishing of hutongs and old-fashioned houses, and now ploughing its way into the new century with high, shining buildings in steel and glass, looking pretty much the same as one can find anywhere else on this planet; whether it is in Dubai, London or New York.
But Beijing is hotter than ever in many senses. Not only are the Chinese busy with polishing their image as the new economical shooting star of the world, but the Olympic summer games are coming up shortly (2008) as well, and so there is hectic activity to make the place as modern as ever before that. It has its pluses and minuses. But that aside.

The useless “dong”

I arrived at noon, Tuesday the 4th of April, after an uneventful flight - approximately 7000 kilometres from home. We had crossed over St. Petersburg, down Novgorod - called Sverdlovsk in those “good, old communistic days, the legendary Baikal Lake, before we crossed Ulan Bataar - the capital of Mongolia and came into the Chinese capital, catching glimpses of desert, mountains and the Great Wall that once stretched 6000 kilometres and could be up to seven meters wide and seven meters tall. Now this mighty snake is merely a reduced, melancholic construction, falling apart mostly, but it’s hard to believe it will ever vanish for good.
As I visited China last year, I felt I had a mental advantage, and jumped on a bus heading for the city. I knew more or less where I was going at; Dongzhemen. Or something like that. Now it happens that Chinese often adds north, south, east or west to the streetnames. And “dong” which means “east”, is one of them. Subsequently there are a countless names in which “dong” is a syllable. For those who know Chinese, it’s a very logical system, and you can easily make orientation in the perpendicular hellish mase of streets.
It took me somewhere between 10 and 15 seconds to forget at which “dong” I needed to get off. Luckily I could recognize some places, and I was also fortunate to have a young helpful man at the next seat, so I found my way to the hostel shockingly fast.

Dumpling, I and bomb

Finding the way around is hard for me. Names and words are not easy to memorize - the Chinese words seem to be made up of very many “n’s” and “ng’s” - although maybe not as extreme as Vietnamese, but still more than enough to confuse a foreign ear and brain.
To be deprived of the possibility to relate to writing, just increases the feeling of being handicapped. Plus - it does not really help that people in general constantly addresses me in their mothertongue, and just get puzzled by the fact that my exterior does not seem to cohere with my interior; that I can not utter a word of Chinese (except from “Hello”, “Thank you”, “newspaper/ dumpling (which is the same word almost - but in different tones), “Norway”, “I” - and “bomb”), is a sheer mystery to most of them. But at least, I know that when I hear Chinese being spoken around me, its not the usual children-making-fun-chinese (which is oh - so unfunny!), but the real stuff.
The day was sunny. But you would not really know, unless you came from up above - which I did. The smog lies like a solid pancake over the huge city, and the sun is a pale dot without contours. But the day was nevertheless warm and the spring-breeze felt soothing for a Scandinavian anyway.
The hotel was spotless and very central. The bed was huge and neat, three windows. AC. The water was piping hot. One could boil a hen in it. Usually I don’t really bother making any remarks about where I am staying at. But here they had this peculiar little sign at the toilet, a sign that indicates that they really care for their guests - and it made me made me stop and reflect on different approach to sanitary matters around the world. So what did it say? Well in fact, it was not only one - but two.

A friendly suggestion

Let me start with second one first - the one inside the bathroom. It shows a Chinese man, bending over the toilet, as if he has been out all Saturday night (and sunday morning) and has had a few drinks too much, and now he needs to communicate with the Great God of Flowing Water. The text beneath this image says (not surprisingly), I quote: “ Please do not throw used toilet paper into the toilet, as this will cause a blockage in the pipes. We will remove toilet waste as frequent as needed. Please contact the staff if you have any problems or questions. Xie xie (thanks) for your cooperation”.
Well so far so good. I had already discovered all by myself, that previous dwellers of my temporary palace must have spotted this little friendly note a little too late, as the toilet at its best could function as an aquarium with a little slow whirlpool at the bottom. But what the heck - its not for everyone to have a water-installation in their bathroom, so I ignored that fact. It was first when I saw the poster on the outside of the door, that I started getting a bit worried. And it also put the illustration of poster no. I into new light. The poster kindly requests: “City of Beijing is short of water, please treasure the water, and don’t forget close the faucet in the toilet after use. By the way, we do not suggest you drink the water in the toilet” And under - just to make sure you know - before you have done your erends: Attention: No toilet paper offer here, please buy it in the snack counter if needed”. And whereas poster no. I was colourful and rather optimistic in its’ appearance, this one was dead-serious, typed in dark-blue, and very stiff fonts.
I was stunned. So that was what the posture on the previous poster was all about. The poor man was thirsty, and now he tried to get a few drops out of the toilet. A Chinese habit? Certainly not one of mine!

Uhm! That unforgettable jellyfish!

Infantile? Well, travelling is also to discover these little things like funny misspellings. And in China there are many. Of course, its nice that they have even bothered to make the effort to translate the signs.
But going to restaurant by myself, for instance - can be an experience by itself. Getting a menu full of Chinese signs, is nothing but a nice composition of messy lines and dots to me. Subsequently, my first meal in Beijing this time, was a little more exotic than I had hoped for.
I winded up ordering stuff from a picture-menu, and it was tasty enough. But I wouldn’t have minded so much if they let out the prickly, wobbly jellyfish that came in big, fat chunks that made it look like fat, transparent slugs.
I ate. As I desperately tried to visualize snake- or dogmeat, roasted cockroaches, crickets, ants and bugs - and anything else that may jellyfish seem like very innocent and pure food.
So when it comes to ordering of food; if there is no other solution, one can resign to imitate the desired ingredients: produce naturlike “moooos”, “oink-oinks”, goose-waddle or whatever. Or. You can draw. Personally I don’t know about the oinks and the goose-waddling, but I have tried the drawing technique - with a very disappointing result.
Once my friend Elisabeth and me were both lost, trying to order soybeans in a dreadful (foodwise) Japanese sushi-venue last year. I got my pen out, and carefully drew a bean at the napkin. Neat! The waitress were delighted by my oeuvre, and disappeared with an euphoric exclamation, as if suddenly enlightened.
We never saw any of the delicious soybeans, however. But both Elisabeth and me were utterly surprised by the, indeed adult mackerel that landed in front of Elisabeth a few plates later out in the meal.

Tai qi and rock n’ roll

In the evening, I met up with a friend, Benjamin, that I met during my last visit, when I got lost at a rivercruise down in Guilin. We sat in a rooftop-café in the hutong, sipping tea. The neighbourhood offers many picturesque eateries and venues, and they all have a homey, intimate atmosphere, reminding of something like a mixture of a grandmothers place and a postwar café where people can sit and relax and drift away to better places and better times. Benjamin told me of customs, vanishing traditions and mental gap between the younger and the elder generation, and how he is struggling for a place in the best university in China. I was also taught my third noun in Chinese (“bomb”), and we spoke of how China has become.
The vocalist in legendary Einstürzende Neubauten, Blixa Bargeld, has recently made Beijing his new home. That says it all. Even though houses and buildings are demolished en masse here, and with them; history and époques, stories and emotions, it is a sprawling place full of artistic nerve, atmospheres ranging from underground rock n’roll to traditional tai qi in the park at sunrise. The enormous art-colony in the outskirts of the capital, housing at least a hundred of highly professional galleries, can boast some of the most innovative and sophisticated art there is nowadays. It’s avantgarde. It’s pure energy, a movement with intention and will.
I don’t say that this place has not got its share of problems and downsides, and I don’t even know China well. Not at all. But it’s a energybooster, overflowing with impressions for those who are there to receive them. But you got to be willing to take that jellyfish every now and then!

Beijing. Second day

Getting grilled in good company

Not quite as warm. I quickly discovered the drawback of not having one single long-sleeved sweater in the backpack. I did my packing on one very sunny day back in Norway, and I could not imagine what cold weather would be like. Plus, I have faith in the power of belief and the magic of optimism; if you go for the best - you get the best. But. Mrs. Meteo seemed unwilling to cooperate this morning. In fact all day. A dusty, rather coldish wind swept through the city, as if it was thoroughly making fun of my bikini and summerdresses.
In the evening, I met up with a girl, with whom I shared the four-berth-compartment from southern China last summer. She generously took me to a Korean restaurant where not less than sixteen plates of yummy stuff landed on our table - all devoured within the next two hours (we chose away the eyeballmeat). With extremely attentive staff, we grilled the meat over the charcoals in the middle of the table. It was so hot, that we got slightly barbecued ourselves. At least my eyelashes curled in, and blurred my vision severely throughout the whole meal. Bizarre. What hit me again, however, was the overwhelming food-culture that exists in this country. Not only can China boast at least four very distinctive cuisines - plus imperial cooking, depending on the region, but Beijing is also overflowing with food for the most picky palate. If you have the cash - this is the place to dig in. Food is the source of pleasure, it’s a social meeting-place and a tool and framework for business and negotiation.
I can easily travel to a foreign place, just to enjoy good food. Together with Dubai and Moscow, I think Beijing is a place one can indulge for a long time without getting bored. “Decadence”, I heard someone say? Oh, indeed, decadence! But why pretending you can not have it, when you can?! I think for us single girls in their mid-thirties, exquisite food is one of the last sensual experiences left, let us have it without a bad conscience.

Taxis, grammar and that kind of stuff

I have to mention the taxis in Beijing. Very cheap. Very reliable. And they have these iron bars in between you and the driver, making you - or the driver, all depending on many circumstances, feel a lot more safe. It also makes the drivers look like prisoners.
The very trick about taking a cab here, is to have your mobile phone at hand at all times. Although they are generally mysteriously good at finding their way through the metropole, nothing is as soothing to know that you can call for H E L P!! It’s your connection to the world, your friend and helper.
And talking about H E L P! ! I was also wondering about what I would scream in case of robbery or anything else unpleasant that could happened to me. (Not unlikely, looking back at my record).
I summed up my knowledge again: “ Hello”, “Thank you”, “newspaper/ dumpling (which are still the same word almost - but in different tones), “Norway”, “I” - and “bomb. And “eight” - like the number. A new one today
Somewhere I read that the order of the words in Chinese, is quite similar to the order as we know it; subject, verb, object. Furthermore, for those especially interested in learning it; it may come as a relief to know there is no conjugation of verbs - they’re all in one tense. So when we laugh of Chinese who say: “I go yesterday to bank” - it displays our ignorance about their language, as much as their lack of grammar-skills. But regardless of conjugation, any combinations of these above listed beautiful words, would not bring me any kind of help, I believe. Therefore; tomorrow is devoted to the learning of saying: “ H E L P ! !”

Beijng - third day:

„PO MA LEU ! !“

(”H E L P!!“)
Off to Manchuria

Making a long history short, I spend some very hectic, and interesting days in Beijing. Got myself a new super-camera. And met up with yet another friend from my days in St. Petersburg. She is a journalist in the radio, translating stuff from Russian to Chinese. So we can speak! We had another feast - with her husband and her son accompanying us.
Also experienced a session of Kazakh musicians who managed to capture some very special moments with their monotonous and yet melodious chanting. Okay, it was in an ordinary, tiny café, but the audience, who came from all over the world, were commonly gathered in these moments that took us far away to completely different place.
Anyway - finally I got the meet my Norwegian friend Elisabeth, with whom I grew up, and went to school with. She was my fellow-traveller last year, and my translator and nurse when the altitude sickness hit me with all its’ power in Tibet last year. We had an excellent Burmese-Malay lunch in the embassy area at a pavement café, chatting the day away. She has been in China two years for her doctorate in social anthropology, doing some pioneer work on lesbians in Beijing. Needless to say that she is a resource and a well of information.
At last I got on that train to Mu Dan Jian, a town in northern China. From there I hopped on a bus to Heifenshe, a town nobody in Beijing had heard of. I had to stay overnight, and I spend the day wandering about, observing all the Russians who come over for trade and, also as I discovered - to insult the Chinese as best as they could, making jokes of their accent, commanding them around like slaves and getting drunk and unpleasant. It was a depressing sight. The plus was the hotel. In China you get what would be a four, five star hotel back home for 8-10 dollars. I had a fun time getting massage and cupping service. The cupping itself was not a pleasure, but I could not resist. It made me look like a mushroom, and I am unsure about the effect. But one should try everything in this life!
The staff in the restaurant was very friendly. One of them told me he wanted to go to Russia to study, but could not afford it. But he was saving. After that (Russia), he wanted to learn English. I was impressed. His self-taught Russian was not at all bad, and I just hoped that he one day will be able to get out of the restaurant and be able to deal with Russians in a way so that they will truly respect him.


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