Entry #035: Thursday, September 19, 2013 (Xi'an, China)

So, China! The most populated nation in the world, the third or fourth largest (depending on who you ask) and in many regards, one of the most paradoxical. On a side note: y'know, there really should have been two entries about this county at this point. Three, maybe. It's just that I have been quite lax at keeping up with consistent writing for one reason or another. I know I should do it (I would say "have to", but I really don't), but other things look so much more enticing, especially since the audience for this is so small compared to the work/time required. I even had a small crisis of faith regarding whether I should continue, though I think I'm over that now. But enough of that blathering. Let's talk China! 'Cause that's where I've been these last few days, y'know.

So, after the last entry, I went to bed early to get a good sleep for my early morning flight. Or tried to. For some reason, I couldn't get a wink of sleep. Well, that's not true - I did get a wink or two, but definitely not the forty that you're supposed to. I would say that it was a combination of the fact that I was still not used to the time zone difference, as well as the general concern I had for waking up on time (on time being 3:45). So, my body basically kept me up. It didn't help that Reeve came in at 2am, turned on all the lights, started smoking, and asked, "Andrew, you awake?" I honestly don't know why you would do that, but whatever.

Shortly before 4am, I said my goodbyes to Reeve, who was lying on his living room couch in his underwear (I should note he does have a bedroom). He had offered to take me to the bus station, but seemed too comfortable to do so now, saying, "You know your way there, right?" Thankfully, I did. I bid him farewell and walked out of the house to the station. After frantically walking around the place looking for the right stop for the bus I was trying to get on, I saw it approaching...and then passing. I realized that the stop was down the street from where I was, so I hefted my bag over my shoulder and ran over, arriving just before the bus was about to take off again. I struggled to keep from falling asleep and missing my stop, which I had to just assume was the stop that most people were getting off on (that was a good assumption). I had plenty of time in the airport, so I was able to return that Octopus card for a near-full refund (literally, the full balance of the card, plus the cost of the card itself, minus a little over US$1), which was really nice, and then used this to trade for some Chinese Yuan. I then checked in and sat, pondering why I had a seat so far in the front of the plane (4B).

Turns out (and I didn't realize this until I was told that I was in the wrong line), I was in Business Class. I didn't know why - Mistake? Overbooking? - and frankly, I didn't care. This may have been the most luxurious flight I'd be in this whole trip. It had one of those full reclining seats, an ottoman, and even a fancy meal menu (like, literally, the physical menu itself was damn fancy). A guy could get used to that kind of thing, at least when he doesn't have to pay for it. Unfortunately, the conditions were so nice that despite my exhaustion, I didn't want to sleep through and waste it. So, instead I watched Iron Man 3 (which I thought was pretty good), only after which I turned on some relaxing music and took advantage of the fully reclining chair. Sadly, since it wasn't an overseas flight, it was over all too soon, but still, it was nice while it lasted.

I arrived in Beijing, and almost immediately met up with my dad, who had been waiting with his girlfriend Michelle and her young cousin Alden. (Apparently, waiting for some time, since the plane left about a half hour late.) We said our hellos, and one of the first things I asked about was getting a SIM card. There happened to be a small kiosk right there, so we gave it a shot. That's when I got the first instance of "it's-super-difficult-to-communicate-with-anyone" here. They kept on asking me for my phone, whilst I kept asking how much data was included on this card we were installing. It wasn't until the card was literally in my phone that they answered "60 megabytes." Nope, I told them, take it out. I figured I'd just use the WiFi at the hotel for the time being. We got in a taxi (it was insisted that I sit in the front, even though I didn't want to; this will become a theme here), and drove to the hotel.

I have to admit, it was kind of nice being on the left side of the road again.

The hotel was a monstrosity, in the sense that it was way more extravagant than I was expecting. I've been used to staying in the cheapest WiFi-providing spots I can find on this trip, and even the last big vacation that my Dad and I went on together (Disney World in Florida), we stayed in a Howard Johnson. But this place, called simply "The Beijing Hotel," was apparently the oldest hotel in the area, state owned, and was where Mao had his meetings during his rule. It was a five-star, and had a gift shop selling jade statues that sold for up to $130,000. $130,000! It almost made me uncomfortable staying at a place so upscale. But on the bright side, at least a place like this should have good in-room WiFi.


As it turns out, there was only (slow) WiFi available in the lobby. For the rooms, all that was available was a tethered Ethernet connection. It's funny - pretty much any time I'd go to a hotel prior to this trip (like for work or something), I'd prefer a wired connection, because, y'know, wired. But my travel laptop is - technically - an ultrabook, and is thus too thin to actually accommodate an Ethernet port. So WiFi is pretty much required. I was actually legit flummoxed that a five-star hotel, regardless of nationality, would not have a in-room WiFi option. Suddenly, getting a data plan became a thing again. But first, we tried some other options. Well, one other option - Alden had a Ethernet-to-USB adapter (Apple brand, ugh) which we hooked up, and found that it didn't work. It was hard to tell if it was a proprietary thing, or because the adapter was in pretty poor shape, but regardless, for the moment, I was without connection.

We went out and walked down to the local side streets, where stands were selling all sorts of different snacks. My dad and I got some...I dunno what you'd call them. They were like burritos, except filled with beans, but not normal beans, but those Chinese string bean things. Whatever, it was fine. There was then a bunch of back-and-forth about whether we should go to Tienanmen Square, or if we should look for a store to get me an adapter (should one around here exist). I said not to worry about me, but here's the thing - there's some element of Chinese culture, I guess, about being overly accommodating to guests. And I mean overly accommodating. Like, accommodating beyond what they want. This was one such instance. I did not want to hold up the group to go on a goose chase for something that may not even be sold here, but since I was the guest, we had to do it. I suddenly lost my temper, and said that I was going to Tienanmen Square regardless of what they did, and stormed off. While unprofessional of me, it ended the discussion and got us going. Well, most of us; Michelle decided to go back to the hotel because the sun was too strong, and her hat too small. So, my dad, Alden, and myself got to Tienanmen Square, which is...a big square. Alden, a political science major at the University of Beijing, began pointing out some of the landmarks to us.

Now, I'll just put out some things right now, so it doesn't seem like I'm leaning too much on the negative side while I write all this: I don't like China. Coming here wasn't on my original itinerary (I just did it to visit with my Dad), and I never had any particular attraction to it. And funnily enough, the more I learn about China, the less I like it. So if it sounds like I'm being snide about some particular aspect...I probably am.

Like, for example, when we went into the Chinese National Museum and walked around an exhibit called "The Road to Rejuvenation". This basically talked about China from the 1840s onward, culminating in the glorious rise of Mao. It was the most propaganda-laden thing I've ever seen. Like, if you think Fox News is bad, this makes it look like...well, I can't think of any unbiased examples, but less biased. For example, I'd hate to be an English tourist here, reading signs that talk about how the British "stole our treasures and butchered our people" and Lord help you if you're Japanese. And every time Alden mentioned China, he called it "Our Great Nation." Every. Time. It was almost frightening. And man, did I have to fight the temptation to make smartass remarks (my dad helped by calming me every time he knew I had an opportunity to make such a remark). So, we just go through room after room basically saying that China is great, literally every other country is evil, and Mao is the best guy. At least there were a bunch of statues I could take artsy pictures of (which I think has become my new favorite way of using my camera)

After taking in all the propaganda I could, we went back to the hotel, where I took a much needed nap. A knock on the door woke me up, and it tuned out to be my dad, who was grabbing me for dinner with Michelle and her family (eight people in total). And man, what an expensive dinner. We had gone to one of the most expensive - if not the most expensive - restaurants in the area, because...I don't really know why. Actually, it's a status, or "face" thing. Showing that not only are you well-to-do, but you care for your guests by being a big spender. (Similarly, my dad told me that it's common to leave price tags on gifts, which genuinely infuriated me.) I was not comfortable with the whole situation. A plate of Kung Pao Shrimp? RMB198. That's about $33. For one dish. And let me tell you, it no bigger, and definitely no better, than that "fake Chinese" you get for $5 in LA or SF. And there were many dishes bought. I was disgusted - disgusted - at this. I seriously wanted to walk out in protest. It didn't help when I was being served against my will - Michelle would scoop some food for me, to which I'd say, "No thank you, I don't need any more." She'd then wait a second, and put it on my plate anyway, after which I'd be told I didn't have to eat it all. I don't know for sure, but I think acting against someone's wishes is insulting in any culture. I was about to snap at the waitress when she brought me a fork, despite the fact I said I didn't need nor want one, but decided to keep it all to myself. So, I just sat there, listening to people speaking Chinese, with Michelle occasionally translating it to my dad.

After that encounter, we walked back to the hotel. Luckily, on the way, I happened to spot a local phone service store, so we stopped inside to get myself a SIM card. Thankfully, Alden was able to get some pretty steep discounts on service due to his student status. I also managed to get a free phone number, because it had two 4's in it. (So that's another thing - the superstition here is absolutely rampant. Every time the number 4 - an unlucky number - has come up, I've been asked if I really want it. And they're serious. At least I've been able to use it to my advantage in situations like this one.) And I got 3GB of data for, like, a few US dollars total. I tried asking for more, because I know how quickly American websites can burn through 3GB (and I wanted to use that student discount while Alden was here), but Alden and Michelle just insisted "If you need more, just come back then." So I saw "whatever" and we go back to the hotel. There, right before we head to our rooms, Alden tells me, "I'm surprised. Your dad told me at the airport you're kind of a thinker, so I thought you'd be like me and would be good to talk to. But you're different than what I was expecting. You're very quiet and don't like to talk." I told Alden that I'm actually just very inconsistent, and act differently at different times - which is 100% true - and as such, I always defy people's expectations. What I wanted to him was, "Screw you."

My sleep that night did not really counteract the lack of sleep from the night prior, so I woke up still quite tired. I went to get some breakfast in the hotel, which I knew was overpriced, but was too convenient for me to choose otherwise. It was at least a fairly varied buffet. I was able to get a half plate of different fruits, as well as some hash brown patties, hard boiled eggs (I always get three or four, which confuses everyone until they see I just eat the whites, which placates some and further confuses others), bacon, a croissant. I also had some bok choy (there was basically a whole selection of Chinese food) to keep up the plant matter, but it was pathetically flavorless. After a quick trip back to my room to get my things (I was going to try out a new CamelBak that I had asked my dad to bring me, so I poured in some boiled water, only to drop the bladder and spill all over my leg), we were off. We all huddled into a van, which was going to take us to some of the surrounding attractions. On the way, we made a quick stop at the Bird's Nest, aka the Beijing Olympics Stadium. Gotta admit, it was a lot smaller than I was expecting. Maybe my memory is hazy, but I could swear the Staples Center is bigger. In any case, not overly impressed. I was also told it's fallen into disarray (I was later told the inside looked like something out of Waterworld). After hearing that the Cape Town World Cup Stadium had been converted into apartments, I wondered why they didn't do the same here, as opposed to...well, doing nothing.

We then went out to the first of our destinations for the day, the Ming Tombs. I won't go into the details of all these kinds of trips (here's a hint - we walked around and looked at stuff). I will note that this had an audio tour guide that we were able to get (well, was gotten for my dad and I, though we didn't specifically ask for them). While you could enter in some exhibit numbers to hear about particular items, these types of exhibits were few and far between. For the most part, it was all GPS based, which made it weird when you crossed the "border" between two different areas. Also, in every single recording, the guide (a thickly accented dude who pronounced "severe" as "serve", which I found cute) referred to me as "Dear Tourist". This grated on me, mainly because I didn't like being called a tourist every twenty seconds. (I didn't mind standing in the "Foreigner" line at the airport, but tourist* gets me.) I also found it a little uncomfortable trying to talk to my dad, because his girlfriend kept coming in, taking his arm, and talking to him, leading him away. If I didn't know better, I'd say she was jealous. Y'know, it's not like I came to this country to specifically talk to this guy I hadn't seen in months, but that's neither here nor there.

We later stopped at some side-of-the-road place for lunch, in which we got a meal of pretty much equal quantity and quality as the night before, but no more than one-quarter of the price. Even though I didn't pay for either meal (nobody would let me), this made me feel much better. Thriftiness - that's part of my culture. Anyhoo, after leaving the restaurant (upon which we saw a guy grab a fish from their personal pond, weigh it on a traditional scale, and then use one of the counterweights to bash the fish's head in), it was a short jaunt to the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Unfortunately, we only had about two hours to enjoy it, so there wasn't going to be much climbing. Instead, we took a cable car up to Watchtower 14. The plan was then to walk to Watchtower 6, and head down from there. It was a good enough walk, I suppose - this portion of the wall was fairly well renovated, so the only difficulties came in the originally poor construction (some of the sections were reminiscent of a mystery house - stairs at a sideways angle, big steps followed by little steps, etc). The surrounding area was also quite beautiful, being filled with trees and greenery. Apparently, between the two big Beijing Great Wall locales, Badaling and Mutianyu, Mutianyu is easily the superior of the two, as well as the less crowded one. That's not to say there weren't people there. There definitely were. And there were also a bunch of hawkers selling everything from food and drinks to little facemasks. Not classy ones; more like the Groucho Marx-style fake faces. I felt these people's presence really cheapened the experience. I mentioned this to Alden (who was walking with me) and said that if I were rich enough, I'd just rent the entire Wall for a week, and walk along it by myself. He seemed legitmately confused by the prospect of wanting to be alone in a vast area, saying that it's better when places are crowded. I guess when you have no choice but to be surrounded by people all the time, you have to tell yourself stuff like that, but to each his own. We eventually arrived at Watchtower 6 (it was not nearly as long or difficult as I was led to believe), and to make things fun, we decided to take a toboggan ride down a nearly 2km slide. I was the first to go, as I knew I wasn't going to hold up anyone. And I didn't. I basically accelerated until some old man started yelling at me in Chinese, at which point I slowed down a little bit. I had to slow down a lot, though, when I came up on the girl who had left before me. A full minute before me. Take that as me being too fast or her being too slow, but the fact of the matter is we arrived at the bottom pretty much simultaneously. Honestly, it was pretty fun. About 30 seconds to a minute later, my dad comes down, and then we wait a full three minutes before a full train of twelve people come down behind Michelle's...cousin, I think? In any case, after everyone was down, we waded through a sea of souveneir stands (and unfortunately, I wasn't wearing the right attire for my "I'm a bodyguard" front), and took a long drive back to the hotel.

Shortly after getting back, it was time for dinner. Michelle wanted to go out for Chinese (I had been told Chinese was on the menu pretty much nonstop since my dad arrived), but my dad, Alden, and myself decided to go somewhere small and fast. Having remembered my disgusting, life-shortening pledge to try a local McDonalds, I decided to go there. (Truth be told, the normal Chinese fare is so fat- and MSG-laden that I don't think there's as wide a health gap between McDonald's what I'd get elsewhere.) To my absolute delight, there were a variety of Only-in-China items, from the mundane (a tray with chicken and rice) to the kinda-elaborate (a chicken wrap with rice patties in a spinach tortilla). However, when I laid eyes on the Yin-Yang burgers, a pair of sliders in a single box, one of which housed a piece of chicken in a white bun with black sesame seeds, and a the other holding a piece of pork in a black bun with white seeds. I didn't need any more convincing than that. So I bought it, ate it, and...eh, it was alright. Not the best thing, not the worst, probably a little too fatty in the meat department, but overall, the novelty of the thing made it worthwhile.

Anyway, I got back home, and made an effort of trying to get on the Internet. And by that, I mean the real Internet. In case you were unaware, China's government is a tad on the stingy side, and as such, they don't really like any sort of website where you can say things that maybe might go possibly against what they want you to think. Some of these sites include YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Blogger (the last one being what I publish The Wandering Loon from). So, in order to bypass this, you need to use a VPN. I was able to get one on my phone (there's a couple apps that work as an automatic VPN service, for a short while at least), but when I would try to use my phone as a Wireless hotspot, I couldn't use the VPN on the phone (the multiple layers of transfer would basically make it take forever to load, thus causing the pages to time out). So, I tried just going with a filtered Internet and then looking up a desktop VPN program. But while I could search for that, I couldn't actually open any of the search results. Oh, China...

I woke up the next morning, apparently too early, so I ended up eating alone. I met with everyone else later, and we took the subway out to the Summer Palace, which was basically the emperor's palace when he didn't want to be in the Forbidden City area (in the summer, I guess). I got another audio guide, which was even more finicky than the one I had at the Ming Tomb, but it was a nice place to walk around regardless. (I separated from the group early on, mainly because I didn't want either of us to be bogged down by the other.) Easily my favorite part was this spot called, attractively enough, the Garden of Harmonious Pleasure. It was a small area surrounding a pond, with lilies, fish, and weeping willows. It was both beautiful and peaceful; I could see how an emperor could get used to a place like that. There were also a number of Buddhism related spots, and I always find giant Buddhas to be impressive. I also walked along this "exhibition" (really just a series of signs) talking about the different temples in Cambodia's Angkor region. It made me quite giddy for my Southeast Asia biking tour. On the whole, it was a very nice place, with all sorts of impressive architecture and nice natural spots, to boot. Shortly before we were scheduled to meet up back in the center courtyard, my seven hours of not eating had caught up to me, so I caved and bought a small ice cream cone. I then sat in the center courtyard, waiting. And waiting. I guess the larger group either got caught up with something, or just had a poor sense of time, because they were nearly 40 minutes late. I used that time to do some people watching, which backfired when I witnessed a parent telling her two-year-old child to drop her pants and urinate in the middle of the courtyard. Not even behind a bush or anything. (I won't detail them, but similar things have happened since). I quickly turned and hoped there were no sex offenders in the area. Eventually, though, the group caught up, and we prepped to go back to the hotel (although Alden had to leave to head back to university). In order to get back to the subway, though, we needed to take either taxis or bicycle rickshaws. We opted for the rickshaws. I was ushered into one, and immediately the question became "Who rides with him?" (or, I suppose, "与他谁骑?") Nobody offered to do so. In fact, when some of the family members were specifically asked, they out-and-out refused to go. Mr. Popularity, that's me. Eventually, one of them was pretty much strong-armed into going with me, which was good, because the driver couldn't speak a word of English, and I wasn't told which of the subway entrances we were supposed to go to. But it all worked out fine, somehow.

When I got back to the hotel, I found that my key wasn't working. No real explanation; it just wouldn't open the door. I had to go back down to the lobby to get a replacement, and when I got inside, I was thankful that all my stuff was still there and well. I milled around a bit until 6:30, wen I went to take the subway to the expat central of Beijing, to meet up with Todd, a friend from Berkeley with whom I'd worked on the final project for my Marketing Communications class (and aced said project, thankyouverymuch). He's teaching in Beijing after having gone there for a different job, and I thought it'd be nice to catch up on what's been going on after college, and just talk about the city we both happened to be in. Also, he invited me to a Mexican place, where the chef was an actual Mexican. How could I refuse? I got to the place, and immediately decided that if Fate be cruel and somehow get me to move to Beijing, this place would be my sanctuary. It basically looked like any California Mexican restaurant, nice and relaxed. And good food. While they may not have all the ingredients, they do have the know-how. They even had horchata. Horchata! And it was good! Very creamy. We got a couple burritos (it was buy-one-get-one-free, so we were both covered for lunch the next day), some taquitos, and guacamole. Again, this was the best place. It also was not a place you'd find too many Chinese nationals, which made it nice to speak with Todd, because he was willing to talk about the place like it is. No "Our Great Nation," no worrying about face; just an refreshing, honest kvetching between two Americans. (The general feeling of kvetching is also quite nice; I haven't done it proper since I left my job.) After dinner, we walked around the area, which as about 25 times more modern, more Western, and in my opinion, nicer than the Tienanmen Area. We then took a bus to the one of the local hutongs, which I could best describe as the medinas of China, but more residential than commercial. Just back alleys and small streets with old, traditional housing. It was already night, so we didn't see much, but it was a nice mini-tour regardless, and I got a better idea of why some of the architecture here is as it is. We then got to the subway station, where we said our goodbyes and parted ways. I got on the subway and made my way back to the hotel, hoping that the curfew they apparently have in the Tienanmen area hadn't taken effect yet. (It didn't.)

The next day, we took a trip to the Forbidden City, the emperor's main palace and surrounding areas. It was a dreary, rainy day, but the rain was light and actually felt pretty nice. As such, I declined an umbrella until I was pretty much forced into taking one, and even then I didn't use it, nor did I really need to. The Forbidden City is very large and impressive indeed, but to be perfectly honest, it wasn't nearly as nice as the Summer Palace. I don't know what the emperor was thinking. Maybe he liked to play at the basketball court they had near the entrance (which I choose to believe has been there since the early 15th century). I think one of the main problems though, is the more you see of this stuff, the more it all starts to look the same. Honestly, if you showed me a few different pictures of different - and important - buildings at the Forbidden City, I wouldn't be able to tell them apart. That said, there were a few interesting things there. The primary one was a stray cat that I made friends with for a short while, but there were also exhibits on ornate clocks and ginormous jade statues (for which I would gladly pay $130,000) to be seen.

Once we reached the exit, I decided to forgo a cab and instead walk, mainly because I feel I should keep my body in motion to help prepare for my Everest Base Camp trek. A couple of the others also went with me, but there was some concern that we were going to get lost, despite the fact that I had a GPS and that it was literally two straight lines and one turn to make it back to the hotel. When we finally did get back (and it was a bit of a walk - the city itself is a couple kilometers long), I went up to my room to find that my key - my new key - was again not working, so I had to go back down to the desk and get a new one. I went back to my room, and wondered if the culprit was the fact that I'd been leaving my second key in the electricity slip to keep the room powered; maybe this somehow made the door unopenable from the outside. (After speaking with my dad, who was doing the same thing I was, this wasn't the case.) While I was relaxing, I played a bit of a very good computer game called Papers, Please, in which you play as a border passport official in a 1980s Soviet-style country. The baseline gameplay is purposely boring and monotonous (looking at documentation and stamping visas), but it builds up into a very interesting narrative. It also requires pretty lo-fi specs, so if you enjoy PC games, give it a look. In any case, I probably should have been writing in my blog at the time, but the game was more appealing.

Sometime in the later afternoon, I decided to go out to do some grocery shopping, just to get a couple little snacks for the remainder of this leg of the trip, as well as to see if I could get a data bundle refill for my phone. So I took a walk around three different malls before I found anything even remotely resembling a grocery and/or convenience store, at least one which I had some semblance of an idea of what they were selling. But man, was it expensive. For one small bag of chips, a roll of the digestive biscuits, and a small super-dark chocolate bar - all of which were the cheapest and/or best price-per-weight of their respective categories, I spent the equivalent of $11. I think this may inexplicably be the most expensive country I've been to thus far. I also tried going back to the Unicom shop for the data bundle, but the guy didn't understand what I was asking for, so told me they didn't provide "that kind of thing" there, which I doubted. But I was at least able to have some fun at the expense of the local hookers (and really, isn't that the best kind of fun). Whenever you walk anywhere, you hear these girls saying "Excuse me, sir! Sir? Excuse me!" If you give them the time of day, they ask where you're from, if you'd like to get a coffee, and then you go from there. I've already done the Jason Bourne-like routine in Kenya, and I don't even know if they have a good enough grasp of English to get what I'm going for, so I went more simple: once I heard one of them calling for me, I would stop walking entirely, and slowly - deliberately - turn toward them, with a full-on death glare residing on my face. Most of the time, they'd stop mid-sentence when asking where I was from, and silently walk away. For the more persistent one, though, I took a single step forward, and said in a raspy voice, "Leave..." Worked wonders. Now I have to think about how I'll go about this in other countries. I'm thinking I should speak in Latin gibberish.

After getting back to the hotel, I waited for my dad to give me a call to go to dinner, but it never came. (Apparently he called several times, but never when I was there.) I eventually decided to go out by myself to the food court of one of the malls I visited just a couple hours before. And Lord almighty, could I not make my mind up. It was a constant back-and-forth between thoughts of "This looks interesting", "I can't read anything on this sign", "That seems expensive for what you get", and "I want Subway, but Todd told me not to eat at the Subways in China." Somehow, I ended up going to a Pizza Hut of all places, which, in a move that completely baffled me, was presented as something of a gourmet dining experience, complete with a maitre d' and a twenty-page menu, complete with a wine menu. Not that the food looked much better than normal - still the same tacky looking pizza and stuffed crust you'd expect from them. But it was cheap (wel, relatively cheap) and I could save half for lunch the next day. I ended up getting a Moroccan Chicken and Veggie (which again, you'd never find in Morocco), regular size pizza for about $8.50, which turned out to be about seven inches in diameter. I brought that home and ate while watching some TV (which was weird in its own right - I watch TV so little these days that I genuinely forgot there was one in the room). Oh, but before that, I had to get another key, because it had stopped working yet again. I tried venting my frustrations with the people at the desk as politely as possible, but I was only confusing the situation more, so I just took the key with a smile and went up. After dinner, I ended up staying late in the night to make some plans for my stay in Vietnam, post-cycling, and my flight to Australia. Should probably work on Singapore, seeing at that will be in, pretty much, one month, but I'll get to it.

After getting up and having breakfast, we went out to visit Mao's tomb...only to find out that it was closed. I guess September 18 is the Chinese equivalent of Pearl Harbor day, as it's when the Japanese made an attack on China (popularly known as the Manchurian Incident, Google informs me). As such, they were being extra diligent to make sure that there were no terrorist attacks or vandalism at the tomb. At least, that's the story I heard. Apparently, they'll just close it randomly whenever they like without explanation. Because they can. So instead, we went into the National Museum, the same one we went into on my first day here. Instead of going back into the "Road of Rejuvination" exibit, though, we looked at pretty much everything else, which examined everything from paleolithic times, to ancient Chinese societies, to coinage, to jade, to Buddism, to Giuseppe Verdi (for some reason), to a simple collection of art that was all made this year. Some of it was interesting, some of it not. I'd say the most interesting exhibit was of the numerous diplomatic gifts that have been given to the Chinese government. There is such a range of absolutely exquisite pieces (like a solid wood statue of a guy riding an elephant from Thailand) to the "how-could-you-think-this-would-make-you-look-good" junk (like a small crystal-ish centerpiece that looks like something you could buy at Ross for $15). The US had a examples of both, from a life-size porcelain statue of two swans given by Richard Nixon (not sure if there's any symbolism there), to a plain silver cup given by Hillary Clinton. Oh, and apparently Robert Mugabe liked to make it rain with ornate gifts.

We had a small lunch at the in-museum cafe (I just had the half-pizza that I brought with me, whilst my dad order a ham sandwich, which may have been the most pathetic meal I've ever seen. They were so stingy on the meat, there was probably more mayo than there was ham.), saw a few more exhibits, and then went on our way. When I got back to the hotel, I finally got a good, solid VPN working on my laptop. It cost me a couple dollars, but having access to the full Internet is well worth it. In fact, I celebrated by taking a nap. So there. I was woken up by a phone call from my dad, who said we were all going out to get - you guessed it - Chinese. We began walking out to some place, but then turned around and went back to the hotel, or rather, the restaurant under the hotel. Being connected to one of the most important hotels in the city/country, this place was appropriately gaudy - gold coloring everywhere, crystal chandeliers, and a separate room, the size of a hotel room, with a private bathroom, for each group of patrons. Even the spoons set by each place were gold plated with a jade inlay (though mine, thanks to some careless earlier patron, had an inlay of both jade and super glue). The food was actually not too bad - probably the best of the Chinese places I'd eaten, but still not worth the price tag. Also, I really wish my dad didn't tell me that the tiny little flakes I was eating from the appetizer dish (which I thought was some sort of fried plant flakes) were, in fact, tiny tiny fried shrimp, complete with black dot eyes. I'm fine eating shrimp normally, but that just creeped me out. I did like watermelon at the end, though. You can never have too much watermelon.

Afterwards, I went back to the Unicom store with my dad and Michelle, hoping that a native Chinese speaker could adequately explain what I was looking for. And I was mostly right. We eventually got to the point where they were going to give us the extra gigabytes, but before I agreed to hand over my phone to an insistent Michelle, I asked that key question - "How much?" Turns out, for 3GB of data, they wanted the equivalent of $150. "Nope," I said, "Let's go." I'm sorry, I like having data as much as the next guy, but...no. Just...just no. So we went back to the hotel, and I got everything packed. I also looked up some more details for some of the later parts of my trip. For example, maybe I can do some sort of work whilst I'm in New Zealand. I've found that I'm starting to have "Askari Withdrawal", so maybe keeping myself being productive is a good way to be on my travels, that I don't end up like that Israeli guy Lynn had told me about.

I woke up the next morning, fully packed and ready to go, and headed down to breakfast, ready to walk out and see Mao's tomb. Except that we got a phone call from one of Michelle's cousins, saying that the tomb was closed. So...the morning was free? I went back to my room, and basically did writing until I got a call saying it was time to go. I brought my stuff down, put it in the van that was waiting for us, and we were on our way. When we got to the airport, I insisted that the driver keep the 18 water bottles that I still had on me, as I had no desire nor room to pack them away (for the record, I didn't need to use them because I had the CamelBak). As we went in, I continually refused to let anyone carry my bags, or even put them on a cart. If we want to talk culture, I think this is my culture - a) I don't trust anyone other than myself with my bags, which are pretty much my whole life at this point, and b) I want to be responsible for my own things, carry my own loads, etc. I think the longer I'm away from America, the more I begin to embody the American ideas of individualism, personal responsibility, and, I dunno, manifest destiny? Whatever, I wanted to carry my own bags.

Unfortunately, when we arrived at the security checkpoint, everything fell apart (kinda literally). Possibly because it's a holiday (Mid-Autumn Festival), these guys were exceptionally strict, and literally took my bag apart, because there was something suspicious in there. That suspicious thing? A book. Not even a book with much writing - a mostly blank journal. Unfortunately, it was several layers deep into my bag, so they took out almost everything, putting it all in different baskets for rescanning, until they could examine the book closely. Satisfied that the book was a book, I was left to repack all my things, which I did quickly and crudely, which made me all the more upset, as I was so proud of my packing job the night before. Having told everyone else to wait for me at the gate, my upset grew upon seeing them all standing there watching me. Petty, yes, but I despise the feeling of holding others back, so knowing that I was doing just that didn't help. What did help was a visit to the First Class lounge. Apparently, my dad and I had first class seats (which I was told were "very cheap", which I hope is very true), and so we got to go to the lounge, each with a guest (we brought Michelle and her tour guide cousin). There, we ate some food, and then smuggled a bunch more for later. Once it was time to go, we walked to the gate, and my dad and I got in the first class line. We went to the plane, and I was surprised at how...unassuming the first class section was (probably because it was a smaller plane). This made me especially hope that the tickets were dirt cheap - my radio wouldn't work if the headset was plugged in too much, or not enough, or at slightly the wrong angle. Also, the old man next to me kept wiping mucus on the back of the seat in front of him. That was pretty off-putting. During the flight, I ended up eating another meal (the choice was between "Noodles" and "Chinese Food"; I went with the less vague option). Everyone in first class also was handed a mooncake, which is apparently the thing you give and receive during the Mid-Autumn Festival (and, according to an article I read in the provided newspaper, is also at the center of an anti-corruption initiative by the government, because the things are apparently a sign of luxury and wealth and face and all that tripe).

We landed in Xi'an, and took a van to the Grand Metro Park Hotel. Along the way, I was legitimately astounded by the sheer number of buildings being constructed in the city. If you owned a company that provided cranes, this place would be your goldmine. I can say, without hyperbole, there were at least a hundred different high-rises being built, most likely all residential. In any case, the hotel seems pretty nice (they even provide complimentary fruit in the rooms), and although they also just had an Ethernet cable in the room, they were also able to provide a wireless router. My God, fast and unrestricted WiFi is the greatest. We'll only be here a couple days, so I have to make the most of it. I decided to skip dinner for the evening, since I kinda had two lunches, and instead stayed in my room, having a couple pieces of fruit, and celebrated the Festival with my mooncake and tea.

It's no moon pie (what a time to be alive), but it'll do.

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