On my fifth time to Beijing I found an area that I’d actually like to visit again. Generally, as a rule, I dislike Beijing with a fiery passion. The only other big Chinese city that’s elicited such ire from me is Zhengzhou. Each time I’ve been in Beijing the weather has been atrocious, the crowds overwhelming, and the humidity incapacitating, but on this fifth go-round things were different.
Xiao Ming and I chaperoned an internship with six high school students during the final week of June. Overall, it was uneventful (that adjective is good when children are involved) and pleasant (that adjective just isn’t often associated with the Chinese capital).
We had reservations at the Sanlitun Youth Hostel, a clean, centrally located place that served pretty decent Chinese and Western food. The staff, young and mostly helpful, was overworked, and sometimes it was easy to see. The area known as Sanlitun has a bit of a flashy, sordid past, but over the last few years it has grown into just a popular area for expats to shop, drink, and entertain themselves between sightseeing and whatever other business they have there.
The weather also seemed to be on our side, mostly. Sunny, blue skies greeted us each day, and at night I could even see a few stars. Summer in Beijing is hot. We walked the students to the company the first couple days, but even at 8:30 we were drenched by the time we got there. We let them take cabs after two days of that.
That first day at the company, a water conservation non-profit called THIRST, we stayed with the students until after lunch, just to make sure everything ran smoothly. The six of them had been quiet since Xiao Ming and I met them at the train station a day before, and we still hadn’t heard them talk much. This wasn’t a bad thing, but it was just…odd. The last two trips I took with students felt like I was a cat herder. This group almost made me feel like I wasted my time coming along for the trip. After the first day of this oddly self-sufficient behavior, I changed my approach. I gave them curfews, the hostel’s business card, and gave them perimeters they couldn’t pass. That did the trick. After that they were more talkative, friendlier, and always on time. The reason these six kids were chosen for the internship is because they were rock stars already. Mature, responsible, and focused. I did not need to babysit these guys like I did the 22 middle schoolers when we went to Beijing in May, or the 23 High Schoolers I went to Ningxia with.
Xiao Ming and I used our afternoons to turn the trip into a pre-summer vacation vacation. Once we dropped the kids off at the company, we would wander around the city. I finally got to see the Summer Palace, the one tourist sight I’d yet to see. It wasn’t as crowded as many other places because it wasn’t a holiday, and the complex sits pretty far away from the center of the city. Wandering around in the heat zapped us, and while sitting and resting on the bridge near the palace, both of us fell asleep for forty minutes. When we woke up old Chinese couples were smiling at us.
Or we would hang out at the very hip and modern, Korean-owned Café Groove across the street from the hostel. This place had a modern-artistic-industrial feel to it, and in the evenings they opened their glass walls so that it became an open-air café with free wifi and comfy seats. Even the students chilled there a few times in the evenings.
Sitting in Café Groove also allowed Xiao Ming and me to play a game we dubbed, “Count the Prostitutes.”
While the area has been made relatively cleaner due to the police and local government shutting down some bars due to solicitation, people are crafty. As we sat there, people watching, I noticed two very tall, thin, dolled-up Chinese women walking along the back of the café, down an alley behind the hotel next door. These girls came by like five minutes a part, but both in the same direction. They also both checked their phone the same way, as if checking a time or number, and then tucked it away.
By the third, nearly identical girl, I told Xiao Ming, and we watched as three more girls walked by in a matter of minutes. Unable to fight my curiosity, I stood by the outside of the café and watched as another girl walked by.
This time, however, I saw where she went. Five tall Chinese guys, broader than the average Chinese man, stood guard at the back door of the hotel. All of them wore snazzy suits, and one sat at a computer set just inside the doorway. The girl (and all of the other ones probably) went to him, leaned down, looked at the screen, and then stood and entered the elevator and disappeared. I relayed this to Xiao Ming, and she also checked it out the next time we saw a girl walk by.
On her return to our table, she said that it was definitely prostitution because after the girl got in the elevator one of the guards radioed someone in the hotel and said the girl had arrived for the customer in a specific room number. Each evening, Xiao Ming and I hung out at Café Groove and played our game as the students worked on their computers. There were a few times that we lost count, too. If the cops are at your front door, use the back, I guess.
Because it was a school trip, and Xiao Ming and I were “On” the whole week, we didn’t get to partake of the nightlife in Sunlitun. Arguably, one of the best areas in Beijing to hang out and drink, the JiuBa Jie (Bar Street) was off limits to us. We found it, saw it, walked the perimeter, but did not dive in. Next time…
The week flew by, and before we knew it, Friday had arrived and a train ride back to Dalian was in order. The students had a good time and learned a lot during the week, Xiao Ming and I met some cool people at THIRST and had a nice mini-trip, and most importantly: no one lost any limbs. We boarded the train, and six and a half hours later we said goodbye to the kids as their parents picked them up at the Dalian North Station. Third Chaperoned Trip during my First Year. Done.
Whip lash, motion sickness, jet lag, temporal displacement sickness (okay, made that last one up), these are nothing compared to the Culture Shock of the first few weeks in a new country.
Sounds Abound, Just After Touch Down
Two American friends of mine here in Dalian like to say that if you’ve been abroad for a few months to a year you can write a book, a year or two and you can pen a few articles, anything more and you’ll find it hard to write an essay. Now that I’ve been kicking around China for nearly three years, I hope that’s not true.
My plan to thwart this prophecy is by keeping a good journal. Remembering exactly what those first days and weeks were like is important, and when I look at the pages of my journal the noises of China are what stand out the most.
The sound of the rising and falling tones in the Mandarin language hit my ears like a tidal wave striking the shore. Only I had no levies or infrastructure designed to withstand the onslaught. I couldn’t tell where words began or ended. I had no way of figuring out the sentence patterns in the bird language I heard in the Beijing airport, and I knew only a muddled version of “Hello” to tide me over until language classes could start.
One year would not be enough to master the language. I knew that without a doubt the first night in China on that September 17 in 2011. The guttural retroflexive “r” at the end of many words in the Dongbei (north east) accent, the confusing interchangeable use of shi and si to mean either four or ten, and even the entirely knew phrases for common Mandarin greetings like “Have you eaten?” (normally ni chi fan le ma? But in Dalianese sometimes spoken as, ni dai fan le ma?) would add even more burdens to an already insurmountable task.
When the classes did start, I eavesdropped on every conversation I could. All the time. I still do, to tell you the truth. I’ll be sitting at a restaurant or at Starbucks, and I’ll just listen to people around me. I know it’s rude, but it’s in the name of education. That makes it okay. I looked up the rules.
The Music of Daily Life
The morning after I arrived in China, I discovered that even though there were no farms around for miles, someone had a rooster. And then I learned that fireworks are an acceptable form of declaring to the community that something of note has occurred…even at 6 am.
Fireworks are not relegated to one specific event or holiday in China. Since moving here, I’ve heard them EVERY single day, multipletimes, at all hours. People light them off for weddings, funerals, grand openings, grand closings, construction milestones, and sometimes, just because it’s a Tuesday. Spring Festival is the biggest holiday for Chinese people, and during this week-long celebration one could mistake Dalian for a warzone. At night the skyline is afire with brilliant blasts of colors and sounds, and they DON’T STOP for a week.
Shortly after the rooster crowed in the morning and some fireworks sounded off in the distance, maybe around seven-ish, the public school next to the apartment complex began, what I came to learn, was their morning routine. This sounded like a bunch of nonsense blasted over an external PA system at first, but was really counting in Mandarin so that the students could do their morning calisthenics. I learned to count in Chinese because of that PA system.
A walk down any street with storefronts can have serious repercussions to your hearing. Whereas I was used to having music playing softly in the background of most places of business in the States, the complete reverse in China was quite a shock at first.
Shops will blast pop music into the crowds walking by with large speakers they sit just outside the threshold of their business, hoping to wage some sort of warped psychological warfare on the unsuspecting–and now partially deaf–would-be patrons, all in the guise of commercialism. The music doesn’t necessarily beckon or lure customers so much as it frightens them into submission. The lucky ones are those on the fringes who watch their brothers-in-arms fall to the sensory barrage and turn the corner before it’s too late.
Okay…it’s not that bad. But pretty close. If there are five stores, you can bet there will be five different loudspeakers pumping out Chinese, Korean, or even American pop hits at decibel levels unsafe for the common ear. After a few weeks of shopping in this terrain the shock wares off and your senses adjust. Eventually you begin to only walk around the streets with good taste in music, making a soundtrack out of your jaunt.
Another noise that eventually subsides to the background of your day is the constant honking of car horns. I swear, sometimes it’s like an involuntary muscle for some drivers. If they’ve gone five seconds without pressing it their body takes over and BANG! Drivers here honk so much that I’m surprised pedestrians haven’t mobilized horns and made them pocket-sized for clearing paths along the sidewalks when they’re in a hurry.
When you’re not avoiding the musical assault in front of stores, dodging wild drivers honking their horns, and ducking the falling fireworks debris you might be trying to not make eye contact with the men standing on the corners of shopping centers shouting out their destinations in rapid-fire, auctioneer Mandarin as they try to pick up passengers for their rundown buses that probably shouldn’t be on the road. Almost every time I walk by them they walk a few steps with me until I tell them, no, I’m not going into downtown Dalian today. In other parts of China they’ll be shouting other names, but here it’s always, “Dali Dali Dalian!! Dalian!!”
Pushing their ancient karts around while balancing the tools of their respective trades, older men and women wonder around town chanting mantras that advertise what service they provide. “Mo jian zi lai! Qiang cai dao!” Come sharpen scissors and knives. Even the trash or cardboard collectors call out to people, hoping to make some money by reselling the unwanted refuse. And in the evenings, in neighborhoods and parks all around China is the music and sound of masses of people doing synchronized square dances. This group activity—guangchang tiaowu, square dancing—is open to all. The young and old alike join in on this, and some even get matching sweat suits and outfits made up to feed the feeling of solidarity among the really hardcore and the casual dancer.
A City Soundtrack
On their own, each of these sounds might have a tendency to make your ears bleed, but together…together they’re something else entirely. They’re the sounds of life in a Chinese city, of people and the patterns of their days playing out in an intricately synchronized chaos that sometimes sounds like a symphony. You just need to learn to find the music.
I took the wrong number four bus after work the other day. Like the 5 and 1 bus, there are two types, so you have to pay attention to which one you catch…I’ve managed to ride all the wrong ones once or twice in my time here.
This particular time I wound up three blocks away from where I wanted to be, so I needed to walk through a few back roads that passed businesses and factories of some sort or another. At about 6 pm most people were trekking back home, too. Dark-skinned Han in hard hats, many wearing fatigue army pants or solid blue or orange work jackets moved along the sidewalks, chatting away in thick local dialect. A few glanced my way, no doubt curious about the lone foreigner in a shirt and tie walking down their streets. A couple actually talked with me.
As I drew closer to my apartment I realized I’d wandered down a road I’d never been on. To the right, across the street, a large cast-iron gate bordered an over-grown yard with statues in it. I crossed the street to get a better look, and I couldn’t believe what I saw.
What I took for a few plaster statues along the fringes of the fence turned out to be a field filled to the brim with them. All looked to be at varying levels of deterioration. Some seemed to grow directly from the ground, having spent enough time for the grass and weeds to nearly swallow them while others could have been placed there the day before.
Communist and Kuomintang soldiers, Qing government officials, and ancient Buddhist goddesses scattered across the field gave the place an eerie feeling, almost as if I were walking through some bizarre graveyard where the dead refused to stay buried.
I followed the fence until I came to a gate opening guarded by a short, thin, bald man in street clothes. He regarded me suspiciously until I asked him if I could take a look at in the yard. He said no, but then I told him that I’ve lived here for almost three years and never saw this place. Whether or not that was a particularly convincing argument or because I am a foreigner, he changed his mind and said I could look around. “Jin lai, kan kan ba.”
As I left, I thanked him and then took a picture of the name of the building so I could figure out what the place was. Turns out, it’s an official cultural ministry building of some sort. Pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to be inthere because as I walked out, a group of workers in hard hats also asked if they could come in and the guard said no. I walked quietly down the street, not wanting to hear the “You let the foreigner in,” discussion.
I barely get by taking care of myself, but a few weeks ago over my school’s Spring Break, someone thought it a good idea to put 22 other lives in my hands. I wasn’t alone; one other chaperone came, but still, 2 vs. 22 is a big difference. Despite the unfair odds, we made it there and back with all appendages accounted for.
As I wrote before, Ningxia is not a hopping commercial place. More like desert-adjacent land of dust, wind, and rocks. We didn’t go there to sight-see, though.
A small, two-room village school an hour away from any paved road was our destination. To get there we had to cross our Ts and dot all the crossed Is. Lots had to get done to make it happen, but it all did and things were great.
I’ll just keep the commentary short and share the photos instead on this one.
Never doubt that a small group of commited people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
This week it has occurred to me that working in an international school presents a few opportunities and challenges that are nearly nonexistent in traditional state-side public schools.
Wading through the cultural differences is definitely at the top of the list, but few understand what this actually looks like in the classroom. Let’s take history, for example. Say you’re looking at a map, or even talking about the time frame of the early twentieth century, and you happen to mention that China and Taiwan are separate. Better be prepared for a few kids to pipe up with a, “Um, Taiwan is China,” and a few others to counter with, “No it’s not! I’m Taiwanese, not Chinese.” I’ve had to run peace-talks between these eighth grade emissaries a few times.
Or, you’re correcting a student’s mistake in class—him smiling the whole time—only to find out later you’ve completely disgraced him by taking away his “Face.” OR you try to pulse-check the class by wondering out loud if there are any questions or if everyone “gets it,” and they all nod their heads, eager for you to just keep going with the assignment. Start the task a minute later and no one moves for three minutes because they have no clue what’s what. You learn later that they didn’t want you to lose face by making it seem like you had not explained things clearly.
Sure, there are a bunch of kids that have been in the American system a few years and have been pretty much indoctrinated into the ways of the prepubescent monster that is their Western counterpart, but there are enough Chinese students still fresh to the US curriculum to pose this problem.
Then you have the variety of vocals that fill the halls when students are traveling from one class to the other, their many different languages pummeling your ears in ways impossible for you to decipher. Classroom English is stressed, absolutely, but rare is the class wholly without a whispered word in a native tongue. Most of the time this utterance is innocuous, but there have been a few snippets that have been anything but. One time in the library while students were doing research for a history project, I heard one boy talking about the breasts of a video game character he had seen in a website advertisement. When I looked up from across the table I told him he needed to change the topic. Confused and shocked, he asked if I had understood and I just nodded. He hasn’t said anything inappropriate in the months since then.
Bullying is always something teachers need to be vigilant about putting a stop to, but when you add in languages that no one on the staff speaks and a culture that encourages harmonious interactions, even when you’ve been slighted, this can get to be an enigma even the most well-versed behavioral specialist may find perplexing. Throw in new tech like We Chat that allows people to interact in ways faster and more ubiquitous than IMing and E-mail and you’ve got a hot mess on your hands.
The kids and the teachers in international schools also have the opportunity to have some of the widest social circles of any group of people. If your deskmates all hail from a different continent chances are that you’re going to be bringing different points of view to small group conversations. Teachers who work together for a few years and then move on to other posts don’t ever really lose touch, not today with Facebook and E-mail. Goodbyes may be more frequent, but the friendships formed can be made quicker and with more depth, too. Saying goodbye to two students this week proved to be a harder task than I had anticipated. Both of their families are heading back to their home countries, Korea and Japan, because of work changes. Staff and students took pictures with the kids and some even cried at the end of the day when they left the school for the last time. These farewells are important, though, and not always final. Sometimes they just give people destinations to travel to on vacations.
Fun days like International Day definitely get spiced up, though. Being truly international, the environment at the school on this day and the days leading up to it can be very enlightening. Families from all over the world and students with vastly different experiences can share their culture with all the flare of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
And parent-teacher conferences get a little twist when translators are used so the parents can understand what the teacher is saying about their kid. We just finished our two-day conferences and I needed to have a person translating for about three of them. I was able to use my Chinese for the first one, but then the remaining conferences required me to say things I didn’t know how to, so I got a translator.
Also, the happy birthday song in one class being sung in 8 different languages is an awesome thing to behold. Having a German student translate political cartoons during a history lesson, or a Chinese student making a connection between a Native American legend and a Song Dynasty poet’s work can make for amazing teachable moments—the students teaching the teacher, that is. Students learning how to make art from a well-known artist from Peru, or how to make film from a teacher with more experience than half the young Hollywood directors today, or learning English from a teacher who brings great stories from 20 plus years abroad to every class are fantastic ways to learn a thing or two.
Even chaperoning trips isn’t the same. In March, I am supervising a volunteering trip to the Ningxia Autonomous Region. A group of High Schoolers are going to a small village in this area and volunteering their time for a week. We’re going to teach at the small school, and do community work for the impoverished town of Tongxin, outside the capital, Yinchuan. Even though this is during Spring Break, it’s like I’m not giving up a thing. Then in May, I’m going to be going to Beijing to help supervise the Lego Robotics competition. Despite hating Beijing, I love being able to go with the kids and see them compete in this big event. These are places I just wouldn’t get to see teaching in a public school back home.
There are a dozen other things that could go in this post, but I’m tired and I have an early Professional Development training at the Canadian International School in town, so I’ll call it quits now.
This past December I got away from Dalian for a week and visited Northern Thailand. I’m not a big fan of heat, so I wasn’t too tempted to go south for the beaches this time around…plus, I’ve been living in NE China: I’m as white as they come. So I opted for Chiang Mai, the capital in the North and one of the nicest places to travel to in that area of Tai Guo (Thailand in Pin yin).
The vacation came about because my school was getting ready to close down and I still hadn’t taken my five vacation days. I timed it so I’d be gone between two weekends, so I had just a little more than a week for this trip. I wanted to go to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and spend a bit of time in Thailand before jumping back over to Southern China for a day or two. Yeah, not gonna happen. I ended up pushing Cambodia from the to-see list (this time) and instead decided to spend a few days in Chiang Mai and then head over to Kunming, China for a four-day tour of the area south of Shangri La. I booked the tickets, all was good.
It was cheaper to do one-way flights, so my itinerary looked like: Dalian—Kunming, KM—Chiang Mai, CM—KM, KM—Dalian.
On the descent to the CM International Airport I got chatting with a Chinese couple next to me. I had been switching back and forth from Mandarin to English talking to the flight attendants, so they weren’t sure how to speak to me. Finally we just talked in Chinese about our respective vacations. As I was disembarking a Chinese women a few year older than me struck up a conversation with me. She thought she heard me say I was living in Da Li, a city not too far from the Kunming area where we all boarded. I corrected her, saying it was Dalian, in the North East (Two days later she still insisted that I track her down when I got back to Da Li, so I either need to work on my pronunciation or she has serious selective hearing). We chatted a bit as we walked down the jetway, but then separated once she spotted a friend of hers.
After getting my luggage and lookin’ around for a place to exchange my Chinese RMB to the Thai Baht, the woman showed up again. I was asking the girl behind the counter what a taxi should cost from there to my hostel, but she wasn’t very helpful. Lisa, the Chinese woman I had been talking to, offered to let me share her cab, so we continued to talk as we waited. Her English was fantastic and my Chinese was apparently getting worse, so we mostly got along fine with English.
Once in the taxi—a sporty looking yellow jeep thing with a hatchback—the driver took most of our focus. His parents were from Kunming, so his Mandarin was great, but he also spoke English and Thai. He had a laugh like a hyena with emphysema, but his sense of humor and good attitude made you feel comfortable. Lisa’s hotel was before mine, so she hopped off first and then the driver took me about a mile or so away to my hostel—the Little Bird Hostel. It’s a mostly open-air backpacker hostel tucked deep in a neighborhood of twisting streets and closely packed buildings. A handful of travelers were lounging around in the “common area,” and as I walked in I nodded to a few without stopping.
I checked in with the short, long-haired owner and once he gave me my key I found my room and tossed my bag on the top bunk. I changed my shirt and took off, knowing I’d be back to chat with people once I got a lay of the land.
It was a warm sunny day in Chiang Mai and as I walked along the cramped streets, weaving in and out of crowds, twisting around the vendors and merchants, I realized something: I wasn’t dressed right. For some reason I had been under the impression that it would be cooler up in the north. A few days before leaving Dalian I had bought a pair of hiking shoes and since I was spending more time in the cooler Kunming, I didn’t bring light clothing. Mistake, for several reasons.
As I was out scouring the streets for deals on sandals, shorts, and a hat, Lisa texted me and we decided to meet up for dinner. By the evening it was already evident that I also needed sunscreen. My face was getting that nice tomato-red tint to it that everyone just loves. Lisa turned out to be pretty cool, and she and I hung out those first two days while I was in Chiang Mai. We ate some Pad Thai (basically Thailand’s version of Fried Rice) and wondered around the old part of the city.
On my own I walked along what’s left of the old protective wall that used to border the city, and trekked down streets that were mostly empty. I enjoyed being away from the groups of tourists even though that’s exactly what I was. Eventually I bought some sandals and a pair of shorts.
On the third morning I got a call from my friend. Apparently the airlines cancelled my trip to Kunming. Why? No why. So they put me on a flight for the next day. No biggie, right? I still would have enough time to catch the tour in Kunming and all would be well.
I also finally hung out at the hostel and got to know the other travelers. As I talked and listened to them talk I thought about the trip I took to Beijing more than a year ago with Noelle. At the Red Lantern Hostel we met some cool folks traveling from Scotland, England, Spain, and even a married couple teaching in Dalian who, we found out, were practically our neighbors. Though I didn’t meet any people from NE China in that Hostel in Chiang Mai, I did get talking with a few English guys around my age. Two of them, Dean and Dave, were trekking around South East Asia, following their whims and hoping their money lasted. They planned to stay out for as long as they could, I think they said about 8 months. They’d been traveling for more than a month by the time I met them, and had already come up from southern Thailand.
Both of them were really cool and it was obvious they were just enjoying life and out to see as much as they could. The three of us hung out for a few hours, chatting with others from all over. One guy, a French man around 30 years old, seemed different than the rest of us staying there. He had a laid-back, almost sedate way about himself. I’d say it was the cliché surfer dude aura, but there was definitely some Zen thrown in there. He always laid in the same position on the common area platform—stretched out and ready to take a nap, it looked like. The only time he wasn’t nearly catatonic was when he was holding his large note pad a foot in front of his face. When I asked what he was working on the others around us perked up. They had gotten the answer to that very question the night before. He showed me the sketch book and at first I thought, “Oh, he’s making a comic,” but then I looked closer. There were bars representing data of some sort, odd markings reminiscent of cave drawings, and even stick figures doin’ all kinds of crazy things. I had no idea what I was looking at and I told him so.
Dean explained that it was some sort of graph that measures the moods and energy in a group of people over periods of time. The French Guy smiled and said, “Well, that’s what he understands of it,” but wouldn’t elaborate except to say how interesting it was watching everyone interact with one another. The graph or whatever it was seemed pretty amazing to me. It was clearly something he had thought a great deal about and each line and stroke of his pencil indicated a telling piece of info only he could decipher. He wouldn’t let me take a picture of it, though.
Later that same night Dean, David, Greg ( a young wiry English kid with a mop top), and I went out to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Nik naks, trinkets, store-bought clothes, hand-made clothes, paintings, sculptures, jewelry, magnets, and a hundred different types of food lined the streets and were packed into a few buildings. We waded through it all for about an hour, each of us bargaining for different things we wanted. I bought a bag that I knew I’d never use beyond this vacation. It was a simple brown bag with one strap and a white threaded design on the side. It hung low on my hip once it was around my shoulder, and if I were in any other geographical location I would have felt immediately foolish. But I was proud because I had haggled the guy down quite a bit. Negotiating in China has apparently made me much better. Even the other guys said it was pretty impressive hearing me use different tactics to get the merchant down below half of what he originally said. Thank you, China.
During the next morning I was chilling at the hostel, reading a book on Psychopaths that I picked up on the shelf down the hall when two Chinese girls on a moped stop in front of the gate. They spoke in broken English with the owner, the long-haired dude, but it was obvious they were having troubles. As they walked away from the table I said hello in Chinese and they perked up. I figured out they were having problems and asked if I could possibly help. So they told me what they wanted (warm water for their room, a private shower, and a room for two). All of those requests are pretty typical of Chinese travelers, and I didn’t see why it was so hard for the Little Bird to provide them. I talked with the owner and he told me that they didn’t just want a private shower, they wanted one in their room. Ah, hah. That’s the problem.
I told the girls about how the bathrooms were indeed public, but that only one person was in there at a time, so it was basically private. They seemed a bit nervous about that, so I told them I’d heard good things about the place a block away. They were very happy and exchanged numbers with me, asking if we could meet later. I said sure. About an hour later, after they checked in, I met them and took them to this place I had found a day or two before. We ate and chatted in English and Chinese, but afterward I was itching to go wander around, so I pointed them in the direction of their hostel and took off.
A big attraction in the area of Chiang Mai is Doi Suthep temple. Later that day Dean and I grabbed a taxi and it took us to the launching-off point for the temple, a stretch of road with some kiosks and more parked taxis. Because it was just the two of us, no taxi wanted to take us without having us pay an exorbitant amount. At one point a driver calmly sat us down and drew a diagram in the dirt. He drew the bus, the mountain, and then showed us how each taxi takes a certain amount of people at a set price: 800 baht. Gas is expensive, he said. Dean and I told him what we were quoted—70 baht each—and the man laughed, shook his head, and wrote 800 in the dirt. At that point I erased one of the zeroes and said, “there, now it’s 80, let’s go.” He wasn’t amused. He tried to write it again, but we told him that it didn’t matter how many times he did it, we weren’t paying that much.
We ended up waiting about 45 minutes, and just as we were getting ready to forget the whole thing, a Finnish girl shows up wanting to get to the temple. She was a short, mousy girl with boyishly choppy hair. She was quiet, but nice. And just strange. She was followed quickly by another Chinese couple, so now we had five people. We were set. Dean and I got placed in charge of the negotiating because the Chinese couple didn’t have a lot of English and the Finnish girl just didn’t talk. Once a price was agreed upon we hopped in the taxi, a big red thing with a long back area for passengers. They’re called songthaews in Thai.
Along the way I got talking with the couple. Everything was in Chinese, so it made me feel pretty good. They were on holiday from Shanghai, but both had been to Dalian before. One was a teacher and the other an engineer. It felt good to speak in Chinese. In Thailand more people speak English than they do in China, but even with that barrier down I still felt like I couldn’t really talk with any local Thai people.
Once we got to the temple we all agreed on a time to return to the songthaew, and then went our own separate ways. Dean and I wandered around the large temple, looking at the carvings, metal sculptures, and even the view from the top of the mountain. We took our shoes off before going into the center of the temple, and then wandered around. The whole place sparkled as the sun set, the golden yellow surface of everything reflecting and throwing back the sun’s light.
On the ride back we all chatted about the place and our travel plans. That night Dean and I wanted to catch some Muay Thai fights going on. I snapped a picture of a flyer, and we used it to find the area, but once we got close enough the camera was pointless. A young Thai guy announcing the fights with Eye of the Tiger blaring from behind the walls was pulling people in from off the streets. It would have been impossible to miss.
Once inside we sat at a table about fifteen feet from the ring and ordered two Leo Beers, Thailand’s main beer. First up was a bout between two skinny guys, followed by one with two female fighters. They were awesome. We watched five fights, and that one with the girls was one of the best. They had a lot of energy and their kicks and punches were nothing but brutal. Then came the funniest thing I’d seen in a long time. A handful of guys climbed into the ring and each one of them were blindfolded. After the bell rang they all just started swinging. A few times the referee had to fight back as the boxers jabbed him. One fighter liked to jab to find his opponent and then let loose a huge shot that floored a few guys. I didn’t know they did that sort of thing, but it sure was funny as hell.
Then back at the hostel I get another call. My plane is cancelled again, and at this point I will miss the tour of Kunming and have to wander around myself for four days. I mulled it over a few minutes and decided to just stay in Thailand for the rest of the trip. I told the guys I’d been bummin’ around with and they invited me to join them as they went to Pai, a scenic mountain town a few hours away. I said sure, and we made plans to catch the bus at 8 the next morning. That night, however, everyone in the hostel, and a bunch from others, headed down the street where a bunch of bars were stationed. There we all all danced and talked, and hung out for a few hours. Before I knew it the night had burned into the morning and the sun had already risen.
No worries, I’d sleep on the three hour bus ride. By nine am I realized that would never happen. Anyone whose ever taken the bus ride from Chiang Mai to Pai knows what I’m talking about. There are 762 death defying curves on the route from Chiang Mai to Pai, about 50 miles north. Jostled left and right as the driver took each one of them a 60m/h, I had no hope of sleeping. Along the ride, however, Dean, Dave, and I met up once again with the Finnish girl, and even met another English guy named Brendan. Brendan would end up hanging with us for the next two days as we trekked around Pai, sped down the roads on mopeds, and wandered through the woods looking for waterfalls.