Home Sweet Home
Not my home, Paulie's. He's teaching here in Tianjin for four months and he moved into his apartment about an hour before coming to pick us up from the train station. The Friday night train from Beijing was full of smartly-dressed teenage couples, apparently off for a night on the town.
So, life in a real live Chinese apartment. Paul lives in a complete shithole part of Tianjin, with a massive metallurgic plant at the end of his street, and a solvent factory on the other side. There's really fuck-all here: a few restaurants and crumbling low-rise concrete apartment blocks; a phone room (because many Chinese - Paul calls them 'Chinamen' like the Rotherham football hooligan he is - don't have phones at home) and a couple of shops. The apartment itself is very decent, if bizarrely designed - two bedrooms, a pentagonal lounge and a window connecting the kitchen and bathroom. He currently doesn't have a gas range or shower, but he DOES have a shitload of cockroaches, a lovely 5-bulb lily chandelier, a refurbished 1980s TV, the channel buttons 4 and 5 of which have been repurposed to change channel up and down, the rest of which don't work at all; a big red faux-leather lounge suite, a metal-pipe-and-doilie coffee table and a tasteful selection of watercolour prints. No Chairman Mao portrait - those are a bit naff in the new China. The apartment block itself is a dusty wasteland - dry ground, rubbish everywhere, and a park full of sparrows. The only colour aside from shades of grey and beige is provided by Paul's school, which sports a brand new, full-size top-grade astroturf football pitch provided by the nearby Tianjin Pipe Factory. Several buildings are partially of wholly abandoned. The place is empty - the songs of competing vendors of LPG, water, vegetables and rubbish collectors echo like duelling muezzin..
Catzilla and Bride of Catzilla live here. They live under the next building, and are the two biggest cats any of us have ever seen. Catzilla is white and very fat, about the size of a large bull terrier; the Bride is a little bit smaller, tabby and fluffy. They appear to have sole occupancy of that particular two-storey building. At one point, a small child on a scooter approached the building ... I suppose they must not have been hungry, because they could easily have made a meal of her.
Last night we trolled Paul's street looking for a likely restaurant, armed with the Rough Guide to Mandarin Chinese phrasebook. None of us can recognise very many chinese characters other than 'bei' and 'jing', but I do know 'mien' (noodles), so we picked one with that character on it. The whole place appears to be run by a couple of teenage girls who speak no english and giggle a lot, but after a bit of messing about, we did manage to get a grand feed. Since Paul's place was in need for a bit of warming, we decided to buy beer and head back - to our shock, twenty 630ml bottles of Yanjing beer, and two sacks to carry them in, cost us the princely sum of 36 kwai. That's over twelve litres of beer for about NZ$7. And it's good beer, too.
We went back to get takeaways earlier today, while waiting for Paul's shower to arrive, (which this being China - it didn't and almost certainly won't) and got more food than five hungry people could possibly eat (fried rice, noodle soup, dumplings, chicken and mutton stir-fry) for all of 65 kwai, about NZ$12. The mind boggles.
Dinner was mongolian hot-pot - a huge bowl on a hotplate, half stock, half insanely spicy stuff - into which you throw meat and, in our case, random stuff we ordered off the menu without having the faintest idea what it was. Did pretty well, though - dumplings, noodles, radish, sweet potato, pickled garlic, coriander, tofu, congealed blood. Not bad, but amazingly spicy.
The Chinamen apparently don't like Whitey's ways - Paul's new landlord and bosses turned up to fit his new shower and other such things today, but instead of doing so they hung a curtain rail and went away again. Paul phoned to ask what the hell was going on, and apparently because the place was a bit messy and there were lots of foreigners staying there, he's being evicted. This is complete bullshit, given that the place is filthy to begin with, and also that he got it two weeks later than advertised, and he hasn't been paid yet, but the main fact is that if it's his apartment he ought to be able to keep it any way he feels like. You can bet your arse they wouldn't have said boo if a Chinese tenant had had a few friends over for a housewarming. Paul's confident he can sort it out, but he basically reckons if they can't keep him in this place or find him another one within a few days, he'll quit and get another job.
No trains from Tianjin to Qingdao, so we went back to Beijing. From Beijing we had the option of a standing 10-hour trip to Qingdao leaving at 2200, or hard seats at 2200 the following day, so we decided instead to strike inland for Zhengzhou.
Just an aside here about the young woman who runs the information desk at the Beijing City Central Hostel - she's pretty and speaks perfect english, but she is utterly fucking useless at her actual job, which is giving people information and helping them do stuff which requires reading, writing or speaking Mandarin. Such as checking if there were any train tickets to Zhengzhou. Actual conversation follows:
Me: Hi, can you call Beijing West Railway station and ask if there are tickets available?
Me: Um. Why not?
Wench: Don't have phone number.
[goes back to sending text messages on her phone]
Me: Do you have a phone book or something?
Me: Ok, I'll find the number then.
[five minutes elapse while we search the Beijing Yellow Pages and Paul's Lonely Planet and Wench texts several friends and recieves two phone calls]
Me: Ok, here's the number. Can you ask if there are hard sleepers available to Zhengzhou tonight?
[finishes texting her friend, probably about how annoying and evil we stupid laowei are, then calls]
Wench: They have top-bunk hard sleeper, 133 kuai. Leaves at 22:48. They have tickets now, but maybe not when you get there.
[top-bunk generally means there aren't many left, so time is criticalish]
Me: Can we book through you?
Wench: We charge commission.
Me: How much?
Wench: 30 kuai per ticket.
Me: Ok, book them.
Wench: You pay now, 163 kuai one ticket.
[five more minutes fucking about while she finds 11 kuai change...]
Just another example of how a simple thing is made difficult by fucking idiots.
March 3rd, our last day in Beijing, we jumped through linguistic hoops to get a taxi to the Tianqiao bus terminal, where we had to catch either the 917 or the 971 bus. As it happened, ALL the buses were numbered 917, but appeared to be going to various places. An hour and a half later we set foot in Fangshan - a half-arsed one-street village with a bunch of alcoholic taxi drivers and a restaurant (Mongolian?) where we tried without success to order noodles in soup. Eventually we got three identical plates of noodles, no soup, cold, served with ground peanuts, lime, coriander and vinegar - cold. Perhaps it was a Thai restaurant.
One alcoholic taxi ride in a decrepit rebranded suzuki van later, we arrived in Zhoukoudian at the 'Beijing Ape Man Site', on Dragon Bone Hill (the less-spectacularly named Chicken Bone Hill is nearby). In the 1920s, a Swedish bloke called Gunnar Andersson (there never was a more Swedish name) found the remains of Peking Man, and later Upper Cave Man - a site inhabited by both early and modern humans for more than 200,000 years, and a treasure trove of paleoanthropological goodness, including the fact that the noble badger was one of Peking Man's preferred prey animals. The site is quiet and plain (some would say boring), but the museum is pretty good and the whole thing can be done in an hour or two.
There were no taxis on the way back, but we flagged down a bus which drove us at about 20kph back to Fangshan. The driver spied a 917 bus about to leave back to Beijing, hit the gas and drove his bus in at an angle to cut the 917 off, so it couldn't leave until we were on. What service, all for 1 kwai each.