Travelling for months at a time can be fun, but when a series of small, random events combine to form a gestalt pain-in-the-ass, it´s hard not to just change the plane tickets and go home.
Of course, changing the plane tickets was also one of the many hurdles that needed to be shot through with a nail gun. Jumping was getting me nowhere.
The disasters began with my photographic storage tank, a portable hard drive with a built-in media card reader, going on the blink. The drive itself was working fine, all of my photos were still accessible, but it wouldn’t copy anything new onto itself, despite having less than 25 percent of its capacity filled. Fortunately, I had my iPod and a camera connector, but this was a serious problem. My Financial and Menu Adviser wouldn’t be able to upload any of her photos, and the iPod took more than six times as long as the tank.
It would take very friendly internet cafe or traveller with a good laptop to fix this, and hours of work. I was not a happy Jan, as the FMA might say.
Then we realized that our plane tickets home were scheduled for June 14th, out of Bangkok. This would seem problematic since we didn’t have plans to return there until late July. We had bought our tickets with flexible dates, and had been advised that changing the departure would require nothing more than a phone call.
The day after said phone call, my Parental Units, who have been kindly obfuscating my whereabouts and hiding my mail, sent an email saying that they got a call informing them that the change had not been approved.
Meanwhile, the FMA and I discovered the disappointing Three Gorges cruise had hit our wallets far harder than the US$300 cost would’ve seemed. The insurance money from April’s hospitalization incident still hadn’t come through, and we were looking at amputating even more of the trip. Or, perhaps, sleeping on the street.
That’s one of the strange things about being in China. It’s a bit expensive to transit from one place to the next and sleep on the cheap, compared to Southeast Asia or India. But the food is so cheap, and so delicious, and safe, there’s just no point on eating instant noodles; they’re more expensive than dumplings. Beer, too, is cheaper than bottled water, in most places.
And if you’re unlucky, it even tastes like bottled water.
So we were faced with a couple of dilemmas. We might have to turn around, tail between our legs, and head back to Bangkok after our next stop in Beijing. And we weren’t sure that we’d be able to afford even that, which felt like an incredibly cowardly thing to do.
We caught a nice break in Wuhan, which was a hot, gray, ugly city that was made even more difficult to navigate thanks to the useless maps included in our guidebook. But we were only there for two days, and couldn’t see a point to splurging on a map.
The FMA and I did find, finally, a street that’s renowned throughout China for its breakfast food: Hubu Alley. It turned out to be the kind of narrow shopping alley we’d come to expect in every reasonably-sized Chinese city we would hit. Except, instead of being lined with vendors hawking knock-offs or kitchen goods or the amazing things you can do with a factory of workers and injection-molded plastic, they sold food.
Not just any food, either, but the kind of mouth-watering edibles that transformed my opinion of Wuhan from being a stinking furnace that had clearly outlived its usefulness to mankind, to being a place that one should stop in for a hearty meal. And then, quickly, get the heck out of.
We had a bowl of spicy noodle soup that was hot enough to make my lips swell like they’d been injected with botox. We inhaled something tht looked like baozi, the white dough buns with filling, except they were tiny and lightly fried. We scarfed down a latkesque pancake thing, and an mini-okanomiyaki thing, as well.
By far, though, the one of the two best things were these fried mochi balls. Mochi is the Japanese word for sweetened rice paste, which is what these things were. The other were these fried tofu things with sticky rice, eggs and bean curd done up in layers. Phenomenally delicious stuff, and sampling all of it cost less than a two-liter bottle of no-name ghetto soda at Safeway.
Somehow, between leaving the Yangzi cruise ship in Yichang and leaving Wuhan, the FMA suffered a couple of minor misfortunes that nonetheless added to the stress level. She had lost one of her two T-shirts that she’d been carrying on this trip and had either been pickpocketted or lost her money wallet, which fortunately contained nothing important and only 70 yuan (about US$9).
We escaped to Shanghai on a sleeper bus ticket that was 100 yuan cheaper than buses to Shanghai usually were, and surprisingly, the bus was tolerable as sleeper buses go. The sleepers in China are different from those in India, where there’s a row of seats crammed under a row of wide, dirty slabs of foam that have been hilariously labelled “beds”.
In China, all the seats are beds, angled at 20 or 30 degrees. There’s three rows of these recliners down the length of the bus, and the sheets and pillows that have been provided are clean, if ridden with cigarette holes. Smoking and the almost fetishistic obsession with smoking here has to be one of China’s biggest drawbacks. You could make the joke that if the Japanese are born with cell-phones in hand, Americans are given a slab of processed meat product; Australians are given Vegemite, of course, and the Italians, a choice between nice shoes and a cup of coffee. Chinese men, then, are given cigarettes.
I’ve met about two men that didn’t smoke here. Occasionally, I’ve seen women smoke, but it’s usually the men, and they’re all chain smokers. They smoke while eating, while waiting in line, while riding a bicycle, while crouching over the squat toilets that lack doors and of course, while taking sleeper buses for 11 hours. When the bus pulled into Hengfeng Lu station, I imagine anybody outside watching the door open must’ve seen a theatrical bluish-white cloud escape into the warm morning air.
Things got a bit better in Shanghai, where our new Spanish friend Mariola let us crash at her apartment for a few days. I received an email from my travel agent in the US saying that the plane ticket situation had been resolved: we were cleared for an August departure. But then it got much, much worse when I got targetted by a pickpocket.
The FMA and I got on a public bus from Mariola’s suburb and headed in to town to check out the shopping street Nanjing Donglu, the touristy shopping street, and a bit of the Old Town area. The bus we got on, number 537, was packed like a Tokyo train, so when the bus lurched or came to a screeching halt – as it often did on the wild streets of Shanghai – everybody got jostled up against each other.
At some point between boarding the bus and the ten minutes it took to snag a seat, the small pocket at the bottom of my backpack was opened. Now, I try not to be stupid. I carry my money in a money belt under my clothes. Change and small bills go in a small change wallet, and my passport is always on me, and never in a backpack. I never kept anything of value in that pocket, except for some cheap pens, two small notebooks and my glasses case.
What do you think was stolen? Here’s a hint: it weren’t the pens.
Why on earth would anybody steal a glasses case is beyond me. Since I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, my untinted frames were taken, a nice-looking pair I’d gotten in Japan before I left last year. Going to the police the next day to file the report was painless, at least for me. Mariola was kind enough to spend her morning with me there, translating as best she could.
While we were dealing with the report, which involved me writing down in English things like, “I am an American on vacation visiting my friend,” a guy came in. He looked like your average middle-aged man, slightly receding hairline, glasses, somewhat rumpled look to his shirt but pressed pants. Mariola overheard him filing his report, which she said concerned the disappearance from school of his 15-year-old son.
A shitty week like mine just isn’t so bad when juxtaposed with that kind of trauma.