Some things are absurdly difficult to find in Beijing, for completely random reasons. You’ll look all over the place and be unable to find something, and it’ll drive you completely nuts because you know that whatever it is, it’s made in China, but you just can’t buy it here.

Extension cables, for example. You can buy them anywhere in the US, good quality ones, usually made in China, but you can’t find them here. Only cheap low quality power strips attached to a too-short, thin-gauge cable. Sometimes you can find higher quality power strips, but always lower quality than you’ll find in the US. No breakers, no UL listing here. Items sold on the domestic market aren’t even dollar store quality much of the time, and foreign-branded items are usually just domestic products with a different label. Philips and Top Electric, for example. One is foreign branded, one domestic, exactly the same product made in the same factory (and you can probably guess which one is more expensive).

So I suppose it’s not particularly surprising that I wanted a bottle opener and found myself completely unable to find one. I walked all over Wal-Mart looking for one. Kitchen stuff? No, not there, although someone aggressively tried to sell me a wok. I didn’t need a wok, I needed a bottle opener, but I’m not sure how to explain that in Chinese, maybe “Kai Ping” like “open bottle,” but the confused look on the clerk’s face and her insistent motions toward the wok she was trying to sell me made it clear that attempting to communicate further with her was an exercise in futility. OK, so maybe in the housewares section I can find one. No, but on the way there, someone really wanted to sell me fabric softener. Thanks, but no thanks, I really don’t need fabric softener, I just need a bottle opener. And so is the retail experience in China, if you stop for more than a few seconds someone is tugging on your sleeve trying to sell you something that you absolutely do not want. Even if your Chinese is good enough to ask for what you actually want, the answer is usually “mei you” anyway. If you get lucky, the person saying “mei you” is standing right in front of the item you actually want.

OK, fine. Maybe in the grocery section. I walked to bottled beverages, thinking maybe I’d find a bottle opener cleverly merchandised next to the bottles that require them. No such luck, although a young sales clerk aggressively tried to sell me a bottle of Moutai. I’m sure it’s nectar from the gods, distilled from the fresh waters of the mountains of Guizhou, but bai jiu–Moutai or not–is devil piss and I’ll have nothing to do with it. Just a bottle opener please, I tried to explain, holding a bottle and making the motion. Indifferent stare, a shrug, “mei you,” and it was clear that I was defeated. Nowhere in Wal-Mart was there a bottle opener to be found. I picked up some cans of beer, since these didn’t require bottle openers, and dejectedly made my way to the inclinator.

Wal-Mart is three floors. You start on the third floor, work your way down to the first floor (where the groceries are) on these inclinators. They’re like an escalator, but without the steps. Shopping carts are cleverly designed so they stop when they’re on an incline, and you make your way down (or up) slowly with giant piles of merchandise stacked in trays next to you. Sometimes there are good deals, so I keep my eye on the merchandise on the journey upstairs or downstairs. There is a random assortment of stuff, anything from toilet cleaner to kitchen wrap to paper products, anything that Wal-Mart happens to be featuring at the time.

On the inclinator on the way up, I spotted it. A bottle opener! There was only one catch: it was attached as a bonus premium to a mega double pack of Jissbon condoms. Birth control is ridiculously cheap in China, so the whole thing cost about $3. I was after a bottle opener, and there was the only one in all of Wal-Mart, and I had to buy a giant pack of condoms to go with it. That’s just how it was, and how it was going to be. I grabbed it and threw it into my basket, and now I can open bottles in my house.

Clothing in China runs in smaller sizes. If you prefer a snug fit for your *ahem* socks, let me know. I definitely have use for the bottle opener, but won’t have much use for the other items. Yours free!

I wrote an article about Beijing for the expat magazine Tales from a Small Planet (registration required), which I’m republishing here.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? My home base is Seattle. There are easy 12-hour nonstops on both Hainan Airlines and Delta Airlines several days a week. Air China also has a daily nonstop to Vancouver with an easy connection to Seattle on Air Canada (you pre-clear US Customs in Vancouver, which saves time). Major Chinese international carriers have excellent safety records and fly new, modern aircraft. I am comfortable flying them. Beijing is Asia’s busiest airport and there really isn’t anywhere you can’t get from here.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country? If you enjoy Chinese culture and want to learn more about Chinese history, there is no better place than Beijing. It’s the capital and there are thousands of years of history here. Beijing is a great home base for exploring China and the rest of Asia. Nearly every country in the world has an embassy here, so it’s relatively easy (though rarely cheap for US passport holders) to get visas. With the incredible air, rail and bus connections here, it’s easy to find a change of scenery. All of the Western conveniences are available here (at roughly European prices), but you can live really inexpensively here if you want to. I traded my $200 car payment (and roughly the same amount spent on gasoline a month) for a clean, fast and efficient subway commute that costs only 60 cents a day roundtrip.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country? Oh, too many to list! Dancing while the sun comes up on a beach in front of the Great Wall with over a thousand people enjoying listening to some of the top DJs in Asia. Ringing in the New Year in a former Communist weapons factory packed with thousands of revelers and the most ridiculous sound system I’ve ever seen. Being instantly befriended by a bunch of college students in Tianjin and taken on a whirlwind tour of that city after riding there on a bullet train. Riding in a Beijing taxi at 2:00 in the morning listening to gangster rap, which the driver perfectly mimics (while understanding none of the lyrics). Having dinner with friends in a restaurant while a gang fight goes down in the room next door and pretending not to notice (eventually one of the gangsters came over and apologized–in perfect English–for the disturbance). Waking up every morning and looking out the window at the Confucius Temple, then walking through a narrow hutong alleyway that looks like it is straight out of a movie, but this is actually just my everyday life and it’s just my normal commute. Going to the little foreigners’ shop—you know, kind of like the Chinese or Indian market back at home: small selection, jammed shelves—except that it’s all full of American stuff because the tables are turned and you’re the foreigner buying weird stuff now. Too many more to list, and I’ve only been here a year!

What is the air quality like (good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy, with comments)? It’s actually all of these. Occasionally the air is clear and you can see the mountains. The clearest day here is like a pretty bad air day in Seattle. Usually the air quality (according to the US Embassy) ranges from unhealthy to very unhealthy. Sometimes it gets off-the-charts hazardous. The embassy described it as “Crazy Bad” when this happened just before Thanksgiving, which just about sums it up. Most of the time the air quality isn’t very good, so you don’t want to spend a lot of time outside. To give you an idea of how bad it is when it’s really bad, you’ll blow your nose after an hour outside and it comes out black. There is nothing anywhere in the US or really developed Western countries that could even so much as give you a point of reference for how bad the air quality can get here. So, don’t come here if your lungs are sensitive or you have asthma. On bad days, I lock myself in my bedroom with my Ionic Pro Turbo and I have to clean it every day (normally you have to clean it once a month).

What is the climate like? Weather patterns? Ridiculously cold winters, and very dry (it’s near the Gobi Desert, folks). You will need humidifiers in every room, and if you go to sleep without running one, you’ll wake up with a bloody nose. In spring there are crazy dust storms that blow sand in from the Gobi, and you can’t even see across the street sometimes. Summer is very hot and humid, just like most places in Asia. Fall is the best time to visit, but it’s really short (only 6 weeks or so).

What kind of insect problems are there, if any? Lots of mosquitoes in the summer (some places worse than others), also cockroaches and ants. There is no malaria here, though.

Are there any special security concerns? Beijing is the capital city of the world’s largest population and second largest economy. There are definitely special security concerns, but they generally won’t affect you. The Chinese government maintains excellent security in Beijing. I feel safe everywhere here. That being said, petty crime and small-time scams can be a problem in tourist areas.

Housing types, locations, commute time? Let me start by saying that housing is a nightmare in Beijing. The real estate market in China is white-hot (think California in 2005) and people are buying to flip. This is beginning to have a major impact on rents. Many landlords would prefer to leave a unit empty for months, hoping for an inflated rental rate, rather than set a reasonable price and rent their unit right away. So, you’ll see a huge amount of overpriced inventory and a limited amount of reasonably priced inventory that disappears almost immediately. Having a good agent is your only hope of finding anything reasonable. My transitional housing allowance ran out, and I ended up in a hotel for a couple of weeks before I eventually found a (not perfect) place because the housing situation is just that ridiculous. Start looking early and negotiate for 90 days of transitional housing in your relocation package if you can. So, let’s talk prices and areas. Most foreigners live in the Shunyi suburbs or on the east side of Beijing in the Chaoyang district. Shunyi looks like an American suburb, soulless and corporate. Families with small kids and embassy personnel like it. And that’s great for them, and I wish them well. You’ll need a car if you live there (although there is a new subway line park-and-ride that just opened last month, so commuting on public transportation is now an option for suburbanites). Rental prices start at around USD $3,000 per month and go up from there. Many other foreigners live in a few “international standard” complexes: Seasons Park, Central Park, Park Avenue, and a couple of others. These were built by US, Hong Kong, or European developers, and have international management companies. Corridors are bright and well-lit, elevators always work (and don’t have blaring advertisements outside). When something breaks you have an English-speaking management office to call, and someone competent will come fix it. And your apartment will be equipped with all the stuff you expect: stove, oven, coffeemaker, nice microwave oven, washer and dryer, etc. Of course, this comes at a price. You’ll pay upwards of $1,500 for a 2 bedroom. Okay, so you can’t afford that. You can try a Chinese “international” complex. These are usually Chinese developers and Chinese management companies. The management office may have someone who speaks English, but more likely not. Chinese companies usually have different standards of maintenance than American or European companies, and different ideas of what is acceptable. Be prepared for this. Some of these buildings are quite nice; Boya Garden, for example, has a Chinese management company but it was originally built by a French developer, so the amenities are good, and the Chinese company has maintained the building reasonably well (although the paint is peeling). Other buildings, not so much – Phoenix City is visibly falling apart and it’s only a couple of years old. You generally cannot expect the same amenities in a Chinese building as you can in an international complex. The kitchen will likely be tiny, and will not have an oven (make sure the thing that looks like an oven isn’t actually a dish drying rack). Electric clothes dryer? No way! You’ll have a balcony built into your apartment where you can hang your laundry for 3 days in the frigid winter until it dries. In a Chinese building, you’ll pay anywhere from somewhat less to considerably less depending how “local” the complex is. I am living in an entirely local, and older, but high-end building in the central Dongcheng district. I choose to live in a more local building and neighborhood since I wanted a better commute and a more historical area to live in. It’s away from the “expat bubble” and this limits my social life, but I don’t have much of one anyway in between work and Chinese lessons. Customarily, apartments are furnished, but everything is negotiable. I hated my landlord’s furniture (it was used and broken) and negotiated for him to get rid of most of it, and I paid lower rent since I’m buying my own furniture (cheap IKEA stuff – I can buy a whole house full of furniture for less than the differential in 3 months’ rent). Generally you will deal with an agent to find an apartment. They will not charge you a commission, but the landlord pays them a commission of an entire month’s rent. This in effect builds an automatic rent increase into the second year’s rent since they will be charging you as if the commission is bundled, but it will no longer be. So, you may be able to get a better deal if you pay the commission to the agent. Finally, you may need a fa piao (official invoice) if you have a housing package and want to claim the expense. Even if you don’t have a housing package, your tax situation can benefit by having a fa piao. You’re exempt from income tax on up to 30% of your income upon presentation of a fa piao proving rent payment in that amount. This is no small savings – you’ll save a minimum of 5% and up to 40% income tax depending on your tax bracket.

International schools: There are international schools, and parents here have the same complaints about the schools as they do anywhere else in the world (with some unusual ones like one school where a kid was run over on the playground by an Audi – no, I have no idea what it was doing there). I don’t have kids, so if you do, do your research. I’ve heard that the Chinese government allows children of foreigners to attend local schools, and this can be much less expensive than the private international schools.

Preschool/daycare available: These are available but very expensive.

What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids? No idea. China isn’t a great place to be for someone with disabilities or special needs.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples? Yes, for all of these. It’s a very diverse city and there is something for everyone.

From what you have heard, is it a good city for gay or lesbian expats? I am gay. There is a small but growing scene here. The government seems to be coming to grips with this and trying to figure out how to manage it – they don’t seem to particularly want to suppress it, but they also don’t want Beijing’s image tarnished by lots of public cruising or bathhouse orgies. A cruisy park and bathhouse were both busted this summer. So far, the happy medium has been Destination, the nexus of gay nightlife in Beijing. A couple of new gay bars just opened, and I expect they will be successful. There isn’t nearly as much gay culture here as other cities of Beijing’s size, although there is a very big arts scene and I expect that the two may intersect at some point in the future, when there is more clarity from the local authorities on what is legally acceptable.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices? Yes, definitely. You are laowai, and while Chinese are unfailingly polite in business and in friendships, you will never be one of them.

What difficulties would someone with physical disabilities have living in this city? Beijing made great strides toward accessibility during the 2008 Olympics, and major tourist sites and transportation hubs in Beijing are accessible. However, some of the infrastructure that was put in for the Olympics hasn’t been maintained since the events ended. There’s a big difference between being a tourist and living here, though. I don’t recommend living in Beijing if you are physically challenged; daily life requires an awful lot of stairs.

Interesting/fun things to do in the area: Great Wall, 798 Art Zone, the Summer Palace, Beijing’s many parks, the Forbidden City (which is worth seeing once or twice), Zhongguancun Electronics City, and … honestly, my favorite thing to do here is to take the subway somewhere I have never been and just wander around. There is as much diversity among the neighborhoods here as there is in New York. It’s a really incredible place and you’ll never get bored if you have a sense of adventure.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Yes, most of the high-end expat buildings have these. There are some private clubs as well, but beware: these sometimes go out of business with little or no notice, even if you just paid your annual fee yesterday. In cash, of course, because that is how you pay for everything here. Sue them? Hmm, maybe you can try. Good luck with that.

Are sports programs available for kids? There are soccer moms in Beijing just like anywhere in the US.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range? American chains McDonald’s, Burger King, Fatburger, KFC and DQ are all here. Except for McDonald’s and KFC, they all cost $1 to $2 more than the same thing would cost in the US. KFC is cheap but has a very different menu than the US. McDonald’s has a localized menu as well, but they have many American favorites (the Big Mac) and things cost $1-$2 less at McDonald’s here vs. the US. There are plenty of other great restaurants as well – Chinese people love to eat out, and being here in the capital, you can sample any type of Chinese cuisine from anywhere in the country. You could eat at a different restaurant every meal every day for 3 years and maybe sample 10% of the restaurants in Beijing. Chinese food is cheap, too, you can go with 10 people to dinner and the bill comes to maybe $3 each with drinks.

What is the availability (and the relative cost) of groceries and household supplies? Everyone says “you can get anything here.” This is true, except for Ivory soap. And what they don’t say is “…and it’ll cost you.” At the market around the corner from me, milk is $12 per gallon, butter is $1.50 per stick, and at Wal-Mart cheese costs $7 for a small block of Land O’ Lakes cheddar. Extrapolate accordingly. Obviously, your average Beijing resident who makes $600 a month isn’t paying these prices, they just eat entirely different things, some of which newly arriving Americans would consider weird and alien. You’ll either need to change your habits (and lower your standards – Chinese products are not the same quality you’ll be used to) or pay through the nose.

What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc? China is very modern, but is still a developing country. You may be able to find this stuff, but good luck.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs? This is mostly a cash economy, although an increasing number of merchants are taking local credit cards. The credit card system here is called Union Pay, and merchants need a separate machine to take Visa, MasterCard, etc. Most of them won’t have this, so until you have a local bank account, you’ll need to be prepared to pay cash. Many ATMs do not take foreign cards. Bank of China, HSBC and Citibank ATMs work with foreign cards reliably. Of the three, I trust HSBC the most. ATMs are sometimes stocked with counterfeit bills, and you have no recourse if you are cheated. For this reason, I always use the same ATM in the lobby of my office; it is always stocked with brand new fresh uncirculated bills.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of rugged terrain, lack of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc? Don’t bring a car here. The paperwork is an incredible hassle and you won’t be able to get parts for it (foreign-branded cars are manufactured through local joint ventures and have different designs in China even though they look the same). Beijing recently implemented a new system that makes it incredibly difficult to get a number plate. As a result, you will have great difficulty buying a car here. If you do get one, your reward is joining traffic-clogged streets that make LA rush hour traffic look fast. Take the subway or ride a bicycle (or electric bike) if you want to get anywhere.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable? Trains and subways are safe, fast and efficient—although often very crowded. Taxis are sort of safe; drivers are very aggressive here and do not follow the rules of the road that you may be used to. Petty crime is common on buses. One time when I rode one, a fight broke out and the driver locked all the doors, not letting anyone off the bus until the police came. Transportation is affordable. You can ride a taxi for 2.5km for $1.50. After that, it’s a 15-cent fuel tax and then 30 cents for each additional km. This is the most expensive option. The subway is 30 cents (this will get you anywhere in the system, well over 100km of track) and buses cost 6 cents.

Do you have any recommendations regarding cell phones? China Mobile has the best coverage but they don’t have international standard 3G service (it’s a local Chinese standard that only works in China with Chinese phones). China Unicom has far worse coverage but uses the same 3G international standard that AT&T does. China Telecom runs a network using the same 3G technology Verizon and Sprint do in the US, but you can’t bring your phone from home and use it here (except through roaming, which is very expensive). You will have to buy a local one if you go with China Telecom. I use China Unicom and the service is anywhere from bad to awful, but it’s a job requirement that I have a world phone, so I don’t have any choice.

How do you get and send your letters and package mail? The company has a lot of people traveling back and forth to headquarters, so I usually send things back with colleagues to mail, or have them bring me things when they visit. The local mail is inexpensive, honest and reliable, but you have to go to the post office in person to mail packages. This takes a long time because post offices are very busy (like everything in Beijing).

Items you would ship to this post if you could do it again? Drain cleaner. I haven’t found it here yet. Otherwise, I did pretty well – I made a big Costco run before I left and bought a bunch of stuff I knew I couldn’t easily find here or was prohibitively expensive (camping food and supplies, glow sticks, everything electronic I could possibly want for the next 2 years, good quality paper towels and toilet paper, spices). One thing I have had a heck of a time finding is an electric frying pan to make pancakes, so if you like pancakes, bring one of those. For the most part, it isn’t that you can’t find it here, it’s that when you do, you won’t want to pay $4 for a roll of paper towels even though they’re good and work and the local ones are terrible and don’t. Bring any supply of medication with you (prescription and non-prescription) that you will need for the length of your assignment. There are problems with counterfeit drugs and you may have trouble finding what you want (especially Pepto-Bismol).

Availability and cost of domestic help: My apartment came with a housekeeper. She’s worked here for the past 7 years for the previous 3 tenants and already had a key so just assumed she worked for me now. She is cheap (works for $3 per hour with a 4-hour minimum) and only expects to come once a week, and she’ll do things like come during the day and wait for deliveries. Seems to be honest, too. I am still not sure that I really need someone to do my laundry for me and clean my house, but that’s just an example of how cheap and available domestic help is, I guess.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living? You can get by without knowing any, because most signage is in English and Chinese. You won’t make many Chinese friends or get close to the culture, though. After 6 months of living here without language skills, I’m now spending 10 hours a week taking Chinese lessons. It’s sufficiently disruptive and isolating not to speak the language to merit this much of a time investment.

English-language religious services available? Denominations? Yes, just about anything you can think of is available here. However, I’ve been told that Chinese people are not allowed to attend religious services with foreigners and you have to bring your passport to church. I am not religious myself, so you’re advised to double-check this locally.

English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost? Global Times is the communist party’s newspaper. It costs 30 cents and runs a lot of local interest articles, some of which are pretty controversial. It’s important to note that the party isn’t the government; there are many factions, and the Global Times is left-leaning. China Daily is the official government newspaper, staid, dry and conservative. GDP is the big story, every day, inexorably marching to the moon and stratosphere in a great harmonious society, and by the way, won’t you visit Wenzhou, too? Here’s a dry profile about how they manufacture butane lighters. You can obviously tell which I like better. Some free-to-air satellite channels are available, although I think having a dish is technically illegal (there are tons of them everywhere, so this isn’t enforced if it is). Programming comes mostly from the Philippines. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t really care. The Chinese government has an English-language TV station called CCTV 9. It is very special. CCTV 9 is legendary in expat circles. Hope you packed your Pepto.

Is high-speed internet access available? Cost? There is a 10Mbps service shared with the entire building for $18.25 per month. I have this, but I also subscribed to my own 2Mbps ADSL line for $24.25 per month (so I have two connections in the apartment). Between the two, I have enough bandwidth to do what I want. Keep in mind I’m a very heavy Internet user and work in the high tech industry, and this is barely enough. Speeds are variable depending on the time of day – in Beijing, the Internet has traffic jams just like the streets. You will need a VPN to access YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and many other sites outside China.

Size of expat community: There won’t be official numbers until the census results are out later this year, but official estimates are over 100,000. Keep in mind that nearly every country in the world maintains an embassy here, so many of these people are embassy personnel from small Asian and African countries. There are probably around 20,000-30,000 people from English-speaking developed countries. This includes a mix of students, professionals and embassy personnel.

Morale among expats: Depends on the expat. Some people are amazed every day that they are here, some can’t wait to leave. Sometimes it’s the same people and a different day of the week.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy? There are lots of jobs, but at local pay. Ever thought of being a model? You could be one here, and see your picture on the front of thousands of boxes of some product exported all over the world. Chinese companies always have a need for someone to provide English customer service. Or maybe you just want to wear a nice suit and go to a formal dinner where you have no idea what’s going on, but you smile and nod and shake hands and enjoy the very high-end cuisine, and get paid for showing up (some companies just need to have a white guy somewhere for whatever reason). Have a nice voice? Why not try making voice-overs? And of course you can teach English, anything from teaching adorable first graders how to say their names to helping Chinese businessmen improve their conversational English. Now let’s talk about the pay. The average salary in Beijing is $600 per month. If you aren’t working for a multinational company or an embassy, the most you can hope to pull in is about $2,000 per month.

Entertaining/social life: Practically anything you can imagine and lots of things that you can’t. You’ll never want for something to do in Beijing. From wandering the hutong of Nanlouguxiang late at night to dancing all night at the Great Wall to learning great Chinese cooking to trivia nights, the social scene is exciting and vibrant. Or try board games, tea and KTV with your new Chinese friends.

Dress code at work and in public: In my industry, it’s casual, but this is an exception. In China, people consider it important to look professional – suit, tie and slacks are standard professional attire for men, and women wear slacks and a blazer. That being said, as a foreigner you may be able to get away with a lot – people expect foreigners to be different.

Any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available? There is one JCI certified, international standard hospital in Beijing (United Family). It’s very expensive, for some procedures even more expensive than US hospitals, but it’s really your only option if you want the quality of care you’d expect in the US. A handful of international-standard clinics are also available, all much more expensive than local hospitals but more familiar environments. Local hospitals are very cheap, but 70% of people who show up there end up on an intravenous IV antibiotic drip (antibiotics are grossly overused here, to the point it’s scary – you can buy hardcore ones over the counter at the pharmacy). I try to avoid setting foot in any medical facility since I don’t want to be exposed to MRSA or other multi-drug resistant bacteria. The quality of care is OK, but if I could, I’d personally head back to the US, Japan, Hong Kong or Singapore for anything serious. Excellent quality and inexpensive dental and vision care are both available. Take advantage!

Do incoming pets need to be quarantined? One of my co-workers had to quarantine his cat on the way in, but it didn’t have to be quarantined on return to the US.

You can leave behind your: …expectations of traffic rules, propriety, and preference for uncrowded places.

But don’t forget your: Everyone says patience and sense of humor. You will need both of those, but also don’t forget the most important thing: your reason for coming here. This place will test your patience to the limit and then some, so have a really solid reason why you want to be here. Otherwise, after a Bad China Day, you’ll be on the next plane home wondering how to put your life back together.

Can you save money? This really depends on you. If you live in a high-end foreigner complex, eat Western food every day, shop at the foreign market for everything, have an ayi who waits on you hand and foot, insist on either having a car and driver or taking taxis everywhere, and buy lots of consumer stuff, no way. The ayi and taxis are relatively cheap, but you’ll be paying 3-4 times as much for everything in general vs. the US. Oh, and the bars. Many expats, unable to figure out that they’re living in an amazing city of 30 million people with virtually limitless possibilities, drink away their evenings to the tune of several hundred dollars a month (or more). Anyway, just come to accept that you’re not in the US anymore. You can have an American lifestyle here, but will it ever cost you. And it’s totally not worth it. If you’re going to be in China, do things the Chinese way! Take the subway most of the time, use local products, downgrade to a local complex (albeit a nice one), shop at local markets and buy local products, eat mostly Chinese food when you eat out, and take full advantage of your employer’s benefits and reimbursement policy (taking full advantage of your meal allowance and filing for reimbursement for any little thing you’re entitled to claim – it sounds weird, but locals do it so you won’t raise eyebrows). If you’re making a decent salary (more than 10,000 RMB per month), you’ll be truly amazed how quickly the RMB pile up in your bank account.

What unique local items can you spend it on? A society with 1.4 billion people makes few unique things. Settle for things that are definitely Chinese. The best gift I’ve found is silk bathrobes at YaShow market – real pure Chinese silk, very high quality, about $30. There really isn’t much to buy here, though – it’s all the same stuff you can get at Wal-Mart in the US, except lower quality and at higher prices (China has a 17% value added tax, and with incomes so low, the quality of items sold here tends to be either akin to dollar stores or super high end luxury goods). Of course, you can always buy a “Pravda” bag or a “Cucci” watch. If you’re a geek, head to Zhongguancun. The fake (aka “Shanzhai”) iPhones are hilarious, and you can buy incredibly powerful laser pointers with a 2km range.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there? Ask me again in 6 months. It’s been a blur since I got here (I transferred in at a very busy time in my job, so I’ve spent way too much time at the office) and I’m just finally starting to get my life together and get established here. I’m either going to love this place or hate it in 2 years.

Recommended books related to this city: Any Judge Dee mystery novel you can find. Or all of them.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city: There were a lot of DVDs produced for the 60th anniversary of the Communist Party. While they’re in Chinese and hard to find outside of China, there is a lot of great cinematography showing off the city.

Any other comments: Beijing is at the epicenter of one of the most incredible transformations that has ever happened in human history. There are definite challenges and growing pains, along with an exciting new confidence and pride in a nation both young and old. There are skyscrapers juxtaposed with upper-middle-aged couples happily dancing in public squares on warm summer nights. The hyper-modern technology district of Zhongguancun sits side by side with thousand year old hutongs. Belching smokestacks point to smoking tailpipes idling beside orchards tended with donkey carts, with bicyclists always traveling faster than the incessantly honking Audi A6s. Everything in China is layers upon layers of complexity that you can hardly begin to understand, and everything is seemingly contradictory, but uncannily consistent in the context of five thousand years of history. Chinese people are inconsiderate yet warm, pushy yet polite, avaricious yet honest, and always eager with a “can do” attitude except when they’re saying mei you. Sometimes it’s enough to drive you to distraction, and then one of your Chinese friends calls and invites you to dinner just because and you have the most amazing meal of your life, except that you just had that last week, and you could have it every day here.

Never lose sight of how amazing your life can be if you just open your mind to the possibility, and you’ll do fine.

A reader wrote and asked me something that seems perfectly logical from the perspective of an American, but utterly perplexing from a Chinese perspective or even the perspective of someone who has lived here for awhile:

I’m in China for the next couple weeks and I’m trying to plan out interesting things to do.
I saw you moved over here a while back and might have a suggestion
or two. I’m in Yangshuo until the 4th and my flight back to Seattle
leaves from Shanghai on the 12th so I’ve got 8 days or so to fill with
stuff. I’m not a giant fan of tourist traps so I’m trying to avoid
things like the great wall and the terracotta warriors. Any suggestions
you might have would be greatly appreciated.

It makes a lot of sense, right? I hate tourist traps when I travel. If I wanted to see a tourist trap, I would have booked a trip to one. Except then it probably wouldn’t have been a trap, right?

Here’s my reply:

Given where you are, I assume you are in China for beauty and backpacking. You’re actually in one of the best places in the country, but do head west – take plenty of time in Guizhou, and then make your way through Yunnan. You can fly back to Shanghai from Lijiang. There is a lot to see, and the second highest waterfall in the world is in Guizhou.

A few words about crowds and tourist traps. China has 1.4 billion people. If you are anywhere without crowds, it’s because Chinese people don’t go there. Any place of historical, cultural or scenic interest is rapaciously commercialized. This is part of the China Experience (TM). It’s a very different culture than our own. If you are at all like me, you will hate this to the core of your being until one day, you accept that you’re in a very different place, a different society, one that operates with an entirely different set of values. This is a place where it’s OK to bulldoze an ancient hutong in the center of Beijing, thousands of years old, surviving the collapse of multiple dynasties and the cultural revolution, for the sake of building a KFC and a KTV. And, of course, another giant featureless housing development with an enormous parking garage that will be full of Audi A6s. Money is the be-all and end-all, and most old things have no value. China is about young and brash, new and flash. Nowhere is this more on display than in Shanghai. The country is the embodiment of all that I admired at the age of fourteen, and at 61 years of Communism, modern China is in the throes of adolescence.

Welcome to high school. Noisy, crowded and self-absorbed.

Taking a train from Beijing to Badaling on a weekend, when the Great Wall is teeming with thousands upon thousands of Chinese people from all over the country, littering and spitting all over the place with a kid standing in the corner pissing off the top, *is* the “real” China. Walking up and down thousands of stairs at Leshan with even thousands more Chinese people shoving and swearing and trying to cut in front of you after paying the third rip-off fee along the way makes it no less magnificent. Don’t worry about the money. It’s quick and easy to lose perspective. You’ll get ripped off (another part of the experience) but it’ll usually be for less than $5 each time, so don’t let it ruin your day. And don’t worry about the people. In a society where most people are very poor, and there are an awful lot of people, you have to scrap to get ahead.

Minority villages in Guizhou, in Yunnan and in Sichuan are awesome. You can buy some really incredible, unique art that doesn’t look Chinese at all. The Han people have complicated relationships with minority cultures and will act very concerned if you plan to visit minority villages. They will issue dire and exaggerated (but not entirely unfounded, so don’t be overly dismissive) warnings about venturing into minority areas uninvited. This means that you may end up in a tourist trap of a larger village, but it also means that if you time it right, you’ll get to see dance performances and they’ll have a Saturday market. Culture is, unfortunately, a luxury that goes by the wayside when you make less than $2,000 a year and food inflation is rampant, so you find that people have little time for that when you’re truly in the hinterlands. That aside, minority people tend to be very friendly and curious about foreigners, as long as you are respectful of customs that may dramatically differ both from our own and from the Han people. Be hyper-observant, it’s easy to offend. You’ll be surrounded by groups of children in no time, and may have been one of the first foreigners they’ve ever seen. Make a good impression.

Guizhou is the poorest and least developed province in China. Transportation is shared minibus taxis. They might have been sort of safe once but aren’t now. You can share these kinds of buses with live chickens and sometimes other livestock so watch out for hungry goats after your lunch. You can have similar experiences in Yunnan, wondering whether you’ll be later featured in a one column inch article titled “Bus Plunge Kills 29 in Yunnan, One American.” And you should have these experiences, they’re another part of this very complicated culture.

Make friends. They’re the key to an incredible experience. Chinese people are generally very friendly, except when they’re trying to rip you off. You have to take risks to figure out who is genuine. Make them calculated ones, but do take risks. You’d be amazed at the hospitality of the Chinese. They usually have their own ideas about the US, and they are shaped by Hollywood and pop culture. They will automatically assume you are rich. Do your best to demonstrate that the US is as varied and diverse as is China – actually, we’re much more so, but then it becomes a competitive argument and Chinese people love to win. 🙂

When children point at you and say “Laowai! Laowai!” you can make them laugh if you look at them, act surprised, and say “Zhong guo ren!” (They’re saying “Foreigner, Foreigner!” and you’re saying “Chinese person!”) And never underestimate how much goodwill a friendly smile and “ni hao!” will get you. If you enter a private home, always greet everyone individually with “ni hao” and take off your shoes. When you leave, individually tell everyone either “bye bye” or “zai jian.”

In Shanghai, you’ll be ready for Mexican food. The only good Mexican food I have found in China is at a ridiculously expensive restaurant called Mi Tierra ( Don’t worry about the prices, just order from the menu and pay the bill when you get it. Everything is absolutely authentic. It would be a good Mexican restaurant in Mexico. Otherwise, Shanghai is a place where you can’t drink the water (it’ll give you instant diarrhea) but you still pay US prices or more for everything. It’s glitzy glamorous, China’s financial center and the most expensive place you’ll visit.

Beijing – it’s the capital. You should see this. The Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace are all tourist traps but you can’t really come to China without seeing them. Or maybe you can. It’s a city of contradictions, a microcosm of the entire country. Both ancient and modern, rich and poor, young and old, fast-paced and a place where you can know your neighbors. Beijing is the center of culture, learning, and government. You really feel like you’re in the middle of something incredible when you are here. I live in a neighborhood that looks like it belongs in a movie, and every day I wonder how it is that I could possibly live in such an amazing place. There is a temple a block away from my apartment that is over 800 years old. Hit me up if you make it here – if you do not bring bedbugs, you can have the guest room.

Enjoy your visit to my temporarily adopted home. China is an incredible place, and I hope you can both enjoy it and get as close to the culture as you can.

Work has been really intense for the past couple of months. So intense that I’ve worked every weekend and have even had to put Chinese lessons (which I absolutely need) on the back burner. Finally things calmed down enough to take a weekend off. I decided to get out of the country. That way I had a reasonable excuse for not going back into the office over the weekend (it turned out that I needed that excuse, but that’s a story that won’t get posted here).

So, I went to Seoul. By accident.

Over the past month, I’d been planning to visit Seoul and visit Helena Meyer-Knapp, one of my former college professors who has a post-doc fellowship at a university there. Her area of study is the development of peacemaking, something that is definitely top of mind for the leaders of the Republic of Korea. Since the end of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula has been divided under an uneasy truce into north and south, and is separated by a DMZ. In 2005 I visited the northern part, and was one of the first Americans to visit the DPRK (as North Korea calls itself–“Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”) as a tourist. It seemed only fitting to visit the DMZ with someone whose life’s work is dedicated to erasing it. And who better to explore Seoul with – Helena, although many years my senior, is one of my favorite people in the world.

There was only one problem. We had gone back and forth in email to plan dates but were thinking about different months. I ended up booking the wrong month, April instead of May. No matter, the trip is not overly expensive, so even though my tickets were fully refundable and changeable (there’s really no such thing as a non-refundable plane ticket in China) I opted to travel anyway. Why not? The weather forecast was miserable in Beijing and I really needed a break.

I left on Thursday night, and booked the last flight of the day, which is on Korean Air, arriving in Seoul at 12:10AM. I arrived two hours early at the airport prepared for a long wait through immigration (you have to stamp both into and out of China), but was pleasantly surprised at how little wait there was. This gave me time at the airport Starbucks to wrap-up last minute business using the free airport WiFi. You can’t use WiFi in China without registering, and there used to be a very complicated process where you had to find a kiosk (there are only a few in the airport), scan your passport (which often doesn’t work correctly), and then get a username and password. Fortunately it’s a lot easier now. You can just register with your mobile phone and the airport will text you a username and password.

The service on Korean Airlines was typical for an Asian airline. Even though it’s only a 2 hour flight, there was a full meal service, free alcohol, and duty free sales. It somewhat softened the blow of the $400 airfare (one of the consequences of every trip being full service and all tickets being refundable is that the prices are often higher than in the US for a similar distance). There was a little turbulence since it was stormy, but nothing major.

Seoul customs and immigration was breezily efficient, although they didn’t give me all the correct forms on the plane so I had to go fill out an extra form and was required to go to the back of the line to do this. The more developed the country you’re visiting, the more forms there are to fill out for Customs and the more questions they ask. I was prepared for a US-style hassle (the US, Canada and the UK have unfriendly and intrusive customs and immigration) due to the substantial US military presence in Korea and the large number of Americans there. However, I didn’t get stopped or even asked any questions.

Helena had earlier warned me that the airport shuts down at night, and I hadn’t reserved a room. I went out to the airport shuttle area and was delighted to discover that there was one shuttle left, which was going to an area roughly close to where the Renaissance was. I would have to take the bus to a different hotel, then take a taxi to the Renaissance. My reservation at the Renaissance wasn’t until Friday night (with a 2pm check-in time, not a 2am check-in time), but given the distance from the airport and the time the bus left, it would be nearly 3 in the morning when I arrived at the Renaissance. I figured I’d just ask how early I could check in. Hey, if you don’t ask, they can’t say “yes,” right?

I needed money for the airport bus, and there was no ATM near the bus station. I’m glad that I always bring along a few hundred US dollars for emergencies, because it turned out that they only way to quickly get Korean won for the bus was to exchange US dollars with the airport 7-11 at an unfavorable rate. $100 got me 100,000 won, so at the prevailing rate I paid about $7 for the privilege. Still, this is only about double what an ATM fee would have cost me, so it wasn’t too absurd a gouge. I should have paid more attention to where the ATMs were on my way out.

The airport bus costs 15,000 won (the won is a very low valued unit of currency, so you have to divide by 1,000 and subtract 5% to arrive at roughly the dollar conversion). It’s a long ride to the part of Seoul where the Renaissance is, but the driver told me where to get off. And so it was that I found myself sitting at a bus stop at 2 in the morning with a bunch of teenagers. I was so tired that my contact lenses were about to fall out, so I busied myself with taking them out. The kids ignored me. They were busily using a giant touch-screen display attached to the bus stop to flip through satellite view maps of Seoul, apparently trying to figure out their bus route. I just stood and watched, fascinated by the spectacle. South Korea is one of the most technically advanced societies on the planet, and is probably the most sophisticated at this point.

After a few minutes of standing around watching the kids (who pointedly ignored me – a huge difference from Beijing, where if I’d paid attention to anything that teenagers were doing, I’d be quickly surrounded by them trying to practice their conversational English) I decided to try to find something to eat. Since I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, there wasn’t any hurry to get to the Renaissance. Besides, the later I showed up, the more likely it was that they would let me check in early. I’d seen a 24 hour Internet cafe on the way to the bus stop, so I walked there through the rain. Walking inside, the owner was obviously asleep. One pasty-faced college student was absorbed in a game of World of Warcraft, and never even looked up. I felt bad waking up the owner, and didn’t really want to go online, so I walked back upstairs. Next door to the Internet cafe, there was a 24 hour restaurant. It looked like a greasy spoon, so I figured I’d give Korean food a try.

The waitress didn’t speak any English, and the menu was in Korean and didn’t have any pictures. Eventually, one of the patrons decided to help me. “This is a special restaurant, all the food is stewed pig’s guts.” When I said “Oh, like bacon?” he said “No, the other gut parts. It is very spicy and smelly, most foreigners do not like it.” His girlfriend, also an English speaker, nodded to indicate her concurrence. “The place next door has chicken, it is very good, many foreigners like Korean chicken.” I thanked him and left to go next door. Unfortunately, the restaurant had just closed, so no chicken for me.

To my surprise, as I was leaving, the friendly guy from the restaurant next door was coming in. “You are leaving?” he said. “It’s closed, but thank you anyway,” I told him. He asked the owner a question in animated Korean, nodded gravely, and said “They have closed.” Looking at my luggage, he said “Where do you stay?” “The Renaissance,” I told him. What the heck, he seemed friendly enough. “I’m not sure where it is, though. I just got here on the airport bus.” He replied “Oh, that is a very famous hotel, but it is not close to here. You had better take a taxi.” Having received the same advice from both this guy and the airport staff, I guessed I was probably going to end up in a taxi. “OK, thanks!” I said. “Do you know how much it should cost?” Crooked taxi drivers tend to overcharge me, so it’s always good to know what the price should be so I can argue it later. “Oh, very cheap, maybe 5,000 won,” he said while flagging down a cab. In Korean, he told the driver where I was going, shook my hand, and wished me a nice visit to Seoul.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So far, Seoul was making a pretty good one.

The taxi driver took me straight to the Renaissance. Unfortunately, I couldn’t check in early. “The check in time is 2pm. We can’t extend your stay, though, because it’s a full house tonight. You can check with the concierge for things to do, and we can keep your bags for you.” I didn’t particularly mind. “Extend your stay” is hotel doublespeak for “charge you for another night,” and the Renaissance is a 4 star hotel that I’d booked for $88 per night through Priceline. I doubted “extending” my stay would be an inexpensive proposition.

I dropped my bags with the concierge and asked for some advice, explaining that I was very tired but the Renaissance was full and I couldn’t check in. “Would you like to go to a sauna?” he asked. If I didn’t live in China, I wouldn’t have any idea what he was talking about. However, Korea has the same spa culture as China. There are expensive, luxurious and well-appointed spas that have sleeping areas. You can have a deep soaking bath, get a massage, and then have a rest for as long as you like (the price you pay allows a full day stay). Best of all, it’s cheap. I have never gone in China, but I’ve read about these and it seemed like a reasonable option. “Sure, I guess, if there’s nothing better that you can suggest,” I said. The concierge didn’t have any other ideas, since there just isn’t much open at 3 in the morning. He handed me a map, told me how to get there, and sent me on my way.

Unfortunately, the map was really confusing and it was all in Korean, a language that I don’t have any experience reading. I’m actually able to recognize Chinese characters now, but the Korean written language is called Hangul and it’s so different from Chinese that the characters all run together (this was the case for me with Chinese too until I started learning a few characters – now I can at least match characters on a sign to something in a book, etc.). Try as I might, I couldn’t find the spa. It was pouring rain and I was getting soaked, so I finally ducked into the lobby of a business hotel in an effort to find the place.

I was so tired that my first question was whether they had any rooms available. They didn’t, and had no idea where the spa I was looking for was located, but one of the hotel employees literally left his desk and walked  me to another one nearby (there are spas all over the place in Seoul). I was truly blown away with the kindness; I wasn’t a customer and would never be one – I’d expect an indifferent shrug or “mei you” in China, so it was a little overwhelming to have someone go completely out of his way just to be nice. The spa wasn’t at all luxuriously appointed, but it wasn’t bad and was pretty cheap at about $10. It seemed like the kind of place that would attract students or recent graduates. The spa was very clean, though, and I fell asleep on a cheap plastic lounge chair next to the pool. For a few hours, it was quiet enough to sleep (not comfortably, but I didn’t especially care). Unfortunately around 6 in the morning some guy with a terrible cough started hacking up nasty chunks of phlegm and spitting them on the ground. This seems to be a less common habit in Korea than in China, but it’s still considered socially acceptable here. I tried to go back to sleep, but he just kept coughing, the lounge chair was uncomfortable anyway, and it was clearly time to wake up.

Now, here I am in a bathhouse full of nude and half-nude Korean guys, and I think Korean guys (unlike Chinese guys) are attractive, and this early in the morning they were almost all (except for Phlegm Dude) young and in really good shape. I’d never been in a bathhouse before, and I’ll probably never go again. Ron Jeremy thinks of disgusting things when he’s trying to avoid having an orgasm. “Korean dog meat soup, dog butcher, dead dogs” I thought, trying, erm, “hard” to keep blood from flowing to certain parts of my anatomy. If you need advice on control, take it from Ron Jeremy; it works. I got up and got the hell out of there as quickly as possible.

I’m going to leave Guizhou and Spring Festival for a moment to talk about other things. I haven’t finished writing about my Guizhou trip; I have lots of notes and pictures but the trip got pretty intense and I couldn’t write in as much detail as I wanted. I will finish the series, but it’s going to take a few days of writing and I haven’t had the few days because of my work schedule getting so intense.

I’ll pick up the series again when I have more content to post.

Another late morning, starting a little before noon this time. I woke up before Johnson, making my way downstairs for coffee. A bleary-eyed Johnson followed a few minutes later. “Whiskey is very good sleeping pill!” he accurately proclaimed. We’d decided to try to have American breakfast today, so I showed him the wonders of coffee, orange juice and Frosted Flakes. Chinese people tend to eat much more substantial breakfasts (a characteristic shared with Japanese and Korean people) so he was surprised at how relatively little Americans eat in the morning.

Breakfast turned into brunch, Johnson’s uncle inviting us along to the family’s favorite beef noodle soup place. It’s an unassuming place that I would have never found, jammed with people occupying every square inch of the place. The restaurant was so busy that it was impossible for us to sit together, sitting wherever we could. Seating is cafeteria style – you just grab a spot and chow down. The noodle shop sells only one kind of soup in only two sizes, large and enormous. I got the large. The soup is very cheap, costing around $1, and consists of rice noodles around the thickness of spaghetti mixed with thinly sliced beef steak and topped with a hard boiled egg. There is a giant bowl of peppers and spices on each table, along with tea kettles full of soy sauce and Chinese vinegar, and you can add as much as you want. There are no spoons, only a pair of chopsticks. You don’t eat soup the same way here – you’re supposed to eat the solid things out of it with chopsticks, and then drink the broth. Broth is almost universally thin and oily. Still, the soup was very good. It reminded me of Vietnamese pho, which perhaps isn’t all that surprising – Guizhou borders Vietnam. I was dining with Johnson’s 10 year old cousin, and was very happy that my Chinese was good enough to ask her whether she wanted my egg. It turns out she loves eggs, so was happy to eat it.

After brunch, we took a minibus taxi to Qingyan, a traditional walled city about 30km from Guiyang. This is mostly a tourist trap, but it’s free to go inside and is really fun to see. The buildings are all hundreds of years old, some up to 400 years old, and the whole thing looks a lot like my hutong neighborhood. Shops sold all sorts of interesting snacks, and I got to try sesame desserts. Johnson’s uncle bought a bottle of bai jiu that was flavored something like lemonade (think of it as a Chinese version nof Mike’s Hard Lemonade), encouraging me to drink it on the spot but me wisely deferring. Eventually we made our way up to the old city wall, where we could admire the view of the countryside in between explosions. Even though we were well into the Chinese New Year, the fireworks weren’t over – I was informed that they continue for the entire week of Spring Festival.

Back into Qingyan, sampling candies and snacks as I imagine is probably usual when traveling with two girls aged 10 and 16. Candies aren’t as sweet in China (ice cream being the only thing with the same relative level of sweetness), but my palate has adjusted and they taste mostly sweet now. Johnson described the historical sites and explained the inscriptions on various buildings, gates and even a gravestone. Qingyan is clearly a popular place for Chinese people to visit – the whole place was packed like a high school hallway right after the lunch bell. Eventually the crowds were too much even for my hosts and we escaped back to the normal level of Chinese crowded.

We caught a minibus back to town, and Johnson’s uncle took us to a place called Snack Town. It’s a covered but open air market full of stalls selling street snacks. The first place we stopped was a Si Wa Wa store. This is a special dish only made in Guiyang. You start with very thin rice pancakes, pile as many fillings as you want on them (different kinds of vegetables, dried meat resembling bacon bits, and a few kinds of herbs), fold the bottom, pour in some hot sauce, and then – before the hot sauce runs out of the bottom and covers your hand – eat it quickly! These were really good, a perfect complement to the noodle soup we ate earlier. Johnson’s uncle poured some of the drink he’d bought in Qingyan, and while I was bracing myself for the evil taste of Chinese rice wine, it actually wasn’t half bad. We scarfed Si Wa Wa and slammed down shots of hardcore booze, sending the 10 year old and 16 year old girls to buy us beer, which they were able to do with no questions or problems. Ah, China.

After I was stuffed, I thought it was time to leave – but no! Johnson’s uncle and cousins were just warming up. We next went to a small booth that made a potato cake dish, which you could dip in ground cumin and peppers. This wasn’t all that interesting, but then the stench hit me – stinky tofu. The 10 year old grinned at me, seeing my pain. She loved stinky tofu and her uncle liked it too, so he was only too happy to indulge. Noticing my discomfort, Johnson recommended that I move upwind, which I was happy to do. Some Chinese dishes are just too special for Westerners, and stinky tofu is one of them.

A couple of other dishes came together – I don’t remember all of them, but sampled most of them and plenty of Moutai beer. After we had plenty to eat and drink, we went back to the house. It was time for fireworks! Johnson brought out the biggest Roman candles I’ve ever seen, me videotaping the fireballs that might possibly have violated commercial airspace and the kids giggling while lighting sparklers and the occasional cherry bomb. By the time everything was burned up, we were tired – we had an early morning planned the following day, so it was time for bed.

We all woke up really late, rolling out of bed around noon. None of us really had much on the agenda, so after a breakfast of coffee, fermented rice soup and rice balls filled with sweet red bean paste, we decided to survey the mayhem. Johnson wanted to show me some of the city, so we headed downtown on a minibus. These are technically taxis (although if you want to get really technical they’re illegal taxis), but operate along more or less fixed routes like buses. The difference is that you can stop or board anywhere along the route, and they are very cheap (only 2 yuan, about 30 cents). This seems to be one of the fastest and most popular ways to travel around Guiyang. We walked around the city, a place definitely not as developed as Beijing or Shanghai. Most stores and businesses were closed, and even though it was a crowded central part of the city, people were still setting off firecrackers and lighting smoke bombs everywhere. A thick and sulfurous haze choked the city, not leftovers from the night before, but smoke from the thousands of simultaneous explosions that continued to blanket the city.

There is a very famous temple in downtown Guiyang, which sits adjacent to the river. We walked through it and the adjacent park, explosions ringing in the distance, but it was peaceful compared to the rest of Guiyang. Somehow Johnson managed to lose his glasses and we couldn’t find them. Fortunately, new ones are cheap in Guiyang.

The temple was close to Wal-Mart, so we stopped in afterwards. Since Johnson’s uncle and father had been gracious enough to introduce me to the local bai jiu (rice wine), I was eager to reciprocate. Fortunately Wal-Mart had a high-end bottle of Jim Beam Reserve (it looked suspicious but turned out to be real), so I picked that up along with a few cans of Pepsi. While we were at it, we also picked up some American breakfast food – orange juice, cereal and milk. I also bought a block of extra sharp cheddar cheese – this is something not used in Chinese cooking, so I was curious to find out whether Johnson liked it. I also checked whether there was a wireless access point (since there wasn’t wireless Internet at Johnson’s house) and picked up a couple of telephone accessories so it would be possible to go online and use the phone at the same time.

By the time we got done, it was dark and time to return to the house. We caught a minibus taxi to a place a block away from the house, and arrived in time for dinner. Both of Johnson’s aunts had painstakingly prepared a very special Chinese New Year dinner of many Guizhou specialty dishes. Guizhou food is very different than Beijing food, and I was delighted by the different tastes. The whiskey came out and we kicked back many toasts – there are an endless series of things to toast in China, especially on Chinese New Year. Long life, prosperity, happiness, and grandparents – Johnson’s grandparents have been married for nearly fifty years. I knocked back shots with Johnson’s uncle – we became very friendly, and Johnson cut his whiskey with green tea. Later, he added Pepsi, which helped to take the edge off. Afterward, the family sat together in the living room watching New Years variety show specials. I had a little trouble following what was going on, and don’t really enjoy variety shows anyway (whether in the US or China) so jumped online. The next couple of hours went by fast, catching up on email and going through pictures.

All too soon, it was 2 in the morning – bedtime! I went upstairs and crashed hard.

It was a busy last day at the office, so I didn’t have a lot of time to pack the night before my flight. No worries – my first flight wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon. There were a few logistical details to work out with Air China, though, so my first call was to them. They have an English customer service line, and much to my surprise, I reached someone who was able to answer my questions right away. I just didn’t like the answers.

No, I could not bring a bottle of cough syrup on board unless it was under 100ml – there was no medicine exception to the airline liquids ban in China. No, Air China didn’t have a baggage agreement with Hainan Airlines, so I would have to claim and re-check my bags in Guangzhou. No, I could not check in with Hainan at Beijing, I would need to check in at Guangzhou. Yes, 2 hours was enough time to accomplish all of this. If my flights weren’t on time, maybe it was enough time to accomplish all of this. Confidence-inspiring to be sure.

I packed, and was running a little late but not perilously late so decided to take a cab to the airport. The highways were surprisingly clear, most Spring Festival travelers having left Beijing for their home cities already. The efficient Beijing cab driver made it to the airport in record time, 20 minutes. I was really happy that my Chinese was good enough to tell the driver which terminal, which was always a problem when taking cabs to the airport previously.

At the airport, I checked in with Air China, double-checking that I wasn’t able to check my bags through to Guiyang. I saw having a checked bag as the highest risk – 2 hours is sometimes a tight connection anyway (if a terminal change is required or the connecting flight is delayed), let alone having to claim a bag – with its attendant inconveniences – and check it back in.

My flight left on time, but air traffic was heavy so it took about a half hour to get off the ground. Once we were up in the air, it was clear that we’d be about 30 minutes late into Guangzhou if we didn’t have to circle the airport there. The flight was relatively uneventful, and to my surprise, it wasn’t full. We landed in Guangzhou without inbound air traffic delays, although there was an extended taxi to the terminal due to the sheer size of the Guangzhou airport. It’s enormous.

Upon arrival, I first headed to the transfer desk. Check-in closes 45 minutes prior to departure for domestic flights, so I wanted to be sure I was checked in for my onward flight even if I was late to check in my bags (I figured I’d be in a stronger negotiating position if I had a boarding pass). The agent didn’t speak any English, but when I pulled out my passport and said “piao,” Chinese for “ticket,” she figured out what I wanted and issued my boarding pass. It was the worst seat in the plane, a middle seat all the way in the back, but there wasn’t any arguing the point and at least it was a seat.

Next, it was time to claim my bags. Amazingly, my bag was one of the first off the plane, so I grabbed it quickly and made my way through the cavernous terminal. Guangzhou has an enormous airport, maybe even bigger than Beijing (although as Asia’s busiest airport, it’s hard to believe it is possible to be bigger than Beijing Capital International Airport). The check-in desks are organized alphabetically, seemingly every letter of the alphabet, and I really hoped that a terminal change wouldn’t be required. Finding an information desk, I asked where to check in for Hainan Airlines, and the agent told me which desk – fortunately, it was in the same terminal, although it was several football fields away. Looking at my watch, I was OK for time – barely. I made my way quickly to the check-in counter, dropped off my bag and was issued a claim check (with surprisingly little trouble), and then I made my way through security.

Friendly, efficient and very thorough security in Guangzhou, just like Beijing. I think Chinese people would never put up with the level of abuse that Americans suffer under the TSA, and for all this abuse, I often get things through American security that I shouldn’t, and I have never been able to get anything through Chinese security that I shouldn’t. Perhaps courtesy leads to better security? A long walk (many more football fields) and I arrived at the gate in time for my flight to board. I shot off a quick text to Johnson once I was onboard to let him know I made it on the plane, and was even lucky enough to switch seats with a family wanting to sit together (still a middle seat, but at least not a non-reclining middle seat in the back of the plane). A quick, easy flight to Guiyang, and we arrived on time. Johnson greeted me after claiming my bag, and we went to his father’s car which was waiting in the parking lot. A drive on the bumpy roads across town to pick up some other family members, stuffing 6 people into a small Ford, and we arrived at Johnson’s family apartment.

Johnson’s father is a motor oil and lubricants distributor in Guiyang, and his business is obviously successful because he owns a 12 bedroom home. Like many Chinese families, the extended family lives under one roof – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children. The home is new, though, and everyone still owns their own apartments, splitting their time between the house and their apartments. We started at Johnson’s family apartment, a delicious home-cooked dinner my introduction to Guiyang. As midnight neared the fireworks intensified, and finally, I asked with some insistence to see what was going on outside. It was incredible, sheer mayhem, perhaps like Beirut during the civil war. An incredible cacophony of military-grade fireworks turned the sky into brilliant shades of purple, orange, green and red. All around, firecrackers exploded, rolls and rolls of M-80s and bigger. Occasionally, loud explosions in the distance rocked the city, echoing down the canyon-like streets. Someone across the street hurled what looked like a grenade in our general direction, and it exploded with a fury that reminded me of the admonition of mothers everywhere on the Fourth of July, “be careful of that thing, it could take your eye out!” No matter. Fires burned on the streets, explosions rocked the city and we were both so busy dodging Roman candle flares that any worries of safety were far out of my mind. Survival was the more salient question, the remains of mortars raining from the sky. Hunter S. Thompson couldn’t have imagined such a scene with the benefit of a suitcase full of drugs, and this was real, baby!

Guiyang has a reputation for its fireworks affinity. Nobody warned me about the car bombs, mortars and grenades.

Eventually, somehow, we made our way back to the apartment. After sheltering in place for a couple of hours (if I hadn’t been so fascinated by the apocalypse I’d have been tempted to hide under the living room table with the cat), Johnson decided it was safe to brave the streets. A 20 minute walk later, after dodging only a few anti-tank rounds, we arrived at his family home. It was fairly late, but there was still time to meet the entire family. Good conversation (with Johnson translating) and more to eat, and around three in the morning it was finally time to retire.

Chinese beds are basically a sheet of plywood with a thin sheet on top, and in Guiyang, there is no central heating. It was so cold upstairs you can see your breath. “It’s like camping!” I thought, and it was really easy to get to sleep. I must miss the outdoors.

Imagine traveling on one of the busiest travel days of the year – say, the day before Christmas or the day before Thanksgiving. Now imagine doing this in China, a country with a still developing infrastructure and very different ways of doing business. And then throw in the complexity of having booked the entire trip through US Airways, an airline that was technically in charge of making any changes that might be necessary, but an airline which had no ability to even so much as call Air China (the operating carrier). I knew I was setting myself up for trouble, but I’m a pretty experienced air traveler and figured I’d be able to make it all work. I did, with a stroke of luck, and I’m writing this on the final leg of my trip to Guiyang.

Chinese New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in China. Annually, it results in the world’s largest human migration, called Chun Yun, literally hundreds of millions of people traveling any way they can from China’s large coastal cities back to their hometowns. My friend Johnson invited me to visit his hometown, Guiyang, for the Spring Festival break. My employer follows the official government holiday calendar, which this year allowed me 7 consecutive days off (the 2nd through the 8th). Predictably, the airlines listened to Buzz Lightyear when setting prices – “To infinity and beyond!” So, I called US Airways to try my luck. I had a little more than 25,000 miles with them, theoretically enough for a free domestic US ticket, but seemingly impossible to redeem (25,000 is the “saver” award category which, as best I can tell, is only valid for flights to Anchorage in February). However, US Airways is a partner of Air China, and 25,000 miles is also good for a Chinese domestic ticket on Air China. Best of all, there are no award categories (peak, saver, etc.) on Air China, so 25,000 miles gives you access to all of Air China’s award inventory. Still, I knew it was a tall order finding free tickets during Spring Festival.

I researched all of the possible routes to get to Guiyang from Beijing on Air China. International airlines often only quote point-to-point routes to their American partners, and while it’s legal under the rules to build a trip one leg at a time using connecting flights, the system won’t automatically find these itineraries. So, you have to do a little legwork in advance if you want to redeem a ticket. I’m used to this, and it’s good that I did my homework – when redeeming US Airways miles on Air China, this is exactly how it works. I called and was very surprised to reach an agent who seemed to love her job, and was happy to search every connecting flight I gave her (maybe the high unemployment rate in the US is having a benefit of keeping around better help). The direct flights from Beijing to Guiyang were not available (unsurprisingly), but she found a flight through Guangzhou on the 2nd. We searched and searched different options and itineraries, but there was no way back on the 8th. The best she could do was get me to Shenzhen on the 8th, and then back to Beijing from Hong Kong on the 9th. No problem, that was fine with me, I’d just turn my return journey into a shopping trip. “Yes, I’d like to bo…,” I said…

…and then the phone went dead. China is still a developing country, and the Internet is not always reliable. I use a MagicJack for my calls back to the US, but it runs over a Chinese Internet connection and sometimes (although rarely) the connection drops unexpectedly. I was tempted to curse and scream and throw the phone, but I patiently waited for the Internet connection to reset and called US Airways again. Amazingly, I reached another agent who was able to pick up right where the previous one left off, booking my trip in no time. I’m still happy to have cleaned out my account with US Airways and there’s no way that I’ll go back to flying them (I think they are the worst, meanest, nastiest airline in the US), but in the end, my miles turned into something of value. All it cost was a $50 booking fee (this fee being one of the things that makes US Airways Dividend Miles the worst frequent flier program in America) and about $30 in airport taxes. Unbelievable.

Well, of course some things are too good to be true. Two days before my flight, I received a vauge voicemail from US Airways. “It looks like Air China has canceled some of your flights, and moved around some of the other ones – if you give us a call, we can try to protect your original itinerary.” So, I called US Airways. It turned out that Air China cancelled my flight from Guangzhou to Guiyang on February 2nd, and had rebooked me on a flight the following evening leaving Guangzhou – and leaving me alone in Guangzhou to ring in Chinese new year. Not quite what I had in mind. Unfortunately, US Airways could only rebook me to other available Air China award inventory, and predictably, there wasn’t any. They also didn’t have any way to even so much as call Air China. The StarAlliance relationship is relatively new to Air China, and US Airways isn’t interconnected with their systems the same way they are connected to Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, United and others. All US Airways could offer was to re-deposit my miles without charging a redeposit fee, and refund the taxes. However, I wouldn’t get the $50 booking fee back.

It was time to take matters into my own hands. I planned to take a quick weekend trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai the following day, so when I arrived back at the Beijing airport after the trip, I approached the Air China desk. Predictably, the agent shrugged his shoulders with disinterest and said “why don’t you just go the next day?” I explained that I planned to visit my Chinese friends for Chinese New Year, and they would be very disappointed if I could not come. He raised his eyebrows, his attitude changed immediately (much to my surprise), and he set to work on his computer searching for a way to rebook me. Everywhere he ran into a dead end. Eventually, he summoned his supervisor, a severe-looking woman wearing a Communist Party pin over her heart. “You cannot change your routing, it is not allowed,” she snapped. “And there are no other Air China flights.” The agent I’d been working with leaned over to her and said something in Chinese, and she stared at me. “You visit Chinese friends in Guiyang?” “Dui,” I replied, saying ‘yes’ in Chinese. “Please wait a moment,” she said, picking up the phone. Some hushed words, a few mentions of “laowai” (which usually isn’t a good thing), a few more steely glances in my direction, and she turned back to me. “We will not change your flight directly from Beijing,” she said. “You must change planes in Guangzhou to Hainan Airlines. Your new flight leaves at the same time as your original schedule.” Whipping out a triplicate form labeled FLIGHT INTERRUPTION MANIFEST in both English and Chinese, she painstakingly completed my new flight details. Tearing off the top form, handing it to me, and scowling, she said “This is your ticket. Do not lose it. It cannot be replaced. You must give it to Hainan Airlines in Guangzhou.” Turning to an ancient dot matrix printer which had been clattering away in the background, she then tore off a piece of paper and handed it to me. “This is your new flight schedule. You must take these flights.” And then–completely unexpectedly–her face broke into a warm smile. “Happy new year,” she said.

Sometimes things completely fall apart only to fall together again. This time, the travel gods were smiling on me. Next stop, Guiyang!

I don’t know how I ended up in a Tijuana gutter half filled with raw sewage, but I was missing my shoes, my pants, and (of course) my wallet. It was six in the morning, the sun rising and roosters crowing in bedraggled yards of bullet-pocked houses. As I touched my forehead and pulled my hand back yelping in pain from the raw open wound–maybe it was from a crowbar, maybe something else–I saw him. La Policia, stepping out of a cruiser, and he did not look amused. Just then, you showed up, pulled me from the gutter, and shoved us both into a taxi. “La frontera,” you said, just as the cops started a gun battle with someone in a black SUV.

Cake, you quite possibly saved my life, and I didn’t even know you.

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