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Friday, May 01, 2009

China Day 3 and 4

March 15th - Arrive around 1pm - 2 hour train to Nanjing
Nanjing - Castle Bar - 6pm sound check / 9pm show
March 16th - Morning do a little sightseeing
Evening take the overnight train to Beijing
March 17th - Morning sightseeing - Forbidden City, Tiananmen
Beijing - Yugong Yishan - 6pm sound check / 9pm show
March 18th - Afternoon leave for an overnight train to Wuhan
March 19th - Morning - Wuhan sightseeing, etc...
Wuhan - Vox Bar - 6pm soundcheck / 9pm show
March 20th - Morning - train to Changsha (Chairman Mao's hometown)
Changsha - 4698 Bar - 6pm soundcheck / 9pm show
March 21st - Morning - flight to Shanghai
Afternoon - sighseeing
Shanghai - Logo - 8pm soundcheck / 12am show

We wake up on the train all thinking its like 11am and like every other day on tour, we've slept in and miss our chance to go to a record store and Whole Foods before we get on the road, and then the music kicks in and we remember we're still in China and even though the sun is streaming through all the train windows and there are men drinking thermoses full of herbs and hot water and playing weird cards and looking surly, its only 6am and we're just closing in on the suburbs of Beijing. The music from the night before sounds a bit more exciting this morning because we're starting to pass communist architecture and peasants toiling in the fields and generally being more Chinese than we'd witnessed before on this trip. The more weakminded of us almost convert on the spot, right in the crammed hallway of the train.

The suburbs of Beijing aren't like Oakville. We see mostly farms with periodic cement villiages, a real dusty scene. As we close in on the city it just gets hazier to the point where it's like a fog when we get off the train. The station here is massive in a way the other's haven't been. We happily trudge through the underground tunnels that take us to the road in crowds of hundreds or thousands. The hallways are as big as highways and are filled with people who seemingly were all also somehow crammed into our train, but for the first time on the trip we start to get the sense of China we had all envisioned before we got here, the stereotypical crowds, the smog, the communism. We get out of the station and see our first traffic jams..then sit in one for an hour. More than 15 million people live here and we're getting to know a lot of them off the bat.

We get another ok hotel just off one of the main tourist shopping streets. Later we'd find a lot of guitar stores with brands we've never heard of, equivalent weird streetwear clothing stores, lots of shops with Japanese style toys and other brick-a-brack. The first thing we do is eat after we drop off our bags. They eat buns and meat and I eat what I've been craving after for a few weeks - whole wheat bread with butter that I buy from the fancy bakery next to our place.

Then we're off to the Lame temple to get some mind sense. Abe knows how much we are into religion generally, and Confucianism specifically so we're hitting as many temples and Buddha statues as we can. This one has one of the biggest in the world. It's a giant 3-storey statue carved from one piece of sandalwood. I'm a hippie and a punk so I figure it would have been more impressive just as a piece of wood, because it still would have been pretty big. Also I think this one is wearing lipstick or something, and has a lot of colourful sashays bandied around its sandalwood carved body. It looks pretty peaceful though, maybe because it's crammed into a really tiny dark room and people are giving it fruit all day and it can't tell how smoggy it is outside. We go buy Cokes and popsickles and head to the next place.

Which turns out is really cool. We learn that Beijing is laid out sensibly. The Forbidden City is generally in the middle, flanked on all sides by other sites of interest. The new stuff, like the Olympic Village and the Gibson Guitar office, and out on the fringes and are impossible to get to. More on that later. But this afternoon we're going to one of the subsidiary sites, the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, which are situated a few kilometers directly north of the Forbidden City. The drum tower is closed, but would offer a sick view of the south if you could get up there. We take the steepest stairs I've ever traversed in my life to get to the top of the Bell tower, which are worn out from thousands of visitors over hundreds of years and it ends up feeling like we're trying to walk up a thousand year old tilted set of ivory piano keys, which actually sounds kind of steam so we just try not to think about it. Once we're up there there is this giant bell and a lot of plaques trying to explain the convoluted story of its origins. Apparently there was a lot of honour involved as well as a princess sacrificing herself, but in the end a wiseman that knew it would work all along, and in then as a result a giant bell got made. And it is really big. One of the plaques I think said you could cook like 50 soups inside of it, which is what it was used for for the first 300 years.

From there we meander back to the hotel to get ready for the show. It's at a pretty big club. The walk from the hotel takes like 4 hours, and we've got our instruments slung over our shoulders so it's even more brutal. We soundcheck and go eat again. There's a street near the venue with lots red lights so we go there. The meal consists mostly of fried bees and Sprite. We head back to the show really late and a cool band is playing. We play at like 2am and there are a lot of people there from all over the world it seems. Ben makes friends with some traveling artists from Denmark or Finland. I take a cab home and fall asleep.


The hotel has no windows or noise so I wake up at some point and have no idea what time it is. Me and Abe visit the supermarket next door. In China you can find endless bins of different kinds of pickled plums, but not much cheese. I get the kind with the happy cow on the front. We round everyone else up and make our way to Tiennamen Square. We take two cabs again, and there is always the risk that we'll just get seperated and lost. This time the ride is kind of long as the route snakes around the end of the Forbidden City. As soon as we see one big brick wall we think we're right outside. After 15 minutes of driving around it the driver drops us off at a tourist taxi depot, and we're not sure where we are. It's smoggy and there are lots of people around, and there is a vaguely squarish structure next to us but we still can't be sure. We wait around for 20 minutes for the other cab but it doesn't come. Damian immediately gets hustled for a $5 Mao watch that doesn't work. We decide to just look around on our own and walk north towards the buildings. Turns out we were in the square after all, which is just south of the Forbidden City. On all sides are massive buildings, cultural museums, Kentucky Fried Chickens, Maos Tomb, ect. To get inside the actual square you need to go through military checkpoints, just tents with guards. The hustlers are more annoying. We walk through the big wall that seperates the square from the City and every few feet of the bridge there is what we think are plain clothes officers, except these ones look like 15 year old pissed off Chinese kids wearing fake Gucci sweatshirts armed only with fire extinguishers placed a few feet from them on the ground. Kind of surreal to imagine what would call them into duty, and what they would end up doing. Once we're inside a hundred people immediately ask us if we need an English tour guide. We kind of do, but say no anyhow. Plus we're busy looking for a payphone to call Abe to find out where they went. Damian finds one inside but its on the other side of a fence thats being looked after by a military guard. We keep walking north through various levels of gates and walls and borders but never actually make it inside the actual city. We double back through the tunnels. You can't cross the streets on ground level since the streets around here are so massive, so you use tunnels. Inside there are more guards and checkpoints and we catch glimpses of open doors in the walls, which reveal even crazier smaller tube-style tunnels that I guess weave underneath the square for who knows what. I buy a popsicle and the lady tries to make me buy 10 at once, which I try to explain I have no use for.

We've been milling around this area for almost 3 hours and we're tired and hungry and can't see anything and still have no word from the others or how we're going to get back to the hotel. We didn't really see anything we were trying to see this afternoon but we just want to get out of there. We get to the final gate to enter the city but we've all run out of money and there isn't an ATM machine for 20 miles so we just fuck it and turn back. On the south side of the square we try to call them from a hotel payphone, which doesn't work, a regular payphone, which you need a phone card to use, and eventually get through to Abe from a phone inside an alley that costs 30 cents to use. Damian later makes me pay him back for my share of the call. Abe is at a job interview and doesn't really know where the others are. We find a cab and double back to the hotel.

From there we find everyone else and we get back in a cab to go to the Birds Nest, which is what they call the stadium built for the olympics, because it looks like a birds nest. It's in a really brutal area, sort of off the side of a highway straight north of where we just were. We take a mentally vexing subway ride there and have to walk for 20 minutes through the haze. We have to push our way out of the train. I buy a slice of pineapple that tastes like soot and bum out. All the pictures you see of this place on postcards and websites we're convinced must be photoshopped, because standing right next to the thing all you can see is the haze. We realize we haven't seen a clear sky since we got here. The building itself is quite impressive and looks like it was wisked together by some giant steel baker, but sits in the middle of this really depressing potemkin park, with a dried out river, trash everywhere and brown grass. There are left over snack areas manned by people who look like they are still there because no one told them the olympics are over. It's a bit out of the way so it's kind of empty and just looks dismal. Which is a shame, because the two buildings here, the birdnest and the pool building next to it really are feats of modern engineering and among the most interesting public buildings in the world but within the context of their surroundings just look dismal and oppressive. Just west of the stadium is a long public road that seems to stretch out forever in either direction and is full of people selling crystals and kites. The whole area just reminds of us Scarborough.

We get back to the hotel in time to jump into another set of taxis and take the long ride to another huge train station to catch our train to Wuhan. At night the smog comes in handy because cities here are lit up like no other and the haze gives the light a cinematic quality that makes everything seem a but more surreal and fantastic. The station we're at is the biggest one I've ever seen and is flanked by hotels that take up entire city blocks and have makeshift temple structures on the roofs that try to push light through the soot and have it just hang there and glow. The second cab is late again but this time it only takes ten minutes to meet up. It's dark and we're ready to go.


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