Beijing in 20 hours

Feb. 13, 2012

It’s a little before 7am and I’m at the airport, eating Popeye’s on a meal voucher the airline gave me because our flight was delayed by two hours. I’ll still make it to the North Korean tour briefing, but I have to tell Riley Gardner (my cousin Elya’s best friend) to expect me later than we’d discussed.

Took a very expensive cab ride over to the airport, which I will never do again. While I’m in Hong Kong, need to make a few purchases, particularly a two round-pin adapter to charge my camera with in Pyongyang.

Beijing street. Happy Valentine’s!


I am in Beijing, in a coffee shop called Tigris, getting my bearings. The briefing at Koryo just wrapped up and I’m sort of freaking out that this is really happening. I got in around 3pm — massively late — but managed to make it to the tour agency’s office.

I called Riley from the airport using an IC card (pretty nifty, 100 yuan) and he seemed like he had his hands full, so I’m going to preoccupy myself after this cafe stop by running around Beijing with my carry-on luggage, looking for a payphone so I can check with Riley again after a few hours.

I got lost at Terminal 2 shortly after I arrived and even eked out a few Mandarin words, though the conversation ended badly:

Me: Doi buxi, tsing wen… ho che tsan? (Excuse me, I’d like to ask… train station?)

Dude: Ho che! [Something, probably along the lines of, ‘Where are you going?’]

Me: [Blank stare] Sorry…

Dude: [Look of total annoyance]

Me: Xie xie ni! (Thank you!) [Runs away]

But I found the Airport Express train (25 yuan to Dongzhimen Station) and was even assisted with my luggage by a young Chinese man with a small scar on his cheek.

About half an hour later, I made it to Dongzhimen, found the exit and hailed who I thought was a cabbie but turned out to be a rickshaw driver. Thus I was pedaled to Yashow Market, freezing my butt off in Beijing’s chilly air (there is fog!) but people say this is warm for the capital’s standards. Sucks to grow up in tropical countries.

While inside Koryo’s office, which is warm and wood-paneled, filled with tons of souvenirs (including oil paintings of DPRK propaganda posters), listening to Hannah go over the tour notes again, I sort of saw my fingers turn blue after I took off my sheepskin gloves.

I was worried my feet would be the same shade in North Korea if I went with those riding boots, so I resolved to buy warmer, more comfortable Uggs at the bazaar in Yashow. The chipper saleslady (as a standard sales pitch, really. I am not special.) gave me a “discount” because, as she explained, I “looked like” her. Thank god Amanda and Paloma gave me wool socks.

My first Beijing rickshaw ride (50 yuan). Overpriced.

There are a lot of us on this tour, all expats and some very good-looking. Nick, one of the Koryo staff, said I was one of the few people from the Philippines to go on this trip. But he says I look Chinese, so the North Koreans will just be surprised I can speak English.

Anyway, I think I’m too tired and pressed for time to explore Beijing, which is so very clean and serene. At this moment, it is all sort of yellow hues and bare trees that stick out into the sky like TV antennas. It’s also so despairingly cold.

Street near Yashow.


Am at Riley’s old apartment (14th floor has hookers!), which is so Hong Kong given the fact it’s kind of run-down but workable. He’s at his desk doing a couple of work calls and e-mails for his 3D animation hardware company, in which he is the only White person, and hence the only foreign face (only face, actually) of the firm.

He just took me out to dinner at Quan Ju De, which was a pretty spacious restaurant that served FANTASTIC roast duck, which a chef sliced in front us. A friendly waitress put the slices of juicy meat lined with crispy brown skin into a thin crepe-like wrapper and rolled it in plum paste and thinly-sliced cucumbers.

I’m glad we had good conversation and closed off that section of the resto. Riley insisted on paying for everything since he says he’s indebted to my family for force-feeding him and Vince during their visit to the Philippines in 2008.

Which is good because Beijing has totally fucked me over in terms of transport. After picking up my carry-on from Koryo’s office and calling Riley on their phone to set up a time to meet him, I wandered into a neighborhood that in the evening suddenly turned posh and modern (with neon lights and well-dressed mainlanders) that in the morning had seemed washed-out and droll.

I took a motorized rickshaw to Singyuanqian, aiming for the subway station (die tieng) but the bewildered, pot-bellied driver went in circles. His rickshaw had a red curtain on the front to protect passengers from the bitter cold and the horrific sight of the driver playing chicken with cars. Riley says he never takes rickshaws.

The driver charged me 200 yuan for his poor effort.  He brought me to the wrong station, too, and I wandered around lost until this nice young lady came and sort of followed me/ guided me back to Exit B, then she brought out her iPhone and called Riley, who speaks fluent Mandarin.

So we arranged to meet in front of the Westin hotel. Riley picked me up after he came from the office. We walked to that duck restaurant. Then after his old hovel, we went to his other apartment (much more beautiful and sexy), which had a great view.

I was tired but agreed to go out for beers with him at a local joint, which played hoedown music and had a vodka bottle stuck down the girl’s toilet, about 10 minutes’ walk away. We had a blast just talking. He got a giant glass of Hoegaarden, which the waitress said was “just the same size” as my obviously much smaller draft of Guinness.

We planned a massage after beers, but the only places open were Happy Ending ones, and we were tired anyway. I felt like major crap and my hair was just a mangled mess, so I was glad when he turned off the nature documentary on his giant flatscreen and turned off his mood lights, and we both slept.

Feb. 14, 2012

Riley and I woke up at 7.30am and each showered and groomed. When I walked into the room, he was in his suit and staring into his lap, against the pale grey sky outside and he said, “I wish I could just go back to bed and sleep all day.” He was going to South Korea that day. I to the North.

We walked out, suitcases in tow, and I liked how warm his place was. When we went out the glass doors of the lobby, a cold east wind punched us in the face and I worried at my capacity to endure Pyongyang’s cold. We stood on the sidewalk for awhile, as Riley explained how taxis get scarce on cold days.

Beijing’s “black eye”: Chinese Central TV headquarters. It’s a structural marvel that’s yet unfinished, set back when the building it was leaning on burned down.

Then this guy in a Lexus (or some other nice car) rolled down his window and stared at us. He offered us a ride for 40 yuan and Riley said these were “black taxis,” illegal but common. They’re just dudes with cars who ride around and want to earn extra cash.

I got dropped off across the street from Yashow, hugged Riley goodbye and began my long trek to Pyongyang.


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