The Yen Yuan Eagles

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe left Capital Airport and instead of a city decrepit with age and neglect, we found ourselves subjected to eight lane freeways with expensive, late model vehicles from Europe and Japan. Not even one older-model car could be seen on the entire drive, which seemed quite impossible coming from country Australia, where the ancient rusted Fords and Holdens, lived on indefinitely.

As we proceeded, the buildings began to get higher, but unlike the small centralised CBD of most modern capitals, the heart of this city just kept getting bigger. I managed some perspective by understanding that China has something like 1.3 billion resident souls and that out of that number, Beijing has a population of around 16 million, which is almost the population of Australia. Still, knowing didn’t prepare us for the reality. With a total area of 16,800 sq. km, Beijing’s municipality is roughly the size of Belgium.

Darkness however, could well hide the discarded rubbish, the chicken coops and our expectation of an impoverished people. As I considered this, Katie tugged on my arm. Spread out before us over several city blocks, lay the notoriously iconic, Tiananmen Square; deserted and adorned with elaborate lighting. I felt the hair on my neck rise. For good or bad, momentous events occurred here. Who could ever forget the young man who stopped an army tank with nothing but bravery.

Ah, hold on a minute. Here’s the real China; the one I expected. As our taxi pulled up in front of the King’s Joy Hotel, our senses became overwhelmed by a profusion of colourful lanterns and banners, and connecting streets containing masses of noisy local people. It looked so inviting we almost jumped from the vehicle before it stopped.

The staff at the King’s Joy seemed particularly nice, but also adamant that they needed cash for certain deposits, before they could provide us entry to our room. With some language difficulties they managed to suggest: ‘Ah, esteemed customer, you are so clever to present us with Yen, which, so, so sorry, cannot be accepted.’ Roughly translated, this meant, ‘Aussie imbeciles, you have purchased Japanese Yen instead of Chinese Yuan at Melbourne airport, which is a currency that is not accepted here. Please come up with the right money or bugger off.’

We looked up at the clock; nearly eleven thirty pm. We both felt tired and annoyed, and more than a bit embarrassed, but we ventured out into the streets, eventually finding an ATM with the help of a group of teenage girls. I’m not sure this could ever happen at home. The girl’s helpful and relaxed manner with European strangers, seemed odd and surprising, particularly late at night and in a dark street.

It must have been close to midnight, as we made our way into the street adjacent to the ATM. To our surprise, we found it full of young children and their parents playing games. Kids screamed with delight as they battled it out playing badminton and tag, and games of the imagination that come easily to children. The experience of their happy community took us both back to our own childhoods, where we could also safely enjoy such evening pastimes.

Our currency stupidities seemed forgotten when we returned to our digs, laden with enough Yuan to ensure our stay. The staff elevated us most politely, to a new status worthy of their establishment, but the amusement that twinkled from each eye, implied: ‘If you can’t work out the difference between Japanese and Chinese currency, you’re in for a difficult stay.’

Our entrance and subsequent welcome to bustling Beijing, felt both wonderful and thought provoking, but by this time, we felt truly shagged, having just travelled over 9,400 km and been up for 22 hours. Our eager explorations of old Peking could wait till the morrow.

Eagles in Bustling Beijing

Temple Roof

Some time ago I began a blog about my travels throughout Asia, part of the Eagle Diaries. It didn’t get finished. I fell off the end of the world, but that’s for later in the story. I now have the opportunity to tell the tale in its entirety. Here is the first instalment.

My wife Katie and I began our journey on the train from Chiltern in the North East of Victoria to Melbourne, its capital, but because of problems with the tracks, we arrived an hour and half late. Having quite a bit of time to spare before our flight, we left Southern Cross Station and headed to the Crown Casino Complex, for a Gold Class version of Harry Potter and a good bottle of red wine, which seemed like a fine way to fortify ourselves for the wilds of Asia. Feeling very happy about the state of things after Harry’s great victory, we headed to Tullamarine Airport and our digs for the night. When we checked into our hotel room, we discovered the blocked foul-smelling toilet and moved to a slightly less smelly environment.

Sleep deprived at 5.30 the next morning, we staggered to the international terminal, bought some Asian currency, which turned out to be a big mistake and proceeded to board our Cathay flight to Beijing, via Hong Kong. To our great horror we received no upgrade to first class. Worse still, we had to plod through this section and its smug looking occupants to find our seats in the rear of the endless fuselage. Fortunately, Cathay provided a comfortable cattle-class with more than agreeable service.

We changed aircraft in Hong Kong and spent two hours checking out the terminal and the exceptional views. The mountains surrounding the airport seemed to rise straight out of the sea, with craggy limestone peaks protruding upwards through swirling mists. After the break, our new aircraft taxied out onto the tarmac, towards the runway and joined a large queue of jets. As we waited to take off, a blanket of ominous looking black clouds enveloped the airport, which culminated in a spectacular electrical storm. This prevented our Boeing from leaving the ground and we remained motionless for over an hour.

Once in the air, we bumped and shook all the way up the east coast of China and just like any authentic adventurers, we endured the four movie ordeal and arrived at Beijing International intact, despite requiring several medicinal gin and tonics, to ward off any possible chance of contracting malaria on the aircraft. It worked.

I let out an involuntary groan as we plodded off the airline. I felt momentarily crushed by the waves of onrushing heat. I suddenly conjured visions of arriving in a crud encrusted lounge filled with crates of chickens. The modern grandeur and sheer enormity of the terminal blew my delusions away. You could fit Sydney inside this building and still have room for Tasmania! OK, a slight exaggeration, but as I stood there dumbfounded, I couldn’t see where the roof-line ended in any direction, making this the biggest building ever to house my person! After surviving customs, we needed to take a fast train journey, perhaps several kilometres to the luggage pickup in the same building. Yeah, did I happen to mention how big this structure is? We then spotted a large kindly looking fellow holding a sign with our names on it and we felt very important.

The drive to our hotel felt like it took longer than our flight. For nine in the evening, the traffic seemed exceedingly heavy, yet here we found another of our expectations in ruins. Where were the rickshaws, the rusty old trucks and the crappy pot-holed roads? I couldn’t see a single old women bent with the weight piled onto her back. What was going on here? Was this really the China I’d read about my entire life? After fifty odd years of negative conditioning with regard to everything Chinese it felt inexplicably bizarre being in a Manhattan-like environment. How could a lifetime worth of information suddenly be untrue? Tomorrow, the daylight may provide the answer.