Olympians & Metro Pizza & Fast Trains: Beijing to Shijiazhuang 

The truth be known, if you have travel ADHD you have to get up early every morning, and this morning in Beijing is no exception. I pack my bag quickly. I have made an appointment to meet Suvi and Anthony at the Swim Cube at the Beijing Olympic park for 10:00 am. Later this afternoon the whole crew is going to take the fast train to Shijiazhuang, which is the city that Tara and Charles make home and where the wedding will be.

In the meantime, I have talked Tara into getting up at 7 am to go for a walk in the nearby Jingshan Park, which is just to the north of the Forbidden City. There is a tower there that overlooks the Forbidden City and offers great views beyond. The weather is beautiful. I guess the rain from the other day has really cleared and cooled off the air. As I walk in Jingshan Park I can’t help but notice all the elderly people out in the park this morning. They are busy working hard to keep fit, which is one thing that I really admire about Chinese culture.

When we get to the top of the hill I look all around me in every direction. This city of Beijing is vast! Tara points out various places and interesting facts as we scope out the city from our vantage point.

Off in the distance we see the financial district….you know the one that is taking over the world, or so we hear? Looks like they are constructing more financial buildings to take over the world judging by the cranes I see in the skyline.

I see the mountains faintly in the background. Now, that’s what I would love to explore!

Once we get back to our hotel I eat a quick breakfast.

After breakfast I begin a solo walking tour through the Hutongs to the metro station, which is about one kilometer away. I have to say that I feel perfectly safe despite the fact that I am walking on these streets with a huge camera strapped to my side, and a bag full of money and jewels and credit cards and my valuable Canadian passport. Of course, you know I don’t have a bag full of money, nor jewels for that matter, but I do have my camera out. I need to take pictures, as you know! I think that the architecture is really cool, although I don’t really understand the piles of rubble.

The interesting thing here in Beijing is that not very many people speak English. In fact, very few people do. When I reach the metro I ask a few people which train I am supposed to get on. Even when I show on the map where I am trying to go, they just flail their arms and shake their heads as to say they don’t speak any English. I ask some teenagers. Teens should know English! Alas no, they just start giggling. Finally I figure out where I am supposed to go. It takes me about an hour to get to the Olympic stadium station from the hotel.

I literally am dumbfounded when I see the Olympic park! It is such a huge area! As far as my eye can see ahead of me, and as far as my eye can see behind me is part of the park!

I beat Suvi and Anthony to the Swim Cube. At the ticket booth I discover that the pool does not open until 12:30, and not 10:00 as we originally thought. The ticket agent speaks no English, and as for me I speak no Chinese. Finally I have this one ticket agent call Charles, and he in turn contacts Suvi since I have no cell service to call anyone. When Suvi and AAnthony arrive about 15 minutes later we head over to the Bird’s Nest….the incredible Olympic stadium.

Just when we were looking at all the medals that Michael Phelps won…..you know the famous swimmer…..Suvi’s phone rings. It’s Charles calling. Apparently the dude who Charles had talked to earlier had decided it was okay for us to go swimming even though the pool was not open yet for public use. Yay! We head on back to the Swim Cube.  We must be pretty special people if they are letting us in before they open! I think maybe it is because Suvi is so cute!

Just a heads up…..in China when you swim in a public pool you have to wear a swim cap. Of course Suvi looks great in a swim cap….but I am afraid you won’t see a picture of me with mine on…..I didn’t take one, for rather obvious reasons!

I might also tell you that Anthony is sort of a professional swimmer. He is like the top swimmer at Cambridge University in England. Well, this pool does not allow you to swim in the deep water section unless you get certified. You have to take a swimming test first, and they even turn Anthony away! We decide to go to the shallow pool and have a race, and guess what? I beat Anthony by like 3 seconds…….I started in the middle of the 50 meter pool and he started at the end. He had an unfair advantage, though, because I allowed him to kick off the edge of the pool. Really, though, I am not a very strong swimmer, and of course Cambridge University’s top swimmer could swim laps around me.

Now I had been hoping to make it to the summer palace, which is where the rest of the crew is this morning and early afternoon, however it is beginning to look more and more like we won’t have time to go. Oh well, that leaves me a reason to come back to Beijing someday.

On our way back to the metro station we run into these colorful torch-bearing runners…..

Now, I have mentioned earlier that the Chinese food culture is a bit foreign to some of us…..most of us….all of us? My roomie, Katja, has been having an inkling for pizza…..and our stomach’s are growling after our swim and all that. We decide to stop at a pizza shop. I want to bring enough pizza to share with Katja, too. We end up ordering a pizza which takes forever for them to make. Our precious time is dwindling down to nothing…..we must hurry! Finally the pizza arrives in an absolutely gigantic box. I don’t know. Maybe they had to run to the factory down the street to get the box made, or something. This pizza is humongous!!!! I wonder if they saw these greedy westerners and thought that they should make the pizza twice as big? They insist on tying it shut with this lovely yellow ribbon. We have no time to eat, so we take the box with us and run off to catch the metro. Suvi and Anthony have to still pick up their luggage before we head off to the fast train.

Now, I don’t know if you have ever taken a ginormous pizza box on a metro in China, but I have! Literally, it is beyond hilarious! I am giggling like a school girl. Here are these greedy Americans with this HUUUUGE box of pizza, which the scent is unbelievable….you know…..gooey cheese and pepperoni on a delicious crust…..the incredible scent is making us hungrier by the second! Finally we simply have to bust the box open and we each takes a big slice…..sink our teeth in….mm…mmmmmm…..I notice a little piece of pepperoni has fallen onto the spotless floor of the metro car.

I recall that in Singapore eating on the metro is punishable by like a $500 fine. I am pretty sure I have seen no one eating on the metro in Beijing…..maybe here the punishment is even more harsh? I don’t know. Nor do we care! We are just laughing hilariously and heartily enjoying our pizza. The other passengers are looking at us like they have never seen the likes in their lives!

When we get to our stop I take the pizza out of the box and place it on some paper plates, and then into a bag that I got from the pizza shop. A woman sitting next to me takes a picture of the barcode on the box. Perhaps she is hungry for pizza now and wants to know where she can get some. I should offer her a piece, but I need to save some for Katja. Then I stuff the empty box into a nearby garbage can. The cleaning lady comes and looks at the box and leaves. Within minutes a cleaning man comes to look at the box, too. He pulls it out of the garbage can. I don’t know what he plans on doing with it, but I try to sit as nonchalant as possible with my big bag of pizza so he does not notice me. I hope he does not make the connection that I am the pizza culprit.  I can just see myself handcuffed and getting hauled off to some Chinese jail for eating on the metro….maybe to the Forbidden City….who knows! I don’t really recommend pigging out on pizza on the Beijing metro even though it is funny.

I might take this opportunity to marvel about the metro here in China, at least what I have experienced so far. The metro stations and trains are beautiful and clean! Every station is more beautiful than the next, if I should say so myself. Meanwhile, I have been at some metro station in New York City for instance that are simply disgraceful. They are old and decrepit and dirty. What has happened to American cities?

It is kind of exciting. We are going to take the fast train to Shijiazhuang, which is about 300km away from Beijing. I have wanted to ride on one these babies for a long time. Which reminds me, that’s another thing…..China has these incredible fast trains all over the place and the United States has exactly none….The fast train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang leaves like every 20 minutes!  Hello….America! Your infrastructure is rotting and you are way behind even China, of all places! I thought we are supposed to be leaders in transportation and technology and everything new and modern and awesome! What has happened that China is wiping the pants off us?

We make it to the train station well ahead of the rest of our travel companions. Now,  I will tell you one thing that I have noticed about China. For some reason they will have a recording blasting from speakers just at random. For instance, right next to where we are waiting there is a loudspeaker with a message repeating itself continuously. The volume is far too loud, and the speakers are crackling and popping in the most annoying manner so that my ears are literally blasted. Everywhere you go there is severe noise pollution, and I am really a person who loves peace and quiet.

The train station information desk is just a few yards away from us. Whenever a traveler stops to ask for information, the woman behind the desk grabs a megaphone, leans across the counter, and directs the megaphone directly into the face of the unsuspecting traveler, even though normal speech is perfectly audible. She blasts her answers so loud that the people’s hair is practically blowing off their heads. I don’t think that I could get used to the racket around here.

Finally it is time to get on the fast train to Shijiazhuang. There she is! Such a beautiful piece of engineering!

When we get on board the train we realize that there is not much storage for suitcases. They end up being put on top shelves. I have to wonder if there is a collision if the suitcases would stay put, or fall on our heads. The seats are plush and comfy with tons of leg room. As soon as I sit down I notice that there are no seatbelts. Wow….I have heard of these trains on occasion getting derailed. Maybe it would be helpful to have seatbelts. But really if you consider how many of these trains run daily in China you would have to admit that the number of accidents is almost nonexistent. As soon as the train starts moving I hand out the pizza. I think Katja and I will be friends forever now!

Wow…..this speed is incredible! Over 300 km/h. The ride is super quiet and smooth! You could almost hear a pin drop. If you had your eyes closed the only time that you would know you are moving is when another train passes on the neighboring track. When that happens you can feel a slight shift and maybe a barely perceptible swooshing sound. I try to get some pictures as we fly down the track, but it’s hard to focus as the sights go flying by. The terrain is surprisingly flat. We notice lots of tree farms and rural areas.

Our ride is over almost as soon as it started. It takes only one hour and fifteen minutes to get to Shijiazhuang from Beijing. We have only 3-5 minutes to get off the train. The train station in Shijiazhuang is brand new and built to accommodate growth for the next 20 years. Forward thinking…..I like that! At least in Arizona it seems we like to under build freeways and such…..then a couple years later we have to tear them apart and build up again.

There are several cars waiting for us when we arrive. Our group is splitting up now. Three couples are going to stay at the Hilton Hotel. Apparently it recently won an award as the best Hilton in the world, which says a lot. However, I have to say that I get to stay at the best Hilton of all. Suvi, Anthony, Katja, Jules, and I are staying at Tara and Charles’ new apartment. The grounds are beautiful! We get to experience Chinese life more closely when we stay here rather than at a hotel geared for tourists. One thing that I have noticed is that most apartment complexes in China are absolutely ginormous, and most often they don’t have pools. It would seem to me that the hot summers would make pools a most desirable thing to have! The complex has guards at the gate. In the evening I see many people out walking on the grounds, enjoying the peacefulness of these surroundings away from the hustle and bustle of the city traffic.

Tonight the parents of the groom are treating us all to dinner, as is apparently the custom in China. The food is literally to die for. By now it seems like everyone is getting more used to sharing dishes. I no longer hear comments like maybe we should all order our own dishes. We all have 100% faith in Charles to order the best dishes for us to taste.

At the beginning of the meal there is maybe some uncomfortable silence. Maybe it is because everyone is famished and the food experience just consumes all our very beings. Maybe it’s because there is a language barrier. Maybe it’s because we are all tired from our busy day.

Erkki brings out his people skills, first by asking if it is customary in China to talk when dining. When it is agreed that talking during dinner is certainly a part of Chinese culture, he begins asking questions from Charles’ parents about how they first met, some of their life experiences, and what kinds of changes they may have noticed in their lifetime between when they were young as compared to young people of today in China. We learn that a friend had introduced Charles’ parents one to another.

Charles’s father is soon telling us about how things have changed in China. He tells us when he was growing up that the main concern a person had was whether or not there would be food to eat that day, and if there was a bowl of rice to eat he was very satisfied. Today most young people in China don’t have to worry about whether or not there is rice on the table. It turns out he has worked most of his life in a pharmaceutical factory, a job which was assigned to him as was customary when he was young. You did not go out and look for a job yourself, but the government would assign you to a place of employment. Today it is different, and young people can choose their places of employment with more freedom. The conversation is at times informational, and at times perhaps a bit more philosophical, or an exchange of personal feelings and experiences. For us perhaps that is a bit more familiar, but to Charles’ father it is a new experience to share such personal matters with nigh strangers. The conversation lasts late into the evening.

When we get back to the apartment I check in on my loved ones again. Kristoff has been fishing in Finland. It is his number one passion! Looking at Donald Duck comics is another one of their favorite Finnish pastimes. I feel at ease.  I know my kids are well cared for and are having fun. David has been keeping busy at work. Grandpa is holding up okay for now. Jasmine and Tristan are putting their house up for sale soon as they are moving to Maryland.

We shall see what tomorrow brings.