Tuesday, June 06, 2006

China Stories Pt. 7: Eating and Drinking

My roommate Chad and I set about getting settled into our dorm room, and making it comfortable. Chad in particular was willing to make some sacrifices to make this happen.

Chad and I went shopping. We bought some cheap carpet to throw down on the cold linoleum. Then Chad got inspired.

"We need a sofa," he decided.

We went to a little furniture shop just outside the University gate. We bought a cheap loveseat and carried it back to our room.

"There's not enough room," I said.

Chad studied the problem.

"Let's try this," he said.

He dragged his desk out into the hallway, shifted his bed and voila: now we had a nice little sitting area in the corner of our (now carpeted) room. Chad seemed untroubled by the prospect of not having a desk. Sacrifices were necessary. The desk eventually ended up on a balcony at the end of the hall.

We were getting comfortable in our surroundings, and getting to know our classmates. We were in China to be sure, but most of us were still college kids. We had parties.

Beer was cheap and plentiful. China didn't have much of a national transportation infrastructure, so beer was basically a local product. (Tsing Tao was sort of national, but it wasn't widely available. It was really more of an export product.) In Beijing, the beers of choice were Beijing Beer or Five Star Beer. It wasn't great beer, and occasionally a bottle would have the distinct odor of the formaldehyde that was used to clean the bottles. But once you got over that, it was okay.

We bought wine bottle-sized bottles of beer for the equivalent of about a nickel a piece. We lugged a couple of crates full of these beers back to the dorm. The ledge of our window in January kept them plenty cold. For two or three nights in a row, our room was party central. For two or three mornings in a row, I awoke amidst party debris - empty and half-empty bottles, some used as ashtrays. Our dorm room was just like any other dorm room anywhere. I was just another college kid with a hangover. Except when I woke up, I had nothing to drink but the thermoses of boiling hot drinking water that were left by our door each morning. It's hard to take aspirin with boiling water.

There were also some more high brow affairs. Randy (the schoolteacher) and his wife Patty invited Bob (grad student) and me (hungover but mature 20 year-old) for a dinner party in their dorm room. We fanned out over the city to find the ingredients for our feast.

In those days in Beijing, the search for little creature comforts was a kind of city-wide scavenger hunt. Finding something like peanut butter seemed like a big score.

"The Renmin Binguan (People's Hotel) has a bakery that makes croissants," so off we would go on our bikes.

Another classmate had a Chinese friend who flew to Italy for CAAC. She brought parmesan cheese.

Randy and I shared a love of coffee that bordered on a fetish. We went to the Friendship Store to buy Melitta coffee.

The University was located in the northwest part of the city, while the Friendship Store was just east of the downtown area. It was a 30 minute cab ride, but we didn't go by cab. (For one thing, taking a cab would mean going through that whole RMB-or-FEC ordeal.) We rode our bikes from the University down to the northwest corner of the subway system (Xizhimen Station), and then took the subway the rest of the way.

The subway was pretty basic- it had one loop around the downtown area, and one spur that stretched out to the west. (It has since been expanded,and is being expanded further.) It was cheap and efficient if it went where you were going. I still remember the announcements they would broadcast:"Attention passengers: the next stop is Jianguomen Station. Passengers going to Jianguomen Station, please prepare to disembark."(This was in Chinese. Frequently when I am asked to "say something in Chinese!" this is what I say.)

By bike and subway, the trip was probably an hour and a half each way. It was a lot of effort, but for the luxury of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, it was worth it.*

Dinner was pasta with crab meat, if I remember correctly, and it seemed exquisite. It was nice to be having some quiet conversation, after the more raucous nights.

"What are you doing for Spring Festival?" Randy asked.

That's right. We'd just gotten here, but in a couple of weeks, we would have a full week's vacation for Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year. It seemed like a waste to stay on campus. But I had no idea what to do.

"I'd like to go to Tibet," said Bob. "But I think it will take too long."

"That would be incredible," I ventured.

"You wanna go? Together?" Bob asked. "Maybe not to Tibet, but... somewhere?"

"Yeah!" I replied.

Of all my classmates, Bob was the one I would feel most comfortable traveling with. He was an experienced traveler. He was adventurous, but sensible. He was not going to do anything crazy. This was no small consideration for me. I had just traveled, I don't know, 8,000 miles from home, and now I was contemplating traveling into the hinterlands of China with someone I'd just met. It was a little scary.

"We could go to Sichuan," Bob said.

"Sounds good."

Bob and I worked out a rough itinerary, and then began to prepare for our trip.

*I was living in Beijing in 1997 when the first Starbucks opened. There are now 51 Starbucks outlets in Beijing.


At 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep going! :)

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

please sir... I'd like some more :)

At 7:49 AM, Blogger Changeseeker said...

Moi aussi, s'il vous plait.

(French for "what they said"...you've got me all worked up with all that talk about Chinese.)


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