National Day

I once again find myself in the frigid northlands of China’s Inner Mongolia, having returned to Alvin’s hometown with him. The very small city of E’erguna is a mere 15km from both the Russian and Mongolian borders, and Alvin (Chang Fusheng) tells me that it is the smallest population center classified as a city in all of China (the population is 80,000).

The city of E'erguna

My first and only full day in Beijing before we left for up here was a lot of fun. Sharing a hotel room with long time acquaintance and world traveler, Eck, we spent my first morning in the city touring about and doing some sightseeing: we took the subway from Wangfujing street (which by the way, has come a long, LONG way from the filthy avenue full of street food vendors and beggars that I first saw it as two years ago) up to the Olympic center to check out the stadiums. After that, it was a walking tour of the hutongs, Beijing’s old neighborhoods, which, while very beautiful and interesting, are a major tourist trap. We could hardly go a minute without someone shouting “HELLO! RICKSHAW TOUR?”, which more often than not were the only three English words spoken by the drivers. We opted to go on foot instead, and we spent 6 hours walking all over that section of town.

In the afternoon, Alvin and I met up with a solo traveler named Peter, from Canada, who had also arrived in Beijing the day before. I actually met Peter on an online travel board, when I found out we were both flying out of Vancouver airport just a few hours apart from each other. We wandered aimlessly around Wangfujing for an hour, checking out another one of the enormous shopping malls that seem to be a dime a dozen here, before taking the subway back up to Alvin’s school in Chaoyang district, where we ate dinner at a really good restaurant near his campus. I finally got to try Peking Duck, and it was indeed very delicious. After that, we went to the Carrefour supermarket to stock up on food and water for the thirty hour train ride ahead of us; and going to the supermarket was an experience in and of itself.

I once again saw all the bins of meat hanging out in the open air, only this time it was actually clean, refrigerated, and free of insects. I was most surprised by all of the American import products which are available: Progresso soup, Old El Paso refried beans, Hunt’s Tomatoes, along with all the classic American cereals… even Honey Nut Cheerios, king of all breakfast cereals. Also, they actually sell real, refrigerated milk there; all the milk I had seen before was served warm in a can, and didn’t even taste like the milk back home. One thing I found humorous was that all of the cereal mascots had been converted to Asian characters, as you can see here with Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

The thirty hour train ride the next day was made no easier by the fact that I’d done it once before. It was insanely crowded, as they sell standing room only seats (and it being the day before a major national holiday). Just to get to the bathroom you have to squeeze past, push, and shove your way through about twenty people… when you are in the most populous nation on Earth, you really can’t have any pretensions about your own personal space. The only way I was able to sleep in those really uncomfortable seats, hunched over on a tiny little table, was by drinking lots of beer. Oddly enough, thirty hours on a train feels like about the same amount of time as twelve hours on a plane.

E’erguna is cold as hell (in a frozen over state, of course), and the fleece pullover I brought was definitely not enough to keep me warm. Also, I forgot my hat in Beijing and didn’t listen to my mom when she said to bring gloves. Fortunately, I was able to buy a really warm hat and gloves for ¥10, a little over $1.50. I also got an extra jacket, a really nice leather messenger bag, and a beautiful leather wallet, all for under $50 total. The prices were heavily discounted as yesterday was National Day, China’s third major holiday after Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and Mid-Autumn day, which was just a week ago.

National Day is to China as the Fourth of July is to America, minus the whole thing about gaining independence. The People’s Republic of China was formally established on October 1st, 1949, and the government has given a week’s holiday to all the workers since then. Alvin tells me that a couple of years ago, the government tried to reduce the number of days off from seven to three, but the people wouldn’t stand for it, so they changed it back. The celebrations are more low key than we are used to… primarily families will just cook an extra special meal, and fireworks could be heard going off throughout the day. I watched Alvin’s dad kill two turkeys in the afternoon, and a couple of hours later we were eating them; excluding fish, that was definitely the freshest meat I’ve ever eaten.

China can be really refreshing in that there is no debate that things such as evolution and global warming are fact, as they are, but some of the other superstitions they have are simply baffling. On the train, an old lady sitting in our compartment said that she could tell by the style of clouds in the sky that the people that lived in a certain town weren’t nice people. Also, there’s a lot of belief in luck… they think certain people have innate luck and they’ll let these people do things like pick out their ducks eggs for them, in the hopes that they’ll get a higher percentage of female ducks to hatch.

Anyways, I’m having lots of fun here, and having experienced much of this before, China’s feeling a lot less like a foreign country and a lot more like my new home. Alvin’s hometown is very relaxing, and the fresh air is a relief, and the home cooked meals can’t be beat, but I’m excited to get back to Beijing to pick out an apartment and start finding some work. My friend Valery gave me some expat magazines containing dozens of things to do in Beijing on a nightly basis… I can’t wait to go try to win some money in a pub quiz or go to some of the crazy concerts they have here (there’s one thats Gorillaz-style hip hop as performed by puppets, haha).

Till next time,



3 Responses to National Day

  1. Mom says:

    What an adventurous life you have chosen, Jake. Thanks for the great update. By the way, a man from China was at our office for a meeting the other day. I told him about your travels with Alvin to Inner Mongolia and he said that is where he is from! He was excited about this connection and wanted to know more specifics, but I didn’t have the details at the time. He currently lives and works in Canada. Love you so much. Mom

  2. Peg says:

    Hey, Jake. Thanks for the report. It looks like you are having “the time of your life” and really soaking in all you can. That’s great. Stay safe and keep sending those updates.

  3. Dad says:

    Thanks for the great update. It sounds like you and Eck had a nice day. I’m sure he enjoyed having a Chinese speaking “tour guide” accompanying him. Have fun in inner Mongolia!


    P.S. Try not to drink too much beer 🙂

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