The first half of my time in China was cold—COLD—like I thought I would die just going outside. I was a walking advertisement for Smartwool, or would’ve been if the Smartwool actually kept me warm. Certainly I wore a lot of it. My typical outfit was ski socks, long underwear, jeans, faux fur knee-high boots, a tank top, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater (or two, either short or long), an almost-full-length Patagonia down sleeping bag with the hood up over a handknitted scarf wrapped around my neck and around my face, a handknitted hat, and mittens that I both knitted and lined with fleece. My palms, in an attempt to heat up my body, I guess, were sweaty pretty much 24/7—which meant that my mittens started to get damp, which meant that my hands sweated more and my mittens got damper. There was not a single other piece of me that sweated AT ALL, though, for the first half of the trip, even on our hike up Black Mountain to the aerie-like temple on top.
So I just reread (scanned) my first entry about China and see that I already talked about my typical outfits, and how cold it was. Yeah. Well, it was cold.
Anyway, midway through my trip, the day we left Dalian for Beijing, the air quality (which had been lovely and clear for the first several days) went south the way I’d been expecting it to from the start—the vistas from the penthouse faded into murky distance, the sun turned orange at midday, and I began to feel tight about the chest. S also felt tight about the chest, and we decided that, indeed, the air was bad.
Alas, we were only partly right.
We were SICK, and as our days in Beijing progressed through the chill of national monuments and open-air markets, we got sicker. And China is not a place you want to be sick. As my chest filled with grit and phlegm and I hacked my way through successive tourist stops, sucking on green tea and heated BPAs from the plastic cups and straws, I asked about codeine. “Nope,” said S. “Pain killers are illegal in China. Even after surgery. For surgery, you get a local anesthetic; when they send you home, you can take aspirin but that’s it.” No codeine cough syrup for me, then, and so my nights were spent sitting up in bed against my pillow, taking Tylenol PM and clonazepam that I’d brought myself, and eating through a tin of Fisherman’s Friends, trying to rest. When my fever reached 101 I started the antibiotics I’d been clever enough to request before leaving Seattle; but all the Levaquin did was give me explosive diarrhea and lingering joint twinges in my hands.
Levaquin, by the way, is a scary antibiotic: its side-effects can cause death, and you’re supposed to seek medical attention immediately if you have any of the severe ones. That’s comforting in China. I stopped taking it after two doses. I won’t take it again.
The runs aren’t fun ever, but some of the peculiarities of public facilities in China made my runs so ridiculously inconvenient as to be almost humorous. Or at least that’s what I kept telling myself. There are a lot of public toilets around, which is great. They are universally unheated, however, which is sucky, and they are almost universally squats, which are facilities you want to be really careful with ANYWAY when you’re wearing 17 layers of clothes and thick coats that you need to hold out of the way. Adding diarrhea adds the comedy. Or at least the resignation. In the hutongs, where we ate our Peking Duck lunch (yum!) and where our hostel was situated (blessedly updated, as I’ll get to), the public facilities consist of 4 or 5 squats all in a row—no heat, no paper—but also NO SEPARATION BETWEEN SQUATS. That’s right, Ladies and Gentlemen, whatever you have to put into that hole, you put in publicly. C and S said on more than one occasion that I was the only person they knew who could really handle the situation. I just figured I didn’t have a choice. The WC (as it was signed) closest to the duck restaurant did also have a grim, icy metal toilet, and I waited until the woman in the nearest squat left before using it. It seemed only polite.
The hostel we stayed at in the hutong, the Fly By Knight, (S took care of all the money and arrangements during this trip and I happily followed her around like a duckling and let her) was one of the best parts of the trip, and was a perfect oasis to be ill in the middle of a cold wasteland. My bed was one of the most comfortable I’ve ever had the pleasure to sleep in, barring not even my bed at home (in fact, my nights since I’ve been home have been studies in imperfection, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to fix our domestic slumbers). The headboard was padded and upholstered, so that I could, in fact, lean my pillow against it and sit up and still be as comfortable as was possible with the hacking and the fevers. Breakfast of sausage, egg, hash brown, bacon, toast and peanut butter and jam was included, as was hot or cold filtered water, and alcohol or noodle bowls were available for cheap. On our last evening, S and I, coughing dismally in bed, were treated to a guitar and singing concert (through the wall of our ensuite bathroom) by one of the other hostel guests; it was just what we needed to pass our last, sadly uncomfortable hours together.
I hadn’t let my illness keep me from seeing the main sights of Beijing, in part because it was increasingly obvious to me that I would not be venturing back any time soon (read: in this lifetime) and on Sunday morning, the last full morning, before C and Little P and A returned to Dalian, I ventured out with them to the outdoor Dirt Market, one of S’s favorite places to go for interesting tchotchkes and possible antiquities (S, alas, stayed behind with a pounding headache). Even though I arrived ready to puke and pass out from the taxi ride, I rallied with an exquisitely beautiful glass of green tea and professions of love and support from my dear friend C, whom I’d met in my dorm room on my first day of college as a callow 17-year-old. It’s amazing how much the love of friends can assuage all kinds of hurts.
Comforted and sustained at least for a short time, the Dirt Market outing yielded traveler’s gold to me, too: I bought a horse, probably bronze, possibly old, certainly very, VERY awesome, and I bargained the seller down from 600 kwai to 275 (about $90 down to $40). Little P bargained for a unique stone 4-faced Buddha head for S’s birthday which was, of course, the next day—and she was going to be spending it hacking up her lungs at the airport in Seoul because her relationship as one of two mothers isn’t recognized by China as a legitimate dependent relationship, worthy of being on C’s work visa.
The climates of China—political, social, and meteorological—are all profoundly inhospitable. But that didn’t keep my last taxi driver to the airport, after dropping off S at her terminal for her forced fleeing to renew her visa, from walking my heavy bags the quarter-mile through the garage to the international departure gates at my terminal. He had noticed I was on my last legs, and so China, or at least one small part of it, took care of me at the end.
I had upgraded to business class for my flight home and so was able to sleep, and the flight attendants custom-mixed orange and apple juice for me and gave me my own two-liter bottle of water so that I could hydrate whenever I awoke, so that wasn’t so bad, and my sweetie-pie met me at 7:00am when I arrived last Monday morning at SeaTac. I slept for 40 of the first 48 hours home, my mommy came and made me lots of soup, and I was able to drag myself out of the house for chemotherapy on Thursday. I lost something like 7 pounds in China, though, and as I was a lean, mean, mountain-goat machine before I left, I am now pretty much skin and bones. About the only fat remaining on my body is the modestly-sized fake boob I’d recently downgraded to.
I’m still very glad I went, but the charms of Hawaii or Mexico in late winter are reasserting themselves into my psyche. I may make some different travel choices in future.
For the best of my pics, go here.