China travels: It’s a squatter and there’s no paper

No use for rear view mirrors here.
No use for rear view mirrors here.

Beijing, China — Pollution in the city is something everybody has heard about, but not something many have experienced. As we rode in our taxi (whose rear view mirror was turned upwards) from the hotel to the train station, we didn’t see the city, but the city was revealed to us through the haze – one modern-glass building at a time.

It was as if we were driving into a cloud. Not the kind produced from evaporated water and settles on the earth producing a wet fog. No, this was the kind produced from a developing country. A country whose rapid level of construction and deconstruction creates dirt, dust, chemicals, gases, and cigarette smoke that is unparalleled, with the exception of India.

A few things caught our eyes along the way to the station: 1) On one of the main highways was a lone man in his 60s sweeping the streets with nothing more than a straw broom made from a bamboo pole and an aluminum dust pan. 2) At one of the construction sites on the side of the road was a man working on a Caterpillar in jeans and a button-down T-shirt. Don’t worry about safety regulations, it was probably casual Friday. Robbin was at work taking down all her observations.

Robbin had received an Undergraduate Research Grant from UMBC for her studies in Chinese contemporary art. She had been studying the Chinese Millennials’ engagement with art and social media.

The Millenials are a distinct group of young Chinese who have grown apart from their parents’ generations. They have grown up under the one-child policy and are increasingly more independent, expressive, lonely … and Robbin is coming for them.

We arrived at the Beijing North Railway Station and filed in with the crowd of Chinese people waiting to buy tickets to locations all across China. The High-speed railway connects all of the east coast and as far as Xi’an and is currently in construction to reach Chengdu (where the pandas are. Yay pandas!). One of the amazing ethnic aspects of China is that near everyone is Chinese.

This mono-ethnicity is common in all parts of Asia. People in the States are used to the ethnic melting pot and coming to Asia can be an “ethnic shock.” Luckily for us I had spent three months in Taiwan and Robbin, whose parents are both Chinese from Malaysia, was used to seeing Asians all the time. What we weren’t used to was the overwhelmingly massive amount of people at the station. People were everywhere and they were all on the move.

We purchased our tickets after waiting about 15 minutes in one of the seven ticket lines and after a fast-talking conversation with the teller we left the ticketing window realizing we only had 15 minutes to get to our train.

We didn't know, but we picked the veggie train food.
We picked the vegetarian train food.

The rapidity with the way people speak in China makes it seem like everyone is trying to sell you something you might not want, at least that was my immediate impression. I came to realize that with a population of over 1.3 billion and more than half of those people are traveling people had to be quick with their transactions. You’re just another number.

As we rushed towards our train I had to make an urgent stop to the bathroom. I rushed into the stall and for those who don’t already know all the public bathrooms use a squatting toilet. The toilet is a hole in the ground with porcelain surrounding it and a curvature on the end of it to prevent excess splashing when flushing. I ran in, popped a squat, and took care of business. In my rush I didn’t realize it until afterward – public bathrooms don’t have toilet paper. I was stuck squatting and running out of time and running out of options. In China used toilet paper isn’t flushed into the toilets, but is thrown away into trash bins.

“…….screw it. I’ve seen worse,” I said out loud, which apparently helped increase my resolve. I grabbed one of the cleanest pieces of tissue paper I could find, finished up, and left as quickly and in the least shamefully way possible. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

We went through station security, which had an x-ray machine, similar to those at the airport, and a quick pat down with a magnetic wand. It was quick and painless. We boarded the train, and although we weren’t sitting in the seats that were assigned to us on the ticket, we managed to get two seats together without a problem.

Constant construction. Everywhere, all the time.
Constant construction all the time.

As we were transported across China at 302 km/h we passed numerous buildings being constructed. Huge apartment complexes growing as quickly as bamboo shoots. Dozens of bamboo shoots sprouting out of the ground 7-10 at a time.

A skyline of cranes highlights every small sprouting city. Scaffolding surrounds the buildings like a network of outdoor tunnels transporting workers up, down, left, and right. All working tirelessly to develop their country.*

Our next challenge: we were going to arrive in Nanjing and were going to need to find our hotel. Navigating through Chinese streets was going to be a challenge on its own.

*For more photos on the construction sites in China visit my Tumblr.