What the next hour, or two, shall entail is daunting. Negligence is not an excuse, but a fact. Every day, if only for a matter of seconds, I contemplated updating this blog. But as the content increased, so did my apathy, for fear of how long it would take to complete.
So, without further ado, let’s begin.

At some point, the pollution cleared, the smog disappeared (visibly that is, as, even during the Olympics, it will still linger in the air) and sun began to twinkle. That is irrelevant however. I must not digress; I must persist in writing only about how I spent the remainder of my stay in Beijing.

It was beautiful; love at first sight. As I waved the taxi down one Saturday morning, requesting to be transported to Beijing’s football stadium, I knew immediately that I had met a kindred spirit. The driver smiled, danced in his seat and to my eternal pleasure (his sweet hymns are still resonating in my ears), even sang too.
Oh what a contrast this was to the asphyxiating subway, which I had yet to endure. For, once I began studying for the International Relations course on China’s foreign policy, I had an interminable daily commute to Beida (Peking) University.
My routine:

  • 06:45 am: Wake up
  • 07:15 am: Leave Alice’s apartment. Purchase ‘balzer’ – steamed buns riddled with surprises ranging from meat to vegetables to nothing – for breakfast (hence the title of this post) whilst walking to Subway station
  • 07:30 am: Arrive at the Subway’s Pink Line
  • 07:45-50 am: Change to Blue Line
  • 08:05-15 am: Change to Yellow Line. (This, is not a meagre task; it entails a ten minute walk, mostly up stairs, whilst jostling between hundreds of other eager commuters).
  • 08:25 am: Arrive at Wudako station.
  • 08:25/30/35/40/45/50/55 am: Find a taxi. Request/Insist/Demand/Beg that they drive to Beida University. (See below)
  • Five minutes hence: Arrival!
  • 15:30: Repeat

Now, business is business, one would assume. Not in Beijing. The commute to Wudako was debilitating; that I had to plead with most taxi drivers to actually accept my simple proposal was simply devastating. From Wudako station, Beida was a mere five minute drive, but thirty minute walk away. My legs, already scathing me for depriving them of sufficient rest, could not endure the latter. Moreover, that would have forced me to wake up thirty minutes earlier. Five hours of sleep is inadequate. Any less and I would have imploded from fatigue.

But, back to the bliss, before the Beida course began. Driving to the football station, the endearing taxi driver inserted his favourite cassette.
And then it happened: Years of childhood trauma came flooding back like a terrific torrent of denial. I thought, foolishly it seems, that those days were behind me. But they were not. He was back.
Too many days were wasted, ruined and desecrated by that pernicious monster. I despised how, thanks to my mother, I would have to wake up listening to John Denver and then continue to endure him throughout the commute to and from school, supper, sleep and so forth.
And now he was back in Beijing.
But how could I remain vexed at the taxi driver? He was sweet and affable; a real gentleman. So we embraced each other and sang a duet – he in broken English, me out of tune…
Did I write that I would not digress?

Okay, warning: Never, ever, even if for free, watch a Chinese football match. It may have potentially been an exhilarating affair. Beijing vs. Shanghai, replete with doting European footballers, Brazilians who did not quite make it to Spain, Italy or England (or even France for that matter) and a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers. Sunday league football however, has never been as appealing as during the ninety minutes I endured in Beijing. Shanghai eventually won. This was not because they were particularly adept or skillful. Rather, it was Beijing’s sheer ineptitude to even kick the ball out of their own half (I do not jest) that made the impending 3-0 obliteration inevitable.

Beijing was marked by several riveting nocturnal forays. First, there was the night at the Russian restaurant where we subsequently idly chatted through the night in a bar overlooking the ‘Drum and Bell Tower’. Emerging from the bar, the birds chirped and local residents were walking their dogs. It was time for breakfast…
There was also the reggae night, the European cup final (the prior three night’s, were, in fact, on three consecutive) and of course, the time I swam in Xihai lake with a group of Alice’s friends, as the sun rose from its nightly slumber.
This, of course, exacerbated my jet lag.
What made the aforementioned escapades so notable however was the people I met. Through Alice and her roommate Pete, Beijing’s expatriate scene was opened up to me. There were no pretensions and the overall milieu was mired with generosity. Unfortunately, 3/4 of the expats I met have since fled China due to the Olympics and the ongoing unremitting debacle.

Somewhere amongst this, I also visited the old Summer Palace. The grounds were elaborate and expansive, yet, not as exquisite as Beijing’s primary Summer Palace which I visited last year. This may be because the French and British ravaged and plundered the former during the Colonial era. Thus, it can remind the Chinese of their haphazard history and re-instill nationalist fervor.
At the old Summer Palace, whilst composing a photograph, I accidentally dropped the lens of my camera lens into a swamp. Was my subsequent anxiety rational? Of course not! Asian values salvaged the day! Upon discovering my ordeal, not one, not two…but a whole troupe of Chinese tourists strived to recover my loss. And they prevailed, but only after ten minutes of toiling in the marsh. It was embarrassing, yet endearing. This epitomises Chinese culture.

Beida University’s International Relations course was superb. My fellow classmates are best described as eclectic in both their respective backgrounds and personas. They spanned the globe and whilst some were informed and intuitive scholars, others were imbeciles (without wanting to name anybody, one person departed with 100 pounds to purchase a Mao suit).

As always, I become disillusioned with staring at a solitary screen for too long, and thus all enthusiasm to write dissipates from my mind. So, I apologise if this is too terse.
Following my the conclusion of the the Beida course, I left Beijing for Yangshuo. For regular readers (i.e. all three of you), you may remember (but most probably do not) that I visited Yangshuo last year. So, ‘why return?’, I hear you scream. Because, I hoped to teach Chinese migrants English for a short while.
The train journey to Yangshuo was unremarkable. However, ninety minutes before arrival, I met two Brits, Clare and Marcelo, who had been studying Mandarin at Beida for the past six months.
Auspiciously, they provided some respite from my exasperation upon discovering that the ‘migrants’ whom I was meant to be teaching, were actually affluent business people hoping to acquire competency in their English. With my flight departing Beijing on August 12th, time is scarce. I was livid.
Oh well, what the hell.
Yangshuo was as beautiful as I remembered it to be. At night, I ‘taught’ my students before meeting up with Clare and Marsello.
Notable on my final day, I woke early and met the Brits. We walked for several miles, leaving the town’s vicinity. Eventually we plunged into Yangshuo’s supple, shimmering river and swam back towards the town centre.
It was refreshing, invigorating and beautiful.
Only nothing can ever be perfect.
Mere minutes away from the shore, we encountered a pipe protruding from the water. It was disposing waste. So we clambered to the side and, following an audacious (and imprudent) climb up a steep cliff, we managed to escape.

Almost there…

My plan was simple. After agreeing to conduct research for Durham University’s geography department, I had to reach Xishuangbanna. Consequently, I hoped to board a bus to Guilin (approximately 45 minutes in transit) at 14:00 and book a ticket for the 16:55 train to Kunming (because Xishuangbanna does not possess a train station, I would subsequently board a bus to reach my destination). Of course, one could not anticipate that the bus would taxi at Yangshuo’s station for thirty minutes. Similarly, only a bold, brazen individual would predict that the bus would opt to refuel before reaching its destination, in an endeavour which would last thirty minutes.
But it did.
And hence, I was late.
Furthermore, after queuing a the train station for a further thirty minutes with the lofty hope of purchasing a ticket for the following day’s train, as I approached the counter, the clerk drew his curtains and hung a sign stating the desk was closed.
At this moment in time, for subliminal reasons which even now I am unable to discern, John Denver’s lyrics penetrated my mind.
Moping around the station, deliberating my options (return to Yangshuo? reside in Guilin? Board another train?) my first moment of luck materialised. A senile old lady, asked me, I assumed (she could not speak English) where I wanted to go.
“Bus”, she croaked.
And so she explained through various diagrams and exotic symbols: I should board her bus which will arrive at Nanning for 23:00 and once there, connect to another bus which should reach Kunming the following day at 12:00pm. Apprehensive that the kind, gentle lady may actually be a wicked witch determined to wrangle my money, I desperately rang Marcelo, asking him to clarify the situation in Mandarin with the woman. After speaking to her (this required three phone calls since even he was perplexed) he gave his grace to the deal.
I handed her my money and boarded the bus.

I am writing this entry in Xishuangbanna. The journey was not bereft of travails however. There was no connecting bus from Nanning to Kunming; I had to board the train. This was not a grave issue. That there were no ‘sleeper’ tickets available however, was. Restrained and resigned to destiny, I purchased a ‘hard seat’ instead. The name of the ticket was a misnomer however; there was no seat. I sat on the floor, my bag and later, perseverance rewarded me with the edge of a seat (my tailbone is still writhing). Oh, and the journey was not thirteen hours as the geriatric from Guilin averred, but nineteen. And once I arrived in Kunming, after a two hour break (a cherished prize), I boarded a bus to Xishuangbanna, which arrived nine hours later.

I am still in pain.

But, let’s hope that it was worthwhile…

My plan for tonight: Sleep.

My plan for tomorrow: Balzer for breakfast.

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  1. July 26, 2008

    Oh but I love JOhn Denver…………………

  2. BigP
    July 27, 2008

    Abut time you releaved yourself of the emotional burden you’ve been carrying around with you all these years re John Denver.
    Now you undestand why the family had him assassinated !

  3. July 28, 2008

    Welcome to my world re: John Denver. Every time I go to drive the car after your Mum….. good ol John Denver is blasting away at levels that would send an ordinary man into an immediate brain infarct. So, I can feel your Pain!!!
    And yes, I do believe that singing along can ward away some of the dangers over the short term.
    Keep up the excellent blogs… always nice to hear about your travels.
    “May thr force be with you”!!!!!!!!!

  4. August 22, 2008


    Like big P, i wonder what has happened to the stream of, what i thought was endless blogging that you constantly provided in your youth??

    And why pray tell am i unable to comment on your latest blog??

    keep on trucking peps.


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