2005.11.29 Beijing, China

Fruit Vendor, T70 Urumqi/Beijing Express
Fruit Vendor, T70
Urumqi/Beijing Express
November 26, 2005

I arrived in Beijing yesterday morning. As I have done over most of my other visits to this city, I'm once again staying with Joyce. It's good to be staying in a familiar setting, a place where I've spent lots of time in the recent past. Having no place to call home all-of-a-sudden is not a terrible hardship. Still, it is somehow unsettling: I've found my sleep to be unpleasant for no clear reason over the last several nights.

I decided to come to Beijing by rail, rather than fly. The train ticket wound up costing a fair amount more than a flight would have cost. A 45-hour journey, the train took approximately 42 hours longer than a plane would have taken. Still, after the rigmarole I endured trying to first book a flight, then return the botched ticket issued by the airline, I decided that event must be some sort of sign to not go by air.

I did eventually get a full refund from the airline for that ticket they issued with origin and destination mixed up. The staff remained cheerful and cooperative as long as I sought to resolve the matter in a way that didn't get any of them into trouble for the mistake they made. That meant providing a doctor's note, medical chart, and receipts for no less than 50 yuan worth of medication.

I visited Urumqi's No. 3 Hospital and spoke straight about my situation: "I'm not actually sick, but need a note..." The doctors had clearly been through the routine many times before. "Ah, airline ticket? What do you want your note to say? What type of medication do you want for your prescription?" they asked without prodding.

Medical expenses amounted to 10 percent of the ticket price, though I suppose I do get to keep the eight courses of anti-biotics the doctors prescribed for my nagging cough. When I returned to the airline ticket office, I saw another customer seated at the counter, medical chart in hand. Is a phony doctor's note the standard way for customers to change air tickets across China, or is it just in dealing with the Urumqi branch of Hainan Airlines?

Shahnaz at the Internet Cafe
Shahnaz at the
Internet Cafe

Given all the other things that went wrong this month, I wasn't surprised when I lost my passport last week: right after buying my train ticket to Beijing. I knew that I had the passport in my pocket when I set out in the morning. I was quite sure it was not in any of my pockets when I returned in the evening. I'd never misplaced my passport before; I knew the chances of recovery were slim. I tried not to calculate the expenses of replacing it and replacing the 1-year student visa I'd just renewed: I knew the costs would be considerable.

I hoped that the passport had merely fallen out of my coat somewhere rather than having been pick-pocketed. I drew up a list of all the locations I had been to around town that day, there were over ten. My plan was to go to each and ask if they'd seen a U.S. passport laying around the premises. Nisagul drew up a polite note in large, purple, felt-tipped pen to help explain the situation in case my Chinese skills fell short.

I figured that even in the best-case scenario--if the passport had been found and was locked up for safekeeping in some manager's desk--whatever oblivious waitress or attendant might go through standard Chinese motions of appearing to offer help while doing absolutely nothing.

Rather than retracing my steps, I decided to start visiting the places I thought offered the most possibility of recovery. I shuddered at the thought that the passport might have gone missing at one of the busier places, such as the railway booking office or underground Nan Men shopping mall. I had gone to both the Orange Street Bar and an Internet cafe with Shahnaz the day the passport was lost. I started at the Internet cafe.

"Sorry, my Chinese isn't so good," I began, addressing the attendant. "I came here yesterday," I said, pulling out the note of explanation prepared by Nisagul.

Before I got to any explanation, an employee--who looked too young to yet be out of school--walked by, pausing upon seeing me. "Say, did you leave a passport here yesterday?" he asked, speaking magic words I hadn't dared hope to hear. "Follow me, it's downstairs in my office."

Chris & Mary
Chris & Mary

There is no way to articulate the relief, or the positive boost to my outlook, recovery of that passport gave. It's still been a bad month, but at least all of my crises (apartment eviction, fouled-up airline ticket, lost passport) seem to be ending as best as can be.

The outstanding reason November 2005 hasn't been thoroughly frustrating is on account of Chris & Mary, the Canadian couple who took Nisagul and me in. I wound up staying nearly three weeks at their flat, Nisagul remains there now. They helped pack up and move the carpets and pillows from my hookah room to their flat on a couple hours' notice. They shared everything they had to offer without once giving any indication of frustration with our inhabiting their apartment. Thank you, Chris & Mary: this entry is dedicated to the two of you.