Done in Beijing
I knew something was wrong when I woke up. My headphones were still in, but I wasn’t hearing anything, other than the whoosh of the passing countryside as the train barreled toward Shenyang. We’d only been on the train for an hour, and I’d put on a 4 hour episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. There was no way the podcast would be done. The battery shouldn’t be an issue either, since I’d made sure to plug the phone into a high capacity USB battery. I checked my Google Nexus 6P phone, and found that it was stuck in a boot cycle; it’d try to start up, fail, and go back to the beginning. I couldn’t tell what was wrong with it, but I was pretty sure the phone was bricked. Sadly, it turns out I was right.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. When I last spoke to you, J and I had finished a big day in Beijing, and were getting ready for our last day there, followed by an overnight train on hard sleeper bunks to Shenyang, J’s adopted hometown.
Our last day in Beijing was pretty eventful. We took the metro out to Sanlitun, a neighborhood in the Chaoyang District, full of consulates, high-end shopping, and, perhaps most famously, bars and nightclubs popular with expats. It was too early in the day for the clubs to be open, and neither J nor I have much use for Hermes or Chanel, but we’d at least be able to get an idea of what it’d be once the bars opened. And we managed to sit down for some pretty decent chuan’r — a sort of Chinese barbecue.
We took our sweet time getting back to the hostel that day. It was still early afternoon, and we only needed to be at the Beijing central train station for 9:45ish. Rather than rush back to the hostel, we took the metro back up to Yonghegong Temple, and walked back along the increasingly fashionable Wudaoying Hutong, where we stumbled across something unexpected: a spanking-new brewpub with the confusing name “Regain Element”. J had a fruity drink, I had a pale ale, which was pretty dang good. We downed our drinks, and made our way slowly back to the hostel. There, we gathered up our bags and headed out to face the insanity of Beijing Central Station.
If there is a hell, it probably looks a bit like Beijing Central Station. An obscenely busy subway station disgorges its transient inhabitants into a cyclopean plaza (cyclopean plazas seem to be a special fixation for Chinese city planners) where semi-zombified throngs swarm their way to-and-fro without any apparent conscious intent. The already oppressive heat of the city is further intensified by the crush of humanity, and the lines to the ticket counters and the entrances to the terminal itself are enough to wear down the resolve of the most intrepid train-goers. Inside, the station isn’t much better. Massive chambers filled with appropriately massive crowds. My sanity was saved by the hilarious group of schoolchildren who sat down near J and I and gawked at our foreignness.
Once we finally got on the train, it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. We had hard sleepers, rather than the coveted soft sleepers, which means 6 bunks per berth instead of 4, on tougher beds. I had the top bunk, which put me a little over 6 feet off the ground, with about 2 feet of space above the bed. Luckily, I’m not claustrophobic. Were it not for my phone dying, it actually would have been a decent overnight (incidentally, if anyone back home was wondering why I hadn’t gotten in touch with them, I can’t access my email or Facebook from J’s computer without my phone, for the 2-step authentication).
Shenyang’s a weird city. Conquered over the years by the Khitan Empire, the Mongols (and the ensuing Yuan dynasty), the Manchus (who briefly made it the capital of Qing dynasty China, the last imperial Chinese dynasty), the Japanese during World War II, and finally the Soviet Union at the end of the war, Shenyang ought to have had a staggering array of cultural influences stamped on it. However, unlike the relatively nearby Harbin — a town that, by Chinese standards, embraces its multicultural heritage — Shenyang is resolutely Han.
J taught English in Shenyang for two years, and made a good number of ex-pat friends over that time. And while many of those friends have moved on to other locales, enough remained in town to give us a warm welcome; chief among them, J’s friends Alex — a Brit — and Kevin — a Montrealer — and their eight month old son, Odin. Kevin is an increasingly successful MMA fighter and gym owner, and was out of town for a fight for most of the time J and I were in Shenyang. Alex was kind enough to give us their room for the duration of our stay.
The first order of business after dropping our bags off was to get two pairs of J’s glasses fixed. She bought both pairs years earlier from a vendor in town, and hoped they could repair them. The owner of the glasses shop actually remembered J, as J had recommended the shop to so many foreigners. For about $70, J walked away from the store with 2 pairs of glasses in her prescription (one of the pairs at least claims to be Ray-Bans). We stopped for food on the way back. As in Beijing (maybe even more so), street food is ridiculously cheap. A bowl of menzi (a weird combo of starch cubes and mashed potatoes, covered in vinegar, garlic, hot oil, and Chinese five-spice) and Northeastern-style cold noodles ran us 12 yuan, a little over $2 Canadian.
In addition to putting us up, Alex also served as a guide down memory lane for J that first evening, as she and Odin herded us around on an impromptu nostalgia tour to a number of local expat haunts. First, Lenore’s Garden, a lovely little cafe run by a quirky local who goes by Michael. A brief attempt to get into e1even Bar was stymied by an insane line for drinks, so Alex brought us instead Fat Dragon Alehouse, a fantastic brewpub right next door, run by one of their friends.
After the Alehouse, we swung by a dive called Lenore’s Bar, originally started by the same gentleman as the Lenore’s Garden, but now under different ownership [“very different ownership” – J added]. While the ownership has changed, the decor remains sufficiently unchanged that J was able to find a series of notes she had scrawled on the wall in 2013, 2014, and 2015, and added an entry for this year. Finally, we moved on to Glasgow Bar, another dive, with expats spilling out its front door onto a random assortment of stools and chairs clustered together.
Of all our destinations that night, Fat Dragon Alehouse was my favourite (it was actually my favourite place in Shenyang). The owner, Caleb, was there that night, and was happy to shoot the shit with us. We talked about a handful of North American craft breweries, and where the industry is heading in Canada and the US, and he gave me suggestions on which beers to try. I wound up buying a Fat Dragon shirt (which I love), and J and I would end up back at the Alehouse again the following night.
At the end of our first day in Shenyang, with Odin the little trooper in tow, we headed back to Alex’s to get some rest. J and I would have a long couple days ahead of us…
- Between Regain Element in Beijing and the Fat Dragon Alehouse in Shenyang, I’m figuring out that craft beer is quickly becoming a thing in China. Sure the beers cost from 5 to 10 times more than the Budweiser-equivalent Harbin, Snow, or Yanjing beers, but I’d put things like Fat Dragon’s Sea-Salt Gose up against offerings from my favourite craft breweries back home any day. Caleb is a hugely knowledgeable guy when it comes to craft brewing, and told me that as interest in the field builds in China, he expects the market to boom.
- On the way to Lenore’s Garden, we passed a big roundabout, at the centre of which was a huge statue of Mao, with his arm outstretched. It’s a statue I’d see repeated in Dandong, in the same pose. This particular statue was pointing straight down the road to the Shenyang Central Railway Station at the far end. I’m still not sure why.
- While traffic seems content to run down regular pedestrians, they will slow down for a pram/stroller, although I did have to slam a fist into the rear quarter-panel of a car that got a little too close to the pram as Alex was crossing a street pushing Odin.
- Seriously, Chinese traffic will give me nightmares for weeks when I get back. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. I repeat: pedestrians do not have the right of way. Cars and motorized bikes have the right of way. Which would be fine, if drivers gave one single fuck about stop lights, but apparently they ran out of fucks to give a long time ago. Oh, also, motorbikes — and sometimes even cars — will totally drive on the sidewalk, because at this point, why the hell not?
Still to come: more of Shenyang, including J’s old neighborhood, as well as high speed trains, Dandong, and its scenic views of North Korea