First bite of the Big Apple

New York City is a pretty incredible place. You feel like you know so much about it when you first arrive, purely from all the movies and TV shows you’ve seen throughout your life (or at least, that’s how I felt), but when you’re actually there, you discover that it is so much bigger, so much denser, and so much more eccentric than you ever realised. It’s everything you thought it was, but also so much more. The people who live there are forever calling it the greatest city in the world, and while I personally wouldn’t be so quick to immediately hand it such a title, it definitely clocks in as a major contender. New York City and Melissa’s apartment would be my home for the next six weeks, acting as my base camp during my time on the upper east coast of North America.

***

While I was here on holidays, to explore the concrete jungle, Melissa had just started grad school, so in the morning when she set off for school in the Bronx, I set out to wander the streets. I guess it was that morning, when Melissa told me where exactly she was going, that I started to learn about the local geography that made up New York City. The five boroughs of New York City are Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island – any further east and you’ll find yourself in the rest of Long Island, and eventually hit the Hamptons. Cross any bridge to your west and you’ll find yourself not even in New York state anymore, but the state of New Jersey. Manhattan is the main central island that you see in all the movies, the real “city”, such skyscrapers and department stores and parks and… well, it has everything, really. The Bronx is north of Manhattan, considered a little unsafe but also hailed as the birthplace of hip hop. Brooklyn is the western tip of Long Island and a haven for hipsters and creative types,  and Queens, just above Brooklyn, is the largest borough and a huge cultural and ethnic melting pot. Staten Island is south of Manhattan, and mostly just a residential area that honestly feels like a bit of a stretch when you try and say it’s part of New York City but whatever. That’s the most basic way I can describe it, but I’m not going to pretend like I learnt a lot about each borough – I spent 98% of my time in New York City in Manhattan. Still, it was interesting to actually study the map and the layout of the city, putting physical locations to names that I had been hearing repeated constantly on the television and in cinemas for as many years as I can remember. I finally understood what Gossip Girl‘s Blair meant every time she complained about the distance between Brooklyn and the Upper East side of Manhattan.

So while Melissa had to trek it all the way to the Bronx, I was already starting my day in midtown Manhattan, so that’s where I would begin my exploring on foot. Looking at maps of Manhattan, you would think that it would be pretty hard to get technically get lost. The streets running from east to west were all numbered with numbers, and with a few exceptions like Lexington and Madison, all the avenues running to tip to tip of the island were too. You just had to look at the street sign and any corner and then walk a block in any direction to see how the numbers changed in order to know what direction you were going in. It was so logical, and suddenly any reference to a number of ‘blocks’ as a measure of distance finally made sense – this was a city of revelations! ‘Blocks’, as such, in Sydney aren’t geographically even, so the concept of blocks had always been a little lost on me, but the way you could literally just use street signs to navigate through New York City was just remarkable. Or so I thought.

There are tricky streets that I think are thrown in just to purposely confuse people – the culprit in this particular situation being Broadway. Broadway is a street with a slight diagonal tilt that dissects the blocks unevenly, and if you follow it long enough it can be a little trickier to keep track of both how many horizontal streets and vertical avenues that you’ve crossed. Or maybe I was too awestruck but the city lights around me to really keep track. But really, can you blame me? I must have looked exactly like the kind of tourist I hate, dawdling along the footpath and staring up at the skyscrapers and the flashing lights of Times Square, but it was really was something incredible. It was my first day there, so I figured I should cut myself some slack.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

New York, New York! The city was full of advertisements as well as skyscrapers.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Bright lights and traffic in the concrete jungle.

Couldn't help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

Couldn’t help but take a picture of this one for Matt back in Dublin.

And so I stopped into a Starbucks to grab some breakfast (when in Rome, right?), and as I headed back out onto the street I turned and headed in what I thought was the right direction. I mean, I was just continuing on the way that I was going before. My plan was to walk through the city all the way to Central Park – it would take a while, but I was in no rush, and I could meet Melissa there after she had finished class. But after a while I noticed that the numbers of the streets I passed were going down rather than up, which would mean I was heading south. Well, that’s impossible, I thought to myself as I carried on. I turned the right way, I’m sure of it. The numbers must just do something a little strange here. Yet as I carried on, I started to see a few things that were slightly familiar, and eventually it became clear that I was indeed walking the wrong way. I still honestly have no idea how it happened. I consider myself to be a very good navigator, and there were few times on my entire journey where I had been unknowingly walking in the wrong direction. I guess I got a little cocky in thinking that New York was a navigators dream, because all those distractions definitely worked on me.

***

There were other dangers that I found myself unprepared for, ones that make me cringe when I think back on them, but ones that I learnt from very quickly. Times Square is for all intents and purposes, a tourist trap. I should have expected that there were people who were up to no good and trying to take my money. Now I wasn’t mugged or anything – though I’m entirely aware that’s within the realm of possibility – but I think my sense of wonder forced me to let my guard down a little bit. All along select parts of Broadway were a lot of mostly African American men who seemed to be promoting themselves as rappers or hip hop artists, giving out demo CDs and collecting donations. One of them stopped me to comment on my t-shirt – the “I ‘Heart’ BJ” one I got in Beijing – and I was glad that the humour was finally being appreciated in an English-speaking country. He asked for a photo with me, and I obliged, and then he gave me a copy of his CD in a clear plastic case. Then he said something about asking for a donation or something to help him out. I couldn’t tell you his exact words, but he came across as a bit of a sweet-talking crooner – or a hustler, whatever – and I guess he seemed decent enough to spare some change on. Except I had just arrived, and didn’t have a lot of coins. The smallest note that I had was a ten dollar bill, which I wasn’t actually prepared to give to some random guy on the street giving out free rap CD’s – I don’t even really like rap music that much. I don’t know what I was expecting – I tried to say something about not having anything smaller, he cooly said something about change, but I ended up walking away rather confused and with ten less dollars in my wallet. It was kind of surreal. When I realised what had just happened, I was a little angry, but decided it would be a bad idea to make a scene of ask for some change from the $10 I’d given him, or try and get my money back at all. I just sighed and kept walking, thankful that the damage wasn’t as bad as the last time I’d been played by a scammer in China. And now that I think about it, I never even ended up listening to that CD.

I continued on to Central Perk, which is absolutely huge. I know people have always said Central Park is huge, just like New York City is huge, but just like I never realised how huge New York City really is, I never realised how huge Central Park is too! It’s not just a casual park in the middle of the city – it goes on seemingly forever. I wandered through the southern tip of the park, where there were kids playing, people walking their dogs and riding their bikes, other people jogging on their lunch breaks, horse drawn carriages taking people for a ride, and I even stumbled across a baseball diamond where a bunch of people were playing a game. I sat down in the shade, tired of my long walk through the city, before going to meet Melissa at Columbus Circle, the monument on the south eastern tip of the park. From there, she showed me probably one of the most iconic parts of the Central Park that was within suitable walking distance – Strawberry Fields, the landscaped section that is dedicated to John Lennon, with the Imagine memorial mosaic located directly across the street from where he was assassinated in 1980.

The Imagine memorial.

The Imagine memorial.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on here,” Melissa said as we walked around the rather quiet and solemn area of the park. “People come and lay flowers and roses all the time, and people play music a lot too.” On one of the benches was a man who was strumming a guitar, not too loud to be disturbing, but more like peaceful background music. Though I think he was homeless and the guitar was rather out of tune, it was still a touch that felt very authentic for New York. There was a sole flower bud that had been placed on the memorial that morning, and Melissa and I wandered around for a little while as she told me more things about the park and the city, as well as just hanging out and catching up some more.

We decided the head home for lunch, stopping at the grocery store to buy food for the empty fridge in Melissa’s new kitchen. So we took the subway home – and this is the final feature of New York City that I want to gush about in this post. For everyone who has been following my journey from the beginning, you will know that I am a bit of public transport enthusiast. I think most of it can probably be traced back to the subpar rail network in my own hometown of Sydney, but whether it was the MRT in Singapore, the BTS in Bangkok, the U-Bahn in Berlin, the metros in Paris, Madrid, Moscow or St Petersburg, or the tube in London, I was basically obsessed with these public transport systems that could take you relatively quickly across large distances within a city, as well as having services coming every 3 to 5 minutes on average. But now I was finally in New York, and I was getting to experience the subway for the first time. I’d been very impressed with London, but I think the New York City subway really in the Holy Grail of city-wide public transportation. Sure, it’s not always as clean as some of the other city’s metros, and you’re often packed in like sardines with commuters during peak hour and there’s a 50% chance there will be some kind of musician or other irritating person on the carriage, but aside from considering all of those things as hidden perks that give the system a bit of authentic New York charm, the subway covers some enormous distances in relatively good time. There are all kinds of connections running from east to west, multiple lines going up and down Manhattan offering express services as well as local ones for the smaller stops, there are connections to ferry wharfs and trains that go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. No matter where you need to go in the city, there is a good chance the public transport can take you very close to where you need to be, and that was just something I wasn’t used to – there are parts of Sydney I’ve hardly ever been to because if you don’t have a car then it’s almost impossible. In this city, car ownership is practically considered a waste of space.

I still had a lot to see, and probably a lot to learn about the city. But I had only just arrived, and I had quite a long time to immerse myself in one of the biggest cities in the world. My brain was already exploding and I’d been in town for less than 24 hours, but I was sure New York hadn’t even begun to blow my mind.

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Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.

Russian Around

The next train on our journey would see us crossing another border, out of Mongolia and into the Siberian wilderness in Russia. We were all on a bit of a high after enjoying our time in Mongolia so much, so this two night journey would be a chance to debrief and prepare ourselves for our entry into Russia. Armed with two minute noodles and bottles of red wine, we said our goodbyes to Oko on our final evening in Ulaanbaatar and climbed aboard the train bound for Irkutsk.

***

The order of the cabins had been changed around since last time, and as the tickets were passed around I realised that I wouldn’t be isolated from the rest of the group this time. I was bunking with Tracy and the other British couple, Matt and Jen. The best word I could use to describe Matt and Jen is ‘organised’ – nothing was left spontaneous or unplanned, and they always liked to be two steps ahead of the game. I’m usually more than happy to play things by ear and go with be flow to see how things turn out, so sharing a cabin with the two of them was something of a juxtaposition, although there are definitely shorter straws to draw when it comes to close confines roommates.

Crossing the border to get into Russia from Mongolia was never going to be a fun ordeal – it took approximately four and half hours at the check points in both countries. To do what, I’m not entirely sure – Mongolia and Russia share a common gauge on their railways so there was no need to change the bogies. I know it’s necessary to check paperwork and visas and do the routine check for stowaways in the luggage compartment, which we’d all become very used to, but 10 hours just to cross a border just seems a little excessive. Not that it affected us very much at all – you could still do all the things you usually do on the train, with the exception of using the toilet, which you could use the station for – it just feels a little more frustrating to be sitting at a train station platform rather than watching the rolling hills of the countryside pass you by. I found myself pacing the corridor of our carriage, popping my head into other people’s cabins to say hello and see what they were doing, unable to sit for too long in any one place while the train was stationary, almost as though I was trying to make up for the lack of movement that was going on.

When the train finally did get moving again I joined two of the Australian girls, Rachel and Martina, in their cabin, along with Tim, Kaylah, Alyson, Dan and Claire. Rach and Marti were actually a couple who both work in travel and tourism, and have been travelling around the world together for the past several years. They both had their laptops and hard drives, so we set up a little theatre, cracked open a few bottles of wine, and watched a few episodes of Family Guy,The Amazing Race, and An Idiot Abroad, with the vast landscape of Siberia stretching out and beyond behind the screen. The Amazing Race was fun to watch with a group of travellers, as we speculated how we would fare in the challenges if we were contestants, and the episode of An Idiot Abroad was in China, so we pointed out all the familiar places we had been earlier in the week. Combined with dark chocolate and red wine, it was a fun and effective way of passing the time – after a while we realised we’d been there for about 4 hours. It was almost eight o’clock, yet the sunlight outside was deceptive, and back home the daylight could have passed for three or four in the afternoon. It was something we would all quickly get used to, but this time it had caught all of us by surprise.

***

Our interaction with the train staff was probably the most eventful part of our trip. On the previous trains we’d hardly spoken to the uniformed women who marched up and down the corridor, cleaning and tidying and I suppose helping anyone who needs assistance. The attendants on this train were Russian rather than Mongolian, and on the second day of our trip, before the border crossing, the woman who had been working on our carriage came in with a basket of chocolates, chips and drinks that she was selling. She started speaking in Russian and motioning to her products, but obviously none of us understood.
“No, thank you,” Tracy said slowly, and I shook my head to indicate that we didn’t want anything. Matt and Jen were contemplating some of the chocolate bars, and asked if they could borrow some Russian rubles, as they hadn’t managed to exchange any currency yet.
“One Twix, please”, Jen said, pointing at the Twix bars and holding up one finger. The lady took the 100 ruble note and gave her two bars.
“No, one,” Jen repeated, holding up her index finger to try and communicate the number. The woman said something in Russian, took away one of the Twix bars and replaced it with a Snickers.
“No, I have allergies. Nut allergies,” said Matt. I don’t know if the train attendant understood, but if she did then she certainly didn’t like what she heard. She started rambling again in Russian, pulled the Snickers back and then put three bottles of soft drink of the table in front on us. She placed her hand on each one, each time saying something in Russian, then motioning back to the chocolates, all the while speaking Russian at us.

“We don’t speak any Russian,” Matt said, before turning to find his Lonely Planet book. “Maybe we can get some translation happening.” The Russian woman liked that even less. Her voice got louder, and she picked the book up out of Matt’s hands, and slammed it back onto the table.
“No,” she said, the first word of intelligible English so far, and then pointed at the book, said something that sounded like “your culture”, then motioned back to the chocolates and said “Here in Russia.”
Not only were we a little confused at what was going on, but it was a little annoying to know she had been screaming at us in Russian when she clearly knew some English words – no matter how small they had been, it would have been better than our almost non-existent knowledge of Russian. The drift of the conversation seemed to be that Matt and Jen would not be getting any change from the transaction, so they just settled for taking two Twix’s and letting the grumpy train attendant go on her way.

Later in the afternoon, in a conversation in Rach and Marti’s cabin, I learnt that everyone else had gone through a similar ordeal, with the attendant threatening to cut off our access to the hot water on the train if we refused to buy anything. The hot water was a boiling urn that could be used to make tea, coffee, and two minute noodles, so naturally it was a key ingredient to us surviving these long train treks. Personally, I was just surprised that they had managed to get even that much of a translation, although Marti is originally from Slovakia and does have a bit of a knack for European languages. When I relayed this story to the others in my cabin, Matt said it was just part of a more general bribe that is probably a regular occurrence. Whatever the case, after the train attendant had acquired her fee, she became one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met, even talking to us a couple of times in nearly perfect English. That annoyed my slightly, however, because it meant that her initial tantrum and almost definitely been a complete sham. It was a small amount though, and in the end didn’t come out of my pocket, so it was easy to write it off as just another cultural custom to recognise, familiarise ourselves with, and get used to.

***

Our short ride from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar felt like nothing after the amount of time it took from Ulaanbaatar to Irkutsk. I don’t think the distances are all that different – it was just the time spent at border crossings and the time of our departures that had made the second trip seem longer, given that we’d spent two nights on that train rather than one. It was a sweet, freezing breath of relief as I stepped off the train and onto the platform at Irkutsk, and I tried to not think about the fact that our next train journey would be at least twice at long, both in distance and in time.

Back to Square One: Life Lessons in Beijing

As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.

The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

***

The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.

A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.

“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I'd seen of Beijing.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I’d seen of Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.

“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.

So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”

It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.

I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.

***

The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.

It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.

Borderline Insanity

This short anecdote will double as a warning for anyone who might be making a similar journey in the future: when travelling between Cambodia and Thailand, do not – I repeat, do not – book a bus ticket. Catch taxis, tuk tuks, trains, rent a car – anything but try to book a bus ticket. There are probably some services that operate smoothly and according to plan, but after the mess that I walked away from on my journey back to Bangkok from Siem Reap, it is certainly not a gamble I would ever be willing to make again.

***

So far in my journey, I had been happy fairly happy with the night bus services I’d caught. Krabi to Bangkok was a comfortable coach with reclining chairs, Saigon to Chau Doc was a little cramped but I had still had my own private space, and my Sihanoukville to Siem Reap journey had bed-seat hybrids that allowed your legs to stretch out completely flat, and even had free WIFI on the bus. I booked a ticket with that same company from Siem Reap to Bangkok, hoping to kill two birds (transport and accommodation) with one stone, and getting a similar satisfactory service. After waiting around since my check out at noon, wandering the the town and visiting the museum, I was picked up at 2am (yes, that’s a 14 hour wait) by a shuttle bus to take to me where the main bus was leaving from.

Scheduled departure time was 2:30am. No buses showed up until 3:00. Then we watched as a group of Khmer men unloaded three motorcycles from the cargo bins below. Myself and the other two tourist, a young German guy and an older man from Washington DC, shot each other uneasy looks as we were told this was our bus to Bangkok. They took our bags and I climbed on board. It was not a sleeper bus. Most of the seats were already full, and the majority of them were filled not by tourists, but rowdy local Khmer men. They had loud conversations over the top of my head while I was trying to sleep. The bus driver played music that was essentially a loop of cheesy instrumental music that belonged in a pornographic sound track. The whole bus smelt of bodily gases and other sickening scents. As I thought back to the slogan on the anti-piracy ads on my old VHS tapes, I certainly wasn’t getting what I had paid for.

***

At some point, through the stench and the racket, I suppose I managed to catch a little bit of sleep – after 15 hours of being awake it was bound to happen eventually, no matter the circumstances. It wouldn’t have been any more than half an hour though, and at around 6 o’clock, after just under three hours of transit, the bus jerked to a stop. It was dawn outside, and slowly and but surely all the Khmer men stood up and shuffled off the bus. I figured that we had reached the border, and would be required to alight so we could have our passports checked and stamped. “You get out here now”, said one of the bus company workers to me and my two other Western companions. “Another bus take you to the border.” As I climbed down the steps and out into the bus station, I watched the Khmer men who had been on my bus all climb into the back of a ute, which sped off down the road and into the dust. It was obvious that rather than put us on a chartered bus, the company had decided the throw their few clients on any old bus that was heading in the right direction, and deal with the rest once we got to the Thai-Cambodian border.

We met a bunch of British girls who had just climbed off another bus who were also heading to Bangkok. After being sent on a small wild goose chase, crossing the road several times in an attempt to find someone who knew what the hell was going on, we were ushered onto a bus – I was disgruntled, though not surprised, to find myself on the very same bus I had alighted from only moments before. We were only on board for a couple of minutes though, before the bus pulled up directly outside the border crossing. “You cross border now,” said the bus company guy, as he took our tickets and stuck little yellow stickers to the front of our shirts. “Crossing take one hour. Someone will meet you on other side. Sticker is your ticket now.” I was mortified, but there was nothing else I could do, so as a sleepy pack of tourists we climbed off the bus and made our way to the border crossing.

Only to discover that the check point itself didn’t open until 7 o’clock, which was still almost an hour away. When I had booked the ticket, I had been given an estimated time of arrival in Bangkok of about 9:30am. I had already long ago given up on that hope, but with every passing minute I became more and more unsure of how I was actually going to get to Bangkok at all. After an hour of waiting, plus another hour to go through both departures in Cambodia and arrivals in Thailand, I finally found myself on the other side of the border. It was far from a feeling of relief though – it was a terrifying moment, plagued with doubt and the endless possibilities of the next unpleasant surprise they would spring upon us.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

As I trudged through the crowd of pilgrims, I heard a shout and saw a wave of hands. “Yellow sticker! Yellow sticker over here!” For all that had not gone accordingly to plan this morning, being greeted in Thailand was like clockwork. I had been sticking with the man from Washington, so we made our way over to the waving man, where we were asked to sit on plastic chairs and wait for the rest of the travellers with yellow stickers. Once they arrived, we were taken to a small travel agent just a few minutes away, where we were informed we would be catching a minibus all the way to Bangkok. It certainly wasn’t a sleeper, but I figured it would get us there faster than a regular bus, so I felt a little better about that. However, when the bus arrived 15 minutes later, the agents face sported a look of concern as one by one, we piled into the bus. I was at the end of the line with my American companion, and as he scanned down his line of clients, he agent called out, “Who is relaxed? You relaxed, yeah? Time is no problem?” It seemed no one had taken into account the space needed for all of our luggage, and we weren’t all going to fit on this bus. Washington and I took two for the team, with the agent assuring us it would only be a half hour wait for the next bus.

***

An hour and a half later, the tiny travel agency was beginning to fill up with people, mostly locals this time, and I grew uneasy at the thought that they would try and squeeze all of us onto the next bus. Washington and I were given priority, since we had forfeited our places on the last bus, so I can’t say for sure if there was anyone who didn’t make the cut. It was 10 o’clock by the time we finally boarded our bus and continued our journey towards Bangkok. However, we hadn’t been travelling long before our bus was pulled over by the police. All the exchanges were in Thai, and no one offered any explanation, but we were sitting there for another solid half an hour while the police made phone calls and wrote on bits of paper, which I can only assume was a ticket of some sort – perhaps our driver was speeding? In all honesty, at this point I was beyond caring. We were still hours away from Bangkok and I hadn’t had a proper sleep in about 24 hours.

The journey back to the city went up without a hitch, other than the minibus stopping every now and then and the driver having short, disjointed conversations with some of the other passengers, and dropping them at various points around the city.

However, when it came to dropping me and Washington off, things became a little more difficult. We finally reached the city of Bangkok, but I had yet to see any familiar landmarks in order to gain my bearings. “Where are we?” I called out to the driver. I got no reply, and it was only then that I realised that while the travel agent assured us we would be dropped in the middle of the city, this driver spoke hardly any English, so could not tell us where we were or where we were going. So you can imagine my frustration when, after driving through the streets of Bangkok for nearly two hours, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near the familiar the city centre. It didn’t help that it was now well into the afternoon, and we were caught in the gridlock of peak hour traffic. I even got my map out and motioned the driver to show me where we were, but he gave it a blank, vacant stare that filled me with horror – the idea that our driver didn’t even know where we were was too much to bear. I’d now been more or less awake for 27 hours, and 15 of them had been in transit. I wanted to scream, and yell and swear at the driver, at the incompetence of both him and the agent and the whole mess of an ordeal that had been my journey back to Bangkok. I was exhausted and furious, but I knew that getting mad would achieve absolutely nothing, so I resigned to my fate and crawled to the back of the minibus to lie down along the back seats, since by now Washington and I were the only passengers left.

Eventually I saw a landmark that I recognised, Victory Monument, which was actually the drop off point we had agreed upon with the travel agent in the beginning. So I guess the driver had known where he was going all along. All the same, I scrambled out of that minibus and onto the streets of Bangkok as fast as my tired little legs could carry me. I never thought I would have been so happy to be back on the streets of Bangkok, but after being at the mercy of the minibus driver for so many hours it was a glorious feeling to know exactly where I was, and have control over my own direction and movements.

***

I made it back home to Bangkok in the end, but it definitely hadn’t needed to be such an ordeal. I’m not saying that all bus trips will be like that, but when you’re booking for a route as disjointed and unpredictable as Siem Reap to Bangkok, or probably anything that involves that border crossing, there’s a lot of wiggle room for transit companies to shove you in wherever you fit and make a great profit on the sleeper ticket that you thought you were purchasing. Thankfully most of my travels for the next few months will be exclusively on trains, because the couple of weeks I spent travelling back to Bangkok from Siagon had seen me on enough buses to last me for quite some time.