Posts Tagged ‘Swine Flu’

Flying East to the West

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

The arrival at Beijing International airport was my third time in a Chinese airport (I had transited through Hong Kong International on my way to and from Lao 4 and 5 years earlier), and I went through the standard arrival procedures of checking my connecting ticket to LAX. This time things were a bit different, however, because Swine Flu was apparently on the mind of the Chinese government. Upon arrival all passengers were asked to fill out and sign a form saying that they were not suffering from any of the symptoms of the flu. Unfortunately, I have always suffered from allergies to airborne allergens and had been congested that day because of this. So, being the honest Mennonite that I am I dutifully checked the “Nasal Congestion” box and handed the form to the customs official along with my passport. This earned me a trip to a specially cordoned-off waiting area from which I watched all my fellow passengers pass by on their way into the international departures area. About 10 minutes later a man and woman in scrubs and white lab coats arrived with my form and the man started asking me some questions. “Where have you been traveling?” had a difficult and lengthy answer, but eventually we got around to the reason I had checked the “Nasal Congestion” box. The man spoke English fairly well so it was easy enough to explain about my allergies. “Ah, yes.” He said, “That’s alright.” Five minutes, several stamps, and a few signatures later I was on my way.

I had over 5 hours to kill before my plane to LAX left and I had decided that I would try to get out of the airport if at all possible. When we had been planning the trip we had decided against going to China because of a visa cost of over $400 per person. However, Matt had told me that he had met someone in Beijing who had been allowed to leave the airport for a few hours during his layover without a visa. This gave me an idea and as I talked to the customs official at arrivals I asked if it was possible to leave the airport for a little while before my flight left. He said yes and told me where I needed to go get out of the international terminal. So, when I finally saw the terminal entrance I walked toward it exuding as much confidence as I could muster. I was walked upstream through the flow of arriving Chinese travelers arriving at the arrival customs counters from the wrong side. I watched two stewardesses and a few captains walk out through a small gate along the right side of the room and headed that way. When I arrived, however, I was firmly but kindly stopped by a security guard who told me in Chinese and pantomime that I was going the wrong way and pointed me toward the departure lounge. I didn’t take no for an answer, however, and, apologizing to the guard, went to the nearest customs box. I politely got the attention of the young woman stamping passports and tried to explain my hopes and dreams of being able to walk around outside. All I succeeded in doing, unfortunately, was confusing her and so she made me understand that I was to wait there and she would call someone to help. A few minutes later a man who must have been a supervisor approached and in clear English asked me what the problem was. There was some hemming and hawing and a few more questions about reasons (”There are very nice restaurants in the departure lounge.”). But my polite persistence eventually won the day! The supervisor gave my passport to the young customs official to stamp and told me which monorail line to take and off I went.

For about 2 hours I walked the streets of Beijing in the area near the airport. It took about 20 minutes to get from the airport to a nearby market where I went to a bank and found that the ATM only offered currency in RMB (renminbi). I had literally never heard of the RMB and was expecting to withdraw Yuan. It was a good reminder that there is still a lot out there to learn. I did eventually learn that the RMB was the official name for the currency with the yuan being the name for the unit of currency. Anyway, I withdrew about 100 yuan and used it to buy some delicious Dragon Fruit, a pomello and a few other things for a nice picnic lunch in a small park from which I could watch Chinese life go by. The sounds of bicycles, pedal taxies, a few cars and busses and many voices in a language I didn’t understand made for an appropriate backdrop for my last day in Asia and my last “Cultural Experience” of the trip. With just an hour and a half to go I headed back to the airport and got through security and customs with few problems and prepared for a long plane flight to LAX.

The trip was remarkable only for the length of time it took and the packed 747 on which it took place. I chatted a bit with a Chinese family returning to their home in LA and an American business man who had been working in Beijing for a few weeks and then everyone settled down to some fitful, airplane sleep. As we approached LA many hours later, I spend the last 20 minutes of the flight looking out of the window, watching the coastline of my home country approach after 4 months away. The city bustled with cars, and few bicycles or pedestrians could been seen from the air. Roads were clean and it seemed like ads plastered every visible inch. Just before our gentle landing I caught a glimpse of a flaming hillside and billows of smoke just outside the city. The huge forest fires I had read about while waiting for departure.

A uniformed, American customs official kindly welcomed me home and, after picking up my bag I walked outside into the warm, California air. Waiting me were my girlfriend Rachel, my sister Elizabeth, and my Great-uncle Ned. Elizabeth, Rachel, my brother Levi and roommate Chris had all taken a trip through the American Southwest to pick me up. They had stopped at Ned and Marge’s house and then come to pick me up. It was nice to see some familiar faces after almost two weeks on my own and Ned and Marge prepared a wonderful supper for us during which all of us talked about our adventures.

My time overseas had ended but I still had a few days of adventure driving back across the US before the trip would be at an end.

A Good Day Hiking

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I was feeling a lot better at the beginning of the third day of our hike, but Matthew was not. He had been staying hydrated and getting plenty of rest, but the hiking was beginning to wear on him. I got up a bit before Matt and went and fetched water from the lake, a short walk through a marsh away. It was still quite windy and the breakers got me soaked in freezing cold water, but I managed to fill all three Nalgenes and my Platypus (which holds 4 Nalgenes worth). We were ready for the day and when I got back to camp, Matt had stirred the fire from its slumber, and went to lie down again, still not feeling very well.

Just as I was about to put the porridge on the fire, a man in a motorcycle with a sidecar pulled up, got out, took off his leather, aviator-cap style hat and came running over to me and began telling me in a broken mixture of Russian and German (neither of which I understand very well) that I had to put the fire out! Well, I informed him that we would and that we always make sure fires are completely out before leaving our campsites, but he didn’t understand English. I figured he would figure it out when he stopped by later after we were on our way and found a soaking wet fire pit.

He went on his way with his ear-flaps flopping in the wind. I thought I had finally convinced him I was trustworthy. Fifteen minutes later, just as Matt and I were tucking into our hot porridge, he came back, ear-flaps flying, with a TV antenna in his sidecar. He stopped again and made his way to our campsite where he once again informed us of something that we couldn’t understand. He seemed adamant about it, whatever it was so we doused the fire (with the help of 10 gallons of water he brought to us), packed up and we were off.

I was feeling good, the kilometers were flying past, we were surrounded by flowers in fields, birds in trees, and spectacular rock formations, and then everything went wrong. We followed what looked like the most major path (nothing was marked really) and ended up spending an hour hiking up an almost vertical cliff face and getting stuck in a cauldron at the top of a scree slope with no outlet. A rather disappointing day, but we broke out some more Wild Bill’s Beef Jerky and trudged on.

We camped that evening just 10 kilometers from where we had started, but Matt was not feeling good at all and the wind blowing in our faces wasn’t doing anything to help. We did have a good camping spot, however, with a little path down the cliff to the water, a nice flat, mossy area for the tent, an existing firepit, and plenty of firewood. All of this with a view of the entire lake. I went to pump water and Matt made a nice little firepit and we burnt the parts of our Russia guidebook we didn’t need as tinder. It was a nice evening, medicinal tea from home, hot chocolate, rice (Full-cooked rice! Hooray! I finally succeeded!) with a topping made of different odds and ends and lots of fresh garlic.

Matt went to sleep early again, but I stayed up reading for another hour or two and what I saw during that hour or two began to concern me. Clouds started rolling over the lake from the South-West and the cold wind strengthened. Lightening showed up in the distance and mist began rolling over the lake. A storm was coming.

I packed everything up, put the fly on the tent and went to bed, hoping everything would be dry the next morning.

Another Day Hiking

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

The light of our second Siberian dawn trickled through the trees and woke me before it did Matt. I got up, packed my sleeping bag and the cooking supplies, made sure the fire was completely out (we had spread the ashes the night before, but I wanted to make sure it was cool. It was) and finished the last swig of water in my trusty Nalgene. It was looking to be a warm day and I knew we needed to find some water, but the lake was at the bottom of a 50 foot cliff, so we’d have to walk on until we found a stream or a beach.

Matt woke up after I had been reading for 15 minutes or so (I was in the middle of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and we set off down the hill. It was a bit of a rough trail, but after 15 minutes we came to a beach and sat down to enjoy our fill of crystal clear, filtered (thank you Mommie and Papa for letting me borrow the water pump), and frigid cold water. And we made breakfast, porridge again.

Matt was not feeling any better, his whole body was aching and he had a low-grade fever that had started the evening before. We took our vitamins and I encouraged him to drink a Nalgene of water right there. I also filled up my Platypus bladder which I had forgotten I had with me. We were much better off and as the morning progressed, we hiked on with hourly rest breaks and some delicious Wild Bill’s beef jerky from my parents that I had been saving for a special occasion.

Lunch that afternoon was a can of tuna steak (delicious) and a two hour nap on the pebbly beach of what was turning into one of the worlds most beautiful spots. Matt was feeling better after our break, and plodded on stolidly. We camped early that night after hiking just 15 kilometers, but arriving where we had hoped to make it. We set up camp under a spreading evergreen, lit a small fire and Matt went to sleep early. I stayed up for a while longer tending the fire and being bitten by mosquitoes while reading The Idiot (half of which we had used to start the fire that evening.)

That night was cloudless, but a strong wind started from the North East and smashed the coastline with oceanic breakers all night long. I slept well, waking just once in the middle of the night to check on the fire and our bags (we were just past the town of Bolshaya Kadilnaya and a bit close to civilization for my comfort).

A Hiking Trip

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

The sun rose lazily over Lake Baikal, chasing away the demons of uncertainty from the night before. Matthew and I had arrived in the city of Irkutsk, now over 40 kilometers away, late morning the day before (09/08) and spent hours trying desperately to get some information via the internet on the Great Biakal Trail that supposedly stretched for over 500 kilometers of the lake’s shoreline. We checked out some hotels for that night, but, finding everything either full or expensive, we had opted to take a taxi from the dirty, soviet Irkutsk to the confusing tourist villa of Listvyanka.

Listvyanka sits at the mouth of the Angara river which drains Lake Baikal north into the Arctic ocean. It was dark by the time we arrived, and we had no idea where the trail actually began. We walked the roads and paths around the northern end of town, eventually settling on a path that followed the shore for about 100 meters, before climbing into the hills overlooking the lake. An hour or so of wandering in the dark woods and we admitted we’d have to wait ’til morning to clear our minds and show us the way out. We camped late that night on a grassy ledge that sloped precariously toward the 20-foot high lakeside cliff.

Matthew had woken a bit earlier than I and had pumped some water from the crystal clear lake. He had also talked to a few British tourists down the beach a ways who also had no idea where they were going, the only difference was that they had a guide. I woke groggily and helped him prepare breakfast. Over bowls of hot oatmeal we went over what we knew about the lake and the trail. The lake itself is considered the oldest lake in the world (between 25 million and 6 thousand years old, depending on your views) and contains 20% of the world’s freshwater—more than all 5 great lakes combined. Along the banana-shaped lake, a dozen or so little towns nestle between the frigid waters and the majestic peaks of the surrounding mountain ranges. We would be hiking from Listvyanka, near the southern tip of the lake, along the inside curve past two little lake-side towns—Bolshiye Koty and Bolshaya Kadilnaya—ending up at Bolschoye Goloustnoe, a slightly larger town where we could get a bus back to Irkutsk. If we timed it right, the trip would take four days getting us back to Irkutsk on Friday with our train leaving later that day.

As we sat eating and basking in the morning sun, alone until the pack of British tourists we had seen earlier traipsed past us with their guide. The one Matt had talked to earlier told us we were on the right path and we rejoiced. We packed up and were soon on our way, loaded down with food and camping gear, enough, we hoped, to last us those 4 days. It was an easy hike for the most part, but neither of us were in good shape after several weeks of immobilizing train rides. We each had 50 pound packs on our backs, no hiking boots, not enough water, and Matthew was starting to show signs of a cold or flu as we left. Not a good start for a journey of 55 kilometers over rough, mountainous terrain in the heart of Siberia, but we were not faint of heart and we plunged on.

The trail wound its way beside the deep blue lake, but Matthew and I could only enjoy it when we stopped from time to time to catch our breath. An hour or so in, we passed the British group, but other than that we felt we were going extremely slowly. Our lack of water along with Matt’s disease did not make for easy going and the constant up and down of the cliffside trail didn’t help either. We made it to Bolshiye Koty late that evening, found it to be significantly smaller than we had expected and found only a closed shack with “Museum” written on it, a few houses, a ferry terminal, and overpriced soda on the shelves of the only magazin (shop) in town. We moved on, made it out of town just as the sun was setting, and, after a grueling hike up a little hill, eventually found a place flat enough to sleep that night.

Unfortunately, it was also a place apparently frequented by horses, as their droppings surrounding the site attested. We were feeling a bit ambivalent about the day. I had a dull, dehydration-induced headache and Matt was not looking extremely healthy. We lit a fire to encourage ourselves and I tried my hand at my first campfire-cooked meal. The rice was underdone, which I intensely dislike, so that did nothing to lighten my mood. Later that night, when I woke to the frightening sound of horses pawing and neighing right by my head in the pine-darkened forest, I wasn’t so sure about the whole hiking idea.