China 6: Universiade and The long journey home

The city of Harbin is nearly three times the size of Chicago, population-wise at least, so we couldn’t even tell you in what direction the river was from our hotel, nor Beijing for that matter. My dad suggested we get a bird’s-eye view of the city from the Dragon Tower, one of the 25 tallest buildings in the world and the telecommunications center for northeast China. After the Berkowitzes and we paid nearly 20 bucks a piece to ride an elevator, climb some rickety stairs and barely see a few blocks ahead of us because of the smog. My dad really didn’t get the view he wanted, but we did give Ellen a little bit of a scare because of her fear of heights. She did a quick lap around the top and went inside to look at the butterfly collection.

The new ice sports complex wasn’t more than a 15 minute walk, but the clear day was mistakenly took for a warm day, and we suffered because of it. The two rink are connected by a long tunnel lines with inflatable Dong Dongs and the hotel in front of them made us pass through security and metal detectors just to make it into the lobby! We had originally only wanted to stay for the 10-minute practice, but because of a lack of good information, we were told we may not be allowed to enter for the competition. This was at 12:50 p.m. and synchronized skating wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:30 p.m. Instead of taking risks, my family decided to stay and I was thankfully to have brought a book and snacks (we were also told there would be no food, so Nance and Linder brought cheese, crackers, chips and fruit).

Margaret’s team skated third to Roxanne from Moulin Rouge. In the collegiate division, they skate just one program that’s about 7 minutes long and is creative and includes a lot of lifts and stunts. The short program, which is about four minutes and much more technical and precise, consists of compulsory moves that a team must complete – big moving circles that cover 75% of the ice, for example, or a backwards pass. Out of the five teams competing, they came in fourth after the short program for not having all of their moves counted. But, you have to give them credit for learning a new program while perfecting another one for national championships. The girls were upset, but I thought it looked cool and everyone stayed on their feet.

The next morning, my dad and I headed to a Confucious Temple in town. It’s on a pedestrian street, and the first thing I noticed was that the people were actually fat. Not fat in comparison to Americans, but fat in comparison to the other Chinese we’d seen. The temple was masked by a heavy cloud of incense, as people used giant pits to burn incense in paper bags while saying prayers to giants Buddhas placed all over the complex, which is bigggg. In the middle, there’s a giant golden guy and people left food offerings at his feet. The buildings that ring around him have the traditional tiers and dragon riding kings, which made me feel like we’d escaped the city. Then, upon leaving, we saw a monk wearing crocs and talking on a cell phone. And people think China is cut off to the rest of the world!

We met Helen and Larry for an early dinner at the Russian restaurant we’d eaten at a few days before, where I ordered the exact same thing, and headed to the rink for the end of ladies free skate. We sat much closer this time, so we could see every finger on the skaters’ hands as they landed jumps and spun out of spins. For the long skate, the girls skated second, after Switzerland. They had these AWFUL pepto bismal pink dresses and danced to Mamma Mia! and it was a fun program. The hockey team came to cheer them on and many of the spectators behind us took flags to participate. Margaret didn’t skate this program, but she did get on the ice to pick up sequins that had fallen. The finished fourth behind Sweden, Finland and Russia, despite not being the senior team. They were disappointed not to medal, but just recently won the National title at the nationwide collegiate competition. I was especially proud of Margaret because she was cut from the team her sophomore year and won a spot back on the team by dedicating a lot of time to working out and passing skating tests.

Our wakeup call the following morning was 4:30 a.m., and it was even colder than we could have imagined. One of the other dads was nice enough to preorder breakfast for us, so we had fruit and dim sum and sausages and thermoses of coffee. The Harbin airport is goofy city. There was hardly anything written in English, so we couldn’t figure out which ticketing counter belonged to our flight back to Beijing and ended up being pushed to the end of the line with a bunch of other athletes. The security checks were seperated into three parts – ticket and ID, bags and finally body searches. This wasted enough time to get us to the gate with just 2o minutes to boarding.

Once in Beijing, we were met at the gate by an army of Harbin Universiade athletes. I had a four-hour layover and wanted to stay with my family for a little while before heading out, but the volunteers practically pulled me away from them to get the bus to another terminal. They all seemed a little disoriented, so I kept getting handed off from one to another. Finally, I found myself with a tall, skinny boy and another girl. They offered to carry all of my bags, convinced I was an athlete despite my objections. They rode the bus with me even though I assured them it wasn’t necessary and I could get there on my own. The queue at Air France was long, so I once again told them they could leave, but they instead checked me in at the Business Class counter and tried to upgrade my seat before accompanying me all the way to the gate.

The 10.5 hour flight passed without sleep, so by the time I got to Paris, changed terminals, had my passport stamped assuring I got into the EU (at which point I realized my French lessons were COMPLETELY worthless because I couldn’t tell the man, “J’habite dans l’Espagne” when he asked why I was going to Spain), then going through security again and having a man tell me our government didn’t spend money properly, I realized I was completely wiped. I could barely keep my eyes open waiting and listening to music, so I grabbed the cookbook my sister gave me. I got on a shuttle to the plane and started hearing Spanish. FINALLY a language I understand and can express myself in! I recognized one of the other passengers from the airport in Beijing and smiled weakly, still overcome by my heavy eyelids and the fact that I’d been up well over 20 hours. He was speaking on his mobile and said, “There’s a girl here coming from Beijing, too. I think she’s foreign because she’s reading a book in English about Spain. She must be going to Spain for tourism purposes.” So I broke out some Spanish slang to tell him I was returning to my curro, or work, in Sevilla.

We talked for a bit (I think his name was Jorge? I was so asleep at that point I could barely string a few sentences together!) and I wished him a good trip. Turns out he was sitting right next to me. Que casualidad, right? We talked for the whole trip before he told me, “Tienes cara de sueno” – you look tired. You think? Once we arrived in Barajas, he offered to accompany me by metro because he lives a stop away from the bus station. I accepted and grabbed my bag from the luggage claim. As we were leaving, a study abroad student chased me down and said, I think you have my bag. I apologized and said mine was the same size and color and I had completely neglected to read the tag. He said, “I asked if there was another big, blue backpack that had arrived and they said no.” AWESOME. It’s 24 hours after I left Harbin and I have no bag and a six-hour bus ride to endure before getting to my bed.

Jorge helped me with the baggage claim simply because I was too tired to speak. My cell phone needs to be unlocked every time it’s switched on by a four-digit pin, but it had somehow become locked while in China and I had to enter a bar code used to activate the card. So when she asked for the phone number so the airline could deliver my bag (which was chilling out in Paris still), I tried to give her my home line. I of course couldn’t remember it, nor did it do any good to give her Kike’s number since he was in Somalia. I started crying out of exhaustion and frustration. The good news was my bag had been located and I had a light load to take on the metro, which has a transfer. By the time I got on the overnight bus from Mendez Alvaro a few hours later, I passed out, only waking up in Ecija, a mere hour from Sevilla.

I have never been happy to get back to Spain. The more I travel and the more of the world I see, the more I feel at home in Sevilla and the more I like even the most bothersome things. I’ll put up with beauracracy and moscas if it means I can drink beer at 11 am every day and get to swear at my kids when I’m frustrated!

For pictures of China and the rest of the year, check out .

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

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