The First Hurdle
Our Thursday morning train was scheduled to depart from Beijing South Railway Station at 7:53 a.m. No problem. The two options for reaching the train station were (a) taxi (b) Line 14 of the subway. We opted for Option A. Swiftly striding through the pouring rain, I arrived at Ellen's house at 6:20 a.m., and by 6:53 a.m. - one hour before our train left - we were on the street waiting for a taxi. And we quickly got one, and were on our way.
Traffic was fine but changed to horrible once we got within a kilometer of the train station. Left turn lanes were full and bogged, no lanes were moving, the rain continued to pour, and neither Ellen nor I spoke. Our hearts began pounding because of the emerging possibility of missing the train. I watched the clock tick closer and closer to our departure time. 7:35. We finally turned left toward the station. 7:40. We got onto the entrance ramp. 7:45. There was still so far to go, and our vehicle was absolutely creeping up the road. It was time to take action into our own hands.
On the ramp, in the pouring rain, we jumped out both doors of the taxi, grabbed our crap, and booked it on foot past the slough of other cars, passengers, and puddles. After reaching the entrance to the train station, it was time to run. Yes. We were those people. Fortunately our train was departing from a boarding gate that wasn't too far from the entrance; Ellen sprinted forward, leading the way, and I dashed on behind, wielding two suitcases and a very, very dark expression. The crowds parted before us. We got to the gate, got in the wrong line, rearranged ourselves in the correct line, and tore down the stairs to the waiting platform. Without waiting, we both threw ourselves onto the train bound for Changchun at 7:50 a.m., panting and gasping and sweating.
Once in our seats, we laughed. I had never cut it so close getting to a train or a plane. Not fun, not the way we wanted to start the trip, but - we made it! The train took off, and we were headed for Changchun.
The Second Hurdle
The following day was the big day, the primary objective of the trip: obtain marriage certificates for ourselves. Both Ellen and I had done our homework while in Beijing; we'd prepared all the paperwork that we knew we'd need, save one thing: the famous and required marriage picture. This is a photograph inserted in one's marriage certificate in China; it is a photo of the couple with a red background. There are size and angle requirements, but it is a pretty simple photograph. It was the one thing that we hadn't brought, but the officers at the government building were equipped with a red backdrop and a big camera that could take this photograph for us. So, after we had handed in our paperwork and had gone back to the take the picture, disaster struck: the quality of the photography at the government was deemed (by one of us) insufficient, too mediocre in color and definition to capture our rapturous and delightful good looks. So - it being only 10:15 in the morning - we struck out to find a photography shop that could take a better picture for our marriage certificate.
An online search brought us to a fancy studio in some dapper part of town. The studio appeared to be equipped to capture a vast multitude of different types of photography, what with the wide variety of the different props and backdrops that was available. I had to raise an eyebrow at some of the other clientele, two women in their forties wearing Mickey Mouse ears, very tight yellow tops that revealed some of their plumb bellies, and shockingly small black leather shorts. Where were we?
The manager was quite nice and told us that they could gussy us up before taking our marriage certificate photo. So I sat and waited while some teenage girl put make-up on my fiancée's face and then cut off half of one of her eyebrows. Not exactly what we wanted right before taking this important picture. "I can't work with your eyebrow the way it is!" claimed the teenage make-up artist. After a heated conversation (and the introduction of two cats to me, which I think was a ruse to make me think that this photography studio didn't suck as bad as it did), the teenage make-up artist went to work on fixing Ellen's face, which normally does not need fixing.
After an hour in total of make-up work, we were ready to shoot, so some dude took pictures of us for half an hour, and we looked awesome. Then the arduous process of editing the photographs in the correct way began. I returned to zoning out and pestering the cats while Ellen supervised the photoshopping. Another hour later, we were finally given the best final products that could be procured. The color of the backdrop, which wasn't exactly red but was more of a maroon (unacceptable to the Chinese government), had been an issue, as had been the clarity and definition of our mugs. But, finally, three hours, one eyebrow, and 118 RMB later, we had what we needed!
Ellen and I rushed happily off, back to the government marriage registration office, ready to become legally wed! We burst in! We re-pulled out our documents! We produced the photos and excitedly handed them to the lady behind the desk! This was it!
The lady behind the desk looked at our pictures and without further ado said, "These won't work."
Something about the way our shoulders were aligned. It wasn't right. The color was also a very questionable shade of red, and the photo cuts were too small.
So, we had to settle for the original option of just having our pictures taken at the government marriage office. Later, that night, we went back and threw Molotov cocktails through the photo studio's windows, of course, but...that will be another post.
The important thing, however, was this: our primary objective had been achieved, and we had, at that moment, in our hands...our marriage certificates. The most important thing, for sure.
The Third Hurdle
To celebrate this momentous accomplishment, Ellen and I had decided to head to a volcano that straddles the border of China and North Korea. The volcano is called Baekdusan (백두산) in Korean and Changbaishan (长白山) in Chinese, and it looked pretty awesome. The volcano - dormant, mind you - was a forty-five-minute flight from Changchun, so Ellen and I planned to meet up with a friend of ours there, go up the volcano, and enjoy the wilderness for a spell.
The hurdle was getting there. If the reader will kindly recall the first hurdle, we hadn't done so well arriving for our departing transportation modes in a timely manner. Our flight from Changchun to Changbaishan left at 11:15 a.m., which is a hard time to miss. So I figured we'd be fine.
But you can probably guess what is going to happen.
We checked out of our hotel and wanted to get to the Changchun's western train station to grab a train to the airport. Nice, cheap, and quick. However, after leaving the hotel at 9:15 a.m., we found ourselves surrounded by immense amounts of traffic, and it suddenly seemed unlikely that we were going to make the 9:50 a.m. train to the airport. As we drew closer and closer to the train station, my heart began smashing around in my chest in exactly the same way it had two days earlier, on the way to a different train station in a different city. Were we going to make the train?
We didn't. And when we got to the train station, we discovered no other trains went to the airport until 12:30 p.m. It was already 9:55, and it would take another hour to get to the airport. We ran - and I mean we ran, and people were diving out of the way and yelling at us - back to the road to get a taxi. Off we went, putting immense verbal pressure on the driver to get us to the airport as fast as humanly possible.
The driver did his best. We got to the airport at about 10:50 a.m. and flew to the check-in counter, where we were told that check-in was already closed and that there was nothing to be done. We were not going to be able to get on that flight. Eat the tickets, book new ones for 8:45 p.m. that night, and buckle down for the next ten hours at the airport.
Ugh. Sweat and heart-pounding, and fears manifested in awful ways. I had never missed a flight before, and I guess if I was going to have to miss one flight in my life, this would be the best one to not get on; there was no incredibly-pressing reason to get to Changbaishan any quicker than we were able to. When we did finally fly away and arrive at the volcano's small, Joe Foss Field-like airport, the friend we were going to meet there - Jesse - came in on a flight about fifteen minutes after us, which worked out well. Still, the taste of failure, of not making the 11:15 a.m. flight...it was bitter. Many, many long hours were grumpily spent that afternoon the waiting lounge at the airport.
The Fourth Hurdle
Changbaishan. The main attraction is, of course, the volcanic peak and the lake lying in its crater. In Chinese the word for lakes up in the mountains is some sort of buzzword - tianchi (天池)...heavenly lake - and is a must-see, a must-photograph. We struck out early in the morn to try to navigate the long lines and crazy bus routes that were present to transport tourists to a spot near the top. There were plenty of people and plenty of clouds, which, as soon as we saw them, made us doubtful of whether we'd be able to get a glimpse of the volcano's crater. But we went anyway.
A shuttle took us to where the Chinese tourism industry snaked hundreds of RMB from us, and then we walked to another shuttle that took us up the side of the mountain. For a nice while green rushed past the sides of the bus, but as we climbed higher, an impenetrable blanket of fog fell. Or maybe we ascended into it. And then we were at the foot of a 1,500-step staircase, and the only way to go was up.
We reached the top. Here is a picture - a very, very nice one - of what we could have seen on a pristine day:
The fourth hurdle. We didn't really get over it. Here is what Ellen, Jesse, and I got to see:
In some ways, the fog and mist and clouds were cool and mysterious. If, say, they'd come down and covered Beijing, it would have been sweet - something new, creepy, different, shrouding what you know. But we all would have much preferred to be able to see the beauty of the wilderness surrounding us, instead of just the fog surrounding us.
The fifth and final day didn't have any crappy setbacks, missed or almost missed flights or trains, massive wastes of time, incompetency, or disappointments. Perhaps it was as Jesse said: if we set our expectations low or expect nothing, we will have a good time. And we did.
The first thing we did was to go "rafting." The Chinese word for this activity - piaoliu (漂流) - doesn't get specific enough for a person to really know what is going to happen. Ellen and I have both experienced many different types of piaoliu, and some have been on bamboo rafts down quiet, peaceful streams navigated by local minions; others have been dangerous, crazy, white-water rafting-type experiences. So when we called a piaoliu place and told them we wanted to undergo their product, we only knew we'd be on a river and would probably get at least our shoes wet.
Fortunately! This was a very enjoyable rafting experience! We showed up to find seven or eight guys hanging out among big piles of life jackets, rubber rafts, and crappy oars. They didn't make us sign waivers, go with a guide, or drink their Kool-Aid; they didn't even give us directions. We just got in the rafts and went! And it was great. Behold:
None of us fell in. We did get soaked, from the splashes of the more violent parts of the river, or from the way we angled ourselves in our vessels. There was some wildlife - mostly ducks, and some butterflies. We didn't see any snakes, despite warning signs posted about them at the point of embarkation. There was a good balance of rough and quiet sections to the river. And there were no other people, no hordes of tourists to battle and jostle with. Just very quiet water moving over rocks, past trees, and through time.
Later we went up a hill above our hotel and saw what there was to see.
We also took a bike ride on bikes that could barely handle the power of our muscles.
And it was good. Real good. One problem-free day out of five.
The main objective of the trip, obviously, was to get the marriage certificates. And we did this successfully, so even if everything else had gone even worse, the trip would still be considered a success. Primary goal completed. In truth, we will wait to really "be married" until we are wed before the Lord in September, but this was an important step to take in the process, especially since we had to go all the way to Changchun to make it happen. Getting to partake in a few auxiliary activities was excellent as well - in addition to the fun at Changbaishan, Ellen and I visited her enormous college campus and one of her college classmates. Good to see where she'd been, this lady with whom I will spend the rest of my life. There will be many more trips, and many more journeys. This one - with its myriad of setbacks that we overcame - was good to go through together.