August 21st, 2010
Beijing, China

I’m sitting in bed feeling sick and following the election results. It’s neck and neck at the moment. Labor better not manage to lose an election to the most unelectable man in Australia.

I voted (Green) at the Australian embassy earlier this week. It was a big grey building of brutal architecture and glass doors and token Aboriginal artwork and men wearing suits with ID cards hanging around their necks – basically what I imagine the entire city of Canberra to look like. I was actually there to do a tax return, but apparently they don’t do that anymore. It’s all done with computers these days. Or at least it’s supposed to be; when I tried using eTax in Korea last year it refused to verify my identity and I had to wait until I went back to Perth. The whiz-bang wonders of the modern age.

Labor’s on 70 and the coalition’s on 71. The pundits always claim the election will be tight, but I’m surprised it really turned out that way. Didn’t Labor win by like 30 seats last time?

I also went to the SOS International Clinic the same day, because although I was feeling fine I was convinced that my regular traveller’s diarrhea must be the result of an ongoing, waxing and waning infection. It was a huge sparkling modern facility where all the expats and diplomats go, and I certainly received the best standard of medical care I’ve ever had, at the low price of five hundred fucking dollars. Most of that goes on travel insurance, but Jesus. Anyway, after running some tests my Austrian doctor announced that I was perfectly healthy.

Four days later and I’m suffering from diarrhea again, this time with abdominal pain and nausea. This is fucking frustrating. Particularly so given that I’m living in an expat’s house and eating safe, familiar foods. If I really am just constantly picking up a string of separate infections, where did this one come from?

The Greens are doing quite well, with a swing of nearly 4%. That would suggest that many Australians would prefer to have a right-wing and a left-wing party in this country, rather than two right-wing parties. Hard to enjoy that, however, with the prospect of Prime Minister Tony Abbott dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles.

So, yeah, living in this house. It’s divine. It sits in a gated suburban community about forty minutes outside of Beijing, and it’s completely wonderful in every way. Glenn, his wife Leila, and their delightfully stereotypical teenage daughter Nicole have been incredibly welcoming, considering that we’re a pair of deadbeat backpackers who invited ourselves into their home. We have separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, AN ELEVATOR, a swimming pool and a thousand other things we never had any right to dream of. Glenn cooked us both steak dinners one night, and said “You boy are gonna be fucked when you leave here.” He’s right. We’re growing accustomed to a very high standard of living, coming directly after living like hobos for three and a half months.

Most wonderful, though, is simply having a home. People often talk about the things they miss from home when they’re travelling, and it’s usually food – vegemite, fish and chips, various little things you just can’t get overseas. But for both Chris and myself, the thing we missed most was freedom.

Travelling the world at whim, with nothing to tie you down, seems like the very definition of freedom. It’s not. When you’re travelling in a foreign country on a tourist visa there is an enormous amount of limits on the things you can do. You’re often confused, you depend upon the strangers around you for many things, you have to take public transport everwhere and you have to worry about securing every meal and every bed. I don’t miss Vegemite or Cadbury or Smiths. I miss going to the fridge to get something to eat. I miss getting in my car and driving wherever I want. I miss melting into a crowd. I miss doing pretty much whatever I want all the time.

So the best thing about living in Glenn’s house is being able to cook our own meals. Or at least it is for Chris, who can actually cook. For dinner tonight I had bread with a bit of ham and Kraft cheese on it, an uninspiring meal which I then burnt in the grill. “Iron Chef,” Chris commented.

Labor 73, coalition 74. I can’t imagine anyone other than the sneering, arrogant Joe Hockey that I would like to see in the Lodge less than I would Tony Abbott.

I don’t have any photos for you this update, because I haven’t taken any. We haven’t been into the city much. Nicole accuses us of being the worst tourists ever, but after nearly four straight months of being tourists, it’s nice to be shut-in slobs again. Besides, we have another ten days here, which is more than enough time to do the Great Wall and Forbidden City and all that jazz.

We did go in to extend our tourist visas at the Chinese Kafka Bureau. Not only did we need a certificate of temporary residence in Beijing – which neccesitated a trip to the police station – we also needed proof of funds to support the rest of our stay – in a Chinese bank. What the fuck kind of tourist opens up a bank account? Leila opened some up for us and transferred her own money in there, transferring it back out after we’d dropped our passports off. I can’t imagine how difficult that would have been if we were staying at a hostel. I really dislike the communist world. Anywhere they’re finicky about foreigners, in fact. Give me Europe and the Americas any day. My piss-weak immune system should be able to handle those places too.

Steve Fielding seems to have lost his seat. Good.

We also hunted down a bookstore, since we need to stock up on reading material for Mongolia and the Trans-Siberian. There don’t appear to be any second-hand bookstores in Beijing, which is a shame for the budget traveller, but we did manage to find one that had a lot of classic titles for around 30 yuan ($5) each. So I picked up Kidnapped and King Solomon’s Mines, as well as Stephen King’s On Writing (a very readable book, which motivated me to finish a short story I started writing way back in Seoul – and I also discovered this awesome website, so I’ll send it off to a few magazines). I also have Middlesex and am patiently waiting for Chris to finish reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Labor predicted 71, coalition predicted 74, 4 independents and 1 Green. At this rate Quentin Bryce might be able to put up a big “1” on the scorecard in Government House and tie with John Kerr.

From what I’ve seen of Beijing – a few shopping precincts Nic dragged us to, the walk between SOS and the Australian embassy, and the streets I see out the windows of taxis – it seems a more pleasant city than I imagined it to be. The smog can be quite appalling on a bad day, as bad as Seoul’s, but it’s also cyclical, and there are plenty of days with clear blue skies. It’s still a fairly ugly East Asian city of blocky apartment buildings, but hey, all East Asian cities look like that. And I have yet to see a child taking a shit on the sidewalk.

It reminds me of Seoul quite a lot, actually. The air smells exactly the same – hot and dusty and slightly gritty. That makes me nostalgic, not that I liked Seoul, but that it harks back to a time in my life that was very simple. Just as high school and university have the comforting stable goal of graduation, Seoul had the comforting stable goal of GET ME THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.

Well, this election’s going nowhere fast. I’m going to go brew up some more of the Oriental voodoo tea Leila insists will cure my illness, then watch By Any Means and maybe send that story off. Then I’ll go to sleep hoping that when I wake up, we’ll still have a Welsh turncoat for a Prime Minister rather than a smirking religious zealot.

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