Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Lost in Shenyang: A palace, Guitar Hero and a two-hour massage

(Photos are of the palace library, me as an empress, a sleeping video-game player and breakfast at my hotel)

I was supposed to meet my tour group yesterday but they didn't show up, leaving me scratching my head and thinking that I might have gone to the wrong city. Is there another Shenyang in China that they might have gone to instead? Or perhaps a parallel universe? And then I got locked out of my hotel room because they thought I was trying to sneak out without paying the bill. But I wasn't! Honest. They just couldn't understand my English. Money talks, however, and they finally gave me back my luggage. Whew.

At 6 am this morning, I decided to go see if the internet cafe was open. Ha! This place never closes. This place has three stories of internet terminals, charges 50 cents an hour and is jam-packed 24/7 with teenagers playing video games. Just look around. There are teenage boys asleep on the keyboards everywhere, after having spent a raucous night playing Guitar Hero -- or whatever its Chinese equivalent is.

"What are we going to do today?" I asked my tour leader.

"We are going to go to the North Korean consulate, get our visas, tour the city of Shenyang by bus, go to the old imperial palace and get a two-hour massage." And food!

Who'd a thought that Shenyang had historical significance but it does. "This was actually the home base of the Manchu dynasty," said our tour guide. "At first the Manchus were Tartars, sweeping over the steppes with Genghis Khan. Then they built the palace you see here...." Yes, I finally found my tour group and now we were touring a palace that apparently was a prototype for the Forbidden City in Beijing.

"In the 1600s," continued our guide, "the Manchus formed the Qing dynasty and changed China's capital from the old Han one at Nanking to a new one here." Shenyang used to be the capital of China? Cool!

So if I'm going to be stuck here instead of being allowed into North Korea tomorrow, it won't be the end of the world. But so far it's looking bad for my visa to the DPRK.

"The DPRK consulate has lost your visa application," I was just told. "It will be impossible to get you a new one in time. A committee has to meet to approve it and they won't be meeting again any time soon."

That's the bad news. The good news is that my hotel serves free breakfasts and all this time that I was starving and living on stick-figure chicken, I coulda just gone down to the buffet.

I went down to the buffet this morning -- and they everything from stir-fry to Cocoa Puffs.

It's consoling to know, however, that the DPRK officials are really trying to help me get my visa. But after dealing with the American military bureaucracy regarding getting embedded in Iraq for the last three years, I'm afraid that I know how these bureaucracies work. First you gotta go up the chain of command. Second, you gotta have time. My plane back to the States leaves on April 17, so time is in short supply. Keep your fingers crossed for me, guys. Shenyang is historic and interesting, sure, but North Korea is even MORE historic and interesting. Sorry, Shenyang, but it's true -- except of course that Shenyang has a palace, a two-hour massage and Guitar Hero!