The morning of our trip started with tea and apprehension. A quick shower, brekkie and last minute triple checks. We have been waiting for this trip for months, even years, and now it’s here I don’t really want to go. Why are we even going? I have a good job here in Korea, Youngja’s doing well at work and we’ve decided to pack it all in and live in sweat house dormitories, showering in toilets and sharing sleep patterns with strangers. I know the dignified reason for travel: it broadens the mind, you experience cultures out of your comfort zone and realise how small and big this world really is. It’s an incredibly fortunate situation to find yourself being able to get out there and have a jolly good look around.
Though, one shouldn’t forget that travelling is hard. You’re constantly on the move, from plane to bus to subway to whatever next. You flitter and flutter about more than a whippet in heat. If you’re not moving you’re preparing to move, and for a man who has declined whole careers for an extra hour in bed this can be seen as a tricky spot to place oneself.
We said goodbye to Youngja’s mum and set off. Youngja gave her little hug and a pat on the back and tried to make the best of it. They’re a sturdy bunch at the in-laws and public displays of affection are few and very far between. After we were dropped off I asked “How was your dad?” “He was quite upset” the wife told. This came as a surprise, to the untrained eye he seemed his usual self. “He seemed okay to me” I put forth. “He couldn’t look at me.” She confessed, through her blues.
At the airport we met a tiny Chinese man who was very jovial and proceeded to push in front of everyone and get to the front in record time.
“How did he manage that?” Asked the wife.
“Maybe everyone thought he was looking for his mummy.”
The way the Chinese do this still mystifies me. As an Englishman, the worry of being thought negatively by strangers is strong and keeping up appearances is an art unto itself. I do find it impressive how the Chinese seem to complete not give any sort of shit to how they would be perceived. When in Rome…
After the usual nonsense at immigration we finally got on the plane and after a short delay we were off.
A friend of mine who travelled for two years explained before I left, “When I went away, I was ready to travel every day. A different experience, a different town, never let the place I’m in keep me.” As he continued I sensed a ‘but’. “I couldn’t do it. Travelling is the hardest thing you’ll do. After some time I found the perfect ingredient for my travel. 5-2. Five days travelling and two off. Reading, listening to music or (mostly) just lying down and/or sleeping”
I was looking forward to Beijing. As much as I admire democracy and see the point of capitalism, a good communist state sounded like a nice change. Now, comrades, please understand, it wasn’t as if I was hoping for ‘The Internationale’ to be bursting through the airport tannoys, I read the news and I know that the reds are on the way out. But blow me over with a desk fan if I wasn’t shocked at the rampant commercialism of the place. Apple, Cartier, Prada, you couldn’t move for a pretty girl selling perfume on a street sign. I knew it was coming one day but I wished they could have waited till I left.
After fighting our way through baggage claim we finally got ours and hopped it outside to get a bus. Why we decided on a bus instead of the train is beyond me. I hate buses. Loathe the things. Dirty, slow, unreliable lumps of metal. But for whatever reason we trusted this one would get us there in one piece. We asked the lady at the ticket office which bus goes closest to Wangfujing, where our hostel was located. She said, without a thought “Number 7, very very very close. 40 minutes.” She actually said very three times. I thought “Golly me, it must be a girl’s stone’s throw from our hostel!”
After the bus driver finally dropped us off, two hours and a minor side collision later (we were told it would take 45 minutes at the most), there didn’t seem to be much in the way of hostels about. “Maybe it’s a man’s stone’s throw”? I reasoned. The wife promptly asked a girl waiting for a bus where Wangfujing would be and how long the walk is.
“Walk?” She said, as if a looney had asked to the way to Belgium on foot.
“Yes. It’s not far, is it?”
“Not far, no” She said.
“Oh, good!” I countered.
“No. It’s far”
“But, you said it’s not far”.
“I said ‘not far no.’ It’s far.”
While my head throbbed, the wife asked how far it is.
“One hour walk. Subway here. Take subway.”
She was in fact very friendly and directed us the way to go on foot anyway. It involved a lot of ‘straights’, ‘lefts’ and indeed ‘rights’, with a couple of okey kokeys thrown in for good measure. We promptly decided on the subway.
By the time we worked out how to use the ticket machine and navigated our way across town, it was around 6pm and would be getting dark soon. We finally found the Hostel, the provocatively titled ‘Feel Inn’ up some corner street. The hostel’s exterior resembled a funky bar, full of neon and statues of Chineesy things. The inside proved to be less funky. I didn’t feel like feeling anything inn there at all. We checked in but couldn’t go to our room yet because it was being cleaned to we spent an irritable half hour in the lobby.
“We’ve wasted the whole day” Youngja declared.
My beautiful wife is many things, perceptive being one. I couldn’t disagree.
“Let’s just hope the room is okay” I hoped.
“How do you know?”
“Because we paid 4 pounds for the night.”
The old optimism took a nose dive and no sooner were we in our room.
Seeing the state of the world we live in it seems trivial to complain about such things as a bad room in Beijing. This will not stop me. It was God awful. It looked like a place you would be detained in if you were caught robbing.
“Didn’t they say they were cleaning it? Is that what passes for sarcasm in China?” I asked YJ, after the owner left and I had complimented the room.
“It could be worse.” YJ supposed.
“I guess so. There are four beds and we’re the only ones here. With any luck we’ll have the place to ours…”
“Hello” Said our new roommate.
“Where are you from?”
After the usual pleasantries we had a new friend. Her name was Chen and she was from Taiwan. She was stopping over in Beijing for the night on the way to Sweden. She had a 24 hour layover and decided to see the town instead of staying at the airport.
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“Yes, three times.”
“You stayed in this place three times?”
“No no, I’ve been to Beijing three times. I never go here.”
“Yes. I doubt this place sees many repeat offenders.”
“What does that mean” She wondered.
“Nothing.” Said YJ “What do you recommend we do in Beijing?”
“Go to the Forbidden City.” She suggested. “It’s very beautiful and very, er, big.”
We stored this for another day and made our way outside for some food.
Wangfujing is one of the big shopping districts in Beijing. Designer brands and KFC abounds and I knew my hopes for a communist haven were dashed. In Wangfujing there are also street stalls selling all manner of food, though one mustn’t forget that the line between ‘food’ and ‘pest’ is no finer than in Beijing. The vendors were unsurprisingly very pushy.
“I don’t want to eat a snake.” I told her.
“I cook now! Why you no say?” She frothed, followed by a tidal wave of what must surely have been the Mandarin for “Not a problem, Sir! Have tons of fun in my fair country!”
Youngja decided on some stir fried noodles and was fleeced into paying 3 pounds for them. An event which to this day, shakes her to the core. Youngja is known as an expert haggler and I’m not sure she’ll ever get over it. For the rest of our trip, whatever we bought she compared it to the noodles.
“This bus trip is 5 times cheaper than those noodles.” She sobbed, the next day. “We could go over the whole of Beijing and still have enough for a Coke with the money we spent yesterday on those noodles.”
“Let it go sweetheart, it was 3 pounds.”
“I’ll never let it go.”
I decided to eat somewhere else, fancying some fried rice or pig on a stick at another market. YJ was still reeling from the 300 pence spent so she said the next meal would be my choice.
“Okay, you can eat whatever you want. Whenever you see something just let me….MacDonalds! I really want some nuggets, let’s get nuggets!” I am not adverse to a cheese burger but McNuggets was not what I had in mind when I thought of my first dinner in Beijing. Good fries, though.
We trudged around Wangfujing a bit more, finding another market with wriggling scorpions and spiders for sale. After this, the thought of dessert inexplicably left me and we decided to head home.
“Don’t forget to set alarms. We need to be up early tomorrow to go to the Great Wall.” YJ reminded.
We are heavy sleepers and a solitary alarm doesn’t cut it. We generally have 5 each. We set the alarms between 6 and 6:30am and sank, fully clothed, into slumber.