I’ve alighted in the bosom of The Motherland, and it’s a very long way from home. The trip started out placidly enough. Pearson airport was deserted. It was kind of eerie to see such a huge place so empty. I didn’t wait in line to check in my luggage, or to go through security. The security guards looked bored. They practically waved me through. I found it interesting that the boarding announcement for my flight was first in Chinese, then in English, then in French. Most of the people on the flight were Chinese, so it seemed appropriate.
The flight itself was pretty smooth. I sat beside a guy who has made the 14 hour flight to Beijing ten times in the last year. He’s got work and family obligations that prevent him from going longer, but since he works for Air Canada, he doesn’t have to pay much for his flights. So basically he’s taking the same one-month vacation as me, but spreading it out over an entire year in 3 day increments. Interesting. He was jealous that I was spending more than 3 days in China.
The airport experience in Beijing was nothing remarkable. I was prepared for a challenge, but everything was labeled clearly in English and Chinese. I had instructions from my hostel (Red Lantern House) on how to find the place, so I started following them. I found the airport shuttle bus terminal, and bought a ticket for 16 yuan. That’s about $2. The instructions were to take shuttle bus 2 to Xidan Aviation Building. I took my ticket to the bus driver, who said something that sounded like, “ERYJ FKEJ IES MA?” I looked at him blankly. He said again, “”ERYJ FKEJ IES MA?” I said, “Xidan?” He said, “Xidan,” took my ticket, and gestured for me to put my bags in the luggage compartment of the bus. I guess I was doing something right.
The shuttle bus ride was about an hour long. The bus wove its way into the city, first quickly, then bogging down in traffic. Beijing is enormous. I’ve been told that 17 million people live here, and while you drive into the city, you feel like you can see all of them. The first thing that struck me about Beijing is that I never would have guessed that it was the capital of a Communist country. Capitalism is everywhere here, from giant glass office buildings, to glowing neon billboards advertising everything from hair dye to cameras. Everything is on a massive scale, from condo buildings to highway construction to office towers. It’s clear to see that the city is preparing for the Olympics. There are giant construction projects happening everywhere, and multi-storey signs advertise the Olympics on many street corners.
The shuttle bus lurched deeper and deeper into the city, the swarms of surrounding humanity growing increasingly stifling. Traffic finally mashed to a halt in front of Tienanmen Square, where police had cordoned off the entrance to let a some kind of military march take place. There was a sea of people and cars as far as I could see. Then, as if by magic, we were released again.
Finally we got to the Xidan Aviation building. I was glad I had directions that were proving to be somewhat useful, because this looked like many other buildings. It even had a KFC restaurant in it, like seemingly every other building in Beijing. The Chinese apparently love KFC. I wonder what it’s doing to their blood pressure?
My next step was to get on public bus #22. That was easier said than done. I found a mob of people waiting at the bus stop. I waited politely within the group for the bus to arrive. When it did, it was an accordian-style bus with four sets of doors. Two ahead of the bend, and two behind. I got in on the third set of doors. That is, I tried to get in. I discovered that waiting patiently is something that is just not done in China. As the doors swung open, the bus barfed out about 20 people. At the same time, the mob surrounding me did what mobs do. They barged forwards into the bus. I got trampled by old ladies, little kids, and grownups alike. They all wove and pushed by me and my suitcase and wedged themselves into the bus. After about 3 seconds of this, I caught on, but by this time, the bus was jammed. I managed to catch a toe-hold on the step and pushed my way onto the bus. No one seemed to mind that my camera backpack was smearing their face into the armpit of a stranger, or that my suitcase was denting their ankles. It was all normal.
I waved a wad of cash at the attendant, trying to ask how much was the ride. She somehow communicated that it was 1 yuan (about 13 cents Canadian — I’m not even joking, Diny). Using some advanced contortionist techniques I fished out a 1 yuan note from the wad and stuffed it into the fare box. Using additional contortionist techniques I managed to stuff the cash back into my pocket, where I hoped it would remain for the rest of the bus trip.
The doors swung closed, and the bus started grinding towards its next stop. The attendant kept tapping me on the arm, trying to get me to move further into the bus. I didn’t see how this was possible. There was no daylight between me and the people on all four sides of me. My suitcase was on the floor, sitting on my feet, pressed against my legs by the crowd, and my backpack was causing serious bodily harm to others whenever I moved. The attendant was having some kind of yelling match with the passenger on my right, who occasionally gestured at my suitcase. I think I was causing a scene, but tried to pretend I was oblivious.
We got to the next stop and the attendant became more insistent that I move. A few people in front of me shifted about one inch each, to make some room. I shoehorned my suitcase into that space and pushed. With considerable force, I squeezed myself towards the back of the bus. The crush of people was intense on all sides. I suddenly realized what an egg must feel as it’s being digested by one of those hinge-jawed snakes. It was close enough that someone could get pregnant in there and never know how it happened.
Meanwhile I was trying to keep track of how many stops had passed. I was to get off at the sixth stop, 100m after a Dairy Queen. Miraculously, I spotted the Dairy Queen through a gap under someone’s armpit. I pushed more urgently towards the back, probably breaking several femurs with my suitcase along the way. Finally, I made it to the back doors, and burst out of the bus, feeling that it had thoroughly digested me.
This Hutong district was buzzing with activity. It’s a major shopping district, and it was awash with crowds shopping for shoes, electronics, clothing, musical instruments. I dragged my suitcase down the bumpy brick sidewalk and made my way towards the alley referenced by my hostel instructions. I found it just past the Dairy Queen. As I turned down the alley, things got progressively seedier. It was now dark, so I was anxious to find the place. I located it about 100m down the alley, on the left side.
The Red Lantern House was a welcome refuge after all that travel. It is basic, but quite pleasant. The staff is friendly and pleasant and some speak English. My room is in a different building than the one down the alley from the Dairy Queen where I checked in. I had to hop in the back of a rickshaw-type bike and take a harrowing ride down the wrong way of a few bike/mini-cab lanes. The driver peddling my bike serenely swerved into traffic to cross the street. My camera backpack smacked the side-view mirror of a passing car. No one seemed to mind.
We got to the building where my room is. It’s down another alley, and looks very traditional. There’s a courtyard with a running water fountain. The staff was serving plates of delicious looking food to hungry backpackers. I settled into my room which is basic but clean and comfortable. At $20/night, I can hardly complain.
I grabbed a plate of said delicious food for 26 yuan, which is about $3. There’s free Internet here, but it’s not very good. In fact, it’s so slow that I imagine each bit of data is being transported back and forth across the Gobi desert on the back of a camel. Blogging with photos is going to be an ordeal. I’ll figure something out though. Maybe it might involve the Blackberry, although sending data via the Blackberry costs about as much as transporting it back and forth across the Gobi desert on the back of a camel.
After dinner I took a brief walk around the neighborhood. Things were starting to shut down for the night, with the exception of barber shops. They seemed to all be doing a pretty brisk business at around 9pm. The buses were still crammed with people.
Anyway, it’s 3:46am now, local time. I’m going to sleep for a couple of hours and then see what this city looks like as it wakes up. Later!
Edit: No one’s using the Internet at 4am, so it’s actually manageable. I’m uploading a test photo to see how it goes. Maybe 4am will be on my schedule as photo upload time?