My fascination for China started when I became increasingly involved in the city of London, business and law. Here the words are on everyone’s lips, China will most likely become the new next world leader. Their economy is booming, their overseas investment is soaring and if only due to shear size, their increased presence on the world stage can no longer be overlooked. So I planned my trip to the land of plenty, where pretty much everything I own is made. To the home country of the most stylish and fashionable people I know – my friends from Shanghai and Beijing who dress head to foot in designer gear, have the latest gadgets and look like porcelain models. The country is vast and my budget was limited. This was going to be the Princess’s first backpacking adventure, staying in Lonely Planet recommended hostels and winging it. I would meet a good friend of mine called Shirwa, a second year medic at one of London’s leading universities and together we would travel around Northern China. I did my research, read books, asked around. I had been to South Korea anyway, so how hard would it be?
So my flight had been extremely long. With a five hour stop over in Moscow and a night stop over in Rome, I arrived barely living onto Chinese territory. In Rome I had checked my bags into the overnight luggage storage, had gone into town to visit my friend Sonia and then had returned and had tried to sleep in the air-conditioned terminal in a t-shirt and hot pants. Lets just say that at 4am I had to move outside and share a dirty bench with a hobo or else risk freezing to death. OK, so I have learnt my lesson… I won’t buy multi-stop flights just to save money
So, closing brackets, at 9am I walked off the plane at Beijing airport. It was hot, cloudy and humid. Everything looked drab. I had expected the terminal building to be brand spanking new, the newest technology, the world’s best. It wasn’t. Perhaps because my expectations had been too high, I saw it dirty and somewhat smelly. I went into the ladies and two women were squatting over the pan whizzing at full flow with the doors wide open. Something was weird, this didn’t seem right. I held my breath and closed the door.
It turned out that not many people at the international airport, let alone in China, speak English. Now I don’t usually assume everyone can speak English as I am normally able to communicate in people’s native language being trilingual in French, English and Spanish and have good level of German, Catalan and understanding of Italian and Portuguese (Oh, yes! Check me out…!) But I had thought that at the airport, someone official could help the lost little girl. Things were going to be difficult, things were difficult. Still this was my hardcore backpacking adventure, so I would find my way to the city center by public coach (like I do in London or Barcelona) and then walk or take transportation from there to my hostel. This, I knew would save me money, I wouldn’t need to get into a car with a stranger, and no one could rip me off… right?
Moral of this one is firstly never be stingy. Having spent more money connecting my phone to internet roaming than the actual taxi fair, I found the hotel address and waved the map at the ticket man. I wanted a ticket for a coach which would take me close to this. Through sign language and some guess-work on their part, I bought a ticket and then probably an hour later managed to get onto the right coach. It is packed. A row of heads, all with black hair. I heard sounds on that journey into the city, that no one should ever hear. Gurgling and snot sniffling, someone was sick into a bag. Chunder hitting paper, which almost made me sick – a real mexican wave gone wrong!
The bus made multi-stops, naively I had thought that it would be direct. Where was I supposed to get off, I had no idea. With Google Maps still tracking my every move, we careered into the city’s heart. The buildings were tall but also long. In London, a building like that would be considered a whole street. The scale was gigantic. The towers grey against the grey sky, christened with dark green turrets. It was all very soviet and industrial. The coach stopped next to the Central Station. I looked at the map.
My hostel was according to my trusted Google 1hr15 minute walk away. Seedy looking taxi men offered me their vehicles in front of the train station. I walked passed them with great determination, with my two bags on each arm and dragging my heavy Babolat suitcase. This was supposed to be backpacking but as most girls know, packing light for three weeks is quite difficult, what with hair straighteners, heels, going out clothes. Backpacking, definitely easier said than done.
Walking around Beijing turned out to be almost impossible. This was not a good way to get a feel of the city and go where I would otherwise not venture. My hands were rubbed raw pulling the bag over the overpasses which I needed to cross in order to get to the right side of the city. Chivalry, at least via-a-vis total strangers, was on that day at least DEAD. Not one person offered to help. After around 1h30 and still only half way I felt like I couldn’t go on any longer. I would bite the bullet and take a taxi. By then I had arrived at a very large shopping street and there were taxis! I approached one, but as I did so, it moved slightly further away from me. Again I tried and again it moved. I went to another one. I tried communicating, but almost immediately the driver closed his window on me and pretended I wasn’t there. I did many a time. I was surprised, everywhere else I had been in the world, taxi drivers wanted business and a tourist who would probably pay unwittingly over the odds would be a treasured prize. However, things it seemed were not like the rest of the world. It didn’t help that national elections were coming up, or as my friend Tony would later explain that a British man had attacked a Chinese girl just a few weeks before my arrival. So I had no choice but to pull and push on.
Hot and sweaty, I reached a street with birds hung up in cages. All in a row, all for sale. I took some photos and had a break. I hadn’t eaten for hours. A man was sat with friends on some boxes. He came over. He didn’t speak any English. He offered me a ride in his car. At first I refused, but then really I had no choice. I got in, I showed him the address writing in Mandarin but in Pinyin, European script. He couldn’t understand it. I searched again and found it written in Chinese. He nodded, smiling. I was scarred.
The journey was long and he found his way by Google Maps on my planned journey. I would never have been able to have walked the distance that we traveled, it would have taken hours. So, we tried to talk and say some things, we just laughed really at our inability to understand each other. Finally, we pulled into smaller and smaller streets. We were exactly where the GPS had told us to go, but somehow it didn’t look right. Lonely Planet has described their “recommended” hostel as being in the Hutong which was Old Beijing at its best. They had told us to hire a bike and even get lost here, tree lined alleyways and a key into the city’s past. It was old all right, but not in a good way, not in the Barcelona Gothic Quarter way. It was old in a shanty town, metal structure, public toilets kind of way. The narrow streets were windy and silent, except for the piercing scretch of a bird which came from God knows where. Was this the place where I had come to die?
Clothes hung from strings and doors opened onto poverty. I lagged behind, the man egged me on and lead the way. He gestured, I shuffled silently on. Then he stopped. Was this it? It couldn’t be, it was recommended after all. No sign, just a wooden door on a metal wall like all the others. He knocked and the door was answered. A little lady popped her head out. Hello, welcome to City Walls Courtyard House. Seriously? Was I more surprised at this Lonely Planet recommendation or the fact that the man in the car hadn’t been a serial rapist? It looked shit, but I was so happy and relieved to have arrived and still be alive.