Beijing: An unwelcome welcome, the storied wall and a big goodbye
Immediately upon arriving in Beijing, we got in a car accident. It was around eight in the morning and we had rented two cabs at the train station to take us to our hotel; I called the hotel and asked them if it was all right if we came and checked in early, and they said yes. I had booked us in a small hotel called the “Templeside Guest House”; which actually turned out to be a tiny hostel in one of Beijing’s thousands of tiny residential alleyways known as Hutongs.
The Hutongs in Beijing are a relatively famous attraction of the city; many of them are hundreds of years old and are packed with tiny apartments and convenience stores; really like little towns to themselves tucked away from the chaos of Beijing traffic. Really, I have seen these kinds of alleyway systems in Xiamen, too; they seem to exist in any city that is reasonably old and interesting. But Beijing has a lot of them, and I was interested in the Templeside hotel because it was located in a 600-year-old Beijing hutong (supposedly 600 years old).
Regardless of the age, it turned out that the hotel was definitely located in an obscure hutong, and so true in fact that when we arrived at the hutong, it really looked from the outside like nothing more than an alleyway, and it was hard to believe that we were supposed to go in there to find our hotel. On top of that, our cabs had stopped on the opposite side of the street and expected me and my family to unload our luggage and walk across four lanes of Beijing rush hour traffic to get there. So I told them we couldn’t stop there and to take us to the other side of the street. Which they dutifully did, and which went fine, until I heard a loud crash and the cab in front of mine – the one that held my mom, uncle and cousin – was hit in the passenger-side door by a bus.
It was a low-speed collision and luckily everyone was fine (except for the cab’s door and front right fender, and probably the driver’s day, which were all ruined), but it was the first car accident I had been even incidentally involved in in China (aside from my drunken shouting at the road rage incident in Shanghai); and right after the accident a girl from the Templeside hostel came running out of the hutong shouting “Oh my god!” in unison with me, except I was adding more English expletives. Everything was OK, though; we grabbed our things from the cabs, my mom actually paid the driver who was now engaged in a heated argument with the bus driver, and we followed Emma, the young Chinese girl from the hostel, into the hutong to go to our new Beijing home.
I’ll spare words on the Templeside hostel except to say that it was awesome. I think it shocked my family at first to see that I had booked them in a hostel (even though it was an honest mistake on my part), but we all had our own rooms and bathrooms and the place had a great courtyard with a garden in the center, and we met more interesting people just lounging around in the courtyard than we did during all the rest of our trip in China. Which is how it always works with hostels. On top of that, the service was excellent and everything was a fraction the cost of what it would have been at more mainstream, more plush and probably physically more comfortable hotel. We got essentially free tour guide service from the four girls who ran the hostel, we got travel tips from other people at the hostel, and after three and half days of stay and a lot of meals eaten at the hostel our bill for three rooms was only around $500 USD (including two dozen beers, three breakfasts for the group of five, one dinner and a lot of coffees).
Beijing was hot from day one. After settling in the hostel that morning we went out and checked out the Forbidden City, which was beautiful but incredibly hot and crowded and in some sense just a dizzyingly large and rather beautiful place with a more-or-less boring history, at least as far as the history the tour guides know goes. It’s a lot of hooh hah about how many concubines the emperors of China had and where the concubines lived and where the emperor lived and you get little substantial stuff about the political significance of the place and the way the country was governed. Not that I know much about those things in relation to the Forbidden City anyway, but it would have been nice to learn more. Instead I learned stuff I already knew: the City is old, it’s big, the emperor lived there, he had sex with lots of women, the place was inhabited by eunuchs, it was forbidden to any guests for hundreds of years, etc. That’s about all there was to the story. We got a guide for 150 RMB because I was too hot to seriously barter, but I think it should have been 100 or less. Then, late in the afternoon, when we had all pretty much reached our limits of sweatiness and crankiness, my uncle and cousin disappeared into the crowd somehow, and I stood with my parents for 10 minutes scanning faces in the crowd before we decided to just give up and go back to the hotel, which we did.
When we got to the hotel we immediately started drinking, and this didn’t stop until about 6 hours later after we had finished an enormous Brazillian steakhouse meal in Beijing and returned to the hotel, and I realized that I was completely exhausted, drunk, and had pretty much been completely sapped of optimism and energy. We had really not stopped moving for over 40 hours, since the night previous we had slept on the train, and everybody seemed to be on everybody else’s nerves in the group after a difficult day. Eventually I slept, but it wasn’t restful, and I realized I was beginning to get worn out from the constant motion – it had been over a month since I had really had any time to relax and do nothing, which is a long time of constant activity for me.
The next day was better, because we went to the Great Wall. As I learned from Peter Hessler’s book, Country Driving, the Great Wall is actually not one wall but many, many different walls that sort of amble along northern China, from Beijing to Mongolia. But anyway the wall we went to was definitely the Great Wall – the one you see in pictures that is big and stone and stretches on to both horizons. We went to Mutianyu Great Wall by way of a rented taxi van driver whose number my uncle had got from the woman who cuts his hair in San Francisco.
It took us about two hours to get there, the taxi for the whole day was 600 RMB (the driver, Mr. Li, couldn’t really speak English, or just barely, so it was pretty much all Chinese with him), and Mutianyu was ridiculously beautiful and the tourists were beautifully few. We walked along the wall for a couple of hours, looking at the rocky peaks in the distance and the endless rope-like coil along the ridge’s edge, and fell into the spell. It was a lot like seeing the Grand Canyon – description doesn’t really prepare you for it, photos can’t really ruin it for you; you just have to go there, and when you see it you’ll definitely feel something.
After the Great Wall we went to the Summer Palace, which was another loud hot crowded tourist attraction and beautiful, but I think we were all too hot and had lost the patience for it. We walked around a bit and then went home.
In the evening we ordered in and ate dinner at the tables in the hostel garden and watched World Cup soccer, and for me that was my favorite night of the whole trip – relaxing with other hostel people and chatting and eating in the garden, like an actual relaxing vacation and not a maddened race across China. We didn’t have enough nights like that over the trip but that was because there was so much to fit in – and that’s just how the trip had to be. There are so many things to see and do in China, it’s such a huge place. It’s got as much to see and do and experience as the U.S., maybe – it’s not like a smaller European country where you can get a feel for it in a week or so. It is a big, big, mother of a beast of a country that takes serious travel and serious patience and a serious willingness to push your boundaries. And I began to realize that the trip was almost over and we had done all those things and we had actually managed to see a huge swath of the country, and that we had made it to Beijing, pretty much to the end.
That day was my father’s birthday, July 5, and I borrowed one of the hostel’s bikes and went out in search of a place to get him a cake. I cruised up the road outside our hutong for about 10 minutes and found a bakery and ordered a cake for 75 yuan, and a half hour later I picked it up. I hadn’t had time to do more than that for his birthday, but I was happy that he was in China. It was definitely one of those things that you could never predict in life – a year ago, I would have never imagined that I would celebrate my dad’s birthday on the Great Wall of China. But that’s how it happened.
The next day was our last day. Together, we went to Tiananmen Square and stood in the middle of it, and I had to ask a Chinese person if we were in Tiananmen Square to confirm that we were actually there. It basically looks like a giant, giant parking lot where no cars are allowed. It’s a bit more impressive than that, but that’s the gist of it. Then I went shopping with my mom, in the evening we went to a totally amazing acrobat show (which was also slightly disturbing to me because the performers appeared to have been performing the stunts since the age of 3, and I have seen street acrobat performers, children, performing in China and they can be a pretty depressing sight – often extremely poor, performing stunts that have twisted their bodies in unnatural ways, 5 year old children working all day doing stunts to try to feed their families, etc.), we ate Beijing roast duck for dinner, and then we all went to bed. I would get up in the morning at 3:45 to accompany my parents to the airport.
I got up in the morning and we found a cab right away outside the hutong even though it was 4 a.m. and pitch dark. The ride to the airport was 100 RMB and took about a half hour, and we made it on time. I was extremely anxious, really unaccountably so, and just figured I was feeling that way because I still had to bring my uncle and cousin to the airport and then later I would also be flying back to Fujian late in the evening. I also hadn’t yet found a hotel for when I landed in Fuzhou. But really it was because I was saying goodbye. I had gotten used to having my family with me, and what I had known would happen was happening – I had become happy and comfortable to be with them and then we were all shoving off again and going our separate ways, and it felt a little bit like falling back into a vacuum. Due to so many factors – language barriers, cultural differences, my newness to the place, economic differences, personality differences – there is still really no one in my city who I feel close to, who I really deep down trust and feel trusted by. Which is also how I felt a lot of the time in Oregon after college. So saying goodbye to people who I hold dear initially wasn’t easy, and I knew it would take a while again to adjust back to my normal life.
But later that evening, around 10 p.m., I too was taking off from Beijing and headed south again. When I finally arrived in Fuzhou I encountered some very nice people who, at 3 in the morning, helped me find a hotel near the bus station for the night (as I expected might happen – Chinese people in strange cities, I find, are always totally willing to help a strange foreigner in need, maybe partly to practice their English but really just because of basic kindness); and in the evening on the eighth my bus arrived back in Sanming, the old familiar and yet unfamiliar place that I still call home. I was tired and had developed my second cold since the trip started, but I was back. I saw a familiar face soon after arriving, which helped soothe me, and then I went home and slept, and the journey was really, definitely over.