Living Laowai

Beijing No. 1

Right before leaving for China I decided that maybe I wanted to stay home, go to the beach and have a BBQ instead. China sounded like a hard place to be, especially in the summer. Lucky for me I got to travel with a friend also going to China to do research/exploring. C and I boarded our flights from Halifax-Montreal-Switzerland encouraging each other the whole way. In Switzerland we got to leave the airport, thanks to a very lengthy layover, and we had a wonderful time strolling around the quiet streets of Zurich at 6 A.M. This stop in Zurich was the perfect fuel we needed to get properly excited about being in China- we were going to freaking CHINA!!! How wild and exciting and adventurous and awesome!!!
After stocking up on chocolate, yogurt and espressos we headed back to the airport for our flight to Beijing.

Landing in Beijing was intimidating. As the sun rose you could see the dense smog filling the air covering up the mountains, trees and buildings, it did not look anything like the clear blue skies that we had left behind in Canada (or Zurich). The monitors in front of us on the plane kept showing the outside temperatures. As we descended into Beijing it was already in the high 20’s. It was only mid-May and it was already hotter than the hottest summer days back home! As we queued up to go through security, C and I reminded ourselves that being outside of our comfort zones was where and when the good learning and growing happens. To our amazement security was a breeze and all we had left between us and a good sleep was finding our way to the hostel.

Easier said than done.

About 1.5 hours later we still had not managed to leave the airport, any coolness that had been lingering in the air had burned off, it was hot outside. It was hot inside. I was stupidly wearing a sweatshirt and a jacket. After escaping the many car drivers following us around telling us to get in their taxis and after a cry or two we were on the metro heading downtown! We did it!

Well, maybe not. Thanks to our handy offline map apps we knew where to walk to get to the hostel, what we didn’t know was that address numbers do not necessarily work the same way in Beijing as they do in the Canadian cities we are familiar with.

Under the blazing afternoon sun C and I walked up and down the crowded hutong road, carrying our huge backpacks, narrowly missing getting hit by scooters, bikes, cars, people, animals and wads of spit, searching for our hostel. We walked up and down, up and down, up and down getting more and more frantic- where in the world could the hostel be?! We asked people on the street but of course the language barrier succeeded in leaving us more confused. Finally C spotted a laowai! We followed him and his friend into a nearby McDonald’s and begged him for help. It was our first encounter with the true kindness of strangers. He led us in the right direction and made sure that we were O.K. What a saint!

This time we did find the hostel- it turned out it was just a couple of blocks further than we had previously anticipated. Exhausted, sweaty and completely drained C and I went to our hostel room so looking forward to cold showers and clean beds. Again, we were met with an obstacle, or really three. Smoke, dirt and mold.

We had planned to spend a week at this hostel (I think it was actually a hotel?) but with our last burst of energy we demanded a refund, Bing-ed (you can’t Google here) ‘Beijing hotels’ and got in a cab and pointed at the first hotel on the list.

Things that happened during this cab ride:
1. The driver did not know where the hotel was and we had to pull over to ask a stranger on the street where to go. (Second encounter of the kindness of strangers of the day!)

2. We got stuck in terrible bumper to bumper traffic. There does not seem to be any street laws or regulations. You walk, drive, scoot, dance your way down/across the street whenever you want/can. The streets are filled with beeping, honking, shouting and screeching as people navigate the traffic. Somehow it all works though and no one gets hurt and everyone seems to get where they need to go. Organized chaos?

3. C got carsick and ~flawlessly~ puked out the window. It was amazing. I have never been so impressed before.

4. Our payment to the cab driver included both traditional money and Canadian maple candies. He seemed quite happy about it.

5. It turns out that this hotel was super fancy. We were met by an extraordinarily kind Italian woman who carried in our bags, booked us a room, listened to our story of the morning we had had and made us feel so welcomed in this new and seemingly terrifying city. (3rd encounter of the kindness of strangers, although she was probably just doing her job really well).

Left: View from the 15th floor looking down to the lobby of the hotel
Right: They sold fancy cars at the hotel

C and I had never been so happy to see a bed before. We slept the rest of the afternoon, waking only to go out in search of food- we chose popsicles and hot-pot flavoured chips. Later that night M and B, our two other research-friends, arrived from their equally draining travels from around the world. It felt so good to all be in one place.

Our first day in Beijing was a success!

Language Lesson:
xièxie/ 谢谢: Thank you