Updated: Mar 21, 2022
(Originally Published September 2009)
As I write this I’m speeding along the tracks from Beijing to Hangzhou at over 165km/h. I could do the conversion, but suffice to say it’s a fast train. Even has one of those fancy bullet noses. Before I start in with the real trip description entries, I wanted to explain that in the last 4 days Jason and I have been overwhelmed more times than I can count. Our days have been packed full with wonderful people, incredible sights, unique experiences, and the bizarre perspective of operating in a completely foreign world that is somehow pretty accommodating. What this means to you if you choose to keep reading is that I’m afraid that I will fall short of capturing the full depth of the individual experiences that China has blessed us with thus far. I’ll do my best, and I appreciate your interest in our adventures.
It was 5 days before our flight when it hit me that my buddy Jason and I were headed to China and had literally no concrete plans for our 2 week trip. I had sketched out a plan a couple of months ago, and we’d bought plane tickets. But after that my attention was diverted to a tough re-election campaign for my seat on the Northampton Board of Supervisors (which by the way, I lost).
So here I was in the aftermath of 8 weeks of chaos trying to tie up the loose ends that had escaped my attention around the house, the office, and the rest of my life, and BOOM - you’re going to China in 5 days. So where to start?
First things first, we’d need a place to stay when we got off the plane. I had looked into a hostel right next to the Great Wall and that seemed like the perfect spot... except that it was a train ride away from the airport and we were landing at night. Knowing we’d be tired and jet-lagged, and locally illiterate, I figured we’d need a better option. So I booked us a couple of nights at the “Sitting on the City Walls Guest House”. This would prove to be a fortuitous decision as the rest of our trip unfolded. By the time we were 3 days out I could honestly tell Jason that we had a plan, and that I thought it was a pretty good one. Sure, there were gaps, but we’d figure them out, right?
Getting ready to fly out, I was a little surprised at midnight when I realized that there really wasn’t anything left to do but get to the airport. I was packed, had my ticket and passport, and didn’t have too many fires that I thought would flare up while I was gone. Sara was even kind enough to take me to the airport, which is HUGE when the flight leaves at 7:00am.
Of course the flight out of Norfolk was delayed just enough to make me nervous about missing the flight to Tokyo... and they hadn’t ticketed me for that one at check-in. A few frantic text messages to Jason to let him know the deal killed the better part of the 45 minutes we waited on the tarmac for the pilots to figure out where we were.
Running off the plane and into the airport I see Jason standing there with a big grin on face and a pack full of gear. “Dude... we’re going to China!” (as long as we get on the plane)
Fortunately our connection was 4 gates down. Not only did I get on the plane, I scored an exit row seat. Thank God! I was not looking forward to 14 hours tucked between two linebackers in row 37.
The exit row proved to be more than just good leg room. It was an a perfect excuse for Jason and I to use the area around the door as our own private sky lounge. On a flight where several people never left their seats, we had a great hang out spot with a window on one side, and the flight attendant’s station on the other.
The food was actually pretty good, I managed to take a couple of good naps, and the flight attendants were always a step ahead of us whenever we finished a round of beers in our improvised sky lounge. Over the course of the flight we were able to look out and see most of Canada, Alaska, Siberia, and Japan. All of these except for Japan looked like undulating sheets of white as we flew over snow covered mountains, glaciers, and frozen rivers & lakes. You know how sometimes the clouds look like a white ocean from above? Well SIberia looks like the earth trying to look like the clouds that look like a white ocean.
Our stop in Tokyo was brief and consisted mostly of a pass through security where they took the drinks we had purchased in the Chicago airport and then a quick sushi dinner before loading back up for the 4 hour hop to Beijing.
As the plane touched down in Beijing we couldn’t help but notice that the signs we cruised past showed familiar logos surrounded by the characters of an alien alphabet. At least we could count on the standouts in international commerce to provide touch points of familiarity in this foreign world. While I have no desire to eat at KFC while in China, it’s nice to know that if you want to buy the world a Coke, you can do it pretty much anywhere in the world.
The Beijing airport is massive, and apparently got a major makeover for the ’08 Olympics. We whizzed through customs and immigration, and the next thing you know we’re on the streets of Beijing. We found a cab and handed him the printout from our hostel, hoping that something on there told him where to go. About 10 minutes into our trip Jason asked “Does he know where he’s going?” It’s not often that I have to answer “Let’s hope so because I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I’m going. And I don’t know how to ask. But I’m sure it’s cool.”
When the cab driver dropped us off at the end of a dark alley I wasn’t so sure. I don’t understand a word of Chinese, but I’m pretty sure by his inflection that he was asking me if we were in the right place. I nodded and made some hand gestures that I sincerely hope are not offensive here. As he drove off we spotted a little sign that said “Sitting on the city walls” at the entrance to the alleyway. We wandered in and immediately felt like we were in another world.
The area our hostel is in is called a “Hutong”, which basically is Chinese for “ancient network of winding alleys connecting primitive housing, sketchy shops, and public bathrooms.” What moonlight there was was overcome by the eerie glow of the sporatic streetlights reflecting off of the snow covered rooftops and icy streets. Antique bicycles were locked to everything that you couldn’t ride away with, and yippy dogs haunted most of the shadowy corners. From behind battered wooden doors and tattered curtains you could hear the rapid consonants of Chinese dinner conversation.
Rounding a corner we saw the glow of a small red sign over the front door of our new home. After ringing the bell we were led in by a quiet woman who thankfully spoke at least enough English to get us settled in. Following her down the outdoor hallway that led to the main courtyard Jason and I were taken in immediately by the paintings on the walls, the strands of Chinese lanterns strung about, and the vine covered latticed canopy above us.
Stepping though the round red doors into the courtyard, we were immediately impressed with the hand we were dealt. Travelers lounged on comfortable sofas and around dining tables in the soft light of a late evening. Our hostess checked us in with ease and gave us a quick tour of our new home. We had chosen wisely.
After a cold beer and a quick e-mail check we got directions to an all night dinner joint and wandered back out into the snow covered city. I have no idea what the name of our restaurant was, but we figured we were safe when some high school age kids tumbling out took one look at our curious faces staring at the pictures in the window and offered some simple encouragement. “It’s O.K. You’ll like it.” one of them offered as they piled into the car. The laughter from the girl he was with sounded more like she was impressed with his ability to talk to these two big white guys than a hearty laugh at some disaster we were about to walk into. Once again we trusted inflection and headed for the door. I think that we had pork for dinner, but whatever it was, it was great. We knocked down a couple of plates of food and pitcher of hot tea and headed back to the hostel to crash after a long day or two of traveling. Tomorrow morning we had a guide showing up at 7:00 to show us around this booming metropolis of 20 million.
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