Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In Beijing

My arrival back in China was greeted by a smoggy, washed out Beijing sky. My first time in China, I allowed myself to be completely and utterly ripped off—300 yuan ride from the airport from a “taxi” that wasn’t a taxi, which dropped me off at a midrange hotel that was 250 yuan for the night, and a tea excursion with strangers I met in Tiananmen Square that set me back 700 yuan, or close to $100. It’s nice knowing what you are doing—this time I caught the bus from the airport for 16 yuan, right to the hostel I had booked for 60 a night.

As I expected I couldn’t get a train ticket for the next day, in fact for the next four days, so I found myself with a few days to kill and no plans, which isn’t a terrible thing in Beijing. I had only spent one day the first time, so I took the chance to explore during the day and get a feel for the city, as well as visit a handful of temples, art galleries, bookstores, and the like. Beijing is known for its hutong, back alleys of traditional Chinese housing which are slowly disappearing, which were infinitely more interesting than Beijing’s modern side. Olympic fever could be sensed everywhere, with the Chinese government’s soft spot for slogans was being fully indulged, i.e. “My games, my happiness.”

While walking back dejectedly after failing to find a minor site listed in my guidebook, a woman started shouting at me on the street. This is nothing unusual and I pressed on, but when I turned around it was clear she wasn’t trying to sell me anything, and I gave her the benefit of the doubt. She was a short, animated woman standing outside of a mosque and wearing Muslim headdress and a broad smile, and was just hoping to start up a conversation. I found her very difficult to understand, which is too bad because she was trying to talk about Iraq and I would have found it interesting. Then she repeatedly came back to a sentence, “shangdi zhanqilai,” wanting to know if I agreed. It meant “God is standing” or perhaps “God stands up,” and though she was persistent, acting out “stand up” in case I didn’t catch that, I never did figure out what she was getting at.

That night, my last in Beijing, I was determined to go out to the bar district and have a good time, because the previous couple of days I had done nothing but walking and sleeping, generally passing out by 7pm from the jetlag and exhaustion. I decided to have a beer at the hostel bar first, as the atmosphere wasn’t half bad and prices would be much more reasonable. There was a guzheng at the side of the room, so I decided to give it a shot and see what I remembered from my lessons in Zhangye. As it turned out, not much without the book, but nonetheless one of the hostel workers was intrigued, and asked me to teach her something. Wang Dong, or Daphne as she also introduced herself, wasn’t exactly a natural but she got a kick out learning part of a song. And I suspect she also just wanted to practice her English, which was slow but workable. She refused to speak Chinese and I at first refused to speak English, a not-uncommon occurrence.. After asking about my taste in music, she remarked “when I listen to music on the guzheng, I think of the wind on the sea and very peaceful things, it is nice. But you like to listen to the rocky music, it is very noisy. You seem to me like a quiet person, I’m not sure why you listen to very noisy music.” After talking for maybe a half-hour I realized she was at work, not just hanging out in her off-time, and she eventually went off to make tea. And we have the idea that Chinese people are the ones who work too hard.

By then it was getting late to go all the way to the Sanlitun area and have to come back, so I figured I might as well stay there and make an actual attempt to meet people, which is most of the fun of staying at a hostel alone. I surveyed the room—two girls speaking Japanese, three Western girls at a table, and a group of about a dozen guys crowded around a foozball table. The table of three girls struck me as friendly enough, so I eventually walked over and said “Hello. So, sitting by myself is starting to get very boring. If you don’t mind if I join you, that would be great, and if you do, that’s fine. What do you think?” Smiling, one of them stopped me by the end of the last sentence and said “have a seat. And, don’t ever introduce yourself like that again. Seriously, I would give that a 5.2.” And after a moment, “that was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry.” They were English, Irish, and Belgian, and saying farewell to Asia after spending months of backpacking together, heading back to Europe by train the next day. We shared stories of tempting death in the traffic of Southeast Asia and the pitfalls of countries with no more than one ATM machine. Besides Irish we all headed to bed relatively early, and last I saw the dozen or so guys had moved from crowding around the foozball table to crowding around her.